Okay, this is the obligatory bit - Many thanks have to go to MGM, CBS, Trilogy, Mirisch and Hallmark et al (whoever he is) for the original characters since, like everyone else, I don't own them - more's the pity. Thanks also to Mog for her original interpretation of the characters, without whom this story would have been impossible. I have to also thank the Blackraptor site for inspiring me, after at least ten years (it could be more), to have a go at writing again and for answering all my questions - thanks ladies.
Despite writing some pretty quirky stuff in original universes, this is my first attempt at a full length AU story of any kind, so please be gentle and forgive anything that isn't quite American as I come from the other side of the pond!!!!
Also, I'm sorry, but I don't write Texan or any southern state accent. There might be the occasional "gonna" thrown in but on the whole it's written in plain old Anglo Saxon and the accents will have to come from your imaginations.
It is primarily Vin, Chris and (rather surprisingly) Travis although the others have their own particular parts to play.
Warning required for some bad language and male rape - nothing explicit but you know what happened (what would my mother say?) - which I guess is going to make it at least R-13?
SIZE: Approx. 285K
PART ONE | PART TWO
PARTS THREE and FOUR
District Attorney Orin Travis stood as the Chief of Police entered his office and extended his hand. It was a hot sunny day with just the hint of a breeze that made the blinds clatter softly and the D.A was sweating slightly from the exertion of walking from his car to the elevator. The two men shook hands and then sat down, facing each other across the desk.
The officer shuffled nervously, ill at ease. He and Travis had not always seen eye to eye about police methods and the role of the ATF and now he was here to ask Travis to participate in an undercover mission that was outside the ATF's jurisdiction. He coughed and played with the cuffs on his shirt sleeves.
"Coffee?" Travis enquired smoothly, enjoying the other man's discomfort.
"Please," the officer replied.
Travis called to his secretary and requested two cups of coffee. Once they had arrived the Chief of Police picked his up and, despite the heat of the day, cradled it like a lifeline. Travis relaxed back in his chair, sipping the hot brew and eyeing the man opposite him speculatively. At last it was Travis who broke the silence.
"Much as I enjoy sitting in companionable silence," he began, "I do have a full day of appointments so, if you don't mind, I would like to know why you're here."
"Ever heard of the Church of Worldly Peace?" the officer began without preamble. Travis peered at the man from over the rim of his coffee cup.
"I think so," he said. "One of those wacky cult churches isn't it?"
"Wacky, maybe," the other man agreed, "but also very dangerous. We, or rather I, suspect that it is involved in the white slave trade."
"Why would that be? And what does it have to do with my department?" Travis asked
"Ever seen any of their members?"
Travis shook his head.
"Take a look sometime. They're stunning, all of them, and they have a habit of disappearing after they've been with the church for a couple of months. There's a lot of worried parents out there - including myself."
"Anna?" Travis asked sharply.
"Yes, even Anna has succumbed," the officer admitted.
"I thought she was too sensible for cults," Travis observed.
"They seem to be very persuasive and even my Anna, who I've always thought had her head screwed on right, has fallen for their crap."
"Hm, I can see why you're worried, but why come to me?"
"I need someone to go in undercover and get the youngsters out as well as providing the evidence we need to arrest the leaders."
"We've already sent in one undercover cop and he ended up in the Platte. I'm sure there was a leak in the department so I need someone who isn't known to the general law enforcement officers."
"And you want me to risk my men?" Travis asked pointedly.
"I need your help," the Chief of Police admitted. "There's a rotten apple in the barrel that we need to find and any number of teenagers to be helped."
Without further thought, Travis nodded his acceptance. The officer had hit just the right buttons. A bad cop and youngsters in danger was guaranteed to get his agreement.
It pushed the right buttons with ATF Team 7 as well when Travis told them later on that afternoon. There was general anger as he described the situation to them. Naturally enough they agreed to run the operation, as long as it was on their terms. The Chief of Police, who had accompanied Travis, agreed with this and thanked them profusely.
"I don't want to know the details of the operation," he told Travis as he left the ATF headquarters, "the leak might be in my own department. Keep it within the team; trust no one."
As soon as the Chief of Police had left emotions were unleashed and plans bounced. There was no question of their undercover man, Ezra, going in as he was just not white slave material; Vin, on the other hand, was. Vin was young, tall, slender, bronzed with blue eyes that women and men would die for. He was definitely white slave material and nobody in the team liked it. The idea of sending Junior into that sort of situation was one none of them wished to countenance. They mooted ideas and made suggestions but it kept coming back to Vin. Finally Vin, who had kept very quiet throughout the discussion, brought it to an end.
"I'll do it," he said gently.
All noise in the room ceased and it seemed as if it were holding its breath. In the distance Chris caught the low rumble of thunder. A cold breeze swept in through the open window and made him shiver; suddenly he was filled with a sense of dread, his heart constricting painfully.
"No," five voices burst out together, as he grasped the young man's slender wrist in a strong grip.
"You don't have to do this, Vin," he said softly.
Tanner looked up at him sharply.
"Yes, I do Chris," the Texan replied simply but Chris could see the apprehension in his eyes. Tanner turned to the others.
"I'll do it," he repeated with a sharp edge to his voice. "Don't you think I can?" he continued, hurt by their seeming lack of faith in him.
"Of course, we know you can do it," Buck replied, "it's just that....." His voice failed and he looked round for help from the rest of the team. When none was forthcoming Vin ended the discussion firmly.
"That's settled then, I'm going in and I'm going to get those kids out."
There was a note in Vin's voice that warned them not to press the matter. He did not take kindly to being mollycoddled by the team and had never understood why they felt that they needed to. His time on the streets and in the army rangers had taught him to take care of himself in ways that none of the others were capable of and at times he resented the fact that they obviously felt he was more vulnerable than them. He especially resented it today when those youngsters were in such clear danger and he seemed to be their only hope.
He got up and walked over to the window, looking out across the city and trying to get his breathing under control. Suddenly he felt a hand on his shoulder and turned to face Chris.
"I ain't afraid," he started defensively.
"Nobody said you were," Chris sighed, "but, Vin, have you thought this through?"
"Don't need to think it through," Vin responded angrily. "I'm those kids' only hope and it seems to me that you're all trying to stop me from helping them."
"It's not that," Chris began and then stopped. How did he explain to the very private young man in front of him that it was exactly this quality of love for his fellow man that made him so susceptible to danger and hurt? In the end he could not find the words and shrugged.
"We know you can do it, Vin, but it doesn't stop us being afraid for you." There he had said the word that he knew they all felt.
"And you think I'm not afraid?" Vin responded. "God, Chris, my gut is already so knotted that I want to throw up, but I know Ezra will make sure I have a real good background story which I know so well I can't slip up."
Chris laughed at that, knowing it was true. There wasn't a snowball's chance in hell of Ezra letting Vin go undercover unless he thought the Texan was completely ready.
"Speaking of background stories," Ezra commented, approaching them, "I would be grateful if you would supply me with a surname so that I can begin the process of acquiring a false past for you. It would, however, be advantageous for you to keep your own Christian name, since you will be less likely to commit a faux pas if you have a familiar name to respond to."
Vin grimaced at the length of the request and then nodded. He thought for a moment.
"How about Tascosa? " he ventured at last. "Vin Tascosa."
"Why Tascosa?" Chris asked, his curiosity getting the better of him. Vin shrugged.
"Don't know. Heard it once on a television show and kinda liked it."
"Well, Mr Tascosa," Ezra said, "let us see if we can concoct you a suitable background story. "
Vin was a quick study. He was desperate to get in and shut the white slave operation down, but Ezra took his time training him up. That was Chris' one consolation over those next few days; Ezra would not allow his young protégé to go in until he was absolutely ready. Chris had not been able to shake off the feeling of impending disaster that had seized him from the very moment Vin had agreed to go undercover and he had spent the time going round in a black mood that had got blacker as the days passed. The rest of the team made a determined effort to stay out of their leader's way.
Late one night Chris found himself alone in the office, or so he thought, finishing off some paperwork. Wearily he picked up the files he had just completed and made his way to the outer office to put them away. At the door he paused as he realised the light was still on and then he heard the sound of murmured voices. Ezra and Vin were working late again. He shouldered the door open and entered. Ezra glanced up, acknowledging Chris' presence, even as he continued speaking.
"Remember you are totally disillusioned with life."
"The universe and everything," Vin continued flippantly, only half listening as an idea struck him.
"Say Ez, do you think I should get an ear-ring or a tongue stud or something?" he asked the other man. Ezra raised an eyebrow even as something snapped inside Chris and he found himself throwing the files he was carrying across the room.
"Damn it, Vin, this is serious. This could be your life we're talking about," he yelled at the startled Tanner before he almost ran from the room, overcome by an emotion so strong that he could not even begin to understand it.
Exchanging worried glances with Ezra, Vin hurried after his boss. He caught up with him by the lifts. Chris was breathing heavily and he was resting his head on his arm which, in turn, was resting on the wall. Cautiously Vin laid a hand on the man's shoulder. When he received no response, he spoke.
"Hell, Chris, I know it's serious. Ezra has ground that into my head good and proper from the beginning. But if I go in there all screwed up, I'll forget my own name let alone my cover story." When there was still no reaction from the blond man in front of him he took a deep breath and prepared himself to have his head bitten off.
"What's the matter, Chris, you've been like a bear with a sore head these past few days?"
Breathing deeply and fighting the wave of nausea that threatened to engulf him, Larabee turned to face his operative.
"Concerned," he managed to grind out through clenched teeth. How to explain that it was not just concern, that it was gut-wrenching, heart stopping terror for the man in front of him?
"As you would be for anyone," Vin agreed. "I'm no different to them. Chris, I can do this," he sought to reassure the man, "but I need to know that you think I can; because if I thought you didn't have confidence in me......" His voice trailed away and he suddenly looked lost and insecure.
"Of course you can do it," Larabee forced himself to say, bile rising in his throat but knowing that he could not let Vin see his fears. He could not send Vin into a situation like that with doubt in his mind, not if he wanted him to survive. He forced himself to relax.
"Of course you can," he repeated more firmly.
"That's all right then," Vin replied with the ghost of a smile; but Chris noticed that it was a smile that, for once, did not reach his eyes and that those same deep blue eyes were tinged with apprehension. Without realising what he was doing, Chris started to reach out to the younger man but Tanner turned on his heel, unaware that for once he had almost shown a part of his soul to his friend, and walked back to the outer office.
"Got some homework to finish," he muttered.
Chris watched Vin's retreating back, sick in the knowledge that none of them could watch it for the young Texan once he had joined the Church of Worldly Peace.
The next day Chris entered his office to find that Ezra and Vin were already there waiting for him.
"Well?" he ventured.
"He's ready," Ezra replied briefly.
Chris' heart missed a beat. So that was it. No preamble; no apology; just he's ready. He looked at Vin who was running a nervous tongue over dry lips.
"So, how do you want to play this?" he asked them.
"JD's been doing some digging," Vin began. "They spend the afternoons speaking in the mall. I'll go along, listen and indicate that they seem to have something to offer me and would like to know more. From there it's a question of playing it by ear." Chris glared at the choice of phrase and Vin had the grace to blush.
"I'll get the others," Ezra murmured as the two men looked at each other.
The rest of the team entered silently and sat uneasily about the room. JD was grilled by Chris about the church's mall visits until the blond was satisfied that all aspects had been covered. Then they turned their attention to the arrangements for contact and backup.
From the beginning it had been blatantly obvious to Vin that this was going to be almost nil and he dreaded the moment when Chris finally came to realise that. He was sure that his boss had not really taken in all the information that had been gathered and that this fact had, uncharacteristically, escaped him. Indeed, as the team discussed how they were going to contact Vin, it finally began to dawn on Chris that this was not going to be as regularly as he would like. His eyes grew as hard as emeralds and his voice became more clipped as the discussion went on. Noting this, Vin took it upon himself to endorse arrangements and make sure that everyone in the team was aware of their own particular role. At last there was nothing left to discuss and he turned to his team leader.
"Chris, have you anything to add?" he asked quietly.
"No," Larabee almost snarled. "You seem to have all the bases covered."
"Good," Vin said softly and then indicated for the others to leave. Breathing a sigh of relief the five walked out of Chris' office, although the door had barely closed before JD's voice was raised in protest against the grilling he had received.
Vin took a deep breath, realising that Chris was close to the edge, wanting to know why but needing to discuss what had just passed.
"I think you owe JD an apology," he told the older man quietly. "You were totally out of order grilling him like that. It was as if you didn't trust him. It's fine if you don't trust me, I can live with that. I realise that you don't think I can do this; but you can't do that to JD. Now, I'm going to get ready to meet those crackpots and I'll leave you to think over what I've just said."
As he turned to go he heard Chris' anguished voice.
He turned and saw Chris' entire soul laid bare in his eyes and the abject terror of the other man. He took a step towards him.
The blond looked at his friend in utter despair. There was so much he wanted to say to him but he could not find the words to begin. Finally, he dropped his head.
"You'd better get going before I change my mind about it. After all, as you're so fond of reminding me, you are those youngsters' only hope." He had retreated again behind a veil of bitterness.
"Fine," Vin said curtly, turning on his heel and leaving without a backward glance.
The mall was light and airy with cool fountains playing in the entrance. Wooden benches surrounded the low wall where children were standing to splash their hands in the water. Chris and JD sat at the open fronted Starbucks, watching the church members handing out leaflets and listening as every so often one of them would speak out. Two mugs of café latte sat in front of them. Chris eyed up the youngest of the team. JD had said nothing but his body language spoke volumes; he was still upset about the grilling. Vin was right he owed JD an apology.
"Hm?" the brunette responded, glancing up at his boss for the first time since they had sat down.
"I'm sorry I chewed you out this afternoon. I was just........"
"Concerned about Vin," JD finished for him. "I know that; we all are. I just couldn't figure why you were so hot on this place. After all, it's only the first contact point."
"I know," Chris sighed, "but there's a lot about this I don't like and at least this is something tangible to focus on."
JD nodded, not sure that he really understood what Chris was saying but happy to accept the apology. He was saved from saying anything when he spotted Vin approaching.
"Here he comes," he whispered into his radio.
Chris turned to look to where JD was staring and the sight that met his eyes made him catch his breath. Vin Tascosa looked gorgeous; there was no other word to describe him. He was dressed in tight fitting white leather trousers that left nothing to the imagination and a satin shirt unbuttoned to the waist. A delicate filigree band of turquoise and silver round his neck caught the light as he moved and his brown, wavy, shoulder length hair shone in the afternoon sunshine.
As Vin approached the fountain he was completely unaware that all heads were turning to look at him. He was still furious with Chris for not trusting him and for the way he had treated JD. For a moment before he left the office he had thought that Chris was going to open up and confide in him but perhaps he had been mistaken. The suppressed anger added to the effect as those walking past could feel the electricity of his presence. He felt disillusioned with his boss and his job at this present moment in time and this all helped as he threw himself nonchalantly onto the nearest bench. Today he did not need to act disillusioned and angry with the world - he really was.
Chris' earpiece whistled as Buck expressed his feelings.
"Never saw Junior as an exhibitionist. He looks good enough to eat," the gentle rogue purred. Chris gave a short humourless laugh.
"Get your mind out of the gutter, Buck."
"I do hope our young friend does not let his emotions override his common sense," Ezra muttered.
"Sure does look as if he has all the cares of the world on his shoulders again," Josiah agreed.
"That's our Vin," Nathan added and they all murmured their agreement.
They all knew that Vin would take on all the guilt and suffering of the world as his own fault if he possibly could. Time with the team had taught him that he could not help everyone, much as he wanted to, but in moments of stress he often slipped back into the old Vin who felt responsible for the entire globe.
"Shut it," Chris whispered savagely as he watched one of the cult members drift away from the group and across to where Vin was sitting.
The young blonde girl, barely out of her teens, sat down beside the young Texan and, gently taking his hand in hers, she looked into his angry blue eyes. Quietly she began to speak to him, rubbing her thumb soothingly over the palm of his hand. After a few minutes they stood and, still holding his hand, she led him right past the table where Chris and JD were sitting and into Starbucks. They sat down at a table in the corner and she went to order coffees.
Left on his own, Vin allowed himself to glance briefly at his team members. He noted that JD looked happier than he had that morning and surmised that Chris must have apologised. He was pleased that Chris had taken his advice and felt happier inside but the age of the girl who had made the approach greatly concerned him and he could see that Chris felt the same. He lowered his eyes to the table again as she returned with two large mugs of steaming coffee. Vin accepted the one she offered him and they began to talk.
Chris strained to catch what they were saying but could only hear fragments if Vin raised his voice slightly. The girl's remained inaudible.
"....tired of the pressures of work, you know? ............boss doesn't appreciate me. ..........need something more." At any other time Chris would have laughed at the list of complaints but, given the difficulties between them these last few days, he was not sure that Tanner did not really mean it all this time. It sounded as if he truly believed what he was saying.
Vin ground to a halt and the girl put a comforting hand over his clenched fist.
"Why don't you come back to the house with me, Vin, and meet the others? They'd all love to meet you, truly they would, and then Matt could answer all your questions. I'm still learning you see, but Matt knows everything." The girl's wide brown eyes regarded Tascosa earnestly, guileless and appealing.
Vin nodded thoughtfully.
"Yeah, that sounds good. From what you've said I think you people might have the answers I'm looking for. Could we go now?"
The girl laughed and picked up her wad of leaflets. Vin stood and moved round the table to join her. After a momentary pause he draped his arm casually round her shoulders. With a low laugh she lightly rested her hand on the ATF man's pert butt. Chris saw a brief shudder run through the Texan's body at the touch. As they passed close by JD, Vin allowed himself to smile slightly at his colleague.
Chris looked after them as they left.
"Wow, she's lucky he didn't give her a right cross to the jaw," Buck murmured.
"That'll do, Buck. Find out who she is."
"Sure thing, Chris. Lucky old Vin."
Chris was not sure that lucky would be the way that Vin looked at it. He briefly considered further surveillance but then decided against it, ordering his men back to the office and a pile of waiting files instead. Reluctantly he followed them, glancing back over his shoulder at the retreating backs of his agent and the young blonde girl.
Given the events of the last few days, Chris was surprised when Vin, dressed in his more usual denim jeans and check shirt, turned up at the ranch later that night, looking tired and put out.
"They're a bunch of certifiable lunatics," Vin declared as he threw himself into the nearest chair. "If one more person tells me that they can really see the potential for love and peaceful harmony shining forth from my soul I'll bloody flatten them!"
"Can't say I've noticed it myself," Chris grinned.
"Thank God for that," Vin sighed.
"It was your choice," Chris could not stop himself saying. Vin bridled at once.
"Fine, if you don't want my report, I'll go and give it to Buck instead."
"Sit down, Vin. Of course I want your report." And I want you near me, he added silently to himself.
"Good because I'm so tired I don't think I could go anywhere else." And I needed to see you before I cut all contact.
Chris went to the fridge and got out two beers. He threw one across at Tanner who almost dropped it he was so tired.
"So, what have you got for me?" he continued matter of factly. Vin opened the can and took a large mouthful of the cooling liquid before he replied.
"Not a lot," he admitted. "Sonia, the girl from the mall - who's all hands, by the way - took me to the house they all use. The Refuge From Life as they call it." He snorted, "Refuge From Sanity more like." Then he continued. "Anna wasn't there. Neither were the others who we've heard about recently. Matt, however, was." His lips twisted in an expression of disgust.
"I can tell you're really impressed with Matt," Chris observed. "Was he at the mall?"
Vin nodded. "You probably didn't see him. He was lurking in the background watching his little protégés doing his dirty work. Matt Dawson is very smooth, very sincere and about as genuine as a nine dollar bill! I wouldn't trust him as far as I could throw a scorpion. He's got all those girls hanging onto his every word like he's God."
"Except for Sonia," Chris interjected. Vin's face softened.
"Except for Sonia," he agreed gently. Chris looked at him sharply.
"What's her story?" he asked.
"Poor mixed up little rich girl," Vin replied but offered nothing more.
Chris waited a few minutes while Vin drank some more of the beer before asking,
"Who else do we have to worry about?"
"What?" Vin pulled his mind back from where it had been wandering. "Oh, well, Matt's right hand man is Guy Menzies - blond and makes my flesh creep. He seems a little too interested in the young men of the church, if you get my drift."
"I'll get Buck looking through files first thing in the morning to see if we can find out anything about Matt and Guy. Couldn't get anything more concrete on them, I suppose?"
"Like what? I was there to find out more about the church, not give them the third degree. I'm supposed to be caught up in the love and wonder of it all, remember? Yuk, I'm going to need a holiday to get the bad taste out of my mouth. The whole set up is sickening."
"So, what now?" Chris asked gently. Vin groaned and leaned his head back, closing his eyes.
"I told them I'd think about it over night and drop by again tomorrow. There's a bed waiting there for me - if I want it. I can start handing out leaflets first thing in the morning." He groaned again with feeling. "Bloody Travis, why'd he have to get us mixed up in this?"
Chris leant forward and patted the Texan's knee comfortingly. The feeling of dread was still sitting in the pit of his stomach, but at least they were talking about the case with more civility than they had recently. He leant forward again.
Tanner opened an eye and peered quizzically at Chris.
"Watch out for Guy, the way you looked this afternoon........" Chris' voice trailed off, unsure what to say without his friend thinking he was hitting on him.
"What was wrong with the way I was dressed?" Vin demanded curiously.
"Oh it was perfect for your disguise," Chris assured him, "but were you aware just how many heads - male as well as female - turned to look at you as you walked through the mall this afternoon? Even Buck was impressed."
"Oh, my god," Vin gasped, going bright red as Chris' words hit him. Chris laughed at the reaction from the shy Texan.
"Don't worry about it. You gave a lot of people, who you'll never see again, a lot of pleasure this afternoon."
"I'm more worried about facing Buck," Vin admitted ruefully. "He'll never let me live it down." Chris smiled and made a mental note to have a quiet word with Buck before Tanner returned to the fold.
Silence crept over the ranch as Vin fought with the sleep that threatened to overwhelm him, nerves and emotions having taken their toll for the day. He yawned, trying to hide it from the eagle-eyed Chris, and struggled to keep his eyes open. Standing unsteadily he turned towards the door. Chris grabbed his arm gently.
"You're not driving home in that state," he told the young man. "You're staying the night here."
"Thought you'd never ask," Vin murmured as Chris steered him towards the spare room, where the Texan collapsed on the bed, already asleep. Chris smiled as he pulled Tanner's shoes off and swung his legs up onto the bed. Throwing a blanket over "Sleeping Beauty" he walked out of the room to prepare supper.
Sonia watched Vin Tascosa surreptitiously from under her eyelashes as he crossed the room to fetch a book from one of the shelves that lined the walls. He was wearing those leather trousers again, with a sky blue shirt that matched his eyes. Matt had spoken to him on several occasions about the appropriateness of his clothes, suggesting that they were not quite in keeping with the aims and ideals of the church, but Vin did not seem too keen on adopting the baggy pantaloons and sweat shirts that the other men wore. And with a body like his, who could blame him. Sonia was definitely of the opinion that anything that covered up something as perfect as Vin Tascosa was a mortal sin and she knew there were others who felt the same.
Vin, however, seemed totally unaware of the hungry looks he received from some of the other church members. He was very involved in the life of the church, always asking questions, eager to find out as much as he could about the people and the general doctrines. He stayed up late at nights, reading their publications and talking to the other members about their beliefs and reasons for joining; the fact that some of them came from rich and influential families did not seem to cut any ice with him. He embraced everyone equally and seemed interested only in the church.
At that point Matt entered the small room, removing his sunglasses, and spotted Sonia eying Vin. He felt a momentary pang of jealousy but, knowing that the problem would soon be removed, he smiled wolfishly at Sonia instead. At that moment Vin turned and his face lit up as he spotted the church's guru. Much to his annoyance, Matt found himself returning the smile.
"Evening, Vin. How're your studies coming on?"
"Great. I can definitely feel things starting to happen. I wanted to talk to you about it - tonight, if possible?"
Matt shook his head regretfully.
"Sorry, Vin, no can do. I have to attend to some church business tonight."
"Oh. Then perhaps Guy.......?" Vin hoped the disappointment that he put into his voice covered up the shiver that he felt at the mention of Guy. Chris had been right to warn him about the man - his attentions were just what Vin did not like.
"Guy will be coming with me. But I'll be available tomorrow, we can talk then. I did want to discuss your attire with you - again."
Vin nodded ruefully.
"Okay, Matt, whatever you say."
"Good. I'll see you in the morning then." Dawson went through to the kitchen. Tascosa stared after him thoughtfully then looked around as Sonia came up behind him. He liked Sonia a lot; she was a sweet kid - kind, generous and very naïve. He was well aware that she had fallen for him in a big way and he found that he was attracted to her in return.
"Would you like to eat at my table tonight?" she asked, slipping her arms round his slim hips. He turned round, within the embrace, to face her.
"Sure, I'd like that," he replied. "I wanted to talk to you anyway."
"We could talk now. I'm free."
"But I'm not. It's my turn in the kitchen." He kissed the tip of her nose gently, then slipped from her arms and headed for the kitchen. Matt was no longer there so, grabbing his apron, Vin turned on the water, squirted some washing up liquid into the plugged sink and started stacking up pots and pans as the sink filled. Outside the door Sonia stood with a thoughtful expression on her face.
Travis looked up at the knock on his door. It opened and Chris Larabee looked in.
"You wanted to see me, sir?"
"Yes. Come in and take a seat."
Chris sat down and looked hard at the District Attorney, trying to second guess why he had been summoned. Travis did not beat about the bush.
"What have you heard from Tanner recently?"
"Not a lot, sir. He's started studying there, spends most of his days handing out leaflets and his nights in group encounter sessions, listening to how the evils of this society have corrupted our souls and regaling them with sad tales of his own debauchery and sin."
"I hope he has a good imagination. Perhaps you should have gone undercover," Travis mused.
"Perhaps I should," Chris shot back. Travis ignored the remark
"Now," he continued. "What's happening about the Morrison case?" Chris frowned, finding himself wrong footed for once.
"Nothing," he replied cagily. "All roads have led to a dead end so far."
"I see," the D.A said. "Well, try kick starting it with this." He pushed a thin file across the table towards the ATF man. Chris picked it up, thumbing through it curiously. He looked up at Travis.
"Might just do that," he said. "Once Vin's out from undercover we'll....." he ground to a halt as he saw Travis' face.
"No," the District Attorney said, "you won't wait. You'll get on it now."
"But what about Vin?" Chris protested strongly.
"What about him? He went in knowing there would be no regular back up, nothing's changed."
"Yes, but we have to be ......."
"The Morrison case - now. Do I make myself perfectly clear Officer Larabee?"
"Yes, sir. Perfectly clear, sir."
"Then that's all." Travis bent to the paperwork on his table. Chris stood in a daze, just managing to pick the offending file up from the table, and walked out of the office. He stayed in a daze all the way down in the lift and out of the building to where Buck sat waiting in the Ram. He slid into the passenger seat and stared at the file with loathing.
"Well?" Buck asked. Larabee turned bleak eyes to him.
"We've been ordered to re-open the Morrison case. Why now, after all this time? You know what that means for Vin, don't you?"
"God, poor Vin," Buck murmured. "But orders is orders. Vin will be all right. He knew we would only be able to go in once he gave the signal anyway, so nothing's changed. Chris, he'll be okay."
"Will he, Buck? How can you be so sure?"
The incessant ringing of the telephone dragged Chris from the depths of slumber. Groggily he reached for the receiver and promptly dropped it. Finally he managed to get the whole thing under control.
"Chris? That you?"
"Who else would be using my 'phone?"
"Could have been Buck."
"Well it isn't." Half way through the conversation his mind kicked into gear.
"Yep, it's me," came a sigh from the other end.
"Was dreaming about you." He knew Tanner would raise an eyebrow at that.
"Oh? Nice dreams I hope. Glad to know you're missing me."
You don't know the half of it, Chris thought as he replied,
"Oh everything's just peachy. It's a laugh a minute. What about you and the others?"
"Well, we've finally finished the filing, or rather JD and Ezra have." He could imagine Vin smiling at that. "Buck and Josiah have finished cataloguing our latest haul of contraband for the tax man and Travis has ordered us to re-open the Morrison case in the light of new evidence."
"Oh." There was a long pause and then, "Chris, can we meet?"
Larabee heard the slight catch in Tanner's voice.
"Of course, when and where?"
Vin named a diner in the seedier part of town and suggested that they meet after the office closed.
"Can it wait that long?" Chris asked gently.
"Yeah, it can wait that long. I've got leaflets to hand out again today and........."
"Vin, you okay?"
"Of course I'm okay. Why wouldn't I be?"
"No reason." He could not tell Vin that in his dream the young Texan had died a particularly horrible and agonising death. "I'll see you later."
"Yeah, see you."
After returning the receiver to its cradle he sat looking at it for a long time before heading for the bathroom.
At the other end of the line Vin too was looking hard at the telephone in his hand. Eventually he made his decision and, slowly reaching out, dialled JD's number.
The diner was situated in what had to be the seediest part of the seediest area of Denver known as Purgatorio. The formica tables were chipped and grimy. The chairs rocked on their uneven legs. Crockery and cutlery were piled up in unsteady piles, many thick with grease. In the corner stood a battered juke box playing, incongruously, "I Am A Rock" by Paul Simon. Vin stood next to the juke box, idly watching the disc spin round, listening intently to the words. He sighed and leant against the metallically cold outer casing, allowing the faint vibration from the machine to course through his body in an attempt to soothe his jangled nerves. He wanted out of the situation; he had never wanted out of a situation so much in his life, but he also had to help those youngsters and for Vin that was far more important than his own personal feelings and wants.
He watched wearily as Chris carefully picked his way through the puddles of water and probably obnoxious substances that cut across his path. He noticed how Larabee had his head slightly bowed as if he had all the cares of the world on his shoulders. The ubiquitous black clothing that his boss wore gave him a menacing air and it was strange to see the hard boys of the area scurrying out of his way in fear.
For his part, Chris had spotted Vin leaning against the juke box and even from a distance he could see the red eyes, the nervous stance and the highly strung nerves. Vin, he realised, was on the edge. God, what a mess. Damn Travis and the Morrison case, he just wanted to pull Tanner out now; but he was also realistic enough to know that, despite the personal cost, Vin would stay until the bitter end.
As Chris entered the diner Vin moved to sit down at the cleanest table he could find. Chris slipped on to the bench opposite him and nodded.
"You've lost weight," he observed, leaning back and casting a quick appraising glance over Tanner. Vin shrugged, all elation at seeing Chris dying with that opening remark.
"How's the Morrison case coming along?" he asked neutrally.
Chris glowered and picked up the dog chewed menu.
"Don't ask. Is the food here as bad as I have the feeling it's going to be? I'm starving."
Vin laughed, but without humour.
"You haven't changed." He wondered why it had been easier to talk to Chris at the ranch than here.
"Listen, I've been working my butt off for the last week, which is more than I can say for some people I could mention."
Vin felt his hackles rising but refused to allow himself to react. He needed to keep calm.
"How's Travis?" he asked.
"Getting fed up with Anna's father," Chris admitted.
"Yeah," Tanner responded distantly. He frowned and emptied the packets of matches from a nearby bowl, trying to build a house of cards with them. Given his initial impressions, Chris recognised the signs and contented himself with sitting back and watching. Vin had managed to build a couple of storeys when Chris moved, knocking the table, and sent it tumbling down.
Vin gave his boss a venomous look and started over again, blue eyes hooded and distant. There was a long silence as the house grew again, his fingers carefully manoeuvring the packets with the absorbed attention of a child.
Chris sat back carefully and regarded the young Texan patiently, noting the deepened hollows in the cheeks and at the base of the throat; feeling the tension and disquiet in the taut frame that he had seen earlier. Vin rested his head on his hand, looking at the "house" as if mesmerised.
"It's so very wrong," he said suddenly. His free hand gestured helplessly, grasping for words to describe his nebulous feelings. "I think .....Christ, I don't know!" The packets of matches went flying across the table and on to the floor. Chris' hand closed over Vin's wrist, capturing the slender bone and sinewy tendons in gently admonishing fingers.
"Relax and breathe," he said crisply. "What's wrong?"
Vin shook his head slowly and looked at Chris with unshed tears in his eyes. Chris felt a lump rise in his throat in sympathy.
"I don't know. A bad feeling."
"Probably gut ache; all that healthy food you've been eating," Chris said trying to lighten the atmosphere and completing unprepared for the reaction.
"Damn it, Chris," Vin almost screamed, leaping to his feet. "Should have called Buck. I'm going." He started past the blond man. Startled, Chris jumped up and followed the young Texan out, letting the diner door bang shut behind him.
"Vin!" he called after his colleague's retreating back. "Vin!"
He caught up with the younger man when he stopped to catch his breath by a dumpster. Vin was bent double and when Chris placed a hand on his back he could feel Vin's entire frame racked with sobs. Gently steering Tanner towards a nearby green patch, he managed to find a bench that had not been vandalised and drew the young man down beside him. He waited quietly while Vin sat and sobbed his heart out, gently rubbing the younger man's back. When the sobs had subsided somewhat, Vin drew the back of his hand across his nose. With a sigh, Chris dug into his pockets and finally managed to unearth a tissue which he handed to Vin. Tanner scrubbed his eyes.
"Sorry about that," he said sheepishly.
"Doesn't matter," Chris dismissed the outburst. "Now about your bad feeling?"
"That's just it, it is only a bad feeling that something's already happened - there's no proof. Travis needs proof."
"Damn Travis," Chris exploded. "I'd back your bad feeling against a court full of evidence any time."
Vin managed a watery smile at that.
"There are times when your implicit faith in my judgement worries me, Chris."
"Because your judgement leaves a lot to be desired."
Chris smiled back.
"I'll pull you out if you want," he offered softly.
"No," The response was like a pistol shot. Chris almost smiled again; it was only what he had expected.
"No," Vin replied more softly. He dug in his pocket and pulled out a scrap of paper. "Check up on these names for me, please Chris. They left the refuge this morning - going home, Matt said, but I'm not so sure. I'm going to have a scout round either tonight or tomorrow night, depending upon what Matt and Guy are up to, and see if I can find anything more concrete."
"And what if you don't find anything during your nocturnal meanderings?"
"Hang around until something happens, I suppose," Vin replied with a shudder. "I'll call you day after tomorrow, after breakfast, your place, whatever I find. " A thought suddenly struck him. "Have you got your keys on you?" From his pocket Chris fished out a set of skeleton keys. "And you'd better give me a credit card too, just in case."
"What's wrong with using your own?" Chris grumbled, dragging out his wallet.
"Had to renounce them along with all my other worldly possessions, remember. Don't worry I'm not likely to run into Macy's and land you with a huge bill. Silk stockings do nothing for my legs."
"Oh I don't know, given the white trousers."
Vin shot him a withering glare even as he glanced down at his watch.
"Shit, got to go. Talk to you soon." He turned on his heel and left without a backward glance. Chris watched him walk off down a narrow alleyway and saw that the tension had not left him.
"He's on his own in there," Chris reminded Travis forcefully. "He could be up against God knows what - they've already killed one police officer. I think he should have some back up."
"You do, do you?" Travis replied. "Well I don't. You're needed on the Morrison case."
"And what if Vin needs me in there? What if he gets into trouble? He's got no back up at all, not even a mobile to call for help!"
"For heaven's sake, Officer Larabee, he's not a child! He knew what he was getting into and he certainly doesn't need you holding his hand every step of the way!" the District Attorney snapped. He stared at his agent and saw a face set in angry lines, with eyes that did not try to hide his concern. Abruptly Travis softened his demeanour. "Chris, I know you're worried about him."
Chris snorted in frustration and glared balefully at his superior. Travis sighed.
"Wait until you hear from him, then I'll reconsider. For now I want you wrapping up the Morrison case." He raised his hand to cut off the automatic protest. "Go home, Chris, and get some rest."
Travis watched Team 7's leader leave, ramrod stiff with disapproval and not quite slamming the door behind him.
The night was darker than Vin thought possible as he crept silently down the stairs from the small attic room he shared with five other "disciples". He had managed to acquire a very small torch so that he was not completely in the dark but its small pool of light did little to dispel the shadows that lurked at every turn. Time was precious; he had a rendezvous with JD and was anxious not to keep the youngster waiting.
As he continued to creep down the stairs, the dark seemed to press in on him, triggering his claustrophobia and he had to fight the panic that steadily rose in him. Stopping at the bottom of the last flight, he breathed deeply, trying to calm his heavily beating heart. He considered where to go next to try and find the concrete evidence he so desperately needed to get them all out of there alive.
Suddenly he remembered the scullery at the back of the kitchen. During his tour of the refuge with Matt he had been told that the steps leading down to it, while few in number, were extremely worn and dangerous and it was not recommended that it was generally used. He had not thought much about it at the time but now, having exhausted all other possibilities, this seemed to be the obvious place. Cautiously he opened the large wooden door and set foot on the top step. Shining the small torch down into the depths he thought the steps looked in better condition than he had been led to believe and started to descend gingerly. He reflected that it would be extremely difficult to explain himself should he slip and break an ankle or wrist.
The scullery, when he reached it, was lined with filing cabinets. Quietly he began to open the drawers and riffle through the files he found in them. He soon understood the filing system and was able to pinpoint the most useful files - those that listed names, dates and delivery addresses. Concentrating on the most recent files he found those relating to the youngsters who had "gone home" that morning. He also found the files on those who were still at the refuge, including his own.
As he searched, the telephone rang and the answer machine clicked into life.
"Abdul, here," came clipped tones. "Last shipment received. Unfortunately some of the goods were damaged. Need replacements as a matter of urgency. In addition, we require young male Caucasian. Look forward to hearing from you."
The machine switched itself off and Vin quietly removed the tape, his stomach churning as he became convinced in his own mind who that "young male Caucasian" would be.
Having got all the files he could carry, he carefully retraced his steps up the stairs. Then he stopped to consider his next move. Shining the torch onto his watch face he saw that he still had twenty minutes before meeting JD. Suddenly he knew what he had to do and carefully placed the files and the tape down on the table before moving purposefully out of the kitchen.
Sonia woke suddenly with a hand over her mouth. Afraid, she looked up into the brilliant blue eyes of Vin Tascosa. Placing a finger on his lips, he gently released her. Quietly she sat up.
"What the hell are you doing, Vin? she demanded in a fierce whisper.
"Sonia do you trust me?" came the strange response.
She thought about it for a moment and then nodded.
"Yes, I trust you."
"Good, because I need to get you out of here tonight. Get dressed quickly."
He turned his back to allow her some privacy as she pulled on her trousers and sweatshirt. When she was ready she rested a hand gently on his arm.
"Ready," she whispered. "What's going on, Vin?"
"You're in danger if you stay here much longer," he explained.
"But why?" she asked, grabbing her shoes and tiptoeing out of the room after him.
Once on the landing, she stopped briefly to put her shoes on before following him downstairs, feeling safe and secure in his presence. When they reached the kitchen, Vin picked up the pile of files from the table and quietly unlocked the kitchen door. Like ghosts they slipped out into the garden of the refuge and headed for the low wall at the far end. An owl hooted as they approached and Vin hooted in reply. As they came up to the wall, Sonia took his arm.
"Why am I in danger, Vin?" she asked again.
"JD will explain," he replied. "He's waiting just over the wall."
She nodded as he handed her the files. Quickly he pulled himself up to the top of the wall and looked into the alley beyond.
"JD," he called softly.
The brunet glided to the bottom of the wall.
"Good. Listen, I've got the evidence for Chris - files and a tape. Oh, and JD."
"Sonia's here. I'm getting her out. I want you to hide her somewhere with the files and tape until the day after tomorrow. After I've spoken to Chris and we've arranged how you will be coming in, then we can take her home."
"Okay, Vin. You definitely staying?"
"Yes. Especially now. I have to cover Sonia's escape and make sure that the others aren't spirited away from under our noses."
Vin turned back to Sonia and held his hand out for the files. Silently she handed them up to him and he passed them down to JD. Then he dropped back into the garden.
"Now it's your turn," he told the girl and bent, offering his hands as a step up. Quickly she placed her foot in his hands and he hoisted her up to the top of the wall. Wriggling on to her stomach she glanced up the garden and her eyes opened in horror. Knowing instinctively that they had been discovered, Vin hissed,
"Don't tell JD."
Not understanding why, but trusting that he was right, she nodded her agreement and dropped down into the alleyway. The sound of two pairs of running feet was the last thing Vin heard for a long time.
"For Christ's sake, sir! Let me go in there!" Chris was past observing the niceties of senior/sub-ordinate relations. Travis regarded his officer with restrained impatience.
"Officer Larabee, I appreciate the fact that you are worried about Tanner. I commend you on your loyalty but you are over reacting. You know how difficult this job can be. There are many reasons why he may not have been able to call you yet. If you barge in there, guns blazing, you could put his life and those of the others in danger."
"But he told me he was going to call regardless of what he found. Something's happened to him."
Travis raised an eyebrow.
"I didn't know that clairvoyance was amongst your talents, officer," the District Attorney retorted. "You are out of order. If you haven't heard anything by this afternoon - late this afternoon - after you've raided the warehouse and closed Morrison's operation down - you can drive past the house and see if anything suspicious is happening. Nothing until then; no further action. Do I make myself clear?"
"Then what are you and the rest of your team doing standing around? Get Morrison closed down."
"Sir," Chris repeated as he turned on his heel and left his office, not caring that the door slammed behind him. The rest of the team cringed at the sound and stared studiously at their desks, trying to appear as if they had not heard every last word between the D.A and their boss. Chris did not care whether they had heard or not.
"Well, what the hell are you lot waiting for?" he snapped. "We have an operation to close down." He grabbed his bullet proof vest and headed for the weapons store. The other men exchanged glances and followed him, concerned about his mood but confident that he would channel it positively for the crack down.
By half past three that afternoon the Morrison case had been wrapped up and the team were headed back to the office. Cruising along the street, Chris slowed to a crawl and stared intently at the church's refuge. It was quiet and still, with no sign of life. With a sinking feeling in his stomach Chris pulled the Ram over and turned off the ignition.
"Wait here," he told Buck. "I'm going in."
Buck watched as Chris walked across the road. He had long ago learnt to trust his boss' instincts and if his moods over the last couple of weeks said that Vin was in trouble, then Buck was prepared to accept it. Chris pushed open the security gate that barred the entrance to the grounds, which was ominously unlocked. He went up to the front door and rang the bell. The sound echoed round the hallway of the house. He rang the bell again and, after waiting for a couple more minutes, he took out his gun and shouldered the door open.
As his boss broke in, Buck leapt out of the car and rushed across the road. Entering the house he looked round for Larabee, barely registering that the hallway was empty.
"Chris!" he yelled. "Are you sure this is a good idea?" He turned at the sound of someone slipping down the stairs. Chris sat on the bottom step, his face as white as a sheet. In his hand he held a band of turquoise and silver. Wordlessly Buck walked over to him.
"Vin?" he asked, but he already knew the answer.
Chris shook his head and his hands trembled as he punched Travis' number into his mobile.
"We're at the house now, sir," he reported, managing to inject the word "sir" with the venom of a rattlesnake. "I've searched it from top to bottom. Is the fact that it's deserted, evidence enough for you?"
Vin woke with the metallic taste of blood in his mouth. His lip was split and from the tingling of his cheek he knew he was in for a beauty of a black eye. His ribs ached but he did not think anything was broken; although the ropes cutting into his wrists felt as if they were going to separate his hands from his arms. Whatever Matt and Guy had in store for him, he was sure that it was not going to include being some lecherous old man's toy boy - not the way he looked now.
Slowly he tried to wriggle into a sitting position, pushing with his elbows that felt blood starved and his feet that had nothing to push against. The room was dark and he would not have been able to see his hand in front of his face even if he had been able to put it there; but he sensed that it was a small space that he was lying in. Eventually he managed to ease himself up so that he was sitting with his back against a wall, attempting to sense the layout of the rest of the room. Eventually he gave up and licked his swollen lips instead, trying to moisten them.
How long he sat in the dark too tired and battered even to panic, he did not know, but suddenly he heard the sound of a key in a lock and slowly turned to face the direction from which, he thought, it was coming. A shaft of artificial light fell across his legs as a door opened. A face peered in and Vin's heart sank when he saw it was Guy.
The blond man entered the room and hunkered down in front of the Texan.
"You're awake then?"
Vin did not dignify the question with an answer. Guy seemed to like that.
"That's all right, you don't need to speak. I have some very exciting ways of getting you to talk, so I don't mind if you don't want to open up yet." He smiled silkily as if he had said something funny. Vin grimaced and strained against his bonds, desperately wanting to knock Guy's head and that smile into next week.
"Now then, now then," Guy murmured, resting a hand lightly on the younger man's foot. Vin shook his foot hard but could not shake the other man off. Still smiling, Guy carefully removed Vin's trainer to reveal a bare foot.
"How thoughtful," he cooed and began massaging the toes gently.
"Get off you pervert," Vin hissed.
"Now that's not very nice, " Guy replied. "And it's not the only naughty thing you've done. Helping one of our young novices to escape wasn't very bright. You need to be punished." And so saying he bent down and, placing Vin's toes between his teeth, nipped them hard. Tanner gasped and tried to draw his foot away but Guy had too strong a grip and he continued to lick the foot, looking up at Vin from under his lashes all the time. The Texan closed his eyes in revulsion. His foot jerked unbidden and connected with Guy's teeth.
"Oh dear," the blond observed. "That wasn't nice either. I'm really going to have to help you learn to be nice to people." He fished round the back of him and drew a long wicked looking knife from his belt. Sitting back on his heels he eyed Vin speculatively and then drew the tip of the knife slowly down the length of Tanner's foot.
Even with his eyes closed Vin knew it was a knife and he willed himself not to flinch, he did not want a lacerated foot as well as a split lip; not if he wanted to walk away when he escaped.
"Oh I can see you're the strong silent type," Guy murmured. "I like that; I really like that. It's going to be a real challenge to break you but I'll do it in the end."
Vin shivered both at the certainty in the other man's voice and the feel of a hand creeping lightly over his calf under the dark baggy pantaloons he had donned for his night time search. Guy's hand explored and caressed the soft flesh under the legging, massaging the well toned calf muscles and muttering endearments. Tanner willed himself not to react, knowing that the more he did so the more he was putting himself at the blond's mercy.
When Guy's hand could go no further he withdrew it and abruptly stood up. Looking down at Vin for a moment, he suddenly picked the young man up in his arms and carried him from the room. Tanner struggled for a moment but with his bruised ribs he could do nothing to get free. His struggles seemed to excite Guy who looked down at him with a gleam in his eyes. Then he bent and licked Vin's cheek, savouring the dried blood. Tanner could not help the shudder that ran through his body at the touch.
"Seems like I excite you as much as you excite me," Guy whispered in his ear before biting the lobe. Vin jerked his head away, almost banging it on the wall of the passage that they were in. He knew he had to get away but at the moment his options seemed few unless, by some fluke, he could get his hands free.
Guy kicked open a door and Tanner found himself in a bedroom. Well, it was a room with a bed in it which, he supposed, made it a bedroom but there was very little else in there except a window that was boarded shut and a trapped bluebottle that was battering in frustration at the light. Guy placed the young man gently on the bed so that he was sitting up. Instinctively Vin drew his knees up to his chest and rested his chin on them, staring solidly ahead at the closing door.
The blond turned and eyed up the young Texan. His eyes ran over Vin's face, taking in the split lip, the badly cut eye and the bloodily bruised cheek.
"I asked Matt not to mark you," Guy sighed, almost in apology.
"And you expect me to be grateful to you?" Vin spat back.
"You could be a little bit nicer."
"Go to hell!"
Guy crossed the room and rested his hands on Vin's knees. Tanner dropped his head forward as the older man looked into his eyes.
"Oh, I'm sure I will," Guy murmured, "But if I do, gorgeous, then I'm taking you with me." He climbed on to the bed with his hands still resting on Vin's knees. Gently he pushed the knees apart and moved so that he knelt between them with his face only a couple of inches away from Tanner's. Ever so gently he put his hand under Vin's chin and tilted it up so that he could look into the beautiful blue eyes of the young man. His breath smelt rancid and Vin found himself gagging at the stench. Guy licked his lips and then ran a hand lightly down the Texan's throat. Vin felt his breath catch and then Guy closed the gap between them and placed his lips on Vin's.
The initial kiss was as light as gossamer and, for a moment, Vin thought he was imagining it but then it deepened and he found himself fighting for breath. Guy stroked Vin's throat again until the mouth he wanted opened reflexively and he could thrust his tongue inside.
Desperate to be rid of Guy, and before he had really thought it through, Vin bit down hard on the exploring tongue. Guy yelped and jerked backwards.
"Bitch!" he hissed and slapped Tanner hard across the face, opening up the split lip again. Vin smiled evilly and spat the blood into the other man's face. Shaking with anger, Guy untied the sweaty bandana from round his neck and forced it into Vin's mouth. Grabbing Vin's hair he yanked Tanner's head down and tied the bandana tightly. Then, pushing Vin's head back so hard that it cracked against the wall behind the bed, the blond scrambled off the bed, took hold of his victim's feet and pulled so that Vin found himself lying flat on the lumpy mattress.
Having got Tanner just where he wanted him, Guy straddled the body and removed his knife from his belt again. He tossed it in the air a couple of times and then began to slowly cut the buttons from Vin's shirt. As his shirt fell back from his body, Tanner finally realised that he was absolutely helpless in the face of the assault from the man. Guy licked the tip of his knife and then began to run it down Vin's chest and stomach, smiling at the shivers he elicited from the younger man's body.
The knife danced like a butterfly over Tanner's naked torso and he closed his eyes, feeling the cold metal run round the elasticated top of his pantaloons. He knew exactly what was going to happen to him and there was not a damn thing he could do about it.
"Chris ........ so sorry," he screamed in his mind and then, mercifully, he lost consciousness.
As soon as he knew of Vin's disappearance, JD brought the files and tape into the office. He also brought Sonia. She sat nervously in Chris' office explaining what she knew of the church and telling him what had happened the night before last. JD sat beside her.
"What I don't understand, " Chris said, running his hand through his hair, "is why you and Vin didn't tell us what you had planned, JD."
JD sighed, knowing that this could be difficult.
"Vin wanted to make sure the files were safe. He was worried that if there was a bust Matt would be able to destroy them. The tape was a bonus."
"I was an afterthought," the blonde girl admitted. "But once he had made up his mind to get me out, he also decided to stay and cover my escape."
"And you saw Matt and Guy coming?"
"Yes, I did and Vin knew they were too. He told me not to tell JD."
"I don't know. You all know him better than I do, I'm sure you must have some idea."
The trouble was Chris did know. Vin would never put the life of a team member in danger; he was the only one who was allowed to risk his life, in Vin's eyes anyway. He sighed.
"Thank you, Sonia. We'd like to keep you in a safe house for a while until this thing is wrapped up. Is that okay with you?"
"Fine," Sonia replied. "I didn't want to go home anyway - at least, not yet."
Chris nodded and JD led the girl out, glad to get off so lightly.
As the days went by, the atmosphere in the office became thicker and thicker until it needed, not a knife, but a chainsaw to cut it. Everyone spoke in hushed voices, afraid of calling down Chris' wrath by a word spoken out of place. Chris himself retreated into corners, silent and smouldering, eying the world with a baleful glare. Everyone, and especially JD, avoided him when possible. No one mentioned Vin in his hearing. Buck continued to work with him, knowing Chris as well as he did he accepted the other's black silences and machinelike efficiency with practised stoicism. Only once did Chris say anything and it was on the way back from yet another interminable stake out.
"Sorry I'm such lousy company." His voice was dead.
"No worries. I understand," Buck responded in measured tones.
"It's the not knowing," Chris continued, almost as if he had not heard his friend. "If I knew one way or the other ....... I'm not good at waiting; that's always been Vin's department."
Buck struggled for something to say but, for once, words failed him. Instead he took one hand from the wheel and punched Chris' arm lightly. It was then that he saw that Chris was holding Vin's turquoise and silver band, rolling it round in his hand. A wave of anger swept over the dark haired agent. No one should have to be put through this.
When they reached the D.A's office, Chris sent Buck home.
"Go on, I'll fill Travis in. No point two of us having a late night. I'll see you in the morning." He watched Buck drive off, the Ram breaking sharply to avoid a wino who was meandering across the road.
He entered the office block, oblivious to the security guard's greeting. At this time of the night it was virtually deserted, the halls and corridors echoing to his footsteps, mocking him with a colleague who was no longer at his side. A colleague whose eyes shone with laughter. Chris caught sight of himself in a burnished wall, eyes hollow from lack of sleep, shoulders hunched defiantly. God, he was so tired.
"Where the hell are you, Vin?" He had not realised that he had spoken aloud until he heard the words whispering down the corridor.
Chris tensed and then relaxed, turning to face Travis, too tired to be insolent. He did not want to fight with Travis, after all the man had only been doing his job. Like Vin.
Travis could find no words for the exhausted man in front of him. The last few days had been taken up with court appearances, plea bargaining and jail visits until they had all blurred and jumbled together. He indicated that Chris should follow into him into his office.
Larabee closed the door behind him and watched as the District Attorney poured them both a Jack Daniels. He downed the proffered drink in one and sat down on the edge of the nearest chair, placing the tumbler on the desk in front of him. Travis sipped his more slowly and sat behind his desk, putting some distance between himself and Chris as he started to speak.
"There's no news, I'm afraid. No one saw them leave. It's as if they never existed."
"If you'd let me go in when I wanted this wouldn't have happened," Chris said, but there was no anger in his voice. He was too tired to be angry anymore.
"Don't start," Travis said quietly. "All precincts have drafted in extra men for the search and photos have been distributed of Vin and the two suspects."
"It's all a bit late now."
"It's never too late, Chris!" the D.A snapped. "It's never too late until......" He stopped suddenly, painfully aware of where his sentence was leading and then forced himself to finish. "Until we have recovered a body."
Chris regarded him with something akin to humour.
"There're a hundred ways to dispose of a body - just ask the Mafia."
"Nevertheless, I will not accept he's dead until I have concrete proof."
"That's one way," Chris agreed. "Concrete overcoat and into the Platte like that other poor sod."
"Of course, if you've given up on him........."
"No!" The word exploded from Chris.
"Good. So long as we're singing from the same hymn sheet."
At whose funeral, Chris wondered. Travis looked at him gravely.
"Go home and sleep, Chris. There's really nothing we can do to find Vin that the regular officers can't do and with considerably more manpower than we can muster. So, for the moment, we must leave it in their capable hands."
Chris nodded briefly and walked out of the office, leaving Travis looking out over the city. As he watched the traffic in the streets below and listened to its distant hum, the District Attorney wondered why there was no one to help the kindly Vin Tanner in his hour of need.
Looking back on those few weeks, Chris knew they had to be the worst in his life; worse, somehow, than when he had lost Sarah and Adam. He had had his heart ripped from his body then when they had been killed by the bomb meant for him; but at least it had been final. He had been able to catch the perpetrators, inter the bodies, mourn and try to move on. But it was this not knowing, not being able to end it.
He did not know how Vin had managed to infiltrate the carefully built wall that he had erected around himself after his family's deaths, but he had. Somehow, with his quiet understanding and concern he had torn the bricks down one by one until Chris found that he cared again for his fellow man and, especially, for Vin Tanner who seemed to have become the younger brother he had never had.
It was more than being a brother, however, it was like having a soul mate; their connection was such that each seemed to know what the other was thinking and feel when the other was hurting or in danger. And that was what scared Chris so much, that they seemed to have lost some of that before Tanner went undercover and now he could not feel Vin and there was only one reason for that that he could think of.
The first week they received confirmation, as if any were needed, that Vin had been taken. The ATF had a special telephone set up, with a designated number, purportedly belonging to the front desk of a local newspaper. Ezra took the anonymous call. It was from a payphone and the caller wanted to know if a reporter called Vin Tascosa worked for them.
"Yes," Ezra replied, "but he's not in at the moment. Who shall I say called?" The line went dead and the conversation had been too short to trace. It did not confirm that Vin was alive but the fact that somebody was checking up on him brought a small ray of hope to the team. What it did not do was get them any nearer to finding their missing team member.
Over the next couple of weeks various church members were picked up and questioned closely. It soon became obvious that they knew nothing about the church's illegal activities. They could only say that Matt had told them it was unsafe to be together for the moment due to media interest and that he would be in touch once it had died down. None of them knew where Matt was; nor did they know where Guy was at this moment. Most of them wanted to know what was going on; a few could not care less and several confirmed the agents' worst fears that Guy had shown more than a passing interest in Vin.
And then Vin's blood stained clothes were recovered from the Platte; not the baggy pantaloons and sweatshirt that he had been wearing the night he had been caught but the white shirt and trousers he had worn at the mall. Forensics had one hell of a job getting the garments away from Chris so that they could run the usual batch of tests. Larabee had wanted to hold on to them as if, by doing so, he would be able to connect with Vin. Eventually Buck had persuaded him to allow the lab to do their work and give the team anything they could to help in the search for the young Texan.
When the results came in they were not good. The blood was all Vin's and it was copious. It was clear that whatever had happened to him had caused him to lose a lot of blood. There were other various substances which the scientist listed quietly but most of it went unheard by the team. There was nothing that could link the clothes to any specific location other than the river in which they had been found. Whoever had Vin had been very careful to ensure that there were no clues.
Chris left the office soon after the forensic report came in and drove down to the Platte, staring into the dark swirling waters for hours before going home, getting drunk and crawling into bed to sleep it off. JD, Josiah and Nathan quietly went through the forensic report again in case they had missed something first time round. Against orders, Ezra rang round his numerous shady contacts to see if anyone knew anything at all and Buck just went straight home, got drunk and crawled into bed to sleep it off.
When Vin finally came to he nearly passed out again from pain. He was just aware that there was nothing that did not hurt. His head swam and it was dark. Eventually he figured it was not his eyes that were the problem but that he was in a dark place. He was relieved that there was nothing wrong with his eyes and then tried to gather his woolly thoughts to work out where he actually was. His brain was on fire and it was difficult to think of, let alone concentrate, on more than one idea at a time. After a few moments consideration, he slowly became aware that his hands were free. Then he realised that, having spent much of the time while he was in Guy's hands dressed in his white trousers and shirt, he was now back in his sweatshirt and jogging pants and this indicated strongly to him that the blond had finished playing.
Tentatively he stretched his hands out and felt them brushing against wood. Slowly he moved them round and came to the conclusion that he was in a crate. At the realisation his hate of small places kicked in, closely followed by panic. He hit out at the side of the crate in front of him in blind fury and, to his utter amazement, he heard the wood crack. Painfully he manoeuvred in the cramped space until he was on his knees and began to tear at the wood with his bare hands until they were raw and bleeding.
Unable to see he could only feel when he had made a hole large enough to get through. At last he knew that he could do no more and that he just had to get out. Wriggling through the torn planks he fell a short distance onto a concrete floor below and he realised that the crate had been one of a pile. Hurting too much to know whether he had added to his injuries or not, Vin used the crates to pull himself to his feet before heading off into the darkness with grim determination.
The monotonous but insistent ring of the telephone cut through Buck's drink induced stupor. Cursing the caller profusely and with his mouth feeling like the bottom of a bird cage, he fumbled for the receiver.
There was a long pause at the other end of the line during which he could hear the clatter of computer keyboards and the other maddening sounds they made.
For a moment Buck would not let himself believe what he was hearing.
"Vin?" he whispered and then sat bolt upright, hangover forgotten. "Vin, where the bloody hell are you?"
There was another long pause and Buck could hear slow, laboured breathing before Vin named a precinct.
The section house was quietly busy with off duty officers chattering quietly over tea and coffee in the briefing room. No one took much notice of the man sat in the corner, hands clasped round a steaming mug. In a lull in the conversation the sound of a Ram drawing up outside could be heard. With extreme difficulty Vin Tanner lifted his head; he would know the sound of that engine anywhere. The door opened and Buck strode in followed by a protesting officer.
Buck's eye swept over the young Texan from head to toe, noting the haggard features, the too bright eyes and the bleeding hands.
"God, Vin, you look like shit." The words were out of his mouth before he had had time to stop and think.
"And a good morning to you too, Buck," Tanner replied wearily, trying to smile up at the man but finding that his mouth would not co-operate. Giving a small shrug he withdrew once more onto the seat, watching Buck with hooded eyes. Buck back pedalled quickly.
"You feel ready to go?"
"Good. You've got a lot of explaining to do. You know it's against regulations to take your holiday during a stake out. Travis is very peeved."
"I'll bet." Vin laughed shortly. He wanted to ask if Chris was peeved too but did not have the courage; he felt that he knew how his boss was feeling.
Buck turned to the officer who was still hovering uncertainly in the doorway.
"I'll take it from here. Any trouble, just contact the D.A's office."
The officer nodded speechlessly and scurried back to his place on the front desk.
"I think you frightened him," Vin commented.
"Moi?" Buck pretended to be affronted at the thought. "More likely to be you - you look like ........" Hell? No, he couldn't say that. "..... A soaking wet scarecrow," he finished lamely.
"It's been raining," Vin pointed out. "Or were you too busy to notice?"
"Oh, yeah," Buck agreed. "Had them lining up; barely time to look out of the window. No, my point is that you'll ruin the upholstery in the jeep and it's only just recovered from the last time someone bled all over it. The finance men won't like it."
"Fuck the finance men," Vin commented uncharacteristically as he swayed slightly where he sat.
"Yeah," Buck murmured. "I like that idea. Come on, let's go home."
Tanner nodded wearily.
"Sounds good to me." He turned to a sergeant who was sitting nearby. "Thanks for the coffee, Dave."
"No problem. Nice to see you in one piece. At least I can get rid of that dreadful picture of you. My wife was beginning to wonder."
A shadow flitted across Vin's face and if Buck had not been watching him closely he would have missed it.
There was a general chorus of farewells and then Buck was unobtrusively steering Vin out of the section house towards the jeep. It was still raining stair rods that bounced off the road as they walked.
Buck pulled away from the kerb and tucked the jeep into the early morning traffic, cruising slowly not wanting to hurry. He wanted time to soak up that familiar presence and convince himself that Vin was really sitting beside him. Tanner crossed his arms over his chest, trying to suppress the uncontrollable shivering that was racking his body. The hot air blowing on him from the car's heater did nothing to alleviate the numbing cold. He glanced across at Buck as he peered through the windscreen and into the driving rain.
"Thought I's a goner."
"Don't talk about it; not yet," Buck ordered. Looking over at the younger man, he smiled and reached out a hand to tousle Vin's untidy hair. The Texan flinched away and his eyes filled with tears. Buck slowly withdrew his hand.
"It's okay, Vin. You're safe," he said gently.
With what could only be described as a whimper, Vin drew his arms in tighter and closed his eyes.
After a hot bath Vin had finally stopped shivering but the dazed fearful expression was still there making Buck want to break something - anything. His initial euphoria at having Tanner back was transmuting into a black solid anger - an anger that was directed partly at the District Attorney but mainly at whoever was responsible for the needle tracks in Vin's arms and the injuries to his body.
Keeping his anger sternly in check, he helped Vin into his bed, piled blankets on top of him and then perched on the bedside table.
"I'll stay until Nathan gets here to check you over."
"No, Buck. You go to work. No point Chris being mad with both of us."
"Why would he be mad with either of us?" Buck demanded.
"I......I didn't do my job right," Vin whispered. "Never should have got caught. Go, Buck."
Buck threw his hands up in exasperation but knew better than to argue with Vin when he was in this mood. He quietly left the room, reluctantly leaving Tanner to curl up under the bedcovers. Despite everything Vin finally managed to fall into a sleep that, for the first time in weeks, was not drug induced.
Chris looked up sharply as Buck entered the office.
"You're late," he snapped, not even trying to hide his irritation. Buck ignored the tenure of the voice and, crossing the room, laid a hand on the older man's arm.
"Thought you'd like to know, I've just put Junior to bed."
Silence greeted his remark, even the external noises seemed to die away, before the whole room erupted and every man present dashed to find his jacket. Every man except Chris who looked up at Buck. For the first time Buck noticed how old and tired his friend seemed. There was a faint grey tinge to his skin and his eyes were hollow and lifeless.
"How is he, Buck?"
"Bad. Very bad." He could not lie to Chris; anyway Chris would see for himself soon enough. "He's doped up to the eyeballs with something and he's got more tracks on his arms than Grand Central Station. He's a bloody mess, literally. I didn't want to leave him, but he insisted. You know Vin."
Yes, Chris thought, he knew Vin and he ran his hand through his hair.
"Who found him?" he asked finally.
"One of his old army ranger friends found him wandering along the road, seemingly drunk. He pulled over when he recognised him, realised that there was something very wrong and took him to the nearest section house."
"I want this lot more than I've wanted anything in my life," Chris said.
"We all do," Buck assured him, "and we won't rest until we have them. Hopefully Vin can give us some clues; but for now I think Nathan ought to see him and give him something for his physical injuries."
Vin opened his eyes cautiously. He seemed to be in his own room but he had dreamt that so often over the past few weeks that he was no longer sure that he could trust his senses. A low murmur reached him from the next room and he realised that he possibly was where he thought he was and that the others were all in there. Hell, he thought, did they have to gather like vultures waiting for him to die? Then his stomach turned traitor and he was filled with a churning, writhing nausea that had him up and running for the bathroom, unaware of the clock that he sent flying as he passed. Dropping to his knees he retched until he was afraid that his guts were going to come up as well.
In the next room the men heard the clock fall and leapt to their feet as one.
Groaning, Vin rested his forehead on the wonderfully cool bathroom floor. Suddenly he felt his dressing gown drop over his naked back and a quick, gentle touch to the back of his head.
"You're awake then?" Chris' voice observed.
"Jesus Christ, Chris," Vin moaned as he bent double over the toilet bowl again. This time when the heaving subsided he leaned his back against the wall, resting his head against the towels that hung from the towel rack. He could feel cold sweat trickling down his sides and curling the hair on his head, while his teeth chattered away merrily to themselves.
"Come on, Vin, you'll catch your death sitting there."
"Go to hell. Can't you let a man die in peace?"
"You're not going to die," came the quiet reply. "Go back to bed."
Tanner's response was to be sick again and he could feel a pair of strong hands, warm on his clammy skin, supporting him and easing his muscles. His stomach hurt with heaving and his mouth was sour with bile. There was the sound of running water and a cool flannel was pressed to his face, wiping away sweat and grime. Chris allowed him to relax for a few minutes and then spoke again.
"Do you think you can make it back to bed?"
Vin considered the possibility from all angles and then shook his head.
"No," he whispered and turned away so that he did not have to see Chris' contempt at his weakness. Suddenly he felt himself lifted up in a pair of strong arms and carried into the bedroom. Instinctively he wanted to bury his head in the man's shoulder and weep for all that he had been unable to achieve but instead he stiffened and held his body like a ramrod.
Chris lowered Vin gently on to the bed, fully aware that the other man had been less than happy about being carried and, as he did so, somewhere in the depths of Vin's mind, a memory stirred and the young Texan shuddered involuntarily.
"Get settled," Chris said softly. "I'm going to send Nathan in to take a look at you."
"What like a prize bull?" Vin asked testily, drawing his knees up to his chest and hugging them tightly.
"No, as a friend who's hurt," Chris replied.
"I don't want to see him."
"Vin," Chris sighed, "it's not a request, it's an order." He leant forward and placed his hands on the younger man's knees in what was meant to be a comforting gesture. The effect was electrifying. For one moment Vin stared at him in abject terror and then he screamed once, high and shrill like a wounded animal, before retreating to the top of the bed, whimpering and cradling his hands in his armpits, his head bowed, rocking himself backwards and forwards.
Chris stood transfixed at the reaction his simple, well meaning gesture had elicited, even as the others rushed into the room.
"Hell, Chris," Buck muttered, "What did you do to him?"
"Nothing," Chris replied, ripped apart by Vin's distress.
Nathan approached the bed carefully and sat down on the edge of it.
"Vin, I need to take a look at you," he said gently and put a hand under the young Texan's chin to tilt it up. Vin gave a howl and threw himself across the bed away from the caring hand. The bedside table went flying as he fell onto the floor. Without a second thought, Chris moved towards him and knelt beside him, capturing the weakly flailing arms.
"Vin," he called softly. "Vin, stop fighting me, I don't want to hurt you."
Gradually Tanner stopped thrashing around as he got weaker until eventually he lay as limp as a rag doll in Chris' arms.
"Going to be sick," Vin murmured to no one in particular and bent double, trying to empty an already empty stomach. Chris held him until all retching had ceased and then carefully lifted him back up onto the bed.
"I'll give him something to make him sleep," Nathan said.
"No needles," Buck said. "Think he's had enough of them." They all saw what he meant when they looked at Vin's arms. Nathan mixed a powder into a glass of water and then, while Chris held the by now almost comatose Vin, dripped the liquid down Tanner's throat. The medic then turned to them all.
"Now out," he ordered. "I don't want you all getting in the way while I examine him - and that includes you, Chris."
While Nathan examined their stricken colleague, Chris called Travis and told him that Vin had returned to the fold. Ten minutes later and the District Attorney was standing in the room with them. Eventually Nathan emerged from the bedroom.
"Morning, sir," he greeted Travis.
"How is he, Nathan?" the D.A asked, more gently than any of them would have thought possible. Nathan sighed.
"I suppose he could be worse. But there again, he could be better."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Buck demanded. "How could he be worse than what we saw in there?"
"He'll need far more extensive tests," Nathan explained, "but basically he's had a bloody rough time and he needs rest - lots of rest. He's undernourished, dehydrated, in pain and at the mercy of nightmares. His ribs are badly bruised, possibly cracked. And," he paused, wondering how to break the last piece of news. Chris caught the odd catch in Jackson's voice.
"And?" he prompted the medic gently.
"He's suffering from partial amnesia."
"Amnesia?" Travis exclaimed. "Oh my god. Will he get his memory back?"
"He might do," Nathan replied with a shrug. "There again, he might not. It's traumatic amnesia caused by everything he's been through. There's no evidence of major head injuries, although it's hard to tell under all those bruises and blood. I've taken a blood sample so we should be able to find out what drugs he was being given. Whatever they were, he was getting them regularly and in big doses. There's no evidence of physical abuse."
"What do you mean no evidence of physical abuse? You just have to look at him," Buck cried, voicing the thought in everyone's mind.
"The signs are consistent with a number of vicious beatings, yes," Nathan explained patiently, "but I'm talking about torture. There's no evidence of torture."
"I see." Buck subsided.
"What do you suggest, Nathan?" Travis asked.
"My advice is to leave him alone until we can run some tests. Whatever happened it wasn't nice. I'm not a psychologist but he's suffering from some sort of shock, emotional as well as physical. Give him a couple of weeks holiday when I've finished with him, let him regain some of his balance and then let Josiah have a few sessions with him."
Travis drummed his fingers impatiently on a nearby table top.
"Nathan, Vin knows something. Those files are only helpful to a point; he has information that we desperately need about Dawson's current plans for those youngsters. Is there any way that we can get it from him now?"
"I'm telling you, Travis, if you push him now you'll be sending him straight into a padded cell. He is very close to the edge - we've all seen it." Nathan glanced round at the rest of the team for support.
"You didn't see him earlier," JD said. "We did. As Nathan says, Vin's real close to the edge."
"If he doesn't remember," Travis said softly, "we can kiss those boys and girls goodbye."
"You heard what Nathan said," Buck said tightly. "If we push him......"
"Yes, I heard what he said but tell me, Officer Wilmington, what do I say to the Chief of Police and the other parents?"
Buck had no answer; nor did any of the others. Eventually Chris broke the heavy silence that had fallen.
"Are you going to give Vin time off, sir?"
"You can't let him loose on his own," Chris pointed out.
"I have no intention of doing any such thing," Travis snapped. "I want you with him every step of the way, Officer Larabee, I don't want you to let him out of your sight."
There was a short silence. When Travis spoke again his manner was softer and more resigned.
"Where will you take him?"
"We'll go out to the ranch," Chris said heavily. "Vin likes it out there. Says it's peaceful."
"Good." Travis walked slowly to the door of the bedroom. "I'll just have a word with Vin before I go."
Chris nodded and turned away as Travis pushed the door open. The District Attorney thought Vin was asleep so he went in very quietly to stand beside the bed and look down at his officer. As he turned to go, Tanner spoke,
"I thought you were asleep," Travis said quietly, turning back.
"Nearly," Vin murmured, then he frowned. "I'm sorry."
"Now, let's not be hearing any of that. Don't waste your energy on what can't be changed. Concentrate on getting well."
"It's just a blank. Nothing," Vin continued as if he had not heard Travis which, the D.A decided upon reflection, he probably had not.
"That's enough, Tanner. We'll talk about it later," Travis said firmly.
"Sir," Vin replied very faintly. His eyelids fluttered and finally the sedative kicked in fully, sending him into oblivion.
Travis stayed beside the bed watching Vin slip into a deep slumber. After a few minutes he stretched out a hesitant hand and smoothed back the ragged hair; then he pulled the bedclothes closer around the totally still body. Very quietly he left the room, standing to one side to allow Chris and Nathan to enter. They breathed a sigh of relief when they saw that the young Texan was finally dead to the world. Gently they started to clean away the blood, sweat and tears that coated his frail body and treat his cuts and abrasions; both painfully struck by how young Vin looked as he slept. They knew that they all tended to forget how young Tanner really was; he seemed to have such an old head upon his shoulders.
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