AN EYE FOR AN EYE by Rhiannon

Summary: When Vin is kidnapped by an unknown adversary wanting revenge on Chris, Team Seven embark on a race against time to save his life.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to my betas, Yuri and Xiola, who did such a great job of catching errors and helping me improve the quality of my work

Comments: All procedural errors andliberties, medical inaccuracies and any plot holes are mine, and all mine!

Disclaimer: This is a work of fan fiction. I don’t own the rights to the Magnificent Seven and I don’t make any money from this work.

Chapter One
Chris Larabee stared at the large pile of mail on his desk with a distinct sense of apathy.

The eleventh floor of the Federal Building was quiet; an unusual phenomenon at the best of times and a welcome respite from the frenetic activity of the past two weeks. The ATF’s elite Team Seven had been working on an operation to break up a gun trafficking syndicate. The bust had gone down yesterday; successfully, due to a combination of meticulous planning and a vast amount of hard work.

Now all that was left was the report-writing, and Chris was gloomily aware that much of that would end up in his lap. There was always a sense of anticlimax in the aftermath of a major operation. Something to do with adrenalin, or so he was told. Chris stifled a yawn, wondering if his fellow agents were feeling as wiped out and deflated as he was.

He felt his spirits lift as he remembered that it was Friday tomorrow. With the operation over, he and Vin had planned a few days camping in the mountains, far away from civilization. Chris was looking forward to the trip. He couldn’t think of anything he would enjoy more at this point than taking time out to wind down in Vin’s easy and undemanding company.

Unfortunately it was only nine a.m. on Thursday morning and he had a lot to get through before he could wave the office good-bye and head for the hills. He pulled the pile of mail towards him and had just picked up the first letter when his cell phone trilled.

“Chris Larabee?” a cultured male voice demanded before he had time to announce himself.

”This is Larabee. Who’s calling?”

“You took my brother from me, Larabee, so I’ve taken your brother from you. If you want to find him alive I suggest you move fast; the clock is ticking. Tick-tock. Tick- tock. Check your mail. Oh, and have a nice day.”

A click and the cell went dead.

Chris stared at the now silent cell in shock as his stomach lurched. It had to be a crank call; he’d had plenty of them in his time. Had to be, because he didn’t have a brother. Unless…

He stood and walked quickly to the open door of his office, looking out into the bullpen. Buck was sprawled in his chair at his desk, hands laced behind his head, laughing at JD who sat opposite. Nathan walked past with a tray of four coffee mugs. Josiah, Chris remembered, had gone to check on some evidence and Ezra had an emergency dental appointment, seeing to a crown that had been knocked loose in yesterday’s bust. Vin’s chair was empty and his computer was still switched off. Chris frowned, concern rising. Vin was an early riser and usually the first into the office.


The big man looked up, startled, at Chris’s roar. “What’s up, Chris?”

“You know where Vin is?”

“Nope,” Buck answered easily, “but it’s not quite nine yet, he isn’t late.”

Concern was quickly turning into full-blown anxiety. Chris marched back into his office and punched in the speed dial for Vin’s home number. He listened to the ringing the other end for a few minutes before slamming the receiver down in frustration.

“Damn it, where is he?” Chris muttered to himself.

“Chris, what’s going on?” Buck poked his head round the door.

Chris didn’t answer as he dialled the code for Tanner’s cell. Three rings and the voice mail clicked in. He slammed the receiver down again.

“You worried about Vin? He’s probably on his way in – you know he always forgets to put his cell on.”

“I got a call, Buck.”

Chris quickly relayed the content of the call.

“It was just a crank, Chris,” Buck said, but his face was creased in a worried frown.

Chris suddenly remembered the words used by the stranger. ‘Check your mail.’

He sorted frantically through the pile of mail on his desk, casting aside departmental memos and envelopes marked ‘official’, until he came to a plain white envelope with his name and address typed in small print on the front. He tore it open and a single sheet of white paper fell out.

“Careful, Chris, there may be fingerprints,” Buck cautioned.

Chris picked up the note carefully by two corners. The page contained only four lines of typewritten text. He read the words aloud, his mouth going dry.

‘Realized, his deepest fear,
A slow and tortuous death draws near.
Will he lose his mind and end it all,
Or can you find him, before he falls?’

“What the hell?” Buck exclaimed.

Carefully, Chris placed the sheet of paper down on the desk. “Find an evidence bag to put this in. I’m going to check out Vin’s place.”

He made the decision and was out of the door before Buck had time to comment.

”Chris!” Buck called to the leader’s retreating back. “Let someone else go…”

“It won’t take long. You’re probably right, it’s just a crank. You and JD concentrate on getting your reports written up – we don’t want this bust going bad on a technicality.”

+ + + + + + +

Approaching the apartment block, Chris spotted a familiar vehicle. He parked the Ram behind Vin’s beat-up old jeep and paused to check the vehicle over. No damage that he could see; not that it would be easy to distinguish a new dent amongst the many existing ones. Peering through the windows showed him nothing out of the ordinary - an empty drink carton and a Macdonald’s wrapper - evidence only of Vin’s supper the night before. He entered the unprepossessing walk-up and sprinted up the stairs to Vin’s fourth-floor apartment. He paused outside the front door, breathing heavily and irrelevantly wishing, not for the first time, that Vin had chosen to live in an apartment block with an elevator.

Chris considered his options. His gut was telling him that the caller wasn’t a crank and that Vin was in trouble. He was tempted to simply draw his gun and burst in. Yet the jeep was outside so there was a chance that nothing was wrong, that the young agent had simply slept late. Chris valued his health too much to burst into Vin’s apartment and take the wary sharpshooter by surprise.

He compromised by hammering hard on the door. There was no answer, so he hammered again, keeping it up for a full two minutes, until a tousle-headed, grim-faced guy clad in boxer shorts and string vest popped his head out of an adjacent apartment and swore at him. He ignored the disgruntled neighbor and continued to knock for a few more minutes to no avail. Reasoning that the knocking would have woken the dead, not to mention a man who generally slept lightly, he made his decision.

Chris pulled his gun, then fished the spare key from his pocket and inserted it cautiously into the lock. A moment later he toed the door open and charged in, fanning his gun in a wide arc to cover all areas of the one-room apartment. There was no movement, no sound; nothing.

“Vin?” he called loudly.

The complete silence convinced him that there was no one there but he followed protocol, checking first the bathroom and finally the bedroom. There, he found what his instincts had told him he would find - clear evidence of a struggle. A bedside lamp lay on its side and the large Mickey Mouse alarm clock Buck had bought Vin for Christmas was smashed in several pieces on the floor. Heart pumping frantically as the reality of Vin’s abduction set in, Chris re-holstered his gun and phoned it in.

Chapter Two

Vin Tanner lay in that eerie half-world between sleeping and waking when one has a vague awareness of the world, but the body seems paralyzed, unable to make the transition between darkness and light. When he finally came fully awake he opened his eyes, but nothing changed. The darkness was absolute, as if someone had wrapped a blanket around his head. What the…? He moved his arms, found them fastened together at the wrists. Realization of where he was sent a current of fear up his spine.

Ohgod,ohgod,ohgod,ohgod,ohgod. The panic attack hit him full force. Within seconds he was sweating and fighting back nausea and dizziness. His chest felt tight and his breath was coming in short pants. Soon he was finding it hard to breath. No! He wasn’t going to die here, not like this, not without a fight – not until Chris had a chance to find him.

He tried to get a hold on himself mentally, concentrating on slowing his breathing, telling himself over and over that there was nothing to be afraid of, blocking out all extraneous thoughts and sounds and focussing only on the sound of his heart beating. Eventually, his racing pulse began to slow, the nausea passed and he found he could breath normally again. That’s it, Tanner. You know how to control this; it’s a piece a’ cake. He closed his eyes again and just lay there for several minutes, concentrating on his breathing.

When he was sure he was calm again, he reluctantly allowed himself to fully recall the events that had led him into this living nightmare.

They came for him in the hours before dawn; three huge, muscle-bound thugs wearing black ski masks. Usually a light sleeper, he must have been so exhausted from the previous few days’ action and lack of sleep that he had not even heard them breaking into the flat. In fact, he had been aware of nothing until he came awake with a jolt as hands dragged him off the bed. He tried to fight, but his brain was still sleep-clogged and his assailants were good at their job. Still, he landed a few solid punches until a hard left hook to his jaw caught him off guard. He crashed backwards, falling heavily over the bedside table and then, darkness.

The next thing he remembered was coming awake to find himself lying on a hard surface in what he quickly deduced to be a moving vehicle. His jaw ached, his abdomen felt as if someone had stepped on him and his mouth was filled with some kind of foul-tasting cloth held in place by something tied tightly around his mouth. His wrists and ankles were cuffed and a leather bull strap ran between the two, preventing him from straightening his body. The air in the van was warm; a blessing in disguise as he quickly realized that he was dressed in only the boxer shorts he had been wearing when they had dragged him out of bed. It was dark, stuffy and the smell of fuel was thick in the air. Nausea welled up and for a few panicked moments he fought it back, knowing he would choke if he threw up with the gag in his mouth.

He barely had time to take stock of his situation when van came to a halt.

Then, for a time, there was nothing.

After a few painful but futile attempts to squeeze his wrists through the handcuffs, Vin finally accepted that he wasn’t dealing with amateurs here and that he had no chance of escaping his restraints. He had no choice but to curl up in as comfortable a position as possible and wait to see what happened next. He spent the time trying to work out who they were and what they wanted. He knew there were a fair number of people out there who probably wanted to kill him, but why now?

Eventually, a loud creak heralded the van door opening, letting in a welcome blast of cooler air. He was in no position to resist as two of the muscle men jumped in and picked him up bodily, carrying him a short distance. Then they dropped him unceremoniously on the ground and moved away.

Vin squirmed onto his side and looked around him. Grass and outbuildings; somewhere in the country, then. He heard the distant whinny of a horse and the guttural roar of a tractor.

Someone approached and he squinted up at a fourth man, one he hadn’t seen before. The stranger was shorter and slighter than the other three. A black ski mask was pulled down over his face. His eyes a very pale blue, stood out like two pebbles against the black of the mask. His clothing was designer slacks and blazer rather than the uniform of torn jeans and T-shirts worn by the others.

Out of the corner of his eye Vin spotted the three henchmen standing by a hole in the ground, one of them leaning on a shovel.

”Good morning, Agent Tanner,” Designer-man said pleasantly. His voice was deep and cultured. “I’m sorry I can’t remove the gag, but I’m sure you know that sound carries a long way in the open.”

Unable to respond verbally, Vin contented himself with a fierce frown that even Chris Larabee would have been proud of.

“I suppose you want to know what this is all about. I’m afraid I really don’t have the time to fill you in on the whole story. Let’s just say that you are the pawn in a little game I intend to play with your friend, Mr. Larabee.”

At the mention of Chris’s name, Vin felt his stomach contract. This stranger was using him in some twisted plot designed to hurt his friend. Vin felt a chill as he noted the look of hatred in the man’s eyes when he talked about Chris. He knew that Larabee would do whatever he thought it would take to find him – even if it meant putting his own life in danger.

The stranger correctly interpreted his fear. “Oh, don’t worry; I’m not going to hurt a hair on Mr. Larabee’s head. He’s going to suffer; but not physically. No, I’m afraid you’re the one who is going to be doing that.”

He glanced over at the hole in the ground. “Enough talking. It’s time to proceed.”

Vin followed his glance and, as two of the muscle men moved towards him, he realized what they were about to do. He fought like a wild animal as they dragged him to the edge of the hole, but, hampered by the restraints, his struggles were ineffectual. They dropped him at the edge and when he peered inside he saw to his horror that the hole wasn’t empty. It contained the base of a crude wooden coffin. Terror flooded him and the stranger must have seen it in his eyes.

“I’m afraid so, Agent Tanner. But I’m not an unfair man. I’m not going to let you suffocate. I’ll even put in a small bottle of water. I’m told a man can survive three, maybe even five days before he dies of dehydration. You never know; Mr. Larabee might find you by then - unless, of course, you choose to finish it first.”

He nodded and the two henchmen reached for him again. Fear gave Vin strength and he renewed his struggles as they picked him up and prepared to lower him into the coffin. He almost managed to wriggle loose, until the stranger walked up, shaking his head.

“Really, Mr. Tanner, you are making this very hard on yourself.” He held a gun in his hand and as the butt connected with his head, Vin found himself sinking once more into oblivion.

+ + + + + + +

Refusing to dwell on the petrifying truth of what had happened to him, Vin chose instead to take stock of his physical situation.

The metal cuffs still encircled his wrists and ankles but the bull strap was gone. Thankfully the gag too had been removed, but in its place was something that tickled his nostrils; cautious exploration identified a nasal cannula – he knew the term well from too many visits to the emergency room – fastened behind his head and attached to a thin but sturdy tube. He was having no trouble breathing, so the tube must be delivering oxygen from somewhere outside. He followed the tube to a hole in the lid of the coffin, less than six inches above him.

So small, so enclosed… terror nipped at the edge of his consciousness and he felt his heart rate begin to increase again. He forced himself to take a few deep breaths until the feeling passed.

He continued his physical inventory. His jaw still ached and the pain was now accompanied by a thumping in his head, just over the left temple. He lifted his hands and probed gently, wincing as he encountered a tender lump. No blood, though. The other bruises caused by solid fists were throbbing, but it didn’t feel as if too much damage had been done.

He became aware that his right hand was curled around a small object. He opened his hand and felt the object between his fingers; small and squat, rounded at one end. A bullet! Why would they leave him with a bullet? The stranger’s odd sentence came back to him.

‘Unless, of course, you choose to finish it before then.’

Shit. He twisted a little and began to feel the ground around him, finding the small bottle of water almost immediately and then, shortly after, the gun itself.

He lay still, clutching the gun in one hand and the bullet in the other. The sadistic bastard had left him the means to kill himself. That, if nothing else, provoked Vin’s fighting spirit. He was a Tanner. He was not going to allow this maniac to win. Chris was not going to find him dead in this box with a bullet in his head. For Chris would find him. There had not been many people in his life in whom he could say he had total faith, but Chris Larabee was one of them. In the three years they had known each other, Chris had never once let him down.

It was clear that they didn’t intend for him to suffocate down here and he could eke out the small bottle of water and survive for several days if he had to. That allowed plenty of time for Chris and the Team to work out what had happened and find him. He wouldn’t think about the long hours ahead or the possibility that Chris would fail. Chris would find him. All Vin had to do was wait.

Chapter Three

Chris’s call from Vin’s apartment had resulted in the immediate mobilization of a number of law enforcement agencies. Within an hour, local police officers had began a door-to-door canvassing of the walk-up, a crime scene team was sweeping Vin’s apartment, and FBI agent Ben Carson had been assigned the case.

Carson was in his mid-forties, tall and lanky with a receding hairline and a small beak of a nose. Assistant Director Travis had made it clear that while he was ready to authorize any resources needed, the FBI had jurisdiction in a kidnapping case and that Chris was to defer to Carson in all matters related to the investigation. As he had worked with Carson once before and found him an intelligent and capable agent, Chris was glad to have the man on board.

It was now just after noon. Carson had spent the past hour in the conference room with Team Seven, gathering background material. When they left, the six team members remained seated around the table. Although the investigation was now officially in the hands of the FBI, no one was going to stop them from doing all they could to help find their missing friend.

It had proved impossible to pinpoint the origin of the telephone call and voice analysis had so far come up with no matches. With no other leads, all they had to go on was the transcript of the call and the contents of the note.

Chris sat silently at the head of the table and listened silently as the others discussed theories; he had found that it could sometimes be more productive to remain an objective observer than to fully participate in a debate.

“What do you make of the note, Josiah?” Buck asked the profiler.

Josiah paused to get his thoughts together before replying.

“Someone who intends to play games with Chris,” he said finally. “Educated enough to come up with the idea of using a verse, though he’s clearly a lousy poet. But I don’t think he’s out to impress us with his writing ability. The verse is just what it appears to be – he wanted to give Chris some information and for some reason it appealed to him to do it in verse.”

”Do you believe he will communicate in this fashion again?” Ezra asked.

“Almost certainly. Particularly if he wants Chris to take part in the game and search for Vin - he’s going to have to give him more clues than this.”

“Read it out again, Nathan,” JD suggested.

Nathan read the verse while they all listened intently.

‘Realized, his deepest fear,
As slow and tortuous death draws near.
Will he lose his mind and end it all?
Or will you find him before he falls?’

There was silence for several minutes as the six agents contemplated the words.

“’Realized, his deepest fear.’ I assume the writer is suggesting that Mr. Tanner’s deepest fear has become reality,” Ezra said. “What is Vin’s deepest fear?”

“Vin isn’t scared of anything,” JD said.

“Everyone’s afraid of something, JD, even if it’s hidden deep down,” Buck argued.

“It could mean nothing, just a red herring to frighten Chris,” Nathan suggested.

“I guess the second line is clear,” Buck said after a pause, voicing what everyone else was afraid to say.

“What about the third line?” Nathan said quickly. “It reads like Vin has the choice to take his own life. That doesn’t make sense, if he’s being held prisoner.”

“It does seem to imply choice,” Josiah commented uneasily.

The implications of their words suddenly hit Chris. “Don’t try to tell me you think that Vin would choose to kill himself!” he snapped.

“No one’s saying that, Chris,” Buck said immediately. “We’re just trying to get to the bottom of what the verse means.”

“Vin would never take his own life.” Chris threw them a look that effectively ended the conversation.

He ignored the uneasy glances the others exchanged. Vin would never take his own life. He was too strong for that and there’d been plenty of occasions in his past when he might have considered that way out. But why was that line in the poem? What kind of situation could Vin be in that might make him lose his mind? A place so terrible, so unthinkable, that he would see taking his life as the only possible way out? No! Chris shook himself mentally. He wasn’t prepared to think along those lines. He had to focus on the job of finding Vin, not dwell on what might happen if they failed.

“We’re getting nowhere with this,” he said abruptly. “Josiah, you keep working on the note. The other clue we have is what was said in the call. ‘You took my brother from me.’ What exactly did he mean by that?”

“I think it is most likely that he is suggesting you were responsible for his brother’s death,” Ezra said.

“It could just mean that you had him arrested,” Buck countered.

“Maybe. We have to start somewhere. JD, Ezra, co-ordinate with Agent Carson and start looking up all the cases I’ve worked on here and with Denver PD. We want the files on any shootings I was involved with and every case I worked on that resulted in a prison sentence. Pull out the most recent cases first and work back. We’ll start working through them as soon as you have some data.”

The day wore on, the hours speeding past much faster than Chris would have liked, and they were making little progress. The crime scene investigators had gone over Vin’s apartment and jeep with a fine-tooth comb. They had found not a single fingerprint that didn’t belong to Vin, one of the Team, or a couple of the neighborhood kids who were finally identified and eliminated from the investigation.

Door-to-door enquires had been more fruitful, eliciting the information that some loud thumps had been heard at around four a.m., but no one had paid much attention. There was always something going on in this neighborhood and the residents were careful to keep their noses out of other people’s business.

While Nathan and Josiah finished up the reports on yesterday’s operation, the remainder of Team Seven spent most of the day working with Carson and Manning, wading through case file after case file to identify anyone who might have a grudge against Chris. He had jotted down the most obvious candidates who came to mind, but they had all checked out clean. The remaining list was a long one and, try as he might, Chris couldn’t think of a way to narrow it down. There was simply not enough information to go on. It could be ATF-related or connected to his time with the Denver PD Homicide Division. In a worst-case scenario, it might relate to something that had happened long ago in his navy days. It was like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Afternoon became evening as the Team methodically worked through files, searching for possible connections. It was slow and laborious work. Buck ordered in pizza but none of them had much appetite. By mutual consent they worked on through the night, all except Chris taking turns to catch a few hours sleep. Chris refused to rest but plowed on doggedly, file after file.

Chapter Four

Vin screwed his eyes shut as the lid of the coffin was removed and sunlight beamed down, blinding him. He felt Chris take a firm hold of his wrists and allowed himself to be hauled up and out of the confining box. He flopped down on the sweet smelling grass, gratefully breathing in the deliciously fresh air. Chris had found him, as Vin had known he would.

After a while he sat up, blinking a little in the harsh glare of the sun, and looked across at his rescuer. Shock pierced him as he identified not Chris, but Designer-man.

“I’m very sorry Mr. Tanner, but you have to go back in your coffin.”

Hands reached for him and he fought them, screaming, kicking and biting, as they threw him back in and slammed the lid.

Vin woke screaming, arching up and hitting his forehead soundly against the lid of the coffin. The pain brought him back to reality with a jolt. His heart was pounding and the terror had already begun to wrap sinuous tendrils around his mind. He fought back, countering with the now familiar ritual – long, deep breaths, reciting the mantra, “Chris is coming. Chris is coming. Chris is coming.”

He was angry with himself for going to sleep. Several times already he had succumbed to his body’s insistence on rest and each time he had woken from the same dream. Sleep was not worth the agony of waking up, of remembering afresh where he was, of wearily fighting back another panic attack.

He had no idea how much time had passed in his dark and gloomy tomb, or how long he had been asleep this time. His back was aching and his legs and shoulders were starting to cramp from the prolonged period in the same position. The narrow confines of the coffin allowed him little movement. He had tried turning slightly on his side, but the hard floor of the coffin dug into his hip and he had quickly lost the feeling in his leg and been forced to lie flat again. Vin could think of very few times in his life when he found himself wishing he had more flesh on his bones, but some padding would certainly come in handy right about now.

His throat was as dry as a piece of parchment, his tongue swollen so that it seemed to fill his mouth. So far, he had allowed himself only a few sips from the small bottle of water; he had no idea how long it would have to last and he was determined to eke out his meager supply for as long as possible. Now, the aching thirst drove him to unscrew the cap and take a mouthful. The water was lukewarm yet it felt good against his parched throat and he was tempted to take another sip. He wavered for a moment, then resolutely screwed the cap back on and pushed the bottle out of immediate reach.

When was Chris going to come for him? “What if he doesn’t?” a small voice asked. “What if Designer-man is too clever, what if Chris never finds you?”

No! He couldn’t think like that, he wouldn’t allow himself to think like that, but the longer he was stuck in this box the more often he heard the insidious voice whispering to him. The box was so small, there was no room to move, the air was stuffy and he was having trouble breathing. He was going to suffocate after all; he was going to die in the ground in this makeshift grave and Chris would never find him, he’d just lay here and rot forever. Some rational part of his mind recognised the symptoms of panic. They were coming more often now; the fear and the palpable dread that assailed him harder to hold back. Automatically he began the slow breathing, and started the mantra.

“Chris is coming. Chris is coming. Chris is coming…”

Chapter Five

Buck watched worriedly as Chris stood at a sink in the rest room splashing water over a pallid, worry-lined face. He had been trying to persuade his friend to take a few minutes out and surprisingly, Chris had finally conceded to a fifteen-minute break. He had taken one bite from the bagel Josiah had thrust in his hand in the break room, then paled and fled the room.

Concerned, Buck had followed him into the rest room, offering silent support while Chris threw up the bite of bagel and the remaining bile in his stomach, then silently handed him a towel.

It was now twenty-four hours since the fateful call, around twenty-nine since Vin had gone missing, if the sounds heard by the residents correctly indicated the time of his abduction. They still had no real leads, although there was a long list of case files yet to work through. The mail was being sorted right about now and an agent was posted in the mailroom, ready to identify another note from the kidnapper.

Buck felt he was slowly going crazy with frustration at their lack of progress and his mind constantly flitted back and forth between alternative scenarios, each more frightening than the last. He knew that his fellow-agents shared his frustration and that their own fears paled in comparison to the hell Chris was putting himself through.

Kidnappers usually demanded their ransom within the first twenty-four hours after an abduction, but Chris and Josiah had both been positive that there would be no such demand. The call and the note had both implied that this was some kind of personal revenge directed at Chris and it was unlikely that the caller was interested in money. He wanted to hurt Chris by hurting his best friend; his brother.

Sonuvabitch. Buck knew exactly what was going through Chris’s mind. He was rueing the day he had recruited a smart-mouthed, scruffily dressed, long-haired Texan and allowed him to get under his skin. He was wishing that Vin hadn’t become as close to him as he had. All it had achieved was to make Vin a target for any madman out there who wanted to get even with Chris. Larabee was thinking that somewhere along the line he had screwed up and Vin was paying the price.

Buck followed Chris back through the bullpen, noticing how the black-clad man ignored the sympathetic looks of his team, lost in his own world of grief. Back in his office, Chris flopped down in the well-worn leather chair. He looked exhausted, but Buck knew better than to suggest that he get some real sleep.

Chris looked up and saw him still standing there.


“It ain’t your fault, Chris,” Buck stated simply.

Chris ran his hands through his hair, turning anguished eyes on his old friend.

“Then whose fault is it, Buck?”

“The bastard who took Vin. Whoever he is, you aren’t responsible for his sick mind. You do your job, just like the rest of us.”

“The rest of you didn’t get your family killed and your best friend kidnapped,” Chris shot back.

Buck went on as if he hadn’t spoken. “We’ll find him, Chris.”

“How? We’re no further forward now than we were yesterday.”

“We have those fifteen likely files we found last night. JD and Ezra have already started checking them out. We’ll find him.” Buck put as much conviction as he could into his voice.

Chris sighed. “I know everyone’s doing their best, Buck. It’s just…”

They both looked up as Agent Carson appeared in the doorway, Josiah at his heels.

”We’ve got another one. You can take it, it’s been fingerprinted.”

Carson held out a sheet of paper, still covered with black power. Chris snatched it from him and read the verse out loud.

“A snug, dark box deep in the ground,
He wonders if he’ll ever be found.
What will happen; we’ll have to see.
It’s up to you, Chris Larabee.”

Buck watched Chris’s face drain of color.

“Chris? What is it?”

Larabee turned stunned eyes on him and when he spoke his voice was raw with emotion.

“I know what he’s done, Buck,” he whispered. “The bastard. He’s... hell, Buck, he’s buried Vin alive!”

“What! how do you… Chris…” Words failed as Buck absorbed the impact of Chris’s statement.

Chris stood suddenly, his face contorted with rage.

“That bastard’s buried him in the ground!” he roared.

Following some primitive need to take his emotions out on something, Chris picked up a paperweight from his desk and threw it with all his strength at the wall. There was an audible crack as plaster split and the glass ball dropped to the ground with a thud.

Suddenly drained of energy after the outburst, Chris dropped back into his chair.

“The first note, Buck,” he said, his voice trembling. ‘Realized, his deepest fear,’ - Vin’s claustrophobic; he can’t stand being in enclosed spaces. That’s what the rest of the note means. Buck, he can’t survive this, it’ll drive him mad – or worse.”

“No, it won’t.”

Buck was still stunned speechless by Chris’s revelation and it was Josiah who spoke, who strode across the room and took Chris by the shoulders, spinning the chair so that he could look him in the eye.

“No, it won’t, Chris. Vin’s stronger than that. He knows how to control the phobia…”

“Yes, when he knows in advance what he’s going into. This is different, Josiah, and you know it.”

“Yes, it’s different, but Vin’s a fighter. He’ll know we’re looking for him and he’ll hold on, Chris. He’ll hold on.”

“Josiah’s right, Chris,” Buck agreed, finally finding his voice. “Vin’s too ornery to go down without a fight. He’ll hold on until we find him.”

“And if we don’t?”

It was a long time since Buck had seen such despair in Chris’s eyes.

“We will. Don’t you dare give up on him. You think he’d be giving up, if it was you out there?”

After a moment, Chris nodded. He straightened up, squaring his shoulders.

”All right. Let’s get back to work.”

Buck returned to his desk and collapsed into his chair. He had put on a good show for Chris, but he wasn’t sure he believed his own words. The task before them was daunting and time was running out.

Chapter Six

Ezra stared intently at the screen, a tingle of excitement building. His instincts told him that he had a solid lead this time. He printed out a few sheets then headed quickly to Chris’s office.

“Mr. Larabee, I believe I may be on to something.”

Chris looked up from his computer.

“Spill it, Ezra.”

Ezra noted Chris’s dishevelled, crumpled appearance and the pale, drawn features. If he didn’t take a break soon, he was going to collapse. He chose not to comment, but sat down across the desk from his Team Leader.

“Do you remember a computer programmer called James Urbane?”

Chris stared blankly at the screen in front of him as he considered the name. Then he snapped his fingers and looked up.

“Computer hacker, mid-twenties. Odd case. He perpetrated a fraudulent transfer of five million dollars from his company’s bank account. But he went down for murder – got into an argument with his partner in crime and ended up shooting him.”

“That is correct. Your memory is impeccable, Mr. Larabee; the case is over eight years old.”

“What about him, Ezra?” Chris asked, his impatience showing in his voice.

”Were you aware that Mr. Urbane took his own life three months after he had been sent to prison? It appears that he attracted a good deal of, shall we say, ‘unwanted attention’, from his fellow-prisoners and was unable to cope with it.”

Chris nodded. “I remember.”

“What you may not be aware of is that his brother, Lance Urbane, was sentenced to prison for embezzlement only a few months after James. A completely different case – obviously the criminal tendency runs in the family.”


“Lance dealt with prison life much better than his brother and was paroled two months ago. He failed to report to his parole officer in Los Angeles for the first appointment and no one has seen him since.”

“Do you have a picture of Lance Urbane?”

Ezra produced a printout of the standard prison photo. Even with his blond hair cut short and in prison garb, Lance Urbane had a distinguished look about him.

Chris shook his head.

“I’ve never seen him before. Any leads at all on where he might be?”

“None. He seems to have disappeared off the face of the earth.”

“What’s your instinct on this one, Ezra?”

“I realize that the evidence is tenuous, but my intuition tells me that this lead is worth pursuing,” Ezra replied carefully. In his heart, he was sure that they had found their man, but unless he had some hard evidence to back it up, they would not be able to take the risk of throwing all their resources into looking for him.

“All right,” Chris said. “Send me all the information you have on him. I’ll get on to Carson, get him to talk to LAPD and see if they have any recent leads. In the meantime, you and JD keep working through the remaining cases.”

Ezra nodded, pleased that they finally had a lead and praying fervently that his instincts would prove to be correct.

Chapter Seven

It had been easier at the beginning, before his muscles began cramping and the pain in his back had shifted from discomfort to bone-numbing agony. Ever since he’d fallen out of a tree as a child his lower back had given him trouble and laying for long periods of time on a hard surface was a sure-fire way to set off the pain.

He desperately needed to get up and stretch his limbs, and his constant thought was that he would go insane if he had to lie in this position for a moment longer. It occurred to him that it would be ironic if it was the cramping rather than the claustrophobia that finally pushed him over the edge. His head was thumping, he felt weak and lethargic and his mind was becoming more and more fuzzy. The raging thirst constantly demanded his attention, but he knew he had to hold out as long as he could before finishing the final few drops of water.

All his mental energy was concentrated on holding back the tidal wave of terror that threatened to engulf him every time he let down his guard for even a moment. He had tried talking out loud to distract his thoughts but his throat was too dry and it hurt to speak. Now, he began to re-live in his mind all the best moments of his life, most of which had happened in the two years since he’d worked for Team Seven. Meeting Chris Larabee for the first time and recognizing a kindred spirit; the surprise party the Team had thrown for him on his first year anniversary; the numerous team gatherings at Chris’s ranch to watch a game and eat pizza. The feeling of finally belonging, of having people who cared about him and accepted him for who he was, good and bad.

He stroked his finger along the bullet still clutched tightly in his hand. He knew he should throw it away, right down the other end of the box where he couldn’t reach it, where he wouldn’t be tempted. But something held him back. He wasn’t going to use it, but there was no harm in holding it, was there?

He began going over the plans he and Chris had for the weekend. He was looking forward to a few days in the wilderness, just him and Chris and the wide-open spaces. What wouldn’t he give to be outside right now, instead of stuck in this tiny box with the earth above pressing down on him, crushing him. Panic coursed through him and this time he lost control, hammering his fists against the lid of the coffin again and again and again until the pain in his knuckles broke through the fear and brought him back to reality. Vin lay there panting, shaking from the exertion, reciting the mantra over and over.

“Chris is coming. Chris is coming. Chris is coming...”

Chapter Eight

JD was a little reluctant to disturb Chris with what was a very unlikely hunch, but Vin’s life was at stake and every angle, however improbable, should be considered. It was just after 2 p.m. when he stuck his head around Chris’s office door.

“Got a minute, Chris?”

“You got something, JD?”

“Well, kind of,” JD answered nervously. “Not on the cases - last three checked out clean. It’s just that I was thinking about that verse, about Vin’s greatest fear. This guy knows Vin’s claustrophobic.”


“Well, how does he know? It isn’t something Vin talks about; so it’s either someone who knows him, who’s maybe worked with him, or – what if he got it out of Vin’s personal file?”

Chris frowned. “How would he do that?”

JD shrugged. “It’s possible he hacked in, but I think it’s more likely that someone in this building gave him the information.”

“Sonuvabitch!” Chris growled. He turned to his computer and tapped in the password that would take him to the Team’s personal files.

“You’re right, JD. It says in Vin’s file that he suffers from claustrophobia.”

JD remembered Vin telling him about the problem after he’d been with the team for a few weeks and assuring him that it wouldn’t be a problem on the job.

“I can keep it in check, JD, so long as I know in advance what I’m going into. Never had any problem in the army.”

How much time had he had to get used to the idea before they shut him in a small box under the ground? JD shuddered; he couldn’t stand to think about Vin trapped in the darkness in a tiny space, praying they would find him, yet wondering how much longer he had to live. Chris’s voice pulled his mind back from these disturbing speculations.

“Good catch, JD. Who would have access to Vin’s personal file?”

“You, as his Team leader, and the Personnel Department. I don’t know who else.”

“Get hold of Personnel and find out; I want a list and tell them we’ll need to interview all of them.”

+ + + + + + +

Mary Watson was conservatively dressed in a maroon-colored suit. Short, wavy gray hair framed pleasant, homely features; Chris judged her to be in her mid-fifties. One look at her guilt-ridden face as she entered the room and he knew that they’d hit pay dirt. She broke down into tears as soon as she sat down in the chair Josiah pulled out for her.

”I’ve done something very stupid. It might not be connected, but when I heard that Agent Tanner was missing I didn’t know what to do. I know I shouldn’t have done it, but she seemed so genuine, and Agent Tanner is such a nice young man…”

“Please start at the beginning, Mrs. Watson,” Carson prompted patiently. He handed her a tissue and she blew her nose loudly.

“Now, please tell us everything you know, Mary,” he coaxed.

Chris sat beside Carson, seemingly relaxed, but his hands were curled into fists beneath the table. He wanted to scream at her to get to the point, but knew that it would do no good to intimidate her; she was too upset and needed to tell the story in her own time. In any case, he was only sitting in on the interview because Agent Carson had agreed to relax protocol; pissing him off at this stage wouldn’t be politic.

“A few weeks ago I met a very nice young lady when I was waiting for my bus after work. We got talking and when I told her where I worked she said that she had dated a man from my building a few times. She described him, and I knew immediately that she was talking about Agent Tanner. She seemed very smitten with him; well, what young woman wouldn’t be? Anyway, she asked me if she could see his personal file. Of course, I said, no, it’s strictly against policy. But she was very persistent. She said she had a huge crush on him and just wanted to find out a bit more about him, what his interests are, that kind of thing. She seemed genuine. I didn’t give her the file – I met her for coffee one evening and just let her look through it. I didn’t see any harm in it, I felt pleased with myself for playing Cupid…”

“Why didn’t you tell us this when Agent Tanner first went missing?” Carson asked mildly, while Chris bristled.

She sniffed and Carson handed her a tissue.

“I was afraid. I can’t afford to lose my job and I tried to tell myself that the two things weren’t connected.”

Chris wanted to shout and rave at her for her unprofessional behavior and bad judgment, but a warning look from Carson had him biting his tongue. They needed her co-operation now.

“Can you remember what the young lady looked like?” Carson asked.

“Oh, yes, I remember her very well.”

“Good. We’ll get you to work with a sketch artist.”

Mary nodded eagerly. “I’ll do my best. Agent Carson – what do you think will happen to me?”

Carson shook his head. “I don’t know, Mary, it isn’t in my hands. But you’re co-operating with us - that will go in your favor.”

Chris and Carson watched impatiently as Mary worked with the sketch artist to produce what she declared to be a good likeness of the woman – an attractive, classy looking blonde in her mid-twenties.

”Recognize her?” Carson asked.

Chris shook his head. “Never seen her before.”

“I’ll run the picture through the database, see if we come up with anything.”

“Hold on a sec,” Chris said as a thought occurred to him. He moved to the computer and called up Lance Urbane’s file.

Carson stood, looking over his shoulder. “What are you looking for?”

“Just a hunch. If the man we’re looking for is Lance Urbane, this woman is obviously connected to him in some way.”

He punched a few keys and moments later the two agents were staring at the mystery woman. Tamzin Urbane. Sister of Lance and James. Further enquiries elicited the fact that Tamzin had left her Las Vegas home for a ten-day holiday over three weeks ago and hadn’t been seen since.

Chapter Nine

It was 7 p.m. Chris sat at his desk, resting his face in his hands. His neck and shoulders were aching, the muscles tense and knotted. A throbbing band of pain between his eyes was making the words on the screen run together into a black mass and his brain seemed to be stuffed full of cotton.

Carson had organized a task force from the police department to telephone hotels in Denver, trying to find guests who fit the descriptions of Lance and Tamzin Urbane. They had faxed photographs to over twenty desk attendants who thought they might have guest fitting the descriptions, but so far all the leads had been dead ends.

Chris rubbed his hand over hot and gritty eyes. However hard he tried to focus on the screen in front of him, his mind kept bringing up images of Vin lying in a small, dark box in the ground. What was he thinking? How was he keeping the terror at bay?

The thought of losing Vin filled Chris with terror of a different kind. As a child, he had often wondered what it would be like to have a brother. He’d had an idealistic picture of someone he could really connect with, who would understand how he thought and what he felt, someone with whom he could be himself, no matter what that self could be. He’d had a few close friends in the navy, and of course there was Buck Wilmington, who had long been his closest friend. He never dreamed, though, that he would one day find that elusive brother in the shape of a soft-spoken Texan sharpshooter.

He vividly remembered his first meeting with Vin Tanner. He had recruited five members of his new team, but hadn’t yet found a sharpshooter who fit in with the rest. Tanner had been sent at short notice as a replacement for the current team member who had been injured in a raid. The moment the Texan walked into his office and sprawled out in the guest chair, Chris had known that he had found his man.

Thinking back, he didn’t know why he was so sure. Tanner’s qualifications for the job were exemplary, and it took very few weeks for him to prove that he was everything the team needed, but it was something else that had spoken to Chris. Chris wasn’t big on sentiment, but the poet in Vin would probably say that it was a ‘soul thing’. Within weeks he was thinking of Vin as the brother he had never had and knew that the feeling was mutual. There had been no need to put into words the feeling of connection that flowed between them. Spending time with Vin had brought a peace to his soul that he had lost with the deaths of Sarah and Adam, and the thought of losing him as well was just too painful to bear.

“Chris, you need to get some rest.”

Chris jumped at the sound of Buck’s voice. He had been so lost in thought that he hadn’t heard the big man enter the room.

”I’m fine,” he replied automatically, his heart aching as he uttered words he had so often heard Vin speak when the sharpshooter was patently anything but.

“You sound like Vin,” Buck said softly, reading his thoughts, “and you know what you always have to say to him when you get that response.”

“I can’t leave, Buck.”

“Chris, you haven’t slept in almost thirty-six hours. You’re no help to Vin like this. If you don’t get some rest now, you’re going to miss something that could be vital to the investigation. How are you going to feel then?”

Buck was right. He would never forgive himself if his stubbornness cost Vin his life.

He nodded.

Buck looked relieved.

“I’ll drive you out to the ranch. You can take a shower, grab some fresh clothes and get a few hours rest. The guys will let us know if anything breaks.”

Chris switched off his computer and stood up. His cell rang then and he grabbed his jacket, pulling it on with one hand while punching the answer button irritably with the other.

“Larabee!” he barked.

A tentative voice sounded at the other end. “Oh, I’m sorry Mr. Larabee, sounds like I caught you at a bad time…”

“Who is this?” Chris snapped.

“Rod Johnson, down at the feed store. Sorry to bother you if you’re busy and all, but I’ve got a new batch of feed comin’ in early, wondered if you’d want me to deliver this week instead of next?”

“What? Oh, yeah, sure, whatever.”

Chris gestured to Buck that he was ready to leave and transferred the phone to the other ear so that he could pull his other arm into his jacket.

“Right you are. Oh, and I sure hope you got your pest situation under control. Wasps, was it? Or ‘roaches? Them’s the worst…”

“What are you talking about?” Chris growled irritably, already halfway to the lift. He didn’t need this right now.

“Don’t mean to pry, Mr Larabee.” Johnson sounded a little put out. “Just that I was driving past the other day when I spotted the pest control van driving down the track from your ranch. Figured…”

Chris stopped dead and grasped the phone a little tighter, his whole concentration immediately on the caller. He hadn’t called pest control, so what was a van doing on his property? He held a hand up for silence as Buck raised an interrogative eyebrow.

“Tell me exactly what you saw, Mr. Johnson.”

“Well now, it must have been, let’s see – I was over to the Prices’ on Monday, couldn’t have been then…”

“Mr. Johnson!”

“Bear with me, young man, my memory isn’t what it used to be.”

Chris could have sworn he could hear Johnson scratching his head. He bit back an impatient rejoinder.

“Of course - it was yesterday! I was on my way back from delivering some feed to the McKenzie’s up beyond your place. I was driving past your gate, when the pest control van drove out. I remember it, because it had a cartoon of a cockroach and a funny slogan on the side. Now what was it…?”

“Thank you, Mr Johnson, you’ve been very helpful.”

Chris hit the button to end the call.

“Buck!” he roared. “Get the others and meet me out front. Call Carson - I want a search team out to my ranch now!”

Buck grabbed his arm as he gave up on the lift and sprinted for the stairs.

“Your ranch? What’s going on, Chris?”

“Vin!” Larabee’s eyes were blazing. “That monster buried him out at the ranch - right under my nose!”

+ + + + + + +

Vin was mounted on Peso, riding fast with the wind in his hair. Chris was riding ahead, shouting something over his shoulder that Vin couldn’t quite make out. Something about coffins and earth and holding on.

He was having trouble distinguishing his dreams from reality. One minute he was at Chris’s ranch, the next he was buried in a box in the ground with his life slowly ebbing away. Which was real? He was no longer sure. He fingered the small metal object in his hand. It was important, but he couldn’t remember why. It was a way out…that was it. A way out he couldn’t take because of Chris. He couldn’t let Chris down.

Chris was coming for him.

Chris is coming. Chris is coming. Chris is coming…

Chapter Ten

Chris brought the Ram to a screeching halt outside the ranch house just ahead of Nathan’s Explorer. In the distance he could hear sirens, and on the horizon, a helicopter whirled into view.

Chris leapt out of the truck, closely followed by Buck and JD. Heart pumping, he looked around wildly for a moment, wishing for the first time that he owned a smaller property. Think, Larabee! Where would they have buried him? He felt despair and terror rising in his chest in equal measures. Vin could be anywhere on the acreage spread out before him.

“Chris, we should wait for the search team,” Buck said. “We can plot out a logical search pattern.”

Chris knew his old friend was right, but he couldn’t just stand here, doing nothing.

“You wait!” he growled. “I’m going to find Vin!”

He took a deep breath, willing himself to keep calm and think logically. If Johnson had seen a van, there should be recent tracks somewhere around that hadn’t been made by the Ram.

“Spread out, look for recent tire marks leading off the main track.”

Five minutes later JD gave a shout. “Over here! Tracks on the trail down to the old barn.”

Chris raced over to where JD stood pointing to some relatively fresh-looking tread marks in the dirt.

Chris hadn’t been down to the old barn for several weeks; there was little need as he only used it now for long-term storage. And these tracks were too far apart to have been left by his truck.

He felt his pulse quicken. This had to be it.

He glanced back along the main track, seeing several cars racing towards them.

“Buck, bring Nathan and JD and come with me. Josiah, you stay here with Ezra and co-ordinate the search party, just in case this is a dead end.”

Chris threw himself behind the steering wheel and forced himself to drive slowly towards the barn. Buck, JD and Nathan kept their eyes peeled for signs that the van had veered off the lane, but it seemed to be following a straight course for the old building.

Chris pulled up outside the barn and jumped out. The ground around was clear of grass for about fifty yards and the tire marks here were impossible to miss.

“Looks like they turned the van around here and headed back the way they came,” JD said.

“We must be close, then.”

Buck shot a reassuring glance at Chris.

Chris nodded. He spotted the footprints straight away, and followed the trail around the side of the building.

He saw it immediately; an area of earth near the wall that had been recently disturbed. Against the wall stood an object of some kind covered with a tarpaulin. He ripped the canvas away to reveal a row of four large canisters attached together. A thin tube running from the end canister disappeared into the earth a few feet away.

“Buck!” he shouted urgently.

Even before his fellow agents joined him, Chris was on his knees, frantically digging the soft earth away with his bare hands.

“Chris, this’ll take too long – are there any shovels in the barn?” Buck asked.

“Yeah, but it’s locked.”

He continued to dig, being careful not to disturb the tube, and a few minutes later Buck returned with three shovels.

“Bust the door in,” he announced in a self-satisfied tone, thrusting the handle of one of the utensils into Chris’s hand.

About two feet down Chris’s shovel hit something hard. Working together, they cleared the soil until they uncovered a wooden lid in the shape of a coffin. Chris closed his eyes for a moment, feeling light-headed.

He had been right then.

They really had buried Vin alive.

The lid was held in place by a series of nails. Buck fished a couple of tools out of his pocket and made short work of prising the nails away from the wood.

Between them, Chris and Buck took hold of the lid and flung it back.

Chris thought his heart was going to stop when he looked inside. Vin was lying on his back, clad in only a pair of black boxer shorts, hands and wrists shackled. His hands were covered with blood and his face was pale save for a vivid bruise along his jaw line and another large bruise on his temple. Other scattered bruises along his torso stood out yellow and blue against pale skin. The tube was attached to a nasal cannula, but Chris couldn’t tell if Vin was breathing. His eyes were closed, but as the evening sun broke into the darkness, he turned his head to the side and his lips moved.

Thank God.

Vin was alive.

“Let me see him.” Nathan stepped carefully down into the coffin, reaching to grasp Vin’s wrist.

“Pulse is a bit thready. Let’s get him out of there.”

Nathan carefully scooped Vin out of the box that had been his prison for the past two days. He handed him carefully up to Buck and Chris, who took his weight and laid him gently on the ground.

Buck laid his jacket carefully under Vin’s head and Chris held his breath while Nathan made a cursory examination.

“Don’t seem to be any serious injuries, other than his hands and the bruises. Badly dehydrated, we need to get some fluids into him quickly. Paramedics on their way?”

JD, almost as white as Vin, nodded. “I called it in as soon as we found him. They’ll be here in a couple of minutes.”

“Can you get these cuffs off him? We need to cover him up, he’s shivering.”

“There’s a blanket in the Ram,” Chris said, and JD ran off to fetch it while Buck gently removed the cuffs. The skin beneath was raw and bleeding.

“Probably did the damage himself trying to get them off,” Nathan said.

JD returned with the blanket and Nathan took it, wrapping it around the shivering sharpshooter.

Vin was tossing his head and muttering something. Chris, no longer able to stand back and watch, pushed Nathan aside and pulled his friend into his arms.

“It’s all right, Vin, you’re all right. You’re safe now. I’m here, I’ve got you.”

Vin’s eyes opened slowly, narrowing again immediately against the harsh sunlight.


“I’m here. You’re safe, Vin, you’re safe now.”

“Yer not real. Dreamin’…”

“You’re not dreaming, Vin. You’re safe. We found you and you’re safe.”

“Not dreamin’?”

Chris strengthened his grip. “Nate, he’s having trouble with the light. Can you find something to shield his eyes a little? I want him to see me, to know this is real.”

Nathan shugged out of his jacket and held it up, effectively screening out bright evening sunlight.

“Vin, open your eyes,” Chris coaxed. “It’s all right, the light won’t hurt you.”

Very slowly, Vin opened watery blue eyes and fixed them on Chris.


“Yeah, it’s me pard. You’re safe. Trust me Vin, this isn’t a dream. I’m here and you’re safe now.”

“Always trust you…”

To his enormous relief Chris saw acceptance dawn in Vin’s eyes. A tear traced a path down one dirt-streaked cheek.

“You came fer me, Cowboy. I kept dreamin’ you’d come, but when I woke up, I was still… I was still…”

His voice faded out on a sob and a wavering hand reached out blindly. Chris took it, mindful of the raw, still-bleeding knuckles and pulled the Texan further into his arms, holding him tightly.

“I’m sorry, Chris,” Vin whispered. “I thought about doin’ it. I should have had more faith in ya…”

“Shh, Vin, it’s all right.”

Vin wrapped his arms around Chris’s back, holding onto his shirt with a fierce grip. He buried his face in his friend’s chest and his body began to shake as he finally let go of the terror he’d been gripped with for so long. He cried silently, great shuddering sobs that shook his whole body, and Chris held him, rocking him like a child and murmuring words of comfort through his own tears.

Chapter Eleven

“JD, you all right, kid?” Buck asked gently.

JD looked up. He was sitting with Buck and the rest of the Team in the hospital waiting room. The doctor had reassured them that Vin was going to be just fine, and soon they would be allowed to see him for a few minutes. Chris was with him now, and had been given permission by Vin’s doctor to stay with him for the night.

JD had been silent since they’d arrived at the hospital and he’d seen the concerned glances Buck had been casting his way. He had been unable to shake the thoughts and questions that kept circling in his mind, finding it difficult to articulate what he was feeling.

Vin Tanner was just about the strongest man JD knew. He exuded a kind of inner serenity - as if he was at peace with himself and the world. Nothing fazed him and he seemed to have an endless ability to shake off the bad things in life and move on. It amazed JD that someone who had been on the receiving end of so many hard knocks could be so content, so balanced. Seeing Vin sobbing uncontrollably in Chris’s arms had shaken JD to the core.

He could not even begin to comprehend the living hell his friend must have endured over the past thirty-six hours. While the paramedics had been treating the sharpshooter, JD had peered down into the small coffin and tried to imagine what it must have been like. He had closed his eyes and recoiled in horror as his imagination painted an abundance of nightmarish images, and he wasn’t even a person who had a problem with enclosed spaces. He’d even quite enjoyed crawling around in narrow tunnels on the few occasions he’d been caving. But Vin – Vin was claustrophobic in an elevator. How much inner strength had it taken to endure for so long in that enclosed space, knowing that if his friends failed to find him, he would die a long, lingering death?

In the coffin they’d found a small plastic bottle with half an inch of water left. They had also found an empty gun. That had puzzled them, until Nathan noticed that Vin was clutching something so tightly in his fist that Chris had to pry his fingers open. JD watched the color drain from Chris’s face when he saw the bullet and JD himself felt faint as the words of the taunting rhyme finally made sense.

‘Or will he lose his mind and end it all?’

The bastard had left Vin with a gun, one bullet and the choice to put an end to his suffering.

JD finally found his voice. “Why, Buck? Why Vin? It’s not fair. He’s been through so much in his life – why him? How is he going to survive this?”

“He’s strong, JD…”

“He’s not that strong!” JD interrupted harshly. “No one could be that strong! You saw him, Buck, he was crying. Vin doesn’t cry, ever!”

“Ain’t a man in the world who doesn’t cry, JD,” Buck said. “I reckon Vin’s always done his crying in private. That’s how he deals with life – he thinks on things, deals with them quietly in his own way and moves on. I guess this thing is maybe gonna be too big for him to deal with on his own –he might not have the strength left to do it. But the thing is, he doesn’t have to. He’s got all of us to help pull him through. Vin’s always been there for us, JD; now it’s our turn to be there for him.”

JD nodded, squared his shoulders and resolutely determined to pull himself together. Buck was right. Vin deserved the best and right now the best was a group of friends who could hold him up when he didn’t have the strength to stand alone.

“Thanks, Buck.”

Buck laid a hand on his shoulder and gave it a squeeze.

“It’ll be all right, kid. Vin’s gonna be all right.”

+ + + + + + +

Chris sat beside the hospital bed, one arm cushioning his head, the other firmly gripping his friend’s forearm above the bandage around his wrist.

It was approaching midnight. A sympathetic nurse had made up a bed for Chris, but he had no plans to use it. He was fine where he was, close to Vin, where he could quickly reach his friend should he wake during the night.

The doctor had assured him that physically, Vin would be just fine. Cuts and bruises had been treated and his wrists, hands, and ankles bandaged. He was currently hooked up to a saline drip to hydrate him, but he had not been without water for long enough to do any permanent damage to his kidneys. He was suffering bouts of cramping in his back and extremities due to the length of time he had spend lying on a hard surface in the same position. He had also been given some anti-inflammatory drugs and pain-killers. If he had a good night, it was possible that he could be discharged the next day.

Good as new, Chris thought bitterly, as if nothing had happened.

Vin was half-asleep now, as the sedative they had given him began to kick in. Chris kept his eyes firmly fixed on his friend, watching his chest move up and down, irrationally afraid to look away in case he stopped breathing.

It chilled him to think it was sheer luck that had led him to Vin. If Johnson hadn’t seen the van and happened to mention it when he called, would the next clue have given them an idea of Vin’s whereabouts? Then again, maybe it wasn’t luck. Chris had turned his back on God the day his wife and son died, but he had seen Josiah praying for Vin – sitting at his desk, eyes closed, lips moving in silent supplication. Could Rod Johnson have been an answer to prayer? Chris wasn’t sure, but nevertheless he found himself muttering a fervent prayer of thanks for the safe return of his best friend.

He must have unconsciously tightened his hold on Vin’s arm, for he looked up to see blue eyes open a slit.


“It’s all right, Vin,” he said immediately, cursing himself for disturbing his friend. “Everything’s fine. Go back to sleep.”

“You stayin’?”

“’Course I’m staying. I’ll be here if you need me.”


Vin’s eyes closed again and within minutes his breathing had deepened into sleep.

Chris watched him carefully for a few moments, just to be sure he really was asleep, and then settled back, trying to find a comfortable position in the hard plastic chair.

Vin was too drugged up to be aware of the ramifications of what had happened to him, but tomorrow, they would have to begin to deal with the emotional fallout of his ordeal.

Tomorrow, Chris would have to start coming to terms with his part in all this. Urbane had been right about one thing. Chris’s friendship with Vin was the thing he valued most in the world, and he shuddered to think that there was a madman out there who knew this to be true beyond any doubt.

Tomorrow, they would have to face the fact that Urbane was still at large and would almost certainly be planning another game. They would have to pull out all the stops to find him before that happened, but Chris swore that he would die rather than let Urbane take Vin again.

That was tomorrow. Tonight, he had Vin back and for now, that was enough.


The tall, black-haired man pushed the maintenance cart past the waiting room, glancing in at the group of five agents as he passed.

He had been surprised and somewhat disappointed that Larabee had found his missing friend so quickly. He had been confident that it would take at least one more mocking note, if not two, before Tanner’s location could be guessed.

He passed the hospital room where the security guard sat beside the door and smiled secretly to himself. He had obviously underestimated Larabee, but he wouldn’t make that mistake next time. He had already planned his next move.

An eye for an eye, it said in the Bible, and Larabee and his ‘brother’ had not yet suffered nearly enough.

Next time it would be different.

Next time.

The End