COUNTIN' ON A MIRACLE by Chris and rosyvin

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AUGUST 11 - Morning 8.00 a. m. – Office
It was the second week of August and the temperature had already settled above the nineties. On Friday morning, in the empty and silent office, the air conditioner cranked up on high, the two youngest members of the legendary Team 7 were enjoying a little “breakfast”.

They had spent the whole night there, checking through boxes of files and pinning photographs on the corkboard in the conference room, each one identified with a felt–tip pen. Each picture was cross–referred to the other so that the warehouse in which a large, smuggled shipment of weapons had to be, could be visualized, according to Chris’s instructions, at a glance.

Buck stepped into the office and nodded slightly to his team’s mates.

Tanner greeted him, “Howdy Bucklin, ‘bout time ya showed up! Have a cup of coffee, it’s already been poured and cooled!”

“Did you make it?"

“Yeah,” Vin, answered biting with delight into his huge burrito.

“Damn! Reckon you have in mind to poison all the team with that lethal brew you claim is coffee, Slick.”

“Never forced y' all to drink it, Bucklin. Wanna eat somethin’? …So much th’ better!” The Texan offered handing his friend a full tray covered with his favorite junk food he had on his lap.

“I’ll die if I eat that stuff! I wonder how you two could ingest that kind of greasy grub so early in the morning! And look at the mess you made all over the office!” Wilmington blurted out, looking in dismay at the once immaculate room now littered with half–empty coffee cups, coke cans, wadded paper and empty pizza boxes.

"Can't help it if yer gettin' on in years, Bucklin, ‘sides the kid and I had ta stay in the darn office all the darn night while you were holed up in the warm bed of yours, and Larabee is in a foul mood this mornin’ so quit yer yammerin' and let us have our darn breakfast,” the sharpshooter drawled, rolling his eyes and nodding knowingly at the closed door at Wilmington’s back.

“He came in at 6 A.M, he didn’t offer a “hello“ or a “Good morning,” and I can tell he’s pissed off.” J.D swiftly reported.

“How come?” Buck asked raising his eyebrows.

“Who th’hell knows?” Vin said, tossing his head.

“I’ll talk to him,” Buck stated, heading for Chris’ office closed door.

“Watch yer back, pard, Larabee has a mighty low boilin’ point, if ya know what I mean,” Tanner teased.

Turning around to face the Texan, Buck said with a smirk, “Care if I try?” then knocked slightly on the door.

“Chris? “ he called out warily.

From the inside came a growling reply, “Come in!”

The man in black raised his head from his desktop as Buck cautiously entered the room. The scoundrel scoped his friend out: he was pale and had matching sets of bags under watery eyes.

“I guess you didn’t sleep well, Chris.”

“I didn’t sleep at all!” The team’s leader snorted.

“What’s bothering you?”

Chris sighed. Handing him a slip of paper, he said, “It came by e–mail, read it!”

Buck looked it over quizzically, then looked back at the words written on the front of the page and, clearing his throat, hesitantly began to read slowly.

Eight little ATF boys
Driving on Route Seven.
One had a car crash,
And then they were seven
Seven little ATF boys
Gathering up sticks.
One chopped his leg
And then they were six.

Only six left… be careful LARABEE!

“What the hell …” he muttered.

“Go on and get a look at the signature,“ Chris said, looking up at his old friend with an expression of impatience frozen on his face.

Again Buck staring steadily at the paper read the name written under the poem, then shuddered and he exclaimed, “Murdock! The bastard’s still around.”

“Last night Judge Travis had a car accident on the way to Denver, and just after hearing that I had a call from Rain. She said Nathan had cut his left leg chopping some wood, not far from her house up in the mountains. She found him and was able to stop the bleeding, but she told me something’s wrong since he had a very large bump on his forehead, too,” Chris stiffly reported.

“How are they doin’?”

“I dunno, Buck. I’ve sent Josiah to the hospital a couple of hours ago and still I haven’t heard from him. But I won’t tell the boys anything about these ‘accidents’ …” Buck nodded in agreement. Chris was right the kid and Junior had to be spared.

“It’s a warning, Murdock wants all of us out of his business. All this is definitely connected with the big smuggling ring we discovered. I asked Ezra to get some information about the man. And he’s still checking his files over maybe he'll turn up something new,” Chris uttered, lowering his gaze to the desk.

He was aware that he was “mothering“ the younger man, but he couldn’t help himself.

That scruffy, stubborn Texan had gotten under his skin. Vin Tanner was now as important to him as Sarah and Adam had been in the past and the simple thought he might lose him, too, was haunting his very soul. Then there was Murdock. The man was just downright wicked. Wicked enough to frighten most people. He was nothing less than a murderer at heart. Moreover, he was wondering how he could protect Vin and all his team from such an old, dodging devil. The message and the phone call had both intrigued and upset Chris and he had spent most part of the previous night turning and tossing, sleeping poorly, with the bedside clock shining a dull green light onto his face and his closed eyelids.

Wilmington broke the unpleasant silence by clearing his throat. Both of them looked at each other for several minutes as if some secret signal was passing between them. By the strained look on Wilmington’s face, Larabee realized that he didn’t want to talk, which suited him. He rose to his feet and went past his old friend gripping the top of Wilmington’s thick shoulder.

“You look a bit spaced out.”

Buck shrugged himself free. “I was fine.”

“I'm sorry,” Chris’s voice cracked and his mouth drew tight, betraying the strain he felt.

“I hate to interrupt, gentlemen,” Ezra apologized, entering the office and handing some photographs to Chris. “These photos were taken a week ago in Denver’s airport.”

Chris studied the subject in a picture: a middle aged, thick set man, in an expensive gray suit, a panama obscuring his coarse features, and at his left side were two huge guys in dark, anonymous suits.

“Recognize those people?” Ezra asked pointing at the pictures.

“That’s Murdock,” Chris growled. “The others – the man’s henchmen.”

“Well, what do you think, Mr. Larabee?” Ezra urged as Chris studied the photos in his hands.

“My guess is,” Chris snarled not quite answering Standish, “to have a look at whoever is orchestrating this dance. I don’t have to give you the lecture... All Murdock wants is to make a clean sweep of our team, he is here to carry out a personal vendetta and he is devious and psychotic enough to do the work! I know him better than anyone alive! So we must pull out all stops on all this and bring him and his whole bunch down!”

“Mr. Larabee, I don’t want to sound like I know it all, but my humble advice would be to be careful. Much more careful,” Ezra hesitantly suggested.

The well–known Larabee glare in all its deadly sharpness whitened the Southerner’s face. “What do you want to do, Ezra, send flowers?” he snapped staring hard at the undercover agent, silencing him.

Then, holding his temper in check, but just barely, Chris went on, “Let’s go, we have a meeting. Being one man down, I asked for help and Captain Forbes from Team 3 agreed to loan me four men and a driver.”

He turned and crossed the office with his usual long strides, then gestured his men into the conference room where the agents from Team 3 were already waiting for them.

He positioned himself in the middle of the room and looked steadily at his audience, he gave a summary of the situation.

“Well, I shall be brief and to the point, boys. We have been informed of a very big arms smuggling ring. During some further unofficial investigation, we were able to find out the man in charge of this. Name’s Murdock, Jack Murdock and he’s described as a ‘tycoon’ and a cold, blooded murderer. He’s here in Denver and he’s going to make the first delivery this afternoon in a warehouse not far from the airport. We are going to catch the bastard red handed. Ezra made arrangements to meet the man, and will be introducing me as a “purchaser”. The meeting will be at 3.00 p.m. If you study the pictures on the walls, you will see the setting of the whole place and the positions you will need to take in it. Tanner will cover our backs from the scaffolding in the middle of the building. The others will be scattered all around, two men at every door in the front and in the back, three agents in the truck outside to prevent the flight of our target. Any questions?”

The men studied carefully the photographs and discussed the plans for a while but there was very little to say: this was a routine job.

Chris looked at his watch, it was only 11.00 A.M. “You are dismissed! I want to give to you all time for lunch,” he said, ending up the meeting.

“That’s jist fine. I’m starved’,” Vin drawled.

“Damn, Tanner, your system needs a break. You are eating me out of house and home!” Buck groaned.

“Got ta keep up my strength ta watch yer sorry butt, Bucklin…” Vin shot back, then turning to J.D. he asked, “What about a little brunch at Inez’s, kid?” And putting his cap back on his always unruly locks, he rose to his feet and ambled to the door.

“That sounds great!” J.D cried out, as he eagerly followed his lanky teammate on the way to the elevator.

The older men returned to Chris’ office.

Larabee lit a cigarette and took a long pull, staring at his old friend.

Nobody said anything for a minute or two.

“You want that bastard, Chris.”

“Yea, I want him, pard.”

“Then you’ll have him. You got a right!”

“Thanks, Buck.” Chris said.

“See ya,” smiled back Wilmington then whirled on his heel and exited the room.

AUGUST 11 - Afternoon – Somewhere not far from Denver International Airport

They met at two o’clock in the parking lot of the Federal Building, gathered their weapons and loaded into the trucks waiting for them. The building they reached was an abandoned hangar. On the pavement were scattered empty crates and boxes; most of the roof had collapsed, littering the ground with all kinds of debris. The team members broke up and headed off to their destinations. Chris looked carefully around and then gestured Vin to take up position. With cat–like grace the young man climbed the ladder.

It was a very hot afternoon and beads of sweat were running down his face as he stretched out on the scaffold. He smiled by himself Damn, if I had my kevlar vest on, I’d be drenched ta the bones, by now. Thank God, Chris didn’t notice I ain’t wearing it.

He waited, looking at the opened front door of the building, motionless. From his point of view he could see the truck in which Josiah and two members of Team 3 were standing, and the dark figure of his best friend with Ezra at his side in the middle of the room Turning a bit to his right he scoped Buck and three other agents at the back door.

For a few seconds, he wondered where Nathan could be but this question was thrown out of his mind as he heard a car screaming to a stop in the parking area of the warehouse. He looked down and he saw just behind it a black truck pulling in. Five men got out of the truck, their guns drawn, positioning themselves at the two sides of the car and from the car a dark man and two very tall, thick set guys dressed in white jeans and purple t-shirts got out. The man barked a command and his thugs spread over the ground and entered the warehouse. Ezra greeted the newcomers. They talked for a while and then Chris approached bringing a leather suitcase, he opened it and showed its content to the man who then turned and motioned for the truck. All at once, a very heavy box was brought into the building and quickly unsealed revealing the deadly “merchandise”.

Larabee leaned on the box, picked up an automatic rifle and examined it.

All of a sudden, a fat man came out of the parked car.

He approached the group, laughing.

”Hello, Larabee, nice to meet you again!” He cried out.

”Murdock!” Chris shouted.

“Kill ‘em, they are Feds!” Murdock hollered.

Vin clenched his teeth as he noticed two bodyguards pointing their guns at Chris and Ezra across the warehouse.

He coldly lowered his rifle, took aim and fired twice in succession dropping both men. A minute later the agents, rushed shouting and firing, into the building and looking at the turmoil under him the sharpshooter sighed in relief as he saw that his best friend and Ezra had found shelter into the little office near the front door.

He heard the sound of footsteps running and several screams as Buck launched himself into the large room from the back door and shot down three of their opponents as another agent took out two more of them.

“Only two left,” Vin, thought, smiling.

His eagle eyes scanned the room and he froze. Murdock was slowly making his way through the piles of boxes and crates. He cursed softly as the man disappeared behind huge machinery, then he was again in his sight, just at Chris’s back. He followed him through the scope of his rifle and let his finger pull the trigger. It all happened too fast, as if in a nightmare, he heard the bark of his own weapon and felt its familiar kick against his shoulder and at the same time in his view, Murdock’s head was replaced by J.D.’s upper body. The kid was just behind Murdock and having him in sight, had abruptly broken his cover to fire at him.

Vin jumped to his feet, “J.D! Nooo!” He cried out.

At Vin’s frantic cry, Buck turned and saw the younger man hitting the ground, holding his bloody left shoulder.

“J.D.!” he called out running across the warehouse.

He dropped to J.D ‘s side, “How ya doing, kid?”

“Just a scratch, Buck ,” the boy murmured, panting hard.

“How are ya feelin’?”

“Hurts some.”

“I wish Nathan was here!” Buck muttered, taking pressure on the wound with his handkerchief as J.D. moaned pitifully and went limp in his friend’s arms.

Buck swore and looked up at Vin, still standing, pale and shaken on the scaffolding.

The Texan lowered his weapon, and let his arms fall along his flanks, he had no choice, he must face his failure but his soul wouldn’t accept it.

He had to climb down, join his mates and then he would confront Chris.

Vin shuddered in the prospect of facing the man, of feeling those piercing, green eyes peer into his most carefully hidden thoughts, as he always so easily was able to. It wasn’t going to be pleasant.

The weary young man closed his eyes against the world for a few moments, trying to control his racing heart.

“Get down, little bastard, what are you waiting for?”

Buck’s deep voice cut into Vin’s thoughts like a sharp blade.

Vin stared at the hard, unsmiling face.

“I’m sorry, Bucklin, it’s m’ fault, I know,” he breathed.

“When I get my hands on you, Tanner, I’ll leave you for the worms to chew on! Get down, scum, get down. I’d like to tear you apart with my bare hands!”

Buck’s handsome face was hard as a rock and there was hatred in the menacing voice.

“Buck! That’s enough! Leave him alone! It was a damn mistake,” Larabee hollered.

“Hell, Chris the kid could be dead by now because of the “damn mistake” of your precious friend!” Buck shouted back in anger, facing Larabee.

“Calm down, Brother Buck, please!” Josiah intervened, pulling his powerful frame between the team’s leader and his bewildered friend. “J.D. is still alive. Thank God.”

“Okay, okay. Get down, Tanner, I’ll shoot you… later,” Buck snapped without a hint of humor in his tone, bending on J.D.

Chris glanced at the sharpshooter; Vin was shivering hard, his eyes pointed at some place outside the warehouse.

“Vin, you okay?” He shouted out.

The Texan didn’t answer, something was wrong, he could feel it .His sharp gaze scanned the upper places outside the large windows and at last he saw the man, nestled on the top of an half ruined water tower, facing the building, but it was too late.

The sniper’s barrel came up and Vin saw the flash, and at the same time a shot echoed.

Vin cried out as a searing pain hit him square in the chest and he fell in a heap over his best friend’s body.

All the men in the warehouse started to fire at the water tower, but the sniper was gone.

Chris tried to free himself from the dead weight on top of him and froze when he felt something warm and sticky dripping down his shirt.

“Buck! I need help here!” He shouted at his mustached friend, as he gently rolled the injured man over. “Damn it!” He groaned looking at the blood already soaking the young man’s white t–shirt just a few inches from his heart.

Tanner whimpered painfully. “,” he managed to breathe.

“Hush, Tanner, you've been shot, lay still.”

“That figgers.... Where’s he?”

“The sniper?”



“Damn!” Vin muttered and then hissed in pain “…hurts..” he murmured shifting pain-clouded, wide, eyes from his own bleeding chest to Chris' pale face.

“That.… bad?”

“Seen worse,” Chris lied, avoiding the scrutinizing blue pools, “Shut up, Tanner.”

“Buck… where is Buck?” The Texan groaned.

“Right here, Slick, take it easy, don’t try to talk,” the ladies’ man soothed, taking hold of the sharpshooter’s limp hand.

“I…. So sorry. Bucklin. So sorry fer the kid…. it’s m’ f….” Vin slurred as his head slumped down onto Chris’s shoulder.

Chris cursed under his breath, looking at his unconscious friend in his arms.

And suddenly he realized the fact that what Murdock had carefully planned –their deaths -could have happened to all of them, without Nathan’s help.

“The ambulance is on its way,” Ezra informed them, then paused staring at Vin’s colorless face, as his lips trembled.

In the distance they could hear an approaching siren.

A few minutes later two paramedics in blue EMT coveralls strode into the warehouse.

“Please move back,” the first medic ordered.

Kneeling at Chris’s side he pried Chris’s arms off the younger man, who was now on his back, struggling vainly for breath, the blood coming out of his chest and spilling onto his shirt which was drenched with it.

The medic took off the t–shirt, ripped it with a little knife, and looked at the wound in Vin’s right chest wall between the fourth and the fifth rib. He probed the hole, murmuring, “Struck the fourth rib, cracked it – deviated across the sternum – damn the bullet is still in and badly lodged – meant to kill the boy, the bastard!”

There was a little bleeding now around the injury’s site and at every painful intake of breath, foaming blood bubbles exited from the wound. “Oh, God! It’s a sucking chest wound!” the medic exclaimed.

“What does that mean?” Chris asked, frowning.

“His chest wall is punctured, the sucking sound you hear when he is breathing is caused by air leaking into his chest cavity.”

The man didn’t make any attempt to clean the wound, but he immediately sealed it with his hand. Quickly he started to wrap the dressing around Vin’s body, maintaining pressure. Then he waited until the injured man breathed out and when he held his breath, holding the bandage in place, he tied the knots just after Vin’s chest fell again.

He continued for a while on keeping his hands pressed on the dressing to control the bleeding as the other paramedic inserted an IV into Vin’s arm.

Carefully they lifted the limp body and laid it on a gurney, bent on the injured side to ease the patient’s breath.

The paramedic spoke into his radio, “This is Anderson, patient’s 30 years old, chest sucking wound, no other injuries, pulse weak but regular, some trouble breathing, occlusive dressing applied. I need a trauma unit.” Once more he checked Vin’s breathing and pulse and then hollered, “Hurry up!” They lifted the stretcher and made their way to the waiting ambulance, where the ambulance crew had already taken J.D.

As the men loaded up the gurney with the unconscious agent Chris tried to climb in, but the paramedic stopped his attempt. “Please, mister, we have two wounded men on board, there is no room left. I’m sorry.”

The man in black sighed and shook his head. “Right, I’ll follow you,” he muttered turning to his truck.

AUGUST 11 - Evening - St. Joseph’s Hospital

Rain saw Chris entering the ER and she quickly crossed the muddied reception area and caught up with him.

“How is he doing?” he asked.

“I must tell you the truth, Chris. He’s not doing well. The bullet is badly lodged and his fever is far too high.” Rain’s dark eyes filled with tears, “We hope it will come down when we extract the bullet. In a few minutes he will be prepped for surgery.”

“Am I allowed to see him?”

“Yes, but just for a few moments. He never regained consciousness. I wish Nathan was here!”

“I do, too, girl. I do, too.” Larabee whispered.

They went up to the ICU and entered the small room holding room, with curtained cubicles around its perimeter. There were three nurses on duty, who seemed very busy. Rain nodded at them and they retired to an empty cubicle and pulled the curtains behind them and in an alcove Chris faced Vin, whose bed had been adjusted by the nurses so that his head was in a semi–upright position.

His smooth chest was barely moving, his fine chiseled features as white as the thin sheet covering his naked body.

Chris reached for the slender hand, lying on the mattress, but Rain gently took hold of his forearm.

“Chris, please don’t. The nurses bathed him with a special soap to kill the germs, right now, they are preparing him for surgery… you know.”

The blonde nodded sadly, he would have liked to touch his friend, to feel he was still alive, he would have liked to hold tight and to comfort his little brother.

He stepped to the bed and shut his moistening eyes firmly. He murmured, “Vin, it’s me, Chris. Please hang on for the boys. For me, I beg you!”

Rain glanced at the motionless form on the bed and shuddered in surprise Vin turned his curly head a bit towards Larabee.

“Chris!” she exclaimed. “He can hear you. I can’t figure out how, but he knows you are here.”

Nathan had explained the strange sort of link between the two to her.

“Rain, they can speak to each other without words, they can share thoughts and feelings as if they were next of kin!”

Now, remembering Nathan’s words, she smiled at Chris. “That’s good. He knows he’s not alone, that there is someone caring for him and so he’ll find the strength to fight for his life.”

“He is a fighter, Rain. He’ll never give up!” Chris firmly stated.

For a while Rain studied the young man’s tense, ashen face. “He should have taken some medications to ease the pain, with some sips of water,” she said in deep concern, “but the nurses weren’t able to make him drink.”

“I’ll make him drink,” Larabee stated, aiming his piercing green gaze on her .The pretty dark girl glared at him. “Chris you can’t touch him It is not safe!”

“I’ll wash my hands,” the blonde offered. Rain sighed and turning to the nurse she asked, “Pam, would you mind lending Mr. Larabee your gloves?”

“Thanks.” Chris said. Smiling he pulled on the gloves as he moved over to Vin. He reached out and placed his hand on the younger man’s forearm.

“Vin, can you hear me?” he whispered. The young man didn’t move but his eyelids fluttered.

“C’mon, pard, I want you to drink something for me,” Chris said taking the offered cup from Rain’s hand. Carefully raising the sweaty head from the pillow he brought the cup to the pale lips that parted as Vin swallowed slowly a few sips of the cold liquid.

Rain stared at the pair transfixed, the sharpshooter was obviously unconscious but Chris had been able to speak to him, and to make him drink the water the young man needed to have some respite from the unrelenting pain.

“Rest, Vin. Rest now, I’ll be here as long as you need me,” Chris murmured, brushing slightly the tousled head as he lowered the unresisting young man gently back to the pillows.

“It’s time, Chris,” Rain urged as two nurses entered the room with a cart. They carefully transferred the young man to it and wheeled him out of the room. “I’ll stay with him all the time.” Rain assured.

She shivered as she entered the cold OR room.

Then she look with sorrowful eyes at Vin as he was laid on the hard operating table and stripped to be washed once more while his arms and ankles were secured with straps to it. As long as there was the procedure to focus on, she felt as if she could keep from exploding. She watched as the tubes and the needed devices were placed and attached to the wiry body wincing as Vin flinched reflexively as the needles stung his aching flesh.

But she felt a cold hand gripping her throat at the first incision as she saw the blood. This was one of the dozens of surgeries she had observed, to be sure, but she had never before experienced this cold, deliberate ooze as the scalpel slowly tracked along the body of a friend.

“We will have to raise the rib… up, up a little more….” the surgeon was muttering as the metallic clash of instruments echoed in Rain’s ears. Then more directions. She swallowed hard and let her eyes close.

“Here it is,” the surgeon said. “Mc Fee, is the bullet whole?”

“Yes, doctor, it’s intact.”

“Thank God!”

Rain forced her eyes to open and look at Tanner, the young man’s face was now gray, his breath shallow.

Her gaze moved down to Vin’s chest, she could see deep into the throbbing cavity, then the surgeon moved so his back hid the wound from her sight.

Short technical remark, a blur of competent activity and there was Vin, his chest encircled by the white bandages, sponged, relaxed into a deep slumber.

Rain smiled in relief.

“It’s over,” she thought.

“Rain, you look so pale yourself, don’t worry, we’ll take good care of him,” Lyn, the surgeon‘s assistant said, putting a warm, reassuring hand on the young doctor’s slumped shoulder, “You need a break, he’s in good hands, besides he’s going to need you later.”

The woman guided her towards the exit of the operating room and to the elevator.

“As soon they settle him down in the control room, I'll come get you,” she promised.

Rain was starting to protest but Lyn resolutely put a finger to her lips and led her out of the swinging doors marked POSITIVELY NO ADMITTANCE.

Chris was waiting for her just outside in the OR waiting room.

She approached, her sorrowful eyes on the man’s pale and tense face, then drawing a deep breath, she spoke.

“Let me explain what happened to Vin: because of his wound his left lung collapsed and the bullet was badly located, so it took a good deal of time to extract it, and he lost some blood but he is going to be just fine.”

The team’s leader smiled faintly. “What about some coffee? Buck brought some sandwiches, too from the cafeteria,” he offered.

“Just some coffee, thanks,” the girl replied as she gratefully accepted the steaming cup and drained it.

“Got news for you. Nathan will be dismissed tomorrow morning. His wound wasn’t too bad. He’s waiting for us in his room to celebrate or so he said.”

A warm sense of comfort filled Rain’s soul. She sighed in relief and then she whispered,

“I’ll come, but I want to stop at the chapel to light a candle in front of Mother’s Mary statue.”

“I didn’t know you were a Catholic,” Chris said in wonder.

“No, I’m not, but Vin’s mother was and I feel she is here now... in spirit… counting on a miracle.”

“Mind if I join you?” Chris asked with a smile.

“You are welcome, Mr. Larabee,” Rain whispered softly clasping Chris’ hand.

AUGUST 12 - Late morning - St. Joseph Hospital - Denver

Murdock sat hiding behind the morning paper in the waiting room of the hospital, as if waiting for a friend, he had carefully planned this “visit”.

After his fortunate escape from the warehouse he had been able to collect all the information he needed to end up with Team 7. Being a compulsive planner he had adapted and adjusted his plan to suit the moment. Focusing almost single–mindedly on bringing Larabee to his knees, and now here he was taking care of his task personally.

He eyed each person looking for his target: the surgeon. He finally spotted his man, a tall, lean man in his fifties. The man was heading for his office. Murdock followed him, keeping a distance between them. Then he checked the corridor and found it was empty. He waited about five minutes, holding his breath and then silently slipped into the office.

The doctor was sitting at his desk, eyes half closed, muttering to himself. His face was the color of clay. On the table was a container filled with a small amount of some white powder. Murdock approached.

"Doctor Mason?"

The older man shivered and stared at him, frowning. "Who are you?" he asked in a trembling voice.

"I could say, I’m a friend of yours," Murdock laughed, a little too loudly and pointed his thick lips and little arrogant eyes on the doctor's sweaty face.

"I've never seen you before! Who are you?" Mason asked swallowing.

Now he was very puzzled, his eyes wide with fear under his steel-rimmed glasses.

Murdock leaned on the table; he took the small container, dipped his finger into the powder and sniffed it, nodding in appreciation.

"My compliments, doc, that’s good stuff."

"What the hell are you playing at?" the doctor asked.

"Calm down, doc, I've just told you I'm a friend. A friend who knows your little secret and I’m willing to help you. On the other hand, you might be a help to me with a little business of mine.”

"What are you talking about?" Mason exhaled, licking his dried lips.

"It’s about a patient of yours, doc."

"I… I don't understand."

"You had better… Mason, for your own sake."

"What?" the older man whispered.

"Well, his name's Tanner, Vincent Tanner… I want him dead."

For a moment, the doctor lost his ability to speak. Then he managed to stutter, "You can't ask me to do such an awful thing!"

"Look, doc, the man is barely alive, a little loss of blood, a wrong medicine and he's done for, without any suspicion on you, he just had open heart surgery…"

"No… you can't ask me to do this!"

"Doctor Mason," Murdock said with a deep sigh, " I'm afraid you may have more problems than you thought. What about your precious mind? What about your skills without the stuff my men so liberally offered you for so many… years? And what if I were to "share" my findings on your "habit" with some VIP here at the hospital?"

The doctor frowned, his haggard, old face flushing in anger and shame.

"Are you trying to blackmail me?" he muttered his voice dull and metallic.

"No, Mason, I ‘m simply asking for help, you know what I mean…you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours…"

AUGUST 12 – Afternoon - St. Joseph Hospital - Denver

The vast ER unit of St. Joseph’s Hospital was in noisy but controlled disarray. The drama and the energy of the place was palpable to Chris as he sat in the little waiting room. Barely aware of Buck and Josiah at his side, he stared numbly at the wall, fear mounting in his chest and in his throat and the sight of Vin lying in a pool of blood on the ground still playing in his mind.

A young, tall doctor in white stepped into the room.

“Is one of you Mr. Wilmington?“ he asked cheerfully.

Buck jumped on his feet.

“How is the kid, doc ?”

The young doctor looked up at the tall, mustached man in surprise.

”I’m allowed to speak about our patient’s condition only to close relatives,” he murmured, frowning.

“The kid has got no family, doctor, we all are his ‘family’,” Chris answered in a low, steady tone as stood up facing the younger man.

“My name is Larabee, Chris Larabee. I’m J.D's boss and the others are his teammates from the ATF.”

Stretching his hand toward him the young doctor smiled broadly. “I’m proud to shake your hand, Mr. Larabee, your team is a living legend in Denver!”

“Glad to meet you,“ Chris said, vigorously shaking the thin young doctor’s hand. “Now, what about the kid?”

“Mr. Dunne is coming along very well. The bullet went straight through. It‘ll take a few minutes to get him settled in his room.”

“Thanks, Doc,” Chris said and then after a short pause, he asked, glancing at the empty corridor behind the doctor’s back, “You have another of my men here, what about him?”

“Are you referring to Mr. Tanner? I’m sorry, I’ve heard he’s still critical, that’s all. I'll see what I can find out... be back as soon as possible,” the doctor said and hurried to the door.

Chris fought to control his jangling nerves, as his fists clenched he let himself fall onto the chair again with a deep sigh and closed his eyes.

AUGUST 12 - Late afternoon - ICU

It seemed to Vin as if he was in darkness for a very long time. He felt himself swimming through a misty darkness. The fog crept up to surround him and hung in the air. Time stood still. He slipped off the edge of the world into the mist and silence.

Lights flickered behind his eyelids and he became aware of the bed in which he was lying and of the tightness of the sheets. A little later he became aware of the lines and tubes attached to his body and of the tube down his throat and of the straps holding him down on his back. He couldn’t speak and he couldn't move!

Confusion flooded his senses. He panicked and weakly thrashed back and forth with a piteous moan.

The kind face of a young nurse appeared to him, a gentle hand brushed his cheek.

“Please, Mr. Tanner, try to hold still.”

Turning his blue, confused eyes on her, Vin tried again to speak but the tube only allowed him to gasp, then cough.

"I’m Jeanie, your nurse, I'll take care of you. I’m going to ask you something, don’t try to speak, only answer me by nodding yes or shaking your head no. Are you in pain?”

Fighting to open eyelids that weighted a ton, Vin looked up at her and moaned again for his chest was killing him and he felt vulnerable and uneasy, strapped as he was to the narrow bed.

The nurse looked at her patient’s scowling face and with motherly concern removed a damp strand of light brown curls from his forehead.

"I know, all these lines and tubes are uncomfortable but I can't take them off, they will be removed in a day or two, for now try to breathe and relax," she said in a reassuring tone, “You have had open heart surgery and you need all of your strength to recover.”

Vin let his eyes close and tried to concentrate his muddled mind on breathing. Nevertheless, he badly wanted those darn things removed and began to thrash again, fighting the bounds. He was so uncomfortable that he couldn't help but thrash.

The nurse frowned. "Pam!" She called out and another little, fat nurse appeared behind her. "Stay with him. I’m going to find Doctor Mason,” she said as she hurried to the door.

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Chris & rosyvin