Chris heard a vehicle draw up outside the ranch house while he was making his bed. It wasn't often that he was this tidy in the morning. He usually just pulled the sheets straight before he got back into bed at night. His philosophy was that the bed was only going to be a mess again the next night so why waste time making it just for appearances sake. There was only him there, so why bother?
He walked over and looked out the window to see who had arrived and saw Vin's jeep. Chris frowned though when he heard a knock at the door. He had given Vin a key to let himself in, seeing as he spent so much time out at the ranch. He must have forgotten it yet again. Chris smiled sourly and thought perhaps he would stick it to the sharpshooter's forehead with tape so he always had it with him. The number of times Chris still had to go and open the door for Vin made him wonder why he'd bothered giving him a key in the first place. Chris hurried downstairs and opened the door with a rebuke ready on his lips but the words stuck in his throat at the sight that greeted him. Two men accompanied the sharpshooter and one of them was holding a gun to his head.
"Back up Larabee," one of the men ordered, advancing a step as he spoke.
The second man waved his gun in Chris's direction to get him moving and Chris walked backwards slowly to let them in. He put his hands up and away from his body to show that he wasn't going to cause any trouble. He took a quick look behind him before continuing to back away while studying Vin minutely. His friend had a developing black eye and a bleeding split lip. Chris raised his eyebrows questioningly and received a slight nod from Vin to say he was alright.
"Go to the kitchen." Chris was instructed.
He headed to the designated room and once inside he turned round again to face the three men who followed him in. The two strangers split up. One stayed beside Vin, keeping a hold on his arm while the other one moved nearer to Chris.
"What do you want?" Chris asked, casting his eyes to first one man and then the other.
"We've got an assignment for you and you will do as we ask because your friend's life depends on it. Don't cross us or he'll be given a one way ticket to hell."
"What do you want me to do?"
"I want you to kill AD Travis."
"What? You're kidding me, right?" Chris's heart dropped into his boots. What the hell had they got involved in?
"I'll show you how serious I am." The man holding Vin punched the sharpshooter hard near his kidneys causing him to gasp in pain. The man then got hold of Vin's hair and pulled it roughly so his head was forced backwards sharply. He put his gun under the sharpshooter's chin and cocked it. He looked at Chris with a raised eyebrow as he pushed the barrel hard into the skin under Vin's jaw.
Chris quickly put his hands up in submission. "Okay, okay. I get the message. Don't hurt him. How am I supposed to do it?"
"I understand that you and Travis are attending a function this afternoon. I want you to do it as he arrives there. I'll accompany you to work and stay with you so you can't summon the cavalry to free Mr Tanner."
"How do I explain your presence at the office?"
"You say I am from the UK on a fact-finding mission. I'm observing your team's work in the hope of setting up something similar in the UK. Sounds plausible, doesn't it?"
"Why do you want Travis dead?" Chris kept a wary eye on the two men in the hope they would provide an opportunity for escape. He wanted to be ready if a chance presented itself. He caught Vin's eye and conveyed a silent message to be prepared. Vin nodded imperceptibly in reply.
"He's giving evidence against a friend of ours. Without him around the trial will collapse but I will also need you to steal some evidence for me to be doubly sure."
"You don't need to know the details. Just get me the case file and I'll deal with it myself."
Chris looked at the two men seriously. He knew who he was up against now and he didn't like it at all. The man on trial was a notorious murderer. Travis had been one of his targets and had been lucky to survive the attempt that had been made on his life. It was his testimony alone that had finally brought the man to justice. No one else was willing to give evidence. Some people had come forward initially but they had been frightened or paid off. How was Chris going to get out of this situation without getting Vin or Travis killed? The blond agent didn't like the feeling of having no control over his destiny.
"Mike will keep Mr Tanner here as our hostage, so you'd better warn off any visitors. If we catch sight of anyone suspicious, he's dead. You understand?"
"Yeah. I understand alright, but I can't stop uninvited people from turning up. How are you gonna tell the difference?"
"We're not stupid. We'll know a genuine visitor from one of your agents. We know each one of them to look at, don't you worry. Now, listen carefully. Mike and I will be in constant contact. We've got prearranged times to call one another. So if one of us phones and doesn't get an answer, the hostage with the caller will be killed. We are phoning at random times so you can't assume you've got a certain amount of time between each call to try and free Vin."
As he listened, Chris wondered how much background information the men actually knew about his team. Only what they looked like he hoped. He might be able to use his inside knowledge to his advantage. "What's your name? I'm gonna have to call you something at work," he said.
"You can call me Tony Francis. Okay, now we've got that sorted we'd better get to your office. Put one foot wrong today and you know the consequences."
Chris made his way to the door and stopped next to the long-haired sharpshooter and said, "We'll get through this. Just sit tight." Chris received a push from behind and he was forced out of the house.
Vin was thrust into a chair and secured to it with two sets of handcuffs. He looked at the man who had been left with him and found the man was also studying him intently. His captor met his eyes, smiling nastily before walking forwards and reaching out a hand to pat Vin's face.
"Yeah. You just sit tight there, Vinnie boy, as your boss said and everything will be alright. Hope you have faith in him, mate. Your life is in his hands." The man laughed and headed off to check round the ranch house to make sure everything was secure.
Vin shifted in the chair and looked down at the handcuffs. There was no way he could get out of them. His legs were free but that wasn't much help when he had a chair attached to his butt. He had seen his captor put the keys to the handcuffs in his pocket, so unless he could somehow get hold of them he would just have to hope that Chris could deal with things at his end. He sat back resignedly to wait for events to unfold.
+ + + + + + +
Chris arrived at work after a very uncomfortable journey. His mind was working overtime as he tried to think of a way of getting help for Vin without him being harmed. He certainly didn't trust the man that had been left at the ranch house not to hurt his friend. How could he get help though with Tony glued to his side and Mike itching to shoot Vin at the earliest opportunity?
Before getting out of the car in the parking lot, his companion put a hand on his arm. "Don't try to tell your colleagues what is going on. I'll be with you every step of the way. Just remember that."
"Yeah. I get the message, you don't have to keep repeating it," Chris snapped irritably.
Tony let go of Chris's arm and said, "I've just got one more thing to do before you go upstairs. I'm gonna put this on your ankle. Do you want to know what it is?" The man held up a box no bigger than a cigarette packet with a strap attached to it.
"Surprise me," Chris drawled.
"It's a bomb."
Chris stared at the man in disbelief. "What?"
"Just an extra safeguard for me. There's nothing to worry about if you behave but if you try to escape I'll set it off. I'll have the detonator at my fingertips at all times. The bomb contains just enough explosives to make sure you lose your leg, in case you're interested."
"Jesus Christ." Chris wiped a hand over his face and discovered his hand was shaking. He looked over at Tony and could see the man laughing silently at his discomfort. Tony finished attaching the device to Chris's ankle and indicted for him to get out of the car. The two men made their way up to the office in the elevator. Chris felt detached from the world. He felt as if he was sleepwalking and he knew it was going to be difficult to keep his emotions from showing on his face.
Chris led the way along the corridor to his team's area. Tony was a couple of paces behind him and Chris knew he had his gun in a pocket within easy reach. Chris felt as if he had a target stuck to the middle of his back and he had developed a permanent itch between his shoulder blades in anticipation of a bullet. His mind wasn't settled enough yet to begin thinking clearly about his dilemma. He would have to bide his time for the moment until he could calm down sufficiently to be clear headed.
He stepped inside his team's office and looked his men over and saw they were all there but for the obvious exception. He raised his voice to get their attention, "Okay listen up. This is Tony Francis from the UK. He's gonna be observing our work today so be on your best behavior. He'll spend most of his time with me so take care of things out here if you can. Don't disturb us unless you really have to." Chris walked on into his own office with Tony following close behind. He shut the door after him and sat down behind his desk.
"Now what?" he asked, swivelling his eyes to look at his constant shadow.
"Well I need that evidence. How about getting me the file?"
"Look I just can't get the files for a case I had nothing to do with."
"Well, you'd better think of something fast or I'll call Mike and waste your friend." Tony pulled out his mobile to emphasise the threat.
A knock on the office door interrupted them and Ezra walked in.
"Didn't I say not to interrupt us?" Chris hissed angrily.
"Sorry," Ezra said, taken aback slightly by Chris's obvious displeasure. "Mr Tanner hasn't come in yet and he's not answering his phone. Do you want one of us to go and see if he's alright? We are becoming concerned about his welfare."
"No. Sorry, I meant to tell you all when I arrived. Vin phoned me last night and asked for some personal time." Chris hesitated and then decided to take a chance on Tony not knowing any personal information about his men. "His mother's ill," he told Ezra, holding eye contact with the undercover agent. He wouldn't have attempted to say anything that was so obviously a lie to any of the others. He knew Ezra would not bat an eyelid at the blatant untruth as he was used to dealing with unexpected circumstances.
"Oh. I am sorry. I'll let the others know. He's alright, is he?" Ezra kept any expression, other than that of sadness at the news he had just received, off his face. Chris's earlier outburst had put the undercover agent on alert and he was not taken off guard by the lie he had just been told.
"Yeah, he's fine. She's not seriously ill. Now do you mind? We've got a lot to get through."
"Sorry." Ezra went back outside, mulling over Chris's conversation in his mind. He'd thought that Chris had looked a bit uptight when he'd arrived. Now he knew there was something wrong for sure and it had to do with the man from the UK. Chris hadn't mentioned before that the man would be visiting today and it was unlike his boss not to give out information like that.
"What's up Ez?" Buck asked, catching sight of the puzzled look on the undercover agent's face.
"I don't know. Mr Larabee just seems a bit uptight. Were you aware that man would be visiting today?"
"No, nothing was said yesterday. What did Chris say about Vin?"
"He said Vin had phoned him last night and asked for some personal time. Look, can I converse with you privately Bucklin?" Ezra was aware of the interest being shown by the other men and he wanted to keep his suspicions to himself or at the most one other person until he had more to go on. He certainly felt the need to discuss his concerns with someone else and as Buck was Chris's oldest friend he seemed the most suitable person to approach.
"Yeah sure. Let's go in to the conference room." Buck rose and put an arm round the small of Ezra's back to usher him onwards. He could see the worry on his friend's face and he had a feeling the undercover agent had been very disturbed by something that had been said to him in Chris's office.
Ezra flicked a quick look to make sure that Tony was not watching before moving. It would have looked questionable if the man had seen the undercover agent suddenly disappear with another colleague so soon after speaking to Chris.
Once inside the room, Ezra turned to Buck anxiously. "Look something's amiss. Chris said Vin's mother was ill and that's why he'd requested time off. He was obviously trying to tell me all was not well. What do you think is afoot? It's got to be something concerning that man who's with him or he would have told me straight out what was wrong."
"Why don't we go round to Vin's apartment and have a look? See if he's there or not?"
"I don't think we should go off half cocked, Mr Wilmington. We need to know more about what's involved. Vin could be in jeopardy for all we know. Let's just wait and see whether Chris can tell me anything else. I know it will be hard to sit and do nothing but it may be to our advantage in the long run."
"Okay, but if we don't hear anything more by lunch time I think we should go to Vin's."
"Agreed. Bucklin, don't say anything to the others yet. They don't possess a poker face like me. It would just be easier for the present if only the two of us know that there is a potential problem. It will make Tony less suspicious if the others are acting normally. Meanwhile, I need to find a way of getting to Chris again without it arousing interest from Tony."
Buck patted the undercover agent on the back in comfort and smiled. "You'll think of something. Come on. Let's get back out to the office. If we're gone too long, the others will want to know what we've been up to." Both men walked out and took their seats. The other men looked at them curiously but didn't say anything. Ezra started work again while trying to think of a way of asking Chris what was the matter.
+ + + + + + +
Chris picked up the phone and tried to get hold of the case file for Tony. "Hi. It's Chris Larabee here. Look, could I see the Benson case file. I'm working on another case which may have some relevance to it. I just need to check some details..... Great. Can you bring it up?" Tony had insisted that Chris had all phone calls on speaker so he could hear that nothing was being done to thwart his plans.
Chris put the phone down and looked over at his companion. "Well, you heard. Someone's bringing it up."
"There you are. It's surprising what you can do when you have to, isn't it?" Tony grinned smugly. Chris would have loved to wipe the smile off his face.
They didn't have to wait too long before there was a knock at the door and Chris looked up. He saw the person he was expecting and he beckoned them in. Chris had to sign for the file which he then passed over to Tony to look at after the paperwork had been completed. Tony sat back with a sigh and began picking out bits and pieces and putting them to one side. Chris looked on angrily feeling totally helpless. He knew if Tony got away with the evidence he would probably lose his job. He was the one who had signed for the file after all, but having said that, Travis was a fair man and would hopefully stand up for him. Chris looked over at Tony again and seethed as he watched him putting evidence in his pockets to take with him.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra worked for about an hour solidly until he came across a file on his desk that required Chris to sign something in it. He frowned as his mind turned over the possibilities of how he could use the file to his advantage. He found a postit note and started writing in shorthand on it. Apart from him, Chris was the only one who knew shorthand. He hoped Tony didn't understand it or ask to look at the file. When he was satisfied with his note, Ezra rose from his chair. Buck looked up expectantly and Ezra sent him a small smile. He carried on to Chris's door and knocked and entered.
"Sorry to interrupt again. I do apologise Mr Francis but I need Mr Larabee's signature before I can get rid of this." He waved the file in the air as he spoke.
"Leave it with me and I'll do it later," Chris said irritably. Ezra studied his boss and noticed he was looking strained and pale.
"I'm afraid I need it done expeditiously. I have a courier coming to collect it to take to the FBI." Ezra held it out and opened the file on the page he had stuck the note on.
Chris snatched it from his hand and sighed loudly while reaching for a pen. His eye was drawn to the note and he quickly read it, without making it look too obvious. It said, 'I know something is wrong. I will try to find a way for you to tell me the details. I assume it has something to do with your visitor and Vin. Buck is the only other one who knows something is amiss. I thought it best to be sure of the problem before informing the others.' His heart lifted slightly. He should have known Ezra would find a way of contacting him to let him know that he was working on helping him.
Chris closed the file after signing his name and handed it back to Ezra. "There you are. I'll have some more files for you later on to deal with. I've just got to do some work on them first." He hoped Ezra would understand what he was trying to tell him.
"Thank you. Apologies again gentlemen." Ezra turned and walked out of the room. He went back to his desk and sat down. He caught Buck's eye and picked up his phone. He dialled and the phone on Buck's desk rang.
"Chris is going to try and get me details of what is going on."
"How did you find that out?"
"I put a note written in shorthand into the file I took in. I asked him to sign it and he read the note and said he would have some more files for me but he had some work to do on them first. I assume he will write a note in one of them for me."
"You're a tricky pair aren't you? Are you sure that's what he meant?"
"As sure as I can be. We'll just have to be patient and see what he says. Speak to you later when I know more." Ezra hung up and went back to work. It was up to Chris now to try to get a message to him.
+ + + + + + +
Back at the ranch, Vin was still handcuffed to his chair. Several hours had passed in silence and he needed a pee.
"Hey. I need to take a leak. How about undoing these handcuffs?" he called to his captor, who was watching TV in another room.
"Alright, but I'm keeping your hands secured," Mike said as he strolled in. "Don't try anything because I'll be right outside the door." He reached down and quickly transferred the handcuffs and pulled Vin to his feet roughly. The sharpshooter took a moment to ease his aching body. Having been sitting in the same position for hours, he felt numb. Mike moved him forwards and kept his gun held to the sharpshooter's side as they made their way upstairs.
He pushed Vin into the bathroom and said. "Leave the door open."
Vin went inside and did what he needed to. He took the opportunity to look around the room to see whether there was anything he could use as a weapon. He saw Chris's razor. He moved over to the sink and noticed there was a loose razor blade on the top. He managed to pick it up and he kept it in his hand. Luckily for him, Chris was an old-fashioned guy and still used proper razors, not electric shavers. Vin made his way back outside and Mike grabbed his arm tightly. He was taken back down to the kitchen where Mike undid the handcuffs to resecure him to the chair. His captor had to put the gun down in order to do the job and Vin acted quickly while the man was unarmed. He moved the razor to his fingertips and struck out with it. He caught Mike's hand and made a deep cut across the back of it. The man yelped and withdrew his grip from Vin's arm. The sharpshooter slashed him again across his arm. He drew his arm back for another attack but Mike had recovered from his shock and was ready for him. He deflected Vin's aim and sent a knee into his stomach and then a fist into his face as he bent forwards. Vin dropped the blade as he clutched his injured body and Mike retrieved it from the floor.
"I'll give you a taste of your own medicine, you bastard," Mike yelled, as he slashed Vin across his face. The sharpshooter put a hand up to his cheek to stop the blood that poured from the wound. He kicked out with his foot to try and keep Mike away from him but it was no good. The man got hold of his hair and threw him toward the wall. The left side of Vin's face collided hard with the edge of a cabinet and he fell to the floor unconscious.
"That'll teach you to mess with me." Mike drew back a foot and kicked Vin in the back. "Get up!......Get up!" Mike shouted. Vin did not move. Mike bent down and turned the sharpshooter over and saw the wound caused by the cabinet. His face was covered in blood from the two facial injuries. "Well you can just stay there then." Mike pulled Vin's arms up and attached the handcuffs to a handle on one of the kitchen cupboards.
Mike's mobile phone rang just as he'd finished securing the sharpshooter and he answered it brusquely. "Everything's under control. He just tried to escape but I've got him secured again..... Yes he's hurt, he's unconscious, which should keep him out of action and quiet for a while...........No I haven't seen anyone around."
Mike rang off and started looking in the fridge for something to eat. He found something he fancied and wandered back in to another room away from Vin. The sharpshooter lay where he had fallen, not moving. It would be a while before he would wake again.
+ + + + + + +
Tony put his phone away after speaking to Mike. He looked over at Chris and smiled. "Well it seems your friend has misbehaved. I'm pleased to say that Mike's sorted him out."
"What's he done to him? He better not have hurt him. I'll kill him if he has."
"Mike says he's unconscious and I don't think you're exactly in a position to threaten us, do you?"
"Let it serve as a warning to you," Tony said as he sat down and picked up the file again.
Chris leant back in his chair and tried to decide how he could write a note for Ezra without Tony wanting to know what it was. It was more important than ever to get Vin free now that he was hurt. Chris just hoped that Tony wouldn't use the bomb for any other purpose than if he tried to escape, but Chris was only concerned with Vin's welfare, he didn't care about his own. His attention was drawn to Tony, who was flicking noisily through the file again so Chris decided to make his move. He managed to hide a couple of postit notes on his person and he knew he had a pen in his pocket. He stood and said, "I need to go to the rest room."
"Okay. Just remember what's at stake and don't try anything." Tony patted the pocket that contained the gun and detonator as he spoke. The two men walked along to the rest room and Chris disappeared into a cubicle. He quickly pulled out his pen and the sticky notes. He made some quick notes in shorthand on one and then another one in full proper language. He put the notes back up his sleeve and then pulled the chain before walking back out to wash his hands. Now he would just have to try and divert Tony's attention while he put the notes in a couple of the files to give to Ezra. Tony meanwhile went into the cubicle to make sure Chris hadn't left anything there for one of his team to find.
He came out and patted Chris's face. "You're catching on, aren't you? Carry on like this and your friend might survive the day."
Once back in his office, Chris pulled out some files and pretended to work on them. He hoped that he wouldn't get Vin hurt again or himself blown up because of his idea but it was all he could think of. He needed to divert Tony's attention from the shorthand note so he stuck his legible note in the top file while Tony wasn't looking and closed it. He worked through the rest, leaving one file open on his desk. An hour had passed and Chris couldn't wait any longer so he picked up the pile of files to take to Ezra and as he had hoped he was stopped by Tony. "Let me look at those first."
He took them from Chris's hands and looked through the first one. He found the legible note and read it. "That wasn't very smart. What did I tell you? Do you want us to kill Mr Tanner?" He made sure none of the men outside could see into the office and he punched Chris in the stomach twice.
Chris doubled over and put a fist to his midriff gasping as he tried to get some air into his lungs. He put a hand out onto the desk top pretending to steady himself, although not much acting was required, and knocked the file there onto the floor. He left it where it was for a while and then stooped to gather it up. He had pulled his other shorthand note out while he was clutching his abdomen and managed to stick it inside without Tony seeing. He closed the file and added it to the others Tony had just looked through.
"I'm phoning Mike. I thought you'd learnt your lesson but I was obviously wrong," Tony said. He pulled out his phone and dialled. "Mike. We've had a bit of trouble this end with Mr Larabee trying to get in contact with his colleagues. Can you show him that was a mistake?" Tony held the phone so Chris could hear Mike take out his revenge on Vin.
+ + + + + + +
At the ranch Mike walked into the kitchen with the phone and looked down at Vin. He poked him with his foot to make sure he was awake and when he didn't get a response he squatted down in front of him and slapped his face hard.
"Come on Mr Tanner, wakey, wakey."
Vin stirred and groaned as he opened his eyes and came face to face with his tormentor.
"Your boss has been a naughty boy. I've got to teach him a lesson and you're the method of education." Mike reached out and undid the handcuffs and then pulled Vin to his feet. Vin swayed as he tried to keep his balance, but he needn't have bothered because Mike swung a fist at him and he ended up back on the floor again. He curled up to try to protect himself from the kicks that were aimed at his body. He grunted with each strike and eventually passed out altogether. Mike heard the order to stop from Tony and he gave in reluctantly. He bent down and fastened Vin's hands to the cabinet.
The cuts on Vin's face had reopened as a result of the first punch and they were bleeding profusely. Mike wiped his hands on his pants to get rid of the blood he had got from touching the sharpshooter. He then stood and took a seat at the table to wait for Vin to wake up again.
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