Edited by: Tonny
Characters: Chris, Vin, Ezra, OFCs The rest of the seven- Orrin Travis- OC
Rating FRM, Profanity, Het
Disclaimer: This is entirely a work of fiction for entertainment only, based on the characters from The Magnificent Seven. I dont own them, but if I did I would run away with m and never be seen again. CBS and Co., Trilogy Entertainment, and MGM had em first and do not want to give m away. I only do this for fun and do not make any money doing it. No infringement of any copyrights is intended.
MCAT AU: MCAT (Major Crimes and Acts of Terrorism) is under the leadership of Commander Chris Larabee. In his personal life, he had found contentment with his extended family of brothers on their ranch, Larabee 7.
This series of seven stories will establish relationships and provide background for the characters in this AU. Illusions is fifth in the MCAT Series.
#2 Connections written by Tonny
#3 Decisions co written by Tonny
#4 Past Transgressions
#5 Illusionsby definition means: deceptive powers of appearances/ false idea/something with deceptive appearance/mistaken sensory perception. Expect all of the aforementioned to make an appearance in the story and Chris to experience most of them.
Acknowledgments: My thanks go to Wendy for her beta work and her great advice. Tonny, thanks for reading and giving me valuable feedback. Thanks also for Tonnys contributions to the characters of Jason and Andi. Barb, I appreciate your input. My thanks also go to the gracious readers that took the time to send me feedback for Transitions, Decisions and Past Transgressions.
Notes: Any mistakes are mine, as are the original characters I have created for this series. You are welcome to borrow them and encouraged to play in this AU, but no slash parings please.
Background from Parts One-four: For those who would like to have some information about this new AU at hand, here is a brief description:
MCAT is set after the wonderful ATF AU that Mog created. Team seven is disbanded and Chris Larabee is asked to lead a whole new type of law enforcement unit, MCAT (Major Crimes and Acts of Terrorism), a totally independent unit that has the authority to act outside the existing boundaries within law enforcement and politics, their authority also overrules these other agencies. He accepts, and the members of team seven decide to become a part of this unit as well. Chris, as the unit commander, only has to answer to Orrin Travis; Vin is his squad captain and Buck is his number three man.
Characters from the first four parts of this series:
Pamela Walton, Native American, computer genius who worked for the Justice Department, 30 years old.
Kelli Coulter, Caucasian, from Texas, degree in criminology/criminal justice, worked New Orleans PD, State of Texas Criminal Task Force and the DEA, 27 years old.
Justin Michaels, Caucasian, former homicide detective with Denver PD and then worked with the State Police investigations in Colorado, 43 years old.
Mark Westin, Caucasian, excelled at the Police Academy, worked LAPD and California Highway Patrols, 26 years old.
Paul Roberts, African American, worked Atlanta Metro police departments with excellent records, 31 years old.
Ross Anderson, African American, Detroit Metro police departments, career until then focused on inner city crime, 34 years old.
Raphael Cordova, Mexican American, DEA fifteen years, military veteran, pilot, age 43.
Non-agents in MCAT office
Drusilda Gunny Montgomery, Administrative secretary to Commander Larabee and Captain Tanner
Judy Mullins is not an agent. She is a data typist/ computer assistant 21 years old.
CASSIE is (Collaborative Analysis System for Sensitive Information Engineering). State of the art computer and is a valuable team member to the unit.
Dr. Robert (Bones) Metfield, Chief of Forensics, Caucasian, medical examiner, born Dumas, Texas ME Tarrant County twenty-five years, 10 year Chief Medical Examiner, six county area Amarillo 62 years old
Greg Ramsey, forensic investigator, Native of New York, 37 years old
Katrina Santos, Latin American, certified medic, forensics investigator, coming from the Taos Police Department and the DEA, 31 years old.
Family life has changed for the seven, as well. Josiah has married Mallory, 43 years old, former leader of ATF team six. When their old ATF teams disbanded and MCAT formed, she was pregnant with their second child and decided to quit working. They have a four year old, Joanne and at the end of Transitions, she gave birth to a healthy baby boy named Adam, now eight months old.
Buck and Inez are married and have two lovely daughters, Sarah (3) and Maria (2). Nathan and Rain are married; their firstborn Terrell was just welcomed into the family in November. Rain has finished medical school and works at the Jewell Ave Clinic (in Purgatory area of Denver). JD and Casey are married and the proud parents of twin girls. Lilah, and Jonetta, they live with Nettie Wells on her ranch. The seven and their spouses have formed a real family now, have pooled their resources, and become partners in the horse ranch, Larabee 7, hoping that one day, when law enforcement becomes too much, this ranch will provide their income. Chris still lives in the ranch house, the gathering point of the whole family. Ezra passed the bar and his legal expertise is something the whole family gratefully uses. He still has his townhouse in the city and owns the Standish Tavern where Inez works part-time.
Chris is in love with new neighbor Linda Dubois who, along with her brothers, owns the Southern Breeze horse ranch, which borders Larabee 7 land and their first child is due before June. She comes from a family with old money; well known for the racehorses they breed. In Transitions Vin married colleague Kelli Coulter and the two Texans live in his house on Larabee 7. The Wilmingtons and The Jacksons have built home on Larabee 7 ranchland. Josiah and Mallory live in their home on adjoining property.
Size Approx. 675K
Journal entry Friday January 6-midnight
January 9th is a day I did not think would ever arrive. Doc says I can go back to work Monday. I will still have to use crutches for a couple of weeks and I will have to pass physical requirements to get back in the field, but it is a start. Last November, the first of the year did not seem so far away and I thought it would be easy to recover and return. Ha! The first couple of weeks were not so bad, I felt so awful most days that time was not important, then as I began to improve the days got longer and it seemed that the weeks would never end. Every visit to the doctor ended the same way, one more week and we will see. Hell, is it my fault that my leg was taking longer to heal? I have been good, followed the damn rules, gone to therapy and still had to fight to be released for desk duty.
The best part was spending time with Linda she is a great nurse and has been beside me every step of the way This time has given us a chance to build our own family bond and now she is in full planning mode for our wedding. I love that woman and I know that we will have a good life together. But she needs to make the arrangements and I need to be in the office, at least then we have a chance of surviving all the plans for the nuptials, ideas of how to remodel the house, lawyer pre- nuptial agreements and meetings with the rest of the Dubois family.
Of course, some of the time off was entertaining. Watching JD and Casey deal with twins has been enjoyable; their idea of parenting is the exact opposite from Nathan and Rain. The Jacksons have read every book on child rearing, have a schedule for everything and Terrell thrives with it. The Dunnes have more of a free style type of parenting going with the girls, they roll with the flow and it appears to work for them. Christmas with all the kids and their assortment of gifts was great. The best part was having my entire family here to share the fun and love.
Josiah and Mallory are pleased that Joanne has finally accepted Adam. Most of the credit goes to Maria; her love for Adam convinced Joanne he was worth taking a second look at and when she did she discovered that being a big sister could be a good thing. Inez and Buck are blessed with Sarah and Maria; both girls have nurturing souls and hearts full of compassion.
I did get to spend time with Kelli before she went back to work last Monday and I feel that we made good progress on building a relationship .Although I wish that I had known about her sooner, I am just glad that we still have an opportunity to be family now. Besides, as she pointed out maybe we would not have been ready to accept this before; maybe Vin coming into my life was fates way of directing the future for all of us. All I know is that claiming Vin as my brother certainly has played a big part in changing the course of my life and her world was changed forever the day she met him. Of course, if we dubbed him the Larabee family angel he would probably want to shoot someone.
We found several things that we have in common, some of which are a love of quarter horses, good books, Native American lore and history, especially of the old west. I educated her about the Larabee family tree, the good, the bad and the ugly, I even told her about my imperfect childhood. It seemed that we never lived up to the expectations of my parents. I vowed at a young age that if I had my own family I would do everything in my power to make sure they knew they were loved unconditionally, something my parents failed to achieve. Kel was surprised to find out that the Larabees were not the perfect family everyone always believed them to be, but I wanted her to know why keeping my family together is so important to me.
I think that I have almost convinced Vin and Kelli to build their home adjacent to the ranch house instead of up on higher ground. I hope so, because I really would like them to stay close to us. They have been giving some serious thought to building sooner rather than later, since they have decided to enter the system as emergency caregivers. Somehow, they have found time to begin courses to qualify as foster parents, in addition to becoming CASA volunteers and Ezra is helping them with all the paperwork to be certified. They even convinced Standish to attending some of the classes and that is something I would have loved to see, although he did not need much encouragement to go with them for some reason.
Buck got the go ahead to return to work last Wednesday and wild horses could not hold him back. He loved spending time with Inez and the girls, but he was more than ready to go back. The entire team has stepped up to the plate and they have done a great job, but Buck is anxious to finish training his students.
Vin is coming over in the morning to bring me up to date on MCAT, up until Doc gave me the green light today, he refused to tell me anything on orders from Orrin and the others have kept quiet, too. Tanner has done a helluva job with the unit, but he has been running twenty-four seven for weeks and is due for some down time. At least when I get back in the office I can relieve him of some of the extra responsibility he has been carrying and we can all get back to normal. More soon
Journal entry completed, Chris closed it and hobbled to bed.
Chris woke up early. As he lay in bed and watched Linda sleep, he thought about how much of a difference she had made in his life.
First, she had been there after his near fatal encounter with a serial killer, not minding the scars that man had left on his body and his soul, taking it all in stride and showing him in every small way she could think off that she loved him.
Somehow, she had helped him keep the nightmares at bay, holding him when he woke up in a cold sweat, needling him until he finally agreed to see a counselor and then making damn sure that he knew he was still beautiful to her.
The only trouble had been about Vin. He smiled, thinking about that, about her unease with the connection between him and Vin. It had worried him, but actually, if he was honest, it had also pleased him. It had felt good that a woman like her, smart, sophisticated, mesmerizing, full of joy and life and damn beautiful, could be jealous of him being close to someone else.
Still, these last long weeks while he was recuperating from the attack of another maniac on his life, she had been amazing. Linda had been with him constantly to help, driving him to the doctor, going with him to fun places afterwards to take his mind off things. Kissing his bad temper away or simply bringing him coffee and yet another classical book she had bought for him, leaving him alone when he needed it. So often she had simply held his hand without saying anything on those moments when fighting to get well again became a bit too much.
He knew how much she preferred talking and still she would do that, sit beside him in silence, just holding hands. He'd asked her a few times if she would rather not do something else and she had just smiled and told him she was right where she wanted to be, doing what she wanted to do. One day she had confessed she had never been able to do that before in her life, being quiet for long, but that she loved being quiet with him.
It touched him deeply and still did, just thinking about it.
On the other hand, he loved their talks. He just knew if his friends saw them when they really got to talking their mouths would fall open because they could talk endlessly, about so much and he enjoyed every moment of it. As much as he found pleasure in the kisses, that invariably ended those special talks and the sensational lovemaking, which followed.
Now she was carrying their child and still she put him first in everything. Ever since he was out of that damn wheel chair he was trying to bring the balance back into their relationship, trying to give some caring back to her, but hell, she was stubborn!
She was not going to escape now, he thought mischievously, looking at her relaxed face and listening to her soft, tiny wisps of breath. He would let her sleep for now, but once she was up, he was going to pamper her for the rest of the day! Placing a kiss on her brow, he slipped out of bed and with the help of crutches made his way to the kitchen.
It may be early on a Saturday morning, but that was not going to stop Larabee from catching up on what he had missed for the last few weeks. Chris poured a cup of coffee for Vin, knowing that his brother was on his way over and he was more than ready to discuss business. Travis had made sure none of the guys gave him any bits of information on what was happening in the office and the withdrawal from work was the hardest part of this recuperation.
The back door opened and a very cold Tanner came in, brushing snow off his shoulders before he entered the kitchen. Damn its cold out there. He set a stack of files on the table, along with todays newspaper and grabbed the cup of hot coffee that was waiting for him. I want you to know I left a warm bed and a willin woman to make you happy this mornin.
Larabee grinned, Id think that you would be anxious to turn things over as soon as possible.
Hell Chris, after all this time one more day wont make a lot of difference. Vin took one look at the expression of eagerness on Chris face and sighed. Okay Cowboy, these are the finished cases and final reports on em. He began to separate the folders. This one is open and that last one is in the assessment stage with Raphael and Justin as lead investigators.
Chris opened one of the folders and was immediately impressed. Damn, you never gave me reports that looked this good before. Youve been holding out on me Tanner.
Vin laughed, Not likely, I just never had a secretary before and she has made a helluva difference in the office.
Well, I am glad you were the one to break her in, I hate trying to train new administrative help.
Hiding a smile behind his cup Vin agreed. It has been an interestin experience. He knew that when Larabee met Gunny, the battle of wills that was sure to come would be fun to watch. Hell, the entire team was looking forward to what they knew was coming and Ezra was taking bets on how long it would take Chris to explode. As far as Vin was concerned his money was on Gunny. He knew Larabee and his glares would not stop the woman from fussing over him, come to think about it, he was not sure if anything stopped her when she had her mind set on something. Come on Larbee, fire away with your questions, the sooner we start the sooner we finish and I have plans for the rest of this weekend.
Two hours later, when Linda came in they were still at it. Good morning beautiful. Chris pulled her down to sit across his lap, nuzzling her neck just to hear her delightful laugh, forgetting about the work folders and concentrating on the woman before him. We are done and I am all yours for the rest of the day.
Vin smiled thinking about the difference a couple on months could make. Since Chris and Linda had spent so much time together during his recovery, they had found a new level for their relationship. Linda had matured and settled into the role of mother-to-be and Chris was learning how to have fun again. Together they had formed their own bond and the Texan knew they would be good for each other. Good mornin, Linda.
Hey Vin, how is our girl this morning. The last few months had given her time to get to know Tanner better and she had discovered some of the reasons why Kelli loved him. Next to Chris, he was probably one of the most decent men she had ever met and Linda regretted the time she wasted resenting his presence in Chris and Kellis life. Looking back, she realized how foolish she had behaved and she was grateful that he had a forgiving nature. At least now, they were friends and they had a better understanding of each other.
Kels doing okay, she still has a couple more weeks of therapy, but shes getting there. Vin laughed, She still has to wear that walking boot, but she has not let it slow her down all that much.
Chris gave his opinion. I doubt that there is anything that Kel lets get her down for long. He was a bit surprised to feel a fleeting sense of sadness from Vin. Whatever it was disappeared as quickly as it came, but Larabee filed it in his mind to look into later.
*Everything okay, Vin?*
*Its nothin for you to worry over, just let it go for now.*
Why dont we shut this down, so you can go home and spend some time with Kel? Chris smiled, That way I can spend some time with this one, before the rest of the family comes tomorrow.
You dont have to say that twice. Vin gave Chris a lighthearted grin, put on his coat and was headed for the door before he could change his mind. See yall later.
Once Vin was out the door, Chris did what he wanted to when Linda first came in the room. Running his hands over the soft curves of her body, he bestowed a long passionate kiss upon her that held promise for more. A tender pat to her butt and he sighed, The rest will have to wait because right now I am going to fix your breakfast while you sit and enjoy the paper Vin brought up when he came over.
Chris, I can
Oh no you dont, today its my turn to take care of you. Besides I have everything ready to go and will have it done before you have time to argue with me. Chris grabbed the pancake batter and eggs out of the refrigerator. Read and tell me whats going on in Denver while I cook.
Linda sighed and opened the paper, reading aloud all the major events of the day. When she reached the lifestyle section, she stopped. You wouldnt be interested in the rest. She tried to get rid of the newspaper.
Chris set a plate in front of her. What is it I would not be interested in? He picked up the discarded paper and easily found what Linda did not want to read. Did you know about this? The half page article gave an in-dept profile of socialite Linda Dubois and her fiancé Christopher Larabee.
No I didnt. She looked over at Chris. Im so sorry, I know how much you hate this stuff and I promise I will find out who gave permission to run it.
I suppose some of this is to be expected; at least they didnt put our address in this one. Chris grinned, Great picture of you babe.
Chris I I love you. Linda felt bad and vowed to find out who was behind this.
Its done, now eat. I have our day planned and I dont want to waste any of it worrying over this.
On the other side of Denver.
The sound of newspaper ripping filled the small motel room, along with angry shouting. BASTARD! So he thinks his fucking life is so perfect, him and his damn ranch. Big boss of some fancy government agency and gonna marry some socialite bitch! NO! Not this time Chris! This time I m gonna be the one to come out on top and you are gonna be the one to pay!
The sound of a whimper in the corner of the room drew the mans attention. You shut that brat up! Im going to the post office and when I get back I want this mess cleaned up or Ill take it out of your hide.
Yes sir. The door slammed and the boy did what he could to calm his sister. Its okay Andi, Ill find us something to eat and take care of you.
Somewhere on the streets of Denver
What do you mean you can only give me two hundred for each one? You gave me five for the rest of them.
Jack, this ride is getting close to the end. After three months of this, it will all catch up soon and then the shit will hit the fan. Get another mark.
NO! I want Larabee to pay, not someone else!
The man laughed. Oh trust me he will. His life will be so fucked up from this that it will take years for him to get out from under the fallout.
So, why cant we keep adding more?
Anymore and we risk having it traced back to us somehow. Now take the money, grab your kids and move on. Within the next few days, Chris Larabee will begin to find out how much trouble he is in.
I think I will stick around, when Chris starts his fall, I want to be here to see it happen.
Chris was ready for work by five-thirty and now was waiting on Vin to get his butt into gear to drive him to the office. He was on his second cup of coffee before Tanner came over.
Thought you might need a hand this mornin, but it looks as if youve got everythin covered.
Larabee grabbed his crutches; Im ready when you are.
Slow down, Cowboy, we still have to wait on Kel and you could offer me some of that stuff you call coffee.
Chris sighed, Couldnt you speed her up instead and have your coffee at the office?
The kitchen door opened and Kelli came in balancing two travel cups. I figured the old man would be chompin at the bit to get movin, so I hurried. She handed a cup to Vin and read his look. I have my damn walkin boot on and I made it all the way across the yard without fallin. Quit worryin Tanner.
Vin took in Chris crutches and Kellis boot, shaking his head. I still think yall need to be home for a couple more weeks. He raised his hands in surrender at the looks he received from both of them. Ill go warm the truck up. You think you two invalids can manage on your own? He laughed, grabbed the folders from Chris and Kellis cup, as he headed out the door. Stay put, Ill be back in a few minutes.
Ornery ass Texan, Chris grumbled.
Kelli grinned, Be nice Larbee, thats my Texans great ass youre talkin about.
Chris saw the amusement in her eyes and could not help but laugh. If Tanner ever forgets how fortunate he is, let me know so I can set him straight.
Yes Dad. Kelli laughed heading for the door and Chris stood in stunned silence. This was the first time he had heard her refer to him as Dad and until this moment, he did not know how much he had wanted to hear that.
Tanner walked back in and was not sure what had happened, but he knew it was something important.
*You okay Chris*
*Yeah yeah I am Kel just called me dad.*
The Texan smiled and nodded, he knew Chris had been waiting for that for a long time. He decided that his brother needed a couple of minutes. Come on Kel, you first. He walked with her out to the truck just to make sure she did not slip and fall. After he helped her inside, he kissed her and said, Thanks, you might not realize it, but you made Chris day when you called him dad.
I suppose I should have said it before, but it just never seemed like the right time until now. She smiled at him, Go on and help him so we can leave.
When Tanner reached him, Larabee was already out the door and half way to the truck. Vin followed him, but he made it okay on his own. After they were on the road for ten minutes, the Texan was sure it would have been a quieter ride with Maria and Sarah than with Chris and Kelli. The CO was excited about returning to work and he kept up suggestions about shorter routes that would make their drive faster. His good mood produced a stream of banter with Kelli, most of which consisted of the two of them picking on Vin. The Texan had the start of a Larabee headache.
Finally, Tanner had heard enough. We will be there when we get there and if yall dont sit back and be quiet, I might just let you both walk!
Chris was quiet for all of two minutes until Kelli could not hold back any longer and started to laugh. Vin knew when he was beat, he could never resist smiling when he heard Kelli laugh, his building tension melted away and his impending headache vanished. All three of them were in a great mood by the time they reached the Federal Building.
MCAT Office- 6:30am.
Gunny Montgomery had an uncanny ability to know the right time to be the first one in the office. Today was no exception and she had been busy. Coffee was made for Vin in his office, just the way he liked it, along with a plate of fruits and muffins for a healthy breakfast. Larabees office was prepared with his own coffee, breakfast and a place to rest his leg while he worked at his desk.
Commander Larabee, I am Gunny Montgomery and have everything ready for you in your office. You need to get off that leg so dont dawdle about getting in there.
Chris was speechless when greeted like this on his first day at the office by someone he had never seen before in his life. Before he could think of something to say, the formidable woman was already talking to Vin.
Good morning, Captain Vin, your office is ready for you. There is plenty of time for you to share breakfast with Kelli and both of your cups are next to the coffeemaker. As soon as I get Commander Larabee settled I will bring this mornings work to you.
She noticed that Chris had not moved. Commander, this way sir. Larabee saw the smirk Vin threw his way and had a feeling that there were some things the Texan might have forgot to mention about his new assistant.
Mrs. Montgomery Chris started.
She shook her head. Just Gunny will do, sir. Now lets get you settled, I checked with Miss Linda and she told me what your doctors instructions are for the duration of your rehabilitation. I think you will find I have procured all the essential items, but if I have missed anthing please advise me and I will make all the corrections necessary. She followed Chris into his office. Now you sit and prop that leg up so you can enjoy your breakfast. She poured him a cup of coffee and kept talking. I have these records separated so you can take your time with reorientation, if you have any inquiries just hit that intercom and I will be right here. The war room is ready for your meeting at 0800 hours and your notes are there in your top drawer. I will be back as soon as I get the rest of these yahoos going.
Chris felt as if he was back with his old Navy Seal trainer and wondered what other surprises were in store for him.
*Tanner, you should have warned me!*
*What, and miss all the fun, no way.*
The rest of the team made their way into the office and all stuck their heads in to say hello to Chris.
Buck came in, sprawled in the chair opposite Larabee and grinned. Welcome back Boss, I see you and Gunny have met.
Larabee smiled, Yep and I am sure Travis is in his office now having a good laugh over it
She kinda grows on you after a few days. I will say she stays on top of everything around here and I was thinking that maybe you could tell her it was okay to help me on my reports, too.
Whats wrong Buck? The Wilmington charm not working on my assistant.
Well... she Hell Chris, she flat told me no. Said her duty was to you and Vin and that I was on my own.
She did? Then I guess youre on your own Big Dog.
Thanks, old friend. Buck walked out and Chris had a few minutes to read over the notes for the meeting.
Chris made sure he was the first one in the room so he would not have to make an entrance on crutches. Gunny had his place ready, complete with a stool to rest his leg on. All the folders placed neatly at each agent chair and the coffee was hot. Yep, Tanner was definitely holding out on him, all this time he worried about the Texan being overworked and he had a secret weapon.
The agents filed in joking and talking among themselves. Once everyone settled, Larabee started. Okay Monday morning status report.
Justin was closest so he started. Raphael and I are going over surveillance footage from three building sites. There have been an unusual number of fires at construction location around Denver, possibly related to an anti-government group called the Ledger Militants. So far, nothing substantial has come of our investigation. Buck and Mark are going with us this morning to the location of the latest incident.
Paul, Ross and I have a meeting with the federal prosecutor concerning the Barnes case we worked last month. Josiah added.
Forensics is working on evidence we have collected on our current case. Thus far we have four murders and can only link two of them, but we are still on it. Bones explained. I firmly believe there is only one man responsible for these deaths, however until we can identify a weapon we cannot rule out a copycat.
Ezra and I have an interview scheduled with the husband of the last victim. Then we are going back over the crime scene on the off chance we might have missed somethin. Ramsey is gonna meet us there at noon. Vin looked over at JD.
Pam and I are running all the data a second time and cross checking with similar crimes throughout the rest of the country
Nathan sighed, I have to complete our medical evaluations and there are a couple of you I still need information from. Coulter and Wilmington, you both owe me some paperwork and I need it today. He gave them both a stern look. Kat is helping with the reports and with a little cooperation we will be done by tomorrow.
Not me, I left it on your desk on my way in here. Buck informed Jackson. I should be all caught up with you for another six months.
Chris noted the look that Vin gave Kelli. She had stayed quiet and he decided to discuss her failure to supply Nathan with the necessary paperwork in private. Okay people lets move. Nathan you stay.
Chris waited until it was just him and Jackson. What paperwork does Kelli owe you?
You issued the order that we all have an alternate POA and so far Vin is the only one listed for her. In addition, according to the insurance reports that I get, she is seeing another doctor and refuses to let me access those medical reports. I need to keep everyones files up to date, just in case Hell Chris, you know better than most that anything can happen anytime.
Give me the papers you need and Ill see that its taken care of today. Chris grabbed his crutches and headed for his office.
Larabee waited until Vin and Ezra left before he called Kelli into his office. He sensed yesterday that something was going on from Tanner and now he was determined to find out what it was.
When Kelli came in, he told her to sit. You want to tell me why you are giving Nathan a hard time?
He sighed, Kel, you need a second person to hold a medical POA and if you dont want it to be me, fine. Pick someone else, but there might come a time that Vin is out of town or not able to be there and you should have an alternate in case you are injured or ill in his absence.
I realize that but... She got up and went over to the window. Hell, I dont mind you doin it. I just dont want to put you in the middle of a disagreement that Vin and I are havin about a health issue that has created a little stress between us. Besides, if you held a medical POA for me you would have to know my complete medical history and m not sure about that.
Chris parental instincts went on full alert. Okay, we are off the record; its just you and I talking. I have seen what Marissa gave you for medical information on her side of the family and Vin told me about the rest. What is it about your medical history that you think I dont already know?
I know Vin told you what happened, but he never let you read the doctors report from when they found me, did he?
No he didnt. Look, whatever it is I can handle knowing without going back over the what ifs. That is your concern right?
I not tryin to hide anythin from you, I just dont want to go backwards. If youre sure, then okay, but youll have to get the files from Vin to read it. He keeps them locked in his desk and I dont have the key.
Chris reached in his pocket for his key ring. I do, go get it and we will go over it together, then we will discuss this disagreement. He was determined to help one way or another.
Kelli was only gone for a few minutes and was back with the file. This is all up to date and I really do not want this information in my permanent record.
She handed it over to Chris and then waited in silence for him to read it. She knew when he got to the parts that he had only been told about and saw the pain in his eyes as he read the details. Then when he got to the latest reports, she knew exactly when he put all the pieces together.
When he looked up at her, he studied her for a full minute before he spoke. I knew we were fortunate that you survived, but I had no idea how close you came to not making it or the affect it would have on your current health. Chris composed himself. There is no need for this to be in your records and Ill take care of letting Nathan know that. But we do need to talk about these latest reports.
I am sure you will agree with Vin so whats to talk about?
You both have insisted for months now that you are not ready to start a family. Wouldnt the truth be easier?
Kelli took a deep breath, No. We can handle the jokes and the ribbin, but you know what it would be like if they all knew we have been tryin since the very beginnin and now find we out that there is a problem. The advice and the well-meanin, but hurtful comments about knowin how we feel is more than I think I could take. They all have kids and there is no way they could understand how it feels not to be able to get pregnant or how it feels to be in the middle of all those baby conversations.
Chris thought about some of the conversations and the comments over just the last month. I dont suppose its easy to see your best friend get pregnant without even trying either. But you cannot ignore what the doctor is saying.
I am happy for you and Linda, but I admit that I have mixed emotions watchin her go through this pregnancy. Still, in spite of what this last doctor has recommended, I am not ready to give up yet.
I take it that Vin does not agree.
Vin says it is not worth riskin my health or my life to try. I know we can adopt and we would love any child the same as our own. Being foster parents and volunteerin as child advocates helps ease some of the pain. She sighed. We probably will adopt in any case, but I still want the chance to have Vins child and I will not have any surgery that will end that possibility. Not just now anyway.
So you want everyone to continue thinking that you are not trying for a family. How long do you believe you can keep this illusion going?
Unless you plan to tell them, until I am ready to give up and have that damn surgery.
For what its worth, I do understand. Sarah and I tried for four years before she got pregnant with Adam and we faced pretty much the same thing that you and Vin are facing. Each month brought new disappointment and it was not always easy, especially when the doctors kept saying there was not much chance of it happening. I will tell you though it was worth every tear we shed to have him and I would go thorough it all again for the same result
I had no idea about Adam.
Not many people did, like you and Vin we felt the less people knew the better. I do not want you to risk your life, but I do understand your desire to wait for a while. Let me talk to Vin, maybe its time I shared with him what Sarah and I went through, it might make it a little easier for both of you.
Kelli was not sure she could trust her emotions and did the only thing that felt right to do. Getting up, she went around the desk and hugged her father, realizing that for the first time that she could remember that there was someone other than Vin on her side. Having a parent there that was willing to listen was a new experience for her, but one she was sure she could get use to.
Chris hugged her back and after getting his own emotions under control. Larabee the CO returned. Now, sign this damn POA and get back to work. Ill take care of the rest. He handed her the file to return to Vins desk.
Yes sir. Kelli started for the door and he stopped her.
This all stays between you, me and Vin, but I will be talking to him as soon as we get home. She nodded he head in agreement and walked out.
Chris felt good about the progress he and Kelli were making; he had a daughter that still had need of a father in her life. Talking about Sarah and Adam did not produce the pain it once did; instead, it left him with a good feeling to share that part of his life with Kelli. She was right, only someone that had been through the heartache could really understand what they were facing and he did know how hard it was going to be for her and Vin, but now he could at least be there for both of them.
The rest of the day flew by and all the agents returned one by one. After receiving their reports, Chris realized it was quitting time and sent them all home. The ride back was quieter than this morning, but comfortable.
When they reached the ranch, Larabee made sure the Texan knew he wanted to see him and they agreed to meet at the barn and talk while Vin tended to the horses. Vin had already started by the time Chris got there.
You sit and talk while I work, I dont want to have to carry you back to the house. Vin knew from personal experience that horses and crutches did not mix well.
Chris sat on a hay bale and stretched his leg out. I want to share something with you, which until today only Sarah and I knew about. I told Kel earlier and now its your turn, he told him everything up to and including Kellis reaction this morning.
Vin pulled his thoughts together. I preciate you tellin me Chris and I do know how important it is to Kel to try, but I will not risk losin her.
Im not suggesting that you take that kind of risk, but dont rush into making that decision out of fear. Get a second or hell even a third opinion first and then go from there. Sarah was just as stubborn as Kel and she just would not give up without trying everything possible. I know now that if she had given in to my fears without trying everything first that would have been far worse for us in the long run, than any risk we took. Just think about it.
Good, I know Linda has dinner ready and youre through so why dont we get out of this damn cold?
They walked out together and Tanner waited until he was sure Chris made it back to the house okay before he turned and headed home. Kelli was in the kitchen and had changed her clothes, too. She knew Vin believed she was just being stubborn about this surgery thing and she hated having this between them, but until her heart agreed with him they would be on opposites sides of this particular fence.
Vin watched her for a few minutes before making his presence known, thinking about what Chris had to say.*He is right, you know. Hell Vin, all she asked for is a little more time, and both of you deserve to know for sure before you do anthing permanent. If you push it now, it might be too costly to your relationship down the road and that Tanner is just to high a price for giving in to your fears.*
Quietly he walked up behind her and wrapped his arms around her waist. Pulling her close, he lowered his head and spoke softly in her ear. I wont risk your life, but m willing to give us a fair chance. If youre determined to wait this out for a while, then we will wait. If the time comes when we need to do more, then we will make that decision together, but we will get more than one opinion. Agreed?
Kelli turned around, leaned into him and she felt all the stresses between them disappear. Agreed, she brushed his hair back with her fingers. Ive missed us.
Vin reached around her and turned everything off. Food can wait, we cant, taking her hand, he led her into the other room.
The Texan took in the vision of her standing in front of the fireplace, barefoot and no make up, just natural beauty. The firelight bathed her skin with a warm glow, while her hair hung loosely over her bare shoulders, the shirt she wore tied in the front and he knew she wore nothing under the skirt that flowed over her hips. She was sexy as hell and just looking at her, he knew he was lost in her graceful presence. We have all night and Kel its my turn. The Texan wasted no more time and soon they found their way to their own special place.
Supper would be a very late tonight.
For a long time they stayed in front of the fire, holding on to one another and the pleasure that their love had created. Kelli raised her head from Vins chest and smiled. Youd better prepare yourself Tanner, cause now its my turn.
The Texan grinned, Bring it on baby, m ready for you.
Linda noticed the satisfied look Chris wore as he helped her set the table. You look like a man that had an exceptional day.
I did, being back at work felt great, the team is running smoothly, I am with the woman I love and I was able to help Kelli and Vin work through an issue they were having trouble with. Chris pulled Linda to him for a hug. Kel even called me Dad today. Yep, life is good and it can only get better from here on out.
She sighed and leaned into his embrace. It was good to see Chris happy and Linda knew they had a wonderful future waiting for them with the new baby coming. Being a father was as natural to Chris as the sun coming up in the morning. For the first time since her own father died, she felt safe and content with her life.
Oh, I almost forgot to tell you, I have a meeting in the morning with the family lawyers. Sure you dont want to be there?
Hell no, you take care of the Dubois affairs and Ill concentrate on taking care of you.
Jack had been busy. He found a place to stay; paid cash for three months rent in advance and was using an alias. No one should be able to track him down. As long as he could keep the brats out of sight, there should not be any questions asked. Now all he had to do was to wait.
*Chris, this time old son, you are the one that will have hell rain down on him. Maybe you will finally know what it feels like to have nothing and nowhere to go for help. If this does not bring you down, then I guess I will have to use measures that are more drastic.*
MCAT Office-Tuesday Afternoon
The office was fairly quiet with only the hum of CASSIE processing and Ezras pencil tapping on his desk. Larabee and Tanner had a meeting with Travis and had been in there for two hours already. Gunny had immersed herself in paperwork and most of the other agents were out in the field. JD and Pam were the only exceptions and they were so wrapped up in computer programs they did not notice how empty the office was.
Ez, do you mind? Kelli pointed to the pencil drumming on his desk. Keep that up and you might be missing some fingers before the day is over.
Earth to Ezra, where are you?
Standish mumbled something about hell and then leaned back in his chair. What do you know about Identity theft?
He had Kellis complete attention now. I know it can be a bitch to untangle and make your life hell. Someone hit you Ez?
Not me Chris.
No! Anyone but him, he will go ballistic. Are your sure?
Ezra waved his hand toward his laptop. Look for yourself. I was running some numbers on Larabee 7 and this popped up, Kelli looked over his shoulder. I began a search and so far, I have found ten Chris Larabees. All of them using our Chris information and the inquiry is not even finished yet.
Uh oh. You do know what those little black marks mean dont you? Kelli heart sank. Lord how could this get any worse?
Hell, yes! Ill keep this program open and printing, use your badge number and your computer to check the tag. She moved back to her desk and began punching in information on her keyboard. After a few minutes, she started cursing. Hells bells! Oh Ezra She reached over to the printer and caught the paper as it spewed out. There are six warrants, all felonies rangin from check kitin to fraud. Chris is gonna have a cow.
Yes yes he will. According to this he is now over one million dollars in debt, and now there are twelve stolen identities. Ezra studiously thought about the consequences
How are you goin to tell him, Ez? There was no way in hell Kelli was going to tell him.
ME! Oh no! I do value my existence. Ezra dropped the reports as if they were on fire and then pushed his chair away from the desk
Now wait a minute, you found it, you tell him! Kelli was incredulous; he did not really expect her to tell Chris. Uh uh Ezra, not me! She picked up the offending papers and slapped the reports in his lap.
As senior agent, I have the right to delegate, but I will however watch your back. Ezra emphasized his point with a stern look. You may inform him and do not worry, it is improbable that he will injure his own offspring. He threw the reports back on the desk and shoved them toward her.
Chris and Vin had returned and took note of the animated discussion between Standish and Coulter.
*Theyre up to somethin, Cowboy.*
*Shouldnt we find out what it is?*
Vin sighed, Your office?
Tanner walked over to Kellis desk. The fact that she had not noticed his arrival told him that they were discussing something important. The guarded look in her eyes when she did see him spelled trouble.
Chris wants to see you both in his office. Vin did not miss the indistinct curses they both were mumbling and his senses were on the alert, he knew that whatever was going on, it was not good. He was sure of it after Ezras next question.
Do you happen to know if our beloved boss is armed?
Come on Ez, m sure Vin wont let him shoot us, at least not more than once. Kelli grabbed the papers and Ezra his laptop. The trio headed for Larabees office with Vin last, he wanted to make sure there were no detours. Once inside he shut the door and sent Chris a message.
*Whatever it is, its probably gonna give you a headache.*
Who wants to start? Chris almost laughed when he saw Standish lightly push Kelli in front of him and the scathing look she gave him in return. Kel?
Hell, there is no easy way to do this so here. She handed him the copies of the warrants and waited for the explosion that she knew was coming.
Chris looked at them and then he did laugh. If this is your idea of a joke, I expected something better from you two.
Its no joke Chris, Ez accidentally came across some information that led us to findin these. Chris stopped laughing and Kelli now had his full attention. Identity theft and it gets worse. She sighed and realized Ezra was going to let her tell him after all. We found twelve Chris Larabees, all using your social security number and you are indebtoveramilliondollars. She raced through the last part and stepped back.
Larabee was silent, while Vin stepped forward, pick up the warrants and turned to Kelli. You want to repeat what you just said Kel, only slower?
No. She faltered while trying to find the right words to explain. You Someone Oh hell!
Standish decided to help his partner, she did after all say we. It would appear that your identity is being used by at least a dozen different offenders and they have put you in debt over a million dollars, as well as made you a wanted man.
I am afraid it will not be that easy, Identity theft and Identity fraud is the fastest growing crime in the country. Under the Identity theft and Assumption Deterrence Act, the Federal Trade Commission is responsible for receiving and processing complaints from people who are victims. Then you need to contact the Postal service, the Social Security Administration, the three principal credit-reporting agencies, the seven major check-clearing houses, and of course, we need to get your current credit report. We also need to address these felony warrants to make sure you do not end up in jail. Your bank should be advised and
Chris stood up, leaning on the desk for support. Do you mean to tell me that I am responsible for doing all this?
Unfortunately and this may be only the beginning of your problems. It will take possibly years to rid your credit standing of this and it will certainly take the expertise of an attorney that is familiar with all the ramifications of this type of criminal act. Larabee 7 is incorporated so it cannot be touched and I can protect the business operation, but my proficiency may not be enough for what you will be facing personally.
Personally! Ezra, tell me that this can all go away.
Ezra took a deep breath. I am sorry, but this could get worse before it gets better. We need to ascertain the depth of this difficulty before I can give you even an educated guess as to how we proceed.
Ill take care of these warrants and advise Travis of whats goin on. Vin started for the door.
Send JD in on your way to Orrins office. Chris looked at Ezra, Tell me where to start and who I need to contact. He sat down and ran his hands over his face.
JD came in and Ezra filled him in on the problem. Dunne immediately went back to CASSIE to start a more thorough search. On Standishs advice, Chris contacted his bank only to find that his accounts had already been tampered with. An assortment of ATM withdrawals here in Denver left him with only a small balance.
I can go to the bank and get the film from the ATMs, maybe we can catch the man on video. Kelli offered.
You are not released for field duty yet. Chris saw her argument coming. No, Ill send Nathan over there.
Kelli stood. Fine, Ill be at my desk. As she walked to the door, Chris stopped her.
Thanks for offering. She acknowledged his appreciation and left.
JD came back with CASSIES report and hesitatingly approached Chris. Just spit it out JD.
I found twelve different Chris Larabees in twelve different states and combined there are over one hundred credit cards issued in your name. The strange part is all the credit cards came to a post office box here in Denver. Therefore, we must assume that the cards were sold along with your information and one person could be responsible for all of this. The earliest activity I could find was three months ago and I already checked out the PO box, it was rented by Chris Larabee on October 15th of last year, paid for in cash for a year in advance.
Hell, this keeps getting better and better. Chris shook his head, What happened to criminals that were happy just to shoot at you?
Gunny came to the door. Commander Larabee, Miss Dubois is downstairs and needs your permission to get through security.
Chris picked up the phone and called the security desk advising them to allow Linda access to the elevator for the twelfth floor.
Ezra picked up his laptop. I think I will work from my desk so you and Linda may have some privacy.
Standish passed Linda on his way out the door; she did not speak or look happy.
Linda started when she walked into the office, Chris you will not believe what my family is doing, I am so angry I could spit nails! They They...Hell! She finally sat down. They investigated you! Now they come up with a load of bull about you being in debt, broke and some kind of BS about fraud. Theyre cutting me off from family funds until I give them proof that you are not taking money from me and my brothers are having the ranch books audited.
I am sorry Linda that you have to be involved. I just found out this morning about all of this and I still dont know everything. Chris stood and started around the desk.
Larabee sit down and get off that leg. Linda was up and met him before he took another step, making him sit back down. Why dont you start at the beginning?
It appears that I have been a victim of Identity theft and there are now twelve Chris Larabees running around out there using my information to run up over a million dollars of debt.
Linda began to laugh and Chris thought she had lost it. What is so damn funny?
Oh Lord, twelve Chris Larabees, I dont know if the world is ready for that. She grinned, You think they all have a cute ass like you do?
This is not funny, someone has invaded my personal space and now it will take months, maybe years to straighten this out. Look what it has already done to you.
Dont worry about me, I will handle my brothers and it they want to stay stubborn, then I still have my trust fund. I personally own fifty of the horses on the Southern Breeze and the breeding right for Hunters brother alone is worth a small fortune. Besides, I dont plan on living at the Southern Breeze after we are married anyway.
This could get ugly.
You cant scare me away, Larabee. You are stuck with me, so what do we need to do now?
Chris pulled her close for a kiss. You can park your pretty butt right over there in that chair for about an hour and then my rich fiancée can take me to dinner.
You darling, have a deal. Linda moved to the chair and sat watching Chris work.
After twenty minutes, Vin walked in. Hi Linda.
*Its okay Vin, she knows.*
We have all the warrants located and noted, just for the record there were seven, not six. Travis has sealed your personnel records and given MCAT the authorization to investigate this one. So at least we can keep your ass out of jail. Now we have to find the bastard that set you up.
That we will do, but we do it tomorrow. Tonight, I have a dinner date with a beautiful blond and if I am not mistaken you and Kel have a meeting at seven.
We do .Why dont you two take off, Ill pull together what we need and have everythin ready for the mornin. Vin thought dinner with Linda would be good for Larabee and there was something he still wanted to check.
Chris stood up and grabbed his crutches. We are out of here, see you tomorrow. Come on babe, lets go.
Vin watched them leave and then sought out Standish.
The Texan pulled up a chair. Ezra, talk to me as someone that knows the ins and outs of the con world. What would someone gain by settin Chris up?
Ezra thought for a minute and then sighed. Money of course is the obvious motive, but selling the cards is small change to actually taking on Chris identity. To sell over one hundred credit cards tells me that someone wanted to make him suffer a financial loss and humiliate him in the process. Perhaps cost him his job, his home and possibly his marriage to Miss Dubois.
Well, we know his job is secure, the ranch cannot be touched because it is incorporated and Linda is still his fiancée. He may have hell getting everythin straight, but overall he will be fine. What does this guy do now?
I wish I could answer that Vin, but I cannot. I suppose it depends on how badly this person wants to hurt Chris and why.
Vin nodded, Then I reckon we should find him and ask him, up close and personal.
I already have put the word out on the street; all we can do now is wait for some results.
Kelli joined them. Are yall ready? The meetin starts at seven and I want food first.
Food I think we can manage, right Ez?
Most assuredly and since it is my treat I get to pick the place.
Just make sure, I can read the menu and identify the food and youre on. They were still discussing a place to eat when the elevator doors closed.
Colorado CASA Organization Meeting
My name is Barbara Lindsey. I am an attorney with the Childrens Law Center of Denver and a volunteer for CASA. Court Appointed Special Advocates is a Childs voice in court. Colorado CASA advocates for the best interest of abused and neglected children by promoting and supporting the development, growth and continuation of quality CASA programs and services to benefit children throughout Colorado. CASA volunteers work one-on-one with abused children, gathering information and presenting it in an objective report to the court. Serious questions must be answered; whether a child can return to a formerly abusive environment or whether the right of a parent or parents will be terminated with the child then available for adoption I am looking forward to meeting each of you individually and working with you in the interest of the children that need
Ms. Lindsey spoke for thirty minutes and after a short orientation for the new people the meeting was over and refreshments served.
Come on, Ez, I promised you an introduction and now is as good a time as any. Kelli took his arm and led him over to meet the beautiful brunette.
Kelli, hi and where is that handsome husband of yours?
Hell be along in a minute, but there is someone I want you to meet. Barbara Lindsey, Ezra Standish.
It is a pleasure to meet you Ms. Lindsey.
You too, Mr. Standish and call me Barbara. I believe I have seen you at some of the foster parent classes havent I?
Its Ezra and yes I have accompanied Vin and Kelli on a few occasions. I assisted them with the official procedure for their certification and wished to gain firsthand knowledge about the programs for myself. They graciously agreed to let me join them tonight.
Kel told me about your help. You are an attorney as well as a federal agent arent you?
I am, perhaps you will allow me to buy you a cup of coffee once you are finished and we can compare notes.
Perhaps, I will Ezra. I am almost through here. Why dont I meet you at the coffee shop down the street say in twenty minutes?
I will be there.
Great, I have one more person to speak to, so if you will excuse me, I will see you there.
Vin had joined them and observed the conversation play out before him. I dont think you need us hangin around so we will say goodnight.
Ezra nodded his agreement while he watched Barbara gracefully cross the room. See you two in the morning. He never saw them leave; he was too busy keeping his eye on the gorgeous Ms. Lindsey.
Once they were outside Kelli leaned into Vin as they walked to the truck. I think Ez likes her.
You introduced em and the rest is up to him. Now, lets forget about em and concentrate on more important things.
Kelli laughed. And what would those things be sir?
You, me, alone and a beautiful moon, I bet we can think of somethin He opened the truck door for her to get in, gave her a long leisurely kiss and softly caressed the back of her neck before closing it.
Tanner walked around to the drivers side, got in and Kelli snuggled close to him. Another slow passionate kiss almost made them forget where they were. I think well take the long way home tonight, maybe drive up to the cabin and watch the moon cross the sky over the lake. Although he doubted either of them would actually notice because he planned on some hot lovemaking before this night was over.
These were the moments of their life that she loved the most, putting the world on hold and taking time to make memories. It was too easy to let the real world get in the way and lose these chances forever, if you let it. They promised themselves from the beginning that they would keep their priorities straight and adding to their book of memories was a priority. Its probably gonna be cold, youll have to keep me warm, Tanner.
Count on it, Texas.
At the restaurant
Chris, do you realize that we have been here almost three hours?
I know that times flies out the window when I listen to you talk. Linda laughed, which was just what Chris loved to hear. He could listen to her talk all night and not get tired of the sound of her voice. That was only one of the things that amazed him about her; she was the only woman besides Sarah that could get him to talk this much. Of course if we go home now we can do more than talk.
In that case, Larabee I suggest we go home because I most definitely want to do more than talk.
Lead on Lady. The walked slowly due to the crutches but they enjoyed just being together. When they reached the truck, Linda waited while Chris got in and then shut the door.
Before she started the engine, she leaned over, kissing him long and slow. Just so you know, I love you and no one will ever change that.
Neither of them noticed the man that had sat next to them inside. He stood in the doorway of the restaurant, watched them drive off, and then pulled out his cell phone, punching in a number he knew from memory.
Jack? I followed them like you wanted, but you aint gonna like what I found out. He knows about the cards, and the other Larabees, but he still has his job and the woman. I heard them talking, aside from the pain in the ass of getting his finances straight, none of it is gonna hurt him. His team has even started an investigation. I think we should just forget him and move on. The man listened. Yeah I guess I can do that, but Im not going to jail over this guy. Ill watch him tomorrow and see what happens. He closed the phone and went to his car.
Jack was furious and threw his phone across the room. Damn you Chris! What does it take to make you pay? Whatever it is I will find it! He paced the apartment thinking about what he needed to do while his two small children huddled together in the closet trying not to draw his attention.
While Gunny prepared the conference room for the upcoming meeting Larabee stood at his office door and watched the morning routine unfold. Vin joined him and handed Chris a cup of coffee.
“Don’t look so worried, Gunny made it and it’s just how you like it.”
A security agent from downstairs entered holding a large arrangement of flowers and headed straight to Larabee. “Commander, these arrived for one of your agents.” Chris looked surprised when the man said, “Agent Tanner.”
The Texan took the flowers from the man, while Chris pulled the small envelope off the bouquet and laughed. “Don’t get too excited Vin, they’re not for you, they’re for Kel.”
“Really? Then I reckon I should take ‘em over to her.”
“You might need this.” Chris grinned and handed the envelope to the Texan. He knew Vin would handle it and went into his own office to check his messages.
Vin waited until she looked up before he spoke. “These came for you.” He set the arrangement on her desk, pulled up a chair and sat next to her, aware of the attention they were getting from the rest of the team members.
Kelli knew they were not from Vin because he would have given her roses. She was looking for a card in the arrangement, when Tanner handed it to her instead. “Thanks.” Kelli opened the envelope, read the card, started laughing and then decided to appease Vin’s interest by handing it back to him.
All it said was ‘Thanks for the introduction’, but he knew immediately who wrote it. “I reckon Ez had an enjoyable evenin’.” Vin spoke low and had a definite twinkle of amusement in his eyes. “Must have been damned good coffee.”
“You behave yourself Tanner and I hope you make sure that no one will give him a hard time about this.”
“Bucklin might if he finds out.” Vin saw the warning look in her eyes, “But he won’t hear it from me.” He slipped the card in his pocket insuring that nosy team members could not read it and smiled. “Enjoy ‘em Texas and let’s keep the rest of this bunch guessin’ where they came from.”
“You Mr. Tanner have a mean streak, but I do like the way you think.” Kelli laughed, but her laughter turned to amazement when she saw Ezra exit the elevator. ”Damn seven-thirty and Ez is already here, I guess miracles do happen.”
Standish immediately sought out the Tanners. “Could I see you both in private?”
“Sure Ez, how about my office?”
The three of them went into Vin’s office and shut the door.
“Ez thanks, the flowers are beautiful, but why are you in so early?”
“You are welcome and deserving of the flowers, as to early, I have not been to bed yet.” He hastened to add, “Barbara and I talked well into the night, emphasis on talked. Conversing with her was a refreshing experience, one I look forward to repeating very soon. However, I regress; this is why I am here at this ungodly hour.” He handed Vin the morning edition of today’s newspaper. “Read the column that I circled.”
Tanner began to read and when he finished began pacing. “Sonofabitch! Ez how in the hell did they get this so quick?” He passed the paper to Kelli.
“I have already contacted my source at the newspaper and all that he would tell me is that they received the information from an anonymous phone call. Once they verified the details then…”
“Then they decided it was news. Hell, they implied a cover-up, but conveniently left out a few important facts. If Larabee didn’t hate the press before, he will now. To have his problems laid out in print and to speculate on his reasons for marryin’ a rich woman is just wrong. You think Chris has seen this yet?” Kelli asked.
“Nope, the walls are still standin’,” Vin sighed. “I suppose ‘m elected to tell him.”
“We will of course, wish you well in your quest and await your return. Although should you require assistance please do not hesitate to ask, I am positive that Kelli will volunteer to support you.”
“Thanks, Ez.” Vin took the paper that Kelli handed him and headed out the door sending Chris a warning. *Incoming, you’d better duck for this one Cowboy.*
Larabee received the warning and was waiting for whatever news Vin had to deliver. Without a word, the Texan handed him the paper and then waited for the explosion that he knew was coming.
“Fucking bastards! Who in the hell do they think they are?” Chris raked everything off his desk. “I don’t need this shit! Jesus Christ Vin, wake me up when this nightmare ends!”
Vin gave him time to get his anger out and then suggested. “Ez and I will see what we can find out about the source of this mess. You might wanna call Linda before she sees this or hears about it from one of her brothers.”
Chris nodded his response and reached for the phone.
Larabee watched as his team filled the room. Thirty minutes on the phone with Linda had restored his mood to at least something that passed for human. She had her own sources to check out and Chris agreed to meet her for lunch. In the meantime, he had assignments to hand out.
“Okay this is what we have and it is not much, some ambiguous video, a post office box with no prints and a paper trail one hundred miles long. Justin, you and Raphael keep working on your case. Ross and Paul will assist you, while we start on this one. Buck, you and Mark get with Ezra, start hitting the streets along with any of your sources. Josiah, you and Nathan go over that video frame-by-frame, see if our labs can help identify something. Bones, you and your forensics crew stay on top of those murders. Move it! The rest of you go back to work.” Chris waited until the agents left and turned to JD.
“JD, tell me what you and Pam have come up with.”
“We have covered a few miles of that paper trail, the bank may be able to help, but we cannot recover the money you lost, we can however, prevent it from happening again. We have also made the notifications necessary to make it a little easier on you. Unfortunately, we are not any closer to finding the source of your problems, but we are not giving up.”
“Since you sent Buck with Ez, I s’pose that you have somethin’ special in mind for me to do.” Vin was sure that whatever it was would tie him up all day.
“Yeah, it’s a real tough assignment, but I think you can handle it. Vin, you have had to put in too many extra hours over the last three months.” Chris held up his hands to stop the argument he knew was coming. “Kel goes back to the doctor today, if he doesn’t release her she might need some support. If he does she’ll head straight for the firing range to be qualified again, either way you should be with her.”
“I ’ppreciate it Chris, but what about you and this mess?”
Chris laughed. “I think I can manage, Linda has her personal attorney coming to talk to me about what I should do and I am having lunch with them at one.”
“Good, maybe he can make some of this go away for you.”
“Say hello to Doc for me and don’t hurry back. Take a long lunch and enjoy the time for yourself because you have earned it, in fact take the day, I’ll ride home with Buck.” Chris smiled,” You did a helluva a job as CO while I was out Vin. I know how much you hate all this administrative stuff, but Orrin and I are proud of how you handle the job.”
“Thanks, but I am more than happy to give it all back to you.” Vin stood up. “Maybe we will take the extra time, Mallory’s gift is ready and we can pick it up. We wouldn’t want to show up at her surprise birthday dinner without it. That is tonight right?”
“Damn, with everything going on, I almost forgot. I am glad you reminded me, Linda has it all planned and Josiah will have her at the ranch at seven so we need to get out of here on time. Now, let’s go tell Kel that you are going with her.”
Vin waited for Chris to get his crutches and followed him so he would not have to hurry. “Why don’t you tell her while I grab my jacket and close up my office?”
Chris made his way over to Kelli’s desk. “Hey Red, I know you hate to think about giving up desk duty, but hopefully today is the day.”
She sighed, “It would be nice to be able to do some real work and not just shuffle papers.”
“Yeah, well shuffle into your jacket because Vin’s taking you to your appointment and then you both have the rest of the day free.”
Tanner joined them. “If you need me call, we’ll see you later, Chris.”
“Just make sure you get to the ranch early enough for Mallory’s surprise.”
“Yes Dad.” They both answered.
“Vin, I’ll be honest, there were times in the last few weeks that I thought I would never see this release.”
“You are not only released, but after those scores at the firin’ range there is no question about being cleared back to full duty. We made it all the way back baby.” As they walked to the truck, Vin smiled thinking about their first introduction, here at the this range.*If I had been smart, I would have surrendered then and there.* “The rest of the day is ours, what now?”
“Well, first we need to pick up Mallory’s gift, I hope she likes it.”
“It’s her favorite picture of her, Josiah and the kids together, captured on canvas, she’ll like it.” They reached the truck and Vin opened her door, waited for her to get in and then closed it. Once he was in the other side and had turned the heat on Kelli had already move close enough for him to steal a kiss. “Okay we’ll pick up the portrait first and then ‘m taking you for a late lunch at that Mexican place you like.”
“That sounds good to me, Tanner.” Kelli was enjoying the day; she and Vin had made a practice of setting aside one day a week for a date. Sometimes it was only lunch, other times a night out, the places they went didn’t matter, it was just being together that was important. The events of last couple of months had robbed them of these special times.
They picked up the gift, the portrait came out better than they had expected. The artist that Ezra recommended was really good and he had painted a beautiful portrayal of the family snapshot they had given him to work with. “Oh, Mal will love this, Joanne and Adam look so precious, I know why this is her favorite picture.”
“Come on, we’ll leave it at the framework shop while we eat, by the time we’re finished it should be ready and wrapped.” Vin wanted to get Kelli’s mind off the babies and back on today. He took the painting and they walked across the street to leave it while they ate.
Vin’s schedule, with Chris on sick leave had been hectic, additional doctor appointments and therapy sessions were also time-consuming. Now that things were becoming normal again, the stress of the last few months seemed to fade away. They took their time at the restaurant and enjoyed the relaxing atmosphere. The meal was delicious and they had plenty to talk about, now that the doctor had released her.
Kelli had a list of things she wanted to do. “After all this time it’s hard to decide what to do first. A night out dancin’ is a definite, but what I think I have missed the most is ridin’ Dancer.”
Vin shook his head no, but smiled. “As soon as it warms up a little we’ll ride up to the cabin, but it’s too damned cold today and conditions will only worsen from here on out. Hell, it close to freezin’ out there now and it will be down in the teens by sundown.”
“I reckon we can find a way to play and keep warm.” Mischief danced in her eyes. “We’ll just have to concentrate on indoor sports and then spend some time in the hot tub.”
Tanner reached for the check and grinned. “That sounds like a plan to me, let’s go home, baby.”
One last stop to pick up Mallory’s wrapped gift and they set out for the ranch. A light snow had started to fall and there were already patches of ice on the roads, which meant that it would take a little longer than normal to get there. What they did not know was that due to the weather, Chris sent everyone home early and he was already enjoying some private time with Linda at the ranch.
“Jack, why in the hell are we sitting out here in the cold when Larabee doesn’t even get off work for another two hours?”
“I told you twice already, with the weather he might leave early and I do not want to take a chance on missing him. The plan to ruin him financially evidently failed and from what you have told me the story in the paper did not get him in deeper with his boss or break up his engagement so now I’ll just have to get the bastard another way.”
“You really have it in for him don’t you?”
“Lester, you have no idea how long I have wanted to bring him down. Now, one more time do you know what to do when they pass through here?”
“Yeah, we wait until we see the Durango and then we force them to stop, grab Larabee and run like hell.”
“I glad to know you have been paying attention. This stretch of road leads to the ranch and the only people that travel it live down this way, so we should have plenty of time to make this work without interference. Just keep your eyes open and be ready to act.”
The freeway was already backed up, but Vin and Kelli did not mind. They kept up a teasing dialogue that just was not possible when Chris rode with them and the closer they came to home the more intimate it was. Finally, they hit their exit; another twenty minutes and they would be at the ranch.
“It’s been a long time since we were able to just spend an afternoon like this. I have to admit I missed our date time, maybe with Chris back we can find a little more time for us.”
“With Chris back, we might even be able to take some time off. I’d like to get you on the slopes and teach you how to ski.” That was something Vin had wanted to do since the first snowfall of the year.
“Right, I just get over all my broken bones healin’ and you want to show me a way to break some more. I have somethin’ else in mind, when I think about a ski lodge; I see flames in the fireplace and us in front of it makin’ our own firestorm.”
“We don’t need to wait for a ski lodge for that, we can work on that blaze as soon as we get home with our own fireplace.”
“I thought we had been workin’ on that scenario since we left the restaurant.” Kelli teased playfully.
“We have baby and in less than ten minutes, you’ll see how good we’ve been at it.”
Vin looked in the mirror and saw a car coming up behind them fast. “Whoever that idiot is had better slow down or he might not make that curve up ahead.”
Kelli turned around to look and felt the jolt just as Vin shouted a warning, but it was too late, the car had hit the Durango and sent it into a spin on the ice. The Texan tried to regain control of the truck, but the force of the impact sent them off the road and rolling over the mountainside. A tree was the only thing that stopped the downhill momentum of the heavy truck. Suddenly all movement stopped and it became deathly quiet.
Vin hurt all over, but as much as he could tell he was in fair condition and was aware of his surrounding. “Kel? Kelli! Answer me!” All he could see was an inflated airbag, with great effort he found the knife in his pocket and managed to puncture the one on his side. As it deflated, he saw Kelli covered by the other airbag and a lot of blood, “Kel!” He cut his seatbelt and tried to reach over to her, first having to puncture the airbag, pushing it out of the way. Finally, he was able to feel for a pulse and was relieved to find one, but she was unconscious and bleeding. Afraid to try and move her he covered her with his jacket on top of hers and reached for his cell phone…that wasn’t there.”
“Cell phone, where’s the damn cell phone…hang on baby.” Vin cursed, “Dammit, okay screw my phone, look for Kel’s”.
While Vin attempted to locate either phone, two men were on their way down to them. Jack was not happy with Lester because he was only supposed to stop them, not force them off the road. “Larabee had damn well be alive when we get down there Lester or you will pay and pay dearly for your stupidly.”
“How was I to know the ice would make him lose control?”
“Shut up Lester and put that damn ski mask on.”
Tanner found his cell, but it was ruined, he threw it and looked for Kelli’s, he did not want to leave her alone to go for help, but her phone was nowhere to be found, evidently lost when the truck rolled. He heard voices and thanked God that someone knew where they were. “Hang on Kel, help’s comin’.”
The voices kept coming closer until they were at the truck, since it was laying at an angle Lester had to climb in order to open the driver side door. When it opened all Vin could see was a man wearing a ski mask, holding a gun.
“Who in the hell are you and what do you want?”
“Where is Larabee?”
“Don’t try to play dumb. Larabee, Chris Larabee …Where is he?”
“He’s not here…”
Jack began ranting. ”Sonofabitch! All this and the bastard isn’t even here. How in the hell does he stay so damn lucky? Let’s get the fuck out of here before real help comes along.”
“No! We can’t leave them to warn him!”
Vin knew this could mean worse trouble. “Look, I don’t know who you are or what you look like so just leave us and make your getaway.” He positioned his body between Kelli and the man with the gun, resisting the urge to pull his own weapon. The last thing he wanted was a shootout in a space this small; he just needed them to leave so he could help his wife.
“Yeah, so you can run to Larabee and tell him, I don’t think so!”
Jack pulled on Lester’s sleeve. “Fuck this, I’ll get him, it just might take longer, let’s go.”
“We can’t leave them alive!”
“Yes we can, come on.”
Tanner saw his chance and shoved his booted foot into the man’s chest, when he did the man’s gun discharged twice. Vin felt the impact of the bullets, but then everything happened in what seemed like slow motion. Pain shot through him as he fell backward against Kelli and a wave of darkness engulfed him.
”Now you’ve done it Lester, let’s get the hell out of here!”
Chris came out of the bedroom a bit disheveled, but wearing a huge grin, he and Linda had experience one hell of an afternoon of hot steamy sex. A loud knock at the door announced that the first guest had arrived for the birthday dinner. He yelled, “Come in,” expecting Vin, but it was Buck, Inez and the kids. He suddenly realized that he did not even feel Vin and his senses told him something was wrong.
Indicating to the plate of food Inez had brought he told Inez, “Linda will be out in a minute, you can take that into the kitchen.”
As soon as she was out of the room, Buck cornered him.” You look like Pony just kicked you in the gut. Chris, what in the hell is wrong with you?”
“Buck, it’s almost seven and there has been no word from Vin and Kel. Something is wrong or they would be here.” Chris tried to concentrate, “I can’t connect with Tanner at all.”
“Well, his truck is not here.” Buck pulled out his phone and tried to call both Tanners. “No answer on either phone, so tell me where they were going, maybe we can track them down.”
“I…I’m not sure, Vin called just before they left the firing range to tell me Kel was back on active duty. I told them to take the rest of the day off and the only thing I know is they planned on picking up Mallory’s gift. Hell, I don’t even know what they got or where it was.”
“Maybe they just lost track of time and if Vin is tuning you out, he may be focused on things he just as soon not share. Give ‘em a little more time, if we don’t hear from them in another hour, we’ll go out and look for them, but I’d bet they’re lost in each other.”
Chris looked out the window and the snow was getting heavier. *Tanner I do not care what you are doing, but you damn well better let me know something soon.*
Just eight miles down the road, the snow had partially covered Vin’s truck.
Cold…Vin groaned when he tried to move, *Damn it’s cold, Tanner what in the hell did you do? ...Kel? …Kel! Slowly Vin, think! …Accident? Damn!* His head felt as if a two ton weigh fell on it and his shoulder burned like hell, but he knew he had to move. Vin felt the side of his head and cringed when he saw the blood on his hand, he had no idea how long they had been there but it was now dark outside.*Stay awake Tanner, focus on what you need to do.*
The Texan ignored his pain, he was now aware that he was laying against Kelli. “Kel can you hear me?” When he touched her, she was cold, he searched for a pulse and found a weak one, but it was there. *Vin, first things first, you both need to get warm.*
Forcing himself to move he managed to reach the light control, as long as the battery held up the headlights would stay on, maybe someone would see them. He hurt like hell, but he could not quit now. He freed Kelli from her seatbelt and ease closer to her. Gently as possible, he drew her to him and let her head rest against his chest; wrapping one arm around her, he pulled both jackets over them. He knew moving her was risky, but the alternative was freezing to death and it was going to take the heat from both their bodies to keep them warm. *Tanner, you have to stay awake or both of you could die out here…do not close your eyes.*
The Larabee home was full of family, all of the wild bunch, except Vin and Kelli. Chris was standing by the fireplace and suddenly felt very cold, a sharp pain raced through his head, and his left shoulder felt like a hot poker had plunged into it. He almost fell, dropping one of his crutches in the process and would have if Buck had not been standing next to him.
“Whoa stud.” Buck caught him and when he saw his face, knew that trouble was brewing. “Chris?”
“It’s Vin and it’s not good. We have to find them Buck, NOW!”
Larabee’s raised voice had everyone’s attention. They all knew he was concerned and if he said Vin was in trouble they accepted that as fact, without question.
“We start from here and work toward the freeway; we’ll need lights and blankets. Wherever they are, it is cold. Nathan, bring what you need, we will divide into two groups, Josiah and Nathan will take the left side. JD, bring my laptop and see if you can pick up a GPS signal from one of their phones.”
“On it, Chris.” JD hugged Casey and kissed the babies. “Love you Case.”
“Buck, Ezra, and I will cover the right; if we don’t find them in the first fifteen miles we’ll meet at the frontage road and decide where to go from there.” Chris was ready to leave thirty minutes ago, but he knew they needed to organize. “Linda, stay by the phone in case they check in and also call search and rescue. Ask them to be on stand-by status for us.”
Rain brought out more blankets and Nathan reminded them. “Make sure you dress warm and take extra blankets. If you find them and they have been exposed to this temperature, getting them warm is critical.” He stopped long enough to hug Rain and check on his sleeping son.
Inez brought two thermoses of hot coffee from the kitchen and handed them to Buck, who passed one to Josiah. “Find them and be careful,” she kissed him, “Love you.” He hugged his girls and was ready to go
Mallory helped Josiah with his coat and gave him a good-bye kiss. “Bring them home, big guy.” He gave a hug to Joanne and a kiss to Adam as he turned to leave.
“Let’s move out.” Chris was the first one out the door informing Ezra and Buck that he was driving. “I can’t get out and walk over those rough edges, but I can damned sure, steer this truck with my eyes closed.”
Buck mumbled, “It’s not the steering I’m worried about.”
“I heard that Buck! Get in! “
When they reached the road, Josiah, Ezra and Buck got out and walked in front of the vehicles. Forced to move slowly due to fresh snow on the ground, they knew any sign of trouble would be hard to find. Nathan and Chris drove while JD attempted to find a signal.
*VIN! talk to me brother, Where in the hell are you?*
*Vin, don’t give up, we are coming for both of you. Help me here pard, stay awake.*
*Stay a… wake…lights…on…Chr…is…c..old.*
Chris sounded the horn for the other’s attention. “Forget signs! Watch for lights, headlights probably off the road. We are close, but I don’t think we have much time.” With something specific to look for they were able to move faster and cover more ground.
*Hang on Vin … What… what about Kel?*
*VIN TANNER! DAMMIT STAY WITH ME!*
Chris called the house. “Linda tell rescue to get their asses out here now and have Flight for Life ready, I’m afraid we’re gonna need them. Somewhere past the seven mile marker, I’ll let you know exactly where, when we find them.”
“Call rescue, Flight for life, seven mile maker, I got it and I’m making the call now.” Linda hung up and immediately dialed for help.
“There! See it!” Buck took off down the side of the embankment, followed closely by Josiah and Ezra.
“Chris, DO NOT even think about it, I don’t need you as a patient too. JD, stay here with him and relay what we need to the rescue squad.” Nathan grabbed his bag and some blankets as he went down after the others.
Larabee cursed his leg and threw one of his crutches in anger. “Dammit, I need to be down there!”
JD recovered the thrown crutch and then went back to stand next to Chris. “It will take both of us to relay. Do you want Nathan or Rescue?”
Chris thought about it, he wanted to know ASAP, but rescue needed to hear the voice of authority.” Rescue, you get Nathan and the radio.” He took the crutch JD offered him and dialed the emergency dispatch.
Buck reached them first and when he saw the condition of the truck, he began to pray. “Vin! Can you here me? It’s Bucklin, VIN!” He climbed onto the vehicle to try the door.
“Anything? “Ezra was next, Josiah and Nathan only a few seconds behind him.
“Oh God, it looks bad. VIN!” Receiving no answer, he started to go inside.
“Wait Buck, let me in there first.” Nathan was already climbing through the door and as a brother, he was terrified by what he found. Kelli was unconscious and her skin was blue; Vin didn’t look much better and both were covered with blood. However, the healer part of him overrode his fears and he checked both of them for a pulse. Vin’s was the easiest to find, Kelli’s was slow and barely palpable. He said a prayer and began issuing orders.
“Ezra, get your ass in here, ‘m gonna need some help. Buck, get on that radio with JD.” As soon as he made contact, Nathan began his assessment. “Victim number one is female, blood type B positive, mid twenties, show symptoms of severe hypothermia, unconscious, skin cold and blue, barely audible pulse, possible head trauma, other injuries unknown, but probable blood loss.”
Ezra joined him. “Hold on to Kelli while I check Vin and Ezra be very gentle, hypothermia patients are subject to cardiac arrest, no sudden movements.” He helped Ezra and then started on Vin.
“Victim number two is male early thirties, blood type AB positive, shows symptoms of mild hypothermia, semi-conscious, skin cold, still showing some color, possible head trauma and …My God! This is from a gunshot! What in the hell happened here?” Nathan took a deep breath. “Gunshot wound, left shoulder through and through, blood loss, other injuries unknown. Flight for life requested and make sure to tell them we have hypothermia victims, they’ll need to bring some special equipment.”
“Josiah, pass me two blankets, I can’t warm them up too fast or it could kill them. Judging from the time Vin’s watch stopped they have been out here since three ten this afternoon. With the temperature near freezing then, and what it is now, their body temperatures could have dropped at least ten degrees. I don’t dare try to move them to look for further injuries until more medical help arrives.” Nathan covered Vin and held him, while Ezra took care of Kelli.
“Tell Chris to get forensics out here because this is now a crime scene and then pray, Josiah, pray.”
Chris received every message and was furious, this was not an accident, but deliberate. He also knew they would lose a lot of evidence by the time they got Vin and Kelli out of there, but he would find the bastard responsible for this, one way or another.
The area was starting to look like a convention for emergency personal. Rescue arrived, the paramedics were already on their way down to the accident site loaded with extra equipment and the sheriff’s department blocked the road for Flight for life to land. Raphael would have their forensics team here soon and in the middle of all this, Linda arrived.
“Chris, I couldn’t stay and wait, Mallory drove me out, with the promise that I call her as soon as we knew more. How are they?”
Larabee swallowed hard, “No good, babe, but Flight for life will be here in a few minutes and rescue is trying to get them out now.” He was glad Linda was here, they needed to be together through this and he did not mind admitting to her just how scared he was. Chris grabbed her hand and held on.
Flight for life landed first, a doctor had come with them and he did not hesitate to go down the hill to his patients. Raphael landed a little further down the road. Justin and Mark rode with the forensics team.
Justin found Larabee. “We came to relieve you guys so you can go to the hospital. As soon as Flight for life lifts off, Raphael will fly the rest of you in. We will carry on here to secure the scene and we will stay until we find all the evidence that is there to find. There will be enough of us here to take care of your truck and Nathan’s car too.”
Chris just nodded in the affirmative.
JD was listening to the radio. “They got them out and are on their way up with both of them.”
“Tell Buck that our team is here to relieve them and Raphael is taking us to the hospital.”
Chris held on to Linda’s hand and prepared himself to see Vin and Kelli, at least he thought he did. Nothing prepared him to see the condition they were in and neither Nathan nor Ezra would look him in the eye. The medical crew did not slow down but practically ran to the helicopter and lifted off immediately.
Buck and Josiah did not do any better and Chris had a bad feeling about what they were not saying.
“Chris, Nathan, give me your keys, I’ll take care of getting your vehicles to the hospital, and Raphael is waiting for all of you.” Justin prodded them on. “We have everything covered here, go.” The MCAT forensic team was already working.
Jackson shook his head, “I don’t know. Vin has lost a lot of blood and both he and Kelli are hypothermic. Kel is… she is in bad shape Chris, I just don’t know if they can get her back. Her core temperature is dangerously low and…”
“We are not going to stand here and talk about this; we are going to the hospital, Now Chris!” Linda squeezed his hand and urged him to move.
A silent group boarded the helicopter and no one spoke during the trip to Denver Memorial.
Denver Memorial Hospital
Chris wanted to pace, but between Nathan and Linda he did not stand a chance. If one was not telling him to get off his leg and sit, then the other one did. He really hated this place, the waiting was hell and as a patient here, he was always miserable.
“Dammit, it has been almost two hours. What the hell are they doing and why won’t they tell us?” Larabee knew all about patience, but he was fresh out and wanted some answers.
“With hypothermia, it will take time; if they work too fast it can be fatal and we are not even sure about what other injuries…”
“Nathan, I’m not asking about what they don’t know. I just want to be informed of what they do know.”
Finally, Chris saw a familiar face. “Doc?”
“Chris, sit down and get off that leg before I chain you to that chair.” Dr Gilford waited until Larabee sat down before he continued. “I have spent the last two hours with Vin and he is stable enough and warm enough now to go to surgery. He received two gunshot wounds, one grazed his temple and that one caused him to lose consciousness. The one to his shoulder went through and exited just above the left shoulder blade. I am taking him into surgery to clean the wound and repair some minor blood vessel damage. That should take about an hour.”
“So he will be okay?”
“If he listens to me he will be fine, but he has lost a lot of blood and I will be keeping him for a few days. If it matters, he faired well in the accident and aside from some contusions and stiffness would have been home by now. It was the cold and loss of blood from being shot that impaired him.”
“What can you tell me about Kelli?”
“Not much, I did look in on her and Dr Landers is treating the hypothermia aggressively. From what little Vin and Nathan have told me about what happened, Vin is responsible for her still being with us. Evidently, she was unconscious from the accident and he covered her before he was shot, otherwise she might not have survived until he was cognizant enough to get to her and share his own body heat to keep her alive. It will take a while before Landers can tell you much more, but I know she is not a quitter.”
“Thanks Doc. Any chance I can see Vin before you take him into surgery?”
“You can see him for a few minutes, but I doubt he will be awake enough to talk. Come with me and afterward I want your promise to stay off that leg.”
“You have my word.” Chris followed Dr. Gilford to the room Tanner was in and was pleased to see that he looked much better than he did only a few short hours ago. *Vin?*
The Texan turned toward the sound of Larabee’s voice. *Kel?*
*Dr. Landers is taking care of her.*
*Look after her... for me.*
*I will, just let Doc do his thing and fix you up, we will all be here waiting for you.*
Chris knew the shot they gave the Texan had taken over, but they would have time later to talk. Maybe by then, he would know more about Kelli. He watched as they took Vin out for surgery and as an alternative of going straight back to the waiting room, he took a small detour. Instead of finding Kelli though, he ran into her doctor.
“What can you tell me Dr. Landers?”
“I’m sorry; I really need to talk to Vin.”
”I hold a medical POA for her and she is my daughter.”
Dr. Landers nodded, “When Kelli was brought in her core body temperature was 85.5 degrees, as you know 98.6 is normal for most people. That put her at level of severe hypothermia, she had no pulse and was very near death; in fact, if this was a few years ago she would have been pronounced at the scene. Fortunately, we have come a long way in how we treat these cases and most patients make a full recovery. We are warming her slowly from the inside out at about 2 degrees an hour and as long as we can keep her heart going without a cardiac arrest she has a good chance.”
“What else?” Chris knew from his SEAL training all about hypothermia and the complications it could cause.
“The hypothermia is the strongest threat for her at this time, but she also has some injuries from the accident. Right now, it is impossible to tell if she is unconscious from the cold or the head trauma she received first. We can only wait and see.”
“Kelli is a survivor and I know she will be okay. She has been through too much in her life not to.” Chris was not sure how he knew but he had no doubt about her recovery. “What is her temperature now?”
“Somewhere around ninety degrees.” Dr. Landers made a decision. “If you want to see her, I’ll give you two minutes.”
“Lead on, Doctor.” It was only two minutes, but Chris took it and he stood just watching her for a full minute of it. ”Kel, your family is waiting for you and Vin is gonna be fine, so warm up Red and come back home.”
Three hours later Vin was in a room and Dr Gilford assured Chris that Tanner would be fine in a few days. Everyone had moved from the waiting room to Tanner’s room and in another couple of hours, Kelli would be close to normal temperature again. Larabee hoped that by morning he would have her settled in a room, too.
“Man he looks a helluva lot better than he did when we first saw him.” Buck was relieved because he had thought earlier they would lose Vin.
“Brother Buck, never underestimate the power of prayer.” Josiah placed a hand on his shoulder.
“Amen to that,” Nathan was pleased that he was wrong and Vin would be okay.
“Need I remind you gentlemen that we only have half of a miracle here, one that will not be complete until Kelli has rejoined us.” Ezra cautioned them.
Linda knew how strong Kelli could be, “Kel is the most stubborn woman that I have ever known I am positive that she will come thought this just fine.”
“She’s stubborn, that’s for sure.” It was an effort to speak and Vin groaned when he attempted to move.
“Vin, you’re awake, welcome back.”
“I talked to Landers and he said Kel is doing better than he expected at this point.” Chris knew that there was only one thing Vin was interested in knowing. “You kept her alive Vin until we could find you both and now there are some good doctors making sure that she stays that way.”
“I need to see her.” Vin made an effort to sit up.
“Hold it! You are connected to an IV and a few other tubes. You are not going anywhere, yet.” Nathan reprimanded the young Texan.
“Vin, Dr. Lauders is aware of where we are and as soon as he knows more he promised to come tell us.” Chris was relieved to see the acceptance in Tanner’s eyes. “We will keep checking for you.” Vin’s nod of resignation was the only acknowledgement he received.
“What time is it?”
“Almost two in the morning, Vin.” JD answered.
“Damn, don’t y’all sleep sometime?”
“We plan to, but there are a few things we need to know first.” Buck was now all cop. “Tell us what happened and who shot you Vin.”
At first, they were not sure Vin would tell them, finally he answered. “Two of ‘m wearin’ ski mask, I think they only planned to force us to stop, but the ice on the road had a different idea. I don’t know who in the hell they were, but they argued about shootin ’me. One of ‘em wanted to shut me up and they other one said he would just bide his time to get what he wanted.”
Chris cut his eyes to Tanner. What were they looking for Vin?”
“Vin, are you positive?” Buck felt a chill down his spine. “You know that head of yours has been kinda knocked around here lately.”
“There ain’t nothin’ wrong with my hearin’, Buck! They were expectin’ Chris to be in the truck and the second man was damned upset that he wasn’t.” Vin groaned when he tried to move. “He said somethin’ about Chris stayin’ lucky.”
Chris had been silent. If they wanted him, then that meant Vin was shot and Kelli was hurt because he had another enemy out there. He felt Linda squeeze his hand. “It’s not your fault,” she whispered.
Larabee looked over at Vin. *I’m lucky and you’re…*
*Don’t! You did not do this!*
“What do you remember about them?” Buck was determined to find this bastard.
Tanner gave a half laugh. “Not much, Buck, I had just rolled off the side of a mountain, was still inside the truck and worried as hell about Kelli. They wore ski mask and had a gun pointed at me, sorry if I can’t give you details.” He thought for a minute. “Kel might have seen them. She turned around to look just before we were hit…I only saw them in the rear view mirror.”
“We have time for this later, right now you need rest, hell all of you do.” Chris cut his eyes to Buck. “We’ll take precautions and see how Kel is doing.” He knew Vin was close to coming out of that bed and trying to find out himself.
Nathan stood up. “I’ll go check.”
“Ezra, track down Justin, see what they found out there and then get some rest, I have a feeling it may be your only chance for a while. JD, you too, when you get to the office in the morning, hook up to CASSIE and coordinate with forensics. Josiah, will you take Linda home?” Josiah read what Chris did not say; get her away from the investigation.
“Chris I need to stay.” Linda protested.
“You need proper sleep and I will let you know if anything changes here.” Reluctantly Linda gathered her things to go with Josiah. Chris kissed her good-bye and watched them all leave.
“I’m staying right here and you are not getting out of my sight, so deal with it!”
“A ring…the bastard wore a ring. Looked like…hell, looked familiar, but…I don’t know.” Vin’s head hurt.
“You need something for pain, I can call the nurse.” Chris reached for the call button.
“No! Nothin’ ‘til I find out ‘bout Kel.”
Nathan came back in the room.” Vin, Dr. Landers will be in to talk to you, in a few minutes. I’ve convinced him that since you both were victims of an attempted murder that he should put Kel in this room. I told him that it would be easier to keep you both guarded that way.”
“Thanks Nate, but Chris is the one that needs protectin’.”
“Chris has protection and so do you. I’m not going anywhere.” Buck propped his feet up and settled in to stay.
Dr. Landers entered the room before Chris could comment. “Vin, we need to talk.”
“You can talk in front of them, they’re family.”
“Kelli started out at 85.5-degree core temperature and we had to use internal warming methods, but we now have her temperature up to 96 degrees. It was a close call, but she is conscious now, although somewhat disoriented from a concussion. We have stabilized her irregular heartbeat and tests show no internal injuries. I would like to monitor her for the next forty-eight hours. She will probably experience some sore and stiff muscles not only from the hypothermia, but also from the accident. “Do you have any questions?”
“Just tell me she will be okay.”
“With proper rest, she should be on her feet in a few days, although it may be a couple of weeks, before she regains all her strength. You did all the right things out there for us to have a good outcome.” He patted Vin on the leg. “She is on her way up here now and we will continue measures to raise her temperature externally.”
“Thanks Dr. Landers.”
In the next few minutes, there was a flurry of activity as they brought Kelli in and settled her in the room. The nurses were to keep heated blankest on her bed as well as a warm IV going and keep her wrapped with thermal coverings. They also provided a rollaway bed for whoever was officially staying as police protection, along with a few extra pillows and blankets for those unofficially there.
“Okay Mr. Tanner, your turn. Your wife will sleep for a while and you are due for some pain meds, so no arguments. I will be in every thirty minutes to check on her and change out her blankets.” The nurse held out the pills.
Vin was satisfied with Kelli in his sight and took the medication that would help him rest. Nathan took advantage of the lounge down the hall and grabbed some sleep while he could. Buck settled in the chair for the rest of the night and insisted that Larabee stretch out on the rollaway. Sleep never came for Chris, every time he closed his eyes he saw Vin or Kelli covered in blood and fighting for each breath.
*Whoever you are, I will find you and you will pay.*
“Lester you are a fucking idiot! If that man dies you murdered a federal agent and they will never stop looking for you!”
“I didn’t shoot him; the damn gun went off when he kicked me!”
“You really think that matters?”
“Yeah, well you were there! You think they care that you weren’t holding a gun, you’ll get the needle, too.”
“Lester, we need a new plan.”
Chris hobbled in with Buck right on his heels; he was ready for some kind of answers or at least a direction to look for them. Watching Vin and Kelli struggle in the hospital for the last thirty-six hours and knowing that they were there because of him had taken a toll on his vow of living guilt-free. The only thing he wanted now was to find the bastard responsible for the current attack on his family.
Larabee motioned to the team on his way in, for them to follow him to the war room for an update.
“Tell me.” Chris wanted some answers.
Justin braved the first response. “We covered every inch of the area and came up with very little. The shell casings are in forensics and were 9mm, no prints except the ones you would expect to find, except for one on the doorframe. We are trying to match it now on the national database. We did retrieve paint scrapings off the back of the Durango and we are trying to determine the make and model of the other vehicle now.”
With Chris’ nod he continued, “Mark and Ross are at the ranch keeping an eye on things, Linda in particular, just in case this guy decides to try to get to you through her. We have a schedule worked out so at least someone will be there at all times. Paul is with Nathan at the hospital and they will stay until another team replaces them.”
“Chris, whoever this is has a personal grudge against you. He tried to ruin you financially and then embarrass you by leaking the news to the press. I believe the situation with Vin and Kelli somehow got out of hand, all he wanted was a way to take you and mother nature interfered.” Sanchez stood and looked at the board that held what little information they had.
Josiah explained his reasons. “A true con artist would definitely fit for the identity theft and credit card scheme. However, murder would be a big stretch and not something he would normally do. His modus operandi...MO would consist of mind games showing superior intelligence and usually non-violent assaults. His partner on the other hand may be capable of behavior that is more brutal.”
“Pam and I have narrowed our search to known con artists that are in the Denver area and have a list of names with twenty-six possible suspects.” JD passed the sheet of paper to Chris. “We are doing background searches on all of them, but it will take a little time for results. Some of these guys have ten or more aliases.”
“I have all my contacts operational on this to ascertain any available information about this miscreant and if he is still in Denver we will find him.” Ezra vowed. “I will be relieving Nathan and Paul tonight, may I suggest Chris that you go home and try to rest. I know you did not sleep last night and we will need your mind alert to see this through.”
Larabee shook his head, “No, I will be back at the hospital as soon as I finish here.” He knew the others were about to protest. “At least for a while and if everything is okay, then I might go home for the night.”
“Just so you understand that wherever you go, I go, then we’ll have no problem.” Buck let Chris know that it was not negotiable.
“Fine Buck, the rest of you keep digging until we have something.”
Ezra grabbed a folder he had been working on. “Chris, I’m going to exchange my car for Kel’s truck and then go over to the hospital now, see you there.”
Chris started for his office, but Gunny stopped him. “Commander, you have a therapy session scheduled exactly forty-five minutes from now. Judging from how much pain you are apparently in, I would suggest that you do not miss it.”
“Ms. Montgomery, I do not have time now, reschedule it!”
“It is Gunny sir, and you need to heal that leg! Either you go today or I will be forced to call your doctor and report to him how much trouble you are having with it.” She did not budge.
Larabee tried to stare her down and swore the woman must be made of granite. Truthfully his leg was killing him, but he was not about to admit that to her. “Reschedule the session, I will see Dr. Gilford at the hospital and discuss it with him.”
Gunny nodded. “Very well, I will let him know where you will be, just to make sure you don’t miss each other.” With that said, she turned and went back to her desk.
“I told you Chris, she don’t mess around.”
“Shut up, Buck.”
Denver Memorial Hospital
Vin was feeling much better and Doc was pleased with his progress, in fact he planned to release the Texan in the morning. His head wound was minimal, but he would have his shoulder bound in a sling for two weeks. He would make a full recovery, but had strict instructions to rest and take care of himself so he could heal faster. Tanner’s only worry now was Kelli, finally she was getting some much-needed sleep, but she had been restless most of the day. What he really wanted was a few minutes alone with her. However, all day there had been people in their room and it had been as busy as the local bus station, granted most of them were family, but enough was enough.
“Nathan, we’ll be fine, you and Paul don’t have to hang around here.”
“Vin, someone tried to kill you and no way are we leaving you two alone for him to get another chance.” Nathan could be just as stubborn as the Texan.
Ezra came in on the tail end of Nathan’s comment. “Your relief is here gentlemen, so you are both free to leave. I assure you that I came prepared to stay the night.” Standish set down the bags he was holding.
“You both do as the doctor says, and I will see you tomorrow.” Nathan took Vin’s nod as a sign of agreement and then he and Paul left.
“I brought you both some clothes and a few things I thought you might need.” He handed Vin some sweatpants and pulled out a shirt for him. “I thought you might want to cover your assets so you could move around.” While he assisted Vin with his shirt and sling, he gave him a rundown of the activities made on his behalf. “I secured your personal possessions, removed them from the vehicle and used your keys to safely store them at your home. Mallory’s gift came through it all in good condition, only needing a minor touch up. I took the liberty of having my artist friend repair it for you. I also contacted your insurance company and an adjuster will be out by Monday to assess the damage to your truck.”
‘Thanks Ez, appreciate it.”
“I also brought a change of apparel for Kelli; however, I will let you assist her.”
Chris and Buck came in arguing with one another. “Buck, I do not need a babysitter!” He was still peeved that Dr. Gilford had tracked him down and lectured him about his leg.
“Well, you have one so get used to it.” Wilmington found the nearest chair and sat.
“What did Doc say?” Chris hated that he missed seeing the doctor, but was anxious about what he had to say.
“Dr. Gilford said he was releasin’ me in the mornin’ and Landers said he would decide on Kel once he saw her next test results. We should both be back at work probably in a week or so and you do need a babysitter until we catch this bastard. Ez is stayin’ so you can go home now and get off that damned leg.”
“Are you trying to get rid of me, Tanner?”
“Chris, your leg is not getting any better, you have a future brother-in-law coming to stay for a week and you have barely slept in two days. So yeah, go home and rest, dammit!”
“If Dr. Landers releases Kel then I will have them both home before noon tomorrow.” Ezra gave Chris time to consider his words.
Chris went to Kelli’s side of the room and watched as she slept. It irritated him that someone was out to ruin him financially, but as long as he knew that his family was okay he could live with it. *Funny how your life now is so different from the one you grew up with Chris. Your dad never got it did he? He was the one that missed out the most and did not even realize it.*
“Okay, I’m leaving, but if anything changes…”
“I know the number, Cowboy.”
“Buck, go home, at least say hello to your family and if I need you I will call. Hell, you’re only a few minutes away and there has been enough activity around here to scare off anyone that may be watching.” Chris knew he would argue, but stood firm. “Now Buck, we’ll be fine.” Reluctantly Wilmington left and for the first time two days, he was alone with Linda.
“Chris, are you sure this is a good time for Matthew to come?”
“It’s as good a time as any, besides it past time for me to meet some of your family.”
“You’ll like him, he is the one closest to my age and Matthew is a fair man. He won’t prejudge you based on some dumb investigative report and he is not a big fan of nosy reporters.”
“I’m sure we will get along just fine, babe.” He sat on the couch with her and pulled her closer to him.
“The fact that the others elected him to come is kind of a peace offering to me. I let them know what I thought about their judgmental attitudes and told them what they could do with their stupid investigator. I think they got the message loud and clear.”
Chris laughed, “I just bet they did.”
Linda hesitated for a moment. “There is something else I wanted to talk to you about.”
Sensing her reluctance, Chris encouraged her to continue. “Whatever it is, just say it.”
“I know this identity theft business has made a mess of your finances and I wanted you to know I have the resources to help out if needed.”
“Don’t worry, I’m not destitute yet and between our lawyer, Ezra and JD working on it, I feel confident it will all be straightened out soon enough. I do appreciate the offer though.” Chris nibbled on her earlobe and whispered. “We have the rest of tonight alone. What do you want to do with it?”
Linda grinned and wrapped her arms around Chris’ neck. “I though you would never ask.” One passionate kiss and they were both lost for the night.
Linda was busy in the kitchen preparing for the family get-together later this afternoon. They were going to try again to celebrate Mallory’s birthday and the phone began ringing early this Saturday morning. First, it was Matthew letting Linda know he would be there about noon and then Ezra called to let Chris know that the doctor was releasing Kelli this morning, too.
Chris poured himself a cup of coffee. “What can I do to help?’
“You can keep everyone on task for me. I made a list of who is supposed to do what.” She handed it to Chris; he looked it over and nodded.
“This I can do, keeping this bunch in line is my specialty.” Larabee grinned.
Within the hour, Chris had most of the family in attendance and working on their assignments for the day. Of course, he saved the best job for himself, propping his leg up and watching the kids play. Before he knew what was happening three little girls were sitting with him wanting a story.
“Pleese uncl Chris.” Sarah persisted, until he gave in and began to read Cinderella. He ignored the smiles from the rest of the family and concentrated on Sarah, Maria and Joanne.
Ezra pulled into the drive, stopping in front of the Tanner home. “Lord it feels good to be here. “Kelli kept her eye on Vin, making sure he was as okay as he said he was. They decided to go into their own house first and then head over to Chris’ after changing clothes and taking a few minutes to regroup. Someone was thoughtful enough to turn the heat on earlier and it was nice and warm.
“I’ll take Mal’s gift over for you and let everyone know y’all will be over in a little while.” Ezra was sure they would appreciate some quiet moments, before spending the day with the wild bunch. He knew they were safe here and they were overdue for some alone time.
“Thanks Ez, for everythin’, tell ‘em to give us at least thirty minutes before Chris sends out a search party.” Vin took Kelli’s hand and led her to the couch where they could sit and enjoy each other’s company for a few minutes. “Okay baby, tell me.”
She knew what he wanted to know. “Somethin’ has been naggin’ at me, but so far I keep comin’ up blank as to what it is. I feel that I should know who I saw in that car, but…”
“Give it some time and it will come back to you.” Vin used his good arm to hold her closer, something that he missed doing with so many people in and out of their room at the hospital.” Is that all that has been botherin’ you?”
“You mean, aside from the fact we that almost died, my head still hurts, I can’t seem to stay warm and we have had half the city of Denver in our room for the last two days, yeah.”
Vin laughed, “Yeah, aside from all of that.” He kissed the top of her head and truthfully he knew neither of them were 100% well yet. “I missed us.”
“Me too, you have spoiled me Tanner. I can’t get a restful sleep alone anymore and ‘m used to having at least some time each day to sit with you like this and just...be you and me.”
“Tonight we’ll sleep together in our own bed and by tomorrow we should both be in better shape to spend a quiet day of lovin’ together. For now though, we’ll go see the family, let ‘m fuss over us a bit and just enjoy being together.” He slid his hand over to caress her breast and he took advantage of their few minutes alone to claim a kiss or two.
Kelli turned her head and took pleasure in his loving attention, both of them knowing they had to move soon. At last, she sighed and knew that they had to leave. “I almost lost you and I don’t intend to let you out of my reach for the rest of the day.”
“Countin’ on it, Texas.”
Matthew arrived early and walked in to the family mix, fitting in immediately as if he had known them for years. This type of get-together reminded him of earlier days when the Dubois family did this on a regular basis. He and Linda spend some time talking and then she made the rounds to introduce him to everyone.
Linda introduced him to Chris first and then the rest of the family, making sure he met all the kids. “Matt I think you will agree this is one wild bunch, reminds me of home when we were younger.”
“Yeah, we don’t see everyone near enough anymore, but maybe since the others are showing some interest in your marriage that will change,” He missed his sister and other brothers more than he would admit. “Didn’t you say Kel would be here, too?”
“Yes Matt, in fact…” Linda looked around and targeted Standish. “Ezra shouldn’t Vin and Kelli be here by now?”
Ezra sighed and pulled out his phone, but before he dialed, the Tanners walked in the door.
“Welcome home and about time you two decided to join us.” Buck grinned. “Been busy, Tanner?”
Vin shook his head and smiled. “Yeah, but not that kind of busy, Bucklin.” Maria spied her favorite Uncle and made a beeline for him fortunately, Inez interceded and slowed her down before she threw herself at him. “Hey girl, let us find a place to sit and then you can come tell us what’s been goin’ on while we were gone.” Maria nodded and waited for them to sit somewhere.
Before they found a place to sit, Matt joined them. “Hello Kelli.” He hugged her and then stood back to take a good look at her. “What has it been? Two years?”
“More like three, Matt this is my husband Vin Tanner. Vin, Matt Dubois.” The men shook hands.
“Linda has told me all about you, it good to meet the man that finally found a way to Kelli’s heart.” He spoke to Vin, but watched Kelli.
Vin had the feeling that there were more to Matt’s words than he was saying, but for now he would play nice. “It‘s a heart that was worth lookin’ for, that’s for sure.”
Chris called them over to sit by the fireplace next to him. “Excuse us, Matt but family is callin’.” Kelli took Vin’s hand and headed to the spot waiting for them. Maria snuggled between them as soon as they hit the couch.
Linda asked for everyone’s attention and then made a short speech about Mallory’ delayed birthday dinner that was now a lunch. “We will eat first and then have cake with ice cream.” She made sure that Chris, Kelli and Vin stayed put while she fixed them a plate of food.
Kelli shivered at the mention of ice cream and Chris threw her a blanket. “Thanks.” Maria had her visit with Vin and then decided she wanted to eat more than talk, taking off to sit with the other girls. The Tanners got cozy under the blanket mostly for warmth, but it also allowed for some enjoyable moments.
While they ate, Chris wanted to hear everything the doctors had to say. “Are you sure you a week in long enough to recover before you come back to work?
“Should be, if not you’ll be the first to know, quit worryin’, Cowboy.”
The family did exactly what Vin had expected, each checking on them continuously throughout the afternoon. Finally, it was time for Mallory to open her gifts.
“Okay, here we go, “Joanne helped her unwrap each one until only two were left. Josiah knew what the Tanners had for her and he insisted she open it last. He gave her a mother’s ring with all their birthstones inlayed into a gold setting. With tears in her eyes, she hugged him and then laughed when she saw Adam who was now sticking bows on the top of his head.
“Mal, Josiah helped us on this one and it is really for both of you.” Tanner grinned, “After joinin’ us on a tumble down the mountain, your gift has proven to be just as durable and strong as you are.” He explained while Standish handed her the package. “We could not have done it without Ezra’s help either.”
Josiah helped her take the paper off and heard her suck in her breath when she saw the painting. “How did…when did? It’s beautiful.” More tears joined the ones from earlier. “Thank you.” Josiah held it up for everyone to see and he was amazed at how well the artist had captured each one of them, especially the kids.
Vin noticed that Mallory was not the only one with a few tears and knowing what she was thinking, he squeezed Kelli’s hand. “We made it baby, only needin’ a few minor touch ups, just like that picture”
Chris took in the whole room, not missing anything. If felt right having the family together today and he trusted Vin to take care of Kelli’s concerns. Linda came and sat down beside him; he smiled and pulled her close. Low enough for only her to hear he did have one question. “Why didn’t you tell me that your brother was in love with Kel?”
“That was a long time ago and she never encouraged him so I’m sure he is well over it.”
Observing Matthew over the last few hours had Chris convinced otherwise. “I don’t think so, but we’ll see.”
Linda considered Chris’ words and looked over to Matthew. *Maybe you need a sister to brother talk.*
The party broke up and as if it were pre-planned, the women took the kids home, while the men stayed. Linda took Matthew out to show off the Larabee horses and have a heart-to- heart talk. That left Vin and Kelli to face the other brothers.
Chris started. “Now that you both have had time to think about what happened, let’s go over it.”
“I really don’t remember much except Vin shoutin’ and then…cold.”
“Hell Chris, I can’t add more to what I already told you. I still can’t place that ring and…”
“Ring? What ring?” Kelli had missed hearing about it.
“A ring one of the men wore, it looked familiar but hell if I know why.”
“It was silver, red stone and some kind of blue on the edge not jeweled but etched.”
She sat up straighter, trying to piece something together. Suddenly she looked at Chris and then threw back the blanket surprising them all.
“Kel, where in the hell are you going?” Chris looked over to Vin who just shrugged his shoulder.
Kelli did not answer, but went to the hall closet and started pulling out boxes. Chris chose to let her go at it, paying close attention to her actions. JD, Nathan and Josiah thought that maybe she had overmedicated. Ezra just observed and Buck was not sure just what to think, but his own curiosity got the best of him.
Buck got up and offered to assist. “Can I help you find something darlin’?” he watched her try to reach a box on the top shelf. “Whoa, I’ll get it for you.” He pulled the box down and set it on the floor.
She pulled out a photo album and took it back to the couch with her, leaving the rest of the boxes out on the floor, for Wilmington to put up. When she found what she was looking for she showed it to Vin. “Is that the ring?”
Vin studied it and the looked up. “Yeah, but how did you know?”
“I told you I felt I should have recognized that man in the car and now I know why. Age this picture twenty-five years and ‘m positive it will be the man I saw.” She cut her eyes over to Chris and said softly, “This is the man and it wasn’t my imagination after all.”
“Are you sure, Kel?” One look at her face and Vin knew she was positive.
Chris cleared his throat. “You two wanna share with the rest of us?”
*Cowboy, maybe we should make this private for now.*
Larabee looked around the room at the expectants faces. “Show me.”
Chris saw the hesitant look in his daughter’s eyes and had the feeling that he knew what was coming. When Vin described the ring in detail he knew who it belonged to, but did not want to believe it. That this man would try to ruin him financially and humiliate him was certainly feasible. But to run Vin’s truck off the road and standby while he was shot? Could time have changed him so much?
Larabee repeated himself. “Just show me.”
Kelli got up, took the album over to Chris, and laid it in him lap. He took one look at the picture and paled, “You’re sure?” His mind raced back over the years thinking about the young man in the photo. The pain he felt was evident in his eyes. Everyone in the room remained silent, not knowing what was going on, but sensing strong emotions between father and daughter.
“I wish I wasn’t, but yeah ‘m sure.” She remembered how heartbreaking it was for him when Chris first told her about all of this. She knelt down beside his chair and whispered, “You told me you always felt you could have done more, well you couldn’t. He is what he chose to be and nothin’ you did or didn’t do would have changed that.” Kelli waited until he looked at her. “You cannot let him destroy you and he will if you give him half a chance.”
Chris nodded, but was unsure about where to even begin an explanation. He ran a finger over the picture before pulling it out of the album. “JD, how long would it take to age this picture?”
“With CASSIE, only a few minutes,” JD did not know why, but he felt a wave of sadness wash over him when Chris spoke.
“I need some time on this, “Chris saw the arguments coming. “I’ll be fine, just give me until Monday and we’ll cover it all in the office. I will tell you everything, but not here or now.”
Josiah stood up. “If you want to talk, call me.” He indicated to the others that it was time to leave.
“Gentlemen, I have a dinner engagement with a lovely young woman and should leave now in order to meet her on time.” Ezra retrieved his coat.
Buck was dying of curiosity, but decided to give Chris the time he wanted. “Come on JD, I’ll show you the new stereo system in my truck before you go home.”
After they left Chris grabbed his crutches and moved in front of the fireplace.
“I think we’ll stick around a while, at least until Linda gets back,” Vin casually commented
Chris knew neither Vin or Kelli would push him on this and he needed to decide how to handle it. “Sure, pick out a movie and I’ll put it on,” Chris told them.
Vin grinned, and handed him an action movie. “We’ll make out on your couch while you watch it.” He pulled Kelli back down beside him.
Chris put the DVD in the player and smiled, “Just don’t go x-rated until you get home.”
“Leave it to you Lar’bee to take all the fun out of things.” Vin knew that Chris would talk to him when he was ready and he was pleased to see Larabee smile. They would stay for him as long as he needed them to, in the meantime they all settled back to watch the movie.
“Matt, I am glad to see you, but why are you the only one to come meet my new family.” Linda watched his face as he answered.
“It was just easier for me to take some time off. You know how our older brothers are, Robert’s surgery schedule at the hospital is tight and when Blake is on a case, he cannot just tell the judge he needs some time away in the middle of a trial. Lucas…well he is part of the reason I’m here.”
“What wrong with Luke?”
“Nothing is wrong exactly, he wants a change and he and Doris want to bring the kids to the ranch to work it.”
“Luke wants to come to Colorado?”
“No, he wants to come to the home ranch in Louisiana and since I can be a vet anywhere I’m thinking about moving to the Southern Breeze when you get married.” He stopped her from saying anything. “I know what you are thinking and it is not that. We were wrong about Larabee; we only got part of the story from that investigator. After discussing it we feel that we have put too much on you since dad died and it’s time we took out share of the responsibility for the Southern Breeze.”
“Well, if you know the truth now, why this trip?”
“Lucas is only part of the reason; I have to be sure I can handle living here.”
It was then that Linda realized Chris was right. “You mean living this close to a married Kelli?”
Matthew was surprised. “How did you know?”
“I didn’t. Matt I though you got Kel’s message years ago. She will never see you as more than my brother, you know that.”
“I always believed that was because she was so young when I met her. That if I gave her enough time, she would change her mind, as she got older. I have not been able to change how I feel.” He asked Linda a direct question. “Is she happy?”
“Absolutely, more than that she is free for the first time in her life to let her emotions go and Vin is the reason for that. She is not the same person that you knew before. I will not standby and let you or anyone else cause problems for her.”
“I won’t, but if I move here I have to be sure it won’t be a problem for me. I also need to see for myself that she is really content. That is why I wanted to stay here instead of the ranch. It has been three years since I have even seen her, all I want is a few days to put my feelings in the proper perspective. If I can’t, then I will not stay and honestly, right now Linda I’m not sure what I will do.”
Linda sighed, “I will warn you, if you get out of line just once Vin will take you apart and then her father will take what’s left and squish you like a bug.”
Matthew’s head popped up. “Father? Since when does Kel have a dad, who the hell is he and where has he been all of her life?”
“Chris is her father and they both only found out a few months ago, but he is rather protective, so make sure you can handle it or leave now.” Linda noted the assenting shake of his head. “Tomorrow we’ll go over to the Southern Breeze and I’ll show you around there. We probably should head back up to the house.”
The movie was almost over and Vin was sure that Chris could not even tell him if it was a comedy or a western. Larabee’s mind was definitely somewhere else. Linda and Matthew came back in and joined them.
“What did you do with everyone else?” Linda sat down beside Chris, with Matt on the other couch opposite the Tanners.
“They went home, but Vin and Kelli are staying for dinner. “Chris made it clear that he appreciated having them at his side right now.
Linda was glad, at least this way she could keep an eye on Matt and he could see for himself that Kelli was happy. She hoped he got his head straight because she would like to have him living close by. “What’s the movie for?
“An excuse to make out on the couch with my wife and keep Chris occupied until you got back.” Vin answered when it was clear Chris was not going to and he deliberately emphasized the word wife for Matthew’s benefit. Kelli had told him a long time ago that Matt at one time wanted more than a sisterly relationship with her and she had told him no. The Texan was only making sure Dubois remembered that message.
“Right Tanner, as if you two need an excuse to make out.” Linda laughed, but felt a lot of tension in the room. She only wished she knew what was causing it. “Why don’t I order a few pizza’s and we have a casual dinner?”
Chris decided he had better join in or be prepared to answer questions he was not ready for, yet. “Pizza’s fine and I don’t even have to ask Red or Tanner, I know their answer.”
“You got that right and Dubois tell ‘m not to hold back on the pepperoni or the cheese.” After hospital food, Kelli was ready for pizza. “And don’t forget the breadsticks.”
Linda raised her brow. “Anything else I can do for you, Kel?”
“No, that’ll do for now.” Kelli answered with a grin and ducked behind Vin to miss being hit by the pillow Linda threw at her.
Unfortunately it did not miss Vin and when he threw it back his aim was better than Linda’s, within a few minutes they has a good pillow fight going on. Kelli decided to include Chris and threw the next one at him; in retaliation, he got Vin with another one. Before long, the tension was gone and they were all laughing, then Kelli made a big mistake. She zapped Vin with a stray pillow, careful not to hit his injured shoulder and he began to tickle her, instead of helping her Chris encouraged the Texan.
“Okay I give! You don’t play fair because you know I can’t get you back when you’re hurt.” Vin stopped his one handed attack and grinned. Kelli got her laughter under control and turned on Chris. “Just remember Lar’bee, paybacks are hell and when you least expect it, I will get even with you for encouraging him.”
Matthew watched all of this and realized that Linda had been right. This Kelli was a completely different one than the one he knew and fell in love with so long ago. Apparently, she was happy with this man and her life. He could do this, it would not be easy because he liked this new Kelli, but she was out of reach for him and he would have to learn to live with that in some way.
“So tell me about the Larabee 7 breeding program, Linda tells me that y’all set it up and have been very successful.” For the next two hours the conversation revolved around horses and ranching.
Chris made a point of mentioning that he would probably go with Linda and Matt over to the Southern Breeze tomorrow. Letting Vin know that he wouldn’t be around and not to worry about him.
*You really okay, Chris?*
*Yeah, I’ll be fine.*
“Matt, it’s been good seeing you again, don’t be such a stranger.” Kelli gave him a hug.
“Actually, you will be seeing me more often. I am taking over the management for the Southern Breeze when Linda and Chris get married. Linda has done a fantastic job, but it is time that we get more involved.”
Chris could not help but be surprised by that statement. “Really?”
“Yep, I miss my sister and want to be able to see her on a regular basis. Now that I see Kelli has found a permanent place here, I won’t have to worry about her either.” He spoke to them all, but watched Tanner for his reaction.
Vin took his time answering, trying to read what Matt was not saying aloud. “If you can get used to the cold, it’s a nice place to live and we can always use another veterinarian around here.” He extended his hand to Dubois, “Welcome to Colorado.”
Ezra was right on time, he told Barbara he would be there at seven and it was one minute before seven when he rang her doorbell. She answered quickly and he was appreciative not only for her promptness but she looked great.
“Come in Ezra, give me one more minute and I will be ready to leave.” He watched as she took a container of fish food off the shelf and gently dropped some into her aquarium. “Meet Huey, Dewey and Louie, guys this is Ezra.”
“Correct me if I am wrong, but weren’t Huey, Dewey and Louie, ducks?”
“Yes, but the names fit these little guys and I always liked Donald Duck so…”
Ezra smiled.*She is just full of surprises Standish.* “I always liked Underdog myself, but ducks are fine, too.” *Ducks are fine, too. Ezra what are you saying?* “I made our reservation for seven-thirty so we have no need to rush.”
Barbara locked her door and they left for the restaurant.
“I do hope you like Italian food.” Ezra commented as he pulled out her chair.
“My favorite, I have heard about this place, but this is my first opportunity to try it out.”
Once they had ordered, Ezra found it easy to talk to this woman. Just like the night they shared coffee, the conversation flowed between them and they covered everything from current events to a lively discussion of the arts. Ezra had quickly realized that what they talked about was unimportant, he simple enjoyed listening to her. However, both of them steered away from giving out too much personal history.
“This food is even better than I imagined it would be. Thank you for bringing me here.”
“You are most welcome. This establishment was highly recommended and I am pleased that it met my expectations.”
“I hate to do this, but I have a brief to work on tomorrow and it is getting late, we really should think about leaving.”
Truthfully, Ezra had lost track of the time and was surprised by the late hour. It seemed to him they had only been here a few minutes, when actually it had been more than four hours. “Of course.” He called for the check and they leisurely walked out to his car and began the trip back to her condominium.
They walked to her door in silence. “I had a great time Ezra.” *Barbara you are an attorney. Is that the best thing you can think of to say?*
“I would be honored if you agreed to see me again, Ms. Lindsey. Perhaps we could share dinner again Monday evening?”
“I can’t Monday, I have a short business trip planned and I will not be back before Wednesday night, but I am free on Friday.”
Ezra smiled, “Friday it is then, I will call you after I confirm our reservation and inform you of the time.” Before he could think about it he drew he close and passionately kissed her,” Goodnight Barbara.”
“Goodnight Ezra,” He waited until she was inside and he heard the door lock. *Ezra, whatever you are doing, you had best make sure you do it right.*
It was mid- afternoon, Vin and Kelli had not left the house all day. George took care of the horses early, Chris and Linda took Matt over to the Southern Breeze and not one family member had felt compelled to drop by just to check on them. That had left them free to spend the entire day together. Vin took his medicine at Kelli’s insistence and now comfortably curled up on the couch, neither of them wanted to move.
Kelli snuggled closer to Vin. “You want to talk about Matt and last night?”
“You noticed, huh?”
“Tanner, you were about as subtle as a train wreck, of course I noticed.”
Vin shrugged. “I wanted him to get my message, he did, end of story.”
She waited for him to look at her. “If he does move here, will that be a problem?
The Texan sighed and wrapped his good arm around her. “Not for us. Hell, I can’t fault the man for havin’ good taste and I trust you completely. Last night though, I wasn’t thinkin’ about that I was just reactin’ and I reckon I was a bit territorial.”
“Just for the record Tanner, the only man I have ever wanted is right here. Matt never has and never will be anythin’ to me except Linda’s brother and a friend.”
“I hear you Kel and who knows maybe he and I can even be friends at some point.” He grinned, “But enough about him, I’ve had my pain pill and we have some more catchin’ up to do.” He pulled her closer.
Kelli turned enough to nuzzle the Texan’s neck and her soft kisses quickly changed to teasing nips. Vin yelped and leaned back enough to see the impish light dancing in her eyes. With amusement threaded through her voice, she asked innocently. “Somethin’ wrong, Tanner?
“Texas, you can’t out play the master and you should know that by now.” He pulled her across his lap, facing him and began his own roguish game. He knew the places to tickle that would get the redhead back and launched a playful assault, guaranteed to get results. Kelli threw her head back and giggled with delight; Vin took advantage of her exposed throat and continued his lighthearted barrage of kisses. The smile in his twinkling blue eyes melted her resistance. The Texan was satisfied that he had proved his superiority at playing mischievous games and now decided that it was time for some serious lovemaking.
Afterwards Kelli became concerned about her enthusiasm, thinking that she may have injured his shoulder again. “Vin, ‘m sorry, I forgot about your shoulder. Please tell me you’re okay.”
Tanner grinned and said. “Well, ‘m not sure, I forgot to pay attention to it. Maybe we should try again, you know to see if it hurts.” She frowned at his teasing and he decided to rest her fears. “I’m fine baby and that was absolutely fantastic, but if it makes you feel better I’ll behave for a while.” He secured her at his side and pulled the comforter over both of them, but he could not resist one more tease. The Texan smiled and gently kissed her. “Now we’ll rest up …for later.”
It was almost five when the phone rang; Vin was in the kitchen so Kelli answered it. “Linda hi …No he’s not, I thought he was with you.” She listened and then answered. “We’ll be right over.”
Tanner came out of the kitchen when she yelled. “What’s wrong?”
“That was Linda, Chris didn’t go with them this morning and when she and Matt returned he was gone. I told her we would be right over.”
Vin was already grabbing their coats. “Let’ go.”
At the ranch house, they found Linda, torn between being mad and concerned. Linda came home to spend some time with Chris, only to find he was not here and apparently had not been all day.
“Linda, have you called his cell?”
“Yes, I have left him six messages and he has not called me back. Vin, he shouldn’t even be driving until his leg is better. He did not say anything this morning except he thought Matt and I would enjoy spending some time together. Since he was up most of the night, I thought he needed to rest and agreed.”
“Why was he up so long?”
“I don’t know, he just said he had some work to catch up on and spent hours in his office.”
Tanner headed for Chris’ office and did not like what he found. The picture from last night was on the desk and it looked as if Chris had spent the night on the computer searching for something. There were notes scribbled on a pad by the computer, but nothing specific.
*Dammit Chris, what are you doing and where are you doing it.*
When Kelli saw the photo and it did not take much for her to figure out what Chris had done. “Oh hell, he went to find him! Chris Lar’bee has to be one of the most stubborn, hardheaded sonofabitches in the world and when I see him I intend to tell him just that!”
Vin picked up the picture. “Kel who is this?”
Kelli sighed and shook her head. “That is John Andrew Lar’bee, better known as Jack. When we were off work, Chris told me all about the Lar’bees, including all the family’s dirty laundry. I thought that I had imagined seeing Chris in that car, but it was Jack. He is Chris’ younger brother, he ran away when he was fifteen and Chris has not seen him in twenty-five years. When you described that ring I remembered seeing it in that picture and the reason you thought it was familiar was because Chris has one almost like it and some time or other you must have seen it.”
Vin nodded as he remembered. “Yeah he showed it to me one day a few years ago. I was helping him look for some special cufflinks he wanted and we ran across it, but I forgot all about it. Chris’ ring didn’t have the blue on it either and he never has worn it that I know of, at least.”
“No, his is an original that his father gave him, Jack had a duplicate made for himself and added the blue, I suppose to make some kind of statement. Jack had… problems, but from what Chris told me most people always believed that the Lar’bee family was close to perfect, but in truth, it was far from it. The whole damn family thing was all an illusion that the old man wanted everyone to believe.”
“What about Jack? Why would he want to cause Chris so much trouble, now?”
“He resented Chris, mistakenly believing that in their father’s eyes Chris could do no wrong, and was the golden boy of the Lar’bee family. Jack never recognized that neither of them could ever please their father. He was a cold, cruel man that enjoyed pushin’ competition between the two boys. For Chris it only made him surer of how he wanted his own family to be different. He excelled at whatever he chose to do, but Jack…Jack failed at everything he ever tried and instead of finding fault with his dad, he blamed his brother. Somethin’ must have set him off recently for him to go after Chris like this.”
“Let me guess, Chris always felt he should have done more to help him and now he is out there tryin’ to make up for what he thinks he didn’t do.” Vin knew exactly what Chris was thinking. “Dammit he’s in no condition to take this on alone, that bastard left us out there in the cold to die. What in the hell makes Chris think that he will do any different with him?”
“I don’t know, but I have a bad feelin’ about this.”
“Me too, baby, me too.” Vin picked up the phone and dialed Wilmington’s number. “Buck, call the guys and have ‘em meet at Chris’. We have a problem.”
*Chris you had better let me hear from you soon.*
Vin was angry at Chris for going off alone. *Dammit Chris, you had this planned last night didn’t you? Why didn’t you say something? You know I would have been there to watch your back. You had better know what in the hell you are doing and let me know damned quick where you are!* Buck was at the house in less than five minutes, followed by Josiah and JD within a few more. It would take Nathan and Ezra longer to get there, but Tanner would have to start without them.
“Vin, you got us here, what in the hell is going on?” Buck would not sit, but demanded some answers.
“Chris is missin’ and right now there is no evidence that he is in trouble, but my gut says he is.”
“Then why aren’t we in the office getting the entire team together?” Buck yelled.
Tanner heaved a deep sigh. “We keep this among family for now and we will work from here. Josiah I need a profile, Kel can give you information that will help. JD, this picture needs to be aged. Can you do it from here?
“I need the right program…let me see what Chris has on his computer.” JD took the photo.
“Oh and JD see if you can track Chris’ phone. Buck, use your old contacts and discreetly get an APB out on Chris’ truck. If it’s found with him in it and he’s okay, we do nothin’.”
Buck reached for the phone but snapped first. “You gonna tell us more or keep it to yourself.”
“I only want to do this once and as soon as Ezra and Nathan get here, I’ll tell you everythin’, just be patient for a little longer.” They all got busy with their assignments.
Linda stood quietly by the window, when she finally spoke; it was so low that Buck and Vin had to strain to hear her. “If he could, he would be here now.” She turned and met Vin’s eyes. “Tell me the truth, is he dead?”
“Linda, I do know that he’s alive, but for some reason I can’t reach him and ‘m not sure why.”
“Hell, you know Chris, probably just exerting his independence, tired of us carting him around.” Buck flashed Linda a smile.
“Vin, can I see you a minute?” JD called from Chris’ office door.
“Sure, “Tanner joined JD in the office. “What did you find?”
“Plenty, first this is your picture aged twenty-five years.” He handed the photo to the Texan.
“Damn, guess there’s no doubt now that it was his brother in that car.” Jack and Chris almost looked like twins.
“When I saw that, I knew who to look for and hacked into CASSIE from Chris’ computer.” He anticipated Vin’s next question. “Pam helped me from the other end; no one else could do that. Anyway, I ran the Larabee name, found John ‘Jack’ Larabee, and was able to trace him back twenty years, so far. I also retrieved the sites than Chris was on last night and made a list, but no luck on a signal from his cell.”
“Thanks JD, keep diggin’.” Vin took the file on Jack for Josiah to look over and the list that Chris’ had worked on to share with the others.
Tanner passed the folder to Josiah. “Give me what you can ASAP. Are you through with Kel?” Josiah nodded yes, already engrossed in the file. The Texan pulled Kelli aside. “Linda is not holdin’ up too well, talk to her.” Linda did look awful and Matt was no help to her just standing around.
“I’ll see what I can do, but I want you to slow down. She cupped her hand against his cheek. “You may feel better Tanner, but you were shot only a few days ago and you can’t help Chris if you make yourself ill in the process.”
“I hear you, baby and ‘m sure you will keep remindin’ me, but I can say the same thing, I almost lost you, too.” Vin kissed her brow. “Love you, Texas, now go see to Linda.” He affectionately patted her butt and then watched as she went over to the window seat Linda was sitting on.
Linda saw her coming. “How do you do it, Kel?”
Kelli sat down with her. “Do what?”
“Live with all of this.” She swept her hand through the air. “I knew that Chris’ work was dangerous, but in the ten months that I have known him I have almost lost him twice, we were kidnapped by crazies, you were beaten, Vin was hit by a car and you two almost died last week. Now, Chris is missing and I have no idea about what is going on. How do you love Vin and face this kind of fear everyday?”
Kelli thought about Linda’s question. “Linda, look at me, I don’t know how long I will have with Vin, but I will take all that I am given and not waste a second of it. I try not to worry about what could happen and just love him. As far as our work is concerned, it is risky, but then so is getting’ on the freeway. Hell, Peso could hit a wild streak, throw Vin and break his neck or he could be on a plane that crashes. All of those things are out of my control so I have faith and pray that we have a long life together.”
“Well I guess I don’t have your faith, if I get Chris back this time I am going to ask him to quit law enforcement. I want him with me and I do not want to raise this baby alone. Call me selfish if you want to, but I love him and need him to be here, not lost out there somewhere.” Tears flowed down her face as she spoke. Whether it was her pregnancy or Chris missing that triggered it, Linda’s emotional state was in turmoil.
Kelli wiped her tears off Linda’s cheeks. “Maybe now is not the time to think about this. Do you want me to ask Inez or Mallory to come stay with you?”
“No, Matt will stay with me until...” Linda pulled herself up straighter and sighed. “You can help me by finding Chris.”
“We will find him.” Kelli stopped talking when she saw Matt move toward them from where he had stood watching the room. The look on his face was one of pure anger.
Matthew came over and hugged Linda; she began to cry all over again. “Kel, I want some answers about what in the hell is going on! Who is in charge of this?”
“Right now this is all unofficial and it’s just family workin’ on it. You will know somethin’ when we do.”
“That is not good enough! Can’t you see what this is doing to Linda?”
“I know you love your sister Matt and so do I, but do not come in here and start making demands! Everyone is this room is concerned about Chris and you behavin’ like a jackass will not help anythin’!” Kelli’s voice was getting louder. “Dammit Matt, you’re actin’ like your brothers and think you need to control everythin’.”
“Maybe I need to call a few of our family contacts and make this official!” Matthew threatened.
Kelli stood up. “Maybe you should tend to Linda and stay the hell out of this! She was yelling now. “Do not ever pull that sanctimonious attitude with me Matthew Dubois or I might just find a reason to haul your ass to jail!
Now he stood up. “Linda was right you have changed. I thought you cared about her now I see that all you care about is your new family!”
Everyone in the room heard the sound when Kelli slapped him.” Linda, either you control him or I will have him escorted out of here!
‘Now you just wait one damn minute…” Matthew started but stopped suddenly.
Vin had heard more than enough and did not appreciate Matt’s interference or the way he talked to Kelli, he came over and stood between Matt and her. “Dubois, if you know Kel as well as you claim to, then you know she is about ten seconds away from layin’ into you and right now we have work to do. You can either sit down and shut up or leave, it’s your choice.”
Linda pulled on his sleeve. “Matt, let them work. We’ll talk about this after Chris is home.”
“Okay, but I want her to apologize for hitting me.”
“When hell freezes over!” Kelli snapped. If Vin had not been standing in front of her she would have slapped him again and Tanner knew it.
Matthew decided that retreat was the better option for now when he saw the look in the Texan’s eyes. “Fine, I will let it go, but you had better come up with some answers soon.”
“Kel, would you see how many copies of the photo JD has printed? I want enough for everyone to have one.” Vin spoke without turning around, but he was aware when she left the room to check with JD. “Linda, if you can keep your brother quiet you are welcome to sit in while we cover what we know. We were waiting for Ezra and Nathan to get here before we began so we would only have to do this once. They just arrived so we are ready now.”
“Thanks, I do want to know and Matthew will behave.”
JD and Kelli came in with the pictures and everyone sat down to listen.
Vin started. “For now this is to be handled by family, if we need to make it official it will be a MCAT case. We now know who was behind Chris’ identity theft and the plants in the press. That same person is responsible for runnin’ Kel and me off the road, leavin’ us to die after shootin’ me. Chris spent last night on the computer trackin’ down leads to find him. JD retrieved that information and we have a copy for all of you.” The Texan looked to JD for confirmation.
Vin continued, “We believe Chris left here this mornin’ and in typical Larabee style thought that he could handle this alone. Although we have no evidence to indicate that somethin’ went wrong, I feel he would have been back by now or at least called, if he could. Before I pass out this photo and Josiah gives us a preliminary profile, I need to explain why we want to keep this private if possible.”
Vin hesitated briefly. “The man behind all of this is…John Andrew Lar’bee aka Jack Lar’bee, Chris’ younger brother.”
Buck was shaking his head no. “Vin, I’ve know Chris for over twenty years and I’m telling you, he doesn’t have any brothers, other than us.”
“Yes he does Buck; when we were all recuperatin’ here, Chris went over the Lar’bee family history for me and told me all of it, the good, the bad and the ugly parts. Jack is his younger brother and there were reasons that Chris never talked about him, just wait and hear Vin out.” Kelli had her say.
“Maybe this will help. “Tanner passed out the copies of Jack’s picture. “This is an age-enhanced photo; JD took a picture of a fifteen year old Jack and worked his programs to come up with this.” He waited while everyone got over the shock of seeing a man that looked so much like Chris. “Before we play twenty questions I want you to hear what Josiah has to say.”
Josiah stood. “Kelli repeated to me the story Chris told her and JD was able to gather a lot of information on Jack. So far, I can tell you that although Chris and Jack may look alike they are exact opposites. Chris took the hardships of his early family life and welded them into an inner strength that has made him who he is today.
Jack however let events shape him into a person that needs to blame others for his own shortcomings. He failed in business, has had three marriages, and he has spent most of his adult life pretending to be someone else. An accomplished con man, he has had many scrapes with the law. He blames his brother for all the wrong in his life and wants to strip Chris of everything he values. His intention with the identity theft was to cost him this ranch, his job and his upcoming marriage.
Chris of course felt that he should handle this because we all know how he feels about family and responsibility. Until now, I do not believe that Jack intended to do any physical harm, but when his cohort shot Vin a line was crossed. I just don’t know how desperate they are now or what they would do to Chris if they are cornered.”
JD passed out the next list.” These are some things that Chris worked on last night and if we split up we can cover them in a couple of hours.”
“I called in some favors and we have discreetly put out an APB on Chris’ truck with instructions that if they find it and he is in it to leave him alone and notify us.” Buck passed on what he knew.” We cannot rule out other possibilities either.”
Nathan was angry, “That fool knows he should not be gallivanting around, much less be driving with that leg in the shape it’s in.”
“I will contact my sources immediately and try to locate this Jack person through another route.” Ezra pulled out his phone and moved to the back of the room.
“Before we split up are there any questions?” Tanner asked.
”I don’t have a question, but I do have something to say. We already have one brother out there that needs to have his head examined, and Vin you will be next on my list if you don’t heed what your doctor said. Don’t push yourself or I will push back.” Nathan hoped that his message was clear.
‘Don’t worry Nate, I plan to stay on my feet until we have Chris back so I won’t do anythin’ stupid. Besides if I did it wouldn’t just be you givin’ me hell, I think Kel already claimed first shot.”
Matthew watched as these men worked together, grudgingly admitting that it was through and professional. “I have a question. Obviously, y’all are working this as law enforcement officers would. Why keep it unofficial?”
Vin chose to answer, “Because like it or not this involves a member of Chris’ family and he would want us to try this way first.”
“I don’t care if it involves the president; I want this bastard somewhere that he cannot hurt Chris!” Linda shouted.
“That is what we all want, Linda and getting Chris home safely is our priority.” Tanner tried to ignore Linda’s outburst. “Okay Bucklin, take that list and decide who goes where.”
“Vin, what about tomorrow morning when none of us show up for work?” JD was curious.
“I already took care of that JD, Travis knows why we are all takin’ a personal day and I let Justin know he was in charge until Chris or I tell him different.”
Buck had it all sorted out. ”Vin, you and Kel will stay here, there is no sense in you two going out until we have something solid to go on, humor us, stay here to rest while you can. JD will continue working on the computer. Between Nathan, Josiah, Ezra and me, we can hit all these addresses in less than two hours. We pop on anything and I promise we will call you.”
Tanner knew that Nathan was behind the decision for Kel and him to stay behind, but he would not argue about it for now. His shoulder was hurting a bit and Kelli had already done more than she should have. “We’ll stay, but I expect to be kept informed.”
“You got it.” Buck grasped Vin’s good shoulder and whispered. “Keep an eye on Dubois; I’m not sure I like his attitude.”
While JD stood with Vin watching the other men leave. Kelli grabbed her coat and started for the door.
“Just where do you think you are goin’, Texas?”
“To our house to get your pain pills and don’t tell me your shoulder doesn’t hurt because I know it does,”
“Tell me where they are and I’ll get them, you should stay out of the cold.” JD offered.
“The meds are sittin’ on the bar between the kitchen and the den; all I need is the antibiotic, leave the pain pills there.” Vin directed him and JD was off.
Kelli grumbled, “I could have done it and you should take both of ‘em.
Vin drew her snuggly beside him. “I know you could, baby, but now you don’t have to and I’ll take the pain pill when I need it.” The Texan stole a quick kiss. “Besides, if you got cold I’d have to warm you up and that would lead to other things and then we would have to find someplace private …” Vin kept talking to keep her mind off Chris and her fight with Matt until Dunne made it back, handing the prescription to him. “Thanks JD.”
“You’re welcome; I’ll be in Chris’ office if you need me.”
”Sit down Tanner, and I’ll get you some water.” Kelli picked up a bottle of water from the kitchen and the joined Vin on the couch, leaning into his good side. They took some time to rest and talked quietly about their fears for Chris.
Linda and Matt sat across the room, the more Linda thought about Chris taking off after this long lost brother, the madder she got. The idea that he would risk their life together for someone that wanted to hurt him was incomprehensible to her. She was now in a pacing stage and her anger was building.
Matt on the other hand, watched Vin and Kelli as they sat so close together and talked. His emotions were waging their own battling inside him and he would handle it the only way he knew how. The Dubois family had money, along with some very powerful contacts and when they wanted something, they were used to getting it one way or another.
When Tanner’s phone rang an hour later, he answered before the second ring and listened to what Buck had to say. ”Yeah, I know where that is, we’re closer than you are and heading out now, so we’ll meet you there.” He stood up, pulling Kelli with him and yelled for JD. “DPD found Chris’ truck, you’re with us.” Vin was already grabbing his coat.
“What about us?” Linda was not about to sit and wait.
“Linda it might be better…” Vin was going to try and discourage her, Buck’s report was not good.
“No! We’re going.” Linda reached for her own coat.
“Okay, you can ride with us.” Tanner was not going to waste time arguing.
“We’ll follow you, Linda I’ll drive.” Matt intended to stay on top of everything that happened, this was his baby sister hurting here, not theirs.
Canyon road –twelve miles from the ranch
From what Buck had told him, a police officer spotted Chris’ truck when he stopped to investigate a damaged guard railing. After running the visible license plate number, he notified The Denver Police Department. It was not hard to find the right place; flashing lights from emergency vehicles were evident long before they reached the crash site.
Vin knew that there had been some kind of accident and he tried to prepare Kelli for what they might discover “Kel, all Buck could tell me was that Chris’ truck was halfway down some type of ravine and that rescue personal were on their way. It might be bad.”
“You think Chris is…”
“I just don’t know. I get nothin’ from him at all and that in itself concerns me.” She only nodded and Vin kept her close by his side.
JD was driving; he began to pray and pushed the accelerator for more speed. Rescue workers were just starting to descend the canyon wall when they arrived. Linda and Matt were right behind them and when she realized where they were searching she almost collapsed.
“I’m Captain Tanner from MCAT, who is in charge here?”
“That would be me; I’m Jim Nevis, search and rescue. We have only been here for about ten minutes, the truck is down about three hundred feet and wedged between two huge boulders. My men should reach it soon and then we will know if this is a rescue or a recovery.”
“I have more agents on the way, what can we do to help?’
“Truthfully sir, just stay out of the way and if there are any family members here stay close to them because by the looks of it I do not expect to find anyone alive down there.” In all fairness, the man did not know that almost everyone there was family and that they all heard what he said.
“Just so you know our own forensics team is on the way and they will be handlin’ the crash investigation.” Vin found that it was hard to breath when your chest muscles felt like tight rubber bands. He moved back to stand close to Kelli and held a taut rein on his own emotions.
Buck and Ezra arrived next and Tanner told them what he knew. Nathan and Josiah joined them a few minutes later. A quiet group stood on the edge of the road waiting, and praying for some sign that Chris was alive.
Waiting … the dictionary defines it as to stay in one place or do nothing until something happens or in the expectation or hope that something will happen. Chris’ family had a better definition … hell with a capital H. They stood silently waiting for the rescue team to produce some results. Since they could only navigate by artificial light and dawn was still a few hours away it was slow going.
When the MCAT forensic team arrived, Greg Ramsey sought out Captain Tanner. “Sir, Bones sent us, he said he would wait and come only if needed, he thought it would be easier for the family if the ME was not hanging around. Kat and I brought a lab technician with us and with your permission; we want to start working up here until we can have access to the vehicle.”
Vin knew that whatever had happened to Chris and his truck, it started up here. “Go ahead, just let me know first, what you find.”
Buck stood next to Tanner. “Have you noticed that Linda is letting her brother call all the shots for her?’
“She’s pregnant, scared and close to bein’ in shock, emotions are runnin’ high for everyone Buck. Give her some space and see what happens.”
“I do know how pregnant women can be a bit stubborn, but she sure as hell don’t need to be standing out here in the cold for hours. She should be at the ranch taking care of herself and that baby. Can’t you get Kel to talk some sense into her?” Buck was worried about both of them.
“I’ll see what I can do.” Vin was concerned about her too, but Matt was in brother protective mode, keeping her separated from the others. *Maybe Kel should have kicked his ass, Tanner. Hell, if he keeps this up Vin, she still might and if she doesn’t you can.*
Kelli had been watching Linda and finally she could not stand it any longer. She went over to the rescue truck, grabbed a blanket and then went over to confront her friend. “Linda you need this,” She draped the blanket around the blond’s shoulder. “There is nothing that you can do here, take care of yourself and your baby, go home. You know that I will tell you when I know somethin’ and from personal experience I can tell you that this kind of cold is not good for you.”
“I can take care of Linda without your help.” Matt interjected.
“Then do it, think about her and the baby, instead of trying to play the aristocrat.” Kelli glared at him.
“I am tired,” Linda held her hand protectively over her lower abdomen. ”Kel, call me the second you know anything, I…”
Kelli hugged her. “I will, I promise, now go get warm and off your feet.” Matt, take her home and keep a close eye on her.” Reluctantly Dubois agreed to take his sister home; Kelli walked her over to Matt’s car, helped her inside and then watched as they drove off.
“She’ll be fine, Kel.” Vin walked up behind her with another blanket and wrapped it around his redhead. “I don’t think old Matt stands a chance against you.”
“Linda’s brothers have always been overprotective and controllin’ and she got to the point that she would not put up with it. I don’t know why she is lettin’ Matt do this now, but until she gets her grit back, I plan to keep him in line.”
The Texan pulled her back to lean against him. “Linda is scared for Chris just like the rest of us and right now it’s easier to fall back into old patterns that make her feel safer. Unfortunately Matt will let her, you just keep doin’ what you are doin’ and she’ll come around.”
“How is your shoulder and don’t your dare tell me you’re just fine because I know better.”
“It hurts some, but I will be good as new in a few days and I have no plans on going anywhere.” Vin hugged her with his good arm. Besides, you need me around to keep you and that temper of yours out of trouble.”
Kelli had a great comeback for that remark but forgot all about it when she saw Greg Ramsey rushing over. Vin saw him too and released her, stepping forward to meet him.
“Captain Tanner, you need to see this.” Ramsey handed Vin a plastic evidence bag, inside was a white cloth. “Chloroform.”
“Damn,” on one hand Vin was relieved because this meant Chris probably had not been in the truck when it went off the road. On the other hand, it did not bring them any closer to knowing where he was. “Show me where you found this.”
Ramsey led Vin and the others down the road about one hundred yards and showed them what they had found. “Chris’ truck was parked here and judging from the tire tracks that came off the road he had a blowout on the left rear tire. We recovered two shell casings and I believe the tire was shot at, which of course, means that someone deliberately forced him to stop. At some point, he exited the vehicle and was subdued with the chloroform soaked cloth from there…We are not sure yet exactly what transpired, but we can put together a likely scenario.”
“Are you positive he was taken and not in the truck when it left the road?” Buck asked anxiously.
“There was a second vehicle behind the truck and two sets of footprints leading toward the disabled Ram. There are three sets leading away from it, the original two were walking and a third that was half-walking and half-dragged back to the waiting car indicates that that man wore a boot on one foot only. We made plaster cast of the tire prints that could lead us to that second vehicle and of course all of the footprints.” Ramsey retraced their investigation. “We also found this and unless I am mistaken, this is the Commander’s cell.” He held up a bag that held a smashed cell phone, obviously the reason that JD could not track Chris.
Ramsey continued. “It appears that the third man was placed in the car and then the other two went back to the truck. This is the path it took until it went over the side.” He walked the trail showing them where it picked up speed and the route ended at the edge where the truck apparently dropped down the canyon wall.”
“Good work Greg and as soon as you can, get on the truck and let me or Buck know when the lab results are in.” Vin turned to Buck first. “We’ll wait for confirmation from the rescue team, but I think we just went official on this investigation. How do we want to handle this?”
Ezra made his proposal. “Due to the delicate situation involving a family member, perhaps Vin, it’s good that you and Kelli are both on sick leave for a while, insuring that if any unofficial business needs tending…”
“We can act unofficially and off the radar. Good thinkin’ Ez.” Vin continued, “Buck you take over the official investigation, that will leave us free to check out a few things that we might not want included in the case file.”
Josiah agreed. “It might be best if you both keep a low profile on this one anyway. If the press gets the story, they will dig and they would not hesitate to drag Kelli and Chris’ relationship out in the open, as well as details that should remain buried. Add another long lost relative to that and it could get ugly.”
“Beside, I do not have a release in my hands from either one of your doctor’s and you both need time to recover completely.” Nathan was more than pleased to have another reason to slow both Tanners down.
“I can keep us all connected and get reports to you, unofficially of course. A few extra phone lines installed at the ranch and some small modifications to Chris’ computer would give you full access to anything you need.” JD was already planning how to do it.
Jim Nevis interrupted their discussion. “Excuse me, I thought you would like to know that we have searched five hundred yards in each direction of the wreckage and we could not find a body. We will make another sweep after daybreak, but I do not think that there is anymore to find. It appears that whoever was originally driving was not inside that truck when it crashed.”
“We appreciate the effort that you and your team have put into this. Our forensics people will be here until they have the Ram towed and the entire scene cleared.” Buck shook the man’s hand.
Buck began his official duties. “Vin, you and Kel go back to the ranch and tell Linda what is going on, JD can ride with me. Tomorrow morning we will hit all our snitches and call in every favor we can. Once we have Jack’s picture out there we will find some leads because somebody, somewhere in Denver has to have seen this man. I will talk to Travis, but this is bound to make the news, I hope that we can work that to our advantage.”
“Put the entire team on this, we are gonna need all the help we can get, the other cases will just have to be shoved onto the back burner for now.” Vin addressed all of them. “Our only priority is findin’ Chris and until we are positive that Jack has him, we check all possibilities.”
“Pam and I will get the communications set up early and put CASSIE to work digging into Jack Larabee’s background for a more detailed search.” JD said.
Ezra added, “I still have a few untapped sources to contact.”
“My biggest concern is that they found no sign of Chris using his crutches and for a man that had the damage around his heart that he did, chloroform could cause some bad aftereffects.” Nathan just gave them something else to consider, but for Vin it was a possible explanation as to why he could not ‘feel’ anything coming from Chris
Josiah laid his hand on Kelli’s shoulder. “We will find him.” Sanchez knew that this was harder for her than she was showing. She and Chris were both working on their relationship, but it was still new and fragile for them. They needed more time to reconcile their minds and hearts for total acceptance, even the possibility that they may not get that time would weight heavy on her emotions.
Vin knew, too, that Kelli had not fully realized yet, just how important Chris was to her. He hoped that it would not sneak up and blindside her, before they found him. “Come on Kel, you can drive.” He threw her the keys. “Buck will take care of things on this end, while we go tell Linda what we know.”
Linda was awake when they drove in and was at the door waiting for whatever was coming. When she saw that Vin and Kelli were alone she was not sure what to think, she expected everyone to come back here when they knew anything.
“Linda, sit down, they will be in soon enough,” Matt instructed and was annoyed when she ignored him.
When the Tanners came in Kelli steered Linda to the couch and sat down next to her. “First off, Chris was not in the truck when it crashed.”
“Thank God!” Linda relaxed a bit. “If he wasn’t in the truck then where is he?”
Vin answered. “That we don’t know yet, apparently he was forced to stop and transferred to another vehicle. We are waitin’ for our lab to run through the evidence they collected and now that we have proof of foul play, we are official. We can’t keep the kidnappin’ of a federal agent quiet and I expect the news people will be all over this.”
“We hope that will work to our advantage and help find someone that knows Jack and can give us information to locate him.” Kelli explained.
“Buck is in charge of the official investigation, Kel and I are stayin’ out on sick leave and we will work from the ranch. JD is gonna run some extra phone lines in here and add some stuff to Chris’ computer so we will be able to access what we need. So, I guess you are stuck with us for a while.”
“At least if you two are here, I will know what is going on. I just…” Linda swallowed hard and tried not to get more emotional.
“Linda, we will find him, it just might take a little longer than any of us want it to.” Kelli hugged her. “We can make it through this and no one will stop working until Chris is home.”
Matt spoke up, condescendingly delivering his own orders. “I expect results Kelli and that means you will keep us informed on everything.”
“Dubois, Kelli does not work for you she works for MCAT. Any information that we can share we will, but as a courtesy only, we are not obligated to tell you anythin’. Linda knows that as her family, we would never shut her out.” Vin stood up. ”And just so we are clear, you will not speak to my wife again with that holier-than-thou tone in your voice. If you do you will find yourself with more to worry about than havin’ your ass kicked.”
Linda decided that enough was enough. “Matt I don’t know what your problem is, but Vin and Kelli are family as well as everyone else that was here tonight. This ranch is their home and you are a guest, I do expect you to remember that and behave accordingly.”
“Fine Linda, but I will be staying here to look out for your interests.” Matt insisted while throwing Tanner an arrogant smirk. “I also will be keeping our family informed of events as they unfold.”
Ignoring him Kelli stood up and joined Vin. “It will take a while for the lab test to show some results, so we are going to try and sleep for a couple of hours or at least until daylight. It’s gonna be a long day, Linda, you should try to get a little sleep yourself.” The Texan took his wife’s hand and started for the front door.”
Linda stopped them. “Vin, one more thing, have you…can you...is he okay? She was not sure how to ask about their connection with Matt in the room. That is something he would never understand.
Tanner knew what she was asking though. “He’s still with us Linda, I just don’t know where.”
Somewhere in Colorado
His head felt as if Pony and Peso had stomped on it enough to make mincemeat out of his brain. There was not one part of his body that did not ache and the fire that burned in his left leg could not be good. Chris tried to pull himself to a sitting position and groaned with each painful effort to move. *You need to get your ass off this cold floor Larabee, MOVE IT!*
“Okay, okay…” Once again, he attempted to maneuver into a different position evaluating his condition as he did. It was difficult to distinguish which body parts just hurt and which ones screamed in agony, but in the final analysis, he could only come to one conclusion. *You are fucked big time, Larabee.* Apparently his body protested any movement at all and the chain that stretched from his good ankle to the wall made it easy to comply with his body’s demands.
There was not much light, but as his eyes began to focus he noticed a small shadow that stood in the doorway staring at him. Chris was amazed when he realized that it was a child and for a brief moment, he thought it was his Adam. *Larabee, you are losing it, concentrate.*
Chris squeezed his eyes shut and then reopened them only to see that the child was still there. He was not an illusion, nor was it Adam, but for some reason, Larabee felt he should know this boy.
The kid just stood there and it unnerved Chris how silent he was. Kids were not supposed to be that silent.
“Hi,” he said softly, amazed at how his voice croaked. He tried again and this time it went a little better, he could at least get the words out. “Hi, I’m Chris. Who are you?”
In the half dark, he thought he saw the boy shrug and then he walked over to Chris. He held something in his hands, but it appeared to be forgotten, all the boy’s attention was riveted on the chain around Chris’ ankle. Chris shifted self-consciously, feeling bad enough about being chained on the floor like some animal without a child’s fascination. With difficulty, he finally succeeded in sitting up and exhausted he leaned back against the wall. Pain rolled through him, followed by a bout of nausea that made him gag, but he managed not to throw up. He’d be damned if he would do that in front of a little boy.
The boy kneeled down, far enough away that Chris could not reach him, but with some concern in the bright eyes. The way he was sitting there, his face so earnest under the mop of dark blond hair made him look so much like Adam that Chris had to look away.
“I’m fine,” he said softly, not wanting the boy to be worried. When he looked back, the boy was still squatting in front of him, his face now devoid of any emotion. Suddenly Chris wondered if his first impression was correct and if the boy really was only five or six, about the same age, as Adam had been when he died. The expression on the boy’s face was much too solemn for a child so young.
“I told you my name, so, how about you tell me yours?”
The boy seemed to think about it for a moment and then he nodded. “Jason. Here, I’m s’posed to give you this.” He held out the items he was holding. One was a canteen and the other a food bar. Chris had to lean forward to be able to get the two items and it made him gasp as pain once more coursed through his body.
“Yep, you are sick,” the boy stated. His eyes were riveted on the way Chris handled the food bar. If there was one thing Chris knew for sure, it was that he couldn’t stomach the damn thing. Disgusted he put it down and opened the canteen. Water, thank God!
After he drank his fill, he saw that the boy was still eyeing the food bar. Something about the way he tried not to look, but could not seem to be able to help himself tore at Chris. “Here,” he said softly, tossing the bar to him. “Jason, right?”
Jason nodded and grabbed for it with an eagerness he could not hide. “You... you sure?”
“Hell yeah, I hate that stuff.” Chris leaned back and closed his eyes, trying to keep the water in his stomach.
“You really are sick, I better tell my father,” the boy stated.
That brought Chris’ attention back. “Your father?” Although he dreaded the answer, he knew he had to know. “Is Jack your father? Jack Larabee?”
The boy nodded. He had devoured half of the food bar and was looking at the other half wistfully. Chris felt a deep anger surge up. The boy was obviously hungry. “Why don’t you eat it all?” he asked softly, trying not to show his anger to the boy. “I really don’t want it.”
“This is for Andi.”
“Yes, my little sister. She gets sick too and then she looks just like you now.”
“Jason, I’m alright.”
The boy shrugged and stood up. “I can see that you are sick, but that’s okay. Grown ups always lie about stuff and they always think I don’t know.” Before Chris could answer, the boy had already turned and disappeared through the door.
The energy it had cost Chris to sit up and to talk to the child was now taking its toll and Chris felt himself slip into unconsciousness again. His last thought was for the boy who was so like and so unlike his Adam and he knew one thing.
*Jack, if you have mistreated this kid, you have a helluva lot to answer for, brother.*
Second Day Missing
Larabee 7-Monday 6:00am
Sleep was hard to come by and it seemed as though daybreak would never arrive. Kelli was worried about Chris, the man that had him may be family, but she had seen enough to know that for some people that meant absolutely nothing. Her thoughts drifted to Linda, she could not decide if she should feel bad for her friend or take her out behind the barn and give her a few home truths about Matthew and her other overprotective brothers. Then there was Vin, he needed rest to heal and he had tossed and turned for the last two hours, she planned to keep a very close watch on him.
Suddenly his body jerked, he groaned and yelled, “No!” the Texan thrashed around holding his head. Again, he shouted, “Chris!”
“Vin!” Kelli realized he was lost somewhere out there with Chris, but she was afraid he would hurt his shoulder, so she did the only thing she could. Wrapping her arms around him, she held onto him, softly calling him back in a low voice until he stilled and returned from wherever his connection had taken him.
Tanner was quiet for a few minutes and then looked at her through pain-filled eyes. ”God Kel, he’s confused and hurts so damn much I can feel it.” Laying his head against her breasts, he drew in a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “He’s not in Denver or anywhere close and he must have passed out because I lost him again.”
Kelli placed her hand on his head, gently stroking her fingers through his hair. “He’s alive Vin and I know he will hang on until we can find him. That man is just too stubborn not to and he won’t leave us.”
“I find it hard to believe that his own blood brother could hate him so much and do somethin’ like this. How could anyone do this to their own kin?”
“I don’t know Tanner, but I bet Marissa could tell us.”
Vin closed his eyes and wanted to take back his words, he had almost forgotten about that bitch. “Yeah, I reckon she could.” He raised his head and looked at her. “Sorry baby, you don’t need me to drag up her memory on top of everythin’ else.”
“Nothin’ to be sorry for, she is what she is and Jack …I guess we don’t know enough about him yet to know what he will do. Maybe some of that Lar’bee blood in his veins will stop him before he goes past the point of no return.”
“I hope so Texas, but ‘m not countin’ on it.” Vin rolled off the side of the bed to his feet, pulling her up with him and held her close. “Let’s get started, we have a lost Lar’bee to find.” He kissed her before he let her go. “You call and check on Linda and I’ll get the coffee goin’.”
Kelli watched, resisting the urge to offer him help, as he eased into his sweats using only one hand and then he slowly walked off toward the kitchen. She reached for the phone on the bedside table, speed dialing the number; it was answered on the first ring. “Linda…”
While Tanner was waiting for the coffeemaker to stop brewing, he got lost in his scattered thoughts.*What in the hell got into you Lar’bee, playin’ the lone ranger in your condition. If I had done this you would be givin’ me hell into the next century and don’t think for a minute that you are goin’ to escape a damn good ass chewin’ either. Dammit Chris, give me somethin’, hell anythin’ to go on here. Where do I start lookin’?*
Vin sensed her presence before he felt the hug that gave him the calm he needed to focus his mind on the task at hand.
“Linda is awake; Inez is already there with her and has breakfast waitin’ on us.” Kelli reached around the Texan and grabbed the cup of coffee that he had just poured for her. “Thanks baby, now take you meds so I can check on those bandages.” She took a sip of coffee and then began to unfasten the sling that draped over his shoulder and arm to make sure there was no blood showing.
Tanner grinned as she fussed over him. “You do know that with a little practice, you could be just as much a mother hen as Chris, course it’s a lot easier to take when you do it.”
“Easier or not, you damn well better not make me practice too often. I prefer you without all these bandages holdin’ you together.” She was relieved to see no further damage after all Vin’s thrashing around earlier. “Looks good, now let me help you dress that perfect body of yours so we can go eat.”
“Inez, this is great, but you did not have to drag the girls out this early just to make sure we have breakfast.” Although Linda felt awful and was very glad that Inez had come, she felt guilty all the same.
Inez laughed, “Those two young ladies have been awake since five and they were ready for a change of scenery. Besides, their daddy stayed at the office last night and I had to feed them anyway so it made sense to come over here to help out.”
“I appreciate it and I told Kel they should come on over. Lord only knows when Matt will get up…”
“Matt is up and ready for coffee.” He entered the kitchen and sat down, apparently expecting Linda to get it for him; Inez was shocked when she did.
The back door opened and the Tanners came in stopping long enough to hang up their coats.
“Damn, it cold out there.” Kelli complained.
“I hate to tell you this sister, but its ten degrees warmer that it was yesterday.” Inez smiled; she knew how much the transplanted Texan disliked the cold, even more so since the accident.
The girls had already spotted Vin and Maria beat Sarah to him by at least ten seconds. ”Uncl Vin! Both girls yelled at the same time.
Tanner crouched down and hugged both girls. ”Did you two help your Mom make this great lookin’ breakfast?” They both nodded yes. “Well then, I reckon we should eat it while it’s hot. Why don’t you sit with Aunt Kelli and I’ll help your Mom with the plates.” He whispered to them, “Save me a place okay?”
Kelli herded the girls to the table while Vin and Inez handled the breakfast. “Sit down Linda before you fall down, Vin will fix you a plate, too.” She was worried about the blond and irritated that her brother was not caring for her. “Matt, ‘m sure there’s plenty, you should fix yourself a plate.”
Linda hesitated, “I’ll get it Matt, just stay where you are.” She knew he was not being himself, but she was just too tried to give him hell over it.
Vin beat Kelli to a response. “Linda sit, Chris would have my head if he thought I let you wear yourself down.” He handed a filled plate to her and watched until he was sure she sat down.
“Matt would you give these to the girls, please.” Inez held out two more filled plates and smiled when Dubois grudgingly got up to take them. “Thank you, sir.”
Tanner took Kelli her food personally, “Here you go baby, enjoy.” He went back for his and then sat down next to her. Maria sat on his right side and Sarah sat on Kelli’s left. Inez gave Matt an empty plate so he could prepare his own and sat down by Linda.
The kids finished and Inez took them to wash off the breakfast they were wearing. Matt had waited for the opportunity to question Vin.
“Tanner, what have you been able to find out and what are you doing to ensure Chris’ safe return?”
“Matt, give the man a break, it’s only been three hours and even I know labs don’t work that fast, Vin knows what he is doing and the entire MCAT team is the best there is. I know they will find Chris.” Linda felt she needed to make Matt back off.
“I have no doubt that they will find him sis, but will he be dead or alive by the time they get around to it?” Matt asked and Linda paled.
“Mathew Glen Dubois!” Kelli stood up. “I don’t know what your problem is and right now I don’t give a damn, your behavior is inexcusable. I want you off Lar’bee property immediately!”
“Linda is that what you want?” He knew that his sister would not force him to go.
“Kel, I want to speak to Matt alone and before you decide to shoot him, give us a few minutes please.” Linda composed herself and started to get up.
Vin stopped her, “Wait, use this room Kel and I will be in Chris’ office if you need us.” He knew Kelli wanted to stay, but Tanner urged her out of the room.
Once they cleared the kitchen, they ran into Inez and the girls on their way back.
“Inez, you might want to keep the girls occupied in the den for a bit, Linda is in there with Matt. Unless I miss my guess,” Vin smiled, “I think Linda just got her grit back and she knows what’s going on.” He had figured it out and he was almost positive that Linda knew, too.
“I am so glad somebody does, enlighten me Tanner. Just why in the hell is Matt being such a jackass?” Kelli was very frustrated and right now, she wanted to make Dubois pay for her aggravation.
JD walked in carrying a stack of folders and a roll of cord.
Vin whispered to Kelli before he met JD. “Trust me; I’ll explain it all to you later.” He moved to help JD balance his stack of documents. “JD, what is all this for?” They all went into Chris’ home office.
Indicating the papers that he had just set on the desk he explained, “These are printouts from CASSIE and she has been very busy in the last few hours. The folder on top Josiah wanted you to pay special attention to; he thought you and Kel might want to take a drive this morning. While you two read, I’m going to set up a link to CASSIE for you.”
Vin picked up the file that Josiah wanted him to see. “I thought you were going to add somethin’ to Lar’bee’s computer.”
“I was, but this will be better. I have a complete separate system to hook up for you; this will be easier to do and give you instant access to anything CASSIE has to give. The first one will be at your place, but I am putting one in Chris’ office so he can use it when he… gets back. Each one has a special code allowing access to you or Chris with a matching password on the other end.”
Dunne continued, “I should have thought of this a long time ago. I have the rest of what I need in the car and I will have it all done before noon. I can handle all this, if you decide to take a drive on your off time.” JD smiled, he loved all this off the record stuff.
“JD, you can speak freely, no one here cares if we are on or off sick leave.” The Texan shook his head and grinned at the younger man that was on his way out the door to collect more equipment from his car. He opened the folder and began to read while Kelli sorted the other files to move them to their house. As long as Matt was staying here, Tanner wanted all sensitive files out of his reach.
Linda sighed, “I really did not want to deal with this now, but you leave me no choice. I want to know who you are, and what did you do with my real brother?”
Matt walked over to the window and looked out being quiet for so long that Linda was not sure he would answer her at all. “Hell Linda, I just can help myself I guess. I thought I could, but…”
“Green is not a good color for you, brother and if you keep setting Kelli off you might just find yourself in a world of hurt.” Linda huffed, “And I don’t mean the emotional kind either.”
“I know, it’s just easier to keep her angry than to see her happy with Tanner. I just do not understand, I have money, been told I am reasonably good-looking, have a respected family name and could have given her anything she wanted. She would never have to work or worry about being shot or kidnapped or…Yet she chose him. What has he got that I don’t?”
“He’s got Kelli for one thing and that Matthew is not gonna change. If you can only deal with this by being a total jackass, then maybe you need to go home. Now is not the time for you jealous behavior. One more comment like the one you made earlier and I fear your safely could be at risk.”
“I do recognize that I have been an ass, I sound so much like Robert that it’s scary, but I want to be here with you while you go through this”. He saw the doubtful look on her face. “Really be here for you and not be such a jerk. What do I have to do to fix this?”
Linda laughed at the reference to their oldest brother, Robert was a doctor and arrogant was his unofficial middle name. “More than one thing, but I know a couple of apologizes are in order and a major change in attitude.” She watched as he nodded in agreement. “At some point you need to talk to Kel and clear the air, if you do it as the Matt that we all know and love instead of this monster you created, it might be easier. However, I warn you I will not run interference for you; the only thing I can concentrate on now is Chris. Remember what dad always told us?”
“Yep, ‘your broke it, you fix it son’, seems I heard that more than a few times growing up. I will make it right.”
You better or Matt will be gone.” Linda wanted to make sure that he understood.
Vin passed the folder over to Kelli. “I think Josiah had the right idea. You and I are gonna take a short trip.”
She opened the folder and read the first page. “Let me guess, Colorado Springs.” Kelli pulled the map from the desk drawer. “Seventy miles south of here on I-25, we can be there before ten.”
Matt joined them with Linda right behind him. He stepped forward. “Could I speak to you both for a minute?”
“Whatever it is will have to wait, we are on our way out.” Vin gathered the papers he needed and gave JD some messages to give to Buck.
“Tanner, I’ll meet you outside.” Kelli took the map. “Come on Linda, walk me out.”
They walked to the back door and while Kelli put her coat on Linda tried to talk about her brother. “Kel, I spoke to Matt…”
“I don’t want to hear about him, I wanted to get you alone to tell you that Chris is alive. Vin was able to confirm that this morning, but not where he is. We are going to Colorado Springs to talk to Jack’s last ex-wife; she might be able to help.”
Linda understood what Kelli meant about Vin and Chris, she felt better knowing that he was okay for now. “Thanks for telling me Kel, do what you have to and I will keep Matt in line, but when this is over we need to talk.”
On the way to Colorado Springs, Kelli drove and Vin reviewed what they knew about the former Mrs. Jack Larabee.
“Patrice Garner is thirty-four years old, this was her first marriage. They were together for two years and divorced less than six months ago. She has no arrest record and works from her home as a computer consultant, whatever that is. She moved to Colorado Springs in July and the only known living relative is a sister in New York.” Vin laid the folder on the seat.
“Did it say what grounds they used to divorce?”
“Same as ninety per cent of all couples that split, irreconcilable differences. I just hope she knew him well enough to give us some more information in him.” Vin rolled his shoulder to work out an ache.
Kelli noticed. “I suppose you’re gonna tell me that’s just from tension.”
“I could, but you wouldn’t believe me would you?” The Texan sighed, Kelli knew him too well to buy that ‘m fine business. “Patience baby, it will heal and it’s not anythin’ I can’t handle. Before you ask yes, I took the antibiotic, but not the pain pill and I won’t take it unless I have too. I want to keep my mind clear.”
She knew he hoped to make a connection with Chris again.” Speaking of patience, we are alone now and you said you would tell me. So why is Matt being a bastard?”
Vin could have given her a long explanation about male egos, wounded pride and fantasies, but decided to be more direct. “Bottom line, all these years he believed that he loved you and that someday you would feel the same. It’s easier for him to keep you ticked off that to admit to himself that you are happy with your life and that you were never his to lose in the first place.”
“You are jokin’ right? I never gave him any reason to think that.”
Tanner was shaking his head. “Doesn’t matter, he had plenty of time to convince himself that you would change your mind. Now that he is here, he has to accept that it was all one-sided. I think Linda knew, but just did not want to deal with it, now she has to do somethin’ or watch it spin out of control until her brother gets hurt.”
Kelli was amazed, because she had never considered this. “You seem to be pretty calm about it. How long have you had it figured out?”
“I suspected Saturday, but wasn’t sure until this mornin’, he is at his worse when you and I are in the room together. This is his problem to deal with, not ours, and aside from being a pain in the ass; I don’t think he will push it. He will accept it and go back to bein’ the man you told me about or not accept it and go back to Louisiana.
“And men say women are complicated.” She sighed, “So, what am I supposed to do?”
“Nothin’, just be yourself, see if he works it out and realizes that he never stood a chance.” Tanner grinned, reached over and tugged at a strand of her hair, “Because It takes a special talent to ride herd on a hot-tempered, stubborn, misbehavin’ Texan.”
“You’re right and it’s a good thing I have that talent Tanner, to keep you in line.”
Colorado Springs, Colorado
“Ms. Garner we appreciated you agreein’ to see us on such short notice. I am Special Agent Tanner and this is Agent Coulter, we need information about your ex-husband and hoped that you would be able to help.”
“I’m not sure what I can tell you. Is Jack in some kind of trouble again?”
“We just need to locate him. Do you have a way of getting’ hold of him, Ms. Garner?” Vin asked casually.
“Not really, Jack…Jack can be the most charming man in the world and certainly is one of the handsomest. However, it did not take me long to discover that he is not what he appears to be at all and our marriage was over not long after it started. I tried to stay in touch, for the kid’s sake, but lost track.”
“Kids? You have children Ms. Garner.” Kelli asked.
“Me no, but I think that is one reason Jack wanted to get married so fast. His second wife died in childbirth and he was trying to be a single dad, but he just did not have the patience for it. I guess he thought I would sit at home with Jason and Andi while he played his con games and ran all night.”
“Tell us about the children.” Tanner wondered how CASSIE had missed this.
“Jason is six now and Andi, her real name in Andria, she would be three. I suppose Jack did what he always threatened to do and gave them to the authorities. When Carol was alive, she doted on Jason and Jack treated him okay, then after Andi was born and he had two to look after, it was just too much for him.
Kelli felt sick at the though that they might still be with him. “Do you have a picture of Jason and Andi?”
“Yeah, as a matter of fact I do, I took them shopping with me one day and there was a photographer in the store, you know, running some kind of special. On impulse, I had their picture made, Jack was furious about it; he took all of the photos and burned them, except for this one.” She reached over to the table for her wallet and pulled out a picture, handing it to Kelli. “Their birthdates are on the back. It’s a shame how he treated them, they really are good kids.”
“I promise to get this back to you, but we need to have a copy made. Do you mind?”
“Keep it, I doubt I will ever see them again and I don’t need a constant reminder of them. The only reason I stayed with Jack as long as I did was for their sake.”
“Can you think of any place he might go if he wanted to hide out for a while? Vin wanted to find this bastard as quickly as possible
Patrice thought about it and started to say no. “Wait a minute, he said something about his idea of getting away would be at the lake, but he never said which one. I’m sorry, I really don’t know what else I can tell you, we didn’t talk much, when he was around all he wanted was…sex and afterward he would take off again.”
Vin stood up. “Thank you for talkin’ with us and if you think of anythin’ else that might be helpful in findin’ him, please call.” He handed her his card.
“Agent Tanner, I hope that you do find him and make him pay for whatever he has done. He is not a nice man and if he has those babies with him...well I just will pray that he doesn’t.”
“I need to ask, Ms. Garner. Was Jack ever physically abusive with you or the children? Kelli was afraid she knew the answer.
Patrice hesitated for a moment before answering. “Yes, especially when he had been drinking or was high on drugs”.
Vin was on the phone as soon as they were in the truck relaying the information to Buck. “Ask Pam to run a background on his second wife, maybe she has kin that Jack might have sent the kids to. Also, tell her to search property records for anything near a lake that might be in his name. We’re gonna have lunch and then head back to Denver.”
They were both upset thinking about those children and hoped that if they were with him they were safe.
“If Jack leaves ‘em the same place Chris is, you know he’ll try to watch out for them if they are being mistreated. Chris has a soft heart when it comes to kids he…” Vin felt a sharp pain that started in his head and trickled slowly through his body.
*Chris? Hang on, we will find you just…Chris?* As suddenly as the pain started, it was gone, but Vin knew his brother was trying to reach him, only something was interfering with his thoughts or he was just too damn far away.
“Vin, are you okay?”
Tanner heaved a deep sigh. “I am, but ‘m not sure what’s wrong with Chris. All I know for sure is that he needs us to find him real soon.”
Pain shot through his head and his aching body cried out as movement forced fatigued muscles to react. Chris had no idea how long he had been out or even if it was still daylight. All he knew for certain was that he hurt like hell and that his brain was too scrambled to remember much else.
“It’s about time you woke up and joined the party; after all I arranged this just for you, Chris.”
Chris looked up and tried to focus, “Jack?”
He laughed, “At least you remember my name. An important man like you remembers your name it must mean something. Not as if you ever tried to contact me in the last twenty-five years. Hell, I didn’t even rate a Christmas card. You were too busy living the good life to think about me, your own flesh and blood!”
“I did look for you…”
“Bullshit! Mr. Perfect never cared about looking for me! You had a life to live and just like always, everything you touched worked out to be the best! “Daddy’s golden boy, God, he must be pleased. Important job, big-time ranch owner and now you’re gonna marry some rich bitch socialite and breed more golden Larabees!
“He’s dead Jack, has been for twenty-three years, he went down with cancer not long after you left. He was real sick and … Well, it took him almost two years to die.”
“SHUT UP! You think I care, I don’t! Anymore than I care about you! I want you to know what it feels like to have nothing, to be alone without anyone to give a shit if you live or die. When I finish with you that is exactly how it will be, your rich girlfriend will hate the sight of you, you will never work in law enforcement again and you so-called friends will abandon you.”
“Never happen Jack, they are out there now looking for me and they will come.”
“Oh and they will find you when I am ready, but they will not like what they find.” Jack pushed his brother to the floor and as he held him down, he pulled a syringe out of his pocket plunging the needle into his vein. “Sweet dreams, brother.”
Chris tried to get up, but the room began to spin and his stomach lurched. Then the room disappeared, replaced by a dark abyss that sucked him in.
Buck walked over to the CASSIE station and handed a note to Pam. “Vin called and this is what he needs you to check on for him.”
“I’ll get right on it.” Pam turned to the keyboard and began searching.
Gunny approached him, “Mr. Buck, since Commander Larabee and Captain Tanner are unavailable, I need your signature on these papers.”
‘What are they for, Gunny?
She took a deep breath. “Director Travis sent them down; one is putting Commander Larabee on inactive status, at least until we know….” Gunny cleared her throat. “It is a necessary formality, the other one gives you stand-in rank as Commander until Captain Tanner returns,” She handed him the papers.
Buck took them, but felt very strange about signing them. Hesitating briefly, he took the pen and wrote out his name. Handing them back to Gunny, he placed a hand on her shoulder and said softly. “We will find him and have him back for you to fuss at in no time.”
“Yes sir,” she turned and went back to her desk.
Mark walked up and stood beside Buck. “I’m sorry, but we came up with nothing today. I think Paul and I must have flashed that picture to every snitch in Denver, no one claims to know Jack Larabee. Paul stopped at the DPD to gets some files from their fraud unit.”
“Why don’t you go over and help Ross on those old police reports? Get some more addresses for us to follow up on.” Buck watched the young man that usually was bouncing all over the place as he slowly walked away. Chris was his hero and he was not taking his disappearance well at all.
To work on an in-depth profile of Jack Larabee, while they waited on more possible leads.
The phone rang and it was Ezra for Buck. “I need you to meet me at 2230 Avenue C.” Ezra instructed. “Raphael is with me, but come alone. I do not wish to excite the others until I am sure of what we have.
Wilmington grabbed his coat, told Gunny to page him if needed and then walked to the elevator.
Across town, Ezra and Raphael waited for Buck, developing a plan of action. They had been able to confirm that a Chris Larabee had rented an apartment in the building across they street. In the three hours that they had been watching though, no one had come in or out of that unit. Standish had considered breaking in, but had second thoughts and decided to let Buck make that call. After all, he was acting commander.
Buck made it there in less than twenty minutes and waited for Ezra to explain. “Unit 114 was rented by Jack Larabee, using Chris’ name. The manager confirmed the photo ID and here is a copy of the rental agreement. There has been no activity in or out of there in the last three hours. We can wait and stake it out or go in, it is your decision.”
There was no decision to make as far as Buck was concerned. “Come on, we go in one way or another.”
The three of them marched across the street to unit 114. Knocking brought no response so with weapons drawn; Buck kicked the door open only to find an empty apartment.
“It would appear that he left in a hurry.” Ezra noted that the room was in disarray and stripped of most personal belongings.
Checking out the second room, Buck began cursing. “Sonofabitch! That bastard did have those babies with him.” He held up a child’s coat that was on the floor on top of piles of trash
Raphael looked up. “Babies?”
“Yeah, according to Vin there’s two of ‘em, a boy about six and a girl three.”
“Buck, are we positive that this bastard is related to Chris?” Ezra asked.
“Unfortunately yes, why?”
“I just hope he will forgive me when I kill his brother and I promise you it will be a slow death.” Ezra said angrily. “You had better look at this.”
Raphael and Buck went to the side of the room where Ezra stood next to the closet. Obviously, it had been home for two small beings for some time. On the floor was one soiled blanket, two dirty plates of what was once food and a old ragged brown teddy bear. The door had a lock on the outside that apparently had kept them inside.
Wilmington was on his phone calling forensics while Raphael repeated Buck’s curses adding a few more in Spanish that Ezra was sure he had never heard before.
The trip back from Colorado Springs was a quiet one; both Tanners were thinking about those kids and worried about Chris. It was three in the afternoon before they made it back to the ranch. They sat in Kelli’s truck for a few minutes collecting their thoughts before facing Linda.
“Should we tell her about the kids?”
“Let’s wait until we find out more about them.” Vin sighed, Lord he was tired. His cell phone rang and he answered willing it to be good news. “Tanner,” he listened. “You’re sure? ... Yeah thanks.”
Kelli knew by the look on his face it was not what he was hoping for, “Vin?”
“It’s not about Chris. That was our insurance company, after lookin’ over my truck; they decided to write it off as totaled. They’ll cut a check and get it to us for a new one.”
“I’m sorry. I know how much you loved that truck.”
Vin smiled at her. “It wasn’t the truck I loved as much as the memories we made in it.”
“Then, I guess will just have to make some more memories in a new one when all this is over.”
“I’ll hold you to that, Sassy,” he smiled and pulled her over for a languorous kiss before he opened the door. “Let’s go face the Dubois siblings and see what’s comin’ at us next.”
Linda had heard them drive in and waited to see if they were coming in or going home. She was disappointed because she knew if they had good news they would not be out there sitting in their truck.
Vin was the first one through the door, Kelli behind him and he answered her unspoken question, “Sorry, nothin’ new.”
“I suppose I knew that when you did not come in immediately. JD left some instructions on the desk for you and Mallory brought over some supper, all we have to do is warm it.”
“Vin nodded, “I’ll go see what JD left.”
Kelli sat down next to Linda, “How are you holdin’ up”
“I’m as okay as possible I guess, just really tired, but Vin didn’t look so good. When is his follow-up with the doctor?
“It’s supposed to be tomorrow.” Kelli smiled, “You know how he is, stubborn as a mule, but ‘m gonna put my foot down and make him go. I know he’s been pushing hard and won’t stop until he has to.”
“Matt wants to talk to you.” Linda tried to gauge Kelli’s reaction.” He knows that he has been an ass and wants to apologize.”
“Linda, he’s a grown man, he is the one responsible for his actions and you should not be deliverin’ messages for him! I really do not want to deal with him right now. I have enough goin’ on in my life to keep me occupied and pacifyin’ an overgrown spoiled brat is not somethin’ I choose to do!”
You don’t understand, it just that…”
“Do not speak for him Linda and don’t let him run over you. I understand more than you think I do and now is not a good time for me to hear about it. After we find Chris and after I know Vin is healed, then maybe I will listen to what he has to say. Until then he can keep his mouth shut or leave, it doesn’t matter to be which one.”
Vin stepped out of the office and motioned to get Kelli’s attention. “I need to talk to you for a minute.”
“Excuse me Linda; we’ll have to talk later.” Kelli followed Vin back into the office and then he closed the door.
“I just got off the phone with Buck, they found the apartment that Jack was using and forensics was able to lift Chris’ fingerprint off the outside doorknob. He was there, but Jack probably was not home, Chris must have left because his prints are not inside and then….” Vin sighed, “Hell I don’t know, maybe Jack saw him and followed him out to Canyon road.
“What else did they find?”
The Texan did not want to tell her the rest, but knew that he should. “It looks as if he cleared out in a hurry and Ramsey found evidence that the kids were livin’ there with him. Evidentially they had been … Hell, the bastard kept them locked in the damn closet.”
“God, how could…” Vin reached out to steady her when her saw her sway and held on until she could speak. ”If he could do that to his own kids…What do you think he is capable of doin’ to Chris?” Her voiced broke with emotion and tears formed in her eyes.
“I don’t know baby, but Chris will fight anything Jack tries to do, you know that and if the kids are there he will do whatever it takes to protect them, too.” Tanner drew her closer and held on tighter.
She leaned into him and spoke so softly that he could barely hear her. “That’s what scares me Vin, he will do whatever it takes and it might cost him his life.”
Vin had no comforting words to offer because he knew her fears were well-founded. Chris would protect those kids with his life and he was in no shape to put up much of a fight. Things were now a hell of a lot more complicated and dangerous than they were a few hours ago.
“Kel, I wish that I could tell you that I know things will work out okay, but I won’t insult you by sayin’ that. You’re smart enough to read what’s happenin’, there are just too many things we don’t know right now. I’m afraid that this time it’s gonna take more than my connection to Chris to find him. We need a good lead to turn up that can point us in the right direction.”
Kelli did not want to move, she wanted to stay safe with Vin and pretend for just a few minutes that this was all a nightmare that would be over soon. She realized that it would take time to find Chris, maybe more time than he had to give. She was not ready to let go of the man that she was only now learning to count on and call Dad.
“So, what do we tell Linda?
“Probably as little as possible until we have somethin’ solid to go on.” Vin was concerned, it was unlike Kelli to be so vulnerable to her emotions, but then she had never had a father to worry about before either. Combine that along with abused kids, a wounded husband, a near death experience from the cold, and Matt’s bull, it was more than enough to tilt her off balance “I’ll talk to Linda and then we are goin’ home.”
“What about Chris?”
“There is not a thing we can do right now, but wait and see if the feelers we put out generate some information or forensics comes up with more. Buck will call me if he finds out anythin’ new and I don’t know about you, but that two hours of sleep we got this mornin’ is wearin’ off for me.”
She knew they both needed rest and that there was nothing to do right now, but wait for results. “Let’s go talk to Linda.”
Matt had joined his sister in the living room and they were in a deep discussion about something. That is how Vin found them when he came in to talk to Linda. Kelli sat opposite them, and Vin sat next to her on the arm of the chair.
“Linda there is not much I can tell you right now. We have forensics working around the clock, the team has been all over town puttin’ the word out about Jack and we have to wait to see what that produces. We also have followed up on other possibilities and we will continue to do so until we are sure that Jack has Chris.” Vin wanted her to know that they were doing everything possible to get a lead.
“Jack’s picture went out on the wire nationwide and has been faxed to every law enforcement agency in Colorado. The bus and train station were checked as well as the airport and if he left Denver, it had to be by car. So far, the car rental places show nothing in his name or in any of his known aliases. Tomorrow I expect the news will have the story and that could generate some leads.” Kelli added.
What does all that mean?” Linda felt her fears increasing.
Vin answered, “It means that this is gonna take time. Unless we get somethin’ dropped in our laps, we keep searching for answers until we find some and it is a slow process to cover all the bases and narrow the playin’ field. Of course one lead could break this wide open.”
“You are sure that he is okay now, right?” Linda knew better than to ask that in front of Matt, but she was not thinking straight.
Matt did respond to that question. “Linda, how could he know something like that?”
“We both have faith that Chris is still alive and pray that he will hold on until we do find him.” Kelli replied when Linda did not. “For now though we’re going home.”
“Before you leave, I wanted to talk to Kelli in private, if I could.” Matt was ready to explain, but Kelli was not ready to listen.
Vin felt her tense up and decided to intervene. “Now is not a good time, we have some things we need to discuss and we both could use some sleep. Two hours of rest is just not enough to keep doing what we need to.” The Texan stood up and offered his hand to Kelli. “Linda, we’re not far, call if you need us.”
“At least take some of the food Mallory brought over, there’s plenty.” Linda got up and was already on her way to the kitchen. They had little choice but to follow her in there.
Linda was already putting some food in a container for them to take home. “I’m sorry Vin, I should not have asked that with Matt in the room.”
“It’s okay. No harm done and yes Chris is still with us.” Vin watched the blond relax some when he told her.
Kelli took the container of food from Linda. “Try to get some rest yourself, okay?
She hugged the redhead. “Thanks, I promise I will.”
Somewhere in Colorado
Chris sighed. He didn’t want to open his eyes. He was feeling nauseas and had not been able to stop himself from vomiting. Whatever Jack had been giving him had been great at first and really helped stop the pain, but now he was worse off then ever. His leg hurt like hell and he felt strange in his head, dizzy and light. Opening his eyes only made him feel sicker he had already discovered.
However, he could not ignore that childlike voice suddenly calling out in between his misery, so he looked anyway.
A little girl was standing in front of him, her blond hair all tangled up and her eyes huge and frightened. She was staring at him, her mouth still forming a big O and she clutched a battered rag doll against her chest almost in desperation.
His heart immediately went out to her.
“Hi,” he said softly, trying not to scare her even more. Damn, he couldn’t blame her for being frightened he had to look awful. Not wanting to think about that, he tried to push himself up. The little girl immediately stepped back, her eyes riveted on him. When she saw he wasn’t going to leap up and come for her, she stopped again, some of the fright warring with curiosity in her eyes.
Chris smiled when he saw that. Despite her totally different looks she reminded him of Sarah, the way she was standing there, determined to find out what was going on.
“You must be Andi,” he said softly.
When he said her name, it made her relax a little and she nodded. Then she wrinkled her little nose and with grave sincerity told him, “You really dirty.”
“Yeah,” Chris whispered, not wanting to look at himself right now.
Andi studied him for a moment, her head tilted to one side. “You could swim in the lake,” she offered. “It’s real big! But daddy said we can’t go.” She pouted now and Chris would have loved to hug her and tell her everything would be all right.
If only he could.
“Are you sad? You look sad.”
Chris nodded in answer, not wanting to lie to her. Ever since the emotionless, matter-of-fact way in which Jason had told him that grown-ups always lied, as if it was to be expected, he’d decided to stick to the truth with Jason. He would do the same with this little wonder. The nodding made him dizzy again and hastily he closed his eyes to fight the nausea. When he reopened them, Andi was standing closer with a worried expression on her face. Her fear seemed to have gone completely.
“You sick?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he admitted. Nathan would have keeled over in surprise had he heard, he thought ruefully.
Suddenly she walked right up to him and patted him on the shoulder. “That’s why Jason takes care of you, like for me. I’ve been sick too. Lots!”
Chris held his breath for a moment; he so did not want to scare this precious girl away again. “I’m sorry to hear that, Andi. It sucks to be sick, doesn’t it?”
That made her grin. “You talk funny.”
“I do?” How could he not grin back?
“Will you tell me a story?” she suddenly asked. “No one ever tells me stories anymore after Patrice.” With a sigh, she plopped right down into his lap and it was all Chris could do not to cry out in pain. Fighting to stay conscious, he finally managed to say, “Don’t you think I’m a bit too dirty to sit on?”
“Nah! Me’s dirty too! A lot,” she told him with complete sincerity, grinning up at him. Then she suddenly blanched and scrambled up and away.
“Andi? What’s wrong?”
“I… I try to not be dirty, really!” Her eyes were huge and frightened again. Chris wanted to strangle his brother right then and there. He had no doubt about who put that fear for punishment into her.
“It’s alright,” he told her softly. “I don’t care what anyone says, when you’re small you get dirty and that’s alright. Hell, look at me, I’m all grown up and I get dirty. I know a little girl who’s about your age and she gets dirty all the time! When her mother tells her she’s bad for getting dirty she laughs, because her father always says: getting dirty is healthy.”
“He does? Really?”
“Really! And then he grabs her, tickles her and puts her on his shoulders to carry her to the bath.”
“Jason helps with my bath now since Patrice is gone,” she confided in him.
“Andi! What are you doing here?” a voice suddenly hissed. It was Jason, standing in the doorway with a look of horror on his face. Once more, he was holding a canteen and a food bar, but this time he was also carrying a blanket. Chris didn’t want to think about the last time Jason had come in. He had been half-delirious, but he remembered that he had been shivering constantly. Obviously, it had struck a nerve in the boy.
Andi started sniffling. “D… daddy was d… drinking with the bad man, Jason. I… I got scared and I c… couldn’t find you!”
“Oh Andi, you know I was outside for a minute. Dad said to get out the trash. Get over here; you know you’re not supposed to be in this room!”
Andi’s pout was back and she suddenly had a very stubborn expression on her face that immediately warned Chris. She came back to him and plopped into his lap again. This time Chris was prepared and he managed to catch her with his arms before she connected. Carefully he set her down in such a way her weight was on his good leg. Jason had blanched when he saw what his sister did and hastily he run towards them.
“Don’t touch my sister,” he called out.
Chris held his voice as calm and unthreatening as he could. “I’m not going to hurt her, Jason.”
“Nah, he’s gonna tell a story! You gonna tell more ‘bout the girl?”
“If you want me to. Her name is Sarah and I think you would like her.”
“Please?” She leaned against him, her head resting against his chest in complete ease. Chris couldn’t do anything else but put his arms around her and gently hold her. He looked up at Jason, who stood staring with an unreadable expression on his face.
“Maybe Jason would like to hear something else, not about little girls,” he told Andi softly, but his attention stayed on the rigid boy.
“You know a boy too? Like Jason?”
“I did Andi, once. A very brave, loving boy.”
“He got dirty too?”
“Oh yes! And when I came home he would run up to me and he would try to throw himself against me so I would get dirty too. I had to catch him in mid-flight and make sure I caught him in my hands, so I could keep him at a distance.” Chris smiled, remembering Adam’s exuberance every time he came home from his work as a police officer. “And then he would pull me away to show what he had been doing. Mostly it was something involving a lot of mud.”
“He your son?” Andi asked, nestling herself even more in Chris’ arms.
“Why is he not here too? I wanna see him.”
“You… you can’t Andi. He’s dead.” It still hurt to say it, even after all these years and the new life he’d built. Andi squirmed in his arms and he looked down to find her big, earnest eyes on him.
“Our Mama died too.”
“Andi, shut up!”
Without paying attention to her brother, Andi said softly, “Jason still misses her.”
“Andi!” Jason sounded outraged and for a moment, it seemed he would come and pull her right out of Chris’ arms. Chris looked at him and the boy stopped. He looked back with hooded eyes, but Chris saw his lower lip was trembling. Right then and there he vowed he wouldn’t leave without these two kids. He would get them away from his brother, no matter what the cost.
Staring straight at Jason, he said softly, “I still miss my boy too. Very, very much and I always will. I think that’s only right.”
Jason’s lip trembled even more and hastily he threw the canteen, food bar and blanket beside Chris. Grabbing Andi’s arm he started pulling. “Come on, Andi! You know Dad will be mad if he finds you here! Please come!”
Reluctantly Chris opened his arms and heaved Andi from his lap. “Then I guess you better go, Andi. I hope I can see you again.”
Smiling brightly at him, the girl stated, “I come visit!”
“In secret,” she whispered loudly. Then she followed Jason to the door, her rag doll hanging limply from one hand, the other hand held tightly by her elder brother. Chris looked after the two retreating small figures. At the door, Jason looked back for a moment and then they were gone.
A grateful Chris took the blanket and wrapped it around himself before lying down, fully alone with his misery again.
Third day missing
Vin had a lot on his mind, the bedside clock read 4:30 am and he was laying in bed awake and on edge. Last night he and Kelli ate a light supper, piled into bed early and snuggled together under the warm blankets. They both fell asleep almost immediately giving in to the rest that their bodies demanded. That ended for the Texan about thirty minutes ago and he had spent that time sorting through the thoughts that were racing through his head.
* Chris mistakenly believed that he could talk to Jack and set him straight, obviously that did not work. Okay Vin, think this through. If Jack has Chris and he is keeping him alive then it must be for a reason .Is it to make him suffer or try to break him or both? He already tried to put him into bankruptcy and failed. When he ran us off the road it was to kidnap him, not kill him so what else could he take from him to make him feel that Chris has paid for his imagined wrongs? Will he use his own kids to hurt his brother? Why can’t Chris reach you? Why can’t you reach him? There are just too many damn questions Tanner and not enough answers, yet. You had better keep yourself grounded Vin or this could pull you under before you find those answers and too many people are counting on you.*
Vin knew that he already had the anchor that he needed to stay grounded and she was right here next to him.*You don’t have to isolate yourself anymore Tanner to find the sense of balance you need.* He shifted enough to pull her closer and took a deep breath.
Kelli was awake, but wanted to give Vin the time he needed to think, so she was quite until she felt him move. “Nothin’ has changed since last night, Tanner.” She knew that her Texan was trying to find answers that were just not there yet.
“That’s not entirely true, baby. I did get some sleep and my body is rested.” She cuddled up to him with her head resting on his good shoulder. “A little sleep makes a world of difference.”
Kelli shifted her position enough to kiss him good morning. “You ready for some coffee?”
Tanner placed his good hand on the back of her head drawing her to him for another kiss. “Not just yet, ‘m not through here.”
His kiss was urgent and demanding, but Kelli understood why. She needed his assurances as much as he needed hers. “Vin, we’ll find the answers, right?”
“We will, but there’s a hell of a lot that’s not makin’ sense to me right now. I do know with without a doubt though that what’s between us is sure and strong, I need that, Kel.”
“Me too.” The comfort they found in each other was more than enough to fight the misgivings that tried to shake their confidence about finding Chris.
Thirty minutes later Kelli finally rolled out of bed, pulled on her favorite old shirt of Vin’s and headed for the kitchen to make the coffee. She heard the phone ring, but knew that Tanner would answer it and then waited to find out if it was good news or bad.
“Kel, you had better get back in here and put some more clothes on.” Vin yelled from the bedroom.
She hurried back to find him almost dressed. “What’s wrong?’
“That was Matt, somethin’ is wrong with Linda and she won’t tell him what it is. She insisted that he call for you to come over.”
They were both dressed and out the door in less than five minutes. When they got the main house, Matt was waiting for them by the door.
“I heard her cry out and when I went to check on her she was in tears, but refused to tell me why. She told me to call Kel and…”
Kelli was already down the hall that led to the master bedroom, while Vin and Matt waited in the den.
It was only a couple of minutes before Kelli was shouting for Vin. “Tanner!” He ran to the bedroom when Kelli yelled. “Call 911 and get an ambulance out here.” He was already dialing and when he connected, he looked to Kelli for information. “Tell them their patient is four months pregnant and fell in the bathroom about twenty minutes ago. Have ‘em to call Dr. Ryder to meet us at the hospital.” Linda would still not let go of her hand. “I think she may be having contractions.”
Linda insisted that Kelli ride in the ambulance with her and it was almost six when they arrived. Dr. Ryder was waiting for her and rushed Linda to the emergency treatment room. She allowed Kelli to stay a few minutes to answer some questions.
“Tell me what you know.” Dr Ryder was already examining her patient, issuing orders as she listened.
“All she said was that she got up to go to the bathroom and then got dizzy, collapsin’ before she could catch herself. Says she has sharp pains in her stomach. I know she has been stressed and probably has not been eatin’ or restin’ as she should.”
“What kind of stress?
“Chris is missin’ and we don’t know where or how he is. We believe he was kidnapped and Linda has had an emotional ride the last couple of days.”
The Doctor nodded, “I heard about a missing federal agent on the news coming over here this morning. Okay Kelli step out and let me see what we are doing here, you will know what’s going on when I do.”
“Linda I will be right outside the door.” She had to pull her hand out of her friend’s grasp and assure her again that she would be close. “I’ll be in the waiting room and I know the others will be here soon. You and the baby will be fine.”
Denver Memorial Emergency Waiting Room.
The room was empty when Kelli went inside; she knew that Vin would be here anytime. When the Texan called Sanchez, he came over to drive him to the hospital since Kel’s truck was standard shift and hard to handle one-handed. Mallory made the calls to the rest of the family and one by one, they arranged to get to the hospital. Vin and Josiah arrived with Matt in tow.
Tanner saw his redhead and went over to see what she knew. “Ryder tell you anythin’ yet? He sat down next to her taking her hand and lacing his fingers with hers.
”No, she has Linda hooked up to some monitors and ordered an ultra sound.”
Josiah told her what the sisters were doing. “Mallory will watch the kids and Inez is on her way here with Rain, Casey will be up later as soon as she finishes with the twin’s check-up.”
Matt observed all this and was somewhat surprised they were doing all this for his sister. “Is this doctor the best, do we need to call in a specialist?
Kelli looked at him. “Dr Ryder is a good doctor and Linda trusts her, which is what is important.”
Dr. Gilford was making his morning rounds and when he saw Tanner, he made a point of talking to him. When he found out why he was in the emergency room again, the doctor made a decision. “Vin, I heard about Larabee on the news and I am sorry. I have a feeling that I will not be seeing you in my office later today so why don’t we find an empty room and I check out that shoulder now?”
“That is an excellent suggestion Doc. You know Vin was looking forward to seeing you and this way he will have it taken care of while we wait for word on Linda.” Kelli thought it was a great idea, in spite of the look the Texan threw her way that promised payback.
Tanner knew he had no choice and stood to follow Gilford. “Sure thing Doc, maybe we’ll run into Dr. Landers while we are here, too. I can have him check on Kel.” Vin gave her a mischievous grin before he left.
Before long, the waiting room filled with members of the wild bunch. Inez and Rain arrived first followed by Nathan, Buck and JD, Ezra was on his way, but stopped long enough to pick up newspapers for everyone. Chris’ disappearance was front-page news and some of it was not too flattering.
“I fear gentlemen and ladies that this will further enhance the speculation concerning our esteemed leader and his financial situation.” Ezra handed out the newspapers. “The implication is that he arranged his own disappearance for personal monetary gain.”
Buck was furious, “This is bullshit! Let me get my hands on the man that wrote this for five minutes and I will make him a believer!” He threw the paper down and began pacing.
“Anyone who knows Chris will not believe this!” JD was angry. “But, now if there is a ransom demand the press will jump all over it!”
Sanchez did what he always did; he observed the reactions of the others. The anger and disbelief was evident among most of them, but Kelli sat quietly and surprisingly showed no anger at all. Vin returned took in what was happening and sat down with her, letting the others rant.
Matt noticed also and could not refrain for asking. “Y’all do not appear to be upset by all this. Kel, I would expect that temper of yours to join the others.”
His statement got Buck’s attention. “Why aren’t you angry, Kel?
She sighed, “Two reasons Buck, the first is that any publicity, good or bad, might help get the break that we need. The other one is more selfish I suppose, I think that for Chris he would much rather have the world believe that he is out for the money, than to discover the truth about his personal family history.”
Tanner added,” Chris would do anythin’ to protect his privacy and his family. It doesn’t matter what the rest of ‘em think, we know the truth and like it or not, this type of article will produce the kind of attention we need to get a lead.”
Dr. Ryder chose that moment to come out and talk to the family. “Linda gave me permission to talk freely. First off, she is not having contractions, when she fell however, she did crack a rib and her blood pressure is elevated. The baby is fine and I want to keep it that way. I do understand how much stress a missing partner can cause, but I am afraid that if she does not remain calm and take care of herself, next time we might have a different outcome.” Dr Ryder wanted to make sure she had everyone’s attention.
“I am keeping her today for observation, that will give you time to make arrangements for home. She must have complete bed rest for the next week and I do mean rest. If you cannot do it at home, I will keep her here. I want her blood pressure down and she needs as much quiet as possible under the circumstances.”
Inez spoke up. “Dr. Jackson and I will stay with her and she will follow your instructions. We will make the proper arrangements for her home care.”
Matt added, “Whatever she needs, she will have, I guarantee it.” He turned to Inez. “If it is acceptable to you ladies, I would like to stay here as well.”
Rain looked at Inez and answered for them. “You are welcome to stay with us, but I warn you no attitude or you will have to leave.” She was already aware from what Inez and Nathan had told her, about Matt’s control issues.”
“There will be no problem, y’all may not believe it, but I do love my sister and want what is best for her. Besides I can help make the arrangements you need, if you allow me to.” Dubois sounded sincere and the women agreed.
“Okay, the rest of you go to work on finding Chris.” Rain shooed them off.
“Vin, I’ll be right back, I want to see Linda before we leave.” Kelli walked back with Dr. Ryder.
Linda was resting and Kelli started to leave thinking that she was asleep. “I am awake and everything is okay according to Susan, so I guess I need to follow her orders. Thanks for being there for me this morning.”
”Where else would I have been?” The redhead smiled. “Inez and Rain are staying with you along with Matt. I will see you at home this evening, okay?” Linda nodded and drifted off to sleep.
Somewhere in Colorado
Chris was having difficulty concentrating, he knew that he needed to do something, but could not remember what it was. The door opened and the bright light of day blinded him temporarily. He tried to cover his eyes with his hands and just could not find the strength to do it.
“Well, the golden boy is awake. I must say Chris, you look like hell, your friends would have a hard time recognizing the great Chris Larabee, curled up on the floor in his own filth and spaced out on the good stuff.”
“Go to hell, Jack.”
“Now is that anyway to talk to your only brother, you should be ashamed Chris. I get you all this good publicity and you berate me still.” Jack shook his head. “This is better than I had hoped for; you do know that the press doesn’t like you much. They think you planned your own disappearance to extort money from your fiancées rich family. So I suppose I must oblige them.” Jack threw a newspaper at Chris and when he caught it, snapped a picture. “This will look real good on the front of tomorrow’s paper. Now though, I suppose you are ready for another dose from the magic needle.” This time Chris did not fight him as hard when he pulled out the syringe and he almost welcomed the abyss when it claimed him from the pain in his leg.
Jack closed the door and returned to the main part of the cabin. “Lester, I have a job for you. I need a ransom note that cannot be traced and then I want you to deliver it to this reporter along with this picture.” He threw the Polaroid on the table and the article with the writer’s name.
Lester picked it up. “How much do we ask for?
He laughed, “An important man like that should be worth at least half a million. Do it and remember no prints and nothing that can be traced. Tell them to wire the money to Chris Larabee at the Cayman Island account that we used last year for than scam in Nevada. I want them to believe that he set this up.”
“You really mean to turn him loose when this is over don’t you?” Lester was not happy about Jack’s plan.
“Of course, what good does it do to get him addicted to drugs and then kill him? I want him to lose everything that he values in his life and when I am through with him the only thing he will care about is where his next fix comes from. Relax, we’ll be long gone by that time and he’ll be too fucked up to tell anybody anything.”
“What about the brats?”
“I will deal with them when the time comes; now get to work on our $500.000.” Jack did not expect them to pay, but it would make Chris look worse to the world when it appeared that the he instigated making the demand.
Jason overheard his father talking to Lester and knew that whatever he had planned was not good for them or the man in the other room. He looked at a scared Andi and whispered. “Don’t worry, I’ll think of something.”
It was three hours later, when Lester finally left; Jack took out his bottle and began to drink. Jason knew how his father would get before the bottle was empty and decided to take his chances with the stranger. At least he had been nice to his sister. He and Andi slipped quietly into the other room.
Chris opened his eyes when he heard soft whispers. The pain in his leg was coming back, but it wasn’t bad yet. He smiled when he saw the two small figures standing in front of him. Even though they were whispering, it was clear an argument was going on.
“Can I help,” he asked softly. He had to grin when the two jumped up. Jason stepped back and even in the dim light of the room, Chris knew the boy was probably glowering. The little girl on the other hand happily trotted over, again hauling her doll with her and sat down beside Chris. There she saw something.
“Oh!” With reverence, she lifted the food bar and looked at it happily.
“You like it? I got a… another one somewhere. Wait.” Pulling himself up Chris suddenly hissed. “Damn!”
Andi giggled, but Jason immediately came over, worried. “What’s wrong,” he asked, sounding angry.
“N… nothing. I….” Chris stopped. He’d made a promise to himself, hadn’t he? A promise that had to do with these kids. Oh, yes, he wasn’t going to lie to them.
“Leg hurts. Oh, and I don’t think it’s a good idea to come sit near me. I think I… I threw up somewhere.”
“I know. Dad made me clean the floor. You were sleeping.”
“Shit, that bastard!”
Andi giggled again. It didn’t amuse Chris. He did not feel so good anymore; all he felt was a deep rage. “I’m gonna get him for that,” he vowed with vehemence. “Stupid son of a bitch! Hey, here is the other food bar. For you.” The anger was gone as fast as it had flared up and he held out the bar to Jason.
“Oh,” Andi breathed. “Then I can eat this one? All of it?”
Jason sighed deeply before he held the food bar back out to Chris. “N… no. You need to eat some.”
“Believe me Jason; I can’t eat that, no way.”
“Yeah, really!” No longer able to keep himself upright, Chris slid back down and starting to feel cold, he pulled the blanket up Jason had brought him the other day. At least Jack had let him keep it.
Jack…. Damn, he couldn’t think straight.
A small, warm body nestled itself against him. Happy eating sounds were coming from it. After standing rigid for a moment longer, Jason suddenly stepped over and dropped down on the other side of Andi. Soon he was eating too. Chris smiled. He no longer could keep his eyes open and a moment later, he fell asleep.
Jason looked at the sleeping man and saw how Andi nestled herself against him. Too tired to think about it all any longer, he decided that although he might be too big for a daytime nap, he could still lay down a bit. He moved close to Andi, one arm around her. A commotion could be heard in the other room, then angry yells and the sound of things being thrown around. He knew his father would probably be too drunk to really come looking for them, but he stiffened anyway.
“What’s… what’s that noise?” the stranger, Chris he had said his name was, mumbled groggily.
Jason did not answer and then suddenly the blanket settled over him and Andi, a bit askew, but still covering them enough to revel in its warmth. Next, an arm sneaked over Andy and settled over him as well. Jason didn’t dare move and then Chris slept again.
Strange, but that arm around him and his sister suddenly made Jason feel a lot better. He fell asleep almost immediately afterwards.
Fourth day missing
The Jacksons were staying at the main house to keep watch over Linda. Matt was behaving for now and only time would tell if his attitude change was temporary or permanent. Inez, Casey and Mallory had a schedule worked out to keep hot meals ready and it took all of them to keep Linda in bed.
Vin’s thoughts drifted, in the bright light of day he was even more convinced that he and Kelli had made a good decision. He mentally reviewed their talk from last night; they had stayed up having a late night heart-to-heart, the thoughts of two neglected and scared kids on their minds
*Kelli wants those kids away from their abusive father and Lord so do I. What did we go to all those classes for, if not to help kids like this? These aren’t just any kids Vin they are family, Larabees any way you want to look at it. Yeah and we will do whatever we need to give them a chance for a decent life. First though Tanner, y’all have to keep them safe and out of the system. That part should be easy, but then what? Will Chris try for them…hell yes, you know he will and it would be the right thing for him to do. If he doesn’t’? … Well, you and Kel will do it, Vin.*
Tanner brought himself back to the present. He was on the CASSIE terminal that JD had set up, he would rather be in the office, but Doc would not release him yet. He was able to communicate with the others though through the set up here at home. After reading the notes that JD had faxed him, he made a decision. It was time to do what he did best, he was tired of waiting for something to break and he was going hunting. He was not coming back until he found what he was looking for.
“Kel, pack us a bag, you and I are goin’ to check out some of the properties CASSIE picked as probable places that Jack could take Chris. It may take a few days, but we have to do somethin’, maybe we can pick up a trail to follow. I’ll call Buck and let him know what we’re going to do.”
She stood behind where he was sitting and placed her hands on his neck, trying to rub out some of the tension that she knew was there. “Where do we start?”
“We will start workin’ our way toward Gunnison, Durango and the four corners area; there are several state parks around there that have cabins. If we don’t pick up anythin’, we’ll head toward Colorado Springs. Between Josiah’s profile and CASSIE’s program, it all points to some place south of Denver, somethin’ accessible this time of the year and remote enough to avoid nosy people. Right now it’s all we have to go on.”
A knock on the door stopped the neck rub and Kelli answered it. “Nathan, is Linda okay?”
“Yeah, just complaining about being confined to bed, but you know Rain, she will make sure she stays there. I came over to show you this; I wanted it out of the house so Linda couldn’t see it.” He gave her a copy of today’s paper with Chris’ picture on front.
“God, he looks awful!” Kelli was almost sick to see him look so bad.
Vin came to stand behind her, reaching around her to take the paper. “It’s not surprisin’ that after that article yesterday Jack would ask for money. Anythin’ that makes Chris look worse would suit his purpose. Nathan, tell Rain no television news and watch who Linda talks to on the phone, she does not need to know about this”.
Nathan agreed. “I’ll make sure, but how do you want to handle the ransom demand?”
“I don’t know yet, but I don’t think it matters. This was never about the money in the first place,” Tanner threw the paper on the table. “We’re gonna check out some properties, might be gone a few days. We will stop by the office before we head out and we can all decide how to handle this newest development.”
Kelli cleared her throat and found her voice. “I’ll come over to see Linda before we leave; I want to tell her myself that we will be gone.”
“Be sure and take your meds and don’t push it. You both nee…”
“Nate, we’ll be fine, we’ll take care of each other just as if you were there watchin’ over us.” Vin assured him.
”Then, I will see you guys at the office.” Nathan left them alone to pack.
While Kelli gathered clothes, Vin took care of the weapons they would take. He did not know what they would find, but he was going to be ready for anything.
Linda was going crazy; staying in one place for more than a few hours was definitely not something she wanted to get used to doing. A week of this and she would be a basket case.
Kelli stuck her head in the door. “Okay to come in?”
“Yes! I need a rescue.”
“Sorry, I can’t rescue you, but I did want to talk to you for a minute.”
“What’s wrong now?
“Nothin’ new is wrong Linda, but Vin and I are gonna be gone for a few days and I wanted to let you know. We have some leads to look into south of here. I didn’t want you to worry if I didn’t come see you.”
Linda tried to read what her friend was not telling her, but could not. “Find him Kel, I need him here.”
Kelli hugged her, “I know you do. Vin is the best tracker around and we won’t come back without Chris.”
Somewhere in Colorado
Jack kicked the door open and before Chris could move, a newspaper landed on him “Morning Brother, I thought you might like to know that you made the front page again.”
Chris moved slowly and tried not to let Jack know how much he was hurting. Damn it was hard to think…yeah, newspaper. “What do you want?”
“It’s not what I want, Chris. The whole world thinks that you want a half million dollars to be released from your imprisonment and they believe you are doing all this by yourself.” Jack’s laughter filled the room. “God, it they could only see you now.”
“Fuck you, Jack!” Chris wanted to yell at him more, but the effort was just too great and even his momentary outburst drained him of all energy. He tried to reach out to Vin, but his mind was just too confused.
“Oh Chris, you do amuse me. I’d bet that your leg hurts, huh? Looks bad, but then ... Oh that’s right, you cut it on the car bumper. You should not have fought me; maybe you wouldn’t be in so much pain now. Yep, this is all your fault.”
“Not…hurting.” He was not giving his brother the satisfaction of knowing that he was right.
“Liar! You do hurt, but I am going to help you Christopher. That is what brothers are supposed to do. Right?”
“Go away, Jack.” He did not think he could pretend much longer.
Pulling out the syringe, Jack was pleased to see Chris look at it longingly before he cut his eyes away. “I am going to help you now, just relax and enjoy it.”
As he approached, Chris attempted to back away, but the pain in his leg cried out for relief and in the end he did not fight much at all
Tanner felt the tension and anger in the air when they stepped of the elevator. Evidently, the entire team had seen this morning’s paper and they were not happy about it. Vin heard Buck yelling from the war room, long before he saw him.
“No way would Chris do something like this and they damn well should know it! “Wilmington was ranting and Josiah was trying to calm him. “The sonofabitch could have come to us before he printed that trash!”
Vin walked in ahead of Kelli. “But he didn’t Bucklin and now we deal with it. This is not gonna change what we are doin’ or make any difference in findin’ Chris.”
“Just how in the hell to you figure that Vin.? That bastard wants a half million dollars or…”
“Or nothin’, this is not about money, if it was Jack would have taken Chris’ identity himself instead of sellin’ it.” Tanner looked at the faces around the room. “All of you just take a deep breath and go back to doing what we do best. Follow the leads until we find the right one.”
Buck sat down. “You’re right I suppose the press will say whatever the hell they want to and there is not a damn thing we can do about it.”
“I do not believe that Jack expects a ransom to be paid. He is only interested in making Chris inferior to him. Probably this last divorce set him off, the timing is right. He hit bottom at the same time Chris gets all the publicity on this unit and now he is plastered all over the society section of the paper due to his upcoming marriage to Linda. Not to mention the good write-ups on Larabee 7 and the success of the breeding program, add that to his failure to bring Chris down with the identity theft, you have a very dejected little brother.” Josiah offered his expertise.
Gunny came in and set a cup of coffee in front of Vin and another one for Kelli. She did not say a word but did squeeze Vin’s good shoulder when he nodded his thanks.
Buck composed himself and took charge again. “Justin, you and Mark work on the addresses we came up with from the phone calls yesterday. Raphael, you and Ross will handle the ones from today. Nathan, you and Paul will work the phones and pass the leads to them as they come in. JD and Pam will coordinate with you Vin, as CASSIE comes up with other possibilities for you and Kel to check on out there. Josiah and Ezra will follow up on the police reports that involved Jack Larabee and his previous activities.”
The agents rose to leave and Kelli asked Ezra and Josiah for a minute. “Two things, first of all Vin and I talked about this on the way in, If y’all need to come up with the money, for some reason, this man wants to buy Texas Lady.” She gave the card to Ezra. “You know what she is worth and you have POA for us, so sell her if you need to.”
“We also are concerned about those kids. Ezra, would you talk to Barbara Lindsey and find out what we need to do for gettin’ temporary custody of ‘em? Vin asked.
“Certainly, I would be happy to.”
“Josiah, maybe you could write up somethin’ about the conditions that were found at the apartment. We qualify as emergency foster caregivers, but these babies are Larabees and they need to be with family not in the system.” Vin explained. “Chris may want to go for somethin’ more permanent, but if he doesn’t we will.”
“Whatever will help, Ezra can tell me what we need.”
Buck had been silent, but had to ask. “Are you two sure about this?”
“Yes and when we find ‘em we want the authority to keep them before the system grabs ‘em.” Kelli said with enough conviction to leave no room for doubt. “So the sooner you can get somethin’ to us the better.”
Buck asked them to wait for a minute and went to his desk. When he came back, he was holding a brown teddy bear. “We found this in the apartment, when forensics finished with it I had him cleaned and stitched up almost as good as new. One of the...kids might…hell, just take it with you in case you need him for one of ‘em.
“You are a good man, Bucklin.” Vin stood up. “We’re going huntin’ and headin’ toward Gunnison, will let you know what we find.”
They spent the day driving from Denver to Gunnison, Colorado. A stop at twin lakes near Mt Elbert produced nothing, they checked one area of water after another and the more they cross off their list, the longer it got.
“This could take forever and CASSIE just keeps addin’ more place to the list.” Kelli was frustrated.
“We will stay with south and west, it’s the only thing that feels right.” Vin could not explain, but he knew that they were headed in the proper direction.
*Chris if you can hear me, just hang on, we will find you soon.*
“I hope you don’t mind eating in, but I thought we could get more work done here.” Barbara was checking on their meal in the oven.
“No, I don’t mind at all. In fact considering what we are endeavoring, this is probably best.” Ezra watched her as she moved around her kitchen. “What can I do to help?”
“If you want, you may work on throwing a salad together, everything you need is in the bottom drawer of the fridge.”
Ezra pulled out the salad makings and was finished with his masterpiece by the time Barbara had the table set. They enjoyed a leisurely meal and did not discuss business until after dinner was over and the dishes were cleared.
Barbara laid down the dishtowel. “Let’s move to the living room and go over what I have done since we spoke this morning.” They settled on her couch and began the task of sorting paperwork.
“This is Josiah’s evaluation of the immediate situation.” Ezra passed her the document.
“This is good, but honestly I see no problem. I pulled in a couple of favors today and got this.” She gave Ezra some legal papers. “This is an emergency order for the Tanners to take temporary guardianship of both children. Once the children are in their hands, I will make a motion for it to be more than an emergency order. At least for now they will be out of the system and if medical care is needed they will have the power to authorize it.”
“You do work fast, don’t you?” Ezra smiled at her and was pleased to see her beautiful smile in return.
“Ezra, I want you to consider being the advocate for these kids. I can walk you through what the court will ask for and they can remain with Vin and Kelli throughout the proceeding. For terminating the parental rights of their father and making recommendations for permanent placement, we will need detailed reports for the judge. I will be happy to provide the legal consul, but we need the independent voice of an advocate”
“I am not sure that I can do justice to what is needed. Certainly there are other more qualified…”
“I know you can do this and there is no one I would like to see stand up for those kids more than Ezra P. Standish.” Barbara was positive and determined. “Of course it would mean that we will have to spend more time together. Can you handle that?”
“Where do I start?” Ezra found that he enjoyed spending time with this woman. Barbara was a multi-faceted jewel; every time he was with her, he discovered one more reason to like to this intriguing lady. Although the amazing part to him was that, she saw through his outer barriers and accepted the man she saw beneath them. Spend more time with her? Absolutely!
Somewhere in Colorado
Two small figures stepped into the room he was beginning to hate with a vengeance. This time it was dark outside and the two children seemed to be dragging a lot with them. The smallest immediately trotted over to him and Chris braced himself. The nausea and dizziness were back full force, he was shivering even with the blanket wrapped tightly around him and God, he would kill for a bath right now, a very hot bath. He wished he could stop the heavy tremors wrecking his body and that he didn’t have to struggle for every breath.
At the moment he felt terribly inadequate to look after the two young kids, who had looked for shelter with him during the day. All of which didn’t mean anything to the small girl who happily dragged something that he now recognized as a blanket with her.
“We come sleep with you,” she stated, throwing the blanket beside him.
Chris frowned. “Sleep with me?” he asked, confused. “I don’t understand.”
“See, he don’t want us near.”
“I didn’t say that, Jason,” Chris said softly. “But wouldn’t it be better if you slept in your beds?”
“Have no bed.” Before he could think up a reply or Jason could do something, Andi plopped onto the blanket, as close to Chris as she could get. “I want my pillow,” she told Jason imperiously. It was almost too dark to see, but with some amusement, Chris thought he saw the little girl hold out her hand commandingly.
“Oh, alright!” Sounding extremely put upon, Jason came closer and threw a pillow at his little sister. Soon he had helped her make a bed at one side of Chris and was all set to make his own bed beside her, sandwiching her between him and Chris again, when he froze.
“What’s that?” he hissed. Chris felt how Andi had gone rigid as well. “What?” he asked confused, trying to block out the pain and listen to sounds out of the house. “Is it Jack?”
“N… no, dad is gone for the night, to meet with the mean man,” Jason said softly, unwilling to admit he and Andi had felt frightened with the idea of being all alone in that strange, big room with the funny wooden walls. “There!” he cried out, “There it is again!”
“It comes every night! Is a ghost, Chris?” Andi asked, seeking protection by crawling as tightly against him as she could.
“You mean this?” Putting his arm around Andi and hugging her close, Chris imitated the owl’s call with almost stunning accuracy.
“Yes!” Jason called out, forgetting for the moment that he was a tough, big brother. Andi only nodded against Chris’ chest.
“Don’t worry, that’s no ghost, it’s an owl and it would never harm you. The owl is a bird that lives at night and sleeps all day long. Do you want to hear more about it?” He held his other arm open invitingly to Jason. There was a brief hesitation and then the boy came over. At first, he set stiffly beside Chris, but when the story of the incredible life of the night owl unfolded, soon followed by other stories about the wood by night, he started to relax until finally Chris could sneak an arm around him. A moment later, Jason sighed and lay down as well.
The two kids didn’t mind that the stories were told haltingly, because Chris had to catch his breath so often. After a while he felt them go limp and listening to their breathing he knew they had fallen asleep. With a small body curled up against every side of him, the pain and sickness were suddenly a lot better to bear.
Fifth day missing
Chris felt as if he had hardly slept at all when he woke up because of the stirring of two small bodies beside him. For a moment, he did not know what was going on and where he was. Then a nudge against his left leg made him gasp in pain and woke him up completely.
“Shoot, Andi, you didn’t need to wake Chris, he’s sick!”
He heard someone hiss and looking that way he saw Jason sitting up with his hair sticking out to all sides. He was halfway through folding his blanket in a haphazard way and looked straight over Chris as if he was not there. Chris turned his head and saw Andi trying to keep her lower lip still that was trembling treacherously.
“S… sorry,” she sniffed.
“’s Okay Andi,” he said softly. “I don’t mind. I sleep too much as it is.”
“You need sleep when you’re sick,” Jason huffed. “I know! Mama told me!”
That silenced Chris, but not Andi. “She did? Really?” she asked, her eyes suddenly huge. Jason looked away, but not before Chris saw the sad look in his eyes.
“She was right,” he said softly. “You did good to remember it.”
“Y… yeah?” He looked a bit uncertain at Chris. “I… I don’t ‘member much, but I do ‘member that. And that she felt s… soft.” A hitch in the voice of this boy who tried to be so brave told Chris that they were talking about something, which was very upsetting to him. Before he could pursue the matter further, Jason was hissing at Andy again. “We gotta hurry! Dad can’t find us here or he’ll lock us up in the closet again.”
“No, don’t wanna go to the closet,” Andi whimpered and started grabbing her blanket. It made Chris feel sick.
“He… he didn’t! Jason, did he really lock you and Andi in… in a closet?”
Hooded eyes. Jason was suddenly back on guard around him. Not that Chris thought he had ever had really let all of his guard down. He cursed himself inwardly for his stupid words.
“I’m sorry Jason; I didn’t mean to say that I didn’t believe you. I know you speak the truth, I do! It was more that I….” At a loss for words, he looked at the boy. God, it was hard to concentrate! He was cold and he was shaking all over again. Hurt… it all hurt so damn much….
No, Jason. He had to talk to Jason. “I just wanted to express my surprise, Jason, because I had never thought Jack would be so mean to you two. You’re his kids, you two are really great children and to lock you up, that’s… that’s….”
“Daddy says we bad.” Andi stated. “Real n… naughty.” Her face screwed up in concentration while she was trying to remember the word correctly.
“Well, I think you’re both great!”
Andi beamed at his words, but Jason was suddenly very busy with his blanket again. He was trying to somehow bind it around his pillow.
“Jason, I’m not going to leave you with him. We’re getting out of here, all three of us. I’m going to take you two with me to my ranch.”
“Ranch?” There was a look of awe on Jason’s face now. “A real ranch? With cows and horses?”
“No cows, but we have a lot of horses. It’s a horse ranch.”
“Horses? I luv horses,” Andi screamed, jumping up and down at the other side of him, forgetting all about being quiet.
“A ranch,” Jason said softly, a dreamy look on his face. Horses and kids, it was something wonderful, Chris knew. Suddenly he saw Adam in his mind’s eye, patting Pony and talking softly to the big horse towering above him.
Jason went rigid again and picked up his blanket and pillow. He trotted over to Andi, picking up her pillow as well. “We gotta get out of here now, Andi. Come on.”
“But Jason, wanna hear more ‘bout the horses!”
“Just come!” he yelled, heading for the door.
Chris sighed. He hated how this boy had learned not to dream or hope again. “We will get out of here, Jason. We will. You see, I have these great friends looking for me and one of them, well, he always finds everyone and everything. You’ll like him. His name is Vin and he has always found me before, always!”
Jason looked at him dubiously for a moment and then he turned away. Dragging the blanket and pillows to the door, he only said, “Come, on Andi.”
Andi gave Chris a huge smile and hurried after him. When they were almost through the door, Chris tried one last time.
“Jason? Vin will find us and when he does, I’ll take you to the ranch with me. I will.” Looking earnestly in Jason’s eyes, he repeated, “I will. No more closets!”
A moment of indecision, then Jason gave a curt nod before disappearing through the door, Andi following him on his heels.
Chris hoped he had reached the boy. He couldn’t think about it anymore though, it was too hard to keep the pain at bay any longer, or the nausea.
Kelli awoke to find that she was alone; her watch showed seven o’clock and Vin was not in the motel room. She stretched only to find that not all of her muscles had completely healed and did not mind talking back to her. “Damn Kel, don’t do that yet and for heavens sake don’t let Vin know.” She got up, grabbed her clothes, brushing her finger over the teddy bear Buck gave her for the kids and then headed to the bathroom. When she heard the room door open, she was almost finished dressing and peeked around the corner to make sure it was Tanner.
“Mornin’ baby,” he held out a steaming cup of coffee. “Come join me for breakfast.”
“Lord, you do know how to stay on my good side.” She took the coffee, kissed him and then sat down by him to see what he had brought. The breakfast was from the McDonalds across the street, but she was more interested in the papers he had. “How did you get those at this time of mornin’?”
“JD faxed them to the motel office.” He handed her a plastic fork, “You eat and I’ll tell you what they say. JD did a background on Carol Martin Larabee and found no livin’ relatives, so that means there is no one on her side of the family to claim the kids. He also sent a copy of their birth certificates and applied for the originals.”
“So that means the only person we have to worry about is Jack, It shouldn’t be that hard to get his rights terminated and free them for adoption.”
“Right, but Kel I don’t want to see you get disappointed. If Chris decides he wants them, he will probably get them as their Uncle and you know as well as I do that given the chance, he will at least try. The only thing we can do is keep them out of the system and have custody awarded to us. Barbara is already workin’ on it.”
“I know, but a lot will have to happen for him to get them. He and Linda will probably have to be married first and then she will have to agree. She doesn’t even know about them, yet. You know the court will look at his finances and…”
“Kel, we can help them, but these kids are probably not going to stay with us.” Vin made sure she was listening. “Our kids are still out there somewhere and when the time is right we’ll find ‘em, but if I know Chris, he will want these Larabees to be with him and Linda.”
She sighed, “I know you’re probably right and I will do what I have to do. Chris will want them to have a family, when his mother died he was ten and Jack was six, he never forgot how hard that was for them. He will want these kids to have a lovin’ home to grow up in with parents that love them, somethin’ he never had.”
The Texan leaned over and kissed her, “We’ll give them a good start and trust Chris to take it from there. Now eat and then we’ll head to Durango, we have three Larabees to track down.”
Somewhere in Colorado
“Jack, I think we need to get the hell out of here. We are just taking too many chances and every day we keep him here is one more day to get caught,” Lester was yelling in the telephone and Jack held it a little further from his ear. He had come back about an hour ago after a night on the town. He and Lester had soon gone their separate ways and now he was checking to make sure that Lester could get him what he needed.
“Lester, you worry too much, I still need a few more days for my plan to work and those idiots don’t even know where to begin looking for him. They are still crawling all over Denver and by the time that they realize that we are not there, it will all be over. No way will they think to look out here, we are safe.”
“I hope you are right Jack because I do not plan to spend the rest of my life in prison for you or anyone else. They find us and there will be a lot of dead bodies because I will not go peaceably or alone.”
“We have enough money put up and plenty of places to go where we can start over. Now, make sure you have what I want when you come back! You just keep being the muscle on this team and let me be the brains. That way we both get what we want, now excuse me but it’s time I pay another visit to my dear sainted brother.” He disconnected his cell phone, picked up the syringe on the table and slipped it into his pocket.
Chris was awake and prepared this time when the door opened. “I thought maybe you forgot me today, Jack.”
“There has not been one day in my life that I have not thought about you, Chris.”
“Explain it to me, you have two beautiful kids and you’re smart enough to do anything you wanted to. Instead, you’re an accessory to the attempted murder of a federal officer and now, kidnapping of a federal agent. “Why?”
“Why? You have no idea what my life has been like! My first wife left me after six months of marriage and ran off with another man. The second one died and left me with the two hellions in there to raise by myself. The third one expected me to be home every day and have some kind of normal family life. I just wanted her to take care of those brats and be available to take care of my needs. The bitch finally left me alone, just like everyone else ever has, you included!”
“I know that must have been rough but…”
Jack kept talking as if Chris was not in the room. “You on the other hand could not understand, you have always had the touch. Everything worked for you, the great Chris Larabee. Do you know how hard it was to be your brother? To have a father that only cared about one son and ignored the other? To have to measure up to the smarter brother? The captain of the high school football team, voted most likely to succeed, you never had a problem getting a date did you Chris?”
“Jack that was a long time ago and not all of it was the way you remember.”
“Bull! I remember all of it! I have spent my entire life reliving it! You mattered, I didn’t and that is what it boiled down to, but that is going to change. After this week, you will not matter to anyone and you will be the one alone with nothing!
“How in the hell can you think you are alone? You have kids and that must mean something to you.”
“I never wanted them, that was all Carol’s doing and it killed her. I just got stuck with them! Hell, I don’t see you with a bunch of brats running around. If you think they are so great where are yours?”
The words were like a punch in his guts and brought vivid images of Adam to Chris. Adam, who had been so muck like Jason now looked. But it wasn’t all about loss anymore for him, he had Linda and their child and Kelli, the best daughter a man could wish for. He was pretty sure where Kelli was. “Mine is out there looking for me,” he spat at Jack, “Along with the rest of my family and she won’t give up!
“I hope when she finds daddy dearest she likes what she finds because it will not be what she expects.” Jack pulled the syringe out of his pocket. “Time for the magic needle again, Chris.”
This time he did fight, but in the end, Jack overpowered him and injected the liquid gold into his vein.
The drive between Gunnison and Durango was a long one and they had stopped often in different areas along the way. Vin figured that he had shown Jack’s picture to over one hundred people today and no one remembered seeing the man. Kelli had talked to just as many and so far nothing, the same results they had come up with yesterday.
All of Tanner’s instincts said that Chris was out here somewhere, but he had no idea how close. CASSIE projected that the most likely place for Jack to hold up would be some type of campgrounds near the water and with cabins. Unfortunately, there were too many damn places like that in Colorado to hide someone.
“It’s getting’ late, let’s find a motel and stop for tonight. We can map out our route for tomorrow and grab somethin’ to eat.” Vin was tired and he knew Kelli had to be, too. “We’ll check in with Buck and see what they have covered in Denver.” Vin looked worn-out and drawn, right now he was carrying a heavy weight on his shoulders. The Texan was not out, but he definitely was in low spirits
Kelli tried to lighten the mood, “A motel room to share with the sexiest man alive. What more could a woman want?”
“Careful lady or I’ll have to tell your husband about your strange fantasies.” The Texan smiled slowly. “I hope he’s an understandin’ man.”
“Oh trust me, he is and damned good lookin’, too. He’s also the most generous lover a woman could ask for and he has this soft, sexy, Texas drawl that drives me crazy.” Her mischievous grin did make him laugh and he suddenly felt better. She pulled into the motel parking lot and waited while Vin went inside the office to register.
A few minutes later, he was back. “Room 134, down on the end,” Once stopped, they each grabbed a bag and went inside.
Kelli was worried about her Texan. Everyone expected him to take charge and led them to Chris, but he was hurting deeply over Chris’ situation, too. The stress was wearing on his spirit and his body that still needed healing, so she made a suggestion. “You call Buck and I’ll run next door to get us somethin’ to eat. After that, I’ll check your shoulder and if you are good I’ll give you a back rub, if you are really good we’ll talk about some stress relief.
“Sounds like a plan to me.” Vin smiled softly as he picked up the phone and she went for food.
Linda had finally convinced Rain to let Matt carry her to the couch in the living room, with the promise that she would not move from that spot. One more hour in that bed and she thought she might lose her mind, at least out here she did not feel so isolated. Rain sat on the opposite couch with Terrell and Inez was in the kitchen giving the girls an early dinner.
“Rain, he is growing so fast and before you know it he will be running through the house with the rest of the kids.” Linda enjoyed watching the two month old with his Mom. She thought about her own baby, she now knew the sex of the child, Dr Ryder told her after the last ultra sound. However, no one would know until she had the opportunity to tell Chris. She only hoped that she would be able to soon.
“It does seem like just yesterday we were waiting for him to get here.”
Inez walked in and laughed. “Just give him another six months and he will have you running every second that he is awake.” To emphasize her point Maria and Sarah made a mad dash past her, to get to baby Terrell.
Matt watched the antics of the children and was very pleased to see Linda smile. “This reminds me of how it is when Luke and Doris are around with their brood.”
“How many children do they have? Inez asked
“They have a total of eight, two of hers, two of his, two adopted and two of their own.” Matt shook his head. “Plus, they plan on more.”
Rain laughed, “Lord and I though I had my hands full with Terrell.”
“Daddy! uncl Natan!” Maria and Sarah squealed at the sight of the father coming in the door followed by Jackson. Buck caught Sarah and Nathan caught a flying Maria.
Buck swung Sarah up high. “How are my girls? I do hope you have been good for your Mom today.”
“Yes, we good alllllllllll day.” Maria yelled.
Nathan allowed Maria to climb on her daddy’s neck and went to kiss his own son, as well as his wife. “Hello beautiful lady. I see our patient talked you into letting her out for a while.”
“Now don’t blame her, I just needed a reprieve for a while.” Linda looked from Nathan to Buck. “I guess there’s nothing new, huh?”
Wilmington set the girls back on their feet. “Linda…I don’t know what to tell you hon. I talked to Vin not long ago and he is convinced that they are holding Chris somewhere away from Denver. We don’t have any proof, but Vin Tanner has the best instincts for finding people of anybody I know, if anyone can pick up an trail to follow, it’s him. So tomorrow morning we are gonna join forces so to speak”.
Josiah and I are going to work our way southwest checking on sites that CASSIE has chosen.” Nathan added.
“Ezra and I will go due south doing the same thing. Vin and Kelli are working east from Durango. At some point, we will all meet and then decide from there where to go next. Justin will lead the Denver part of the investigation and JD will coordinates for us while Pam coordinates the rest of the team. I don’t know long we will be gone, but we won’t come back without Chris and the kids.”
“Kids? What kids?’ Linda was trying to sit up.
“Damn! Just cool you heels and lay back!” Buck decided that his mouth needed a zipper and the glares from Inez and Rain said even more. “It …we think Jack has his kids with him, a boy that is six and a little three-year-old girl. It appears that Jack may not have given them the care they deserve, in fact, we have an emergency court order to give them over to Vin and Kelli when we find them.”
“Well hell, nobody tells me anything! I should have been told about those children…God what it must be doing to Chris if they are there.” Linda felt an ache in her heart for Chris and those kids.
“Now Linda, you just stay calm. We will leave at daylight and find all of them as quickly as possible.” Nathan did not want her more upset.
“I will be fine, but y’all had better find Chris and don’t come home without him!”
Somewhere in Colorado
Chris has never experienced anything like this. He thought that he knew all about pain, both the emotional and physical kind, but this was different. This physical pain though was nothing compare to the emotional swings he was having. Anger and depression alternated control of his thoughts, on one hand he prayed that Vin and the others found him quickly, on the other had he prayed they would never see him this way.
*Maybe, you’ll get lucky Chris, if you die before they get here, you won’t have to see the disappointment on their faces….Fuck! Here it comes again.* Waves of nausea rolled in his stomach and tremors of pain shook his body. *Dammit Tanner, get your ass here and help me. Shoot me and end this fucking misery…NO! Stay away…stay the hell away and forget about me.* Chris cried out as a black void reached out and pulled him into temporary oblivion.
In the next room, Lester and Jack were arguing.
“Lester, you of all people know that you cannot draw attention to us!”
“Dammit Jack I was just having a little fun and no one around here is gonna pay any attention to a little hell raising. I got what you wanted me to and besides, you said yourself that those idiots would never look here for us so relax.” He threw a bag down in from of Jack.
“I’m warning you Lester, do not fuck this up! You need to drink and screw some dammed whore, you do it after this is over and we are away from Colorado. Not get drunk and mean in a public bar, what if that woman has reported you? “
“That bitch got paid for what I did to her and no one can possibly connect a bar fight in Arboles to you, that fed in there or me. Instead of worrying about what I do you had better be thinking about what to do with those brats when we leave here and I still think you’re crazy for letting that fed live to identify us.”
“I told you I’d take care of them and I will, they won’t be going with us! As for my brother, no one will believe a word he says by the time I get through with him, hell his brain will be so useless he won’t even remember his own name much less ours.”
“I guess that’s what you wanted the heroin for, huh?”
“Yep and all I need is three or four more days. I already have him willing to take what I bring him and after a few days of this, the old Chris Larabee will cease to exist.”
Later that afternoon
Jason had felt bad all afternoon. He and Andi had eaten the food bar he was supposed to give to Chris, because there was nothing else. Chris hadn’t reacted to his voice when he had gone in the small room and after all, he had said he couldn’t eat those things, hadn’t he? So he had kept it and taken it with him again when he’d left the silent man.
That morning, after he had got him and Andi their breakfast, there still wasn’t any sign of his dad. He and his sister had brought Chris the last of the cereal with some milk and they hadn’t left until Chris had eaten it. He had felt awkward about that, but Chris was sick and no one was looking after him. So that meant he, Jason, had to do it. Andi had insisted she wanted to help and since their father still wasn’t there, he’d let her. It had been stupid though; their dad had almost caught them when he finally came back. He had yelled at them and told them to stay away and leave him alone.
Chris liked having them with him and he never yelled at them.
There was not any other food left and when Andi had started to whimper because she was so hungry early afternoon and Chris didn’t respond anyway, he had decided to keep the food bar. He had given Andi the biggest portion of it and had only eaten a few bites himself. Even that little bit had been so good, but he still felt he had done something very wrong.
Luckily, the bad man had come back with groceries in a big cardboard box. He and Andi had eaten cereal again with some chips, now his dad told him to take some food and water to the stranger. That was after he had talked about Chris with the mean man. Jason had heard it all and he did not like what they had been saying.
It scared him. It had scared him a lot when his father had said the old Chris Larabee would cease to exist. It sounded really mean.
Despondently he looked through the food box and then he saw the crackers. Crackers were what Patrice gave him the one time he’d been sick and they were okay. Maybe Chris would like them too. So he took some of those instead of the food bars, feeling a little better.
Quietly he slipped inside and looked at Chris. The man looked back at him, so at least he wasn’t asleep, but he didn’t try to sit up. That was bad. He looked very bad too, as if he was getting sicker and sicker. Which wasn’t right, because you were supposed to get better, not sicker, even he knew that!
Chris didn’t say anything, all he did was lay there in the blanket he had brought him. It was not enough, Jason saw, the man was still shaking.
“Here,” he said softly, putting the canteen and crackers down. “Maybe you can eat crackers?” Chris looked at them and a smile lit up his face. Jason liked it when the man smiled at him or Andi. He couldn’t really remember how his Mama had looked, it was more like remembering feelings when he thought about her, but he did remember her smile and how it put the world aright. It had just been such a long time since someone had smiled at him as if that person was glad to see him. His dad never smiled like that to him or Andy anymore. Patrice hadn’t either. She had been nice, but she never looked at him like that, as Chris was doing now, as if he was really glad to see him again.
Suddenly embarrassed he shoved the crackers closer to Chris.
“’s Good, I liked them when I was sick.”
“I… I know. Like them myself when I’m s… sick. God!” Suddenly Chris turned into a ball, clutching at his belly and Jason hastily backed away.
“Not… not your fault,” Chris managed to grit out. “Just… sick.”
Jason knew something else that helped when you were sick and hastily he ran out of the room to get it. When he came back, he went to sit beside Chris who was still curled up, sweating and shaking so bad it worried Jason. He knew about the sweating, Andi had that too when she was really sick, but the shaking scared him. Carefully he put the wet cloth he had gotten from the kitchen on Chris’s forehead, although most of it ended up over the blond hair. The green eyes opened and looked at him. Jason was shocked at the pain he saw in them.
“I… I wish I could help,” he stammered.
“You d… do, thanks.” The soft words were followed by a smile again and Jason smiled back.
“You really have a horse ranch?”
Jason didn’t dare ask more. He didn’t dare ask if they really would be found and especially not if Chris would take them with him. It was too scary to ask about that. Chris seemed to understand anyway.
“You’ll l… love it there, Jason,” he said softly, “You and Andi. It’s right in… in the mountains. I’ll teach you how to… to ride horses.” A short pause, then Chris added, “I’d love to teach you.”
Jason suddenly was very busy with taking off the wet cloth and putting it down again. Chris would love to teach him. Really?
“They will find us, Jason. Vin and Kelli and… and the others. Vin’s my b… best friend and Kelli, she’s my daughter you know. They will find us and we will go home. Home….” The man’s eyes closed. Jason waited a little longer, but Chris didn’t say anything anymore, only groaned from time to time. Then he heard Andi cry and he had to rush away to help her.
Again, he remembered what his father had said. ‘The old Chris Larabee will cease to exist.’ He didn’t want Chris cease to exist. He wanted to go to that ranch with him and be with him instead of dad. Chris at least wanted him around.
Sixth day missing-Durango Colorado
Tanner knew he needed to wake up. He was sweating bullets, but could not shake the feeling of cold that surrounded him and his stomach felt as if two cats were trying to claw their way out. He was positive his head had at least fifty one-pound bags of sand weighing it down and any attempt to move was a mistake, as his stomach rolled and threatened to revolt. Even breathing was an effort as tremors racked through his body and he felt he was lost in some black void.
It was four in the morning and this had been going on for twenty minutes. Kelli knew she had to do something, but had no idea what it should be, “Vin! She had a wet cloth for his face and a trash can close by, just in case. She knew from the way this came on so quickly that it was more than just the Texan becoming ill, he was somewhere between here and Chris, who definitely was in bad shape judging from Tanner’s reactions. “VIN! Vincent Jamison Tanner you come back here right now before I kick your ass!”
Somewhere through the fog, he heard a voice calling to him, but he was having trouble concentrating. Again, he heard…his name, only this time it was louder and more urgent. * Kel? ... Gotta…answer…* God his head hurt, hell his whole body was in pain. *Move Tanner, make yourself…try.* A long groan accompanied his effort to make his body respond and then his stomach lost the battle to hold on and he was violently ill.
Kelli could not stop what was happening, but she did hold him up and push back his hair until he was through being sick. Then she laid his head in her lap and taking the cool washcloth, bathed his face while rubbing his back. Slowly, his color returned and he seemed to be aware of where he was,
Tanner was still for a long time and then forced himself to sit up with Kelli’s assistance. “God, what has that bastard done to him? He cradled his head with his hands, taking a deep shuddering breath he spoke softly. “We’re getting closer to him …but before this, I’ve only been able to sense what Chris was going through. This time I felt it, it was real pain and …God, Kel he hurts so bad, but it’s a different kind of pain than a gunshot or a knife wound…it’s. Hell, I can’t explain it.” The Texan was at a lost to describe it and failed to understand why his special connection to Chris for some reason, had changed. The only thing that stuck with him was the feeling of cold and the word lake.
“Are you okay? “She felt his head, “Your color is back to normal, and you don’t have a fever.”
“You can quit worrying, ‘m okay now.” He rinsed out his mouth with the water she offered him and he was feeling like Vin again. Whatever he had felt before was gone, at least for him; Chris was still trapped in that void somewhere.
“You probably should have a hot shower; I’ll get it goin’ for you.” She stood up and hurriedly started for the bathroom. He had not yet seen the tears that silently slid down her cheeks. She ached for Vin and what he was feeling.
Vin did notice and was beside her before she made it halfway to the door, he turned her around to face him. “Talk to me, baby and tell me.”
She knew what he was asking. “Vin, I hurt when you hurt and knowing that I couldn’t help you was hard, but the tears are for Chris and what he must be going through with no one there for him.” He simply nodded and with his good arm drew her to him.
Resting his chin on the top of her head, he whispered, “I heard you and knew that you were there.” He leaned back and managed to smile. “Did you really say you’d kick my ass?”
She shrugged a shoulder, “Maybe.”
“Maybe huh?” . He drew her into an embrace and they held on to one another, absorbing the comforting strength their love spawned. The Texan slid his hand down her back and lovingly caressed her backside. “Well, maybe you can take this damn sling off and help me with that shower. Then we’ll take a look at that map and plan our next move.”
Chris lay on the cold floor with the one blanket and it did not provide enough warmth to stop the shivering that controlled his body *Get a grip Larabee you made it through SEAL training; you can make it through a little cold and pain. Focus dammit!* The more he tried to think of something else the more he thought about how good if felt to take that damn shot and be rid of the hurt.
A voice from the doorway stopped his thoughts. “Think about it a lot don’t you?’ Especially when the pain reaches out, grabs you by the balls and spreads over your body. Then the chills come, only you’re sweating so much that your mind can’t tell you if it’s really cold or hot or much of anything else. It’s called withdrawal, brother.”
“Now, now … you of all people should know. I may be many things, but a bastard is not one of them. Our parents were married.” Jack laughed when Chris attempted to get up and fell.
“Fuck that hurts!”
“I know, that is why I decided you need a break. I have something different for you today.” Jack grinned, “You should know that the liquid gold was meperidine or what most people call Demerol, gift of the Gods.”
Chris cut his eyes and glared at Jack, although it was more of a cross between a weak stare and a grimace.
“Nice try, but it doesn’t bother me and in spite of how much you hate me, I am going to do you a favor.” He pulled out another syringe. “This is not Demerol, but I think you will like it. This one will make you feel good and I guarantee that you’ll want more.”
“No…don’t want it.”
“Oh, but you will.” Jack kicked Chris and when he fell backwards grabbed his arm, plunging the new stuff into his vein. “Welcome to the wonderful world of heroin, brother”
“Damn you to hell! “Chris yelled even as the drug began to give him a rush.
“Have a nice trip, brother.”
Vin was on his knees leaning forward on the bed that had maps spread across it, planning their route for today. Kelli returned to the room carrying their breakfast, setting it down on the small table by the bed.
Picking up one of the cups of coffee, she offered it to Vin. “Here baby, hot and sweet, just for you.”
The Texan stopped what he was doing and ardently kissed her, taking his time to enjoy the moment between them. He relieved her of the cup and teasingly said, “Bet the coffee’s hot, too.”
“You’re bad, Tanner.” She sat next to him and pulled the styrofoam cartons out of the bag. “Eat your breakfast and behave, before I don’t.”
Turning, he slid into a sitting position and they sat Indian style on the floor, eating and discussing the day to come. They both realized that time was getting short and that if they did not find the three captive Larabees soon; they might lose the chance to find them at all. Still, they would not allow despair to slip in and destroy their confidence, each worked to keep the other one’s spirit upbeat and positive.
“I talked to Buck, he and Ezra are gonna drive straight through to Alamosa and work their way to us from there. Josiah and Nathan will go to Trinidad Lake first and then head west. You and I are gonna check out Mancos State park. If none of us locates Chris today, we’ll all meet up in Pagosa Springs, tomorrow at noon.”
“Sounds like a plan,” she reached out and stroked his cheek. A concealed attempt to make sure he was not running a fever. The shoulder wound appeared to be healing, at least on the outside, but she worried anyway. Vin had not rested as he should, tired too easily and his color was off. It might have to do with Chris’ condition, but she damn well was not taking any chances.
“Are you tryin’ to tell me that I need to shave?” He rubbed the whiskers that had grown from the last five days of not shaving.
“Hell no, I like a scruffy-lookin’ Texan.” Kelli smiled, “Just tryin’ to figure out how to talk you into keepin’ it that way”
“I’ll think on it, Sassy, but for now let’s get packed up and head out.” Vin felt a pressing urge to find Chris, he was aware of something happening with his brother and did not like the feel of it one bit. Whatever it was it was bad and the sooner they got to him the better.
Kelli stood up first and offered her hand to the wounded Texan. “Come on, I’ll get this stuff in the truck, you take care of those infuriating maps.” Even with one hand, he could fold them better than she could with two.
Vin allowed her to help him up off the floor. “You’re problem, is that you have no patience for details.” He laughed at the look she gave him. Truth be told, she had a lot of patience with the things that mattered, but not for silly things like folding maps or people that acted foolish.
*She sure as hell has patience with you Tanner and she would follow you into hell if you asked her to. And Lord know she needs tolerance sometimes for Chris and his temperament. Hell Vin, I reckon Kel has more endurance than most people you know, but then survival is what Larabees are good at, thank God. Remember that Chris!*
Kelli came in from outside. “I’m done and you’re still not through. You gonna spend the day here or get movin’ Tanner?”
Her words spurred him into action. “Right behind you, baby.” He quickly folded the maps, put them together, grabbed his cup and followed her out the door.
Rain pulled the blood pressure cusp off Linda’s arm. “I am proud of you, you reading is near normal. Keep this up and you might get to sit up for a while.”
“How long is a while?” Linda’s impatience was showing.
“Relax Sis; I’m sure Dr. Jackson will tell you when the time comes.” Matt was glad to see that his sister’s impatience was one of those things that never changed.
“Eat your breakfast and I’ll be back in to check on you after I feed Terrell.” Rain left the brother and sister alone.
“Matt you don’t have to baby-sit me; I’ll follow orders, for now.” Linda gave him a serious look. “I want to be back on my feet to help Chris when he gets home.”
“You have really put down roots here haven’t you?”
Linda knew what Matt was asking and she did not mind telling him. “I love Chris and I love this crazy family, too. Matt, I am happy and I have a place here, so tell the others I expect them to behave if they come to visit.”
“I can see that.” He shook his head.” I must admit after watching everyone this week that I found out much more than I expected to. You are family here and I know now that we worried over nothing.” Dubois laughed, “In fact I am looking forward to seeing what this bunch will do next because it seemed as if there is never a dull moment around here.”
“So you are planning to stay?”
“As long as you are okay with it, yes. I promise to be a good neighbor as well as a good brother and uncle. However, I would like to stay with you until they find Chris and bring him home. Everything else will work out just fine, too.”
Linda thought about what he was saying and decided that he was being sincere. “Welcome to Colorado, Matt.”
Chris curled up on the floor in a fetal position and he could not remember anytime in his life that he felt as miserable as he did now. The gash on his bad leg oozed with pus and pain invaded every part of his body. He has no idea how long he had been here, but he knew that it was too long. His heart felt as if it was ready to jump out of his chest and he was positive that he would rather die on this dirty floor than to become a slave to those damned drugs.
*What about those kids? Shut up, Chris! What good is a drug addict to them? Hell, they already have that; they need…something you do not have right now to give them. Jack sure knows what he is doing because all you want now is for him to come back with more stuff to ease your misery. Might as well, I have nothing left to fight him with. Since when are you a quitter Chris, you know your brothers are looking for you. Yeah and maybe it’s better if they don’t find me like this.*
Another shaft of pain tore through his body and he shivered when the door opened.
“Waiting for me, Chris?” Jack was disappointed that he got no response from the man on the floor. ”Silence it is then, I brought you something.” He smiled when Chris passively took the injection. “We’re almost there.” He left Chris to take this trip alone.
In the other room, Jason watched his father pull out another bottle of whiskey. He could not help thinking about the sick man in the next room, he had talked nice to them and now he could barely talk at all. If he only knew what to do, maybe he could help.
Mancos State Park
Most of the day was gone and just like yesterday they were no closer to finding Chris. The cold and the snow had Kelli feeling awful, but she never said a word about it to Vin. She was more concerned about him because as the day wore on he looked worse and moved slower. A couple of times he had a burst of energy followed by a dark temperament that had him snapping at her over everything and then it had disappeared as fast as it had appeared.
“He’s not here,” Vin walked up beside her. “I think we need to call it a day for this park.” He was positive that Chris was not here and they had already checked out every place possible in this area.
“We still have some daylight, you want to stay in the four corners area or take a different direction?”
Vin took a good look at his redhead, she was miserably cold and looked as if she felt like hell. He knew she would not be the one to say quit either. “No, we’ll head east; by the time we get to Bayfield it will be dark. We’ll stay the night there and then leave early enough to meet the others by noon tomorrow.”
“You’re the boss.”
The Texan wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “If I’m the boss I say we find some decent food, a warm room with a hot shower and then we both get some rest.”
She leaned into his side, “Like I said you’re the boss, let’s go.”
Buck saw Josiah and Nathan when they walked into the restaurant and motioned for them. Once seated and the four agent had ordered, they reviewed their progress.
“Josiah and I started at Trinidad Lake and hit five more sites between there and here. We came up blank.” Nathan started.
Ezra gave them pretty much of the same report. “We unfortunately fared no better with our endeavors.”
“Justin gave me a forensics report on Chris’ truck. The lab picked up prints for Chris of course, plus one for Jack Larabee and a Lester Smite.” He gave them a picture of Smite.” His print was also found on Vin’s truck so we can now connected him to the attempt on Tanner’s life. Jack may be nothing more than a second-class con man, but Smite is a violet ex-con with a bad record. JD is doing a background on him now and will send it ASAP.”
“So, we can’t count on Jack to keep Chris alive.” Josiah stated solemnly.
“If Lester is still involved, evidently we can’t,” Buck answered.
“Gentlemen, I have arranged our accommodations for the evening, here are your room keys and directions.” Ezra handed them each an envelope.
“I have to call Vin and let him know what the lab discovered. Maybe that infamous connection between him and Chris can help us pull off a miracle tomorrow,” Buck added, “We’ll all meet in front of the motel at seven in the morning and then leave for Pagosa Springs.”
“Let’s hope that Vin and Kelli had more luck today than we did.” Nathan stood to leave. “See you guys in the morning.”
After a hot restaurant meal, they checked into another motel, admittedly a bit less optimistic than they had been this morning. Vin was on the phone with Buck while Kelli unpacked what they would need for the night. Tanner hung up and started pulling on his sling, cursing at his unsuccessful effort to get rid of it.
“Tanner, what in the hell are you doing?”
“I want this damn thing off, feels like it choking’ me.” He was almost frantic to remove the binding.
Kelli reached up and unsnapped it at his neck. “All you had to do is ask Tanner.” She gently freed his arm from the confines of the sling. “Vin, are you okay?”
The Texan took a deep breath and rubbed the back of his neck with his hand. “Yeah…no…Hell, I don’t know. It feels like somethin’s crawlin’ on my neck and ever nerve in my body is on fire. By now, Tanner was pacing anxiously.
“Chris,” she said softly.
Vin stopped pacing. “That’s what ‘m afraid of and if it is, he’s hurtin’ bad and I can’t do a damn thing to help him. Hell, I can’t even figure out what’s wrong with him. All I get is garbled thoughts that mean nothin’ to me.” He sat down next to Kelli. “We’re closer here than we were in Durango, but not there, yet.”
Rubbing his back, she said in a whisper, “He knows we’re comin’ and Chris will hang on for us.” Kelli was determined to be patient with Vin and just be there for whatever he needed, for as long as it took.
“I hope so baby, but I have a feelin’ that it’s gonna be a long night.”
Sixth day missing, evening
Jason and Andi had slipped inside the small room to be with Chris as soon as their father had fallen asleep between his bottles. The mean man was in the one bed the cabin had and he and Andi wanted to be with Chris again. Andi had hoped that Chris would tell some more stories, but to her enormous disappointment, Chris had been quiet and had hardly opened his eyes. All he had done was smile at them, a small hesitant smile, but still a smile, said ‘hi’ and had closed his eyes again. So he and Andi had just rolled themselves in their blankets and had gone to sleep. Jason knew he would wake up before his father or the mean man, so he and Andi would be able to sneak out of the forbidden room on time.
Jason hadn’t expected to be awake so soon. He was sure he had not slept long.
Chris woke him up. He was shaking again and he was moaning softly, but through the years, Jason had learned to wake up for even the slightest of noises, so it had been enough.
Carefully he sat up and looked at the huddled and trembling form beside him. “Chris?” he asked softly. “Chris? Please?” There was silence at first, but then Chris whispered “S… sorry, Jason.”
That confused him. Why would Chris say he was sorry? For what? Waking him? “You’re sick,” he stated and when you’re sick, you can’t help yourself and don’t need to say sorry!
“I sh… shouldn’t b… be.”
That was stupid! When you got sick, you got sick and when you got real sick you died. Like… like Mama.
He didn’t want Chris to die! He didn’t want him to disappear!
“My dad is making you sick, isn’t he?” he asked finally.
Again, there was silence and then, just when Jason thought he would not get an answer, Chris softly said, “Yeah.”
“He wants you to c… cease to exist. I think that’s not right.” Resolutely he stood up. “I won’t let him,” he stated.
“N… nothing you can d… do.”
“We could leave,” he said hopefully. “Go to your ranch….” Oh, he had really said it! Suddenly he did not dare move; he could only stand there and wait for the words that would hurt him, tell him he was not wanted.
“W… want to,” Chris said softly. “Want that very m… much. Go to the ranch with you two…keep you safe.”
Jason couldn’t help the big grin on his face. Chris had said again that he wanted them to come and Chris didn’t look down on him or make him feel he was stupid.
“Let’s go,” he urged, leaning down to get his blanket. Blankets were always handy when you escaped; he’d seen that on television when they still had one. And food, he should take some food out of the kitchen.
“Jason, I c… can’t …chain.”
Chris had slowly moved onto his back and was looking up at him. He moved his right leg and Jason heard the chain rattle. Frowning he looked at it.
“Daddy has a key,” Andi mumbled sleepily from the other side of Chris.
“I know, silly!” He frowned again, thinking. “I know where it is too, I think!” Triumphantly he grinned at Chris. “I’ll go get it and then you can take it off and we’ll go to your ranch!”
All excited he hurried off.
The boy delivered. Not that Chris had doubted it for a minute, what he had seen from Jason had impressed him enormously. For a six year old, this kid sure knew how to get by!
He was smart too, he felt it in the answers the boy gave him and he saw it in the bright eyes. Andi too, she somehow reminded him of Sarah and it tore at his heart, just thinking of her. How miserable her short life had been, made him want to rage against the world. It also made him want to hit his brother, hard, knock him down and knock some sense into him. God, had all capacity to love been beaten out of Jack by their hard, cruel father?
Chris closed his eyes and took a deep breath. No, he was not going to think about that man and his belt, or about his mean games to make him and Jack into what he considered to be men. He had promised himself he would not ever again and he was going to keep that promise. Besides, he needed to sit up and get that key in the lock of the chain.
He managed to sit up and immediately doubled over when the rolling pain in his stomach hit him again. It overrode even the pain in his leg. He did not think the leg was broken again, but he knew things were not right. Somehow, he had the feeling his doctor would not be pleased at all.
*Key, think about the key. Also think about breathing, damn, why’s it so hard to breath! *
He took the small key from Jason and pulled his right foot up. Inserting the key was easy, managing to turn it almost proved beyond his strength. “Chris?” Jason asked breathlessly and clearly worried. For a moment, he saw again the brightly shining eyes of the kid when he had come back to give him the key and he knew he could not let Jason down. Andi either, who was looking on just as excited, clutching her rag doll close to herself. He needed to do this, if not for himself, then for them.
The lock gave and the shackle fell away from his ankle. For a second he couldn’t grasp it and then it hit him. Free, he was free! He had not anticipated the pure joy he would feel because of it. Good, some part of him still knew what was important and what he needed to do, which was get up and get out. Get these kids to safety.
He looked around himself and then he pulled himself over to the windowsill. He grabbed it and managed to haul himself up. When he was finally standing on his right leg, he was shaking so hard he thought he would topple over immediately again. With a sigh, he rested his head against the glass. When the shaking finally got a bit less, he managed to right himself and look at Jason and Andi, both were gazing up at him with trusting eyes. It cut through him more then all the pain. So, he did what he knew he couldn’t do, he tried to stand on his left leg.
That almost landed him in a heap on the floor again. Hanging on for dear life, sweating profusely now, he knew he could not stop being sick. Andi cried softly when he started to puke and again he felt how damn inadequate he was to help these kids.
There just was not anything left of him.
“Your leg, you can’t use your leg!” Jason suddenly said, understanding in his eyes. “That’s… that is why they had those crutches! Wait, I’m gonna get them!” He ran off again. When he came back, he was holding Chris’ crutches awkwardly in his arms, struggling with them and trying hard not to let them knock against anything.
“Whas that?” Andi asked excited.
“Crutches,” Jason told her. “I think they are from Chris. We didn’t have ‘em before, dad and the mean man don’t need ‘em. Here.” With a bright, triumphant smile, he held them out.
What else could he do but take them? Chris turned carefully, so he was now resting his back against the window, being half perched on the windowsill, right leg keeping him up. He swallowed and wiped his sleeve over his mouth, trying to muster his strength and just do this. Just take the damn crutches and get out of there.
“He should drink, Jason. I always wanna drink after I puke.”
“Oh, yeah. You give him the canteen, Andi. I don’t think he can do it himself.”
Jason’s matter of fact statement brought the heat of shame to Chris’ face and inwardly he cursed his stupid weakness. It was drugs; he should be able to fight drugs! He tried to shift and stand on his own, only to fall back against the windowsill again. “I’ll manage,” he gritted out between clenched teeth. Seeing Jason’s pinched and scared face, he thought to himself *I goddamn will!*
“Here!” Andi squealed in delight as she dove between the blankets and pillows to get the canteen.
“Ssssssh!” Jason hissed, staring at the door in terror.
“Oh!” The little girl looked startled, then frightened when she realized what she had done, standing forlornly while clasping the canteen in one arm and her doll in the other.
“That was stupid!” Jason hissed. He put down the crutches very carefully and darted out of the room.
Andi looked at Chris through tear-filled eyes. He smiled at her and held out his hand. “Thanks for… for finding the water,” he said softly. She nodded and quickly gave it to him, all her excitement and happiness gone. He sighed and held his arm out to her. She came to him hesitantly and while he was holding on with the other hand to the windowsill behind him, he put the arm around her, careful that he did not bump her with the canteen.
“’s Alright,” he whispered. “It is.”
“I’m n… n… not stupid,” she sniffled and it tore at Chris’ heart that she didn’t wail like any other three year old would have done. Like Sarah would have done. Wail or argue loudly. He smiled thinking of the three-year-old Wilmington girl. Sarah would probably have opted for the loud argument if someone had told her she had done something stupid.
“Andi, it’s alright,” he told her again, very softly.
With a sigh, she leaned into him, knocking him almost down. Then Jason was back, the relief clear on his face. “They’re still sleeping!” he whispered excitedly. “Come on Andi, let’s get Chris his crutches.” This time Andi only nodded. While the kids gathered the crutches from the ground, Chris took a few deep swallows from the canteen, grateful to be able to get rid of some of the foul taste in his mouth. Then he braced himself not just physically, but also mentally and grabbed the crutches. He managed to get them in place and not thinking about anything he started to slowly work his way out of the room, while Jason darted ahead to see if the coast was clear and Andi stayed right beside him as if she wanted to offer her support with every painful step.
Chris went slow, very slow. He tried not to make any noise with his crutches, but they thumped on the wooden floor anyway.
It was scary, seeing their father’s huddled form in the big chair and knowing that behind the curtain, in the bed alcove, the mean man was. Still, they were doing something, they were trying to escape and that felt good.
They made it to the door and Jason carefully opened it. His father and the mean man never locked it, because there was no one else outside. That worried him a little, because there would be no one to help Chris if he fell. He let first Andi and then Chris pass him, before closing the door softly behind them. Then they were outside, under the stars and Chris looked… he looked…. Jason did not want to think about how Chris looked.
Chris moved forward and he and Andi followed. Chris moved forward again and then he groaned, almost collapsing He stood hunched over between his crutches and just when Jason thought the escape was over, Chris looked up, looked at him and Andi and started limping forward again. He was going for the trees. Jason hurried up until he was walking beside Chris.
“I w… want you and Andi to run off,” Chris said softly. “To the trees and… and find someone.” He stopped again, trying to catch his breath.
“You gotta come too,” Jason said alarmed.
“I… I try. But when I c… can’t, find someone and… and ask for V… Vin Tanner. Vin and Kelli Tanner in Denver. You g… got that?”
A pit opened inside Jason’s stomach. Maybe this wasn’t such a great idea after all. He felt like crying all of a sudden.
He looked up at Chris and found two green eyes gazing at him with intensity.
“I’ll try to make it. But when I d… don’t, you and Andi run and find s… someone! And ask for Vin and Kelli Tanner in Denver.” Jason couldn’t answer and Chris’ head drooped for a moment.
“We go to the ranch now?” Andi suddenly spoke up, pulling at Chris’ sleeve.
“I’ll try, Andi,” Chris said softly. “Jason, listen, Vin and Kelli live on the ranch as well. You… you have someone call them and… and they will come, like I s… said. God!” One crutch fell down, while Chris held himself tightly with his right arm, the left still desperately holding on to the crutch. Hastily Jason stooped down and gave the crutch back to Chris.
Chris took the crutch. “Repeat the… names,” he told Jason.
“Vin and Kelli Tanner.”
Chris started limping forward again, towards the trees. Jason took Andi’s hand and followed. They were almost there when the door of the cabin behind them crashed open and a bellow could be heard. Fearfully Jason looked behind him. The mean man was standing there, yelling angrily. Then he ran towards them and he saw his father emerge as well. Andi started to cry.
“Run!” Chris hissed.
Run? Where? He didn’t know where to go!
“Run, Jason, you and Andi run and f… find someone! Remember, Vin Tanner!”
“But… but you….”
Chris had moved back, to stand between him and Andi and suddenly he knew Chris meant to fight for them. Only, he could not fight at all because he was sick and hurt….
“Run!” he yelled at Jason and Jason did. He grabbed Andi’s hand and pulled her with him. Andi cried loudly now, but as usual did what he told her too. Within seconds, they were between the trees. He stopped a moment and looked back. Chris was standing awkwardly, leaning on his crutches, while the mean man came running, gun in hand and yelling for him and Andi to stop and get back right now!
It looked like he would run straight past Chris, but then Chris pushed his crutch out and managed to trip the man, launching himself on the stumbling form. They went down in a heap. Andi screamed and just before Jason turned around to run off again, he saw their father coming, calling out their names.
Chris had said to run. To find… Vin, Vin Tanner and someone else. K… Kelli, yes, Kelli. Chris told them she was his daughter, didn’t he? So maybe she really would help.... He grabbed Andi’s hand again and ran. Behind him, he heard branches break and their father cursing at them. Then Andi screamed and fell and hastily he stopped to help her up.
“My knee! My knee hurt, Jason!” she cried. “I don’t wanna run in the dark! I’m s… scared!”
“Andi, please, we gotta go! Come on!”
A hand suddenly grabbed him by the back of his neck and turned him harshly. Before him stood his father, he was panting and very, very angry. “Yes Jason,” he hissed, “We gotta go, go back! And after I’ve dealt with my dear brother, I’ll take care of you two as well. Move!”
He could not shake lose that hand and then his father had grabbed Andi too and dragged them both with him. When he pulled them out of the woods, Jason saw the two crutches on the ground and the mean man entering the cabin, Chris thrown over his shoulder.
It was dark, no one could see and he could not help it. Silently Jason let the tears fall.
He had never been so scared in his entire life. Ever!
Whoever this other man was who worked with Jack, he loved to hurt, that much was sure. There had been no reason for the bastard to kick him that often after he had been down and helpless.
Or to target his left leg a couple of times, just for the fun of it.
Chris had come back to consciousness when he was dumped on the floor of the cabin room unceremoniously. He’d screamed and tried to kick out when he felt the chain being fastened back around his right ankle. He really had tried to fight again, really… Anything that he could do to keep this bastard with him and away from joining Jack in his search for Jason and Andi. It scared him to think of this man with the two kids.
God, he hoped Jason managed to get Andi and himself out of here! If only they escaped and found someone, anyone…. It had been the main reason to try this madness when he could hardly do anything, try to get the kids out. Get them to move and find the courage to leave. He had given them Vin’s and Kelli’s name, so they had a purpose, a goal. If only….
In the central cabin room, he heard a loud thump, probably the door being slammed against the wall and then the crying of a little girl.
“Don’t fight me, Andi or so help me God…. Get in there now! Jason, make her be quiet!” Another door slammed and Chris huddled in on himself, unable to stop a moan. The kids …both of them. Jack had caught them and all was lost. He would not get another change to try to get them out of here.
“Seems they’re back, Larabee,” his brother’s partner grinned above him, before he kicked him again, hard. Chris didn’t care, he only cared about those two scared little kids in the other room who were in a lot of trouble now because of him.
Then again, a door slammed, this time it was the door to the room he was in. Jack came storming inside and grabbed him by his shirt, hauling him up.
“You think that was funny, Chris?” he yelled. “Setting my own kids up against me? Having them help you against me? So, now they like you more then they like me don’t they? God, it is the story of my fucking life! Well, they’ll be sorry!”
“Jack, no, I… I threatened them, alright? Made them sc… scared.”
“Sure you did! How? You can barely move, so why would they get scared of you?”
“Told them I’m a cop, told them they’d go to… jail… otherwise.”
He was slammed against the floor, hard. Then Jack hissed in his face “If you think the withdrawal from Demerol was bad, let’s see how withdrawal from heroin will make you feel! Enjoy the rest of the night, brother. I’ll see you again in the morning.”
“Jack…” the other man started to say.
“No!” Jack shouted. “I’m gonna get some sleep now! Those damn brats are safe in the closet for the time being and I’ll decide what to do in the morning!” He ran out, but came back almost immediately.
“Just get out of there, Lester. Now, or I’ll make sure you won’t be able to get any of the money we made.”
“Damn it, Jack! You’re a stupid asshole!”
“Just leave it ‘til tomorrow Lester, alright? We’ll talk about this then.”
He waited until Lester had left the room before closing the door behind them.
Chris tried not to cry about it all, but he could not stop the tears. He felt as if he was in some deep, dark hole that he could never crawl out of. In a closet, Andi had been so frightened about being locked in a closet again…. Then the pain in his stomach came back even worse than before and Chris knew Jack was right. It was just beginning.
When the first sign of morning light came through the window shutters, Chris was a wreck. He didn’t fight the needle anymore, but welcomed the end to his misery and pain.
He did not see Jack’s look of triumph when the rush took him away.