Unseen Force

by Winnie and Renegade

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May 1995

The room was painted completely in white and two tables were set in the center of it. Several wires connected the tables to monitoring equipment along one side of the room. There were cables, straps and everything a modern torture chamber could possibly need.

“Don’t do this, Robert!”

“Now, Chris, I’m just going to show you how easy it is to make a man scream. Do you realize I could have been just like you, but I smartened up and decided money really is everything?”

“Let him go, Robert!”

“Sorry, My Friend, but I am in need of a demonstration of my work and you’re the perfect Pawn to my King. Oh, I do love the game of chess!” Robert Tasker smiled and touched his finger against the blood that ran from Larabee’s split lip. He heard several of his guests shifting anxiously and knew it was time for the fun to begin.

Chris knew there was no point in pleading with the rogue SEAL. At one time Robert Tasker had been a man he called friend, but now there was little of that man left. Tasker had gone bad and no amount of pleading would save his life or that of the man strapped to the stainless steel table beside him.

Richard Powell was a year younger than Chris and yet he’d been part of Larabee’s SEAL team for nearly two years. The body was covered in a fine sheen of perspiration and the dark brown eyes were filled with something akin to terror. There were many ways to hurt a man, and Robert Tasker knew them all.


“Richard, I’m sure you know that you’re here because of your friendship with Chris Larabee. To say that he’s the reason for everything that’s about to be done to you is an understatement. As a matter of fact our friend and former boss is going to have a major role in your demise, but it may take some time. Cliff, would you make Chris more comfortable and we’ll be able to get on with the show?”

“It’ll be my pleasure,” Clifford Learson sneered as he grabbed Larabee’s arm tightly and nodded to two other men who stepped forward. Between them they lifted the struggling man onto the second table and began fastening the metal restraints across his chest, arms and legs.

“Bastard!” the blond captive cursed and managed to pull his right arm free. Using every ounce of strength and determination he struck out at the man nearest him and heard the satisfying sound of bone crunching.

“I’ll fucking kill you for that!”

“Leave him be, Cliff!” Tasker warned.

“I think he broke my fucking nose!” Learson cursed as blood ran between his fingers.

“That’ll teach you to underestimate him. You know Chris is angry and should have made sure he couldn’t strike out. Now get the damn straps secured before the sonofabitch breaks someone’s neck!” Tasker stood back and watched as the three men finally caught Larabee’s flailing arm and secured it to the metal table. Smiling he moved forward and began piercing Larabee’s skin with tiny needles that ended in a thin filament.

Chris tried to ride out the pain as the sharp needles entered his body, but there didn’t seem to be an end to the misery. He turned his head and looked at Richard Powell and heard soft mewling sounds escaping the man’s throat. Chris could not see what was causing the terror so openly displayed on Powell’s face, but whatever it was he knew it had to be bad.

“Now, Chris, I suppose you’re wondering why I’ve set you up like this?”

“Sick fuck!”

“No, actually I’m not sick, just a man in need of funds to raise a small army of ex-mercenaries. You see, I have this need to be in charge and since you always seem to outdo me in everything we’ve ever fucking tried, I felt I needed a new outlet for my leadership qualities! Now would you like to know what these little babies are for?”

Larabee tried to find the moisture needed to speak, but his words caught in his throat as Tasker pressed a button on his table and a jolt of white heat erupted along the nerves, sparking a fire that threatened to send him into darkness. His body dropped back to the bed as the current stopped, but his body twitched as if the wires were still being tripped.

“Oh, damn, sorry about that, Chris. I had it set way too high for the first demonstration.”

“F…fuck you!” Larabee ground out as he forced air into his lungs.

“No, I don’t think so. I don’t swing that way. Now, why don’t we make it easier for you and Richard to see each other? Oh, I suppose you’re wondering why a man like Powell is so terrified right now?”

“What have you done?” Larabee asked.

“It’s not what I’ve done, Chris, it’s what you’re going to do.” Tasker crossed the small space and pressed the button on the second bed and pressed a button until the two captives were facing each other. “Do you see the wires connecting your bed to Richard’s?” As he spoke, Tasker pressed a series of buttons on the keyboard attached to the side of Larabee’s bed.

“D…don’t!” Powell pleaded.

“I’m sorry, but this is all Chris’ fault. He should have kept his nose out of my client’s business,” Tasked explained and turned toward Larabee once more. “Now, here’s what Richard knows that you don’t. Each time a jolt of electricity shoots through your body the switches are tripped and the straps tighten around Richard’s throat, wrists, legs, testicles and…well I’m sure you understand Chris.”

“Sick fucking bastard! I’ll kill you for this!”

“That’s a pretty empty threat from someone in your position, Chris!”

“It’s not an empty threat!” Larabee warned and cried out as the surge of electricity shot through his body. His scream was echoed by the man on the second bed as the metal straps tightened around his body.

“This may take a while,” Tasker said, smiling as he watched the two prisoners.

“NO! You Bastard!”

September 2003

“NO! You Bastard!” Chris Larabee cursed as he sat bolt upright in his bed. His chest heaved as tiny beads of perspiration ran down his forehead. Blinking away the stinging substance he slid his legs over the edge of the bed and rubbed at his burning eyes. The substance of the dream was quickly dissipating, leaving him shaken and filled with an unknown terror. He glanced at the clock on the table and knew from experience he wouldn’t be getting any more sleep this night.

The dreams were troubling, yet he had no memory of what they were about once he opened his eyes. He kept having the sensation of strangling on his own vomit and that his lungs were fighting for every breath. He knew it was probably the very real fear of hearing Vin Tanner’s rasping wheeze when he’d taken him to see Stacey Midland earlier that day. The Texan was suffering from bronchitis, but at least now he was on medications to help clear it up.

Might as well get a shower and head in early,’ he thought and realized whatever he’d been dreaming was long since gone from his memory.

+ + + + + + +

Orrin Travis looked up from the file he’d been reading when a soft knock came on the door. He’d been expecting Chris Larabee and knew the younger man was always on time. “Come in.”

Chris Larabee strode into the office and took a seat opposite his boss. “You wanted to see me, Orrin?”

“Yes,” Travis said and slid the file across the desk.

“What’s this?” the blond asked, frowning when he read the top of the page.

“It’s a conference I’d like your team to attend.” Holding up his hand to stop the protest he knew would be forthcoming, he continued. “Now, just hold on before you go into how busy you are and I’ll explain why. This deals with weapons and the illegal use of firearms. I know most of you have already been through this, but I think JD and Ezra could both use a refresher course after that fiasco…”

“Orrin, that wasn’t their fault and you know it! We’ve been through this several times and they were both cleared.”

“I know they were, Chris, but it’s something that’s come down from above and I really don’t have a choice and neither do you!”

“From above?” Larabee asked, eyebrows rising angrily. “You mean General Fulton?”

“Yes, we both know he’s a miserable sonofabitch when it comes down to technicalities and in order for your team to remain operative they’ve made this mandatory for Ezra and JD and suggested that all of you take it.”


“Okay, they’ve made it an order. Look, Chris, you don’t have to, but without the re-certification by JD and Ezra we could lose the government contracts!”

“Damn it! All right, Orrin, but you tell that bastard that he needs to get his head out of his ass and let us do our jobs!”

“Don’t you think I already did that?” Travis said, grinning at the irate blond.

“Ah, hell, Orrin, you know how much I hate this shit, but…”

“But you’ll go anyway,” the former judge said as Larabee stood up.

“Yes,” Larabee agreed.

“Think of it as a paid vacation.”

“Some vacation! We sit at a table and nod our heads even when we don’t agree.”

“Since when do you boys ever make things that easy?” Travis asked before changing the subject. “How’s Vin doing?”

“Sick as a dog,” Larabee answered. The Texan had been battling a cold for some time and only recently had they managed to convince him to go see Stacey Midland. The physician worked at Saint Vincents and was also called upon to treat the team at her office.

“What did Stacey have to say?”

“Besides cursing up a storm and telling Vin he was as stubborn as any man she’d ever met…”

“Beside you?” Travis quipped.

“It seems to run with this team,” Larabee answered.

“Yes, it does, and sometimes I think that’s a damn good thing. Tell Vin to do what she says.”

“He’ll be glad to hear that because he’s on bed rest right now. Guess that gets him out of attending this damn conference.”

“Lucky man.”

“Very, wonder if bronchitis is contagious?” Larabee said with a smile.

“Don’t even think about going that route, Chris. I want you boys on the jet tomorrow morning! No excuses!”

“Yes, Sir,” Larabee said, sending a mock salute toward the older man before leaving the office. He nodded to Travis’ secretary before hurrying toward the elevator and pressing the button. He knew the team was waiting for him before going to lunch, but the news of the conference would put a damper on that idea.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah shook his head as he heard the news from his boss and wondered why Larabee seemed so at ease with it. There were times when the blond surprised them and this was one of them. Attending a conference was something they all despised, but when the order came down they went, albeit reluctantly.

“So, we meet at the airport at eleven tomorrow morning. The jet will be taking off at noon.”

“Mr. Larabee, I fear I will not be able to make such an ungodly departure time,” Standish blustered.

“Ezra, you’ll make it or I’ll assign you the next conference which happens to be surveillance in public washrooms,” Larabee stated.

“You wouldn’t?”

“Are you sure about that?” the blond asked.

“I do not believe there is such a conference,” the conman said.

“They have conferences for everything nowadays, Ez, you sure you want to take that chance?” Wilmington asked.

“No…no, I don’t think I do. Eleven you say?”

“That’s right,” Larabee answered.

“Chris, surely they don’t expect Vin to attend,” Jackson asked.

“No, I told Orrin that Dr. Midland wants him on bed rest.”

“Oh, I feel ill all of a sudden,” Standish said, placing his hand on his forehead.

“You damn well better make a miraculous recovery, Ez, or the line up to that washroom is going to be a mighty long one,” Larabee told the gambler.

“I feel better already.”

“Miracles never cease,” Sanchez said.

“Look, I know it’s short notice, but there’s not much I can do about it. Think of it as a paid vacation…”

“Orrin’s footing the bill?” Wilmington asked.

“Yes, but that doesn’t mean we go out of our way to make his invoice more than ten pages long,” Larabee answered.

“Ten pages, hmm, does shorthand count?” Dunne asked.

“JD, Orrin will want to know where every penny goes and that’s going to be your job. Understood?” the blond asked.

“Ah, hell, Chris, guess I’d better take my laptop.”

“Guess so. All right, Boys, since we’ve got most of the paperwork up to date why don’t we call it a day and I’ll meet you at the airport tomorrow morning?”

“Sounds good, Boss,” Sanchez agreed and the meeting quickly broke up.

+ + + + + + +

Chris pulled the truck to a stop outside Delvecchio’s and hurried inside. The woman behind the counter looked up when he walked in and smiled before coming around the counter to kiss him on both cheeks.

“Chris, it is good to see you. Always such a smile…if only I was twenty years younger.”

“If it wasn’t for your husband I’d gladly take you as you are, Mrs. Delvecchio.”

“Such a charmer. How is Vincent?”

“He’s still not feeling very well and that’s why I’m here. You know how Vin loves your soup and I thought I’d bring some home for him.”

“Ah, yes, Mama’s chicken soup is good for the soul, no?”

“Good for the soul, yes,” Larabee assured her and walked to the deli counter as Mr. Delvecchio came out of the storage room.

“Hello, Chris, how are you?”

“I’m doing fine, Mr. Delvecchio.”

“That’s good, but you still haven’t gained any weight. Mama, she’s always saying that you and Vincent need to put on some pounds, just not as many as me.” He patted his stomach and grinned with pride at his wife. She is such a wonderful cook.”

“Yes, she is,” Larabee agreed as the woman prepared two take out containers of soup.

“Here you are, Chris, I made one for you also. I do hope Vincent is feeling better. You tell him I said to stay in bed and get lots of sleep.”

“I will,” Larabee said, smiling and accepting another hug from the woman.

“You need to eat more,” the woman admonished, shaking her head and placing her hands at her hips. “You are going to blow away if a strong wind blows! You and Vincent should come for dinner!”

“Mrs. Delvecchio, you’d better watch it or we might just take you up on that offer,” Larabee teased and reached for the door handle.

“I would be honored to make something for both of you…maybe when Vincent is feeling better you will come to our house. I will make spaghetti and meatballs and lasagna and anything else you would like.”

“Hmm, sounds delicious and maybe I’ll surprise you when we get back from Seattle. Thanks again, Mrs. Delvecchio,” Larabee said and hurried to his truck. He climbed inside and waved to the couple before driving away from the curb.

+ + + + + + +

Chris drove into Vin’s driveway and pulled to a stop near the front door. Taking his keys from the ignition he found the one that would open Tanner’s door and then grabbed the soup from the front seat. Closing the door of the truck he hurried to the house and wasn’t surprised to find the front door unlocked. Shaking his head he moved into the house and toward the kitchen. Once there he placed the containers of soup in the microwave and hit the button before going in search of the sick man.

“Vin, you in bed like you’re supposed to be?” Larabee asked and silently cursed when he found the bedroom and main bathroom empty. A quick search of the rest of the house failed to turn up the tracker and Chris strode quickly out the back door. He headed across the yard and pulled open the door of the stable. The sound of harsh coughing met his ears and he hurried toward the stall where Peso was kept.

“Ain’t gonna be able ta ride ya taday…”

“Damn right you’re not, Tanner!” Larabee spat. “You’re supposed to be resting not out here tending to Peso.”

“Hello ta ya too, Larabee!” Tanner said, but held his arm against his chest as he lapsed into another round of coughing.

“You’re bound and determined to end up in the hospital with this shit! Come on!”

“Where?” the Texan wheezed.

“Bed!” Larabee answered.

“Hell no! Ain’t that far gone!”

“What the fuck are you talking about, Vin?”

“Ain’t that far gone that I’d let ya take advantage of m…me i…in m…my bed!”

“Jesus, Vin, you’re not my type,” Larabee said with a grin.

“Thank God for that, Cow…Cowboy.”

“Come on then. Mrs. Delvecchio sent you some of her sick soup.”

“Bless that woman fer the angel she is,” Tanner said, finally able to breathe again. “Jest gimme a minute so’s I can finish with Peso.”

“Vin, Peso’s fine. Shit, he looks better than you do right now. Come on before you fall on your face!”

“Not g…gonna f…fall ov…over!”

“No, you’re not…not if I can help it. Look, Vin, you’re sick and you need to rest. I’ll take care of Peso once you’re in bed.”

“Might jest be right…am kinda tired,” Tanner answered and grabbed for the wall as his head began to spin. He found it hard to breathe and knew Larabee was right and that he belonged in bed. The only problem he had now was trying to make it to the house.

“Sonofabitch!” Larabee cursed and grabbed the sick man before he hit the ground. “This might not be comfortable, Tanner, but I don’t think there’s any other way to get you inside!”

“C…Chris!” the Texan called as he found himself hanging upside down with his head resting against Larabee’s back. His stomach churned with each step and he fought to keep from being sick. “Ah, hell, s…sorry.”

“God damn it, Tanner! You’ll pay the cleaning bill!” Larabee groused when he heard the unmistakable sound of retching.

“Cheap bastard…c…can’t’cha see I’m s…sick!”

“No, I can’t see it, but I sure as hell heard it and smelled it!” Larabee said as they entered the house. He hurried toward the bathroom and eased the Texan from his shoulders, sitting him on the toilet.

“S…sorry, Chris, didn’t mean ta make a mess,” Tanner said, eyes downcast as he trembled violently.

“It’s not your fault, Vin, look at me!”

“Hate feelin’ like shit!” the Texan said and finally lifted his head.

“I know you do, Vin, but going out to the barn was a stupid move!”

“Yeah, I know. Jest tired of layin’ up like this. Feel useless!”

“Vin, you’re anything but useless. Look, I’m going to turn on the shower and get you cleaned up. Then you can go to bed and I’ll bring in the soup. Think you can stand up long enough for that?”

“Think so, sorry ‘bout the mess.”

“No problem, I keep a change of clothes here remember?” Larabee smiled as the sick man nodded once. He left Tanner under the spray of the shower while he changed into the clothes he kept in the guest room that he used whenever he stayed the night. He quickly returned to the bathroom with a change of clothes for his friend. It took some doing, but he finally got Tanner showered and into a pair of boxers. He could tell the younger man was running a fever again and settled him on the edge of the bed. Grabbing several pillows, Chris lined the headboard with them and propped the Texan up.

“Thanks, Chris,” Tanner said when the blond reached for the light blanket and pulled it up over him.

“No thanks needed, Vin. Just try and stay awake until after you eat…”

“Ain’t real hungry right now.”

“Vin, you’re not going to make me tell Mrs. D that you didn’t eat the soup after she made it especially for you.”

“Ah, hell, Chris, that ain’t fair!”

“So you’ll eat?” Larabee said with a knowing grin.

“Ain’t much choice seeing it’s Mrs. D and all.”

“I’ll be right back.”

“O…okay.” Vin tried to get comfortable on the bed, but his chest was congested and even breathing was becoming a chore. He reached for the puffer on the night table and quickly inhaled the medication, before closing his eyes and waiting for the relief it usually brought. His lungs seemed to be shrinking in size as he struggled to keep the coughing at bay, but no matter how hard he tried he was soon overcome with another attack. He felt someone lifting him forward and rubbing circles on his back until his breathing grew easier.

“Feel better?” Larabee asked, handing the sick man a box of tissues.

“No, worse,” Tanner said softly.

“Vin, I’m supposed to go to Seattle tomorrow for a conference, but I think…”

“Chris, I ain’t a kid. Don’t need a mother hen watchin’ o’er m…me. I get ta feelin’ worse I can call 911,” Tanner assured his friend.

“You’re sick, Vin…”

“No shit, but I’ve been sick before and pro’bly will be again, but I ain’t never needed anyone ta watch me, Chris. Grew up real quick in Vernon and learned ta take care of myself. Ain’t gonna stop now jest cause of some bug!”

“That bug’s knocked you off your feet, Vin.”

“Yeah, but not fer long, Cowboy. Now where t…the hell’s my soup?”

“I have it right here,” Larabee said and placed a tray across the Texan’s lap before placing the bowl of savory soup on top of it.

“Smells real g…good,” the sharpshooter said.

“Mrs. D makes the best…next to Nettie of course.”

“Good thing ya said that, Chris. I’d’a had ta tell Nettie,” Tanner said.

“You would too,” Larabee said.

“Ain’t one ta look a g…gift horse in t…the m…mouth,” the sick man said and sipped at the broth.

“I’m going to call Jake and see if he can come over and check the horses while I’m gone, Vin.”

“Sounds good,” Tanner said.

“I’ll have him check in on you too,” Larabee said softly and handed the younger man his medications. The trembling hand reached for them and Chris was again shocked by how quickly the illness had taken hold of his friend.

“Ain’t gonna argue with ya, Chris,” the tracker said and popped the pills into his mouth. He chased them down with a small amount of water and let his eyes drift closed. His chest didn’t seem as tight and he knew the puffers had a lot to do with that and that it wouldn’t last long.

“Vin, are you sure you’re okay?”

“I’m fine, Cowboy, jest need ta rest and ain’t gonna do that with ya jawin’ up a storm! Tell Mrs. D thanks,” the Texan said and felt the tray removed.

“I will, Vin. If it’s okay I’m going to spend the night and get an early start in the morning,” Larabee said.

“O…okay…thanks, Cowboy,” Tanner said.

“Sleep well, Cowboy,” Larabee said before turning out the light and leaving the room.

+ + + + + + +

“Vin, I’m going to call Josiah and tell them to go ahead without me,” Larabee said watching as the Texan shuffled out of the bedroom.

“Chris, my gun’s loaded,” Tanner warned.

“That may be, but right now I doubt if you’d be able to hit the broad side of a barn.”

“Probably not, but I’d be able ta hit ya cause yer a trouble magnet!”

“You’re one to talk,” Larabee said and handed the tracker his medication and a glass of orange juice.

“Chris, look, I’m feeling better this morning and if I need anything Nettie’s just a phone call away,” Tanner said.

“You’ll call her?”

“I will, Scout’s honor?”

“Oh, hell, Vin, let’s not start that,” Larabee said and stood up. They walked toward the front of the house and out onto the porch. “Vin, if you need anything just call. I’ll have my cell phone with me!”

“Yes, Mom,” Tanner said with a grin. “Get going or you’ll miss the flight!”

“And that’s supposed to be an incentive,” Larabee joked and clasped Tanner’s arm in the familiar forearm handshake.

Vin watched as Larabee moved to the truck and climbed inside. He waved when the horn sounded and waited until the blond drove out of sight before groaning and turning toward the bedroom. Truth was he felt lousy. His lungs were full of congestion and his throat was raw from coughing so much. Hid body trembled with fever as he made it to the bedroom and sank down on the edge of the bed. Grabbing his puffer he inhaled the medication and waited for it to ease the tightness in his chest. Closing his eyes against the dizziness, Vin lay back on the pile of pillows and waited for the medication to kick in.

+ + + + + + +

Buck watched as Larabee gazed out the window at the planes getting ready for takeoff. Except for Chris, Josiah had picked them all up and driven them to the airport. While the others were off getting something to read, Chris had been staring out the window, his mind obviously elsewhere.

“Chris, Vin’s a grown man. He’ll be okay.”

“He’s sick, Buck. I almost called Josiah to tell him I wouldn’t be going.”

“What stopped you?”

“A stubborn Texan jackass named Tanner,” Larabee answered, accepting the bottle of water from his long time friend.

“That’s what I thought. Vin doesn’t take kindly to having anyone hovering over him even when he’s sick.”

“Especially when he’s sick,” the blond corrected. “Still…”

“Chris, you can’t always be there. He’s been sick like this before and we’ve had to do our job and leave him…hell we’ve all been in that boat. What’s really bothering you this time?”

“I don’t know, Buck, it’s just…” Larabee stopped and turned his gaze toward the departing plane.

“Just what? Are you getting one of your bad feelings again?”

“No, nothing like that, but I hate leaving him alone!”

“He’s not alone, Chris. He has Nettie’s phone number and we both know she’ll be there for him.”

“Not this time, Buck. I got a call from Nettie last night. She’s in Vernon.”

“Damn, when’s she coming back?”

“A couple of weeks.”

“Orrin knows Vin’s sick, Chris. He’ll check on him!”

“I know,” Larabee said with very little conviction.

“Look, Chris, you can always call Vin and if he sounds worse you can call Orrin or Doc Midland and tell them. You need to get away…even if it is to get some sleep during those wonderful speeches we’ve been scheduled to attend. Come on, they just called our flight. He’ll be okay, Chris, and it’s only for a few days.”

“Six days, Buck,” Larabee corrected, but followed the rogue through the gates.

+ + + + + + +

“Tasker! Bas…bastard!” The strangled words were torn from the sleeping man as he twisted in the blankets and tears slid past his closed lids. The room was dark except for a thin stream of light shining in through the partially open drape. It cast a warm glow on the blond hair even as the darkness invaded his dreams.

+ + + + + + +

Chris dressed slowly as fatigue washed over him. The nightmares were growing worse, but again he couldn’t grasp what they were. He’d woken several times during the night to find his bed sheets twisted around his waist while his pillow was soaked as if someone had spilled a glass of water over it. The shower had done little to revive him and he knew this day would be hell. A sharp knock on his door broke through the lethargy and he finished pulling on his pants before walking over and opening it.

“Wow, Chris, have you been partying without us?” Wilmington asked.

“Something like that, Buck,” Larabee answered, shaking his head as the ladies’ man entered the room.

“Want me to order breakfast while you finish getting dressed?”

“What time is it?” Larabee asked.

“Eight thirty. I told JD and the boys to go ahead and have breakfast without us.”

“Thanks,” Larabee said, sinking onto the edge of the bed once more.

“Chris, are you sure you’re all right?”

“I’m fine, Buck, just not sleeping very well.”

“Anything I can help with?”

“I’m not sure. Do you remember Robert Tasker?”

“Sonofabitch! What made you think about that bastard all of a sudden?”

“I don’t know. I’ve been having nightmares about, hell I don’t know, but I keep thinking that bastard’s still out there and we both know he’s a fucking animal!”

“Jesus, Chris, how long have you been having these nightmares?” Wilmington asked, his concern obvious in the one.

“I don’t know. Seems like they’ve been coming more often since Vin got sick.”

“Well, maybe that’s it. Maybe Vin’s being sick dredged up all those old memories of Tasker and that’s where the nightmares are coming from. Have you talked to Vin lately?”

“I called him last night. He sounds like shit, Buck!”

“Bronchitis will do that to a man. Look, why don’t you finish up and I’ll order coffee and breakfast.”

“Just toast for me, Buck,” Larabee said, smiling in spite of the deep-rooted chill that ran down his spine. He grabbed his clothes and moved to the bathroom while Wilmington called room service.

+ + + + + + +

“Remind me that Travis owes us a real vacation when we get home!” Larabee spat as he stood up and walked out of the conference room. This was the second day of a four-day conference and Chris was ready to escape the mundane comments of some of the conference guests and speakers. They’d been forced to listen to four speakers and each one was worse than the one before him. The only saving grace was that he’d been able to meet with several friends he hadn’t seen in years.

“Hell, we’ll all remind him of that!” Wilmington said. “I need a drink.”

“Me too,” Dunne agreed.

“Anyone else?”

“A strong perfectly aged Scotch Whiskey would be greatly appreciated right now,” Standish said.

“What about you. Nathan?” the ladies’ man asked.

“I could use a drink,” the medic explained.

“A cold beer and some country music would soothe the soul,” Sanchez said and turned to their leader. “Care to join us, Chris?”

“No, thanks anyway, Josiah, but I think I’ll just grab a bite to eat and maybe a couple of hours of shuteye,” Larabee answered.

“If you change your mind we’ll be at that little place Rhonda told us about last night,” Wilmington said. He knew Larabee was worried about Vin Tanner and hoped this time there’d be some good news. The Texan had sounded terrible during the last call, but had promised to see Stacey Midland if he didn’t feel any better in the morning.

“Thanks, Buck, I’ll see you boys later,” Larabee said. He watched them leave and hurried toward the elevator. Pushing the button he paced impatiently until the doors opened. Once inside he pushed the fifth floor button and tapped his fingers against the rail while the car began to move. He exited the elevator, apologizing when he nearly knocked over an elderly woman. He reached his door and used the key card to open it. Once inside he pulled out his cell phone and quickly hit the speed dial button.

+ + + + + + +

Vin silently cursed the annoying sound and tried to figure out what it was. His eyebrows furrowed as he slammed his fist on the alarm clock, but the sound persisted.

“What the fuck?” he spat reaching for the phone and placing it to his ear. “Yer fuckin’ quarter and my fuckin’ headache.”

+ + + + + + +

“Nice way to answer the phone, Vin,” Larabee said, worried about the wheezing voice on the other end of the line.

“Lucky ya ain’t here or I’d hit ya with the fuckin’ thing!”

“I take it you still feel like shit?”

“Ain’t nothin’ changed ‘bout that! How’s ‘boutcha let me get some rest ‘stead’a phonin’ me all the time?”

“Just wanted to make sure you were still as cantankerous as ever.”

“Ain’t cantank’rous. Just feel lousy and was finally getting’ some sleep.”

“Damn, sorry, Vin. You eat anything?”

“Ain’t felt like eatin’, Chris.”

“Shit, look, Vin, I’m coming home…”

“Like hell ya are! Look, I’m drinkin’ and sleepin’. Whatcha gonna do when ya get here besides brood over me like one of Nettie’s hens!”

“Damn, I was really hoping for an excuse to leave this conference and was hoping…”

“That bad?”

“You have no idea,” Larabee answered, wincing as a series of wet coughs and weak cursing reached his ears. “Vin, are you all right?”

“Never felt better,” the Texan drawled. “Chris, I ain’t feelin’ ta good right now…gotta lie down.”

“Are you taking your meds?”

“Yeah, ain’t doin’ much good though. See ya when ya get back. Bye!”

Larabee heard the muffled cursing as Tanner hung up the phone. He knew what he had to do, and dialed Wilmington’s cell. It was answered on the third ring, but not by Buck.

“Nathan,” Larabee shouted to be heard above the music.

“Chris, is Vin okay?”

“He doesn’t sound too good, Nathan. That’s why I’m calling. I’m going to book a seat on the next flight back.”

“You sure that’s necessary, Chris. Vin’s not going to take your hovering over him,” Jackson advised.

Chris knew the medic had found some place where the music wasn’t as loud and they could speak without shouting. “I know, Nate, but I need to do this.”

“What time are you leaving?”

“I haven’t called the airlines yet, but I’ll take whatever they can give me,” Larabee told him.

“All right, Chris, take it easy and try not to worry too much. Vin’s a lot tougher than he looks.”

“I know. I’m counting on you and Josiah to keep the others in line and make damn sure they attend all the meetings and luncheons.”

“Damn, and here I thought we’d be getting a break with you gone.”

“Not a chance, Nathan, not a chance,” Larabee said and hung up the phone. He called the airport next and was told there were seats available on the red eye flight so he quickly packed his possessions before hurrying down the stairs and flagging a cab.

+ + + + + + +

Turning his key in the lock, the leader of The Firm’s elite squad entered quietly and softly closed the door behind him. He didn’t need a light; he knew the layout as well as he knew his own home.

The TV was on, bathing the darkened living room in an eerie glow. Allowing his eyes to adjust to the darkness he crept forward to the prone figure on the couch. Even in the dim light he could tell the man was wracked with fever and chills. The blankets that had covered him now lay haphazardly on the floor. His eyes focused on the bottle of medication sitting on the coffee table. Picking it up, he studied the small container and frowned. He’d had it filled four days ago before he left for a conference in Seattle. It was still full.

Leaning down, he placed his hand on the shoulder, frowning at the heat that emanated. “Damn it, Vin,” Chris groused. “Why the hell haven’t you been taking your meds? You’re never going to beat this bronchitis!”

“Shit, Larabee. What the fuck are you doin’ here?”

“Getting ready to give you an earful.”

“Can ya keep it down to a dull roar?” the sharpshooter moaned, turning his back on his closest friend to face the back of the couch. “Just leave me alone.”

Larabee grabbed his friend’s shoulder and pulled Tanner back to face him. “Not fuckin’ lightly.” Shoving two pills toward his friend, he picked up the bottle of water on the end table and handed it to the sick man. “Take them!” A low moan and glazed blue eyes answered him. “Now! Goddamn it!”

Tanner looked up and reached for the offerings in his friend’s hands. “Didn’t they feed you on that flight?” he hissed.

“No. Why?”

“Figures…the way you’re chewin’ on my ass,” Vin said sarcastically as he swallowed the medication.

Chris sat down on the coffee table and felt Vin’s forehead with the back of his hand. “You’re lucky I don’t burn it by calling Stacey. Damn it Vin, you’re burning up with fever. If she knew you hadn’t been taking your antibiotics, she’d slap your ass in the hospital so fast it would make your head spin.”

“Oh Hell, Chris. It’s only been a couple of days. I just forgot to take ‘em that’s all.”

“Vin, you’ve got acute bronchitis bordering on pleurisy. You’ve got to take these antibiotics every six hours; otherwise, you’ll wind up with pneumonia.” Chris remonstrated with determination and picked up the blankets from the floor. “Now why don’t I get you back in bed?” he continued and put his arm under Vin’s, wrapping it around his waist to pull the sharpshooter from the couch.

Vin tensed and pulled away from his friend. “Not until you tell me why you’re home from the conference two days early.”

“Change of plans,” Larabee hissed and wrapped his arm around his fever-laden friend once more. “Come on…into bed with ya.”

“Let go o’ me, Lar’bee! I ain’t no weaklin’ that needs motherin’!” the sharpshooter retorted and shoved Larabee away harshly, only to sink to his knees from the effort. “Shit!” he cried through clenched teeth.

Chris caught his friend before he sank all the way to the floor and pulled Vin toward his chest. “No weakling, eh? Right now I beg to differ my friend. You can barely stand and I suspect you haven’t eaten anything in a couple of days either.”

Leaning the tracker against him, he once more wrapped his arm around the trim waist and headed for the master bedroom. Once there, he laid his friend down on the soft confines of his bed, stripped him of his sweat soaked clothes and redressed him in loose fitting pajamas. Pulling the covers over the shivering form, Chris sat down on the edge of the bed and studied Tanner closely while he wiped the fevered brow. “Damn it, Vin. You’re hotter than a jar of jalapenos. I’m going to call Stacey and get you to the hospital.”

Vin looked up at him and wrapped his hand over Chris’. “No…please don’t. I’m fine. Really.” He started coughing harshly and clutched at his sides, then doubled over into Larabee’s lap.

Chris wrapped his arms around the fevered form and held him tight, rubbing Vin’s back between the shoulder blades to help ease the painful coughing spasms. “Sure you are. You look like shit, Tanner, and you sound even worse. Damn glad I came home early, I need to get you to a doctor.”

“No! No doctors! And no hospital!” Vin cried, coughing once more.


“No Chris! Please! I’m as sick of hospitals as you are, Goddamn it!” He clutched his friend’s hand. “I swear I’ll take the meds. Just don’t call Dr. Midland. Please.”

“All right. I’ll make you a deal. I’ll give you until noon tomorrow. If you’re not showing signs of improvement by then, I’ll personally strap you in the car myself and drag your ass into that hospital. Kicking and screaming if I have to.”

Vin eased back against the pillows and looked into the eyes of his closest friend. “You’re a cold-hearted sonofabitch sometimes, you know that?”

“Takes one to know one, my friend.” Chris said quietly and pulled the covers back over the trembling shoulders. He stood and turned down the light. “You try to get some sleep. I’m going to head over to my place to get some fresh clothes and then I’ll be back.”

“You don’t need to stay, Chris.”

Yes I do, Vin. “I know I don’t,” Larabee agreed, “but I want to make sure you’re gonna be okay.”

“You never answered my question.”

Larabee reached the door when he heard the pained voice. He stopped and turned toward the bed. “What question?”

“Why’d you come home early, Chris?”

Because I had to, Cowboy…you’re in danger. “Told you. Change of plans. Besides, the others can fill me in on the last couple of days of the conference when they get back.” He turned toward the door once more. “Now you get some rest. I’ll be back within the hour.”

“Chris…” Vin rasped.

“Yeah, Vin.”

“Thanks for coming home and being here to watch my back.”

“Wouldn’t have it any other way, Vin.” Chris replied wistfully and closed his eyes to the fleeting thought that had plagued him since he’d had that nightmare the previous night. I just pray I can stop what’s going to happen.

+ + + + + + +

Watching the blond exit the sprawling ranch house and get into the black Lexus, a darkly clad figure stepped forward out of the shadows as Larabee’s car sped off down the drive. Pulling the earpiece off he turned to face his comrades, a sinister smile curling the edges of his lips. “All right, gentlemen. We have less than one hour to put our plan into motion.”

“You sure taking Tanner will get Larabee’s attention and draw him into your trap? They might not be as close as you think they are.”

The salt and pepper hair glinted in the faint light emanating from the porch light of the house. It cast an eerie shadow across the pockmarked face and the ragged scar that ran diagonally across the length of the man’s right cheek. The brown eyes were almost black with unreleased rage as he pulled a mini-cattle prod from the inside pocket of his black trench coat. “Oh trust me, Clifford. They’re close all right – closer than brothers. Larabee will do anything to protect Tanner. But it will be interesting to see just how long he’ll be able to withstand his own pain in order to do so.”

Six different tones of sinister laughter erupted into the night air.

“Gentlemen…our precious invitation to Mr. Larabee awaits. Let’s not keep him waiting any longer, shall we?”

+ + + + + + +

Hearing the door open, Vin struggled to focus his eyes in the dim light of his room. “Chris?”

“Not hardly, Tanner,” the voice snapped coldly.

Harsh realization broke through the fevered fog and Vin turned on his side, reaching for his gun under the pillows. A white-hot, lancing pain shot across the small of his back and up through his shoulders as he felt the electrical current discharge. He screamed and clutched his hand to the small of his back, curling into a tight ball to alleviate the spasms. Stars danced before his eyes and the breath caught in the back of his throat as the current was discharged again, this time in the middle of his chest as rough hands forced his body to a prone position on the bed.

Ragged coughs tore through his chest and he gasped for air between screams, struggling against the hands that were forcing him to endure the shocks. “Let…let me…go…you…you son…sonofabitch!”

“Shut him up,” the man ordered.

A gag laced in chloroform was shoved into the sharpshooter’s mouth and secured with a thin piece of wire that cut into it and his cheeks as it was tightened behind his neck.

Vin gagged as he fought to breathe through his nose. Unable to draw enough oxygen, he began coughing harshly once more, his chest heaving as he struggled against the hands that held him. Darkness enfolded around the edges of his eyes, drawing him into the abyss of unconsciousness. He ceased his struggles and surrendered to the harsh treatment, but not before his thoughts drifted to his closest friend.

+ + + + + + +

Dropping the bag by the front door, Chris turned and walked back to the kitchen. He grabbed the bottle of cough medicine from the cabinet and turned to switch off the light.

A sharp stabbing pain in the small of his back traveled upward and embedded itself in his temple causing him to clutch his head. The bottle fell from his hands and shattered on the terrazzo tile at his feet. Breathless, he leaned against the counter and struggled to focus. Swallowing hard, he looked up as tears welled in his eyes when he heard the silent pain filled plea in his mind. Help me, Chris…Task…

The name left his lips as a venomous declaration of hatred. “Tasker. You Goddamn sonofabitch! Harm him and there won’t be a rock on this planet you can crawl under!”

+ + + + + + +

“We’d better get going, Boss. We’re already at thirty-seven minutes.” Clifford reported when he entered the master bedroom once more.

“I’m coming. Just leaving our invitation for Mr. Christopher Larabee.” Turning toward his lieutenant, Tasker extended his hand. “Mr. Tanner didn’t put up too much of a fuss relinquishing such a sentimental gift, did he?”

Clifford chuckled as he handed over the vial and the small gold object in his hands. “Not much. At least not after I sliced his throat so I could fill that vial.”

Tasker snickered. “You didn’t kill him, I hope.”

“Not at all. But he’s gonna have trouble talking for quite a while…if Larabee doesn’t kill him first that is.”

“That, Lieutenant will be the icing on the cake,” Tasker sneered as he laid the object down on the scrawled note he had placed on the pillow. Pouring the blood from the vial, he watched it coat the gold and soak into the sheet beneath it. “If Larabee survives what I have planned, the simple fact that he killed his best friend – his brother – will destroy him.”

“You really think it will send him over the edge?”

“Absolutely. The next two days may prove to be Hell on our guests, but the aftermath of Vin Tanner’s death will make Christopher Larabee’s life a living Hell for the rest of his short-lived days. He’ll die knowing he killed the only other person he ever loved outside of his dead wife and son.”

Clifford smiled and looked down at his watch. “Forty-four minutes, Sir. The helicopter is waiting.”

“Then let us depart post haste, Lieutenant. We have to get Mr. Tanner settled in comfortably before our guest of honor arrives.”

+ + + + + + +

Dear God, don't let me arrive too late! Chris Larabee prayed fervently. He floored the accelerator, trying to coax more speed out of the six-cylinder overhead cam engine and bemoaned the fact he hadn't taken the truck with its more powerful engine. The lights of the ranch house loomed ahead and a feeling of dread began to wash over the blond.

Slamming on the brakes, the Lexus wasn’t to a complete stop when Chris threw it into park and flung open the driver door. Ignoring the dust cloud that continued to rain down from the sudden stop, he raced up the front steps and threw open the front door.

“Vin!” he cried at the top of his lungs, racing down the hall to the master bedroom. “Damn it, Tanner! Answer me Goddamn it!”

Chris turned abruptly into the dimly lit room, his eyes instantly drawn to the empty bed. Evidence of a fierce struggle lay before him. His eyes took in every square inch of the rumpled covers and the discarded pajamas. Swallowing hard, he closed his eyes to the hidden message and shook his head to dispel the images. Something silently called to him from the head of the bed and he opened his eyes, drawing them reluctantly toward the pillow where his friend’s head had lain less than an hour before.

His eyes locked on the flicker of gold and he suddenly couldn’t breathe. Every ounce of energy he possessed was directed toward extending his hand to the blood stained pillow. His fingers closed around the object and he sank to the bed. “Dear God…no,” he breathed. Vin’s blood. Looking down, he opened his fingers and gazed through tears at the blood covered gold ring lying in his palm. Even covered in blood the words inscribed inside the ring reminded him of the loss he felt. ‘June 17, 2000…Two spirits, one soul…Cowboy.’

The ring had not left the finger of the wearer since Chris had presented it to him on the 2nd anniversary of that date the previous year. Now, he held it in his hand and an ice-cold blanket of fear wrapped around his heart. His friend, no…his brother, the blond corrected himself, had been taken in the black of night – too ill to put up a fight and now whose life hung in the delicate balance of the game he would play with a madman from his past.

Taking a deep breath he reached for the note and read it quickly, clenching his hand around the treasured memento of his relationship to a man he had called brother from the day they met.

Chris knew he didn’t have much time and prayed that Tanner’s computer was up and running. The small green light sent a flash of relief through his mind as he sat down and keyed in his own personal password. Tapping the keys gently to keep the noise to a minimum, he quickly sent the message to Dunne’s email address and hit the button to log off. He knew he was taking a chance, but there was no way he could go to the warehouse on the lower east side without getting a message out. Buck would know what to do, he only hoped the message would be received in time for it to save Vin from Tasker’s twisted mind.

‘God, help me, he thought and hurried out to the Lexus and climbed in behind the wheel. He closed his eyes and silently willed his thoughts to the sharpshooter. God, Vin…I’m so sorry. Please…hold on. I’m coming, Brother. I’m coming.

+ + + + + + +

“Your friend will be coming shortly, Mr. Tanner.” Tasker said as he leaned over the metal table. Grabbing the sharpshooter’s chin he turned the face to meet his, pleased as the glassy blue eyes struggled to open against the effects of the drug and the harsh light that surrounded them. “In the meantime, we’re just going to make you more uncomfortable, so do try and relax,” he sneered and nodded to two men standing on either side of the table. A wicked grin curled onto his lips when the metal bands were strapped over the fevered body and secured over Vin’s ankles, legs, hips, abdomen, chest, arms and wrists. An anguished moan escaped past the gag as the bands were wrenched down tight, cutting into his flesh and preventing him from moving.

Tasker stared into the eyes of his victim. “Aw…that doesn’t hurt much does it?” He laughed as the blue eyes flashed and an inaudible curse left the gag. “What was that? You want to fuck me?” He nodded once more and another strap was tightened across the sharpshooter’s neck, causing the cut to open once more as the metal grated against the tender flesh. “I don’t think you’re my type, Vinnie boy.” He released Tanner’s jaw and placed a final strap across the young man’s forehead, personally tightening it as his victim moaned against the gag because of the pressure the strap caused.

With the metal straps secured, Tasker stood upright and turned toward one of the men. Taking a long spike and mallet from the man’s hand, Tasker turned back to face Tanner. “Comfortable, Mr. Tanner? Or should I say…uncomfortable?” He was rewarded with another harsh glare and laughed. “You do know what this is don’t you?” The spark of fear in the blue eyes spurred him on. “Yes…it’s an eight inch long spike. And it’s similar to the ones hidden beneath the metal slab that you now lay upon.” He drew the tip of the nail along Tanner’s jaw, down his neck then across his chest, smiling wickedly as his victim tried to distance himself from the offending object. “Having trouble moving, Mr. Tanner?” Another low groan emanated from the weakened victim and Tasker nodded in satisfaction. “Yes. I suspect you are. You see, you’re strapped to a ‘bed of nails’ so to speak and you’re secured in such a fashion as to prevent you from moving when the spikes are released into your body.”

Satisfied with the fear that he was beginning to sense, he watched the sharpshooter tense beneath the straps, trying in vain to move even a fraction of an inch. “Don’t believe me? Allow me to demonstrate.” With that, he positioned the spike over his victim’s right shoulder and drove it in with the mallet until it scraped against the metal of the table. The gag choked back the agonizing screams that were ripped from Tanner’s throat. The sharpshooter could only jerk beneath the bindings that held him fast to the table, unable to move or arch against the violent intrusion. Thin streams of blood began to flow from various points beneath the metal straps covering the sharpshooter’s body as the sharp edges cut into his fevered flesh.

Tasker stepped back and folded his arms in satisfaction. “Yes…I do believe that will do nicely.”

The man next to him motioned to the spike. “You want me to remove that?”

Tasker glanced at Tanner and grinned wickedly at the sight of moisture collecting in the corners of the sharpshooter’s eyes. “Leave it. Pour some alcohol on it and those nasty cuts to help ward off infection. The poor man is sick enough as it is.”

“Yeah and he’s gonna get a lot sicker when Larabee gets through with him!” the man gloated.

Glancing at his watch, Tasker turned, “Now if you’ll excuse me, gentlemen,” and headed toward the surrounding darkness of the warehouse. “I must await our guest of honor. Oh one more thing…remove the gag. I want to hear first hand what Mr. Larabee will hear over the next couple of days and will be haunted by for the rest of his life.”

The darkness enshrouded the darkly clad figure as he walked toward the entrance, but a sinister gleam flashed from his teeth as the screams of his victim pierced the quiet of the warehouse.

+ + + + + + +

The warehouse loomed in front of him and with it a boding darkness and evil that chilled the blond to the core. Allowing the Lexus to coast to a stop, Chris clenched the steering wheel until his knuckles turned white from his efforts. He knew he was walking into an elaborate trap and he could only pray his brethren would receive his cryptic message before the next day was out.

Tasker’s note had held a deadly warning to come alone and not warn the others. It made reference to being watched and the phrases ‘You’re a cold-hearted sonofabitch sometimes, you know that?’ and ‘Harm him and there won’t be a rock on this planet you can crawl under!’ meant that Tasker and his henchmen had bugged Tanner’s home as well as his own.

Tasker was no fool. An ex-Navy SEAL that had gone rogue, he was a killing machine – one that didn’t value any life let alone his own, which made him a deadly opponent. He held no fear and harbored no regrets.

Chris swallowed hard and released the steering wheel, clenching his fists tight to stop the sudden tremors of fear coursing through his veins. His closest friend’s life was at stake and he worried about the current fate of the sick sharpshooter. Tanner was in no condition to fight off madmen and the fact that his blood had already been spilled nauseated the blond.

Just how bad was Tanner’s wound, he wondered? Was it life threatening? Myriads of thoughts raced through his mind. Whatever Robert Tasker had in mind, the worried blond knew that neither he nor Tanner stood a chance of surviving unless the remaining members of the squad came to their aide. Trouble was, even if they received the message, it would still be hours before they would reach their destination. He prayed they wouldn’t be too late.

Allowing his eyes to focus on his intended target, Chris slowly opened the door and stepped out cautiously. The hackles stood on the back of his neck and he turned abruptly, only to stare down the barrel of a 9mm.

“We’ve been expecting you, Mr. Larabee.”

“Tasker,” Chris hissed, as he was relieved of his side arm and hidden weapons.

Tasker motioned toward the warehouse. “Right this way. Mr. Tanner is awaiting your arrival with baited breath. What there is left of it anyway.”

“You sonofabitch!” Chris started to lunge at his nemesis only to be hauled back by two sets of strong arms and his wrists handcuffed tightly behind his back. “What have you done to him?!”

“Calm down, Chris.” Tasker said as he stepped forward to meet the blond face to face. “Vin is still alive – albeit very sick, but alive…for now. Although I must say that it was most fortuitous of him to come down with pleurisy. Such a shame that he had to keep drinking that water, though. Poor boy kept sleeping all the time and just wouldn’t take his medication. Quite frankly with that fever he’s running; I’d be very surprised if he didn’t have pneumonia before the first rays of dawn’s early light streak across the Montana sky.”

Realization hit Chris in the face as he remembered handing the bottle of water to his friend. It didn’t dawn on him then as to why the bottle of liquid was sitting on the end table and not the coffee table. “Tasker, you Goddamn bastard! Let him go! This is between you and me!”

“Now Chris…you know I can’t do that.” He leaned in close and whispered maliciously into the blond’s ear. “You see I know all about that little ‘connection’ you two seem to have. Vin Tanner is more than a brother to you. He’s the other half of your soul.”

Chris’ eyes flashed and he jerked his head back as a chill ran down his spine. “You harm one hair on his head and I swear I’ll rip your fuckin’ throat out!”

Tasker backhanded Chris and released a guttural laugh. “Oh I’m not going to hurt Tanner any more than I already have Larabee.” He jerked the blond’s head back harshly. “But you will,” he threatened.

Chris tasted blood and spit it into Tasker’s face. “Fuck you!”

“Funny…Tanner said the same thing. You two have a one-track mind, don’t you? But can’t say as either one of you are my type.” Tasker stepped back and nodded toward the door to the warehouse. “Come, Mr. Larabee. Mr. Tanner is waiting.”