An Innocent Man

by Angie

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+ + + + + + +

At the ranch, Buck, Vin and JD sat staring at each other. Vin offered to give up his place to move out to the ranch and manage things until Chris got back. JD also offered to stay at the ranch. Buck knew that there was paperwork in a safe box that left him the legal right to manage the affairs of the property and finances of the ranch in the event that Larabee was unable to do so. He planned to go and have one of the ATF attorneys go over the paperwork with him on Monday.

“I think Chris would be all right with all of us staying here to take care of things. We can go by the apartment tomorrow and pack what we need. Vin, if you want to give up your place, we can bring your stuff up here. I don’t think you would have anything left if you didn’t have someone else living there while you were gone.”

The Texan nodded, he had been paying the local gang members to watch over his place while he was on vacation. It would be easier to give up the apartment and find another one when Chris got back. Unwilling to be alone, Vin curled up on the couch and fell asleep. JD soon followed suit and Buck carefully settled blankets over both young men.

Standing on the deck in back of the house, Buck Wilmington stared into the sky and shook his head sadly. In his mind he had failed to keep the promise he had made to Sarah as he stood over her grave with Chris after he got out of the hospital.

“I’m sorry, Sarah. We couldn’t find the man who killed that girl. I failed you. He’s up there in that place and I can’t protect him! I don’t know what to do! I hope you’ll watch over him and help him find his way back from where ever he has gone. Maybe you can succeed where I failed.”

+ + + + + + +

The nurse rolled Chris onto his side and bared his hip for the sedative the doctor ordered. She swabbed the skin with an alcohol pad and let it dry for a moment before jabbing the needle into the muscle. Slowly depressing the plunger, she withdrew the needle and swabbed the puncture before replacing the pale blue pajama bottoms. Easing the patient onto his back, she tucked the blanket up under his chin before slipping quietly out of the room.

+ + + + + + +

The three agents spent most of Sunday loading Vin’s meager belongings into Buck’s truck and moving them to the ranch. They then spent a couple of hours at the ‘cess pit’ packing their clothes and computer equipment. Buck took the master bedroom, as neither of the other two wanted it. JD took Adam’s room and Vin took the spare bedroom. Still needing the comfort of close proximity, though, they slept on the couches again.

+ + + + + + +

Judge Travis was waiting for them when they arrived on Monday. He formally appointed Buck as leader of the team. Standing at the head of the table in the conference room, he laid out the plan for the next week.

“You are off the schedule for the next two weeks. You may use the time to run down any leads you have with regard to Chris. All the resources of the agency are at your disposal for the duration of the week. Monday after next, you will be put back in the rotation and I will expect you to do the jobs you were hired to do. Keep me advised.”

The men drifted out to their desks and powered up their computers. They reviewed and cleared their E-mails and disposed of the piles of paperwork that had accumulated during their absence. JD reviewed the files that his search program was still bringing him. None of the stories held any useful information. He almost cancelled the search program but at the last minute, he decided to leave it for a while longer.

Buck passed the door to Chris’s office and shuddered inside. Travis had appointed him the team leader but he couldn’t bear to take the office. He glanced around the room at the five members of the team. Josiah, Nathan and JD were busy reviewing information on the computer screens. Vin was staring disconsolately at his screen without really seeing. Ezra was reading a newspaper at his desk.

“Okay, I want a meeting in the conference room in 15 minutes.” Buck made the announcement and headed for the break room to get another cup of coffee.

Avoiding the chair at the head of the table, Buck took the chair he regularly occupied as he waited for the others to arrive. In his mind, he reviewed the leads they had come up with. There had to be a way to get a blood sample from Lightner’s brother. Somehow, they had to find that Cottman fellow.

The team assembled and stared expectantly up at Buck. He took a few minutes to study their faces. Chris had chosen them carefully. Each one had special skills that made him a valuable asset to the team. It had taken them a while to mesh but now they were the best team in the ATF. He had the best team; he just had to use them to their best advantage.

“Okay, I want each of you to make a list of anything you can remember that we might be able to use to prove Chris is innocent. Any lead that you might have had that didn’t pan out, go back and look at it again. JD, dig deep and see if you can pull up anything on any of the people the others come up with. We are going to go over every scrap of evidence until we figure this out.”

In something like an hour, the whiteboard in the room was covered with names and bits of information. Josiah was doing the writing. He was using three different colors of marker to indicate solid connections and tentative connections. JD was printing information on the names and taping them to the wall beside the board. Nathan was reviewing medical databases with the bits of DNA evidence that they had collected.

Vin sat at the far corner of the table, staring at the board. His scowl deepened as he stared down at the notepad on the table. He had doodled on the paper until he had obliterated the words he had written there earlier.

Ezra stared at the pad in front of him. He had written the same name over and over. Johnny Lightner. Somehow the young man was solidly in the middle of the case. He kept seeing the young man in his mind’s eye.

The team reviewed the board. At the top of the board was the name Judge Cross. The man had still not turned up. Below that was Taylor Cottman. Seth Fielder and Jeff Franklin were also listed on the board. The name of the dead cashier appeared on the other side of the board. Josiah had also written ‘Suspect #1’ under the cashier’s name.

The rest of the afternoon was spent clarifying and defining each potential suspect. By the time Buck called a break for the night, they had decided to pursue Seth Fielder as their prime suspect. JD put out a search on anything he could find about the young man.

Buck put in a call to the hospital to check on Chris.

“Devonshire Facility, Gina Young.”

“I want to check on a patient. I don’t know who to talk to.”

“Which patient?”

“Larabee, Chris Larabee, he was just … admitted yesterday.”

“One moment.” The line was filled with music for a moment before another voice picked up the phone. “Three east, Nurse Chou.”

“I wanted to check on a new patient, Chris Larabee?”

“Are you family?”


“Mr. Larabee had a good day. He ate well all three meals. He is still unresponsive verbally but Dr. Long noted that he is showing some nonverbal responses. It’s still early.”

“Would you just tell him that Buck called? Tell him that we’re all thinking about him.”

“I’ll do that, sir.”

“Thanks.” He hung up the phone and looked up the find Vin and JD standing over him. “She said that he ate well today and he’s showing some nonverbal responses.”

Both of the young agents nodded before returning to their desks to power down for the night. Josiah and Nathan had already left and Ezra was still studying something on his computer screen. Buck walked over to the undercover agent and touched his shoulder lightly. The agent jumped and cleared the screen.

“Damn, Ezra, I didn’t mean to startle you! What was that you were looking at?”

“Just running thru some of my leads. If anything of consequence is revealed, I will share it with all of you.”

“I want you to share it before it becomes ‘of consequence,’ one of us might see something that you missed or it might jog something that we are already considering. I can’t have you hot-dogging on this one, Ezra, it’s too important.”

“Yes sir.” A neutral expression was capped off by a two-finger salute.

+ + + + + + +

Vin saddled his horse and turned him onto one of the paths that ran across the level field. He nudged the animal into an easy canter on the path. He wouldn’t normally bring the horse out so near dark but he needed to ride to clear his head. He heard Buck’s truck pull up as he was riding out.

Nathan rubbed his fists against his eyes and stared at the tiny print on the screen. There was something about the lab reports taken from the dead cashier that troubled him. He couldn’t put his finger on it but somehow the connection was there if he could only find it.

The smell of candle wax and incense wafted on the air inside the chapel as Josiah knelt to pray. He felt every single day of his age. His hands tenderly stroked the rail before him as he folded his hands. He gave up trying to direct the prayers and just let his mind drift. The images that were most clear in his mind were those where Chris had been there for him when he had been injured in the line of duty. He lowered his head onto his hands and wept.

+ + + + + + +

The orderly steered the patient into the dining room and seated him at a table. Larabee was compliant with the staff and they handled him gently. He ate when prompted and stayed where they put him whenever they seated him. Only in his room did he move independently. When left alone in his room, Chris would always be found staring out the window toward the road that led out of the facility.

Dr. Long studied the patient for a moment. He had been sitting on the couch for half an hour without moving a muscle. They had given him a double dose of anti-psychotics and still he showed no improvement. The nursing staff reported that he had stirred during the night when the sedative wore off and that he had cried out for Sarah and for Vin. He had not been fully awake at the time, however, and when he was fully awake he retreated into silence.

“Mr. Larabee, as long as you refuse to speak we will not be able to help you. This silent treatment can’t go on forever, can it? You spoke last night, the nurse says you called out for Sarah last night. Would that be Sarah Larabee? Your wife? Your dead wife?”

Only the slightest twitch of his hand gave any clue that the patient heard him. Fullerton noted that the man had been giving physical cues. He opened the folder and slid a photo onto the table. The picture was the one of Sarah and Adam that had been blown up for use at the trial. The next one was of Wynsome Lightner. The third photo was the ATF release photo for Vin Tanner.

“Talk to me, Mr. Larabee. Tell me about these people. Tell me what happened to them.”

Chris focused on the picture of Sarah and Adam. More that anything, he wanted to take that picture. His hand trembled slightly as sweat broke out on his forehead. His breathing became labored as his mind fought the wall of safety he had built so solidly around himself.

The doctor withdrew the picture of Sarah and Adam. He had noticed the reaction of the patient and wanted to press him as hard as he could.

“You want this? You want this picture, don’t you, Mr. Larabee? I can let you have it in your room if you talk to me. Come on, Chris, talk.”

The hazel eyes filled with tears before the blond head dropped and Chris passed out.

+ + + + + + +

Tuesday morning the team collected in the conference room. Buck prompted Ezra to give Josiah the name of the man he considered a suspect. JD reviewed the results of his search program. A woman’s body had been found in Hiwassee Lake in Tennessee. The woman had been dead for a couple of weeks. The thing that had tripped the search program was the fact that the woman had been strangled.

As he printed the article, JD felt hopeful. Buck contacted the authorities and requested any information they had on the woman. There was no physical evidence because the body had been in the water for so long.

Nathan had printed pictures of the suspects on the whiteboard. As soon as he put up the picture of Johnny Lightner, Buck stared at the black and white photo. He remembered seeing the young man at the bar the night he and Ezra had gotten drunk.

“Why Johnny Lightner, Ezra? What is it about him that makes you think of him as a suspect? I remember him from the bar.”

“On our way back from Knoxville, I saw him at the truck stop where we got gas. He was so uncomfortable about being seen that night in the bar. He was limping.”

The lights went off in Buck’s head! The young man at the bar was limping just a few days after a suspect was shot trying to rob a diner. But Wynsome was his sister! Could he really have killed his own sister?

+ + + + + + +

Jeff Franklin opened his eyes in the intensive care unit of the county hospital. The tube in his throat prevented him from speaking and he panicked. The monitors and alarms sounded and three nurses rushed to his side. After they had calmed him down, they removed the breathing tube. A few hours later, a doctor came in to explain to the young man that his spine was damaged and that he would never walk again.

+ + + + + + +

Johnny toasted Seth with a mug of beer. The ATF agents were gone and Judge Cross had not been found. Sheriff Wilhelm had been oddly withdrawn since the agent had been found guilty. He and the Deputy kept pretty much to themselves. Maddie Franklin had come from the hospital that afternoon to tell them that Jeff had regained consciousness.

+ + + + + + +

Buck called the hospital to ask if they would be allowed to see Chris. He was transferred to Dr. Long. The doctor said that he would prefer that they wait for a week to see if they could make any headway with him. He reported that they were beginning to see improvement, that Larabee was beginning to try to break out of the shell of silence. Wilmington asked that the doctor tell him that they were eager to see him.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra looked at the brochures that Maude had sent him. He shook his head and grinned ruefully at the glossy pictures. His mother wanted him to take a position as a dealer in Atlantic City. It saddened him that she believed the lies that the FBI had circulated about him. He didn’t understand how it would benefit her for him to be a dealer but he had agreed to do whatever she wanted. He tossed the brochures into a box with the rest of his office papers. The whole end of the living room was filled with packing boxes.

+ + + + + + +

JD and Vin rode the horses across the high pasture. The horses had not been allowed to run free for a while and they were clearly enjoying the exercise. It helped to relieve the tension in the two young men. By the time they returned to the barn, the horses were lathered and both men were glistening with sweat.

After they brushed the horses, they headed for the showers. Buck had stopped by to pick up the mail at his apartment. They sat around in the living room for a while before retiring to bed.

+ + + + + + +

Wednesday and Thursday passed with no progress on their investigation. Buck wanted to send Josiah and Nathan back to Knoxville to check some of the leads again. They had a little over a week. The new leader of the team noticed that his undercover agent was acting strangely. Ezra had been withdrawn and quiet all week. Judge Travis had been meeting with Standish everyday. Something was up and he could just feel it. He picked up the phone and called the judge’s secretary to make an appointment.

“Judge Travis, is there something going on with Ezra that I should know about? You two have been seeing an awful lot of each other since we got back from Spencer. If it has to do with our investigation, I would really like to know.”

“Buck, there isn’t anything I can tell you right now. I will assure you that it has nothing to do with your investigation. Agent Standish and I have just been discussing some things that came up recently. It’s nothing for you to worry about.”

He left the judge’s office feeling most definitely not reassured. The sense that something was wrong regarding Ezra was causing his internal alarms to go off. As soon as the elevator door opened, he called the southerner into Chris’s office.

“Sit down, Ezra. I want to know what’s going on between you and the judge. He gave me a song and dance in his office and I didn’t believe a word of it.”

“Very well, Mr. Wilmington, I will tell you. I tendered my resignation to the judge. I will be leaving this weekend. Orin has been attempting to find another suitable replacement for me. With Mr. Larabee’s confinement, I feel that I must move on. As much as I have enjoyed working with all of you, I find that it is time for me go.”

“You’re leaving us? Just like that? When were you planning to tell us? Do you know what this will do to the team? Do you even care?”

“I don’t believe I have to justify myself to you, Mr. Wilmington. I have already turned in my resignation. My replacement will be here next week Monday. I was planning to tell you over lunch today.”

The door closing caused Buck to lower his head to his hands and try to rub out the tension that was building behind his eyes. ‘He promised Chris that he wouldn’t run out on him, he never said he wouldn’t run out on the rest of us.’ With a heavy sigh, he picked up the picture of the seven of them taken at an awards banquet a few months ago. The sense of failure was increasing as the team disintegrated around him.

+ + + + + + +

The team gathered in the private room in the back of the bar where Inez worked. Ezra had invited the team there for lunch on him. Buck had locked himself away in Chris’s office after the southerner had come out earlier. Every member of the team felt that something was seriously wrong.

After Inez delivered lunch, Ezra stood and asked for their attention. Five pairs of eyes locked on the southerner as he stood at the head of the table.

“I have an announcement to make. Mr. Wilmington already knows but I asked him to allow me to break the news to you. I have tendered my resignation from the ATF effective immediately. My darling mother has invited me to join her in a business venture and I have decided to accept. Judge Travis has arranged for another undercover agent to join the team.”

Four pairs of eyes burned with disbelief and one burned with outright hostility. JD pushed his chair back from the table and jumped to his feet shouting angrily as tears stung his eyes.

“How can you think of leaving us? We’re a team! Ezra, we need you, we need to stay together. What’s Chris going to say when he gets out and you’re gone?”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Dunne. I have given this a lot of thought. With the departure of Mr. Larabee, I feel that the time is right for me to move on. My mother has been after me for some time to join her in business and I have come to the conclusion that it might be to my advantage. There won’t be anyone shooting at me or trying to kill me, I feel that I will live longer in another line of business.”

Vin jumped to his feet and began to shout.

“You’re a coward! You’re running out on Chris when he needs you most! I am so disappointed in you! You promised that you wouldn’t run out on him again and that’s just what you’re doing!”

“Mr. Tanner, I am so sorry to have disappointed you. My promise to Mr. Larabee was for his benefit only. I have not abandoned our team leader. I did all that I could to aid him. I can see that my news has upset you and for that I am also sorry. I’ll take my leave of you and have my desk cleaned out before you finish your repast. Good day.”

Ezra was gone before anyone else could respond. Inez slipped into the room a few minutes later with tears in her eyes. She flung herself into Buck’s arms and wept.

+ + + + + + +

Dr. Fullerton studied the patient sitting before him. Dr. Long had reported that Mr. Larabee had broken into a sweat the previous afternoon after being shown the pictures of his family and friend. The nurses reported that he was highly agitated during the night in spite of the sedative that had been administered. He had contacted Judge Travis and gotten some other pictures of Chris’s co-workers to use in an attempt to draw him out.

“Tell me about them, Chris. Can you tell me about your friends? Who is this? Can you tell me his name? What about this one? Hmm? You know that they call about you every night? They want to see you. I’m going to have to put off your visiting privileges unless you begin to communicate with us in some way. You want to see them don’t you?”

‘ADAM! Please let me go! I have to talk to him!’ Chris’s mind screamed as he fought to answer the man. He had to know what happened to his men. The last thing he remembered was Ezra telling him that he was leaving. He had to talk to Buck to tell him not to let the southerner leave. His hands ached to reach for the pictures on the table but he couldn’t make them move.

Fullerton made note of the brief flashes of anger that appeared in the hazel eyes as the sweat built up on his forehead and his hands trembled. One by one the doctor removed the pictures until there were only three left, Buck, Vin and Ezra. His eyes widened in surprise as one hand reached for the pictures. He quickly pulled them off of the table and slipped them into a folder.

Chris sat in the garden after lunch. In his mind, he was in another place. In the distance the mountains looked the same as they did from his ranch. He felt relaxed sitting there. Thru the wrought iron fence he saw a man with long, dark hair. Coming to his feet, he approached the bars. He snaked his hand thru the bars and his hand clawed for the man he sought. An orderly approached him and tried to coax him back to his chair. Larabee resisted and the orderly called for help.

It took three of them to extricate the patient from the fence. A nurse dropped to her knees and pumped a sedative into the man’s hip. Chris was placed in a wheelchair and returned to his room. Dr. Fullerton was informed that Larabee had begun to reach out of his shell.

+ + + + + + +

It didn’t take him long to remove his belongings from his desk. Ezra Standish traveled light. He had moved around so much as a child that he didn’t need anything he couldn’t put in his pocket. The only thing he took that didn’t belong to him was the cell phone, Orin had insisted that he take it. Only one item was deemed unnecessary that he took anyway, the picture of the team from the award banquet. It was the first time that Mr. Larabee had admitted that he was proud of the undercover agent. He left the letter for JD on the kid’s desk, inside was a check made out to Mr. Dunne to cover the cost of caring for Chaucer.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah and Nathan left for Knoxville. The other three returned to the ranch. Their tempers were on edge and had been all afternoon. The letter Ezra had left asked only that his beloved horse be cared for in the manner that he was accustomed to. He alluded to the fact that he would either come for or send for the animal some time later.

+ + + + + + +

Buck was furious. Dr. Fullerton had said that they could not see Chris. He pleaded and begged but the doctor was firm in his resolve. Fullerton promised that they were very near to breaking thru the wall of silence that Larabee was hiding behind. Once that was done, he would encourage them to visit as part of his therapy.

+ + + + + + +

Maude picked Ezra up at the airport. She wrinkled her nose in distaste at his rumpled appearance. His clothes looked slept in and he had not shaved that morning. She allowed him to press his cheek to hers briefly before escorting him to her car.

“Ezra dear, you look a fright! If this is an attempt to get me to let you out of our little deal, you can just forget it. A deal is a deal and I intend for you to hold up your end of the bargain.”

“Never fear, Mother, I will do my duty as I agreed. You will have to allow me a week or so to finish with some business that I have to attend to. After that, I’m all yours.”

Maude took her son to her apartment for the night. She had never seen him so withdrawn and sullen. He sat on her couch scowling at the television without speaking. She goaded him into a shower and took him out to supper at the finest restaurant in Atlantic City.

+ + + + + + +

Agent Kinder picked up Josiah and Nathan at the airport and dropped them at their hotel. He went over all the information they had gathered on the girl pulled from the lake. Like the cashier, she had been strangled. The marks on her neck matched the ones on both of the other dead girls.

+ + + + + + +

Jeff Franklin awoke to the smiling face of his aunt Libby. His mother had told her sister that the boy was off of his feed and that the doctor was worrying about him. Since he was a little boy, Jeff had loved his aunt’s cooking. She had brought him some of her famous fried chicken and cornbread muffins. For desert, she brought him baked apples.

“Thanks, Aunt Libby, this is really good. The stuff that they cook here has all the taste of cardboard. I’ve really missed your cooking. Will you tell me what’s been going on at home? Mom never tells me anything. Was that ATF agent okay? I feel really bad about what we tried to do to him.”

“He just had a sprained ankle. He was doing all right when they left.”

“They left? What happened with their boss?”

“He was found guilty. They had him committed to some mental hospital, poor thing. He lost his mind when they announced the sentence. I feel so badly for them, they were so upset. But let’s not talk about that anymore. Tell me what the doctors are doing for you.”

+ + + + + + +

Zack Lieder started the big Daewoo excavator and began to level the piles of trash in the landfill. He raked thru the most recent truckloads and dumped a couple of buckets of dirt on top of everything. A couple of hours later, he encountered the beige car.

+ + + + + + +

The three men at the ranch spent the weekend in hard labor. They repaired the roof of the barn and spent some time on the split-rail fence. Buck got out the old push-mower and mowed the grass around the house. The noise of the mower kept him from dwelling on the situation. Every day that he was kept away from Chris only served to deepen his rage.

+ + + + + + +

They stopped giving him the sedatives at night after the first week. After the first few nights, the dreams returned. Chris fell into the nightmare again. He felt Wyn in his arms, he tasted her lips, and he saw himself wrapping her in his leather jacket after he had made love to her. He felt the cool air as the door was opened and she was torn away.

“NO! Don’t hurt her! Please!”

The orderly and the nurse ran into the room and firmly restrained the patient. He fought against them until they put him in restraints. The nurse ran to call Dr. Long to see if they should try to sedate him. While waiting for the doctor to call back, Chris struggled in the restraints and sobbed.

Dr. Fullerton raced up the driveway and into the facility. It seemed that Larabee was finally breaking out of his shell. He ran up the stairs and was waived thru the security gates. As soon as he reached the third floor east hall he heard the sobs.

+ + + + + + +

Vin thrashed in his bed. He cried out as his mind was filled with images of Chris. A loud, anguished scream ripped from his throat as he fought the blanket that felt like it was binding him to the bed.

Buck and JD ran out of their rooms before the scream had faded. They ran up the stairs and into Vin’s bedroom. Turning on the overhead light, both men stared in confusion at the Texan who struggled in the center of his bed. His hands lay rigidly at his sides and he tossed his head back and forth as he moaned softly.

“Vin? What is it? What’s wrong?” JD sat lightly on the edge of the bed and reached for Tanner’s hand. Buck moved around to the other side of the bed and sat down.

“Take it easy, kid. Don’t startle him. I don’t think this is your run-of-the-mill nightmare. Vin, can you hear me, son? It’s Buck and JD, you need to wake up now.”

The pale blue eyes opened and stared vacantly at the ceiling.

“We’ve seen that look before, Buck. It’s the same look Chris had at the jail.” Fear mixed with awe tinged the kid’s voice.

+ + + + + + +

Dr. Fullerton landed on the side of the bed cursing and fuming. He ripped the restraints away from the shuddering form on the bed. Larabee was gasping for air and drenched in sweat. His eyes were focused on something only he could see.

“Talk to me, Mr. Larabee. Tell me what you see.”

+ + + + + + +

Vin’s voice was a hoarse whisper as he struggled to speak.

“There was another man there. He took my gun and my jacket.”

“What’s he talking about, Buck? Who took his gun and jacket?”

Wilmington’s eyes widened in understanding as his hands tightened on the Texan.

“That’s not Vin talking, kid, that’s Chris.”

+ + + + + + +

Fullerton watched as Larabee’s lips moved silently. The man was trying to speak. He finished removing the last of the restraints as Chris swallowed hard and his eyes closed.

+ + + + + + +

Vin’s eyes closed and he shuddered under their grasp. Suddenly, the Texan sprang to life, swinging and fighting as if his life depended upon it. Both of his friends sprang off of the bed and stood, watching to see what would happen next. Tanner looked at both of them with a puzzled expression.

“What are y’all doing in here in the middle of the night? Ya ought to know better than to grab a guy while he’s sleeping sound. I was having the craziest dream.”

+ + + + + + +

Ezra had gotten a lead on Taylor Cottman. The young man was arrested near Atlanta for attempted robbery of a gas station. He had left his mother’s apartment that morning and headed for the town where the young man was being held. After some pulled strings, he arranged for the young man to be held without notifying anyone else for a week or so. He wanted the kid to get nervous.

+ + + + + + +

Buck and JD explained what they had witnessed of Vin’s dream. The Texan sat staring at them as if they had both lost their minds. He had always had a sense of the blond man but nothing specific. As he looked from one pair of eyes to the other, he realized that something really unusual had happened. They decided that they were going to the hospital first thing in the morning.

+ + + + + + +

Sheriff Wilhelm climbed up to the wrecked car and carefully pried open the trunk. The body of Judge Cross tumbled out and the sheriff leapt away appalled by the sight and smell of the body. He slipped and tumbled down the pile of trash, landing in Deputy Davis’s grasp.

“It’s Judge Cross! He’s been dead for a while. Call for the coroner to pick up the body. I’ll go break the news to his wife.”

+ + + + + + +

The three men got out of the truck and went to the security desk. They asked to see Chris and were directed to a lounge to wait. Dr. Fullerton came down and escorted them to his office.

“I told you that I don’t want him to have visitors yet, gentlemen. I’m sorry that you drove all the way out here for nothing but …”

“Something happened last night, didn’t it? He responded to something. He was being … restrained somehow.” Vin challenged the doctor with his tone of voice.

The doctor’s eyes widened as he studied the young agent.

“How do you know that?”

“He had a dream, Chris was restrained.” Buck explained.

“I thought he was going to speak. His lips moved and I actually thought that he would talk to me but he just faded away. If you give me a few more days with him, I think I can break him out of his shell.”

“We just want to see him! He’s our friend! You can’t keep us from seeing him.” JD was all but shouting at the doctor.

“Actually, gentlemen, I can. He was committed here by a court order. I have the right to decide what happens to him for as long as he remains a patient here.”

Buck tried a little more tact.

“Can we just look in on him? He doesn’t even have to know that we’re here. Please? It’s been over a week, we just have to see him.”

Fullerton considered for a moment. He was actually terribly curious to see how Larabee would react to his friends. The intensity of emotion he had witnessed from the men as they had left their friend was powerful. The way Chris had responded to the photos of the group made him finally decide to allow them to see him.

“All right, a brief visit. But in the future, you will have to wait until I feel he is ready for a visit. Okay?”

The three agents were led to an outdoor garden area surrounded by a wrought iron fence. The sight of the mountains in the distance was breathtaking. They stared out over the scenery as an orderly and Dr. Fullerton brought Chris to them.

The three of them turned as the doctor cleared his throat. They drank in the sight of their friend. Chris looked tired and worn. The blank gaze was still firmly set on his face as he was guided into a chair. The doctor took a seat across from his patient and waited to see if there was any reaction to the visitors.

“Hey, cowboy! How are you feeling? Listen, I’m staying at the ranch until you get better. You always said you wanted me to get a different place to live so I …” Tanner’s voice trailed off as he got not response.

“Yeah, Chris, we fixed the roof on the barn yesterday. You won’t have to worry about the water getting into the hayloft anymore. Me and the kid are staying at the ranch, too.”

At that, there was finally a response. Chris turned his head and looked back toward the gate. His gaze was expectant; he was waiting for someone else to show up. JD spoke softly.

“Josiah and Nathan went back to Knoxville. They’ll be back tonight. There was another girl strangled to death and they went to see if there was any physical evidence we could use. And Ezra … quit.”

Chris came to his feet and walked toward the gate. He stared across the manicured lawn toward the road. The hands that clenched the gate were trembling. His shoulders rose and fell as he gasped for breath. Buck slowly crossed to stand behind his friend. He rested a light hand on Larabee’s shoulder. Suddenly, the blond turned and buried his face in Wilmington’s shoulder.

Dr. Fullerton approached and gently tried to separate Chris from Buck. The arms grasped more tightly as the gasping continued. Larabee’s hands clenched the material of Wilmington’s jacket. The ladies man cupped the face of his friend and tipped it up so he could see his eyes. The eyes that had been vacant were now burning with emotion and filled with tears.

From where he stood near the fence, Vin suddenly looked up in surprise. JD caught him as the Texan swayed unsteadily on his feet. The kid guided him to a bench and sat him down. The look in the blue eyes was confusion mixed with grief.

“Buck?” JD called hesitantly for help.

Dragging Chris across the grass, the new leader of Team 7 stared down at the two young agents. The kid looked scared and Vin’s eyes mirrored the hazel eyes of his oldest friend. He dragged Larabee to his knees along side of the bench as he reached out and shook Tanner.

+ + + + + + +

Claudia Cross fainted when Sheriff Wilhelm informed her that they had found her husband’s body at the landfill. The sheriff stayed with her until Dr. Flowers arrived to tend to her. He then returned to the landfill to supervise the removal of the body and the car. He ordered the body to be sealed into a body bag before he placed the call to the FBI office in Knoxville. If there was any evidence on the body or the car, he wanted to be sure to get it.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra looked thru the bars at Taylor Cottman. The young man had a cocky smirk on his face as he answered the questions put to him. He denied knowing anything about the bank robbery in Knoxville and he denied knowing Wyn Lightner.

+ + + + + + +

Jeff Franklin lay in his hospital bed looking over the newspapers that the nurses had brought him. He read over the story about the ATF agent being found guilty. He also read about the other girls who had been killed in a fashion similar to Wyn. His Aunt Libby had told him about the other agents and how they had cared for their friend so much. None of his friends had even come to visit him since he had awakened.

+ + + + + + +

The pale blue eyes focused as soon as Vin was jarred out of his reverie. He looked at Chris and gasped in shock. He looked at Buck and then at JD. Sliding off of the bench, Tanner embraced Larabee and rocked him slowly. After several minutes, he pulled away and studied the hazel eyes.

Dr. Fullerton and the orderly pulled Chris to his feet and led him back to his room. The other three agents followed. After settling the patient in his room, the doctor took them back to his office. He could see that the one agent, Vin, was profoundly shaken by whatever he had experienced.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“He’s in anguish! It’s like a cage and he can’t get out! It’s smothering him!”

“But he does want out?”

“He’s worried about something. He expected someone else to be with us today.”

The doctor was amazed by what he had seen and heard. He didn’t doubt that the two men shared some kind of connection. The problem remained of how to break him out of the self-imposed silence. He left the three men in his office to go and check on a problem that was happening in one of the other lounges.

Buck looked at Vin. “He’s worried about Ezra, isn’t he?”

“Yeah, I think so. I get the feeling that he knew Ezra was going to resign.”

“Damn, I never should have let that stubborn southerner go!”

They spent the day at the facility. The doctor let them sit with Chris for a while and have lunch with him. Larabee constantly looked toward the door as if expecting someone else to show up. He stared at Buck as if angry with him. Later in the afternoon, they sat in on his therapy session. The doctor tried and tried to get him to talk without success.

“Mr. Wilmington, when Chris was first admitted here I spoke to your friend Nathan about ECT as a means of breaking him out of his shell. I would like to try it and I can without your blessing but I would like you to be here when he comes out of it.”

A deep shudder passed thru Buck as he looked at the doctor. He had seen the movie ‘A Beautiful Mind’ and that was the image he had of what they wanted to do to Chris. He wrung his hands together and looked at the doctor.

“It won’t hurt him? You said he’d be asleep when you did it? It’s not like in the movies, right? No shaking and drooling.”

“I assure you, Mr. Wilmington, he won’t feel a thing. You can be in the room with him if you want.”

After a few minutes of soul searching, he turned to Vin. “What do you think?”

The pale blue eyes were filled with apprehension. “If you think it’s okay, then I’m fine with it. Anything to get our Chris back.”

The doctor set up the ECT room and had an orderly bring the patient down. Buck stayed with him as they put him on the table. The nurse started an IV and administered the sedation. Buck held Chris’s hand until the hazel eyes closed and he went limp. Wilmington stayed as they attached the restraints. He felt a stab of pure terror as the electrodes were attached.

He couldn’t stay and watch. Retreating to the observation area, he sat with his face buried in his hands. Vin sat beside him with his arm resting on the trembling shoulder. JD remained at the window and watched. He saw no sign of the current being applied to the blond other than a slight twitch in one of Chris’s hands.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah and Nathan returned from Knoxville Sunday afternoon and went straight to the ranch to talk to Buck. They had arranged for the body of Judge Cross to be taken to the lab in Washington to be checked for evidence. They were surprised that there was no one at the ranch when they arrived. Nathan pulled out his cell phone and called Buck.

The ringing of the cell phone startled Wilmington out of his silence. He jerked the phone out of his pocket and pressed it to his ear.

“Wilmington. Hey Nathan. No we’re up here at the hospital with Chris. They’re doing that ECT thing. Yeah, I gave them permission. No, why don’t you wait there and we’ll fill you in when we get there. We’ll probably leave after he wakes up.”

Dr. Fullerton stuck his head into the room. “He’s coming up quickly!”

“Talk to you later, Nathan.”

Buck and the others stood over Chris as his eyes fluttered open. He looked up at the men standing over him and closed his eyes again. The doctor nodded toward Wilmington and then to the blond.

“Chris, can you open your eyes again for me? I need to talk to you.”

“Come on, cowboy, open up and talk to us.” Vin picked up the limp hand and grasped it tightly in his own.

“B-Buck, what happened?” The voice was barely a whisper, but he was speaking. His eyes seemed to struggle to focus.

“Easy, cowboy. Take it easy.” Vin’s voice comforted Chris.

Dr. Fullerton moved to the bedside. His presence startled Larabee. He pulled away from the strange doctor and looked around in panic. This wasn’t the hospital in Denver!

“Take it easy, Chris, this is Dr. Fullerton. He’s been taking care of you.”

“Where are the others?”

“They’re at the ranch, waiting for us.”

“Mr. Larabee, we’re going to take you back to your room now. Your friends will be back to visit you later.” Fullerton’s words were directed more toward the other three men than his patient.

Buck nodded before clapping his hand on Chris’s shoulder. “We have to get back to work. We’ll see you again later, okay?”

They left the facility and drove back to the ranch.

The drive to the ranch was silent. Buck was still burning with the guilt of allowing the ECT and then with the guilt of waiting as long as he had. JD and Vin were deeply lost in thought as they stared at the scenery.

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