By A Thread

by Kim Maddox

Chapter 5
The men and Travis sat down and discussed options. They knew it would be like trying to find the proverbial needle in a haystack locating Montoya in Miami. Miami was a large city with any number of ways to disappear and resources available to anyone wanting to avoid capture. Finally after a few hours the plans were finalized and arrangements made.

The six functional members of Team Seven went to the isolation unit to visit Chris one last time before leaving for Miami. They were shaken by what they saw. Chris was conscious, but just barely. He looked at the men gathered outside the window. Both eyes were filled with blood from the conjunctival hemorrhage. There was also a small trickle of blood coming from his nose. Chris wiped the blood away with the back of his hand, blinking to attempt to focus his eyes on his friends.

Chris decided in his own mind that this was probably the last time he would see the six men that he now called his team, and his family. His team. He thought about their year´s together and felt pride and sorrow. Sorrow that it was ending for him, but tremendous pride at all they had accomplished.

The seven men had such a connection to each other that the other six could read Chris´ mind. They knew he was thinking about all their successes, their friendship, and how all their lives had become better because they had met and become a team. They also knew that their leader realized he was dying. He was telling them that he knew and that he expected them to continue the good work they did together, without him.

Vin couldn´t speak. Buck had already turned to face the opposite wall, JD at his side. Nathan knew Chris didn´t have much time and wanted to say all the things he never got to say. Josiah prayed silently and looked to heaven and shook his head sadly. Ezra just stared, first at Chris and then at his hands.

Finally Chris broke the silence with a weak, raspy voice, “Travis tells me you´re going to Miami,” he began as a coughing spasm took his voice.

“Yeah Cowboy, we´re going to catch some rays, you up to coming along?” Vin teased as he tried to control the quiver in his voice.

“I think I´ll have to pass this time. Listen to me for a minute. You guys are playing a dangerous game, going after Montoya. Don´t let that bastard get close to you. This is one bad boy and I don´t want any of you to get it. He´s like damn Typhoid Mary spreading this shit around. Just be careful. I know what my chances are here, I like your chances better if you don´t come in contact with him.” Chris´ voice broke off. He was so weak he could barely lift his head, yet he gave them their customary two- finger salute and even managed a grin before turning his head away and closing his eyes. A technician immediately moved in and began preparing to put him on a ventilator. Susan had told the men of this development earlier saying it was in Larabee´s best interests. It would help him breath and therefore help conserve his strength, as well as oxygenate his other organs. Knowing the details and the therefores and wherewiths didn´t help the feelings of doom and helplessness the other men felt watching their friend being placed on life support.

“I can´t leave him like this,” Buck whispered, his throat constricting. “I can´t leave him here to die by himself. I promised Sarah on her grave that I would take care of him.”

“Buck, why don´t you stay here with Chris, we´ll go find Montoya. You´re right he shouldn´t be alone right now,” Josiah spoke quietly.

“He won´t be alone.”

The men turned to the door of the isolation unit and were stunned to see Mary Travis standing there. They parted as she stepped to the window.

Mary visibly paled and shuddered as she saw Chris for the first time since their tumultuous relationship ended a few months before. It couldn´t end like this, Chris sick and dying, she herself, broken hearted and dying a little bit inside ever since AD Travis had given her the news earlier in the day.

The six men encircled her and greeted her warmly. The voices were kind but she could hear and feel the panic in them.

“Mary…” Buck began.

“No Buck, don´t. Orrin has already told me everything. I´m going to be here, no matter what happens. You all are needed in Miami. You need all the help you can get to find this man,” Mary´s voice broke and she turned back to the window. Tears began to spill from her eyes and roll down her face.

The men looked at their fallen leader one last time, some saying ‘goodbye´ just in case they didn´t get to later on, and began to file out of the room. Vin remained after the others left. He put his hand on the glass as if that touch could convey to Chris his strength. “Cowboy, it´s been a hell of a ride. I can´t say goodbye, I just can´t. I´ll just say ‘Via Con Dios.´ I´ll be back and Montoya will be with me, if I have to track him all the way to the ends of the earth. I promise you that.”

“Vin, bring that man back. Chris´ life depends on it. I still love him and I´m not going to lose him. I´ll fight for him,” Mary said, determination in her voice.

“I´m glad to hear that Mary, cause Chris ain´t got much fight left in him. Just take care of him while we´re gone. Keep him here,” Vin pleaded.

“I will Vin,” Mary quickly grasped Vin´s hand and held it in hers. “Be careful.” Vin nodded and left the unit. It was the hardest thing he had ever had to do, leaving with Chris so ill. Not knowing if he would ever see his friend alive again. He wanted to stay there and fight the death angel himself if necessary. But going to Miami and finding Montoya and dragging his sorry ass back here was the best thing he could do for Chris right now.

Chapter 6

Troubling thoughts and images still hung over the men´s heads as they exited the airport in Miami. They got into two rental cars and drove to their hotel. They changed and met at the seafood restaurant a few blocks away; a friend of Buck´s owned the restaurant, a friend who was also a detective for the Miami PD.

Buck met Detective Oswald “Notch” Prescott a few years earlier. Chris and Buck had parted ways after Sarah and Adam´s deaths. Chris had become a real handful and Buck got burned out just trying to keep him alive. The tired homicide detective had left the Denver PD and fled to the Florida Keys. He bought a fishing boat and hung out fishing, drinking, and avoiding responsibility.

Then he met Notch. So named for the notches on his headboard, well that was the rumor anyway. Buck and the handsome police detective soon became friends. They were both ‘parrot heads´ diehard fans of the legendary Jimmy Buffet, and both had an extensive law enforcement background. They began fishing together and eventually started a fishing expedition business.

Everything was calm and peaceful for Buck for the first time in a year. He frequently thought about his old friend and hoped he had found some measure of peace for himself, but sincerely doubted it. He hoped one day they could be the friends they were before the accident that had taken Chris´ entire reason for living.

The fun loving Wilmington spent several more months in Florida, living day to day and loving it, and then came the news that he had prayed to never hear but knew he eventually would. An old mutual friend of the two cops passed on the information to Buck that Chris had been wounded in a bank holdup that had turned into a hostage situation. He had been gravely wounded and was not expected to survive.

After explaining to an understanding Notch, Buck flew to Denver. He helped Chris recover from his injury and helped put him back on solid ground. That had been almost two years ago. He did return to Miami and sold his houseboat and his part of the fishing business to Notch, with the understanding friend´s blessing. He knew how much Buck had missed Chris and how worried he was about his best friend.

Buck entered the kitchen and grinned when he saw the tall dark haired detective take a drink of sherry right from the bottle and stir a healthy dose of it into a pot of bubbling marinara sauce. “You add a little wine, little more wine, and a little more wine, yes now it´s nice,” Notch was imitating one of those chefs you see on TV, dashing a little wine into the pot with every word.

“All right you sorry bastard, I´m gonna kill you for sleepin´ with my wife,” Buck screamed loud enough for everyone in the restaurant to hear.

Notch Prescott dropped the spoon and put the sherry bottle on the counter and started slowly turning around. “Look fella, I don´t know your wife and I´m sure I didn´t sleep with her and …” his voice trailed off as he looked to see who was threatening his life. Recognition and relief washed over him as he laid his eyes on his former partner. “Buck!” Notch yelled. “You crazy bastard, how you doing boy?” He grabbed Buck and they embraced each other in a bear hug.

Buck sobered as he pulled away to look Notch in the eyes. “I ain´t too good right now ole buddy.”

Notch looked at his friend and could see the sorrow and despair in his eyes. “Hey man, clue me in. What´s the deal and what can I do?”

Buck told Notch the whole story while the man listened intently. He could tell his friend was in pain. When Buck finished telling the story Notch reiterated his offer of help. Buck grinned knowing his friend wouldn´t let him down.

Chapter 7

Buck introduced Notch to the rest of the team. As they ate probably the finest meal they had ever consumed they made plans and talked strategy. Notch had some great contacts in the police department and on the street. Call in a few favors, grease a few palms, and bluff a few contacts, all this he was willing to do for his old friend.

Ezra, meanwhile, was calling in a few favors of his own, his ace in the hole, so to speak, his old friend Roberto Ramirez, head of the Cuban mafia. Ezra had contacted him earlier in the day and arranged to meet him at a secret location later that night. He hadn´t told the others of his plan. Roberto was not fond of strangers. While his affection for the southern con man was well known in his circle, he wouldn´t hesitate to protect himself against any opposition.

Ezra and Roberto had an arrangement. Roberto wouldn´t do anything to interfere in the ATF´s business and Ezra wouldn´t bring any heat down on Roberto. It was a constant source of amusement to both Ezra and Roberto that the southern undercover ATF agent had a godson and namesake that was the son of a mafia Don.

Roberto was not into drug running or gun running. He was what the FBI called a King snake. He destroyed the slimier elements of the underworld so the FBI left him alone. This made him very valuable to Ezra because Roberto´s thumb was on the pulse of everything that went on in Miami.

Ezra decided that with Notch handling the legal side and Roberto handling the illegal end they had a pretty good chance of finding Montoya. He just hoped he could see it to the finish. He looked down at his shaking hands and saw the ugly red gash on his knuckle and shivered, ‘Damn, it´s 100 degrees down here and I´m freezing. I´ve just got to fight this a while longer.´

The meeting with Notch broke up around 11:30 and they agreed to meet at 6:00 the next morning and hit the streets. At midnight Ezra left to meet Roberto. At 12:30 he was greeting his old friend. “Ezra, my friend. I see you are well.” Roberto held out his hand, which Ezra grasped in his own.

“Roberto, it is indeed good to see you again.” The two men hugged each other and sat down to catch up on old times.

After all the pleasantries were exchanged and Roberto filled Ezra in on little Ezra´s latest exploits and the two men shared a few laughs and a few drinks, Roberto broke the reverie with, “Now my friend, what kind of trouble brings you here?”

Ezra replied, “You always were sharp Roberto. I apologize that our friendship has become me running to you in times of trouble and barely communicating in times of peace.”

“Ah, that is the way of the world my friend. Besides that is what friends are for, to help in our time of need. What is your need my friend?”

Ezra told Roberto what had happened as the underworld figure took in all the details. He snapped his fingers and one of the men at his side leaned over to him and Roberto quietly spoke to him. The man then left. Roberto spoke to Ezra, “My friend, do not worry. This man will be found. I have feelers out for him as we speak. Your friend, he is very ill?”

“Yes Roberto, I´m afraid he may expire before we return to Denver. In which case it will be very sad for me indeed. Not just to lose a good friend, but a man who has become like a brother to me. I am also faced with the reality of my own mortality,” Ezra replied.

Roberto looked at Ezra suspiciously, “And just what does that mean my friend?”

Ezra held out his hand to Roberto. “It is a disease that is spread through human contact. The bastard that gave this to Chris by biting him had the misfortune to be on the receiving end of a right hook. His tooth cut my hand and saliva and blood was transferred to me. I am already starting to feel the effects of the illness, and a truly sinister illness it is.”

“Oh Ezra, you should be in the hospital. I will find you the best doctor available…” Ezra interrupted Roberto.

“No, I´ll be hospitalized soon enough. Right now I need to be out there helping Chris. If you want to help me Roberto, just help me find this guy,” Ezra replied, by now his breathing had become labored and he was starting to look haggard.

“Don´t worry my friend, this man will be found. Now, let me take you to a doctor.”

“No I have some friends here. I have to check in with them. I will talk with you tomorrow,” Ezra replied.

“I hope to have good news for you my friend.” The two shook hands and Ezra left.

Ezra returned to his hotel room and climbed into bed. He was trying to be as quiet as possible to avoid waking Vin who was sleeping in the other bed. He couldn´t stop a small moan as he stretched his aching legs out straight. Ezra prayed silently, “God, please let me hold out a little longer.” He fell asleep clenching his teeth tightly against the aching he felt all over his body.

Chapter 8

The next morning the men filed out of their rooms at 5:45. They were to meet Notch at his restaurant at 6 am. Ezra felt like he had been dragged behind a truck. His head ached and he was sick to his stomach. He was also shivering and he hoped he could fool the other guys for a while longer.

They caught up with Notch and they all hit the streets. They visited all the dives that Notch knew of, greasing palms at every stop. Ezra was charming his way through the city. He was acting as if everything was fine and no one knew that he was getting sicker by the minute.

The day passed quickly and without any real success. The men ate dinner at Notch´s place and prepared for the night shift. The seamy underbelly of the city was exposed at night. The chances of finding information improved greatly at night.

Ezra met again with Roberto. “I am sorry my friend, I have nothing to tell you today, perhaps tomorrow. Have you told your friends that you are sick?”

“No, I haven´t. I am hoping that we find Montoya before I become incapacitated. It is Chris´ only hope, my own as well.”

“We will find them my friend. I have my people all over the city. I will redouble my efforts.”

“Thank you Roberto, say hello to little Ezra for me.”

“I will my friend, Good night.”

“Goodnight Roberto.”

Ezra visited another dive on his way back to the hotel. The seedy waterfront bar was full of Cuban sailors, prostitutes, drug dealers, pimps and other miscreants. The undercover man did what he did best, blended into the background. He just sat in the back of the room pretending to drink a beer and observing the comings and goings.

Two hours had passed since Ezra entered the bar. Fatigue was weighing heavily on him. Pain now radiated through his body. He knew he was quickly becoming incapacitated. He didn´t want to face the fact that most likely he would be dreadfully ill by sunup.

Ezra was ready to pack it in and call it a night. He started towards the door, but a movement to the left caused him to pause and duck into the darkened alcove, which contained the restrooms and pay phones. He slowly picked up a phone and deposited coins into the slot. He dialed the number at the hotel and asked for Vin´s room.

“Yeah, what?” asked a groggy sounding Vin.

“Mr. Tanner, I need you to wake our compatriots and join me at a waterfront establishment called ‘The Muff Dive´,” Ezra rolled his eyes at the name and continued with one word, “immediately,” he drawled quietly.

“Ez, do you know it´s 3 am and we have to take over for Buck, JD, and Nathan at 6 am? What are you doing at a place like that at 3 am?”

“Surveillance, Mr. Tanner. I think I have our man right under my nose as we speak. Now, can you get yourself and Josiah here and page the others? We may need Mr. Prescott´s presence as well.”

“Hang on Ez, we´re on our way.”

Ezra took his seat again. He was hidden in the dark corner of the bar out of sight. Montoya was conversing with another man and caressing the shoulders of one of the local ladies of the evening. He could feel his apprehension growing by the minute.

Vin and Josiah entered and looked around cautiously. They sat down at a table to Ezra´s right and communicated with him with just a look. Ezra´s eyes darted to a figure sitting at a table with a prostitute on his lap. Vin nodded slightly. Josiah got up as if he were going to the restroom. He met Buck, Notch, JD, and Nathan at the door. “He´s in there, third table on the right. The one with Miss Florida on his lap, Ezra´s in there back to the left. How we gonna do this?”

Notch began easing his weapon out of his shoulder holster. “Let me handle this, maybe we can do this without any one getting hurt.”

“Remember this guy is dangerous Notch, don´t let him touch you,” Buck reminded him.

A commotion inside the bar caused the men to start. Buck and JD pulled their weapons from their holsters and the men started inside.

Ezra saw Montoya as recognition crossed his features. The agent knew he had been made. He shouted to the other men, “He´s running.” Vin moved to intercept Montoya and was stopped by a burly sailor with a deadly looking knife. Buck and Notch charged in and were quickly involved in a fight, which escalated into gunfire. During the fracas Montoya managed to slip away.

When the smoke cleared the bar was a shambles. One sailor had a superficial gunshot wound: and one of the ladies had been cut by flying glass, minor injuries only by some strange chance. Nevertheless, Montoya had gotten away.

Josiah and Nathan returned from giving chase. “He just disappeared into the background,” Josiah stated.

“Well, at least we know he´s here,” Vin said wiping blood from his nose.

“Yeah, but for how long?” asked JD.

“We´ll get him kid,” Notch said determinedly.

“Come on Ez, let´s go to the hotel, you need to catch a couple hours sleep before we hit the streets,” Vin spoke quietly to the southerner.

“I would love to oblige you Mr. Tanner, but I don´t think I´m going to make it out of this bar,” with that statement Ezra slid bonelessly to the floor.

Nathan rushed to Ezra´s side began to check his vital signs. “He´s burning up! Vin call Susan, tell her Ezra´s sick, find out what we need to do,” Nathan barked orders. “Buck, get me some ice, hurry!”

Buck rushed to get the ice, which Nathan poured into the front of the fevered man´s shirt, Ezra´s shivering form jerked as the ice met his skin. He ground out between clenched teeth, “I´m sorry, I tried to ride it out.”

“Don´t worry Ezra, we´re gonna take good care of you. Don´t worry about anything,” Josiah spoke in a low calming voice.

“We´ve got to find Montoya, Chris is going to die if we don´t ,” Ezra gasped.

“We´ll find him Ezra, you´re sick, you´re out of the game,” Buck assured the distraught southerner.

Vin had finally been connected to Susan Flynn and the panic in his voice was evident. “Susan, Ezra´s sick, he´s got this virus. What do we do with him?”

Susan told Vin that she would contact the CDC and they would charter a plane and have him flown back to Denver. But for now they needed to transport him to Miami General. Susan also told the panicked sharpshooter that she would call the chief of Staff and arrange for an isolation unit until all the arrangements were made to fly him home.

The ambulance arrived and isolation measures were taken to protect the sick man from outside germs. Nathan accompanied Ezra to Miami General and took care of all the paperwork. The rest of the team gathered in the waiting room and resumed the vigil they began in Denver.

Chapter 9

Susan Flynn entered the isolation unit where Chris Larabee lay still fighting for life. Larabee´s latest test results were discouraging. He was fading and nothing they did seemed to stop it. He had lost enough blood that they were going to have to transfuse him. His temperature would climb, then ebb, and then climb even higher. His condition was so unstable that they had placed a nurse on watch 24 hours a day.

Susan removed her sterile gear and exited Chris´ cubicle. Mary Travis was waiting there for her. The reporter´s anxious look was almost Susan´s undoing. The woman remained optimistic about Chris´ chances even though they had practically told her there was no chance for the gravely ill man to survive.

“Any change Dr. Flynn?” Mary asked hopefully.

“I´m afraid the change is not for the better Mrs. Travis,” Susan responded. “His vitals are lower this morning and we´re giving him another unit of blood as we speak.”

“Dr. Flynn, please let me go in there, go to him. I know if I can just hold his hand and talk to him, he´ll respond to me. I know he will, please let me give it a try,” Mary begged, tears pooling in her emerald eyes.

“I can´t promise you anything, but I will ask Dr. Stein. He is very concerned about Chris catching anything else, although at this point I don´t see what difference it will make. It might even help. Now if you will excuse me, I have another patient coming in. Chris´ associate Ezra Standish has come down with this as well and they are flying him in from Miami. We expect him within the next hour.”

Mary watched as Susan Flynn left , then turned to face the window that looked into Chris´ cubicle. His appearance was truly frightening. Mary wondered how he was holding on. His condition was so poor that she had not left the hospital since her arrival. Orrin Travis, her father-in-law, had tried to get her to go home and rest, but she was afraid to go. She truly believed that Chris wouldn´t dare die if she were there.

Mary stood watching Chris struggle to breathe for over an hour. David Stein finally came to check on his patient and Mary made her case known to him. He reluctantly agreed to let Mary go in and sit with Chris. He was still concerned about him catching something from Mary but agreed with Dr. Flynn that at this point there was very little that could do much more harm to him, and Mary´s presence might actually help Chris.

A nurse helped Mary put on a sterile suit and she entered Chris´ isolation unit, sitting on a chair the nurse provided. She took his hot hand in hers and squeezed gently. She then put her hand on his face and traced her fingers down his cheek. She took a cool, damp cloth and wiped his sweat soaked brow and cleaned away a thin stream of blood from his eye. Tears coursed down her face as she whispered soothing words to the man she had loved for so long.

Chapter 10

Chris Larabee was very far away. He was drifting just outside the fringes of constant agony. Every time he tried to get back to where he knew he should be, pain would grip him like a vise. So he remained tucked away, oblivious to the invasion of needles and tubes into his body. But this time something was forcing him back. A voice. A voice her knew, not the strange voice of a nurse or doctor, but a familiar, warm voice that whispered calmly to him. The voice that haunted his dreams now but used to fill his nights. The voice that professed love for him and then condemned him for the chances he took with his life, and hers.

Chris was pulled into a world of pain, confusion, and fear. He slowly opened his pain-glazed eyes and looked around. His eyes came to rest on a blond halo. He tried to speak, but didn´t have the strength. He moved his arm slightly and the blond head that had been resting on the edge of the bed, looked up. He knew he was dreaming. There was no way Mary would be there after the way they had parted company. He shook his head and blinked his eyes to clear his vision. It was Mary. He tried again to speak. His voice was gone! His confusion must have been evident; Mary placed a restraining finger on his lips and spoke soothingly to him. “Shhh, don´t try to talk. You´re on a ventilator. There is a tube in your throat and it won´t let you talk. I´m here now and I´m going to take care of you.”

Chris frantically began shaking his head, tears forming in his eyes. His eyes told her of his fear for her; the fear that she would become ill as well. “No, I won´t get sick Chris, I´m more of a danger to you than you are to me. I won´t get sick. Just rest now and don´t get worked up.”

Chris wanted to ask her so many things. ‘How were the members of his team? Had they found out anything in Miami? Why was she here?´ The questions tumbled around in his mind. His thoughts were so muddled that the only thing he managed to get across to her was ‘Why?´

Mary brushed the hair off his forehead and whispered, “Because I love you.”

Chris closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep knowing that the woman who had come to mean everything to him was at his side once again.

Nathan had flown in with Ezra. He and the other team members felt that he was needed in Denver with their sick friends more than in Miami. He walked to the glass in the isolation unit and was pleased to see Mary there with Chris, holding his hand.

Susan and Dr. Stein were settling Ezra into an isolation unit next to his leaders. Ezra was in the early stages of the virus, while Chris was already in stage three. Ezra´s temperature was maintaining itself at 104 degrees. Chris was now alternating between 104 and 106 degrees. The doctors were really fearful that the continuing high fever was going to cause Chris permanent damage, if he survived.

Ezra´s condition, though serious, seemed to be more stable than Chris´. Ezra tended to take better care of himself than Chris did. He ate and slept well and practiced moderation is most all things. That had to be in his favor.

Nathan studied the faces of his friends. Chris looked like he had been through hell. Ezra hadn´t yet started to exhibit the gruesome symptoms of the virus, and except for the fine sheen of sweat covering his upper body and the ragged rise and fall of his chest as he struggled to breathe, he merely looked as if he were sleeping.

Dr. Stein came out of Ezra´s cubicle and shook Nathan´s hand. Nathan looked at him anxiously. Dr. Stein´s eyes told the whole story. “I´m sorry Nathan, there is no good news to relay to you. Mr. Standish is holding his own at the moment, but Chris is running out of time. If I had to take a guess I would say that two or three days would be optimistic.”

Nathan felt as if he had been gut punched, and he went weak at the knees. He couldn´t believe that Dr. Stein had given them a deadline to help Chris. He had to tell the other men so they could step up their efforts, even though he didn´t know how that was possible. The agents were on the streets constantly. Notch had called in every favor he possibly could and they had lost every lead they had.

Nathan went to Susan´s office and closed the door behind him. He picked up the phone and dialed the number to one of the hotel rooms in Miami. A sleepy sounding Buck answered the phone, “Wilmington.”

“Buck, it´s Nathan. I got bad news,” Nathan said.

“Oh my God, is it Chris?” Buck asked frantically.

“Buck, Chris is still alive, but he´s in bad shape. Dr. Stein had given us a time frame, two or three days at the most. Chris has two or three days left Buck.”

“God, Nate, what are we gonna do?” Buck sounded defeated.

“We got to work harder Buck. I´m gonna split my time between the hospital and the office. I´m going to dig up everything I can on the computer. Buck, Chris is in stage three. We´ve got to find Montoya fast.”

Buck agreed and told Nathan he would fill the others in on the two men´s conditions. He was glad that Nathan and Mary were there for the two men, but he wished he could be there. He didn´t want to face Sarah someday knowing that he had let her down by not helping Chris.

Buck pushed his thoughts aside for the moment and paged Vin and Josiah. He woke JD and called Notch. He didn´t want to tell them this news over the phone so they agreed to meet at Notch´s place in 30 minutes.

JD couldn´t get Buck to tell him anything. “I only want to say this once JD, you´ll find out soon enough.”

JD could tell from his voice that the news was not good. They were all tired from lack of sleep, hours on the streets, and worry, but Buck looked like he was down for the count. The kid could tell that worry weighed heavy on him and anything that could sober the usually jovial ladies man could not be good.

Notch´s chef had prepared lunch for the men and they tried to eat the terrific meal but no one seemed to have an appetite. The fear of what Buck would be telling them destroyed their nerves. Finally Buck broke the uneasy silence. “I heard from Nate just before I called you. It´s not good. Chris has hit stage three and Ez is going into stage two. Stage five is either death or recovery if that tells you anything. The doc has given us a deadline. Two or three days, that´s all Chris has, if that long.” Buck got up from the table and went outside. JD tried to follow him but Josiah´s restraining hand stopped him.

“Let him be JD. He needs a few minutes alone. This is hard on him. He and Chris have been friends a long time. It´s a tough thing for Buck to be here when Chris needs him there too.”

Vin´s quietness was unnerving. He was too calm. He had just been told his best friend had less than three days to live and he didn´t even flinch. It was eerie. All the men jumped as the explosion came. They weren´t expecting the sudden breaking of glass when Vin put his fist through the mirror behind the bar. “Damn, this ain´t happening. Chris is dying and we can´t do a damn thing about it,” Vin raged. He picked up a glass and threw it at his reflection in the shattered mirror. Blood was running down his arm and dripping off his elbow into the floor.

“Chris is all but dead, and Ezra´s heading that way and all we´re doing is sitting here on our asses. Damn it Chris, why are you doing this?” Vin stopped his tirade as he realized what he said. He turned and stormed out of the restaurant with Josiah trying to catch him.

“Vin, come back, you need stitches in that hand.”

Chapter 11

Vin didn´t hear as he ran past Buck and climbed into one of the rental cars. He spun out of the parking lot and headed south. Neither of the men noticed the black sedan trailing Vin.

Buck went back inside the restaurant and found the others sweeping up glass and mopping blood. “What the hell happened here and why did Vin take out of here like the devil was after him?”

“His quietness earlier was just the calm before the storm. It has finally hit him that Chris is dying. He doesn´t like being as helpless as the rest of us are,” Josiah calmly stated. “Let´s just give him a little time to work it all out for himself.”

The other men nodded their agreement and went out to continue their search for the elusive Jesus Montoya, also known as Chris and Ezra´s only chance of survival.

Vin drove aimlessly as he attempted to control the emotions that threatened to overtake him. Visions of life without Chris and Ezra filled his mind. He didn´t like what he saw. Chris was the best friend he ever had, not to mention the best team leader he could possibly have. Ezra was important to him as well, a little harder to figure out perhaps, but important nonetheless. He was so intent on his thoughts he still didn´t notice the black car that was following him.

The small diner off the side of the road beckoned to him. He needed coffee and sugar. The exhaustion he had been fighting was catching up to him. Vin eased the car into the parking lot and turned off the engine.

Vin got out of the car and started towards the door. He was taken by surprise when two men grabbed him and pushed him into a black car. He started struggling to get away as the initial surprise at being taken subsided. He cursed the two men who were attempting to restrain his struggling, electrical presence. The only thought he had was ‘Damn if I let them get me I can´t help find Montoya.´ That was the last clear thought he could remember as a stinging pain in the side of his neck brought the blackness he had been trying to fight off for the past two days.

His dry mouth was the first thing Vin was aware of upon waking. It felt like it was stuffed with cotton. He tried to swallow, hoping he could rid his mouth of the metallic taste he found there. Everything was fuzzy and there were black lines around the edges of his vision. He blinked his eyes, trying to clear the images, but it only made the blurriness worse. There was a dull throbbing pain at the base of his skull. ‘Damn, how much did I drink?´ he wondered.

He couldn´t remember drinking anything and then it came back to him in a blinding rush of emotion. ‘Chris.´ The name screamed to him. ‘Oh God, Chris. Chris is dying. I´ve got to get to him.´ It was at that moment that Vin realized he was not at the hotel, but rather in a strange room. Massive solid oak furnishings filled the large airy room. Sunlight shone through the bay window on one wall. The French doors leading to the deck and pool offered a great view of the ocean. Whoever had taken him had wonderful taste, and probably a whole lot of money.

Vin had just gotten off the bed to further explore his surroundings when the door opened. A large man dressed in a suit stepped into the room, “Mr. Tanner, my employer wishes a word with you,” he said, “please follow me.”

Vin followed somewhat apprehensively. He couldn´t imagine what kind of trouble he could have gotten himself into just driving around and stopping for coffee. ‘I gotta be more cautious next time´, he thought to himself.

The man led Tanner to an exquisitely decorated office. The large oak desk was imposing, but not as imposing as the small man who turned around to face him. The man was Cuban. He was very small with dark skin, eyes, and hair. Vin waited for the man to speak. He didn´t want to insult his host. So far he had been a very good host. Vin wanted to keep it that way.

“Mr. Tanner, I am sorry for the unfortunate occurrence in the car. My associates tell me you put up quite a struggle and had to be subdued, for that I do apologize.” The man was extremely courteous and obviously educated.

“No problem, but I would appreciate knowing why I am here. There´s something I need to be doing right now,” Vin said.

“Yes, I know, you´re trying to find a man responsible for your friends illness.”

“What´s going on?” Vin demanded. “How the hell do you know? Who are you?”

“I know a lot of things Mr. Tanner. Vin Tanner, born in Fort Worth Texas, grew up in foster homes, Army Rangers, Swat Team, bounty hunter, and Chris Larabee´s right hand man in the ATF team dubbed ‘The Magnificent Seven´. By the way, I am Roberto Ramirez.”

Vin´s head was spinning. Roberto Ramirez, the head of the Cuban mafia, the King snake. Everyone knew him. He was into a lot of shady activities and was not one to cross, but by mafia standards he was a pretty good guy. What could Ramirez want with him? He knew Vin was ATF, Vin knew Ramirez was mafia, so it was a stand off.

Ramirez interrupted Vin´s thoughts, “Mr. Tanner, I know you are a busy man and I won´t detain you. I mean you no harm Mr. Tanner; you can relax. Believe me you´ll be very pleased with what I have to tell you.”

Roberto sat back in his chair and gestured for Vin to be seated. Vin took the proffered seat because he was still weak from being drugged. His hand was hurting and he looked down at it to determine the cause. There across the top of his hand was a row of five neat stitches. There were three more on his wrist and one in his thumb. He remembered hitting the mirror and breaking it but he couldn´t remember any pain, nor could he remember having stitches put in.

Roberto was amused by the agent´s obvious confusion. “Mr. Tanner, your hand will be fine in a few days. You had some nasty cuts and you bled all over my car and my carpet. My personal physician fixed it up for you. He assured me your talent with a gun would not be affected. It would be a terrible shame to see such marksmanship go to waste from an injury such as this. Now Mr. Tanner, let´s get down to business. I believe we have a friend in common, and I believe I can help you located this friend.”

Vin didn´t get Roberto´s insinuation at first and then it dawned on him that he meant Montoya. Still he wanted in clarified. “You know where to find Montoya?” he questioned.

“Yes, Mr. Tanner, I know exactly where he is. I also know he is a dangerous man. I can have him wherever you desire in twenty-four hours. We want him off the streets, behind bars where he belongs. We also don´t want any of our neighborhood children to become ill. He´s spreading disease among our people. We want him taken care of. Tell me where to deliver him and he´s yours.”

Vin was speechless. They would have Montoya by this time tomorrow. They could get on a plane to Denver, get Chris and Ezra well and put this whole thing behind them. Of course it couldn´t be that easy. It never was. Twenty-four hours was a long time for Chris to wait in his present condition. He might not have that much time. Vin prayed to God that Chris could hang on until Susan and the CDC could come up with a serum.

“Mr. Ramirez, I don´t know how all this happened, I just know that if you can give us Montoya we´ll be forever grateful. We have two friends that are dying from this virus. We´re doing all we can and we´ve run out of time. We are working with a Detective from the Miami PD. If we can have him delivered to his restaurant, we´ll have ATF people there to handle him. We´re not running the risk of him getting lost again.”

“Ah, yes, Notch Prescott. I know him well. We have a very good working relationship and he makes the best blackened alligator tail on the planet. Just like my dear Mama´s. In fact, it´s her recipe.”

“Notch is a character all right. Mr. Ramirez, I am curious about something,” Vin started to voice his question when Roberto started to speak.

“Do not concern yourself Mr. Tanner, with the why´s. Let´s just say I am helping out a very good friend. By the way give Mr. Larabee and Mr. Standish my regards. Tell Mr. Standish that E.Z. is well and looking forward to seeing Denver in the spring.”

“I´ll pass that along to him,” replied Vin with a smile. Ezra had yet another friend in low places it appeared.

Vin was taken back to his car at the diner. The other agents had tracked him to the off the beaten path coffee shop and were standing around the abandoned car. Buck was gesturing wildly to Notch and JD was attempting to evade his swinging arms.

Vin got out of the black car and walked up behind the men and asked in a very calm voice, “What you guys doing here?”

“Damn it Vin, we´ve been looking everywhere for you. We found your car here hours ago and we looked all the places we could think of. Where the hell ya been?” shouted Buck relief mixing with ire to form an annoyed voice.

“Boys, you´ll never guess where I been and it would be hard to even explain. The most important thing is though, that we´ll have Montoya by this time tomorrow. I gotta call Susan and let her know so they will be ready for it,” Vin rambled excitedly.

“Vin, son, what are you talking about?” Josiah asked calmly.

“I´m telling you, we´ve got him. By tomorrow afternoon we´ll be on a plane to Denver with that garbage on legs Montoya in tow.”

“And just how is this miracle to occur Junior?” asked Buck sarcastically.

“Roberto Ramirez,” replied Vin.

“Ramirez!” exclaimed JD. “He´s one of the biggest mafia figures in the country.”

“Yeah, and he´s helping us. Says he has a real good relationship with Notch. He´s delivering Montoya to us at Notch´s place tomorrow.”

Notch spoke up, “Yeah, me and ole Roberto go way back. He´s an ok guy. You leave him alone and he´ll leave you alone. That´s why the Miami PD looks the other way if he´s involved in something. It´s easier to be for him than against him. In return he contributes to the fund for families of slain police officers, the fraternal order of Police, and almost any other organization you can think of. It´s a sweet arrangement. Roberto´s all right.”

“Well, all I care about is getting Montoya and going back home. I need to see Chris and Ez,” said Buck.


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