Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Chapter 1

1


"You do realise the doctor reported it as a breakdown?"

Charles Harrison flicked his laptop mouse to open a new screen and gave his friend a look of sympathy. For a man just past thirty, and one of the youngest and most brilliant managing directors the corporation had ever had, he thought Dale Aden looked terrible. At least this time he wasn't wearing a three day old suit and three days worth of stubble as he had been last time Charles saw him, but he was grey faced and there were new dark lines under his eyes. He'd never had much weight to lose to begin with, but a few months ago he'd looked lean and fit. Now he looked gaunt.

"I didn't break down." Dale said tonelessly, still wandering in front of the windows of the hotel suite the corporation had been holding for him all his time in New York. The views were spectacular. Charles wasn't sure Dale had even noticed them.

"I didn't 'burn out', I didn't 'crack up'. According to the doctor I had a mild – MILD – hallucinogenic episode as a result of missing too much sleep."

"Emotional, physical and mental exhaustion." Charles said matter of factly, skimming down the report that opened up on screen. "That was the result of the medical, and the doctor refused to pass you fit. The Board's very concerned, Dale, you've got to admit this has been coming for some time. I've warned you, Jerry Banks has warned you. You're carrying some of our heaviest projects, there's a lot tied up in you and right now there's some serious doubt that we've worked you too hard."

"Rubbish." Dale said shortly.

Charles pulled out a chair and took a seat, watching his friend pace. He had always been something of a mentor for Dale, who was ten years younger and by far more valued by their corporation: something the Board had made abundantly clear.

"Look. They're desperate not to lose you, they're not even sure they can spare you, but Marcheson and Banks both argued that we didn't dare NOT take care of you. No one wants to see you burn out. Especially us."

Dale didn't answer, digging his long hands in to his pockets and leaning against the glass windows overlooking the city. Charles tapped at the computer for a moment, pulling up a discreetly coloured website before he turned the computer to face Dale.

"Jeremy Banks had a suggestion. He's known a few top bodies in the key corporations who were a little overworked, and there's a very private place that specialises in getting them back on their feet again."

"I won't go to a clinic." Dale said without expression. It was the English accent that made it sound still blunter; it was an effect Charles had heard him use in meetings to great effect, both to order and persuade. The execs called it the 'James Bond Voice', it was a legend as much as Dale Aden himself was a legend in their circles.

"It's not a clinic." He said gently. "Not unlike a health farm. They usually only take one client at a time, by personal reference only, but Banks made the reference through his friend and they're willing to accept you. Somewhere to rest and re charge. They specialise in helping C.E.Os get their lives back in order and their fire re-stoked. Banks says he knows one or two people who have been through their hands and they recommend it highly, said it was a life changing experience."

"Do I have a choice?" Dale said without looking at the site on screen. Charles winced.

"Of course you have a choice."

"Really?"

"Well." Charles sat back, giving his friend a frank look. "All right, no. There's far too much invested in you and far too much riding on you. The Board won't allow you to continue in your current position if you don't accept this. If you want to remain with the corporation it's mandatory. Otherwise, they'll accept your resignation. Dale, don't be stupid. One vacation and you come back to pick up the reins again, as if nothing ever happened. How bad can a vacation be?"

Dale didn't answer for a long time. Finally he glanced briefly towards the lap top, although he made no attempt to look at the site Charles still had turned towards him.

"How long?"

"Minimum of six weeks." Charles said cheerfully. "At the end of the course the group leaders will pass you as being fit, and in their opinion, ready to come back to work. You'll be granted a leave of absence for as long as they feel you need to be there, all expenses paid, and the day they pass you as ready and notify the Board you'll be welcomed back with open arms. This is exclusive stuff, kid. They don't take just anybody."

"Then I'll be back in six weeks." Dale folded his arms, taking a deep breath. "Ok. I'll accept the Board's terms. Now what?"

"Now you pack." Charles got up, shutting down the lap top. "Don't worry about a thing. I'll have a car here for you in an hour or so, and you won't need to take much with you."

"I'll need a fax machine." Dale said automatically. "And check there's a decent computer facility at this place. And phone contact, I'll take my personal cell. Tell Caroline she can reach me there."

Charles winced slightly but nodded, pushing the laptop into his briefcase.

"I'm sure everything you need will be there, and I'll take care of everything while you're gone. Have a great trip and a good vacation. Let me know how you're doing."

"I'll be in touch about the Almera project by the weekend." Dale said briefly, although he accepted and shook Charles' hand. "Damned waste of time doing it out of the office."

"It'll be good for you." Charles prophesied warmly. "Bet you'll come back a new man."



*



The corporation's private plane flew out from JFK within the hour. Charles had organised things suspiciously fast. Dale more than suspected it had been a done deal and Charles had only been the front man, putting the last step of the plan into action. As it was, he found it hard to summon up either the energy or the emotion to care.

Watching land flash by beneath the plane and sipping the neat scotch the plane's stewardess served him, he rubbed his temples against the permanent, thumping headache that had resided there for weeks, worked on unclenching his jaw and tried, with his stomach making that familiar sideways jerk, not to think about that 'mild' little episode that had caused all this mess. He was getting what he deserved now. This was the punishment for letting down a corporation this big, for being the team captain who dropped the ball. There was nothing to do but take his medicine quietly, go back and prove them all wrong; that he was neither too young nor inexperienced to cope with his responsibilities. The shame of having let the Board down was shattering. Dale swallowed on it and blocked it out with grim determination. He would do whatever the Board demanded, play this ridiculous American game of corporate bonding and team building and tree hugging or whatever the hell it was they were sending him on, and then prove to them that he was more than up to the job.

If only the damn headache would quit.

He didn't have the faintest idea where the plane was going, nor any sense that it actually mattered. For the past few years the Board had worked much like this, ferrying him as their chief trouble-shooter, to Tokyo, to Milan, to London, to New York, to which ever client or office was in crisis. No matter what the plane, or the ground beneath it, or the hotel when he got there, or the office in which sat the machines to do the job, the work stayed the same and it kept on rolling. Dale keyed in a few more notes regarding the Almera client on the laptop open on the desk before him. He could email the briefs to his PA and to Charles, although with luck this wretched 'health farm', whatever that might be, would have conference call facilities. Remote access to meetings was better than none at all.

It was a little less than five hours after take off and by the light turning golden outside approaching late afternoon, when the plane began to make its descent, and Dale looked up from his work. He was stunned to see no sign of a city below the plane. Green wilderness stretched in all directions, as far as the eye could see, save for a glimpse of mountains in the far distance. As the plane came closer to the ground and there was not even an airport in sight, Dale sat upright and looked around in alarm for the stewardess. There was no sign of her, and the light had come on above the cabin crew doors, indicating landing. Maybe this was a fuelling stop. This had to be a fuelling stop. Except where the devil they got fuel out here…….. baffled, Dale braced himself as the small, private plane turned to face a tiny airstrip apparently cut out of green grass, and began its landing. There was a slight bump as it landed, taxied to a halt, and Dale leaned to look out of the window. Nothing. Grassland. No airport, no buildings, no fuelling points, no tankers – apparently not even roads. It was insane. The stewardess came from the cabin and gave him a cheerful smile, moving past him to unlock the hatch and with the hydraulic whir, the steps to the plane descended.

"Where the hell are we?" Dale demanded.

The stewardess looked faintly surprised. "We're here sir? This is the airstrip."

To where?

Furious, Dale shut his lap top and heard the hold below being opened as they retrieved his baggage. From the top of the steps he could see there was in fact a faint track in the grass, barely visible, and a man in a short sleeved shirt and jeans was leaning against a dark red Cherokee jeep, arms folded, watching the plane.

Great. Dale slammed his laptop into his briefcase and grabbed his jacket. What was wrong with city airports for pete's sake? He came down the steps, watching the aircrew lift his cases into the back of the jeep, supervised by the man in the short sleeved shirt, who then shut the trunk and came across to him, hand outstretched. The immediate impression was of size. The man was lean and tall. Wide shoulders and square joints filled out the shirt and the jeans, and the face under the sandy hair was darkly tanned.

"Flynn O'Sullivan."

The accent was odd; Dale blinked on it, taking a minute to identify. Not as strong as Australian and with the flatter, half British vowels. New Zealand.

"Dale Aden." he said brusquely, shaking the man's hand. "Where's the airport?"

"There isn't one." Flynn nodded to the flight crew who were returning to the plane and already making preparations to leave. "This is a private airstrip; the nearest airport is a good eighty miles away. Are you ready to go?"

Well there was nothing to stand on the airstrip for. The plane's engines began to fire up and Dale turned, shading his eyes from the sun and the blast as the corporate jet began to turn, taxiing slowly to the end of the runway. A moment later the engines gunned and the plane gathered speed rapidly, lifting into the air and disappearing into the blue of the sky, the landing gear folding neatly away. It left the two of them standing on the plains, with nothing but grass and rocks in sight.

"Long flight?" Flynn commented as Dale got into the jeep. It was cooler here than it had been in New York, although the sun was brighter.

"I worked through most of it." Dale fastened the seat belt and gripped the hand support as the jeep began to rumble softly over the rough track in the grass. "Do we have far to go?"

"The ranch is about a mile down."

"Ranch?"

It slipped out before Dale could stop himself, unfortunately aware his tone was shocked and derisory. They were sending him to some damned cowboy farm?

"That's right." Flynn said matter of factly. "We're a working ranch. I'm guessing you didn't look at the materials Charles Harrison had for you?"

"It happened kind of fast." Dale said acidly. "I heard about this an hour before the plane left, and it was come here or tender my resignation. I didn't have much choice."

"Most of our clients are in that situation." Flynn changed down a gear, slowing the jeep as they climbed over a particularly rough patch of uphill ground. "I'll go over all the details when you've settled in."

Within half a mile, it began to be possible to see sheep grazing on the grassland around them, some cattle in the far distance, and then fences and corrals where one young horse darted across to the fence and ran in parallel with the truck for a moment, bucking and tossing its head before it bolted back across the grass, spooking several other peacefully grazing horses. A sandy dirt track began to take over from the grass and a house came into view, big and sprawling, surrounded by barns and outbuildings. Flynn drove along the fence line, up the track towards the house, and turned away from the barns to a large, several doored garage attached to the side of the house.

"We're about twenty five miles from the nearest services, shops, or anything else," he said, seeing Dale looking at the other parked four by four, battered and functional, that looked as if it saw hard use. "These are fairly essential. Do you do much driving?"

"Not in over a year." Dale got out of the jeep into the cool of the garage. "I spend too much time travelling to make it worth owning a car."

Flynn opened the trunk and Dale heaved out one of the cases, while Flynn hefted the other, carrying it easily towards the house. It was ringed by a wide, wraparound porch with broad steps, and Dale followed Flynn up, catching sight of a swing and several rockers stood amongst immaculate plant pots which grew a range of flowers and herbs. Beyond the porch rail, the grass land stretched out in all directions, interrupted only by fences and aspens beyond the several barns. There was a stunning amount of silence broken only by the intermittent, distant baas of the sheep. Flynn pushed open a screen door and Dale followed him into the relative dark and cool of the house. The large front door led into a main room that appeared to stretch for miles, visible between grey, rough brick pillars and walls, corners and wood floors scattered with dark red rugs. One corner turned off into a big, open kitchen with a large and scrubbed wood table, an iron range, red tiled floor and wide counters. Cupboards led off in several directions and a back door opened onto the porch again. Flynn put the case down on the tiled floor and opened the fridge.

"We'll leave the cases down here for the moment. Did they feed you on the plane?"

"I wasn't hungry." Dale put his own case down and stood, looking around him. The kitchen was huge and cool and several scrawled notes were clipped to the front of the fridge with colourful magnets. The entire house was silent.

"We're the only ones home." Flynn explained, seeing him looking. "Everyone else will be out working, you'll meet them tomorrow. It'll give you some time to settle in and get oriented. Here."

Dale accepted the glass of freezing orange juice he was passed and trailed Flynn once more as he led the way back into the open plan downstairs. Another corner turned into the main room, a huge family room where an open hearth dominated one wall around a circle of leather chairs and couches, and around another corner a wide flight of stairs led up to a hallway with rooms leading off in all directions. Most of the doors stood closed, and Flynn pushed open the door on a room to the left, revealing a small, white painted bedroom with most of the floor taken up by a double bed with a patchwork quilt in dark reds and golds and whites. A dark wood chest of drawers with a lamp was set against the wall, and a window filled most of the wall behind the bed, looking out over the grass land beyond. Apart from several small pictures on the walls, that was all.

"My room is next door and the main bathroom is at this end of the hall." Flynn edged past Dale to open the window, pulling down the top sash. "There's another bathroom at the other end of the hall that way, and another one downstairs off the kitchen that people use if they come in too dusty or muddy to walk through the house. The first thing I'd like you to do now is take a shower, change out of your suit and put something casual on."

That, calmly said, had the distinct air of an order.

"I don't own much casual wear." Dale said cautiously. "And I didn't bring much with me."

"That's quite normal and we're ahead of you." Flynn opened the top drawer of the chest. "Jeans, t shirts, sweaters, underwear, nightwear. They're in your size; we had the information from your Corporation as part of your application to us. All our clients are fully kitted out before they arrive. You'll find tennis shoes and boots downstairs, and a jacket. The colours are just what we all wear; we go for practical more than designer here. Towels," he opened a door across the hall which was a linen closet stacked with towels, sheets, pillows and blankets.

"In here, help yourself, put anything that needs washing in the hampers in the bathrooms. We all help with the laundry and the rest of the chores as they need doing. We'll talk later about what your specific responsibilities will be and you'll be shown what to do and how to do it, but for the moment just do as you're asked and that'll be fine. People won't be shy about asking you to pitch in." Flynn pulled two large, folded white towels from the shelf and dropped them in to Dale's hands, removing his empty juice glass. "You'll find whatever you need in the bathroom cabinets, help yourself. Go ahead and shower."

Slightly breathless and reeling with the information which sounded alarmingly assertive, Dale found himself heading for the bathroom, towels in hand. He didn’t get the impression Flynn's social skills stretched as far as tact or diplomacy; there was no 'ask' about his tone. Wondering if he was a counsellor or a housekeeper or what he did, Dale shut the bathroom door and explored the several cupboards and the large shower that stood beside an equally large tub. The water was scalding hot, the jets were powerful, and despite himself, Dale found himself reviving under the water, and the thump behind his temples began to ease, as did the stiffness in his neck and back that he had hardly been aware of. He dried off and ran a comb through his short, black hair, pausing in front of the mirror and wincing. Charles was right; he still did look bloody awful.

With a towel wrapped around his waist, not quite sure what to do, Dale dropped his clothes in the hamper, aware that the suit really had been worn and crumpled past the point of acceptability, and went back onto the landing. A pair of blue jeans, a plain maroon t shirt and underwear was laid out on the bed in his room and there was no sign of Flynn. Dale dressed slowly, finding the clothes oddly unfamiliar having lived in suits for months, although they were indeed an excellent fit. When he thought about it, it was hard to remember the last time he had put on informal clothes. Working seven days a week, frequently dining with clients or attending meetings in the evening – or simply continuing work and preparation for the following day- 'casual' simply meant taking off the jacket and tie. In socked feet, since the expensive dress shoes did not go at all with the jeans and t shirt, Dale hesitated for a moment on the landing. The damp towels he had hung in his room to dry as best he could on the bedrails. There was nothing else to do but go slowly down the wide staircase, and from there, once more back in the family room, Dale found his way through the house to the kitchen.

Two plates of sandwiches were waiting on the kitchen table and Flynn was pouring yet more of the orange juice. He gave Dale a brief glance, nodding him at the table.

"Good. Sit down and tuck in."

"I'd rather just have a coffee if that's ok?" Dale slid into the chair at the table and Flynn took the seat opposite, putting one of the juice glasses in his reach.

"We don't keep coffee. Too many clients come with caffeine dependencies. We've always got juice, milk, water and tea, and we can probably manage hot chocolate if you want. We don't keep alcohol, and I know you don't smoke, but just so you know, we don't allow that either."

"How do you know I don't smoke?" Dale asked suspiciously. Flynn took a mouthful of sandwich, resting his elbows on the table.

"We take a detailed profile of incoming clients from their sponsors."

Dale frowned, not at all sure about what he was hearing. Flynn looked at his plate.

"You need to eat, please. Do you have any questions?"

"Yes." Dale picked up the sandwich to be polite, although without much interest. "What is it I'm going to be asked to do? I was told I was here for six weeks and that it was mandatory, I accept that."

"The minimum time we will accept a client is six weeks. There isn't an exam or a graduation, but clients leave when they're ready to leave, which means when we're convinced they're ready. We don't work to a deadline."

"It could be longer?" Dale put the sandwich down, shocked. "How much longer?"

"That depends on a lot of things, including you." Flynn finished half his sandwich and calmly swallowed juice. "Our aim is that clients go back to work in good health, and are able to manage a sustained work-life balance long term. That isn't an overnight change, and we expect you to learn new habits and prove to us that you've consolidated them. Otherwise the moment you go back to an office environment you'll slip straight back into the habits that made you ill in the first place."

"I am not ill." Dale snapped, stung. Flynn's tone didn't lose its calm in the slightest.

"Mental, emotional and physical exhaustion, leading to a breakdown four days ago. We were sent the reports including your medical."

Dale stared at him in blank outrage. "That's confidential information!"

"The information is owned by the Corporation who employed the doctor to assess you for work capability." Flynn said matter of factly. "They shared that with us since they're using us as a resource to get you back to work healthy and able to do your job. You said yourself, this programme is mandatory if you want to continue your work. We might as well be up front about the circumstances that brought you here and what the programme is aimed to do."

Dale looked down at his plate, furious and too taken aback to respond. He was aware his hands were actually shaking. Flynn finished the rest of his sandwich and sat back in his chair, folding his hands on the table in front of him.

"The better you work with us, the sooner you're likely to make the progress you need to be ready to go back to work. It will be my report to your Corporation that you're ready to resume work that will re open your position."

"And if I don't get that report?" Dale said in grim fury. Flynn gave him a mild shrug.

"If you leave before we agree that you're ready, that's your decision. You're free to go at any time and we'll take you to Cheyenne airport. On the other hand, that means you lose your job. We have never had a client who has NOT succeeded in this programme where he's stayed the distance, but the time is totally individual and there is no way to predict what you personally are going to need."

"And how many quit?" Dale demanded. Flynn met his gaze quite calmly.

"In five years, one. We tend to find that the kind of men who get into the C.E.O positions that qualify them for our programme are not by nature the kind of men who quit when the going gets tough."

There was a long silence. Dale stared long and hard at Flynn, at dark green eyes which looked immovably back at him.

"Fine." He said eventually. "What is this damned programme then? Indian fire walking? Wilderness therapy? Remedial cattle driving?"

"Much simpler." Flynn finished his juice and got up to put his dishes in the sink. "We expect you to get your health back on track, to live a social working life with us and to establish some healthier behavioural habits and routines under our guidance. All you need to do is what you're asked. The discipline here is tight and it's explicit, but it's the kind of discipline considered very normal in ranch families. You've lost the boundaries in your life, your work has slipped out of control and taken over, and you need help getting it back under control. Over time, you learn the skills and earn the trust to be self-regulating-"

"I've been an independent adult away from home for over ten years!" Dale exploded. "I'm an autonomous, entirely capable-"

"-executive, who can handle accounts and clients and his job to an internationally recognised standard, but can't or won't handle himself." Flynn said bluntly. "That's why you're sick and that's why you're here, and if you don't fix that now, you are looking at a choice of unemployment or severe illness."

It was like a slap in the face. Dale felt his face get hot and his stomach clenched tightly.

"This breakdown is the red alert." Flynn went on just as flatly. "And you did break down. You can't patch this up on your own, and it's too serious for your Corporation to allow you to continue trying. I do not tolerate bullshit, Dale. If you want to turn this situation around, the first thing you have to do is face that you have some major problems and that you need to put in some committed work to fix them."

In spite of himself Dale found the words were penetrating the armour. And it was brutally frank. Humiliated, hurt, Dale heard the man's quiet voice continuing without mercy.

"Your work-life balance is non existent because your life skills are nothing like as developed as your work skills. You don't value them and you don't prioritise them. While you're here, we take work out of the equation in the terms you know it, and we concentrate on how to live. You'll work, but work here is part of life, not a separate entity that allows the distancing you're used to. When you learn to take of yourself and to keep your priorities straight, then you'll be fit to take care of your Corporate work, and not before."

There was a long silence.

"You're going to be asked to work with us on the ranch," Flynn went on after a while as though Dale had spoken. "You'll need to learn how, and to accept that guidance. You're going to be expected to follow some pretty rigid schedules to get your health back under control. We use those programmes for all clients coming in, all of whom have some or all of the problems you're showing, and we have good success rates. Most people forget how tied up the mind and body are. You're also going to be expected to obey the ranch rules. They're simple enough. One: assigned chores get completed properly, promptly and without argument. Two: we treat each other with respect and consideration. Three: you're free to use the public rooms of the house, which is the kitchen, the family room and the bathrooms, but all other rooms and buildings are entered by invitation only. Four: you comply fully with instructions and the programmes laid down for you."

"Do you understand those rights as I have read them to you?" Dale said bleakly. Flynn gave him a calm look, not reacting to the provocation.

"You'll be surprised at how easy it is. We don't do psychology, we don't do counselling, we do plain and old fashioned common sense, and it works. We do enforce those rules and there are consequences for breaking them as we're looking to train new habits. Those consequences can involve writing assignments, extra chores, straight forward loss of privileges - yes I'm serious. We also use corporal punishment occasionally when we feel it's warranted, again in the same way considered normal in a family out here."

That, following a series of small and unpleasant discoveries, was the biggest shock so far. Dale felt his jaw dropping open.

"It's short, practical and a powerful motivator for change." Flynn said quite simply. "Your Corporation were made fully aware of the content of the programme and approved it. Any more questions?"

Yes, when are the men in white coats coming for you?

Dale shook his head in sheer disbelief with nothing to comment on at all. These people were nuts. Charles Harrison was nuts. This was obviously whacko even by American standards. The obvious thing to do was nod politely, follow the rules of the asylum and get on out of here as fast as possible.

"Ok." Flynn gave a short nod at the sandwich in front of Dale. "Eat that please, and drink the juice. You're going to be expected to eat what's put in front of you, and it'll be proper food. Most CEOs live on a mixture of junk and unpredictable restaurants with missed meals left, right and centre. I'm going to check your weight and we'll monitor until it's where it should be."

Oh for crying out loud.

Dale picked up the sandwich and found himself eating ham salad and wholemeal bread. It didn't taste too bad actually, but these people obviously knitted their own muesli for a living. He was slightly surprised to discover that he was hungry. In fact he was starving. And he realised, with a faint jolt of disquiet as he finished the sandwich, that Flynn was watching and had noticed. The big man said nothing however, simply took his plate and glass and rinsed both at the sink before he wiped his hands and the counter.

"Ok. Let's sort out your cases."

"I'm assuming there's an office I can use somewhere." Dale got up, crossing to where his two cases and briefcase stood on the kitchen floor and trying to regain his self possession. "I'm going to need internet access and a fax machine set up, plus a conference call on Friday at nine thirty. I can arrange that through my PA."

"You will not be working for your Corporation in any way while you're here." Flynn leaned against the edge of the table, folding his arms as Dale froze, half way to unzipping the cases. "There will be no contact with anyone from the Corporation, that's one of our strictest rules and your Board are well aware of it."

"I've got things to do!" Dale said in outrage. "I have a meeting on Friday-"

"No, you don't." Flynn said bluntly. "The work you have to do is here, with us, and it gets given your full attention. All personal electronic equipment is banned and needs to be surrendered for safe keeping until you leave. We'll start with your cell phone please."

"This is insane!" Dale said furiously. "I can't be out of touch for six weeks!"

"That's exactly what you need to do and your Corporation agreed to these terms." Flynn said calmly. "Cell phone please."

"No!" Dale grabbed his phone from his pocket, flipping it open. "I'm going to call Banks and I'm going to tell him exactly what I think of this ridiculous idea, and HE can explain to you that unless I'm able to work while I do this whole stupid programme or whatever the hell you call it, I'm going back to New York and the office!"

"The deal was made very clear." Flynn took a sealed envelope from his pocket as Dale read the display screen on his cell phone that explained clearly he was out of range and had no signal. "This is for you."

The handwriting on the envelope was Banks' own. Dale took the envelope and ripped it open. The letter was short, sympathetic and to the point, and it was handwritten which meant it had been entirely private. It reiterated briefly and kindly that yes, the Board knew exactly what the programme entailed and had agreed to abide by its rules; that it was fully convinced of the safety and proved success of the programme; and that Dale's return to work was wholly conditional upon a letter of approval and discharge from Flynn O' Sullivan and his team. It added a brief postscript that Dale could almost hear in Banks' gruff voice.

"We want this to work for you. Have the guts to look it in the face and give it an honest try, and I hope it does for you what it did for my nephew. He swears it was one of the hardest things he ever did, and one of the most worthwhile. Banks."

So it was Banks' own nephew who had been at the ranch. Dale blinked slightly on that information even as his stomach roiled with stress and outrage. That was a very private and well kept secret. Dale knew the young man in question, just a couple of years older than he was and a known stock market wizard.

Flynn was waiting when Dale folded the letter, more confused and angry than he remembered being since he was a child.

"Cell phone." he said gently.

Damn. Damn, damn, damn, damn.

Dale put the phone into Flynn's hand, and grimly slipped the second phone from the inside pocket of his briefcase, surrendering that too.

"Thank you." Flynn took a heavy duty plastic box from a shelf in a cupboard and put both phones inside. "Fax. Pager. Laptop-"

"I need the laptop!" Dale protested, watching the fax and pager both disappear into the box. Flynn waited, unmoved.

"Laptop please."

Growling, Dale surrendered the laptop and Flynn once more extended his hand.

"And the blackberry. I know you have one, the Board gave a list of the equipment you carried."

DAMN the bloody board. Near to spitting, Dale pulled the blackberry from his pocket. No email, no phone, no messaging, no contact with the office in any form, no contact with his PA: he might as well be on Mars. Flynn took it from him, adding it to the box and sealing the lid.

"Are there any books in your case that you want to keep?"

Near to spitting, Dale dug through his clothes and pulled out the three volumes he had recently been working on. Flynn took them from him, flipping through with nothing more than a brief glance at each title.

"No, no and no. I'm going to confiscate these as they're work related-"

"For how long!" Dale spat, watching them vanish back into the box.

"For as long as you're here." Flynn sealed the box once more and got up from the edge of the table. "I'll put your briefcase and this box into safe storage. I'm going to search the cases and you, and then the cases will go into the box room upstairs."

"Search for what?" Livid, Dale watched Flynn crouch and sort rapidly through the cases, checking pockets of suits and the linings of the case.

"For anything we don't permit here. Drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, electric equipment, work related materials, or any other addictive materials or items that may distract you from the work we're doing." Flynn shut one case and moved on to the other. He paused as he found a packet and flipped it over in his hand, holding it up.

"Painkillers. Are these prescription?"

"Over the counter." Dale snarled.

"For what? Headaches?" Flynn asked, unmoved. "Ok. I'm going to confiscate these too. If you need any medications you ask me or one of the others and we'll give them to you as appropriate." He shut the second case and got up, gesturing to Dale to move clear of the table. "Lift your arms."

Swearing quietly, Dale raised his arms and Flynn rapidly patted him down, sliding hands into both hip pockets and withdrawing his wallet and driving licence. There was nothing else.

"These are also confiscated." Flynn said, holding up the wallet and licence. "They'll be in safe keeping and they'll be returned when you leave. You won't need to drive while you're here and cards and cash are too much of a temptation."

"What IS this?" Dale snarled, watching them disappear into the box. "Bloody rehab?"

"You can think of it that way if you like." Flynn agreed. "All right, that's everything, thank you."

The box containing the confiscated items was taken through the house into a concealed safe behind a bookcase and Dale stood watching in dumb fury while it was locked away. Feeling completely cut off and naked without the access to phone or email, there was nothing to do except trail Flynn upstairs with the two cases, filled with useless suits and clothes, and shut them in the box room off the long landing.

"So what exactly do I do?" he demanded when Flynn closed the box room door. "What does your 'programme' do with the evenings?"

If there was any mention of guitars and the singing of Kum Ba Yah he was on the next plane out of here.

"Usually everyone comes in for dinner around six," Flynn said calmly, "We clean up and eat together, there are a few evening jobs to do sometimes, but mostly people like to sit and talk, read, walk. It depends on the weather and the time of year."

Thrilling stuff.

"However the others have gone into town today and they'll be late home." Flynn went on, turning Dale to face him. A large and powerful hand touched his chin with surprising gentleness, lifting Dale's face slightly so that Dale found himself looking at the dark, rock eyes.

"That headache's bad, isn't it? How long have you had it?"

Hard to say. Maybe weeks. It never actually stopped so much as ebbed and flowed.

"I don't fly well." Dale said guardedly and Flynn let his chin go.

"Go and undress and get into bed."

"What?!" Dale demanded. "You are joking-"

"No." Flynn said matter of factly. "Go ahead, I'll be there in a minute."

To do what? Supervise REM cycles?

"You follow the rules of the house, please." Flynn looked at Dale, meeting his eyes in a way that without understanding why, made Dale acutely uncomfortable. He gave the larger man a grim shrug, turning away towards his room before Flynn could get any idea that he was fazed. Fine. Whatever. Co operating with the stupid place was one step nearer to returning to work.

The small bedroom was cool with the outside air from the open window and the scent of grass. It made quite a change from the New York pollution. Dale unbuttoned his jeans and folded them, putting them on the small wooden chair at the end of the bed. There were cotton boxers and t shirts in the bottom drawer of the chest which he pulled on instead, sitting down on the bed to pull off and ball up the socks he'd worn for barely an hour. Only in the damn house for an hour before he was sent to bed. Banks and Charles had a lot to answer for. Bare foot, bare armed and legged, Dale sat where he was on the cotton quilt and looked out of the window. There was nothing to see but green grass and the distant aspens, miles of it, stretching away into the distance.

There was a quiet tap at the door and Flynn opened it, carrying a glass of water and a couple of pills which he held out to Dale.

"Benadryl. That should stop the headache and help you sleep."

Yes, they usually did. So did a few neat scotches. More than used to killing the noise in his head this way, Dale accepted the pills and water without comment. Flynn took the glass when he was done, drew him to his feet and pulled the covers down on the bed.

"Get in. Once you've gone to bed, you leave it only to go to the bathroom. If you need anything, call from the top of the stairs, or come and knock on my door. I'm next door, the room closest to yours."

Dale cast a glance at his watch as he slid under the covers. Just past eight. These people were insane. Flynn pulled the covers over him.

"Sleep well. I'll tell you when it's time to get up."

Welcome to the prison camp designed by Better Homes And Gardens. Dale watched the big man close the door behind him, shoved the covers down to the point of comfort, and folded his arms behind his head. This was a mess. This was a serious bloody mess.

For several minutes, furious and bitter, Dale let his mind touch gingerly on some of the things the man had said to him, like pressing cautiously around the edges of a bruise. They were of course untrue. This kind of hard-sell was an obvious part of the induction, to soften a client up to their precious 'programme' of new agey, worky-lifey balancy claptrap. There had been weirder training courses done in the name of personnel management, although Dale had evaded as many of them as possible. This one however was going to be unavoidable if he wanted to return to work: that was a both a large carrot and a still larger stick. Do the programme or lose your job.

Which meant the only remaining option was to play ball with these nutcases, put up with the crap, quietly get on with whatever the hell they wanted him to do and do it well, whether it was hug trees or sing around campfires, in order to tick the boxes, get out of here and go back to proving he wasn’t the screw up the Board currently thought he was. That was doable. That was an achievable plan.



*



It was usual practice for whoever was not directly involved with an incoming client to get out of the way until bedtime. Having gone into town for a meal and taken their time over it, it was past ten when Flynn heard the garage door closing and a moment later the front door bounced opened on a slim and chestnut haired young man who tossed his hat at the handstand with more optimism than science.

"Pick it up." Flynn ordered without looking round from his book in the family room.

"How do you know it missed?" the young man demanded. Flynn snorted, hearing the hat being picked up.

"It always misses. How was dinner?"

"Good." Arms folded around Flynn's neck from behind in a rough hug. "How is your new friend? Did you have to surgically remove his cell phone?"

"Riley, keep your voice down, the poor guy will be asleep." the older of the remaining two men in the garage held the door, waiting, and the two of them came into the family room together. One was Flynn's age, gangly and angular with very dark eyes. The other was a man in his late forties, comfortably rounded at the middle and beginning to show early signs of grey that he hadn't troubled to conceal.

"He's right out, I checked on him half an hour ago. I gave him a couple of Benadryl. He had a bad headache and he looked like he hadn't slept in weeks." Flynn leaned to put his book down, detaching Riley's arms. Riley came around the sofa and dropped down on the far end, sprawling with his long legs stretched in front of him.

"I'm going to make tea." The elder man said, pausing in the doorway to the kitchen. "Flynn, have you eaten?"

"I ate with Dale." Flynn gave Riley a tolerant dig in the ribs. "Where did you go?"

"That pizza place with all the neon lights." Riley said cheerfully. "The one you swore you wouldn't go into at gun point. Paul said he didn't care where we ate, and Jas just kept his eyes shut."

"The food wasn't too bad once we got past the lighting." Jasper agreed, folding up in one of the dark red leather chairs with one long, jeaned leg under him. "How did things go with Dale?"

"We're at the 'problem, what problem?' stage." Flynn said dryly. "He wasn't happy, we had some growling but there were no explosions and he accepted the Board's letter. Sarcastic more than openly angry."

"That may be a mood thing or a British thing." Jasper said sardonically. Flynn gave him a brief, twisted smile.

"Possibly. I know we like them to arrive without too much idea of what's going to happen, but I don't think he bothered to make any inquiries at all before he got on the plane. I very much doubt he even knows which State he's in. Not sure if he's past caring because of the breakdown, if he's usually this willing to throw himself to the lions on his corporation's request, or if he just didn't care because he's desperate to keep his job. I suppose we'll find out."

"Did you see any signs of the breakdown?" Paul asked, switching the kitchen light out and bringing a tray with four mugs across to the low coffee table. Flynn took one from the tray, cupping his hands around it.

"Only that he didn't ask the questions or focus on anything but how the process worked to get done and out of here. Which is not unusual. He doesn't on the surface look like one of the nervous exhaustion ones. I'd agree with the information from the doctor's report: he's a natural at keeping the professional mask firmly in place."

"Be interesting to see if that slips once he relaxes a bit." Paul took a seat in another of the armchairs as the grandfather clock against the wall began to strike the half hour, softly and deeply in the quiet of the house. "Riley, take that tea with you and head on up to bed."

"I can finish it down here." Riley said confidently, curling deeper into the sofa. Flynn leaned over and took the mug out of his hand.

"It's ten thirty. Up."

"Five minutes past half ten is not going to kill anybody." Riley pointed out, getting up with bad grace and accepting the mug Flynn returned to him. "It's not supposed to be good to go to bed straight after eating anyway-"

"We ate over two hours ago, I think you'll live." Paul leaned over to catch his belt and pull, and Riley stooped to kiss the older man's cheek.

"Goodnight. You're mean."

"We know." Flynn returned the kiss Riley stooped to give him. "Sleep well."

Riley moved on to Jasper for his share of the nightly salutes, took his tea and headed upstairs, hearing the quiet conversation continue downstairs. From long familiarity there was no need to put a light on upstairs; Riley paused outside the half-open door of their new arrival and couldn't resist moving far enough around the door to take a look.

There were no curtains over the open window and the moonlight outside was clear enough to see by. The covers were half way down Dale's chest and he was sound asleep on his back, arms still behind his head. Dark hair, in an expensive cut that had grown fractionally too long, as if he hadn't found time to keep up barber appointments. Thin and lightly built, and surprisingly normal looking considering the legends in the paperwork that had arrived at the ranch two days ago. Although most of their clients, once the suits and the electronics were removed, tended to be just bright, driven men in varying states of obsession.

"Does he look like a performing seal?" Flynn's voice inquired in his ear. Riley jumped and it was with great difficulty he succeeded in not yelping.

"I was just checking on him." he said in self defence, letting Flynn draw him into the hallway. Flynn snorted, keeping his voice low enough not to disturb Dale.

"You're just terminally nosy. Go to bed."

"He looks nice," Riley commented, going. Flynn leaned in Dale's doorway for a minute, not dismissing Riley's judgement out of hand as he looked at the young man sleeping. Riley might not have done more than lay eyes on him, but his first impressions were often almost eerily accurate. Moreover working with a client that Riley took a dislike to would have been difficult for them all. Understanding and sympathetic, he tended to quickly find common ground with them, but the first few days of any new client entering the ranch were always a slightly sensitive time for him. Leaving Dale to sleep, which he appeared to be doing peacefully under the Benadryl, Flynn took his book into his own room, put the bedside lamp on and raised the window to let in the night air. The door clicked softly as Riley came out of the bathroom and went down the hall to his own room. Leaving his book face down on the bed, Flynn followed him down the hall and pushed his door a little wider, watching Riley climb under the covers.

"All set?"

"Since there's nothing to read up here," Riley said pointedly. Flynn raised an eyebrow at him. It was only a few weeks since Jasper had removed Riley's books and bookcase from his bedroom to a downstairs room, having discovered his light on and Riley reading shortly after two am.

"Who's fault is that?"

"Jasper's." Riley said calmly. Flynn shook his head at him, recognising an invitation for further sleep-delaying conversation. Never keen to quit on the day and go to bed, Riley was equally unkeen to get up in the mornings if he was tired.

"I still say he should have spanked you. Goodnight half-pint."



*



Sleep, for the last few weeks – ok, if he was honest, the last few months – had been something grabbed in the early hours of the morning, often still dressed, before the alarm went off at five thirty with time to prepare for the first meetings of the day. Hotel rooms and wake up calls and black coffee. It was strange to wake in a warm bed, under a steady, cool breeze from the open window, with a sound in the distance that took a moment to recognise. Sheep. Low and high voices, far away. For another few seconds Dale found himself wondering where the hell he was. The door stood half open onto the landing and the smell of bacon was in the air, a shower was running in the distance and there was a chime as a clock some where deep in the house, struck the three quarter hour. Dale picked up his watch from the chest. A quarter to seven. The latest he had slept in some time. There was a tap at his door and he looked up to find Flynn, dressed and with his hair damp from the shower.

"Good morning. How's the head?"

"Fine." Dale said automatically, swinging his feet to the floor. "Should I be up?"

"You're in good time, breakfast is around seven. Get dressed, make your bed and come down. I'll introduce you to the others."

The others. Dale pushed his fingers into his temples as Flynn left, rubbing at the still nagging ache there. There was no saying how big a community this was. He grabbed the t shirt and jeans he'd worn yesterday and got under the shower, mechanically shaving and dressing at speed. Used to getting from sleep to car in under ten minutes on a daily basis, he finished making the bed a few minutes later and found himself standing on the landing, automatically checking his hair was straight, his clothes immaculate- the stupidity of trying to arrange a t shirt and jeans hit him a few seconds later and he dropped his hands, silently cursing himself.

"Hi." someone said cheerfully behind him. "Dale?"

Dale turned and found a man much his own age, chestnut haired and smiling, hand outstretched. He gripped it, trying to pull himself together and sound assured. These people were already convinced he had cracked; they didn't need any further evidence.

"Yes. Good morning."

"I'm Riley. Breakfast is this way, come on down." Riley led the way down the wide staircase, looking back over his shoulder. "Did you sleep ok? You had quite a flight out from NY, I always do nothing but dream about flying after I've been in the air."

"It wasn't bad thanks." Dale said stiltedly, trailing him into the kitchen. An older man was standing at the stove top, poking bacon which filled the bottom of an enormous skillet. He looked up and smiled, picking up a cloth to wipe his hands before he extended one.

"Hello Dale, good to meet you. I'm Paul. Only Jasper still to go and you've met us all. Riley, get some plates down? Dale, you'll find placemats on the side there and cutlery in the drawer by the sink."

Dale tentatively tried a few drawers and located the cutlery, looking back at the table for clues on the plate numbers Riley was collecting. Riley caught his eye and grinned, holding up the plates for him.

"Five. Knives, forks, spoons."

It felt better to have something active to do. Dale set the table while Riley took crockery down from the cupboard, put out glasses and poured two jugs of milk and juice which he put on the table. Flynn came into the kitchen from the direction of the porch and Dale jumped at the hand dropped on his shoulder, although it was a brief and surprisingly friendly grasp.

"All right? Take a seat and get yourself something to drink."

Riley took a seat near Paul, twisting around to watch him start to dish up bacon and eggs.

"Are you going down to the small creek this morning? I can fit that in this afternoon if you need me to, but it needs clearing and it's going to be a heavy job."

"How heavy?" Flynn took a seat and pulled the chair out next to him, waiting until Dale sat down. Riley leaned on the table, pouring himself a glass of juice.

"It's a mess. The ponies have been in the mud wallow on the bank again, and it's full of brush, it'll be an hour or more to clear."

"I'll do it." Paul said calmly, putting plates on the table. "Come that way on the way back and if I'm not through I'd appreciate the help. Here Dale. Don't wait, it'll get cold."

Used to black coffee for breakfast and a Danish some time around mid morning when the cart came round, Dale looked with some dismay at the plate in front of him.

"Breakfast is always serious," Riley said cheerfully, digging in to his plateful as if he was starving. "We don't always get back for lunch, and fruit and sandwiches don’t really cut it."

"At least half that plateful needs to be eaten." Flynn said matter of factly, pouring Dale a glass of juice and putting it in reach. "And I'll only let you off with that for a few days. You need to get used to proper meals."

Oh what a surprise. This guy was probably thrown out of the marines for being too regimented. Taking a deep breath, Dale picked up his knife and fork and turned over a piece of bacon, slowly cutting a bite sized piece. It was smoking hot, crisp, and far more than any stomach ought to be able to handle at this hour without the aid of caffeine. Making a serious effort to swallow, Dale picked up juice and wished it was espresso.

A tall, angular man with very dark brown eyes came into the kitchen, jeaned like the others and with his arms long below his rolled up shirt sleeves. He gave Dale a quiet smile and paused to offer a hand.

"Good morning. Dale?"

"You must be Jasper?" Dale rose to his feet and Jasper let his hand go and waved him back.

"Don't let your breakfast get cold. Glad to have you here, have you been to Wyoming before?"

"Wy-" Dale paused as the connection clicked.

You stupid bastard, you didn't even ask which bloody State they'd put you in. Do you think it's safe to stop thinking like this? Wake up for pete's sake!

Beside him, Flynn caught Jasper's eye as he plated up his breakfast and took his seat.

"No." Dale took a breath, recovering. "No, this is the first time."

"Plenty to see, it's a beautiful area."

Flynn quietly touched Dale's elbow and Dale looked, surprised, seeing Flynn's nod towards his plate. The look was meaningful. Taking another breath, Dale picked up his knife and fork and tried to summon up the courage to put more bacon in his mouth.

"Are you from Wyoming?" he asked Jasper in desperation for distraction.

"No, none of us are." Jasper said mildly, digging into his own breakfast. "Maybe we appreciate it more because we chose to be here. I'm from Virginia originally. Flynn's a New Zealander as you've probably realised. Paul hails from Maine, and Riley-"

"Is from all over." Riley said with his mouth full. "Although I was born in Ontario. Which part of the UK do you come from?"

"Shropshire. Up on the Welsh borders." Dale cut another piece of bacon and put his knife and fork down to swallow more juice.

"Just eat it, Dale." Paul said gently. "Get a few mouthfuls down and it'll get easier. Riley, pass him some toast."

Riley passed a toast rack to Dale who mechanically took a piece, taking a mouthful as it was drier and easier to face by far than the bacon. He had managed only one rasher of bacon and a piece of toast when the others finished, and Paul picked up his plate, rescuing him with a warm and very kind smile.

"Well done."

"We'll clear up." Flynn said as Jasper got up and Riley followed him, shoving a last fragment of toast into his mouth.

"See you later. Shane's in the yard, Flynn; he's still limping, can you hang on to him while we leave or he'll be straight out after us."

Flynn got up and Dale, thankfully leaving the table, followed. Shane appeared to be a small, black and white border collie: one of three that promptly came to the foot of the porch steps, tails lashing at the sight of the men emerging from the house. Flynn whistled to the nearest one, going down on one knee on the steps and catching one of the dogs who was indeed limping and raising up his hind foot. The dog sat against his knee, pushing its muzzle into Flynn's hand, but as the other two dogs followed Riley and Jasper towards the corrals, he started to whine.

"He's just sprained it." Flynn explained to Dale, apparently taking no notice of the dog although one hand was pulling gently at the black ears, massaging them. "He goes rabbiting when no one's looking and hurts himself trying to dig them out."

"I'm gone too." Paul said, coming out of the kitchen and pulling a Stetson on against the bright, early morning sun. "I'll bring the two brood mares down this afternoon if you'll gate off the small pasture for them?"

"We'll see to it." Flynn waited until Paul was well across the yard, then straightened up and went to the kitchen door, unhooking a jacket from the row of pegs just inside. He dropped an old and battered jacket against the wall in the shade and pointed at it, clicking his fingers.

"Shane. On guard."

Shane gave him a tragic look, limped over to the jacket and curled up on it with a heavy sigh, putting his chin on the porch floorboards.

"Won't you need to tie him?" Dale asked, not unmoved by the dog's apparent depression. Flynn shook his head, moving back into the kitchen and starting to clear the table.

"They're working dogs, not pets. If they're set to guard they won't move until they're told to. Shane just knows the difference between guarding animals or objects that actually need guarding and me keeping him busy for no reason he can understand."

The dog still lay there, dejected, but obedient. Flynn ran water into the sink, nodding Dale at the table.

"We'll wash up and then I'll show you what to do outside."

Ranches had apparently never heard of dishwashers: it had been years since Dale remembered washing dishes, used to leaving them to hotel staff, restaurants and office cleaners. It took nearly twenty minutes to return the kitchen to its immaculate state, after which Flynn took a pair of gloves and a hat from the hooks behind the door and handed them to Dale, took a second hat for himself and led the way down the porch steps. Shane's eyes followed them but he didn't lift his muzzle from the floor. The yard was partly grassed and partly dry, beaten earth and stretched in all directions. A large barn stood fairly near to the house, and several other smaller outbuildings stood near by. Further away a long, low building with a line of stable doors faced into a large, fenced paddock. A large heap of rocks stood against the wall of the stables, large, grey and unevenly shaped, nearly reaching to Dale's waist, and Flynn indicated them as they walked across the yard.

"You can make a start on those this morning. We keep them around to weight tarpaulins down. They need to be moved across to the side of the barn, out of the way, and stacked so the heap is safe. I'll be in the stables if you want me."

And that appeared to be it. Flynn walked on towards the stables, pulling the hat further forward over his eyes against the sun, and disappeared inside. Dale pulled the gloves on, looked at the hat and decided the Gillette image was not designed for Englishmen. This was a truly ridiculous task for someone with two degrees and a directorship in three companies: on the other hand it was no doubt part of their precious 'programme' and co operation and approval was the name of the game. It all added up to the ticket out of here. Dale grabbed the first rock from the top of the heap, which took both hands and a firm pull, and carried it towards the barn.

It actually carried the steady, monotonous peace that running on the treadmill or rowing brought, on the occasions Dale managed to find an hour free to spend in the office or hotel gyms. He fought for that hour as often as possible, even when it was two am in the morning, purely for the peace of that mindless activity. The sun was warm, the air was fresher than any gym- it was odd to be outside and not unpleasant – and the rocks were not large enough to be hard to carry, nor to be painful, while too large to carry more than one at a time. There was no wheelbarrow in sight and no other means of transporting, possibly they didn't have that kind of modern technology in Wyoming; it just involved the steady, brisk moving back and forth from heap to the barn wall, over and over and over. Well worked muscles began to give a quiet and warming burn, the rhythm of the work was hypnotic. In the stables, there was the steady scrape and hiss of a fork and straw, and periodically Dale caught sight of Flynn moving between the stalls. There was no other sound but for the far off baaing of the sheep and the occasional whinny from one of the horses in the far corrals.

The heap against the barn wall grew slowly. Dale paused after about twenty rocks, surveyed the heap critically until he saw the emerging problem, and then restacked it, setting it with the point of gravity against the barn wall. The sun was getting high over the yard when Flynn walked past him and paused, looking at the two heaps of rocks, the barn one beginning to take over from the stable one.

"Come and get some water, and put your hat on. You won't realise how hot the sun is out here."

Smile sweetly and don't argue…. Dale pulled the hat on without comment, stretching his arms and running an arm over his face to get the sweat out of his eyes. He didn't actually want to stop. The rhythm was easier to continue than to break, and the reducing pile of rocks by the stable was annoying: it demanded to be finished, to be dealt with fully. Plus it was starting to slip, having been somewhat haphazardly stacked in the first place, and as Dale removed the middle rocks the lower ones were starting to roll down to the ground in a way still more disorganised. Dale went back to the pile, picking up one of the dropped rocks and carrying it across to the new stack, seating it firmly and tidily away.

"Water." Flynn said from the house in a tone a drill sergeant would be proud of. Dale pulled his gloves off and pocketed them, going reluctantly to the foot of the porch steps where Flynn was waiting with a bottle of water in his hand. It was only when he began to drink that Dale realised how thirsty he was. Flynn gulped from his own bottle, draining half of it before he tipped a handful into his palm and ran it over his face.

"How are you doing? Hot?"

"Fine." Dale bolted water, somewhat surprised at being asked. These were supposed to be the tough men; they appeared to feel the heat and to need the rest more than a supposedly soft office desk worker. Flynn stood for a moment, watching him drink the rest of the bottle's contents, then took the empty bottle from him.

"If you need another drink give me a shout."

"It's fine." Dale stretched his shoulders until they cracked, pulled the gloves back on, and finding it difficult to stand any longer or to continue the conversation, headed back towards the rocks. The remainder grew more of a challenge as the afternoon went on, the reducing pile creating an increasing pressure and motive to complete the task. The yard went away somewhere, as did Flynn, as did anything that didn't involve rocks and the stacking of them: it was novel to find something that involved practical movement as well as mind. When he shifted the last rock from its place on the earth to the top of the stack against the barn wall, Dale stood back with a fierce and exultant sense of victory that was followed a few seconds later with an exasperated sense of,
damn, finished.

"Done?" Flynn asked from the doorway of the stables. Dale headed towards him, still in the brisk stride that had moved between the rock heaps, still locked in the need to do.

"Yes. Need a-"

He was interrupted in mid sentence. Without any warning at all his stomach abruptly heaved and Dale doubled over, bracing his hands on his knees as he threw up, hard, into the paddock grass. He didn't hear Flynn cross to him but he felt the weight of Flynn's hand on his shoulders with humiliation as much as annoyance.

"Sorry." he said when his stomach settled enough to risk straightening up.

"That happen a lot when you're working out?" Flynn asked, pulling a handkerchief out of his pocket and offering it. Dale wiped his face, trying not to flush too obviously.

"Sometimes. If I'm running. Not used to a heavy breakfast I suppose."

Flynn neither accepted nor questioned that, simply nodding at the porch from under his low brimmed hat.

"Go on and sit on the porch. In the shade, I'll be up in a while."

"I'm fine." Dale said matter of factly, pocketing the handkerchief since Flynn would hardly want it returned. "Feel fine now. I'll help you finish the stables unless there's anything else you want doing."

"Yes." Flynn said bluntly. "For you to go sit in the shade. Now, Dale."

Did real people actually speak to each other in those terms outside the army? Dale gave Flynn a long, slow look of interest, wondering just how much the corporation was paying for this kind of cowboy posturing. Then he resisted the urge towards a sarcastic salute and walked across the yard, up the steps and onto the porch where the dog, Shane, lifted his head hopefully to look at him. Dale took a seat in the rocker nearest to him, putting a hand down to rub his head. The dog stretched into the caress, leaning against him, but made no move to get up or move from the jacket he was still lying on.

It was far cooler in the shade. After a few moments Dale sat back, aware his shirt was wet, his hair was wet under the hat and his hands were prickling with sweat inside the gloves. He pulled off the hat and gloves, dropping them on the porch beside him, and pushed his hair back. His shoulders burned in a pleasurably well worked way and his hands, while scraped in places from the rocks despite the gloves, had an equally satisfying warmth. To stop was both tedious and frustrating. Dale stretched out his legs, watching Flynn continue to work his way down the line of stables. The man moved without hurry but with a great deal of efficiency and economy in his movements; he got things done swiftly and without fuss with the ease of long practice. Obviously this was a lifetime's work for him, he had the build and the appearance of someone well used to outside work. In fact all of them did, even Paul around his early middle aged spread. It was just past one by Dale's watch, and the sun was slightly off centre directly above the yard. Sitting was boring to the extreme. Unable to stand it any more, Dale got up and walked across to lean on the porch rail, lifting his voice to Flynn.

"Anything up here need doing?"

Flynn gave him a straight look, barely pausing in his work. "Yes. You need to sit."

Welcome to Sitting Therapy, the new solution by Cowboys from the Plains. Dale dropped back into the rocker and looked again at Shane, who still hadn't moved although his large, brown eyes were fixed on Flynn through the porch rails. This was mad. Totally mad. Standing up to stretch, Dale walked down to the end of the porch and back, stretching his legs which were starting to nag at the cease in exercise. The call from the direction of the barn had lost any hint of humour or tolerance.

"Dale."

Now what? Dale paused, looking towards Flynn. Flynn leaned on his fork, eyes absolutely steady under his hat in a way that made Dale acutely uncomfortable without knowing why.

"Sit down. Stay put. I'll tell you when you can get up."

He sounded as if he was used to being obeyed, and in that tone Dale found himself actually inclined to believe him. Before he realised quite what he was doing, he was sitting back in the rocker, and the jolt of shock from that look and tone faded quickly into humiliation and annoyance that he'd let himself react in that way. The man just needed convincing he was compliant and willing to do whatever nonsense they insisted on, there was no need to take it any more seriously than that. If sitting made him happy, it was clearly time to sit.

Dale rocked a few times, trying to ignore the itch in his legs and the headache that was increasing behind his eyes. He was actually starting to feel acutely nauseous, despite the shade. It was only a few minutes before Flynn came across the yard and up the steps. Dale met his eyes, deliberately with the normal assurance he would have given to a colleague- and was not in the least prepared for Flynn to catch the back of his neck with a powerful hand, push him fast in to the kitchen and bend him over the sink. He realised why as without warning his guts rebelled. The retch this time brought up very little but it was painful. Eyes watering, unable to stop, Dale gripped the sink, braced his shoulders and tried to get his body under control, aware of Flynn's hand still grasping.

Flynn said nothing at all, but after a moment he turned the cold tap on and filled a glass with water, still not letting go of Dale's neck. Dale took a cautious sip, then as it stayed down, risked another larger one and washed his mouth out. The retching hadn't helped the headache in the slightest: the pain was blinding and he was forced to shut his eyes on the light from the kitchen window. Flynn's hand moved to his forehead for a moment, then pushed him gently through the kitchen and into the dimmer and cooler family room to the dark leather couch. Dale lay down where he was put, shutting his eyes tight against the light.

"I'll get you some painkillers." Flynn said above him and disappeared for a moment. The pain was too bad to move. Dale lay and concentrated on willing it back, eyes watering with the strength of the hammering. He heard Flynn come downstairs and a moment later a cold, damp towel was laid over his forehead and eyes and Flynn put a hand behind his head.

"Tylenol. Open."

Dale let the two pills be pushed into his mouth and accepted a mouthful of water to gulp them back. Flynn let him go and Dale felt the tennis shoes pulled off his feet.

"This happens to a lot of people." Flynn said very quietly and Dale heard a blind hish and was aware of the light in the room dimming still further. "Caffeine withdrawal, blood sugar uneven, sudden break in a high stress routine. Try and sleep for an hour and let the pills work."

"Sorry." Dale said again, not sure why.

"It happens to a lot of people." Flynn repeated. "Try and sleep."

With the hammering in his head, that was not going to be easy. Flynn moved away and Dale was grateful to be left alone; from the few faint sounds the man was in the kitchen, doing something that involved dishes. He could only hope it didn't involve cooking. Food smells right now were more than his stomach could handle. The quiet, deep toned tick tick tick of the grandfather clock was soothing. Dale found himself listening to it, despite that the tick pounded in time with his headache. Come to Sunny Wyoming and be sicker than a dog….

The fire alarm was going off. Dale lifted his head and listened for a moment, and then got up and went to the window. The alarm was faint – in another part of the building, but it was steady. No one appeared to be taking any notice of it.

Moving between desks, between secretaries who appeared to be continuing with their work quite unconcerned, Dale went out to the main corridor and looked up and down. Smoke was coming from one of the conference room doors. He broke into a rapid stride towards the door, not opening, just looking through the glass. The fire was past control. There were over eighty people on this floor, and more above. Taking a breath to steady himself and feeling adrenaline shoot through his hands and prickle up his spine, Dale stepped back to the control panel by the door and opened the fire alert system for the whole building. The sirens redoubled, deafeningly loud, and yet no one at all appeared to be moving, everyone simply continued with their work. Alison passed with her arms full of files, and smiled as she walked by. Caroline, at her desk, didn't even look up. Desk by desk, Dale began to move through them, touching each shoulder, indicating the alarm, and each person smiled and got up to do as he asked, but there was no hurry. The smoke was filling the hall. Moving quicker, doing his best to keep his face calm and his voice polite, Dale went from desk to desk, herding them gently towards the fire exit like chickens, aware of the heat starting to build from the direction of the corridor –

"What are you looking for?" Flynn asked from the kitchen doorway. Dale looked up from Caroline's desk, seriously confused. Flynn continued to stand in the kitchen doorway, beside the photocopier, quite calm and with his hands planted on his hips. That was wrong. That was seriously wrong. Dale cast another quick look around him and gripped at Caroline's desk for support. There were books stacked on shelves under it. He didn't remember those.

Oh my God. Not another one.

"Dale?" Flynn said again. Dale blinked, hard, aware that Caroline had returned to her work, and feeling an icy hand of sheer terror close around his stomach. He could still hear the fire alarm blaring.

"I'm fine." he said calmly, hearing the assertive tone in his own voice as if he was in the office, as if everything was usual. "Could I have another water please?"

"I'll bring it over, go and lie down." Flynn didn't move for a moment, and Dale turned, aware that he needed to walk back through the oddly conflicting maze of furniture – some of it red leather, some of it wood and grey office desks. He found a couch, a red leather couch that was cool under his hands, and sat down on it, then lay back and put his feet up. The fire alarm quietened down almost immediately. There was no other sound from the office staff, no more sense of movement. Shutting his eyes tightly, Dale put an arm over his face and willed himself, pull it together. This is just like sleep walking, it's nothing to worry about. It's fine.

"Water." Flynn said beside him. Dale took the bottle without opening his eyes and bolted several mouthfuls. It was ice cold, which helped. That was real. The physical sensation was strong and orienting. Flynn put a palm over his forehead for a moment, a heavy pressure that was equally reassuring.

"You're cooling down. How's the headache?"

"Better." Dale said firmly, out of sheer habit. Actually it was still blinding. Flynn took the water bottle from him and Dale heard the click of it put down on the floor near him.

"Go on back to sleep, I'm not going anywhere."

Why that was supposed to be useful information Dale had no idea, but he heard the creak of a nearby chair as Flynn sat down, and the moment later the scrape of paper as if he was reading. Not daring to open his eyes or to look at the room, Dale lay still and concentrated on that scrape of paper and the sound of the other man breathing. It was a heartening reminder of what actually was real, and with his heart hammering with blind fear and his hands shaking enough that he had to clasp them to keep them still, it felt like a lifeline.



*



He lost track of how long it was that he slept. When he woke, he opened his eyes without thinking and there was a brief shock at finding himself in the family room. There was no sign of desks or staff or anything else, just Flynn reading in the chair across from the couch. The headache was still thumping, making it difficult to open eyes or to move, but the sense of dislocation was gone. Dale sat up, digging his hands into his temples in an attempt to push the pain away.

Flynn laid the book down on the arm of his chair and got up, picking up a glass of water and a couple of pills on the table in front of him.

"Take these. I'm going to get you something to eat and then I think you'd do better to go up to bed."

"I just had pills." Dale said, startled, and Flynn pushed the glass into his hand.

"That was over four hours ago. Swallow."

Two more Tylenol. Dale knocked them back without arguing, turning up his watch. It was a struggle to read through the pain blur, but the hands stood at nearly five pm. He pushed himself to his feet with an effort and made his way through to the kitchen, wincing on the light. Flynn pulled out a kitchen chair and Dale half fell into it, listening to the fridge open and close, and then a glass landing in front of him.

"Get that down. It's only juice, that shouldn't bother your stomach."

The man was a vitamin C fiend. Dale swallowed the juice, listening to a toaster pop, and a moment later Flynn sat down beside him, putting the plate within his reach.

"That shouldn't upset you either. If you're hungry later we'll try something more substantial, but right now that's probably as much as you can cope with."

More than could be coped with. Stomach full of acid, head hammering, Dale tried a few mouthfuls of the toast, finished the juice and pushed the plate away. He was startled when Flynn pushed it back, tapping it.

"Finish it. There's only the one slice, it won't kill you."

"I don't want it."

"Tough."

The bluntness of that statement would have made Dale laugh if he wasn't in sufficient pain to fell an ox. Who did this guy think he was? Exasperated, he grabbed the remainder of the slice and chewed on it, doing his best to force his stomach to accept it without throwing it back up again. This was possibly as bad as life got. Sitting in the kitchen of a mad cowboy, wishing you were dead and fearing that you'd gone mad.

Oh God, I had another one.

Dale pushed the thought away, trying not to choke on the toast. The one in the office had been terrifying enough. Dismissed as overwork, as insufficient sleep working through the night on a tight deadline, it had seemed just one of those freak, once in a lifetime things, but –

Oh God, I did have another one.

What did one do when one went mad? If he demanded to see a doctor or a psychologist for help, the Board would no doubt write him off permanently. Keep quiet Dale. No one knows, no one saw, get a grip and don't let it happen again.

"Good." Flynn said beside him as he mechanically swallowed the last of the toast. "Let's get you up to bed."

"You don't need to get me anywhere." Dale said as politely as he could, getting up and gripping the table for support as it was hard to see. Flynn moved his chair out of the way, put an arm firmly around Dale and guided him through the family room and towards the stairs.

The man was stronger than a bloody horse. By the time they were half way upstairs Dale was aware Flynn was half carrying him. He remembered being sat on the bed, co operating with the shirt being pulled off over his head, socks pulled off his feet, and in too much pain to care, lay down where he was put and let the man peel him out of his jeans. The cool coming through the open window was comforting. Flynn pulled the quilt out of the way, not trying to cover him but leaving it in easy reach.

"Sleep it off, Dale. If you need anything at all you call me."

Go away and stop making noise. Dale rolled over, burying his face in the pillow to block out the light. He didn't even remember Flynn leaving.





He had a very vague awareness some time later of it being dark and of another voice in the doorway, quiet as if it was trying to avoid waking anyone.

"Are you coming down?"

"In a while." Flynn's voice was even lower. "He's still moaning a lot, even with the Benadryl."

"I saw he finished the rocks."

"Three hours, forty two minutes." Flynn said dryly. There was a shocked pause from the doorway.

"You're kidding me?"

"One five minutes break when I insisted."

"That’s the record by about two hours."

"He's as fit as all get out. Mentioned that running until he throws up happens often enough to be normal."

"That figures." The door creaked softly. "I'll sit with him, go and eat. Go on Flynn, take a break."

There was the sound of movement, a soft creak as someone took a seat on the wooden chair and then a moment later the faint sound of the stairs in use. There was still someone in the room, still the reassurance of a human presence, and it didn't go away.


Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2009

3 comments:

Miss Chelsey said...

Oh, good . I very much so like the new website, and I'm glad you've written more! Finally, Dale and Flynn (et al, of course) together!

I'm so glad I did a web search with the keyword phrase I could remember: "Are you worried about your executive?"

Finding this story again feels like coming home to the ranch- thank you for your hard work.

Ranger said...

Hi Miss Chelsey, we love the site too, it's Tarabeth's hard work from the Tea Room site! Very glad you found us, please do come join the Falls Chance list group if you'd like to when you run out of FC to read. Lurkers are very welcome and we're posting drafts of the current FC novel in chapters there about monthly.

Aga said...

chciałam wam podziękować za tę historię - czytając o przygodach tej piątki i ich wielkiej rodziny miałam wrażenie że istnieją one na prawdę że gdzieś na świecie jest takie miejsce, raj na ziemi ;) uwielbiam każdy przeczytany rozdział, każdą ich przygodę i przeżycia i trudno było mi się z nimi rozstać dlatego też z niecierpliwością czekam na ciąg dalszy. jeszcze raz dziękuję za możliwość czytania i tym samym rozjaśnianie mi szarych dni

Happy Christmas from the FCR Family




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