Only Chris and Nathan went into the hotel for Maude's message, since they did not want to make a scene -- the fewer of them seen together the better. After convincing the desk clerk that he was Larabee, the glare doing more to provide identification than anything, Chris was handed the note. He and Nathan moved over near the doors before Chris opened the paper and read it aloud, "EJ on trail; we're off and running."
"Shit!" cursed Chris as comprehension struck. "Eli Joe must've tracked us down."
"And Miss Maude went with them?" Nathan asked.
Both men groaned. "Now we know they're in trouble." They went back outside and informed everyone else what they had found.
"So, now what are we going to do?" asked Dunne.
"First I want you to get connected," Larabee said, pointing at the laptop. "Find all you can about Eli Joe and dig deep."
"Yes, sir," JD responded, immediately doing what his leader asked.
Nathan shrugged. "We have to hope that Maude knows what she's doing."
"She's quite a woman," Josiah said with a contented sigh.
Trading glances, the others rolled their eyes; they were well aware of the affection the older man held for Ezra's mother.
"It's not just Maude," Buck said. "It's Maude plus those two; that's a lethal combination."
"I just hope Eli Joe doesn't catch up with them," Nathan said, voicing the fear of the others. "He really hurt Vin last time they met."
"Vin's stronger now; he'll be fine." But Chris didn't sound as confident as he tried to appear.
A few minutes later, JD shouted, "I've got something!" He looked up to find he had everyone's attention. "He's wanted in the state of Texas for the slaughter of two families."
"How can he be roaming free?"
"Baines." Chris scowled. That one name held all the hatred he carried. "Must've pulled some strings."
"Everyone's so afraid of him," Nathan said, "whatever he says goes."
"Not everyone." Larabee started the car and headed out of town.
"How do you know where to go?" asked JD.
Chris shrugged. "Just a feeling."
+ + + + + + +
Getting back on the road wasn't too arduous after their break and they were able to travel for another hour before Maude demanded food. They stopped in Madison for a meal, choosing to eat in a family restaurant that was quiet and comfortable.
Maude went to the restroom to freshen up prior to the dessert being served. Vin was just digging into his homemade apple pie a la mode when he sensed something. His head shot up when he looked around. He saw Ezra do the same thing. "Eli's close."
"Yes, he is," Ezra agreed with a frown.
They both thought for a moment before they said at the same time: "Maude." -- "Mother."
Vin cursed their short mindedness. "She ain't got shields."
"So he's tracking us through her. We'll have to get rid of her."
"Ez, she's your ma."
"We can't jest dump 'er."
"Why ever not? Heavens knows she did it to me enough in my childhood."
Vin could hear the hurt in the voice of the normally stoic sentient. "I gotta better idea: we can use her."
"In what way?"
"Bring Eli Joe to us."
Sensing what his friend had planned, Ezra asked, "Are you sure you want to do this?"
"Are you sure your --"
Vin didn't need to read his friend's mind to know he was concerned if he was strong enough for this encounter. "I can do this Ez," he stated strongly. He stared imploringly into wary green eyes. "I have to do this."
Seeing his partner's determination, the clairvoyant nodded slowly in agreement. "Then I will do whatever you think is necessary."
"We should prob'ly let Chris know what's going on. He's gonna start to freak soon."
Returning from the facilities, Mrs. Standish heard this last statement and reassured her companions. "Don't worry, that's taken care of."
Green and blue eyes met in shock. "What did you do, mother?"
"I simply left Mr. Larabee a message telling him that we have absconded because of Mr. Joe."
Both men groaned. "Aww, hell," Vin cursed, "he's definitely shittin' bricks by now." He got up and tossed some money on the table for the dinner.
"I concur," Ezra said, following the other man out the door. "I'll call him now to let him know we are unharmed." The chestnut-haired man brought his cell phone out only to find out that the battery was dead. "Apparently we will have to find a public telephone to reach our illustrious leader." He looked around the vicinity, and upon seeing a phone booth, headed toward it.
"Hold up," Vin called after his friend, bringing him back. "Let me try something first. Why don't you go get Maude and I'll meet ya back at the car."
"What are you planning on doing?"
"I'm gonna try to 'reach out and touch someone'." Vin smirked. He walked over to the car, sat in the backseat, and closed his eyes. He reached out with his telepathic ability, stretching out with his mind, until he zeroed in on his best friend. Tanner normally had a connection with Chris, knowledge of where the older man was, but this was the first time he'd tried to communicate telepathically from this far away.
//Chris, can you hear me?// No reply. He sent out more of himself, extending his ability even further. //Chris can you hear me?//
Vin didn't hear anything else for a moment.
Then Chris sent back, //Next time warn a guy that you're going to invade his mind. I damn near ran off the road.//
Tanner chuckled at the obviously livid tone his friend was sending though their link. //Ya got Maude's note?//
//Yep. Explain why I shouldn't strangle all of you when I see you next?//
//No time fer bitchin' now, Larabee, Eli Joe's on our ass.//
//What are you going to do?//
//I got a plan. Get 'im of m'back once and fer all.//
//I repeat, what are you going to do, Tanner?//
//Jest head northwest toward Madison.//
//Already headed that direction.//
Vin was surprised. //How'd you know?//
//Just a feeling.//
//Yer gettin' to be as scary as me, Cowboy.//
//Fat chance of that. Where do you want us to meet you?//
//I'm not sure yet, I'll let you know when I find it.//
//Watch your back.//
//Always do.// Tanner brought his attention back to the car, not surprised to find Ezra and Maude sitting in front waiting for him to acknowledge them.
Ezra looked over his shoulder. "Well?"
"Chris says 'hi'."
"I'm sure he did," Standish replied, scathingly. "What did Mr. Larabee actually have to say?"
"Fer one thing, he's pissed."
"And they're on the way."
"Way to where, exactly?"
"I've been thinkin' on that "
+ + + + + + +
Chris Larabee shook his head to clear it as he pulled over to the side of the road and stopped the vehicle. This extrasensory communication was going to take some getting used to. He opened the van door and stepped out. "Why don't you drive, Josiah? I don't want to crash if he contacts me again."
The empath agreed with a chuckle. "What did our wayward brother have to say?"
"He has a plan."
"Oh, no." Buck ducked his head in mock terror.
"He wants Eli Joe out of the way, once and for all."
"What does that mean?" asked JD.
"Not sure. Keep heading northwest, hopefully we'll catch up to 'em before they get in too much trouble."
+ + + + + + +
Eli Joe had a score to settle with Tanner. The rogue telepath thought he was so smart, refusing the Guild. He'd learn. There are some people that you do not say no to and Paul Baines was one of them. After losing Tanner's trail out west, Eli resorted to killing that farmer. That killing was his own brainchild; Baines had no idea that's what he had planned to do -- might've even tried to stop him and save the publicity. But it backfired, and after Vin still refused to play the game, Baines blamed Eli. Nobody made a fool out of Eli Joe.
Now, tracking the woman was ridiculously easy. The fools had no idea Eli was following them through Maude Standish. As he traveled along the two-lane highway, the telepath felt a surge through the link. Spreading his search farther, he switched targets and connected with Tanner. He chuckled scornfully, secure in his own superiority. He figured Tanner wasn't strong enough to keep his shields up for that long, and now he had him. Eli was tired of waiting; he'd take him out now -- screw what Baines wanted.
Pressing down on his accelerator, Eli sped in the direction of his prey.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra stood next to his mother and asked his friend, "Are you sure about this?"
"It's the only way." The telepath started to move across the lot, toward the door of the abandoned apartment building.
"Mr. Tanner, there is no reason you should waste your God-given talent on this foolishness." The blonde tried to look dignified, but wrung her hands in worry.
"I appreciate your concern, ma'am, but--"
"Concern, hell. I will not have you jeopardize my plans."
Vin looked at Ezra in stunned silence. The clairvoyant merely shrugged. "I'm so proud to be her son," he stated. Turning to her, he said, "Mother, now that you've shown your true colors, maybe you should leave." The plan was for Maude to take the car back to the hotel, for her safety and the security of the plan. They didn't want to take a chance that Eli could read her mind and find out what was in store for him.
Maude Standish knew she was coming across badly, but didn't know any other way to express herself. She wasn't a woman given to caring for people, especially ones she'd only recently met, but her son seemed to care so much for this young man and she didn't want Ezra hurt. Regardless of what he might think at times, she did love him. Knowing that the blue-eyed man in front of her was a telepath and able to read minds, she tried to send a message of support as she said aloud, "You be careful, I expect you both back in one piece."
Vin acknowledged the unspoken blessing with a crooked smile. "I'll do my best, Miz Maude." She nodded and, with a quick kiss to her son's cheek, drove off in the car.
As soon as she was out of sight, Vin turned back to his friend, needing to convey his seriousness. "Don't get in Eli's way. I need ya clear of here so I don't get distracted."
"Rest assured," Ezra replied, "I will vacate the area as soon as you ascend."
Neither man wanted to admit this might be the last time they talked, so, with a parting look and a quick nod, they went their separate ways. Vin walked to the chosen building, and Ezra went around the corner to secretly watch for the other man's arrival.
The two men had selected this area because of its abandoned state, so no innocents would be caught in any crossfire. Tanner slowly walked up the five flights of stairs and out onto the roof. Once there, he sat down in the middle and mentally opened himself just enough to get his adversary's "attention," leading him directly here.
It was his responsibility to defeat Eli Joe --even if it killed him.
When he was younger, he'd heard stories of the Dungeon: once inside, those captured were never heard from again. Vin never saw any of the sentients he was taken with. He had no idea if they joined the Guild or were neutralized. In fact, at one point he didn't care. Wanting to be a part of something great, he leapt without looking at the consequences. He became convinced that the Guild could use his ability for the good of people, his country, and the world. The self- recrimination remained because he'd believed; not for long, but for long enough. He'd just wanted so badly to know that he wasn't a freak; that he was worth something. He'd thought he'd found a new home, but his hopes and beliefs were betrayed. That's what drove him to rescue all the sentients he could to stop them from being played like pawns in the Guild's chess game.
Less powerful or useful sentients were sent to the PCC internment camps. There were two that the public was aware of; the Seven knew of at least three more scattered around the country. Those not going along with the program were neutralized, either by drugs or surgery -- eliminating their sentience and, at times, their life. The team hoped to break into the camps and free everyone someday, but that would have to wait until they were stronger. Such a dangerous undertaking would be reckless unless planned to perfection. Not worried about themselves, the team wouldn't let their actions hurt any innocent people.
Looking back, Vin realized that Eli had taught him just enough to be useful to Baines and the Guild, but not enough to supplant Eli's own power. It didn't matter now. Vin's ability had grown since they'd last met and that murderer would be unpleasantly surprised.
+ + + + + + +
Driving the taxicab through the rundown district, Eli started to feel apprehensive. Arriving at an old apartment building, he pulled the car up and parked it. For some reason the position he received from Tanner was away from the Standish woman. In addition, he wasn't receiving any concrete input from his quarry, just an indication of his location. That could only mean one thing Tanner was luring him in. But it was all right.
He was ready for a showdown.
+ + + + + + +
Vin looked up as Eli Joe strode through the door onto the roof.
For some reason, Vin found he was no longer concerned about the rogue telepath. Either he realized his own power, or he was simply too angry at the callous nature of the man to be afraid any longer. Self-confident and ready for battle, he stood and approached the new arrival. Vin stopped his approach when they stood about ten feet away from one another.
"Eli Joe, nice of you ta come."
"Vin Tanner, nice of you to send an invitation."
"Ya didn't give me much choice. Can't have ya trackin' me no more; yer crampin' my style."
"Style? Running around saving people? What a waste of your talent."
"Ya consider helpin' people a waste?"
"People are only here to serve my purposes."
"How about Jess Kincaid? You killed an innocent man just to frame me for murder."
"Case in point." Eli sneered. "You never would have been worthy of the Guild."
"Damn straight. After I'm through with ya, ya won't be worth spit."
"There's only one way to stop me."
"Whatever it takes," Vin snarled.
The dark-haired telepath spread his arms wide. "Then come and get me."
Vin raised his shields to their highest intensity and threw out a psychic blast at Eli. His adversary flinched and stepped back, before sending out an attack of his own. Tanner felt the pounding against his defenses, but they stayed intact, startling Eli.
Each man tried to enter the other's mind, dealing psychic blows against his opponent. Vin's shields held strong, but the lean telepath was making his way, slowly, through Joe's.
During their last confrontation, Eli had definitely held the advantage; now, Tanner was stronger. This, Eli wouldn't accept. He reached into his jacket and pulled out a gun, aiming it at Vin.
Seeing the movement, Vin's attention was brought to the weapon pointed at him. He focused his new power and grasped the gun, wrenching it from Eli's hand and tossing it over the side of the roof. Immediately a white-hot pain shot through his skull. Gasping he bent over and clutched his head between his hands, only thinking about stopping the pain.
+ + + + + + +
The van skidded to a stop next to Eli's stolen taxi at the foot of the apartment building. The five men jumped out and quickly glanced around for their teammates.
Ezra had watched Eli appear and head upstairs from the safety of his hiding place. When he saw the rest of his team arrive, the green-eyed sentient took a deep breath, steeled himself, and hurried over to their location.
Chris didn't even wait until Ezra had reached them before calling, "Where is he?"
Once Standish was closer, he reported, "Our teammate is with Mr. Joe on top of that building." Ezra motioned to the vacant residence closest to them.
Buck shook his head in amazement. "Is he nuts? Why aren't you with him?"
"I believe Mr. Tanner has everything in order," the clairvoyant calmly reported, meeting Buck's suspicious expression. "Vin told me he couldn't afford any distractions."
"Distractions?" Josiah mulled over the word.
Realizing the extent of his friend's self-imposed mission, Larabee yelled, "Stay here!" He ran into the building and raced up the stairs.
+ + + + + + +
Eli held his right hand in his left, staring at the doubled over sentient in front of him. When the hell did Tanner get telekinesis? He'd shown no ability for it when the Guild tested him. For the first time in his life, Eli Joe felt fear. With that fear came panic, and he rushed at Tanner. Vin was struggling with the pain and -- caught off guard -- he couldn't stop as Eli's momentum pushed him backwards. His legs hit the edge of the roof and he grabbed onto Eli as they both tumbled over the side.
Chris burst through the roof's access door just in time to witness the telepaths toppling over the edge. Racing to the side, he reached out with his telekinesis, slowing his friend's descent. He didn't have enough power to save both men, but there was no contest regarding which one he would save. Concentrating his ability, Chris was finally able to reverse Tanner's fall, and automatically brought him back towards the roof. As the telepath neared the top, Larabee reached his arm out and grabbed Vin's arm in a forearm lock to pull him to safety.
Collapsing to the rooftop and panting heavily, from the expended energy and the terrifying fall, Vin managed to gasp out a weak, "Thanks."
Chris smiled, and patted his friend's shoulder. "Next time you pull a stunt like this I'll kill you myself." He took a hold of Vin's hand and pulled him up. Together they walked back down the stairs and out to the street.
The team was gathered around the fallen foe. Nathan shook his head; there was nothing the healer could do for a dead man. JD stayed back, not anxious to see the body; Buck stood where he could block the kid's view. Ezra had surreptitiously drifted over to where Eli's gun had fallen and pocketed it.
Josiah sighed at the squandered life; the misuse of power was always regrettable. "What should we do with him?"
Vin was staring at the lifeless form of his recent adversary. The relief he should be feeling wasn't there. Instead he remembered his friend, and the intense sensation of emptiness remained from the anguish this man had cost him. "Leave 'im here." Vin closed his eyes and sighed heavily before turning his back and walking away.
Larabee watched his friend's quiet retreat and agreed. "He'll be found."
The six men looked at each other in silent agreement; they were thankful their friend was not lying there beside the Guild's telepath. But while they rejoiced on another battle won, they knew the war was far from over. Giving the body one last look they turned and followed their teammate back to the van.
+ + + + + + +
"Well, looky here." Buck smirked holding the morning news. "Looks like our Mr. Eli Joe has committed suicide."
"Lemme see," JD said, snagging the paper from his friend. "'Police assume the jumper went to the abandoned building to ensure his success.'"
Buck snatched it back, and then hit the young sentient over the head with it. "Ain't ya got any manners, kid?"
Tanner took the paper, lifting it from Buck's hands and settling himself on the bench near the door.
"You would like to read about that malefactor?" Ezra inquired. He was surprised because Tanner had remained quiet after the incident with Eli Joe and refused to talk about it, seemingly wanting to forget all about it.
"Nah, he wants to see the comics." Nathan smiled at the finger aimed his way.
"Maude's comin'," Vin stated from behind the paper. "And she ain't alone."
"What?" Ezra whipped his head around. "Who? Why?"
Nathan chuckled. "Probably wants to make sure her little boy is okay."
Standish quickly got up from the table and went outside.
"Where's he going in such a hurry?" JD asked.
Buck glanced out the window. "To head her off."
Chris and Josiah looked up as the Buick pulled into the camping lot quickly followed by a stretch limo. A tall man got out of the car, went to the rear door of the limo, and opened it. Maude Standish gracefully stepped out and took the proffered keys. She strode over to the men watching her arrival.
"Maude, you're looking as beautiful as ever." Sanchez took her hand and kissed it gently.
"And you, Josiah, darling, are a charmer, as always." The blonde turned to Larabee. "Christopher, you look wonderful." Maude tried to hug him, but was stopped before she could reach him. His force shield had automatically gone up.
"Hey, looks like you finally found the key to your shield." Josiah laughed heartily. "Self-preservation!"
"Mother!" called out Erza, as he exited the trailer. He was trying to call her attention away from Chris. The clairvoyant didn't know if the flash he received of her being tossed through the air was precognition or wishful thinking. Best to avoid the possibility altogether. "It's so nice that you came to visit our humble abode. To what do we owe the pleasure?" Ezra led her away from the others as he continued talking. "I was going to pick up the car this afternoon before we left this marvelous area. I thought we could have dinner."
"Dearest, I simply couldn't wait; August wanted to leave this morning and I'm concerned because I led that awful man right to you." She fanned herself with her kerchief, and said, "I'd better leave for your own protection."
"Well, uh, yes of course," Ezra answered slowly, "if that's how you feel."
"Ezra, it's for the best. Now give me a kiss and say goodbye; August is waiting."
Standish did as instructed, walked her back to the limo, and then gave a small wave at the departing vehicle.
"Yer ma left?"
The clairvoyant whipped around in surprise at the raspy voice. "Yes, my dear mother has chosen to leave to protect her son from evildoers," he sarcastically told Vin.
"Don't b'lieve it?"
"She left because she found an interesting 'business opportunity' while staying at the Ritz." Ezra tilted his head to the side and looked into his friend's concerned blue eyes. "Or perhaps she was frustrated you wouldn't play along with her schemes."
"Pretty cynical thinkin'."
"Cynical? No. Try realistic."
Vin nodded briefly in good-natured acceptance. "You were right, y'know."
"I usually am," Ezra smugly replied. "What am I right about this time?"
"You and yer ma have a psychic tether. I can see it."
Standish looked nonplussed. "Really," he barely whispered.
"I can severe it if'n ya want."
Looking in the direction of the departing limo, and thinking about it for a moment, Ezra shook his head. "No, I believe I shall leave it be, Mr. Tanner."
"Suit yourself." The two started walking back to the trailer. "I want ta thank you fer not tellin' ev'ryone about m'new power."
"I will maintain my silence until you feel it is the appropriate time to disclose the knowledge."
"And I want ta thank you fer not letting me go off alone."
"It was strictly a survival instinct, I assure you," Ezra drawled. "I wouldn't last an hour if I'd returned alone; Mr. Larabee would've seen to that."
"Yer a real friend. Full of shit, but a real friend." Vin held out his hand.
Ezra clasped his friend's hand, briefly shaking it. "As are you, Vin." He started walking again while Tanner remained stationary, cocking his head in confusion.
"Wait a minute," the telepath called after his departing friend. "Am I a real friend or full o' shit?"
"Whichever," Standish drawled, waving his hand in the air.
Tanner sat at the picnic table. "I'll remember that, Percival."
Ezra stopped mid-step. He knew it was too much to hope that Tanner had forgotten his mother's tirade. He shook his head and continued to walk, ignoring Vin's chuckle behind him. Ezra passed by Chris, who was heading out to where Vin sat. Both sets of green eyes met in silent acknowledgement, grateful they had been there when Vin needed them. Standish gave his standard two-fingered salute, and the leader nodded.
Larabee sat down beside the telepath and asked, "Why's Ezra's face red?"
"Too much sun."
"Maybe from you two traipsing all over the countryside."
"Jeez, Larabee, it's not as if we were out pickin' flowers. We were tryin' to keep Eli Joe from findin' y'all."
"Why didn't you call and let us know? We would've handled it."
"I didn't think, I jest reacted."
"If you want to work alone, then leave now."
Shocked by the statement, the telepath turned to stare at his best friend. He saw nothing but the seriousness of Chris' expression. "I don't want ta leave," Tanner said quietly.
Green eyes scrutinized Vin intently. "Okay, then," Chris finally said.
Glad to be off the hook, Tanner breathed a sigh of relief. "At least Eli's gone."
"Baines'll just send someone else."
"True and we'll deal with that when they come."
"It was too close this time, Vin."
"Yep, but you were there fer me."
"And I'll be there to kick your ass if you ever pull a stunt like that again."
//Yes, Ma,// Vin sent, and then ducked the swipe Chris took at his head.
+ + + + + + +
Dark eyes scanned the report: Eli Joe was dead. Regrettable, thought Baines. He was a good soldier with no morals -- a perfect killing machine. And he would've been instrumental in the coming weeks. Now, alternate plans would have to be made.
At least one good thing came from this: Eli certainly was no suicide. That meant Tanner was willing to kill; all he needed was the proper incentive.
It was up to Baines to provide it.
continues in Perception
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