PART ONE | PART TWO
PARTS THREE and FOUR
Next morning the city was fogbound, a state that seemed to mirror Chris' mind as he looked round the outer office waiting for Travis to arrive. He could not help glancing across at Vin who clearly had not slept at all; neither had he shaved, his chin stubbled by a golden down. His initial attempts at conversation had been rebuffed as Vin was sullen, silent and clearly depressed. In fact Chris could not remember when Vin had ever been worse and instinctively knew that to try and provoke him out of the mood would be disastrous.
At five minutes to nine Travis walked into the outer office. He glanced round at the team members, his gaze lingering fractionally longer on Tanner. Nodding at Chris, he entered the team leader's smaller inner office. At exactly nine o'clock, he appeared at the door again.
"Officers Larabee and Tanner I'm ready to see you now."
Chris stood up and waited while Vin struggled to his feet. He walked ahead of the young Texan into the room and sat down leaving the chair nearest the door vacant. Tanner slouched in and slumped into the empty chair. It was clear that he wanted to be anywhere but there. Chris looked at Travis, trying to read his boss' impassive face and was sufficiently worried by what he saw in the pale eyes to feel his spirits plummeting.
Travis walked over to the window before turning to look at them.
"There's no easy way to say this," he began abruptly, "but the information you gave was fairly useless."
Vin looked up, startled. Slowly he got to his feet and walked round the desk to look the D.A. straight in the face.
"What?!" he hissed.
"I'm sorry, Officer Tanner, whatever they discussed during your imprisonment it wasn't truly incriminating. However, they obviously couldn't afford to take the chance that you might have overhead something important hence the efforts to erase your memory."
"Sorry?!" he exploded. "All of that for nothing?" He choked on the last word and shut his mouth tightly. What little colour that had been in his face drained completely away and he felt his knees buckle. Chris leapt forward to catch the young Texan before he fell.
"Don't touch me. Stay away from me," Vin hissed, catching himself on the desk, and Larabee recoiled from the venom in the voice. Pulling himself upright Tanner raised his eyes to Travis as the man corrected him.
"Not entirely for nothing. At least you won't have to deal with your nightmares any more. Officer Sanchez tells me that you will be perfectly all right now, given a little time."
"Big deal!" Vin sneered. "And how much time have those youngsters got? For all we know they're being beaten into submission even as we speak - or maybe going through what I did! Oh god, not that." He finished with a groan and hid his face in his hands.
"I am well aware of the problem, Officer Tanner," Travis said firmly. "We will work with what we've got and hope that something else turns up."
"That's not good enough," Vin snarled, looking ready to launch himself as the District Attorney.
"It will have to do for the present. And I will not be spoken to in that manner. Control yourself," Travis said sharply.
"I am perfectly in control," Vin replied tightly. "And I will speak to you in any damn way I please."
"Vin....." Chris started.
"And don't you start neither Larabee," he snapped.
Before either man could respond, Vin had stalked out of the room, slamming the door behind him. They heard the outer door slam as well and then there was silence.
Although all he wanted to do was follow Tanner, Chris forced himself to turn back to Travis.
"Er, did Josiah mention that Vin might be a little unpredictable over the next few days?"
"That wasn't unpredictable; that was pure dumb insolence as far as I'm concerned." Travis hit the desk in frustration.
"With all due respect, sir, you've heard the tapes; you know what he's been through. You can't expect rational behaviour........."
"Thank you, Officer Larabee, but he's not made of sugar candy and I'll not treat him as such. He's got to face up to it, accept it and put it behind him."
Chris sighed; it was going to be a difficult few weeks. He looked directly at his boss.
"I'm sure he will, sir, but give him some time. Changing the subject, is his information really useless?"
Travis had the grace to look slightly embarrassed.
"Not quite as useless I allowed him to believe," he admitted. "I'm hoping that if he thinks that then he'll start doing some digging on his own account and unearth information that's even more useful."
Chris stared at him aghast.
"You set him up?" he whispered in horror.
"Not exactly," Travis corrected. "And I'll not have my motives questioned, even by you, Officer Larabee."
"Sir. If you'll excuse me."
Chris turned on his heel and left the office, fuming now that he was no longer under Travis' close scrutiny. The D.A. flinched as the outer door slammed for a second time. Surely it was time for him to retire?
Chris finally tracked Vin down in the boiler room in the basement. The young Texan had established a number of bolt holes over the course of his time with the team but Chris now knew them all. He had hoped that he would not find Tanner in the basement because that meant Vin had reached rock bottom but, when all the other places turned up empty, he had to accept that his junior officer was down there.
Quietly he entered the room and perched on the edge of the janitor's table. Vin was draped over the small fridge that stood in the corner; head resting on folded arms. He did not look up when Larabee entered; did not even appear to have noticed him. After some minutes of silence he finally spoke in a muffled voice.
"Don't suppose you stopped to think that I might want to be alone?"
"In that case you should have picked a more original hiding place," Chris pointed out gently.
"What do you want, Chris?" Vin asked wearily.
"I need you to get a grip, Vin. You really pissed Travis off back there."
"Well excuse me for breathing, Officer God Almighty Larabee."
"Vin, I'm trying to help you if you would only let me."
"Don't want your help so just fuck off!"
"Vin, come and talk to Josiah at least."
"No!" The word was an anguished howl as Vin spun round and came at Chris, fists flailing. Larabee caught Tanner's hands and twisted them behind the young man's back, trying not to hurt him. Feet deputised and Chris was caught sharply on the shin.
"Christ, Vin," he snapped.
Vin stilled and threw his head up defiantly.
"Yeah?" he challenged.
Chris swallowed hard and released him.
"Nothing. Go get some coffee or something."
Vin shoved past Larabee, almost pushing the older man over. At the door he turned.
"Oh yes, that's going to solve everything, a mug of coffee."
Chris took a step towards him.
"Vin......" his voice trailed away when he saw Vin's expectant face.
"You going to hit me?!"
"No, I'm not going to hit you." The apparent look of disappointment on Tanner's face was almost more than Chris could bear. He rubbed a hand across his face. He was so used to the reserved, phlegmatic Texan acting as an anchor to his mood swings and wild outbursts that he found this role reversal hard. A completely out of control Tanner, the like of which he was witnessing, was something he had never experienced before. Mildly loco, yes; but this was definitely different. It was as if Vin had lost everything that kept him rooted firmly in reality. Chris did not like it and he as sure as hell did not know what to do about it - except lash back and he was pretty sure that wasn't the answer.
"Fine, don't hit me then - coward," Vin responded as he fled the room. Chris sighed deeply, rubbed his shin ruefully and followed Tanner out.
Vin stopped his headlong flight at the stairwell and drove a fist into the wall, trying to pretend that he was not fighting with Chris. Sucking his grazed knuckles he continued slowly up the stairs to Team 7's office. Belligerently he pushed the outer door open and headed straight for the coffee. Buck and JD were the only people in the office and they exchanged concerned looks as Tanner ignored them completely.
Vin gulped down a few mouthfuls of coffee and then collapsed at his desk, a moody scowl covering his features. JD glanced up and decided to take a chance.
"How are things going? Any leads?"
"Chris is in his office - were you looking for him?"
JD nodded slowly. He wanted to say something comforting to Vin, to let him know that the team cared about him and wanted to help; but Vin did not take kindly to those sentiments at the best of times, and these certainly were not the best of times. To hell with it, JD thought, I can only die once.
"What is it, JD?"
"We all know you've been having a rough time of it but we are all behind you, for what it's worth."
He was rewarded by a tired, sad smile.
"It helps, JD, but I'd be happier if someone would come up with some information about those bastards so that we can get them."
Vin grunted in exasperation.
"Sorry! Some epitaph, huh? That's going to look good on those youngsters' gravestones!" Unable to control his actions, he hurled the coffee mug across the room where it broke in a shower of shards against the opposite wall. Coffee dripped down the paintwork looking uncomfortably like blood. JD and Buck froze in horror as Vin buried his head in his hands, shaking visibly.
They all looked over to the inner door where Chris stood, one hand on the door knob.
"I've just had Travis on the 'phone. In case you're interested, the airport police have picked up Menzies trying to board a flight to Egypt. Travis wants to see us both - now."
Without a backward glance Vin grabbed his jacket and walked out of the room. Stopping only to pick up his own jacket, Chris followed him.
Left on their own, Buck let out a soft whistle.
"Think winter's arrived early," he observed.
"Yeah, definite chill in the air," JD agreed. "What a mess."
"And it won't be as easy to clear up as that coffee," Buck said, fetching a wet cloth and tackling the offending liquid before it stained the wall.
Travis could not disguise his eagerness as Vin and Chris walked into his office. He was bristling with pent up tension and his voice cracked like a whip.
"Okay, this is the breakthrough we've been waiting for. If we apply pressure at the right time we'll break him. He won't know why he's been arrested but he'll probably be worried and we can make that act to our advantage. You, Tanner, are our trump card. As far as Menzies is concerned you were only a reporter. He won't be expecting you to appear so we're going to keep you hidden at first. Larabee and I will handle the preliminaries." He paused in his machine gun-like delivery and looked closely at Tanner. "Officer Larabee go down and prepare interview room six, please. They'll be arriving in about half an hour."
Once Chris had left the room the D.A. turned to Tanner and took a deep breath. He noticed that the man was standing stiffly to attention, his face pallid and his eyes dead. He willed himself to relax and then took a deep breath.
"Sit down, Tanner."
"I know you are under a certain amount of pressure at the moment and so I'll understand if you are in any doubt about your ability to handle this interrogation. If you do not wish to be included, please say so now."
Vin's head shot up angrily and his eyes flashed with suppressed rage - which was not much better than the previous deadness, Travis reflected.
"I can handle it," Vin snapped.
"Are you sure?" Travis asked quietly, almost gently.
"Of course I'm bloody sure!"
Travis chose to ignore the language.
"Good," he said abruptly. "Now, what's the matter between you and Larabee?"
Vin stared up at his superior, startled by the question. Travis never asked such questions of his agents.
"Nothing," he replied eventually, trying to smooth his features.
"You can't fool me, Officer Tanner. I've got eyes and I know you don't take me for a fool."
"Nothing for you to worry about," Vin responded tersely.
"I hope not. But whatever it is, get it sorted - sooner rather than later. I don't want to have to mention it again or take it further. Do I make myself clear?"
"Crystal," Vin muttered. "Where do you want me to wait?"
"In the adjoining room, that's why I chose room six. Larabee will fetch you in at the appropriate moment. Any questions?"
"Then go and hide yourself."
Vin gave him a curt nod, dragged himself to his feet and walked out of the room. Travis stared at the slouched retreating back and shook his head slowly. If ever an exocet missile had legs and long wavy brown hair, it was Tanner.
Larabee gave room six a final look over then shut the door behind him as Travis trundled round the corner with a clipboard in his hand.
"Good." Travis gave a small hard smile. "Mr Menzies won't know what's hit him."
Chris gave him a sharp side-long glance.
"He might not, but I certainly do. Are you sure it's a good idea letting Vin loose with him? The mood he's in he could take Menzies apart limb by limb."
"I know," Travis agreed silkily. "He should prove most effective if Mr Menzies refuses to co-operate. Besides I'm counting on you to haul Officer Tanner off if things start getting out of hand."
"Thank you. I'm not sure how to take that," Larabee retorted.
"Look," Travis shot back, "we're not playing games with these people. What they did to Tanner is nothing compared to what they do to those youngsters when they break them in for service. I want this trafficking stopped and I'll do whatever it takes."
"So I've noticed," Chris responded, courting disaster; but Travis merely grunted.
"I've told you before, Larabee, if you can't stand the heat get out of the kitchen." He stopped abruptly and eyed the agent in front of him; then he changed the subject. "And as you also know, I'm not one for pep talks - and I've already spoken to Tanner about this so you needn't think I'm picking on you unfairly - these past few weeks have been a great strain on both of you. I realise that. But whatever it is that you're fighting about I want you to sort it out, like yesterday. When you two are fighting not only is your own efficiency impaired but so is the team's and I won't have a team operating under par.
Tanner's been with you and the others for about two years now and if you can't sit down and reach an amicable understanding about your disagreements then there's something wrong with you. You are not a pair of teenagers now - though I do wonder at times. Alternatively I could re-assign him."
Chris scowled at his superior.
"With all due respect, sir, you don't know the facts."
"Facts?" Travis raised an eyebrow in surprise. "I don't need facts to see that there is something very wrong between the pair of you. So grow up and sort it. That's all I'm going to say." He walked away briskly, leaving Chris fuming. He was just about to follow his boss when the older man turned abruptly, his mobile in his hand.
"Larabee, they're bringing Menzies up now. Make sure Officer Tanner is ready."
Guy Menzies sat on the hard wooden chair, his elbows resting on the table in front of him. He allowed his long greasy blond locks to fall forward over his face to mask his fear while he waited. After putting him in the room, the officer at the door had ignored him He was unsure about where exactly he was and he had not been charged as yet; neither had he been fingerprinted. He had been searched, rushed up a dark flight of stairs and stuck in this room with a non-communicative guard. Things did not look good for Guy Menzies.
He jumped when there was a rap at the door. The officer opened it and stood aside to let two men enter before leaving himself, bolting the door behind him from the outside. The two men regarded Menzies in silence for what seemed like hours. Then the older man walked over to the table, rested his knuckles on it and looked Guy straight in the face. Menzies was fully aware of the other man standing by the door as he tried to avoid the older man's gaze.
"My name is Travis. Orin Travis. I'm the District Attorney. This is Officer Larabee. And you are Guy Menzies."
Menzies did not feel that he needed to dignify the introduction with a response. He sat back and let his eyes sidle past Travis again.
"I don't have time to waste, Mr Menzies, I am a busy man. The sooner we conclude our discussion, the sooner you will find yourself in more comfortable quarters and I can get on with my work."
"I want my brief."
"That won't be possible," Travis informed him with a silky smile.
Menzies straightened up.
"It's my right - to have my brief and a phone call."
"Oh, you don't have any rights while you are in here," Travis replied.
Menzies was shocked out of his complacency at that.
"I haven't been arrested; you can't hold me."
"Actually I can and I intend to," Travis bluffed.
Menzies leant back in the chair, crossing his arms across his chest.
"I'm saying nothing until I've talked to my brief," he challenged the D.A.
"No?" Travis responded politely. He put his clipboard down on the table in front of Menzies and took a number of photos off it, spreading them out in front of the seated man. "Nothing about any of these?" he continued in the same well-modulated tones.
"Never seen them before," Menzies replied giving the pictures the briefest of glances.
"You've never seen any of them before?"
"No I haven't. Are you deaf or something?"
Travis sighed and gathered up the photos.
"Where is Matt Dawson?"
"Who?" Menzies replied promptly.....too promptly, Chris thought.
"I thought you'd say that," Travis said.
"I tell you, I'm not saying anything without my brief," Menzies repeated, satisfied that they had nothing on him; they were just fishing.
"In that case how do you explain these?" Travis' voice turned as cold as snow on the Rockies as he produced more photographs; this time of Menzies with various members of the church.
"Trick photography," Menzies sighed, as if he was embarrassed that he had to state the obvious, even as his heartbeat speeded up.
"Oh come now, Mr Menzies, why would we go to all that trouble? We know that you belong, or belonged, to the Church of Worldly Peace and that you were living with the rest of the members in a retreat in North Denver. We know you were Matt Dawson's right hand man and that for some inexplicable reason the Church was suddenly disbanded."
"I see," Menzies sneered, leaning forward in his seat. "You don't go for alternative religions do you? I suppose it offends your right wing democratic Christianity!" As he understood what he perceived to be "their problem", Menzies grew arrogant. "Yes, I'm a member of that church and yes we did go our separate ways - because of bigots like you. Oh just wait until the press gets hold of this, you'll be smeared over every front page in the state, probably the country. We haven't done any harm; all we want is to be left alone to follow our own path!"
"Indeed?" Travis stared at the man for a moment and then nodded curtly to Chris, who walked to the door and rapped on it sharply. The external bolt was drawn and the door opened to admit another man who was veiled by the gloom in the far recesses of the room.
Menzies' eyes flickered from Travis to the shadowy figure that stood just beyond the reach of the light. The District Attorney motioned to the figure to join them and it advanced until he could see a face which was devoid of emotion and life. Menzies frowned, perplexed, something was not quite right .......and then he recognised the long brown curls, the bright blue eyes and he blanched visibly. But even as he slumped back in his chair he could not help gazing appreciatively at the lithe body in front of him and his eyes lit up.
"Hello, Guy," Vin greeted the man in a low, vicious voice even as Chris took a step forward to wipe the lascivious look off Menzies' face. Travis' glare brought Larabee up short and all he could do was watch the exchange between the two men. He knew that the look had not escaped un-noticed by Vin and he felt his heart sink at yet another confirmation of his worse fear.
Menzies licked his lips.
"You....but you're.....a reporter," he managed to get out at last, betraying himself in the process.
"Try again," Vin suggested, his lips curved in a thin, tight smile.
"You see," Travis added, piling on the pressure, "we know what has been going on. Your conditioning of Tanner, here, wasn't as thorough as you thought. But then, he has been trained in such matters."
Chris saw Vin flinch almost imperceptibly and his heart went out to the young Texan, knowing that, albeit unknowingly, Travis was turning the knife in Vin's mental and emotional wounds.
"There are, however, a few matters we want clearing up," Travis continued, oblivious to Vin's reaction and Chris' thoughts. "For example, who is Abdul and where is he based? Where do you dispatch your shipments from and when is the next load going out?"
Slowly Menzies sat back up and licked his lips again.
"If you've got to ask me, then you don't know anything. You won't get anything out of me. You can't prove a thing. It's only his word against mine." He nodded at Vin. Then his features twisted into a malicious and triumphant sneer. "You....Tascosa or whatever your name is ...... you think you're so tough? Your colleagues here think you're tough, do they? A real man's man. Yes, I'm sure they do; well, I know different, don't I? I know what you're really like, under that macho front. You're a crawling, snivelling, begging...." He paused and raised his hand, running it lightly almost lovingly down Vin's cheek. "I'd think twice about keeping him on Mr Travis, if I were you. You should have seen him; he was pathetic. He would have licked my butt if I'd told him to. And as for when we were .........."
Vin struck faster than a rattlesnake, leaping across the table to grab Menzies by the throat; the table going one way and the chair the other. So great was the force of his lunge, that Guy was forced back against the wall of the room with a crunch of bone on cement.
"One more word," Vin snarled, "and I'll tear your throat out." His face was bestial in his fury. "Might just tear it out anyway. Can't begin to tell you how much I've looked forward to meeting you again. There's so much we have to discuss." On the last word be brought his knee up sharply into Menzies' groin. There was a muted, strangled scream and Menzies would have collapsed except for Vin's thin fingers gripping his throat like cheese wire.
Travis watched, unmoved. Chris closed his eyes, hating to see Vin reduced in this manner.
"Get him off me for God's sake," Menzies wheezed. "He'll kill me."
"Killing's too good for you," Vin whispered hoarsely. "But dismemberment's a good idea, don't you think?"
Menzies' eyes widened, partially in fear but partially in excitement. Chris opened his eyes at that moment and recognised the excitement in Menzies'. If Vin did not kill Menzies, he decided, then he as sure as hell would. However, Travis chose that moment to indicate that he should remove the young Texan from the situation. He stepped forward and put his hand gently on Vin's shoulder, pulling slightly. Vin froze, rebellious, then dropped his grip and backed away, trembling. He retreated beyond the light, hiding his horror in the gloom, desperately trying to regain his self-control.
Chris righted the furniture and replaced the clipboard. Menzies hobbled across to the chair, massaging his throbbing throat, and collapsed in it, his face pale and sweaty. Travis continued to watch him dispassionately, letting the silence stretch out.
"It's really very simple, Menzies," he said finally. "Either you tell us what we want to know or Officer Larabee and I will walk out of that door and lock it behind us. As you can see, Officer Tanner is extremely keen to renew your acquaintance and I, for one, would hate to disappoint him."
Menzies looked at Travis' merciless face and knew that he would do it. Oh, he would have liked to renew his acquaintance with Tanner all right, but not in the way the D.A intended. However, Tanner was not the beautiful wild cat he had known. Now he was insane; vindictively, viciously insane and he would kill him, or worse, given half a chance.
"All right," he capitulated. "All right."
"Very wise," Travis responded. "Tanner, you can go now. Wait in my office."
"Sir." Vin tapped on the door and was gone.
"Now," continued Travis, leaning over the desk. "Shall we begin?"
"Sir....." Chris interrupted. Travis turned, impatient with the delay. Chris gave a small backwards jerk of his head,
"Very well," Travis said abruptly. "Tell Officer Simpkins to bring in the tape recorder on your way out."
"Yes sir," Chris acknowledged. "Travis wants the recorder," he informed the man outside the door as he left. "Which way did Vin go?"
"The bathroom," Simpkins replied briefly.
Chris strode down the hallway and pushed open the door to the bathroom, to be greeted with the sound of violent retching. Allowing the door to close quietly behind him, he leant against the wall and waited. In a guilty rush of contrition he suddenly felt ashamed of himself. He knew that the whole thing had hit Vin harder than anyone had thought but despite that and despite Josiah's warnings, he had expected Vin to shake it off as he had managed to do so often in the past. With that expectation, he had allowed himself to be hurt by Vin's tetchiness and had been less than sympathetic as a result. It was silly, but he had still expected things to be different, for Vin to be okay with him because they were friends as well as colleagues. But he had never known Vin be physically sick before - or attempt suicide, he reflected ruefully; and no matter what, he realised, he was going to have to be understanding and ride out the storm.
A cistern flushed and Vin staggered out of a cubicle and over to a wash basin. Glancing up, sweat and water dripping from his face, he caught sight of Chris' reflection, concerned and slightly lost, watching him in the mirror. Vin's lips bared in what was the caricature of a smile.
"For God's sake, Chris, do you have to follow me everywhere? Or is this some pathetic attempt to make up for the one time that you did lose me?"
"I wanted to make sure you were all right," Chris replied.
There was a harsh laugh as Vin turned the tap off viciously.
"It's a little late for that, Larabee," the use of the name showing just how far apart they had drifted.
"You look like you could use a drink," Chris persisted gently. "You're all in."
"No you're not, Vin," Chris contradicted the young Texan softly. "Come on, whatever's eating you, can't we talk about it? I'm not blind you know."
Vin straightened and turned slowly to look at him. For a split second the mask that was his face wavered and threatened to crumble into a torrent of jumbled words and tangled feelings. Chris held his breath, waiting for the dam to break, but then the turmoil was brought under control and he could only see a hollow, expressionless face again; he felt that he had imagined the momentary hesitation.
"We've got nothing to discuss, Larabee." Hurt flared searing hot and his shame was burned away in anger.
Chris stepped back, shoulders squared rigidly.
"Okay, if that's the way you want it, Vin." It was not the words that cut him, but the refusal to trust, to share.
"You learn quickly, Chris," Vin sneered and turned away so that he did not have to look at his boss' face, stark in its anger. He turned the tap and began to splash water over his face again and continued to do so until he heard the door being closed. Then, face wet anew, he turned off the tap and sank to the floor in misery.
Everything was going wrong and there was nothing he could do about it. There had been no need to talk to Chris like that and the minute the words had left his lips he had wanted to take them back; to confess all his fear, confusion and frustration; to tell the truth about what had happened ..... and yet part of him was glad that Chris had gone, was angry enough not to try again. Chris had seen too much as it was, knew too much already. To actually tell him the whole story and see the contempt hidden behind the jade green eyes ..... he could not do it. It was better this way ......to cut himself off completely.
Vin groaned. It was seeing Menzies again; seeing him and remembering, after all his efforts to forget. What the little creep had said was true, he could not escape that no matter how much he wanted to deny it. Knowing that, a great wave of self-contempt swept over him and shook him until all he could do was slam a clenched fist on the cold tile floor in impotent despair until the skin broke and the blood flowed.
Travis stopped the tape recorder as Chris entered the room again. Menzies ground to a halt at his entrance.
"Well?" the District Attorney asked.
"Fine," Chris replied shortly and Travis' heart sank.
Turning back to the man seated at the table he restarted the recorder.
"Continue," he ordered.
Team 7 were gathered in the inner office with Travis. Vin sat huddled in the furthest corner, nursing his bloodied fist. Nathan had offered to tend to it but all his advances had been rebuffed and, short of tranquilising the young Texan, there was nothing he could do.
Travis looked round thoughtfully at the team, his eyes lingering on Tanner and a small frown crossed his face. Then he turned his back on the young man and addressed the rest of the team.
"You'll all be pleased to know that Menzies has told us everything. Dawson is still in Denver and he is organising another shipment in three weeks time - the last one. You will all work to close this before then; but, as a last resort, a full squad operation will be mounted that night and this will be closed once and for all - one way or another - is that clear?"
The team nodded their understanding, but all eyes were on Chris and Vin knowing that it was going to be a very long three weeks for them all if things continued as they were.
The three weeks dragged on. Despite it being the height of summer outside, the offices of Team 7 were held in the depths of winter. Vin sank further and further into his depression and cut himself off more and more from the other team members. So full of self-loathing was he that he could not see how any of his colleagues could possibly continue to like him or respect him. It was that loss of their respect, especially Chris', that particularly hurt and he lashed out at them all but his boss especially. He came into work, threw himself into it in a desperate effort to forget and then went home to drink himself into a stupor.
Chris also threw himself into his work in an effort to shut out the pain of not being able to help Vin. All his overtures were rebuffed, increasingly viciously, until it reached the point where he no longer tried. It did not stop him worrying, however, and he became like a bear with a sore head as he became increasingly desperate over the situation that was spiralling crazily out of control. Chris knew what personal space was. Hell, his own was large enough but all he could see was that Vin's, which had always been expansive anyway, was growing so that soon he would not be able to stay in the same room as another person.
The rest of the team just kept their heads down and worked as hard as they could, hoping that the raid would start an upturn in Chris and Vin's deteriorating relationship. When Vin lashed out at any of them they knew that he did not really mean it, unlike when he attacked Larabee. Then it was like witnessing a public flogging and there was absolutely nothing they could do about it. They worked and went home; no longer socialising out of work - and praying for a miracle.
Three weeks to the day, Travis once again found himself standing in Team 7's inner office, wishing that he'd brought his winter coat with him the atmosphere was so icy. He finished outlining the plan for the raid on the hanger and then turned to Vin who was, as was his wont those days, curled up in a chair in the furthest corner of the room as if he wished he were anywhere but there - which, Travis reflected, he probably was. The facial bruising had all but disappeared but he knew that the baggy top and pants hid fresh white scars and needle tracks. He walked across to the young Texan and looked down at him with an almost fatherly air.
"Officer Tanner, all things considered, I think it would be better if you did not accompany us tonight. I know you want to get these men, but....."
Vin looked up at him, the ghost of a smile hovering round his lips.
"It's okay," he interrupted, "I knew you wouldn't let me participate."
Travis stopped talking and stared at him, taken aback. Chris turned to look at Vin as well, totally surprised at the calm voice that he had not heard for weeks. Travis and Larabee had discussed this together and decided that it would be best if Vin was not involved with the operation. They had been mentally girding their loins for a battle with the young Texan and to find him being so reasonable and agreeable had taken the wind out of their sails.
"You're not going to give me any trouble, Officer Tanner?" Travis queried in disbelief as the rest of the team looked on in surprise.
Vin shook his head.
"No, sir," he replied. "Look, I'm tired of this whole sordid business. I just want to try and forget about it now. I was wondering if you would let me have a couple of days - thought I'd go off into the wilderness somewhere......" He stopped and glanced up at Chris before licking his lips and returning his gaze to the District Attorney. "I know I've had a lot of time off recently but I think it's what I need."
Travis eyed him, trying to see if there were any deceit in Vin's weary manner. Satisfied that he could not discern any he nodded.
"No problem. Under the circumstances it's the least I can do. Take a few days and be back in the office next Monday."
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir." Vin nodded and walked out of the office.
"That was easy," JD muttered to Buck as the door swung shut behind Tanner.
"Too easy?" Buck suggested. "Wonder if Chris was fooled."
The door had hardly closed before Travis dismissed Vin's existence and continued with outlining the operation ahead to the remaining six men.
By two o'clock that afternoon Team 7's offices were the centre of a swarming mass of men and women all organising the strike. Customs officials, airport police, road clearance, senatorial sanction, press restrictions....the red tape was endless but Travis cut through it like a knife through butter, sharpened by seeing an end in sight. This was to be a full squad operation with seven teams descending upon hanger six at Denver Airport like the wrath of God.
By four o'clock they were ready to go, hounds straining at the leash.
"No shooting, is that clear. We want them alive," Travis reminded them all as they checked their guns and flak jackets.
A police escort had been arranged to get them through the worst of the late afternoon traffic as quickly as possible. Pedestrians gawped at the cavalcade, even as they leapt out of the path of the vehicles. Travis led the charge, tracking the front patrol car until they reached the freeway, where the escort peeled away with a cheery beep beep. The D.A put his foot on the gas and the car surged forward.
Tucked in behind Travis' car was Buck's jeep with Chris, Josiah and JD. As they followed the D.A's car, Buck glanced across at Larabee.
"Did you buy what Vin said, Chris?" he asked quietly.
"I don't know," Larabee replied, equally quietly, running a hand through his hair. "But I don't have time to worry about that now. I just have to hope that he meant what he said. We have to get these men. It's Vin's last hope." He was rambling and he knew it; hopefully his mind would be more concentrated on the operation ahead.
"What do you suppose he's doing in the wilderness?"
"I don't know, Buck." He did not want to think about Vin alone in the wilderness and what he might be doing; he just wanted to concentrate on the task ahead with the hope that it might start the young Texan on the path to recovery.
The rest of the journey was completed in silence and, as the evening shadows lengthened, so the miles behind them grew.
The cargo area of the airport was almost deserted as Travis and his men rendezvoused with the airport police and customs officials. Their cars were tucked out of sight on the boundary of the area as they discussed the minutiae of the operation.
"As you say, sir," an autocratic and extremely put out customs official agreed. "We'll be there just in case you need backup." He cast a doubtful eye over the gathered ATF teams, wondering yet again why they, in particular, were involved. "Not that it looks as if you'll need it," he added.
"I hope not," Travis agreed crisply. "You're sure they haven't been alerted in any way?"
"No sir," the official assured him. "We made our final check a couple of hours. Still it's hard to believe......"
"Believe it, officer," Travis replied grimly. "Now, if you would just lead the way......?"
The official nodded and ushered the ATF teams towards the large concrete apron that fanned out from the cargo hangers. Behind him, the agents spread out into their positions, adrenalin surging through them.
As they closed in on hanger four, Travis signalled for everybody to finalise their preparations. The customs official cleared his throat and silently ran through his lines as though he were about to make his entrance upon the Broadway stage.
There were eight men in the hanger, all busily engaged in tightening up the crates of furniture that were being sent to Egypt. One of them looked up in surprise as the customs official entered.
"You want something? I thought you'd checked on us already?"
"Yes, I'm sorry to bother you again," the official apologised, "but the office has noticed a discrepancy in your export papers. It won't take a minute to sort it out."
"You'll have to talk to Mr Dawson," the man responded and then raised his voice to yell "Matt!"
Matt Dawson emerged from a small room at the back of the hanger.
"What is it?" He demanded and then he spotted the officer. "I thought we'd done with all the customs' red tape?"
"Just a slight discrep..."
"Well, I hope that's all it is," Dawson snapped. "We're due to load in twenty minutes. You'd better step this way, officer."
Outside the hanger doors the faces of Team 7 were white and drawn, knowing full well that not only the fate of the youngsters but also of Chris and Vin depended upon what now went down. Travis raised his radio and they tensed.
"All teams stand by."
Sound bites of the conversation inside filtered out to them."Thank you for drawing that to my attention, sir. I had no idea......"
"Understandable, given the circumstances, Mr Dawson."
"Move in quietly," Travis murmured and entered the hanger with Team 7 at his shoulders. It took Dawson a moment to register that they were there.
"What now?" he demanded impatiently.
"Matthew Dawson?" Travis' polite voice dripped honey.
"Yes. What the bloody hell do you want?" Dawson's face was screwed up, trying to make out who was standing in the hanger.
"District Attorney Travis. You're under arrest."
On cue, no mistakes tonight with so much at stake, the ATF teams emerged from various places around the hanger, guns pointed at Dawson and his men and all ready to use them.
For one heart-stopping moment Dawson and the others froze in disbelief, then they exploded in a desperate effort to escape through exits that were blocked by what appeared to be great bulls of ATF agents. In desperate efforts to get away, the slavers dodged and ducked crates and forklifts. One of them produced a revolver and began to fire indiscriminately until dropped by a shot from Ezra.
Dawson's momentary panic disappeared and he began to edge towards a side door, trying to move as quietly as possible to avoid detection. He had just reached it when a figure stepped out from behind a near by pile of crates.
"Guy was right, Dawson," Vin snarled. "You should have killed me." And then he hit him low and hard.
Travis helped the customs official to his feet after he had been bowled over in the stampede to escape. Looking around quickly he noted that all of the slavers had been caught and handcuffed. Chris caught his gaze and walked over, dragging a man behind him.
"Who's got Dawson?" Travis demanded suddenly.
"Not me," Chris replied and looked round.
In the sudden silence that fell they all heard the sound of a fist impacting with a midriff. Buck glanced over into the shadows and cried out.
"What?" Travis spun round and stepped forward just in time to see to see Dawson double up in agony. Vin now had the man pinned up against the hanger wall and was systematically pummelling him into the concrete - much more of that and the slaver would be history.
"Larabee!" Travis shouted.
Thrusting his man at the District Attorney, Chris raced over to Tanner. Dawson was feebly trying to defend himself from Vin's blows, gabbling incoherently through fat and bloody lips. Vin was oblivious to everything but the ruined face in front of him. Chris reached out and grabbed the young Texan's arm as it drew back to deliver another punch. Vin spun round and caught his boss with a double handed chop to the neck. As Larabee dropped like a sack of potatoes, Travis and the rest of Team 7 looked on in mixed disbelief and horror. Then Travis shook himself.
"Wilmington! Sanchez, for god's sake! Pull Tanner off before it's too late!"
Buck and Josiah moved as fast as they could, spurred into action by the expression on Travis' face. Buck grabbed one arm while Josiah went for the other. Vin whirled to meet them, completely out of control, and Buck was downed with a foot in the guts. Josiah just managed to duck a jab to the throat but slipped on a patch of oil and went down as well.
At that Travis almost threw his captive into Nathan's arms and headed for Tanner, grabbing his wrist as he prepared to hit Dawson again.
"Enough, Officer Tanner," he thundered as if volume alone would penetrate the fog around Vin's brain.
Vin spun again, wildly, like a wounded animal lashing out at anything and everything in reach. Travis, however, was ready for him and backhanded him across the face as hard as he could. Vin jerked and fell back a step, shaking his head. Then he looked around as if he was seeing where he was for the first time. His gaze alighted on Dawson, a bloody, virtually unconscious huddle at his feet, then on Chris who was feebly struggling to sit up and then, finally, he slowly raised his eyes to look at Travis.
"Get a hold of yourself!" Travis hissed. "You're not a delinquent adolescent now!"
"Sir," Vin mumbled.
"I don't want to hear it. We'll discuss this later," Travis interrupted him coldly. "For now, finish what you started. Cuff Dawson and read him his rights. And then I suggest that you think of something conciliatory to say to Officer Larabee."
Vin looked down at Chris again and then over at Buck and Josiah who were propping themselves up on shaky elbows and looking at him in disbelief.
"Sir, I......" Vin turned back to Travis helplessly, appalled at the devastation he had wrought.
Travis eyed him chillingly.
"Nothing," Vin muttered and turned away. He knelt down beside Dawson and fished out his handcuffs. Despite them being so puffy that it was difficult to open them, Dawson turned his eyes on Vin's face, frowning painfully.
"Tascosa?" he queried, although his voice was so thick with pain that it was hard to understand him.
"You're with this lot?"
Dawson began to laugh, the blood in his mouth bubbling, then wheezed and coughed, groaning harshly. Vin snapped on the cuffs, then tangled his fingers in the man's bloody hair, forcing the bruised face back so that it looked up at him.
"One thing, Dawson. What happened to those youngsters who were there with me. Did they all go home as you said? Or was that another lie?"
"Mostly home. Not pretty enough," Dawson mumbled.
Vin tightened his fingers causing the man to gasp in pain.
"And me? Wasn't I pretty enough?" he asked bitterly, wondering to hear himself ask the very question he dreaded.
Dawson tried to smile.
"Yeah. Beautiful. But you're shop soiled."
Vin froze and just behind him Chris ceased in his attempts to sit up. Tanner dropped Dawson's hair from his grasp and stood up, trembling all over. He wiped his hands down his pants and turned away from the man at his feet. Despite his physical pain, Chris heard the question and answer and took in all their significance. He wanted to go to Vin and wrap him in cotton wool, taking him away from all of this but, at the moment, he could not even get to his feet. He could only watch helplessly as the young Texan walked away.
Silently JD moved forward and hauled Dawson to his feet, frog marching the man to join the other captives. Buck and Josiah finally struggled to their feet and turned to help Chris to his. Vin turned as Larabee stood upright and their eyes locked. Chris hoped his gaze was infused with concern and compassion despite his pain but all Vin could see was disappointment, weary acceptance and ....... anger?
Tanner turned away with a tired droop of his shoulders to where Teams 4 and 5 were attacking the furniture crates in the presence of the customs officials as witnesses. Nobody was surprised, though all were sickened, when the false bottoms were prised open to reveal four drugged and bound young girls, none out of their teens. As the agents carefully lifted the girls out, Vin looked at their inert bodies, gave a strangled moan and bolted swiftly for the door. His whole body heaved as he ran and he felt tears pricking at the back of his eyes.
With an enormous effort Chris managed to persuade his aching limbs to put him in the path of Tanner's headlong flight, bringing the younger man up short. He reached out towards Vin who glared up at him.
"For fuck's sake leave me alone, Larabee," he snarled, his last bit of restraint snapping. The words echoed like a gun shot round the hanger, making the heads of seven ATF teams and customs officials turn towards them. Chris stepped back as if he had been physically hit again.
"My car, now, Officer Tanner," Travis ordered in a hard voice.
"Sir," Vin whispered, still looking at Chris.
A soft moan came from behind him.
"One's coming round, sir," Ezra said quietly.
Vin pushed a trembling hand through his sweaty curls and his face shattered into a hundred pieces.
"Oh god, Chris," he moaned. His stomach heaved again and he pushed past his boss in a desperate effort to reach the outside before he was sick. Chris whirled on his heel.
"Vin!" he called after the fleeing man.
Despite the success of the raid, Travis still felt as if the operation had been a failure in some way. The girls had been untied and wrapped in blankets while ambulances were awaited. The prisoners were bundled into vans and taken to separate station houses for questioning. Nathan and Ezra were assigned to escort Dawson to hospital and stay with him if necessary.
Chris walked to Travis' car with Buck and Josiah following behind. On reaching the vehicle, the District Attorney sighed.
"I told him to wait. Guess he decided he didn't want to."
The car was empty and of Vin there was no sign.
Chris hated night driving; the dazzle of the headlights and the distorted shadows. He was glad that Buck was driving. His friend insisted on it, despite the fact he was also still reeling from Vin's attack. Chris frequently rubbed his neck, wincing. He did not need to look for the bruises to know that they were there, he could feel them. Vin had hit him bloody hard and Chris was still suffering from a sense of shock. Vin had never managed to best him before with sheer strength. It was accepted between them that on muscle, Chris would always win. Vin was quite capable of besting him, and had proved it on a number of occasions, but it was always with speed, guile, sneakiness and street tactics not raw power. This time blind rage had lent the slighter man enough brute strength to drop him cold. Not a nice feeling.
The fact that Vin had appeared as he had was not a total surprise, however. Chris was surprised that Travis had so completely bought Vin's story. If it had been him or Buck in charge, Vin would have received an escort and a discreet watchdog until the operation was completed. The thing was how would Travis deal with it now? Of course, Vin could always plead temporary insanity; not a bad idea when you considered his behaviour over the past few weeks. Certainly he had lost it, the way he had laid into Dawson. Chris was well aware that beneath Vin's equable exterior there lurked a temper which was capable of mindless fury. There had been glimpses of it during his time with the team, but it had usually been kept well under wraps. This was the first time he had ever seen Vin so totally out of control and he did not like it; did not want to see it again. It was a good thing that Travis had managed to stop Vin when he did. The young Texan's soul would have been destroyed past help had he been allowed to pummel Dawson to death.
Travis summoned Chris to his office the next morning. As the Team 7 leader entered the D.A's office he was curtly told,
"I'm leaving this for you to sort out."
"What?" Chris stared at his superior.
"If you can't sort Tanner, then I will have to take official action. But of all your team, you're the one most likely to discover what's behind all this. Of course, I was a fool to believe him. But I was in a hurry, there was a lot to do, and I was just thankful not to have to fight about that as well. Not that that's any excuse of course." He sighed heavily.
"Of course," Chris agreed solemnly, empathising with the man because they had all felt the same.
"Has he said anything at all to you about what's bothering him? Apart from the obvious things, that is?"
Chris shook his head.
"Nothing, but then that's so usual for Vin it's no surprise. But this time he's made it very clear that he doesn't want to talk to me. He's done everything he can to avoid me." Despite everything a note of bitterness entered his voice and Travis looked at him sharply.
"What do you mean?"
"From the way he's been acting you'd think I didn't care about what's happened to him. It's been 'push off', 'leave me alone'.....and he knows damned well that I do care. I've always cared."
Travis frowned, sensing the anger behind the ill concealed pain.
"It's hard, I know. Time, Chris."
"I guess so."
"Perhaps if I'd listened to you in the beginning."
"If you'd listened to me, this little lot would still have been trafficking for the next twenty years. Don't worry, sir. I'll go and see him today. It'll get sorted one way or another."
"Good. You can tell him I want to see him in my office at nine tomorrow morning."
"Yes, sir," Chris sighed and turned to leave, unsure how he was going to settle the matter.
Chris had been beaten to Vin's by Buck who called at the Texan's flat before work and, when there was no answer to his knock, let himself in. It did not take him long to find the younger man. Vin was curled up on the sofa, still dressed in the clothes he had worn to the hanger last night. He was unshaven, bruised, dry sweat plastered his hair against his white skin and clearly he had not slept all night.
"You've looked better, Vin," Buck remarked softly as he sat down beside his colleague. Vin blinked owlishly at him and then sank his face back into the cushion that he had been hugging tightly since he had returned home.
"Talk to me, Vin," Buck coaxed, upset at Tanner's appearance. The last three weeks had taken its toll on him and the other team members, although not to quite the same extent as it had on Chris, and he had decided after last night to try and sort matters if he could. Vin did not look up and Buck tried again.
"I know something's terribly wrong, Junior, so why don't you tell your old Uncle Buck all about it," he wheedled. There came a deep sigh from beside him and then Vin looked up, his eyes full of anguish.
"He hates me, Buck."
"Who hates you?" Whatever he thought was the matter that was not the response he had expected.
"Chris." And there was another heart-breaking sigh.
"Chris doesn't hate you, even though you have been going out of your way to goad him these past few weeks. And he as sure as hell wasn't happy about you decking him yesterday."
"And what about you?"
"Nope can't say I was particularly happy about that either."
"Sorry." The muttered apology was the most human thing he had heard Vin say for a very long time.
"It's all right, Vin. I know there's been a lot going on. But you've got to talk to Chris. He's sick with worry about you."
"Can't. Not after everything I've said and done. I can't." There was a sheer terror in the voice that made Buck's heart ache.
"No, I can't....I can't.....I can't." Vin tucked his face back in the cushion and started to rock himself backwards and forwards muttering the words like a mantra. Buck made a couple of abortive attempts to talk to the young Texan again and then reluctantly gave up and left.
Chris met Buck as he entered the office and Wilmington gave him a brief report on his visit to Vin.
"If you can't get through to him, Chris, we're going to lose him completely," Buck advised his boss.
"I know," Chris replied, "but I don't know what to say to him anymore. He hates me."
"Oh don't you start on that as well," Buck growled. Chris looked up at him in surprise.
"That's the bit I didn't tell you. He said you hated him."
"But I don't hate him."
"I know that and you know that but Vin's got it firmly fixed in his head that you do and it's eating away at him, along with God knows what else. I'm scared of what he might do."
"I'll get through to him if I have to half kill him to do it."
"I'm not sure that will help, but I understand the sentiment. Good luck."
The door bell rang again, insistently. Vin sighed and looked up from his cushion. It rang again, harsh and intrusive. Reluctantly he put the cushion down and walked across to the entry phone.
"Who is it?"
"You know damn well who it is, Vin. Let me in." Chris' voice was annoyed despite his every effort not to be.
Vin hung up the handset, pressed the outer door release and put his own front door on the latch. He momentarily considered going up to the roof to escape the wrath of Chris Larabee but then reflected that his boss would just follow him up there and the scene that was about to enacted would be done so in public rather than private. A shiver ran up his spine as he made his way back to the sofa and sat clutching at his cushion. He grabbed a book, opened it and rested it on the cushion, trying to give every appearance of being nonchalant and unconcerned. In reality his stomach was churning.
The door swung open and Chris walked in. He took the door off its latch and pushed it slowly closed behind him before looking for Vin. He found the young Texan sitting quietly on the sofa, apparently reading - the only thing spoiling the illusion was the fact that the book was upside down.
Reluctantly, Vin looked up.
"Morning," he responded heavily. He looked down, realising belatedly that the book was the wrong way up. Chris pursed his lips and wandered over to the window as casually as he could.
"You all right?" Vin asked in a small voice without looking up.
Chris smiled ruefully, gazing down at the head of sweaty tangled curls.
"Yeah," he sighed. "But you gave me a bit of a surprise you know. Not to mention the rest of the team. Oh, and Travis too. Dented my reputation, you have. Me being taken down by our little flyweight Tanner."
Desperately pretending that the book was the right way up, Vin smoothed a corner down carefully with a finger.
"Sorry." He risked glancing up at Chris through his eyelashes. Chris was running a finger down a pane of glass and gazing at the parking lot below. "What about Buck and Josiah?"
"They'll live...but you've seen Buck so you know that already. I don't think you're exactly flavour of the month though."
Vin gave a short snort.
"Hardly surprising." He gave up the pretence with the book and threw it across the room. Chris followed its flight, picked it up and placed it on the table next to the sofa. He tried not to notice that Vin was clutching at the cushion in his arms as if he were a drowning man and it was a lifebelt.
"What did Travis say?" Vin asked quietly, not caring if he knew or not.
"Nothing about my disappearing act?"
"Well, he did say that he had been stupid to believe that line you fed him about going into the wilderness. Which he was." Chris paused, picking his way through the minefield. "He's worried, Vin. We all are."
This was it, the culmination of the past few weeks. Vin took a deep breath, the palms of his hands suddenly sweaty, and he forced himself to look straight at Chris.
"Well, none of you will have to be anymore. I'm resigning," he said, struggling to keep his voice as neutral as possible.
Chris collapsed on the sofa next to Vin, the breath knocked out of his body as effectively as if he had been hit in the solar plexus.
"What?" he asked blankly. Of all the possibilities he had considered over the past few weeks, this had not been one of them. "Surely you're not serious?"
"Why not?" Vin asked. "I've already drafted it and I'll give it to Travis tomorrow." His jaw was set in a stubborn line, although his hands shook, but he was prepared for a fight.
"Why?" Chris asked, shocked.
Vin laughed, a high almost hysterical sound.
"I would have thought that was obvious even to your limited intelligence, Chris. I've had enough; more than enough."
Chris was so taken aback by Vin's announcement that he did not notice the jibe. He had never dreamt that the young Texan would want to throw in the towel; it was just not conceivable. He turned to look at Vin, seeing that the younger man was rocking himself desperately, muttering nervously to himself. He reached for a tense shoulder, struggling for words to express his growing sense of outrage.
"Now, just wait a minute Vin. When did you come up with this brilliant idea?"
"Sometime during the night. Don't know exactly when. The clock just kept on ticking and it came to me that this was the right thing to do."
"Vin, this isn't the answer. If you leave the team you'll just be running away from the problem, instead of dealing with it; just like you've been running away for the past few weeks."
"I've made my decision, Chris, and whether you approve or not doesn't really matter."
"Without discussing it with me first? Like hell you have." Chris stood up in agitation and began to pace the small room. "In case you've forgotten we're a team and if you want to resign you're going to have convince me and the others first."
Vin's fingers tightened on the cushion, considering his choice of words.
"Because I'm tired. I'm tired of being a target. I'm tired of getting hurt. This job - I'm fed up with what it's doing to me. I could have killed Dawson last night and I would have enjoyed it. I enjoyed as far as I got .... and that sickens me."
"We've been through all this," Chris interrupted impatiently.
"Which just goes to show that your brilliant solution didn't work," Vin sneered. He got up off the sofa and walked over to the window, his arms still clutching the cushion. "I wonder about you sometimes, I really do."
"And I suppose your solution is better," Chris retorted angrily, scared that he was facing losing the other half of his soul.
"I'm fed up with you trying to make me forget everything!" Vin snapped back.
"So, we get fed up with each other occasionally, so what? That's part of being a team."
"Oh, so we're back to that are we?" Vin hissed. "You seem extremely preoccupied with the subject lately. Why's that I wonder? Guilty conscience? Not surprising really since you haven't been watching my back!"
As soon as the words were uttered they hung in the air like a neon sign. If Vin had been closer, Chris knew he would have been in danger of being hit. All his good intentions for the meeting went out the window and he was filled with a black fury.
"Ever since you got back," he said in a low, shaking voice, "you've been insinuating that I didn't do my job; that I deliberately let you get caught. Do you think I enjoyed sitting round twiddling my thumbs knowing that you were in trouble? For all I knew you were dead or dying and there wasn't a damn thing I could do about it! Do you think I liked knowing that you were on your own, without backup, without me? Just so that you know, Vin, I wanted to go in the morning after you didn't 'phone me but Travis wouldn't allow it. Didn't want me to jeopardise the operation. By the time we realised something was wrong it was way too late."
Chris stopped to drag in air, choked with emotion and trembling.
"If it makes you feel any better I do have a guilty conscience. There isn't a day when I don't curse that I didn't ignore Travis and go in that morning, even put a watch on the house the night you went snooping. If I had then maybe you could have been spared all this! But I didn't and there is no way I can undo what was done. We've all got to live with it. I let you down badly and I'm sorry. So sorry." He ground to a halt, unable to continue for the moment. He struggled for control, chewing his lip hard.
"Are you satisfied?" he asked finally. "Because, if you are, I'll go. If your opinion of me is that low and if you really believe that I don't care, then perhaps you should resign because I certainly don't want to work with you if that's the case." He lifted his head and looked directly at Vin, making no attempt to hide the tears that were pricking at the back of his eyes. Then he turned slowly and headed for the door.
Vin stood transfixed, petrified with fright. It was all unreal, like a nightmare. He was losing Chris and it wasn't because of what had happened but because of him himself. Everything seemed to be happening in slow motion. He watched as Chris reached for the door handle, knowing full well that if he walked out he would never walk back.
"Chris......wait," even to him his voice seemed to come from a great distance.
Larabee stopped, one hand resting on the handle, held by Vin's voice.
"What?" he asked harshly.
Fighting the impulse to return, Chris shook his head and turned the handle.
"Oh god, Chris, please."
Unable to deny the anguish in the young Texan's voice, Chris turned back to look at him, carefully emptying his face of all emotion.
Vin stepped towards him, hesitantly, dropping the cushion in his anxiety.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean it. I'm sorry." It was all he could think of to say and he wanted to keep on saying it until his friend's face thawed, smiled and laughter lit his eyes once again. "I'm sorry," he repeated, half turning back to the window, running his hands through his curls and then turning back again to the man who had always been there for him and who he had nearly driven away. He did not know where to start.
"I know you tried. Buck told me. Josiah told me. I....oh god, I need a drink. Do you want one?"
Chris nodded slightly as Vin crossed to the fridge and took out two beers. He held one out to Larabee, willing him to come forward and take it; to close the gap between them - both the physical and the emotional. Chris hesitated for a moment and then stepped forward to take the beer; ultimately unable to deny Vin anything. Vin flipped his can open and then moved back to the sofa stopping only to pick up the cushion, his comforter, on the way. He sat down and eyed Chris sadly, as the latter sipped at his beer and watched him warily.
One hand clasping the cushion and the other the can of beer, Vin tried to explain how he felt, knowing that he at least owed Chris that.
"Don't know what's wrong with me," he began, taking a large gulp from his drink. He coughed and then continued. "All the time they had me, when I wasn't drugged up to the eyeballs or being worked over, I was shut up in that small room with no window." He shuddered, a wave of claustrophobia sweeping violently through him.
"I kept telling myself to stay calm; that there was nothing to panic about. I knew you and the others knew what I was doing and I knew you'd work out that something was wrong. It was all I could think about, that you would come and get me out of there. And.....and you didn't come." He took another drink.
"I guess I started to feel let down and even to hate you for not doing your seventh cavalry act, yet again." He hugged the cushion to him, unable to meet Chris' eyes. "And then, what they did......but you know about that."
"Yes," Chris agreed, "I know." He came and sat down beside Vin. "Is it so important that I know?"
"Can't stand you despising me."
Chris was startled by the reply; whatever he had thought was at the back of Tanner's recent uncharacteristic behaviour it certainly had not been that.
"I don't despise you, Vin," he said quietly. "I don't understand you at the moment and you've certainly gone out of your way to aggravate me lately; but I don't despise you."
"How can you not after......." Vin gulped, "......After hearing how I was. What they did....what they made me do......Menzies was right. What he said was true....I would have said anything.....done anything.....to make them stop. I did! I despise myself for it but I couldn't help it. Couldn't take any more. Hating myself for giving in......for being so weak.....and knowing that you knew what I'd been like......how I behaved......it all came out under the hypnosis. I was sure you despised me for what I'd done; hated me. Then you kept calling me a coward......" Jumbled thoughts, incoherent words tumbled from Vin and he had to stop, groping for more words to try and describe what he had felt and thought.
Larabee closed his eyes briefly, put down his beer and gently took the cushion from Vin's convulsing fingers.
"Vin, you can be so dense at times," he said softly, opening Tanner's clenched fingers and gently massaging them. "I said the first thing I could think of to try and get through to you, to force you to remember. That's all. And you know damn well I don't think you're a coward. You've proved that to all of us time and again."
"But the tapes....it all fitted....what I thought....."
"Was a load of bullshit - the biggest you've ever come up with!"
"Oh!" Vin's voice was almost inaudible. He looked down at his hands. "It's just.....I've always thought.....if ever I found myself in a situation like this I could handle it, you know? That I wouldn't crack. But I did. Then seeing Dawson......I just lost it. Remembering what he did...... You don't know....."
"You're right, Vin," Chris agreed sadly. "I can't even begin to understand what you went through and how you're feeling. But is that the real reason you want to resign? Because you've got some twisted idea that you're no good?"
"I guess," he responded. "This has shaken me, Chris. I don't know if I can still do the job. I know I can't afford another fiasco like tonight, that's for sure. It doesn't do much for Travis' reputation if he's got to smack one of his own agents around to keep him under control." His hand closed round Chris', nails digging into the flesh. Chris gasped, alerting Vin to what he'd done. Swiftly he let go but Chris captured his fingers.
"I've been feeling so bloody minded lately," Tanner sighed.
"I had noticed."
Vin was immediately penitent.
"I'm sorry. I wish there was something...... I've been a bastard. I'm sorry."
"Can't say you haven't but knowing why makes it easier," Chris replied carefully.
Vin glanced up and in one unguarded moment from Chris saw just how much pain he had inflicted on his friend. He barely stifled the groan that rose to his lips and pulled his fingers from Chris' grasp in agitation before standing and walking back to the window. His eyes were pricking hotly and there was an anger against himself rising in his gut. He had done it again. He had been so caught up in his own problems and feelings he had managed to hurt Chris.
He had taken Larabee for granted, assuming after the time they had been together as a team that he would always be there, no matter what. Chris was like the brother he had never had and he had repaid him with abuse, anger and drunken tears. Vin groaned again and rested his forehead on the cool glass.
Chris sat looking at his hands. He had not intended to let Vin see how hurt he was but in the end he could not help himself. After what he had endured at Tanner's hands it seemed only right that the young Texan should know. He had been hurt badly by Vin tonight and over the last few weeks and it was right that he should know. The only problem with that was it could send Vin into another guilt ridden depression.
Chris looked up to where Vin was still standing, resting his head on the window, every line of his body betraying his feelings. Chris breathed out softly, allowing the last vestiges of his anger and resentment to flow away. They were corrosive emotions that would eventually do more harm than either of them could repair.
"Forget it, Vin," he said gently and got to his feet. Crossing over to the window he placed a hand lightly on Tanner's taut shoulder. "Let's just forget it."
Vin shook his head silently.
"It doesn't matter, honestly. I know you didn't mean it." Chris squeezed Vin's shoulder.
"It does matter," Vin said slowly, emphasising every word. "Chris, you....you're my best friend, the only one I've ever had. You have to know that. I owe you my life. What you think....." Taking a trembling breath he rested his hand on Chris'. It was difficult for him to expose his rawest emotions even to Larabee but he needed to confess. "Your opinion is important to me. What you think of me. I can't begin to explain how I've been feeling about myself since the first session with Josiah. The only thing that kept me going was thinking that perhaps you hadn't heard the tape. But I knew I was deluding myself. After I knew you'd heard it nothing else mattered."
"It didn't make pleasant listening," Chris acknowledged, trying to hide what his true reaction had been, "but why would my hearing it make a difference?" He was genuinely puzzled. "What did you do that was so bad?"
Vin spun round to look at him.
"What did I do?! Chris, I gave in - I let them win. Everything that bastard Menzies said was true."
Sensing that Tanner was ready to bolt, Chris grabbed him firmly by the shoulders.
"Vin they were using drugs. What else could you have done? You held out as long as you could but you can't fight drugs. You've got to stop blaming yourself. There isn't a man or woman in the ATF who doesn't admire the way you've handled this. Most of all me. It took more guts to let Josiah make you live it all again than just about anything else I've seen you do.....and I've seen you do some pretty amazing things."
Vin was eyeing him as though he could not believe what he was hearing, he shook his head again. Exasperated, Chris gave him a gentle shake.
"God, Vin, you can be so thick. If this had happened to anyone else you'd be smothering them with sympathy and understanding; but, because it's you, for some stupid reason it's unacceptable. You know enough about psychological torture to know what can happen. Why do you always have to be so hard on yourself?"
"There should have been something....." Vin began.
"Like what?" Chris interrupted "What could you have done?"
"Something. Anything," Vin cried in anguish, "Anything but give in."
"You're human, not the Terminator! You did the best you could, Vin, and that's all anyone can do."
"You weren't there," Vin whispered bitterly.
"I heard the tape," Chris reminded him gently. "I know; and even if I hadn't heard it I'd know you tried because you always do. You try harder than anyone else I've ever known." He sighed. "Vin, it's as much my fault as anyone's. I should have told Travis to go to hell and watched that night, not left it for JD. Afterwards I should have had more patience. I expected too much. That wasn't fair of me. I'm sorry."
"No!" Vin shook his curls vehemently. "you've got nothing to apologise for. If I'd stopped to think about the situation instead of just how I felt...." He let his hand drop from Chris'. "I'm sorry."
"Will you cut it out? I've told you it doesn't matter."
"It does," Vin responded automatically then caught Chris' eye. A faint smile appeared on his face for the first time in weeks as Larabee gave him a rueful grin. Then they both laughed, soft and low, and that laughter started to bind them back together.
Vin walked back to the sofa and flopped down, followed by Chris.
"What a mess," he said at last.
"But isn't that what we specialise in? Cleaning up messes?" Chris suggested.
"Other people's; not ours."
For a while there was silence; the atmosphere lifted and there was a fresh newly washed feel in the room. Both men finished their drinks in companionable silence. Throwing his can in the bin, Chris turned to the young Texan.
"Vin, if you're serious about packing the job in - if you've got ethical problems or you don't enjoy it anymore, whatever - I'll back you all the way. But if you resign because it's the easy way out, because you're running away, then you will have to go through me first. Understand?"
Realising that is was getting late, Chris yawned and stood.
"I'd better be going. By the way Travis wants to see you tomorrow morning - nine o'clock sharp."
"To read the riot act?"
"Don't know," Chris replied thoughtfully. "He didn't seem angry, just worried." He swayed a little, partially from fatigue and partially from relief.
"If you're that tired, stay and sleep on the sofa," Vin suggested hesitantly, still a little unsure whether Chris had forgiven him or not.
"Thought you'd never ask," Chris responded in gratitude and sat back down again. Noticing the expression of relief that flitted across Tanner's face, he sighed. "It's over, Vin. It's all right."
Forgiveness. A smile, somewhat shy, still relieved, illuminated Vin's face for a moment. Then he bowed his head, once more close to tears.
"I'll get you a blanket," he muttered, scrambling up and escaping into the bedroom.
Chris looked at his watch - what a couple of days it had been. He heaved a deep sigh.
"Well, we've made it," he muttered. "It was touch and go there for a while, but we made it." He settled down on the sofa as Vin returned with the blanket.
"Here you are," Vin said, handing it over.
"You're welcome. 'Night."
As he left the room, Vin turned at the door. There was a rustle in one of the corners and a few feathers drifted to the floor. Vin smiled.
"Goodbye Whisperbird," he murmured softly.
Chris caught the sound and he looked across at Vin.
"Nothing," Vin replied happily.
At nine o'clock on the dot Vin knocked on the District Attorney's door.
"Come in," Travis called. The door opened slowly and Vin entered hesitantly and rather shame facedly. Carefully he closed the door behind him.
"You wanted to see me, sir?"
Travis gestured to Vin to sit down. Tanner sat quickly, perched on the edge of his chair. Travis said nothing for a moment, just regarded his ATF agent with a non-committal expression. Vin sat tensely, not quite daring to meet the D.A's eyes.
"Well, Officer Tanner, have you anything to say about that little exhibition last night?"
"No, sir.....except that I'm sorry."
Travis nodded as if it were no more than he expected.
"I see. You lied to me."
"You disobeyed a direct order."
"Can you think of any reason why I should not suspend you?"
"Well I can."
Vin's head snapped up at that, staring in surprise at Travis.
"Sir, I really am sorry. I can't tell you how much....."
"Vin, bear with me." The use of his Christian name by the District Attorney effectively stopped Tanner's protest allowing Travis to continue.
"Having given the matter considerable thought, I intend to let it end here and now. What happened the day before yesterday was as much my fault as yours." Again Vin opened his mouth to protest but Travis frowned and he subsided, clearly confused.
"I was a fool to accept your excuse of taking yourself off into the wilderness, but I was in a hurry and I wanted to believe you. It was unkind of me to use you to crack Menzies - but this is not a kind job and I'm not a kind man. You of all people know that. However, the fact remains that I am partially responsible for your outburst. Perhaps I'm even to blame for your predicament in the first place - I know Chris thinks I am. Be that as it may, we can not change the past; we can only learn from it. No permanent damage has been done, for which we can be grateful. But I never, ever want a repeat of this. I can't emphasise that strongly enough. Is that clear?"
"Absolutely," Vin agreed fervently.
"You and Chris......" Travis began
"That's sorted too, sir," Vin assured him.
"Good." Travis' face suddenly broke into a rueful smile which was both affectionate and relieved. "You'll be pleased to know that Dawson and his men have sung like canaries."
Vin leant forward eagerly at the news.
"Does that mean we can nail those bastards?"
"Certainly," Travis said with immense satisfaction.
Chris walked past the door to the District Attorney's for the umpteenth time, glaring at it each time. Buck had accompanied him and now sat on a chair, tipping it back against the wall.
"Chris," Buck said at last. "You're going to wear a pathway in the carpet at this rate. Sit down."
Larabee sat like a chastised schoolboy but was up and pacing again as soon as he had sat down.
"What's taking them so long?" he demanded fretfully. "It doesn't take that long to hand in a resignation surely?"
Buck's chair dropped with a crash.
"Vin's not resigning is he? When did he make that ludicrous decision and why didn't you stop him?!"
"No, I don't think so. It was all very confusing last night but he didn't mention it this morning. I thought he'd changed his mind. Oh, I don't know; but this is just between you and me, Buck."
"Whatever you say, Chris," Wilmington agreed in confusion.
"Oh come on!" Chris fumed. "What's taking so long?" He sat down again.
As if in reply the door opened and Vin came out. He closed the door behind him and headed off down the corridor, head down, ignoring Chris and Buck. Chris turned to stare after him, open mouthed. The door opened again and the District Attorney came out. On seeing Chris and Buck he frowned.
"Officers Larabee and Wilmington I'm tired of telling you that you are not paid to sit around, you are paid to be out on the streets - where you belong. You have five seconds to be out of this building."
Chris was totally stunned.
At the lifts somebody coughed and Chris looked over sharply.
"Coming?" Vin's blue eyes twinkled with something akin to their normal mischievousness.
On their feet in smooth movements, fighting the silly smirks that were threatening to spread across their faces, Chris and Buck walked over to their colleague.
"Where to?" Chris asked, all cool efficiency.
"To interview a certain Egyptian diplomat," Vin replied.
"Wouldn't miss it for the world," Buck added. "We're going in my car."
"A pile of scrap metal," Chris finished Vin's sentence for him.
Vin bridled at the description of his beloved jeep but quietly acquiesced.
A couple of weeks later Chris found himself with a few minutes to spare. He poured himself a coffee and sat looking out over the city, which that morning happened to be wreathed in mist. His mind turned again, as it so often seemed to these days, to the last few months and he sighed. The case was closed; the girls had been returned to their families; the white slavers were all in jail awaiting trial and the leak in the police department had been plugged. To all intents and purposes Vin had faced, fought with and defeated his demons but every now and again, in an unguarded moment, Chris detected a fearfulness in the young man. He continued to be easily startled when people moved too close to him, backing away and licking his lips nervously. Each time it happened it acted as further confirmation of what Chris firmly suspected and he felt the knowledge of the depravity that had been visited upon the young Texan turning like a knife in his gut.
He got up from his desk and walked to the door. Opening it a fraction he looked out, scanning the faces of his team; his gaze finally resting on Vin who was slumped in his chair, chewing viciously at his nails and staring vacantly at the screen in front of him. Chris could not stand seeing the young man still so obviously miserable and so he slipped out into the office. Quietly hooking Tanner's jacket from its peg, he walked over and sat down beside him. Gently he put a hand over Vin's and pulled it from his mouth.
"How you doing?" he asked softly.
Vin looked at him.
"I's......" he began and then caught sight of Chris' face.
"......Not so fine," he admitted.
"Thought so," Chris replied. He pressed the jacket and the key to the ranch into Vin's hand.
"Go and spend the rest of the day with the horses," he suggested.
"But what about.......?" Vin protested weakly, sorely tempted by the offer; anything to get away from the oppressiveness of the office.
"Doesn't matter. None of it matters until you are right, Vin. Now go."
"Thanks, Chris," Tanner muttered, grabbing jacket and keys, and getting to his feet. He moved slowly to the door and Chris could almost feel the world pressing down on the young man's shoulders. At the outer door Vin stopped and turned.
"Go Vin, we'll talk later if you want."
Gratefully Vin walked out of the office and down to the jeep. That day had been worse than usual and he was glad that Chris had sensed that and cut him some slack. Climbing into the vehicle, he actually found himself looking forward to the impromptu ride ahead.
The rest of the day was not good for Chris; despite his assurances to Vin, one man less did mean more work for the others - not that any of them complained, they all sensed that there was something still troubling the Texan. He was also aware of a faint feeling of unease that he could not quite shake. Five o'clock could not come quickly enough for him and, unusually, he was the first out of the door and into the parking lot at the end of the day. The drive to the ranch dragged along as he got stuck in one traffic jam after another. Finally he pulled up outside the house and got out. He climbed the steps to the front door and, on finding it locked, made his way across the yard to the barn.
Peso was in his stall, happily pulling whispers of hay from his hay net when Chris entered the barn. He peeped into the tack room and saw that the bit and bridle had been cleaned and hung up on their peg and that the saddle was in its place. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary but the gnawing feeling of unease was growing as he walked past the stalls towards the feed room. Taking a deep breath he quietly peeped round the door.
The light was off in the room but there was just enough daylight filtering through to see by and Chris' heart sank when he spotted Vin. The young Texan was seated on a bale of straw with his revolver hanging loosely in his hand. Even at that distance Larabee could see that the safety was off. As he watched Vin groaned and lifted the gun up in front of his face, examining it as if he had never seen it before.
"Vin!" he called softly as he walked over to his sharpshooter, keeping a wary eye open for any sign that he might turn on him, but there was no reaction from the young man; it was almost as if he had not heard his boss at all.
Chris' hand closed gently over Vin's hand and the butt of the gun. With the other he prised the weapon from the young Texan's grip, slipped the safety on and placed it carefully on the bale of straw behind him.
"It would be so easy," Vin whispered. "So final. Peace at last."
Chris sat down beside him.
"Why, Vin? Why are you so desperate to leave us?"
Vin was silent for a few minutes, a war waging inside of him, and then, his decision made, he looked up at his friend.
"Menzies raped me, Chris. Not once but over and over again." He lowered his head. He had said it and now he had to face the consequences whatever they were. He was startled when Chris gently rested a hand on the back of his neck. Slowly Larabee drew Vin's head to rest on his shoulder.
"I know," Chris said softly.
"You know?" Vin gasped, trying to draw away. "How?"
Chris kept his hold gentle but firm.
"Because I know you," he explained. "It was clear from the moment I first saw you. I didn't want to believe it, but deep down I knew that he had. Do you want to tell me about it?"
If he was completely honest with himself he really did not want to hear the details but he knew that if Vin were to regain his equilibrium he needed to get the matter out in the open so he was prepared to sit and listen for however long it took.
Vin pulled away from his friend and turned his back. He was encouraged by Chris' reaction but unsure how to begin or what to say. Resting his feet on the bale of straw in front of him he drew his knees up and hugged them tightly. Laying his cheek on his knees he rocked himself gently but almost imperceptibly. When he was comfortable he began to speak in a low voice and once the dam broke it all came pouring out - the sordid violation; the nights he had cried himself to sleep; the feeling of abandonment.
Chris listened in silence and finally understood fully the depth of Vin's sense of betrayal by the team. He listened until Vin at last ran out of words.
"So alone," the young Texan finished, almost with a wail, closing his eyes against the inevitable wave of hatred that he knew would be coming from Chris.
Strong arms slipped round Vin's shaking body and he was drawn back into a fierce hug. Feeling secure for the first time in a long while, he allowed himself to relax slightly into the embrace, comforted by the feel of Chris' chin resting lightly on his head. He became aware of a dampness permeating his hair and, raising a hand to touch Chris' cheek, was surprised to feel tears running down them.
"Don't cry," he whispered. "Not your fault."
"Water under the bridge, Chris. You've got to move on."
"And what about you?"
"Don't know," he admitted at last and sunk in on himself.
They sat like that for some time deriving comfort from each other's physical presence but Chris knew it was still not enough to heal Vin's hurts. Eventually they went inside and ate a silent meal. Once he was sure that Tanner was safely settled in the guest room, Chris crept back out to the barn, retrieved the gun and locked it away out of the reach of temptation. When he woke the next morning Tanner had headed back to Purgatorio.
More weeks passed. Vin flatly refused to seek professional help. Chris kept all guns under lock and key unless the Texan was on a job. The rest of the team kept their heads down and continued with their work. The atmosphere in the office was nothing like it had been in those first few weeks after Vin's return but there was a general underlying feeling of unease and hurt that affected them all. Then, one day, Chris arrived early at the office, desperately needing to catch up on some paperwork. Early as he was, however, Vin was even earlier. The young Texan was standing by the picture window looking out over the city of Denver. As Chris entered, Tanner turned and gave him a watery smile. Instinctively knowing that something was very wrong, Chris indicated that he should sit but Vin shook his head and returned his gaze to the window. Chris waited patiently for Vin to make the first move.
"I'm sorry, Chris. I've tried, I really have but I can't go on like this - pretending nothing happened and that everything is all right. It's too much this time. Need to get away from here. Can't breathe." The words tumbled over themselves as he tried to express the way he was feeling, knowing that he was letting Chris down - badly.
"Vin, you could see......"
"No," Vin cut across the suggestion. "Don't want nobody else playing with my head."
"Where will you go?"
"Don't know. Somewhere I can get my head together."
"Don't say it, please, Chris. I just gotta get away."
"Okay, Vin. Go, but promise you'll call if you need us."
Vin walked out of Chris' small office, nodded once at Josiah who had just entered through the outer door and left Team 7's offices. Seconds later Larabee came out of his office.
"Vin?" he asked Josiah.
"Gone," the older man replied.
Chris moved towards the outer door to follow but Josiah, who had seen the young Texan's eyes and all that was laid bare in them, placed a restraining hand on his arm.
"You can't help him this time," Josiah advised him. "This time Vin has to do it on his own."
Vin coaxed the clapped out Jeep up the steep slope to the top of the sandstone bluff and then slammed the brakes on before it could launch itself over the edge. He sat for a couple of minutes before opening the door and climbing slowly out. Walking right to the very edge of the bluff he looked at the plains spread out below him. Then he turned and sat down on a convenient rock to breathe in the fresh, clean air and watch the sun set.
As pinks, oranges, reds and purples chased each other across the western sky and fiery airplane trails blazed and then gradually died out, his shattered nerves were soothed so that, when the sun eventually sank below the horizon, he felt more at peace with himself than he had for a long time. As the day's warmth radiated through his body, he reflected on the way he felt and realised that he had been feeling restless since before the whole sordid undercover operation had begun. Thinking back on it, his albeit brief sojourn in the church had actually fuelled those feelings. Now he knew it was time to try to deal with those emotions and to try and heal himself from within so that he could forget and move on.
Once the sun had gone and the stars had started to shine in the midnight blue, Tanner got up and went round to the Jeep's trunk. Flinging it open, he rifled through its contents and pulled out a sleeping bag. Carrying it over to a small hollow in the ground, he curled up in it and fell fast asleep.
The next day he drove back to town, parked the Jeep and walked across to the stables. Having sorted out the horse, he went to the nearest store and bought some supplies. On his way back to the stables he collected his sleeping bag and a small camping stove from the car. When he arrived back, he found the horse saddled and bridled. Quickly he loaded the saddle bags and then swung himself up into the saddle. With a small sigh of contentment he headed out of town.
Vin rode not hard but purposefully through the desert, sleeping out under the stars and cooking simple meals on open fires. Gradually he shed all the thin superficial layers he had built up from living in the city and which had never sat well on him. Slowly he became his natural self, at one with the world of nature around him, receptive to her moods. He revelled in the sunrise, luxuriated in the warmth of the sun or the gentle fall of rain and fell asleep to the changing colours of the sunset.
After a number of days in the saddle, he reached his destination; a small cave set in a low sandstone bluff beside a sleepy meandering river lined with juniper and myrtle. Loosely tethering the horse to a willow sapling, he carried the tack and saddle bags into the cave and made camp. He quickly built a sweet smelling fire from the nearby shrubs and ate another simple meal. Having made sure that the horse was comfortable for the night he picked handfuls of the sage that was growing on the river bank and threw it on the fire. As the smell of the herb began to permeate the smoke he sat down and started to empty his mind of all thought and feeling.
He found himself drifting slowly up and away from the earth, caught in a gentle updraft, looking down on a world that grew more and more remote. He spread his wings, lazily swooping and soaring; now rushing towards the earth and now approaching the sun; enjoying the feeling of freedom and the loosing of the bonds that tied him. On and on he flew, away from his troubles and towards a golden light that glowed and called on the horizon. He luxuriated in the warmth of that light as it grew brighter and enveloped him in all its glory. He continued to swoop and soar towards it, knowing that this was what he needed. As he approached closer and closer to the light the heat intensified until his extremities began to tingle. Cautiously he continued his flight across a sky tinged with pinks and flecked with gold tongues of flames until at last he saw, far below, cradled in a valley encircled by the arms of a mountain a fire that danced and raged but did not burn.
All at once he knew he had to go down and see what was happening and began a long slow spiral of descent; the wind ruffling his feathers. Soon it became too hot for him to approach any closer and he hovered expectantly, waiting for he knew not what. After what seemed like hours the fire crackled and grew; the flames stretching higher and higher into the sky; approaching closer and closer to where he rested on the updraft. Unafraid he watched, fascinated, as suddenly the fire died away in a flurry of golden sparks and a large golden bird began to emerge from the glowing ashes. Slowly the bird rose up into the air until it was looking him straight in the eye as if it could see right into his soul. It hung there for a moment then flapped its wings and flew off; brushing his hair with its wings as it passed over him and it seemed to him that something was pulled from deep within and taken away. His eyes closed and he remembered no more until he awoke hours later with the scent of sage around him; smoke curling across the ground and a feeling of peace in his soul.
The next day he started the ride back towards civilisation and, on reaching it, retrieved his mobile from the jeep and punched in the familiar number.
All sound and movement in the office ceased abruptly as Chris put the telephone on loud speaker. A soft Texan drawl filled the room.
"Chris, I'm ready to come home, but the Jeep's packed up. Can you come and get me?"
Chris looked at his team's faces, their smiles showing their relief. He felt a heavy burden suddenly slip from his shoulders as he gently replied,
"Sure thing. Where are you?"
All comments to firstname.lastname@example.org as always.