Into the Woods

by skaia7

Page 1 | Page 2 | Page 3 | Page 4 | Page 5 | Page 6 | Page 7

"Alright, everybody… here he comes!"

"Get down!"


Five men heard the glass door slide open, and two sets of footsteps coming out onto the deck. "Chris, what’re we…?"


They all jumped out from their hiding places, not missing Vin’s startled expression as J.D. whipped off the sheet covering the brand new Suzuki GSX-R1000.

"Welcome home, pard," Buck clapped Vin squarely on the back. J.D. handed him a party hat, while Josiah smiled and threw an arm around his shoulders, nearly re-breaking his ribs in a big bear hug.

Vin’s eyes were as big as saucers, glued to the new bike. "This is… what… how…?"

"As always, Mister Tanner, your eloquence is unparalleled," Ezra quipped, coming over to where the sharpshooter stood gaping and gently took his hand. In an uncharacteristic display of spirit, he was throwing fashion consciousness to the wind by wearing a cardboard triangular party hat, the elastic band cutting into his neck. "Welcome back, my friend," he said softly, his green eyes full of emotion.

"We all chipped in," Nathan said, flashing a wide smile and blowing a plastic noisemaker.

"Yeah, we figgered you’d prolly be missin’ the hospital, so we thought we’d give ya somethin’ that’d be guaranteed to put ya right back in it," Chris added, coming to stand behind his best friend.

"I don’t deserve this…" Tanner muttered, laying one hand reverently on the shiny leather seat.

"Don’t talk like that, Vin," J.D. answered. "You’re our family. We just wanted to give you somethin’ that… somethin’ that would…"

"What our inarticulate young friend is trying to communicate," Ezra stepped forward to rescue Dunne’s floundering speech. "Is that we hold you in very high esteem, and due to the coarse nature of our employment and the subsequent need to keep our severe reputations intact…"

"Dammit, Ezra, talk English, will ya?" Vin pleaded, unable to follow the undercover agent on even the best of days.

"…we often find ourselves at a loss when it comes to expressing that esteem. So, as a surrogate for verbal sentiment, we devised to present you with this recreational vehicle as a symbol of our admiration of your shining character."

"Now, you understand that you’re not t’ so much as TOUCH this thing until you’re healed, right?" Nathan warned, wagging a finger at the sharpshooter.

"Aw, Nate," Vin whined. "That’s cruel. All you guys. Givin’ a fella somethin’ kick ass like this, then tellin’ ‘im he can’t touch it for months." But none of them were fooled. The gleam in his eyes, and the way his slim hands caressed the handlebars told them he was more grateful than he could express.

Inside the house, the phone rang, and Chris left everyone standing out on the deck as he went to answer it.

"Well, Vin, what’s your pleasure?" Buck asked, extending his arm and gesturing to the table full of food. "We got barbecue wings, potato salad, cole slaw, baked beans, corn on the cob, biscuits…"

They loaded up their plates and sat down to eat. Right away, J.D. spilled his soda down the front of his pants while Buck dove into a story about his latest pursuit of a court reporter. Josiah and Nathan bent their heads together and discussed the resignation of two presidential cabinet members.

Though it was late February, the weather had turned warmer, out of character for Colorado in this season. Everyone wore layers, but were quite comfortable in the crisp air. Ezra sat back, daintily picking the meat off the wings with his knife and fork. He was the only one who noticed when Chris came back out onto the deck, his face closed. The Southerner was enough a student of human nature – and had been observing Larabee long enough – to recognize that the team leader’s phone call had been anything but pleasant.

Chris took a seat between Vin and J.D., his mouth set in a thin line. "Hey, Chris," J.D. looked up from where he was toweling off his jeans. "Who was that?"

"Wrong number," was the gravely reply. Ezra’s eyebrow flicked up in question, but he didn’t say anything. Whatever Chris was hiding would keep for a little while.

"So I told Sharon about the time I won that kissing contest at the Lion’s Club, and then I asked her if maybe she’d like a demonstration of my prize-winnin’ skills… and do you know what that woman did?"

"Let me offer a conjecture, Mister Wilmington," Ezra answered. "Considering the outcome of your previous attempts to secure the hearts of members of the fairer sex… I would surmise that there is a reason you’re wearing those sunglasses on a rather overcast day…"

"That’s right, Buck. It is rather dark out today…" Nathan joined in. Buck squirmed in his seat. Six pairs of eyes were fixed on him, and after a moment or two, he pulled the glasses off to reveal a dark bruise surrounding his left eye.

"Wow, Buck," J.D. exclaimed. "She really whacked ya, didn’t she?"

"Alright, that’s enough," Buck shouted, everyone at the table laughing heartily. "It ain’t bad enough I got a shiner from that witch… I thought you guys would be a little more understandin’."

"Come now, brother," Josiah rumbled. "Surely you see the hilarity of the situation."

The only person at the table not joining in the laughter was Chris. Even Vin was having a good time, though he was beginning to tire. But the man in black just sat glaring into his plate, not even seeming to hear what was going on around him.

Josiah had sat down next to Ezra, and when Nathan turned his attention to refilling his plate with potato salad, the profiler leaned in close and whispered softly to the con man.

"Those were purty flowers you brought Miss Taya," he grinned broadly when Standish’s face went beet red.

"Why Mister Sanchez," the younger man cleared his throat and ducked his head. "I have no idea to what you’re referring."

"What’s that, Josiah?" Buck asked, finally coming to the end of his story.

"Mister Dunne," Ezra interrupted quickly. "What are your plans for the lovely Miss Wells this weekend?"

"Well," the youth blushed. "I sorta figgered we’d go see Lord of the Rings…"

"Oh, son!" Buck moaned. "That ain’t no proper date for a lady! Now, if you really want to impress her…"

"Buck, shouldn’t you wait to offer advice until your eye’s healed?" Vin teased, one hand pressed to his aching side as he laughed.

"And they’re off!" Nathan laughed, watching as the ladies’ man didn’t miss a beat as he continued to shovel food into his mouth while simultaneously offering advice on how to woo women.

It went on like that for another hour. By the time all the food was gone, everyone was leaning back in their chairs, the top button of their pants undone to help with expansion. All except Vin. He was fast asleep, his head on the table resting on his crossed arms. Every few seconds, a soft snore would issue from the sharpshooter, and if anyone were to peer closely, they’d notice a small puddle forming underneath the corner of his mouth.

"Come on, Junior," Buck said, clapping Vin on the shoulder and chuckling when the younger man shot up, startled, swiping a fist under his chin to catch the drool. "Time for bed."

Chris stood up, gathering the dishes and taking them into the house as Wilmington led Tanner back to his room. Everyone else sluggishly gathered up the paper plates, forks, and napkins to toss in the trash bag J.D. brought out to the deck. One person followed Chris into the house, slipping inside while everyone else was busy.

"Mister Larabee?"

"What is it, Ezra?" the man in black muttered, clearly still out of sorts. He had hardly said a word all night.

"You’ve been rather taciturn this evening…" the undercover agent began rinsing the glasses in the sink.

"Ain’t had much t’say," Larabee growled.

The sculpted eyebrow above the green eye twitched. "I see," he continued smoothly. "It wouldn’t have anything to do with the rather ill-timed telephone call you received prior to our repast?"

Chris sighed heavily, pressing his fists against the counter and bowing his head to his chest.

"Mister Larabee?" Standish murmured, looking at the hunched shoulders. He let the warm water flow over his hand as he stood waiting for the older man to respond.

"He’s out."

There was a yawning silence, with the soft sound of running water in the background.

"What?" Ezra whispered, his stomach plummeting to his toes.

"Emilio Valdez," Chris turned, a haunted expression in his face. "He busted out."

+ + + + + + +

Six men sat in a terrible silence. In the fireplace, the crackle and pop of the flames and the shadows dancing on the wall were a stern contrast to each man’s glacial expression. Chris stood at the fire, gazing into the glowing embers. Buck sat in the armchair, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, his fists at his mouth. J.D. and Nathan sat rigidly on the couch, each leaning forward with their eyes shining in the firelight. Ezra stood at the large sliding glass door, nursing a glass of bourbon and keeping watch as clouds passed over the face of the moon.

Josiah appeared from the hallway. "He’s asleep," he muttered, crossing to the couch and leaning heavily on the back.

Chris turned his head to look at his profiler.

"No," Sanchez reassured. "I didn’t tell him anything."

"What’re we gonna do?" Buck asked softly.

No one spoke.

Then, suddenly, Chris turned around, his face determined. "I want a double guard on Vin 24/7. We can’t let him know what’s going on, but I want two of us with him at all times." All the men nodded in agreement. "Valdez isn’t going to stop until Vin is dead."

"We’re not gonna let that happen," J.D. voiced strongly.

"You bet we’re not, kid," Buck agreed, his eyes just as unwavering. There was a murmur of agreement.

"We got any idea where they might’ve gone?" Nathan asked.

"The sergeant said they’ve got teams keeping all Valdez’ warehouses and contacts under surveillance," Larabee sighed, running a hand through his already ragged hair. "But right now…"

"They’ve got bubpkis," Buck finished. "Well, ain’t that just peachy."

"Ezra?" the team leader turned to his undercover agent.

The younger man turned from his contemplation of the stars. "Never fear, Mister Larabee. I am, as they say, in advance of your designs."


"I think he’s tryin’ t’say he’s way ahead of ya," Sanchez toned.

"Thank you," the con man quipped. "I shall depart immediately." Setting his glass on a nearby table, he strode out of the room.

"J.D." The youth’s head popped up. "I want you and Buck to get down to the office. Start goin’ through all the files. I mean everything. You find anything that even smells like Mexican, you call, got it?"

Both men nodded curtly, and then followed Ezra out the door.

"I’ll head downtown," Josiah offered. "Talk to everybody. ’See if I can find out exactly how he got out."

"And that leaves you and I with first watch," Jackson said, hauling himself up from the couch. "I’ll get the coffee started."

Chris watched him go, and then crossed to a large wood cabinet standing in the corner. Taking a key from his pocket, he unlocked the doors. Reaching into the depths, he pulled out a 9mm Beretta. He popped in the clip, slammed it closed, and walked over to the window. Gazing out into the shadows, he watched as the moon disappeared behind a shroud of clouds.

+ + + + + + +

A large, muscular man in his early forties, with his feathery silver-accented hair elegantly coiffed, peered at his companion.

This man was very different: chubby, with cut-off jeans, a stained shirt, and greasy hair. He stood nervously, shifting his gaze from his boss’ hard face to his muddy boots.


"Señor?" The other man looked up, wringing his hands.

"You’ve found what I asked for?"

"Sí," the man nodded eagerly. "A large hacienda, beyond the edge of town." Sweat beaded on his forehead. "Larabee. The name is Larabee."

"Good," a terrible smile curved the older man’s lips. "I don’t believe I’ll be needing you further."

And without a word, Valdez shot him between the eyes.

+ + + + + + +

"Ain’t ya’ll carryin’ this nursemaidin’ thing a bit far?" Tanner growled from the couch, glaring first at J.D.’s back, then aiming at Josiah.

"Come on, Vin," the young man said a bit too quickly. "We just wanna make sure you’re okay, you know…"

"Here, son," the profiler offered, handing over the remote to the big screen T.V. "You’re turn."

His sky blue eyes narrowed as he mulled over everything that had been happening over the last two days. They’d been crowding around him, always talking or trying to coax him into watching a movie, or playing a game, or taking a nap. He hadn’t been left alone except to pee, and that only with someone standing outside the door… someone standing guard…

Just when his mind was about to put the pieces together, the doorbell rang.

"That’ll be Nettie," J.D. breathed, his relief palpable. Vin sat up taller in the couch, running a hand through his unruly hair and straightening his shirt. His broken leg was stretched out in front of him on the cushions, his other foot resting on the floor.

He was deeply glad he’d talked his ‘keepers’ into letting him put on his real clothes that morning.

The small woman swept into the room with an authority that had sent many large men quaking in their biker jackets. "Hi honey," she greeted, taking off her coat and setting it on a nearby chair along with her purse.

Sitting on the coffee table, she immediately laid her gnarled hand across his forehead, her eyes sweeping across his face, checking his condition for herself. He knew better than to roll his eyes, as he would have if any of the guys had done the same. But even though he refrained, the older woman seemed to sense his inclination.

"Don’t get sassy with me, boy," she warned, withdrawing her hand. "I ain’t got the patience."

"How’re you doin’, Miz. Nettie?" he asked in his gravely voice. "‘Heard you been poorly."

"Good Lord, child," she laughed, shaking her head. "Here you are just back from Death’s door and still worried about a crochety old woman."

He reached out and covered her small hand with his own. Gazing into her face, he fixed her with a look of deep concern. Her face softened.

"Don’t worry," she said with a smile, patting his hand. "It’ll take more than a little blood sugar to slow me down."

In the kitchen, another interrogation was taking place.

"I’m sorry, Josiah," J.D. murmured. "I just don’t know how much longer I can keep this up."

"Yeah," the large man sighed, running his hand over his tired face. "Vin’s too smart for his own damned good. It’s like tryin’ t’hide a T-bone steak from a champion blue tick hound."

"Chris call yet?" the young man grabbed an apple from the basket and hopped up on the counter.

"Nope. His appointment with Orin Travis was scheduled for 9."

"That was three hours ago."

Sanchez lowered himself into one of the kitchen chairs with a groan. Glancing into the living room, he watched as Nettie fussed over the reserved sharpshooter.

"What do you think they’re talking about?" Dunne swiped at the apple juice running down his chin.

"If I know our esteemed leader, he’s probably grilling Travis on any cases other teams might have been working on involving Valdez."

"You think they’ll find anything?" the boy’s dark eyes were serious.

"I sure hope so, son," the ex-preacher sighed heavily. "I sure hope so."

They heard a soft sound at the front door, and both agents snapped to attention. J.D. jumped soundlessly down from the counter, and Josiah pulled out his gun. Both men moved toward the door, flanking it and watching each other, listening intently. There was another noise, and both gave a curt nod.

Jumping into the hallway, they pointed their guns at the entryway, shouting, "ATF! FREEZE!"


A startled Ezra had dropped the grocery bags he was carrying, and stood there with his Derringer trained on J.D. where he’d jumped out from behind the door.

"Aw, it’s only Ezra." Josiah scoffed, shoving his gun into his belt.

J.D. and Ezra stood there staring each other down, J.D.’s hands held up and his eyes fixed on the Derringer. "Something about this is familiar…" he commented.

"Considering the uncanny habit you gentlemen have acquired for vaulting out from behind concealed locations and scaring this SHIT out of me…" the undercover agent snapped his gun back onto his wrist with an annoyed grimace. "It is more than possible that we have found ourselves in similar situations previously."

"What are you doing here? You’re supposed to check in before you come snooping around," J.D. bent to retrieve the grocery bags.

"Pardon me," the Southerner quipped. "I was under the impression that sustenance was required to speed our comrade to recovery."

"Still," the young man led the way into the kitchen. "Chris said…"

"I am well aware of our superior’s decree," Ezra lowered himself gingerly into a kitchen chair. "I do apologize."

"It’s amazing how he’s able to say that without sounding the least bit sorry," Josiah joked, walking past the undercover agent and punching him playfully on the shoulder.

Standish sucked in his breath with a hiss, causing both men to turn around.

"You okay, Ez?"

"I’m fine," came the brusque reply, though his white-knuckled grip on the table belied his words.

Josiah came back, kneeling by the younger man and gently pushing off his coat, not missing the grimace of pain that crossed the handsome features. "What happened, Ezra?"

"Oh, a few of our more colorful contacts in the undercover world decided to ‘test’ my loyalties," Standish unbuttoned his shirt and pulled it back to reveal deep bruising covering most of his torso.

"Gosh, Ezra!" the kid breathed. "Shouldn’t we get you to a doctor ‘r somethin’?"

"That won’t be necessary, Mister Dunne, thank you," Ezra replied, re-buttoning his shirt. "I don’t believe anything is broken."

"When did that happen?" Josiah asked, going to the cupboard for some Tylenol and a glass of water.

"Earlier this morning," he replied, accepting the painkillers with a grateful smile. Tossing them back, he took a long drink of water before continuing. "I’ve been asking too many questions… allowing my zeal to express itself in haste. This, in the world of undercover operations, can quickly get one killed."

"Boys?" Nettie appeared in the doorway to the kitchen.

They all jumped to their feet, Ezra smoothing his shirt and masking his discomfort with a charming smile. "What can we do for you, Miz. Wells?"

"Mary dropped me off, but I’d hate to have her drive all the way back out here to pick me up. Would one of you mind terribly takin’ me back?"

"Sure, ma’am," Sanchez offered. "I’d be happy to." He met her in the hallway, shrugging on his coat against the biting wind. "It’d be nice if this weather would clear up a little."

"Yeah, we’re in for another storm," Nettie answered, pulling on her gloves. "Should move in tonight, tomorrow mornin’ at the latest." She poked her head in the living room. "I’ll see you later, sugar."

Vin looked up from where he was ensconced in pillows and blankets, Nettie’s doing. "Be careful, Miz. Nettie. Weather’s gonna turn."

"Now, how’d that boy know that? He ain’t been outside in weeks," Sanchez asked, holding the door for the small woman.

She smiled tenderly. "He’s a wonder."

"He is at that ma’am," he agreed, putting on his hat and following her out. "He is at that."

Back in the kitchen, Ezra and J.D. were fixing sandwiches. It was about time for Vin’s medication, and they knew nothing could smooth things over better than a peanut butter and marshmallow cream sandwich with banana slices.

They loaded up a tray with three sandwiches, a big glass of juice, and a bowl of instant chocolate pudding. "It’s a good thing Casey know how to cook," J.D. had commented as he mixed the dark powder and milk in a bowl. "Otherwise I’d never know how to make this stuff."

Ezra had just rolled his eyes.

Carefully carrying the tray, J.D. entered the living room, smiling at Vin as he struggled to free himself of the extra blankets Nettie had piled atop him. Ezra followed close behind.

"Hey, ya’ll," the patient said. "S’hard t’dig m’self outa this here hill with an arm and a leg in casts."

"Allow me to assist you, Mister Tanner," Ezra replied, coming to his aid. J.D. set the tray down on the coffee table, and smiled when Vin’s eyes lit up at the chocolate pudding. Both agents watched his expression darken when he saw the pills.

J.D. swallowed nervously. "Vin, Chris said…"

But the look the sharpshooter shot at him caused his words to die in his throat. Tanner continued to glower at the kid as he picked up a sandwich and took a huge bite. Once the morsel was in his mouth, however, his expression melted into one of sheer bliss.

"Ya’ll," he breathed between chews. "This is…" he trailed off, sinking into the couch with a sigh. "Good."

Both agents smiled. Dunne snatched the remote from the coffee table and Standish gingerly lowered himself into the chair by the fire. Despite his preoccupation with his lunch, this detail did not escape the keen sharpshooter.

"You okay, Ez?" he asked, his forehead creased with worry.

The con man was surprised. "Mister Tanner, your concern is very touching, but quite unnecessary. I am perfectly sound."

Vin didn’t look like he bought it. "What happened?"

"My… personal trainer has initiated a new exercise regime," Standish responded coolly. "This morning I discovered muscles I never knew I had."

"Hot bath is best for sore muscles," Vin offered. "Hot as you can stand it. With some coarse salt mixed in."

Ezra was once again surprised. "Why, Mister Tanner, I do believe I’ll experiment with that. Thank you."

Vin made short work of the sandwiches, downing the juice and even taking his medicine without comment. J.D. took his tray to the kitchen, and then settled in the recliner to watch T.V. It wasn’t very long before the combination of a busy morning and a full stomach caused the sharpshooter to fall asleep.

"He sure does sleep a lot," the kid whispered.

"Well, he’s been through a lot," Ezra replied softly, gazing at the sleeping man with a tender expression. "It’ll probably take another week before he starts getting his strength back."

"What if… you know…"

"We can’t think about that," Standish replied quickly. "We can’t even entertain that in our thoughts…" Ezra’s eyes grew cold as he whispered, "Because I don’t think Vin would survive another encounter with Emilio Valdez."

They watched T.V. in silence, so engrossed in their own thoughts that they both physically jumped out of their chairs when the phone rang.

Quickly collecting himself, never liking to show he was caught off guard, Ezra straightened his collar before sauntering into the kitchen to answer the phone. "Larabee residence," the Southerner drawled.

There was a click on the other end.

"Oh, God," his green eyes grew wide and his throat suddenly closed off. "They’re here!" Ezra yelled, slamming the phone down. He ran to the front door, pulling his gun from his shoulder holster. "Get Vin out of here!"

J.D. grabbed Vin’s shoulder roughly, trying to ignore the panic racing through his veins. He heard shouts, and shots fired near the front door. "Ezra!" he cried, torn between running to the con man’s aid and continuing to pull Vin up from the couch to get him to safety. Tanner was groggy, the medicine coursing through his system and causing him to be sluggish and confused. "Come on, Vin, we’ve got to get out of here…"

Vin looked at J.D. as if through water. Everything was distorted, fuzzy, and he strained hard to make out the shapes.

"J.D.? What’s goin’ on?…"

Something slammed against his head, and he fell into darkness.

+ + + + + + +

Chris drove as if the devil himself were at his heels. Buck had called a half hour before telling him he couldn’t reach Ezra on his cell phone, and his stomach had dropped to his toes.

Pulling up his driveway, he noticed deep ruts in the wet ground, as if several vehicles had pulled out quickly. Slamming the Ram into park, he flew out of the cab, his heart hammering in time with his racing footsteps.

Reaching the front door, he found it standing wide open, and entering the dark hall a gruesome sight met his eyes.

Ezra was lying on the floor in a pool of blood.

"Ezra!" he cried, kneeling down and quickly checking for a pulse. The younger man’s heart beat clear and strong, and he breathed a sigh of relief. "Thank God!" There was a deep gash on the con man’s forehead, and he’d been shot in the shoulder. "Ez?" he softly slapped the man’s face. "Come on, open your eyes!"

"Wha-?" unclear green eyes opened, squinting in the sun that blazed through the open door. A dark shadow knelt over him.

"Ez? What happened?"

"Mister Larabee?" he asked, an intense pounding behind his eyes made it hard to think clearly. "Vin!" he cried, struggling in Chris’ arms. "They got Vin!"

"I’ll be right back," Chris reassured, leaning Ezra against the wall. Racing into the living room, he found J.D. on the floor, also unconscious.

Vin was gone.

+ + + + + + +

Buck raced through the doors to the E.R., not even stopping when he nearly knocked over an elderly lady with a walker. Skidding to a stop in front of the nurses’ station, he barked at the receptionist. "Where are they!?"

Luckily, this wasn’t Sandy’s first day on the job. "J.D. and Ezra are both being looked at by the attending. Chris is with them. They should be just about finished."

"Thanks!" he called as he dashed through the swinging doors. "Chris!" he called out.

A black clad arm waved out from behind one of the curtains, and he rushed over. Pushing it back with enough force to shatter steel, his anxious eyes swept over their youngest. "J.D.? Speak to me, son!"

"Geez, Buck, you think you could hold it down?" the kid groaned, one hand pressed to his aching head. "M’head feels like it’s about to split in two."

"They’ve both got concussions," Larabee growled. "Bullet went through Ez’s shoulder, but doctor said they should be fine in a few days." He stood next to Ezra’s bed, contemplating the sleeping Southerner. His eyes were flashing murder.

Buck was leaning over the cold metal bed rails, gently stroking the kid’s unruly hair. J.D.’s eyes were closed, the tender strokes helping to ease the hammering in his skull. The ladies’ man spoke softly, "Where is everyone?"

"Nathan and Josiah are at the office, going through J.D.’s files. They called me a few minutes ago. ‘Said they think they might have stumbled on something and wanted to get it together before they came over," the man in black replied.

"Okay, gentlemen," a nurse cut in. "It’s time to move them upstairs."

"Move them?" Buck asked.

"Yes, we’re going to keep them both overnight for observation," she replied, unlocking the brakes on J.D.’s bed.

They were moved to a room together, the hospital having learned a long time ago that it was a lot easier to contain the Seven if they only had one room to contend with.

"Okay," the nurse smiled as she settled them in. "They’ve both been given some painkillers that will probably knock them out for a few hours. Just push the button if you need anything."

"Thanks, Lacey," Buck smiled winningly. "We’ll be sure to give you a call." Even though he was concentrating on both J.D. and Ezra, he wasn’t so distracted that he couldn’t make a pass at a nurse.

When she had gone, Chris snarled, "You reckon this might be one of those times you should be thinkin’ with your head instead a’your dick?"

"Why, Christopher, I didn’t think you’d noticed my dick," Buck snapped back, his voice dripping sarcasm.

Larabee’s glare pierced through the thick silence.

"Turn them cannons off," Buck murmured. He let his anger die, knowing the real reason for his boss’s fury. "I think we got enough to deal with without rippin’ each other’s throats out." Just looking at Chris he could see how much it was killing his friend to know that Vin was out there somewhere with those monsters, and they had no leads, no information whatsoever. Chris’ body was tight, deep lines etched into his face making him look decades older.

"Boys?" Nathan’s voice carried from the door just before he and Josiah came striding in.

In true Larabee style, their leader’s voice was curt, "’Find anything?"

The profiler shook his head without a word. "We’re still trying – got Travis making a few calls to the F.B.I. and C.I.A. He’s pulling in all his favors, I think."

Just then, Chris’ cell phone rang.

"Chris," Nathan gave one of his looks. "You ain’t supposed to have that on in a hospital. It’s dangerous."

But the older man didn’t give any sign he had heard. Pulling it from his pocket, he flipped it open and barked, "Larabee."

There was silence for a few moments, and then Chris looked at everyone’s curious faces. Covering the mouthpiece, he muttered, "Excuse me a minute," and stepped into the hall.

Closing the door to the hospital room, he growled into the phone, "Why, you filthy piece of sh--"

"Señor Larabee, as scintillating as this conversation could be, I suggest you close your mouth and open your ears… if you ever want to see your friend alive again." There was a short beep on the line.

"What was that?" the Mexican barked.

"Call waiting," Larabee answered. "If you’ve harmed even one hair on his head…"

"Listen, Larabee. I won’t ask again." There was silence. "Good. When this call if finished, you will place your cell phone on the floor. You will not return to your comrades. Instead, you will come directly to the large warehouse on Holly Street. There will be a crane beside the warehouse. You will stand next to the crane and wait for further instructions. Do you understand me?"

"And what if I don’t?" the team leader replied between clenched teeth.

"Then I will kill your friend," the voice answered.

"How do I know you haven’t killed him already?"

"You do not," there was a soft chuckle. "But I suggest you do not try my patience. I have someone watching you," Chris’ eyes swept up and down the hall, noting the nurses scurrying about their duties, a janitor mopping the floor, and several other hospital personnel standing in a group talking. "So don’t try anything foolish. You have one hour. Goodbye."

There was a click, followed by a dial tone. Slowly, Chris lowered the phone to the floor, trying to keep watch out of the corner of his eye, looking for the informant. No one looked especially conspicuous…

He walked to the end of the hallway, pushing the button to the elevator. He got inside, and watched the doors slide closed behind him.

Once inside, he viciously punched the shiny metal wall. Ignoring the pain that exploded in his knuckles, he concentrated on the dings that took him down to the first floor.

He got into his truck, again keeping his eyes peeled for someone tailing him. If there was someone, they were doing a really good job. Driving across town to the warehouse, he thought he spotted an El Camino following a good distance behind, but he couldn’t be sure.

He parked about twenty yards from the crane, getting out and scanning the area for movement. He seemed to be alone.

Walking over to the crane, he strained his ears for the sound of footsteps on the gravel, but there was only silence. Suddenly, he heard the click of a gun being cocked behind his head.

"Very good, Señor," a deep voice said. "Now, raise your hands to your head." He complied slowly. "And turn around."

He stood face to face with Emilio Valdez.

Only the thought of Vin kept him from launching himself at his enemy. The Mexican man’s henchmen gathered behind their boss, looking intimidating.

"Ate el manos," Valdez called to his men. Chris’ hands were pulled in front of him and shoved into handcuffs. The metal bit into his wrists, but he did not allow himself to show any discomfort. "Cuidadoso. Yo deseo el intacto... para ahora." Once he was bound, Valdez stepped up close, smiling wickedly. "Now, would you like to see your friend?"

+ + + + + + +


Though he knew the sound of Chris’ voice, it took him a moment to realize he was not dreaming. He’d been held prisoner for weeks now… If the throbbing pain in his head, and the hard stones against his back had anything to do with his predicament, Chris Larabee was oddly out of place.

No, he told himself, clarity returning. I was at Chris’…J.D. and Ezra were there… but… how did I end up back here?…

Grimacing, Vin opened his eyes and attempted to sit up.

"That's it--" A hand guided him, lending firm support. There was a rattling jangle in his ears; an unusual weight on his good wrist. Gradually, his surroundings solidified, drawing into sharp focus.

The blunt stone walls of the cabin had replaced Larabee’s rustic living room. Cold and terrifying, the cell was no more than ten foot square. He was sitting on the ground, handcuffs chaining his wrist to a wall-mounted radiator. A small rectangular window recessed into the far wall, provided the only illumination in an otherwise dark and dank dungeon. He could feel his heart start racing, his breath coming in desperate pants. The hand on his shoulder shifted to the back of his neck.

"You okay? You been out a long time..." It was hard to see in the low light, but Vin could have sworn Chris was more than worried.

Lifting a hand, he tentatively touched the tender spot on his head. A rough edge of dried blood lingered beneath his fingertips. "J.D.? Ezra?" he asked.

Chris squeezed his shoulder. "They’re okay."

"How… how’d we get here?" he asked shakily.

With an ironic scowl, Chris sat on the floor beside the sharpshooter, his wrists handcuffed together. "You don’t remember anything?"

Sighing, Vin drew his good leg up, furrowing his brow and trying to catch the thoughts that raced around in his head like unruly children. This only made his headache worse, so he leaned his head back against the stones. He was trying as hard as he could not to panic, but he couldn’t seem to stop his body from shaking. It’s so close in here… so small… the walls’re closin’ in on me…

The toll of the last few days could readily be seen in Vin's eyes—normally vibrant, now bridled with exhaustion. Though the harsh pallor of illness had fled, his skin remained sculpted with shadow. Thick fingers of dried blood tracked across his cheek, where the head wound had bled freely and deeply. Though he found it difficult, Chris tried to focus on the matter at hand.

"It’s alright," the older man voiced. "I’m sure the cavalry’s comin’."

Vin leaned back against the cold stones, feeling their rough texture press against his sore back. I thought that, too… once… he thought bitterly. But ya’ll didn’t come.

Trust me, Vin, came Larabee’s unspoken reply.

"How r’ya so sure?" Vin asked, struggling to catch his breath.

"Three way," Chris replied, smiling shrewdly.


"When they called me," Chris explained, keeping his voice low. "I switched to three way. Buck heard the whole thing."

For the first time in weeks, Chris was graced with one of Vin’s rare deadly smiles.

The door to the cellar opened, and heavy footsteps descended into the dank gloom.

Valdez stood before them in his immaculately pressed suit, gazing down on them with a sinister expression.

"Well, caballeros, I am sure you are thinking how clever you are now," he sneered. "You are at my mercy. And unless you do exactly as I say, you will die."

"Fuck you," Chris spat.

The older man chuckled. "Before I am through, Mister Larabee," he continued. "You will wish that was all I had done to you." And he moved to the side, allowing a large, tattooed man to come forward. "Va a continuación, Manuel."

The large thug grabbed Chris, hauling him off the ground and throwing him against the wall.

"Leave him be!" Vin cried out. "It’s me y’want! He ain’t done nothin’!"

"On the contrary, Señor Tanner, it was your patrón, here, I was after from the beginning," Valdez toned, reaching in his jacket for a cigar.

"What?" Vin breathed.

"Sí," came the reply. The drug lord inclined his head toward Manuel, and Vin watched in horror as the brute lifted Chris into the air, bringing him down on the muscular knee with a sharp crack. "Cuidadoso," he said to his thug. "Deseo esto al último un rato largo."

"God," Larabee groaned, crawling on his elbows toward the wall. "S’times like this," he was panting, trying to stem the pain radiating from his broken arm and cracked ribs. "I wish I understood Spanish."

Vin understood every word, but he didn’t think Valdez knew he was fluent, so he kept quiet. "What’d he ever do t’you?" he demanded as Manuel gave Chris another sharp kick.

Valdez puffed on his cigar for a moment, listening as another vicious strike was delivered to the senior agent. "If it weren’t for this pedazo de mierda," he whispered. "I would still have a father."

Both agents exchanged a confused glance. Blood was running from a cut above Chris’ eye, his body curled up to protect itself from more blows. "I… don’t believe…" he panted. "I know what… you’re talking about…" he managed between clenched teeth.

Suddenly, the drug lord lunged at the man in black. Grabbing him by the collar, he hauled him up and slammed him into the wall. "Then allow me to refresh your memory, dog!" Valdez roared. Whipping out a knife, he pressed it to Chris’ throat. "Twenty years ago you were working a case in México City. A beautiful waitress served you and your partner in a bar, and your partner decided he wanted more than what was on the menu, if you understand what I’m saying." Valdez’ voice grew quiet, deadly. "The waitress would not consent, but your amigo would not take her answer." Valdez’s eyes were blazing, and he pressed harder with the blade. Another man came to her defense, and YOU SHOT HIM!" A line of red trickled down from the knife’s point. "That woman was my mother, and that man was my father. You shot him in cold blood! And I have worked these past twenty years until I could finally repay you for that!"

Chris’ gaze was steady. "That’s a nice story, pal," he rasped, the man’s fist pressing against his larynx. "But that ain’t the way it happened. The way I remember it, your father was one of the three men forcing themselves on your mother. We stopped them from slitting her throat."

"YOU LIE!" Valdez screamed. Turning, he bellowed to the henchman, "Vaya consiguen a muchacha!"

Vin’s eyes widened. They must have Taya!


Comments to: