AUTHOR'S NOTE: This series will be an X-over with the TV series Without A Trace, but you don't need to know WAT to read it. The idea was set off by a challenge picture LaraMee made, the picture you see with this story. She has beta'd the result and made the stories a lot, lot better with her solid advice and nudges to some better English, so many, many thanks LaraMee! My thanks also go to Tracey for beta-ing the end result.
WARNING: This series will give a permanent disability to one of the Seven.
Oh God, my head....
He tried to move, but immediately pain exploded behind his eyes and all the way down his neck. Desperately he swallowed the bile rising up in his throat. It went down, barely and he lay completely motionless, hoping it would help.
He attempted to bring his hand to his head, only to discover he couldn't. His other hand he could move, but the pain shooting up his arm encouraged him against it.
His legs... he definitely couldn't move his legs either and suddenly panic set in. So he opened his eyes, despite the enormous hammer pounding inside his head, to see what was going on.
He was in his truck. But it was lying on its side, leaving him hanging at an awkward angle, trapped between the wrenched steel around him.
Car accident? Had he been in a car accident? He couldn't remember, couldn't remember anything but....
Damn, he'd lost control of his truck. No accident, no one plowing into him, he just all of a sudden hadn't been able to handle the big, black monster anymore.
Why? Why had he lost control so completely? Sending him over the edge of the road and down the steep embankment beside it? If this had happened on the main road and not the small road through the high mountain meadows that eventually led to his ranch, he would have been a few hundred feet down instead of laying in this one time creek bed. And probably be dead....
He suddenly realized he was worrying about the wrong things. What he should be worrying about was getting out of here; getting help.
Getting his phone. God, where was his phone?
Despite the pain every time he moved his head, he tried to locate his cell phone. He'd had it beside him on the passenger seat, like always. So where was it now? He needed it, needed it badly.
Something was dripping in his eyes and he tried to shake it off.
Wrong move. This time there was no way he could prevent himself from puking. Luckily he still had his head turned sideways.
"Eww, that's really gross!"
Voice, a voice meant help!
Carefully Chris turned his head upwards, to where his shattered side window was looming above him. Three men were looking down at him.
His plea for help died on his lips. He definitely didn't like the smirks on their faces, the looks of... satisfaction.
"Told you he'd survive," one of them said.
"No thanks to you! You're a moron, Flint. What possessed you to shoot out his tires here? Why didn't you wait until he'd taken the curve away from the drop, idiot!"
"Well, it worked, didn't it?" a defensive sounding voice answered.
"Flint, Curly, shut up," the third person said; disgust clear. Then he grinned at Chris. "Mister James is expecting you, Larabee. So don't bleed out on us. All right, let's get him out of this mess! And Flint, if he dies before Mister James can question him, you'd better run, fool. Run hard and far, 'cause he won't be pleased."
James? Who? He only knew Stuart James, a business tycoon from Denver with holdings all over the country. The man had so much dirt on his hands it was amazing he could get them washed clean. He knew it, Travis knew it and so did the DA. Hell, half of Denver knew it! But proving had been something else entirely, until Joe had come over last night. Joe Martin, an old friend from the Denver PD and the one he still went to when he needed a heads up from the Denver police. Someone he trusted - and who had trusted him, trusted him with the evidence that could take Stuart James down.
"I don't know who to trust on the force anymore, Chris," Joe had informed him when, at Joe's request, they had met at one of the bars near the LoDo district last night. "You take a look at it and see if you can come up with away to get James. You've always been a planner, so I'm entrusting this to you now. Just don't cut me out, I want to be a part of that bastard going down. I owe him for the death of the person who brought me this disc." Softly, his friend had added "and not just his death. No, don't ask. Just see what's on this disc first. We'll talk again later."
The contents of the disc had been clear. It held names, dates, former transactions amongst which was proof about paid for executions and best of all, some future business plans. Things he knew he could work with if he was careful and didn't tip James or his lackeys beforehand.
He'd tried to arrange a new meeting with Joe, but he hadn't been able to get in touch with him this whole fucking, messed up day and that worried him. Tonight he had planned to try again and if that didn't work out, he'd contact Travis about this. He wasn't going to sit on it any longer; he wanted to move fast on James.
Only, he couldn't move right now....
"You know why Mister James wants him?" one of his assailants asked.
"We ain't paid to worry about that. Come on, let's get him out."
Chris closed his eyes in defeat, knowing he wasn't in any position to stop them. He couldn't even reach his gun. His free arm definitely didn't work and his other arm was trapped.
Why hadn't he told someone immediately about the disc, about Joe? Stupid, stupid, stupid! Even if Joe had asked him to talk about it together first, it still had been a stupid thing to wait.
He vomited again while the three men were wrenching the metal away from him with crowbars and tried to free him. When they dragged him out, he couldn't stop the screaming. A blow to the head made him lose consciousness before he could even attempt to get his gun with his now free arm.
"A very astute description of the situation, Mister Wilmington," Ezra answered sarcastically.
"Shut up, Ezra."
Vin tuned his two teammates out and walked closer to the black Ram, laying in a steep ditch beside the road.
Completely wrecked, burned out and ironically close to his home and the horse ride Chris had been looking forward to after an exceptionally hard week at work.
God, he was never gonna be a team leader. He'd rather shoot himself first. Stupid paperwork. And why the hell couldn't the brass leave Chris alone, especially Director Phillips? So what if they hadn't followed procedures to the letter, it had gotten the job done, hadn't it?
Stupid bastards! Were they the reason Chris had seemed so worried all day? He'd appeared to be very preoccupied with something, but after the week from hell he'd had, Vin hadn't wanted to press.
And now Chris was gone....
A hand was placed on his shoulder. Josiah's solid presence stood beside him, giving him something to anchor himself to.
"You know he isn't in the wreckage, Vin. Whoever shot his tires took him out afterwards, which means he's probably still alive."
"Really?" a young voice behind them asked hopefully. "You really think he's still alive? But... why?" JD had come down as well.
Josiah turned around and smiled at their agitated youngest agent. "JD, the only reason they would take a body that I can see, is to try and prevent it from being identified. But whoever did this left the license plates intact and all Chris' personal belongings inside, so they weren't doing that. No, I think they wanted him alive."
The big, gray-haired man looked back at the wreck and Vin followed his gaze. "I think they hoped the fire would cover up the fact Chris wasn't in it anymore, but through some divine intervention his truck didn't blow up completely. Not that it would have mattered, we would have found out Chris wasn't inside eventually."
"What do we do now, Josiah? He's gotta be hurtin'," Vin asked, trying not to give in to the desperation he was feeling inside. Chris might not be dead, but he was clearly in a lot of trouble.
"We do what we do best... we work the case."
JD was still nearby, restlessly jumping from one foot to the other. "You think we'll find him?"
"I am confident we will," Josiah said. "There's Nathan. Let's see what he found out."
JD nodded, trying to look unaffected and not fooling Vin for even one second. It was clear how devastated he was. It was how Vin felt himself and he was pretty sure it was the same for the rest of the Team.
Slowly he climbed back to the road with Josiah, JD and Nathan, to where Buck and Ezra were standing. Buck's eyes never strayed from the wreck down the slope, not even to look at them. His hands were in his pockets, but Vin could still see they were balled tightly into fists.
"There's blood," Nathan told them when they had reached the other two. "And they're pretty sure the fire started after Chris was pulled out. There were crowbar marks on the metal where they had to bend it to get him loose and a trail of blood beside the truck, which ends suddenly."
Vin heard JD gasp and saw Buck flinch. He swallowed, trying not to let the brutal scenario Nathan sketched get to him.
He's alive, Chris is alive, he must be! he reminded himself forcefully.
"Which makes it abundantly clear as to what our next course of action should be," Ezra murmured, also still staring at the mess below. "I will start with my informants."
"I'll go lean on Gomez; see if he has anything to do with it. He did threaten revenge. Loudly," Josiah said.
"I'm going with you." Buck's voice was low, angry.
"We don't know if he has anything to do with it, Buck. So don't get carried away," Josiah told him.
Vin saw the worry in Josiah's eyes while he looked at Buck and he immediately understood why. A need for violence radiated from the normally cheerful rogue.
Buck finally looked away from the wreckage and his eyes seemed to want to burn a hole in Josiah. "I'm going with you," he repeated, menace clear in his voice. "He'll talk."
Josiah hesitated a second before he gave a curt nod. Then he turned to Vin. "Can you ask around this neighborhood and find out if anyone saw anything? Maybe you can look for tracks as well?"
"Ya know I will."
"Good. Take Nathan. JD is best suited to start pulling files and see what else he can find with the help of his computer."
They all nodded. The assignments made sense. Vin knew it would have been what Chris would have ordered.
"Come on then," Josiah said. "Let's go find Chris."
One week. One whole week of going through Chris' cases of the last five years, making a list of possible suspects and questioning them. One week of asking around on the street for possible clues. One week of wracking their brains and today here they were again, cooped up in the office, trying to find a lead instead of taking the break the Bureau had insisted upon. That break consisted of not working on any cases, the ones needing immediate attention having been transferred to other teams. Only some light desk duties, like reports that needed to be typed and loose ends that needed to be tied up, were allowed to be done by them, nothing more.
'To help them cope' as it had been termed.
"Shrink language," Buck had muttered with disgust.
No one on the team had opposed the Bureau's decision. It meant they could throw themselves into trying to find their missing team leader and they had. They had been wheedling information out of the members of teams Five and Eight, both officially assigned the case of Larabee's disappearance and had been looking into everything these teams had done to see if they hadn't missed anything. Plus of course they had followed their own ideas and checked with their own sources. Forcefully if necessary.
It had only been the tip of the iceberg; there was still so much they hadn't been able to look into and there was nothing yet to even hint at what direction their investigation should take. God, it was helpless!
Vin pushed his hands through his long hair and tried not to scream in frustration. How could this be? How could someone disappear without a trace? All they had found around the scene of the wreckage was a spot of blood on the road, the place where Chris had almost certainly been put into another vehicle, but what kind of vehicle? And where had it gone? Back to Denver or the other way, further into the mountains? Why hadn't the bastards at least parked at the side of the road, where they would have left tracks?
And how could it be that no one had seen or heard anything?
Immediately on that same Friday evening when Chris' truck had been found, before anyone had a chance to officially call them off, he and Nathan had questioned everyone in the vicinity of the crime scene and beyond. Which was practically no one. Chris' neighbors had been the closest. They also had been the ones who had called it in. The first sign the old couple had had that something was going on, was black smoke hanging in the air. They had gone to investigate, found the wrecked Ram and while the old man had attacked the fire with the extinguisher from his own truck, his wife had phoned the police. To Vin and Nathan's disappointment the Ram had been all they had seen. They hadn't heard anything either. No shots, no screaming, nothing. They had been too far away from the crime scene.
The neighbors on the other side of Chris had had no more information, which had pretty much concluded that part of the investigation. There just wasn't anyone else around.
Why had Chris ever decided to live in such a ridiculously out of the way spot?
Hastily Vin drew a hand over his eyes. He saw the others look away to give him a moment of privacy.
Hell, he knew why Chris lived in that reclusive spot; it was just so darn beautiful up there in the mountains. The meadows, the woods, the magnificent peaks all around... there were days when it seemed Chris' place was all that existed in the world. He loved those days, loved all the days he spent at the ranch - and there were many. The others sometimes teased him about living there instead of Purgatory.
Chris had offered a few times over the years, but it seemed such an awkward thing to do, move to the ranch. He had always declined, even if a huge part of him wanted to say yes.
"You wouldn't put me out, Vin," Chris had told him. "You could help with the ranch, make it possible to keep some more horses. The house is big enough to convert into two parts." But the ranch somehow was home to the whole team and he didn't feel right, taking up so much of it.
Of course these past few days he did live up there after all, taking care of everything. He and Buck.
Shaking off his musings, Vin brought himself back to the here and now in the office. He looked at Buck, at the drawn features of the man. Buck was taking this as hard as he was. Both of them had a really bad feeling about what was happening to Chris. Abduction in such a violent way didn't promise anything good. Why hadn't they waited for their victim at the ranch for instance, took him where there were less chances of killing him?
Of course that might have given Chris the chance to fight back... maybe take someone down in the process.
Maybe they chose the way they had because they had wanted to make everyone believe Chris was dead, expecting the truck to blow up and take all evidence to the contrary with it. How they'd ever hoped to cover up the fact there had been no body inside the truck was beyond Vin, but stranger things had happened.
Everything showed that whoever took Chris didn't care much for his wellbeing. Coupled with the fact no demands for Chris' release had come in the past days made him and Buck all the more agitated about what was going on.
What they wanted Chris for.
Suddenly Buck jumped up, throwing the file he was reading down in disgust.
"Nothing!" he yelled. "Nothing at all! Why the hell can't we find something, anything?" A few seconds later he stormed out of the door.
JD jumped up as well to go after his friend, but Josiah was already on his way, shaking his head at JD.
"Let Josiah try and talk to him, JD," Nathan said softly. "Come on, let's go through these last files, so we can compare notes on all the cases we've reviewed. Ezra'll be here soon."
"But maybe I should go too! He... it's not only Chris, you know. We got a message the day after... after Chris disappeared that a friend of theirs had died. Buck, he said he was gonna get Chris back in time for the funeral, but the funeral was Wednesday and now it's Friday and we still have nothing."
"A friend of theirs died? I'm sorry about that, JD. Why didn't he tell us?"
"He said he wanted everyone to concentrate on finding Chris, not on him. I told him we could do both, be there for him and still look for Chris, but he... he got real angry."
"Who died?" Vin asked. A friend of Chris? Chris didn't have that many friends besides Team Seven. He had lost most of them after his family had been killed by a car bomb meant for him, sending Chris into a world of grief and depression not many people had wanted to follow him into. It made Vin curious as to who this man was.
"An old colleague from the Denver PD," JD said softly. "Someone Buck really liked and about the only cop Chris still had contact with. Seems he had a heart attack. It shook Buck up, 'cause he never even knew the man had a bad heart. No one knew."
"Yeah, you can think you're healthy and still something like that can creep up on you," Nathan nodded.
The group fell silent and they went back to studying the last of the files they had pulled out. Somewhere, anywhere, there had to be something that would help them find Chris and hopefully find him in time.
Half an hour later Ezra returned from the streets where he had been pumping his snitches for information again. Buck and Josiah still weren't back. Vin started stacking his files while he waited. He hadn't found anything remotely resembling a clue in the last of the files assigned to him and he had the sinking feeling it was the same for everyone else.
It was. Their meeting in the conference room, where they put their findings together after Josiah returned with a very silent Buck in tow, only showed them that they had nothing. There were no new suspects besides Gomez and the few others without alibis Josiah and Buck had already questioned. No amount of talking and throwing around ideas made it any better.
After a while the talking stopped and they just sat there, staring at each other. No one suggested going out for drinks at Inez's, no one said anything about calling it a day. They didn't want to call it a day, they wanted to do something.
"So, what's next?" It was Nathan who finally voiced the question they were all thinking.
"Next? There will be no next. This stops right here!"
JD practically jumped out of his seat when the angry voice spoke up, while the rest of them swiveled heads quickly to the door opening. No one had heard him come in, but there AD Orrin Travis stood and the look on his face made it clear he was angry, very angry.
When he saw he had their attention, he strolled over and threw some papers in the middle of the table.
"Three allegations of police brutality," he said. "Three! In only a few days time, three of them! And that's only the ones I received, no way of knowing if more will follow." He looked at each of them, holding their eyes a few seconds before moving to the next man. "Will there be more?"
No one answered, they just stared at the papers.
"I could live with you harassing teams Five and Eight and making their jobs more difficult, because I know how much you all care. Hell, the whole Bureau cares and those teams didn't hold it against you either, except where you went and did their jobs over. Not that doing so gave you anything new, did it? Of course it didn't, because those two teams are fine teams, good at their job! I also didn't mind JD using every illegal trick he knows to pull up files prohibited to you, because this isn't your case. But this!" He gestured at the papers he had thrown down.
"This is going too far." He suddenly turned to Ezra. "And you abusing, even exposing some very good informants in this illegal quest, thereby jeopardizing an investigation of months is going too far as well. I want it stopped right now!"
Ezra mumbled something sounding suspiciously like 'just low life scum asking for it'. Travis' eyes narrowed.
"Really?" he asked. He looked at the rest of them. "You know, I don't see much regret about what you have been doing this week. Do you even realize how many rules and ethics you broke? Yes, you do, I know you do." He shook his head in disgust. "Chris Larabee would hate this, hate to see how you all are becoming what you have been fighting. No more. It stops here."
Silence reigned for a long time after he left. They didn't look at each other. "He's right," Vin said at last, looking specifically at Buck who had been the most brutal when it came to interrogating suspects and then at Ezra, who had been the worst in harassing informants. "Chris would've hated what we've been doing."
"So? He can kick my butt once we find him, but first we'd better do just that," Buck said coolly.
"I agree with Mister Wilmington," Ezra said, just as coolly. "Moreover, I do not agree with Mister Travis, or you, Vin. I think Mister Larabee would be the first to unearth every stone in pursuit of one of us."
Josiah sighed and shook his head. "No point in this discussion. Let's just get back to work and this time, gentlemen, please try and make less waves. We all know we're not supposed to work this case, everyone knows. So, is there anyone here who wants to step back from this, since it's against the rules and Travis' explicit instructions?"
Everyone looked disgusted that he even dared to suggest such a thing.
No, Vin thought firmly after they all left the conference room, he wasn't going to give up. He was going to find Chris. It was an oath he had sworn to himself after their first day of searching for leads. He wasn't going to give up until he had found Chris.
He wanted his friend and boss back; he wanted his team to be whole again.
He woke up to voices, angry voices.
It didn't feel right, nothing felt right, and so he wasn't going to let them know he was awake. He concentrated on what was being said, trying to find out what was going on.
"Don't tell me not even the drugs helped! Not the drugs, not your thugs torturing him, what else can you do?"
"Calm down, will you? We're not done here. There are a few other options we haven't tried out yet. Believe me, pain goes a long way in breaking a person and we've given him plenty of that. Add some other form of persuasion, like humiliation, or threatening his loved ones and we'll break him."
"Loved ones? What loved ones?" a third voice asked sarcastically. "Everyone knows Larabee only lives for his work, for his team. And besides, are we sure he has the disc?"
He knew that voice! He knew it and loathed it! God, his head was a muddle. Why didn't he remember what happened? What was going on?
"He's got to have it. He's the one Joe Martin went to see. Damn him for having a heart attack and dying on us before we even got started on him."
"We'll get that evidence back, James. And then we'll find out who's been talking. Now, how about preparing him for another round? I want this over and done with."
"You're not the only one."
By now Chris had opened his eyes. He needed to see these men who were holding him captive and who had caused him so much pain.
Pain, yes, he remembered it again, his truck being shot off the road and the endless questioning once he was brought here, wherever 'here' was.
With the memory of their questioning techniques came the need to be sick, something he couldn't hold back.
"Hey, he's awake."
"Do you think he saw us, James?"
"So what if he did? It's not like he'll be able to tell anyone. Bring him, we have work to do."
Rough hands pulled him up and placed him on his feet. He screamed and almost blacked out again.
"Shit, you may have gone too far. How's he going to tell us anything in this state?"
"You're beginning to be a pain, Joseph." All politeness had suddenly gone from the voice of the big man who was clearly running the show.
"How dare you talk like that to me, Stuart James!"
"I dare talk to you like that, because I'm the one who made you, Joseph. I'm the one who got you where you are and don't you forget it, ever!"
"Fuck this, I'm leaving."
"I don't think so. Maybe it's time you saw what your idiocy brought down on us, both of you. Come on, move your asses."
Chris managed to tilt his head enough to look at the two men standing beside Stuart James. One looked away, the other smiled at him.
"I'll k... kill you," he hissed at the bastard.
The smile grew broader. "From where I'm standing that's a very empty threat, Larabee."
"My men w... will find me and th... then...."
"Your men don't even have the faintest idea where to start. Nothing connects you to James, nothing except Joe Martin and he's dead."
Oh God, Joe! Yes, he had heard them say that Joe had died.
Chris squeezed his eyes shut, trying not to let the news get to him. Right now he couldn't afford to let anything get to him.
But Joe, he'd known Joe for ages, had been friends with him for such a long time. When he had come back out of his stupor, brought on by grief after his family's death, Joe had been one of the few people who was still there for him.
And now he was gone.
He was dragged off to the room he had come to dread. This time even the last of his clothes were torn off before he was tied up.
"Observe how something added to pain can break a man where pain alone can't. Some things hurt a man to the core, don't they, Larabee? Hurt and humiliate him at the same time, attacking his spirit as well as his body."
He tried to spit at James, but all he got was laughter in return.
" Why don't we see how far Lucas and his pall Flint are willing to go this time, Larabee? Unless.... No? You're wrong, Larabee, very wrong. You'll tell me everything I want to know eventually. Now, for the last time, where is that disc and who else knows about it?"
No way. Chris closed his eyes and hoped he could keep it up. For Joe. For the person who was indicated on the disc as the one bringing the information out. And because he wanted to stay alive long enough to take all these bastards down, permanently.
It was what he clung to during what happened next, but it was hard.
When Lucas and his friend started on him, he knew they had finally found something he couldn't endure. Something he desperately needed to stop. And he found out there were things that could make him talk after all, knowing they would kill him after he told them what they wanted to hear.
"Do you believe him, James?" a bored voice asked after Chris had stopped talking, his head slumped forward, no strength left in his body.
"Yeah, I do. But, just in case, we'll keep him until we've made sure. Men, take him back to his room! Seems he's finally passed out."
They weren't going to kill him? God, they had to! He needed to escape what they had done to him, needed to be dead!
Arms grabbed him and he stifled a groan, not wanting to let on he was still conscious. If they knew they might start anew and he wouldn't be able to handle that. Not now, maybe not ever again.
And they would start on him again; after they found out he had lied.
It was easy to stay completely limp when two of Stuart James' men dragged him through the hallways.
"Seems he's out of it," one of the men who held him said.
There was disgust in the other man's voice. "You surprised 'bout that? Man, Lucas and Flint are really sick."
"Better not let them hear you say it."
Chris kept his head down, his hair falling over his eyes. It gave him the chance to watch surreptitiously for a possibility to escape.
Out of the corner of his eyes he suddenly saw a door swinging slowly, a door that definitely led outside. Not bothering to think about it, he jerked himself back, only barely stopping himself from screaming when he stood on his own two feet, pulling his arms savagely out of the grasp of his escorts. Before the two startled men regained their balance and overcame their surprise, Chris pulled a gun from the belt of the one on his right. Both men were dead before they had turned completely around to face him.
He managed to stumble through the door before the running footsteps reached him. He landed against the porch railing, grabbing it to keep himself upright. It reminded him painfully of the bad state his left arm was in. He slipped underneath the rail and landed between some bushes, keeping low and easing off to the right. He heard the door open again with a bang, just after he managed to round the corner of the house.
"Find him and get him! Bring him back alive!" the voice of Lucas James roared.
Chris looked around, desperately trying to find a place where he could disappear.
There... trees with a dense undergrowth.
Looking back and seeing no one coming around the house yet, he limped the few steps between the bushes and the trees as fast as he could.
Footsteps approached and he turned to fire a shot at the blurry images behind him. He heard a curse and the images all dove away.
He was between the trees. Panting and grabbing a branch to help him stay on his feet, Chris took two precious seconds to keep from passing out. Then he pushed himself into the darkest part of the woods he had entered.
"I see him," a voice called out.
Chris ducked and tried to conceal where he was going next. He didn't know if he was succeeding, his eyes were adding stars to his surroundings and the pain tried to envelope his whole world. All of it making it difficult to concentrate on where his pursuers were.
Suddenly the trees and bushes opened up before him and he stumbled out into a clearing. He tried to pull back, but it was too late. An exclamation came from right behind him and he knew he had to move ahead.
Chris fell forward and a hand whisked over him. He rolled onto his back, crying out. Biting his lip, hard, in an attempt to keep himself conscious and focused, he managed to lift the gun and a second later the man coming for him flew backwards with a grunt.
"Tom, he's got Tom! I'm gonna kill that bastard!"
"You kill him, you're dead yourself, you hear me, Gareth?"
Desperately pushing himself up, Chris fired at the men coming out of the woods. They ducked. At least, it seemed like that to him. But he wasn't sure, he couldn't see straight and everything came to him through a heavy, pain filled fog.
He pulled the trigger again, but nothing happened. Bullets, he was out of bullets. With a groan of frustration he flung the gun at the men and turned around, limping away as fast as he could.
He wasn't going back into that awful room, he just wasn't.
He wasn't going to wait and see if James would make good on his threat to take someone he loved as a hostage next either.
He was just so damn tired....
His faltering gait ended suddenly, when before him a deep gorge opened up. He stopped himself just in time, swaying at the edge and looking into a dizzying abyss. Vaguely, far down, he thought he saw water running.
"Now we've got you, bastard."
A hand grabbed him by the shoulder and he was spun around. With a cry of anger he lashed out, hitting something. More hands appeared and he tried to slap them away from him, tried to stop them from taking him.
Rather than letting them nearer he stepped backwards and backwards again, his legs threatening to give out on him.
He felt a grip on one of his arms and desperately wrung himself loose. At that moment his legs did give out and Chris felt himself go backwards over the ledge.
He didn't care. He hurt too much to care.
He heard a voice, coming from far away. "Idiots! You killed him, you morons! You killed him!"
Then he hit something, hard, and he felt how he was broken in numerous pieces before numbing, ice cold oblivion took him.
Assistant Director Orrin Travis didn't look them in the eye. As a matter of fact, he was looking at anything but them. Vin couldn't blame him. The man had just told them they were getting a new Senior Agent in Command, due to the long absence of their own SAC.
No, Travis had assured them, the official investigation into the disappearance of Chris Larabee was not stopped, the search for their missing team leader was still the number one priority of the Bureau and of Team Eight. But after three months of nothing the Bureau also found it prudent to give the team a new leader.
A team needed a leader and although Travis hadn't said it, they all knew the brass upstairs had probably thought 'especially this team'.
It made Vin mad. No matter what they were told, he felt like the Bureau had given up on Chris. The fact that now only one team was officially on the case instead of two, confirmed it to him. He had to grab the armrests of his chair in a death grip to keep from jumping up and cursing Travis. Something he didn't really want to do. After all, they knew Travis was on their side, had always been on their side and had covered for them the last three months despite what he had told them at the end of the first week after Chris' disappearance, when he had ordered them to stop.
It really wasn't the man's fault, so he shouldn't take it out on him.
"Your new SAC will start Monday," Travis told them. "I wanted you all to know before the weekend, so you can prepare for his arrival."
"Who is he?" Josiah asked, his voice unusually emotionless.
"Screw that!" Buck was the only one not hiding his feelings. A deep anger radiated from the man. "Why ain't one of us being made temporary team leader?"
"I'm sorry, Buck. I did suggest it, believe me, I suggested it very strongly. Time was when I could have vetoed this decision, but now, with the damn bureaucrats pulling the strings... all they see is the rules. Also the mess you boys have created while searching for Chris didn't help. You've broken a few rules too many and that's made the Directors want to ensure they have someone they consider solid in charge." He sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Nothing more I can do, but at least I could keep Team Eight on Larabee's case, even though it isn't really ATF work to search for missing persons."
They nodded, all of them finally seeing the fatigue and yes, his grief. They knew Chris had been more to Travis than another Senior Agent and Team Leader under his command. Travis cared for all his men, but with Chris it had been a bit more, had been from the beginning and even more so after Larabee had saved the life of Travis' grandson Billy. Billy had been present when his father, Orrin's son, had been murdered. When the murderers feared the boy would remember something and had tried to kill him, Chris had taken the bullet for him, saving the boy's life.
So when Buck opened his mouth in anger again, he immediately had a hand on each arm to stop him and five heads shaking at him. Vin could see he was still fuming, but he did what they asked and kept from speaking his mind.
"Who?" Josiah asked again.
"Walter Bryce. He used to be a marshal before he came over to the ATF. He has a rock-solid reputation for cleaning up rough teams and making them into model ones."
They all stared at the AD.
"Surely you jest?" Ezra asked incredulously, the first thing he had said since Travis mentioned the new SAC.
"We've got the best results of all the goddamn teams of the Western ATF," Buck said through clenched teeth. "I'd say that makes us a model team in my book."
Orrin sighed. "You all tend to bend the rules, have from the beginning and the decision makers don't really like that, no matter how outstanding your results are."
He stood up and looked at each one of them. "I'm sorry," he told them once more. "Truly I am."
When he had left they all stayed where they were, too emotionally drained to get up and leave for their desks.
It was Ezra who finally stood up first. "Gentlemen," he said, "I for one am going to do my utmost to find Chris, no matter the rules and regulations. Do not be mistaken, I will not be led by an incompetent ever again."
"Hell, to you all team leaders are incompetent, Ezra," Nathan said, obviously trying to alter the somber mood.
But Ezra didn't bite. He merely adjusted his cufflinks and disappeared through the door of the conference room. Vin stood up as well. Ezra was right, what they needed to do was get Chris back.
He had work to do.
"Gentlemen," the man said, giving them all a slight tip of the head in greeting.
No one of Team Seven answered.
Hurriedly Travis started his introduction. "Boys, this is Walter Bryce. He's your new Team Leader. Walter, this is Buck Wilmington, second in command and the explosives expert. Beside him you see John Daniel Dunne, our best communications expert and also a genius with the computer. Behind the desk there, at the far wall is Vin Tanner, sharpshooter and weapons expert. In this corner Josiah Sanchez, the team's profiler. Nathan Jackson, he's trained as an EMT, which comes in handy with this team. And finally," he nodded at the desk in the most remote corner, "Team Seven's undercover agent, Ezra Standish.
Walter Bryce didn't say anything while he watched them intensely. All he did was nod slightly in acknowledgement with each introduction. Vin found it hard to get an impression of the man.
"As I've told you all, Bryce was a marshal before joining the ATF and he has an impressive record. I'll leave him to introduce himself further." Travis stepped back, while Bryce came forward until he stood where Chris used to stand when he addressed them in the bull pen. Vin looked away. He didn't have the stomach for this.
"I know this seems rather abrupt to you all. You are still hoping they will find your previous Team Leader and I can only applaud that. You have my word I will keep you updated on any progress in the ongoing search for him."
"Amen to that," Josiah mumbled sarcastically.
The cool eyes of the stocky built ex-marshal turned to him.
"You must be the defrocked priest," he said. "I know about you, all of you. And I know about the way you all used to work. Yes, I like to learn as much as I can about a place and its people before I arrive. One thing I want to make clear from the beginning, I run a tight ship, very tight. No more bending of the rules under my leadership and...."
He paused, looking pointedly at Ezra. "Mister Standish, you will find that I do not bend the rules for your expense reports either."
His statement made Ezra raise an eyebrow. "Why am I not surprised?" he murmured.
Bryce stared at him a moment longer, before turning his attention back to the whole team.
"As I said, I am used to running a tight ship. Therefore I require full reports on each and every case you're working on and on the steps being made in them."
"Full reports?" Buck asked. "You want full reports? On what? The stupid cases they try to keep us happy with, so we won't be doing what we should be doing, looking for Chris?"
"Buck!" Travis snapped.
"Sir," Buck acknowledged him. "Guess you don't mind if we get back to some real work instead of more typing. Come on, boys, let's get to it."
Vin was already turning away from Bryce.
"I will give you all 24 hours to have everything in order," the cool voice of Bryce said behind him. "That means I expect your reports on my desk tomorrow by ten. You have until then to comply with my rules, check your work and your reports, or leave my team."
"Well, how very reasonable," Ezra said. When Vin looked back, the Southerner was sprawling in his chair, looking deceptively bored.
Ezra was not going to work for Bryce, Vin immediately knew. No way in hell was Standish going to let this man tell him what to do. If they didn't find Chris soon, they were going to loose Ezra as well.
Bryce chose to ignore the undercover agent and continued as if there hadn't been any interruption. "In the mean time, if you'll excuse me, I have work to do. I have to look through all of Agent Larabee's files. Tomorrow, immediately at ten fifteen a.m., after I have received your reports, we will have a meeting and discuss the next step in our working together. Gentlemen." He gave them all a curt nod and went straight to Chris' office, closing the door neatly behind him.
"Hell," Vin mumbled, shaking so hard inside he thought everyone around had to notice. If they did, they gave no comment.
"Mister Tanner, you could not have worded it better." Ezra sat up straight, his face no longer looking bored, but studiously devoid of every expression. "If you will excuse me, gentlemen, I believe I have a letter to type."
"Ya can't leave! We need ya to find Chris!"
"Mister Tanner, surely you do not expect me to work under that man."
"I'll have you know Bryce was decorated numerous times." They all looked at AD Travis, some of them with the disbelief clear on their faces.
"That prick?" Buck said angrily. "Mister 'tight ship'? He bored the villains to death with reciting the rules or something? Well, I ain't got time for this."
"Stop it, Buck." Orrin Travis was normally a placid man, but this time his anger was clear. "You want to destroy this team? Because that is what your attitude is getting you! It was a very clear decision to give you a new team leader, so deal with it." He sighed and suddenly looked very tired again, like he had yesterday. "Listen, I know what you've been doing in your free time and even during office time. And I won't fault you for it, not since you've stopped putting other people's lives in danger and kept your hands to yourselves during your interrogations. But I'm not the only one who knows, as you have been far from discreet in your search for Chris. It's one of the reasons you were assigned Bryce in the first place. Just give Team Eight a fair chance, all right? After you they are the team with the best results and you know it. And in the mean time do what you all do best, work together. Or by God, this team is finished."
With those words he stalked out of the door.
They looked at each other.
"I don't believe we have a choice," Josiah finally said. "Travis was right. What we need to do is keep working together, or we will never find Chris. It's been way too long now. In the meantime I suggest we try and work with Bryce and also be far more discreet in our search. We have resources here that we can't access if we leave or are fired."
They all nodded. It was a very subdued team that went back to working.
Ten months... ten months they had been searching and still they hadn't found a trace of their missing leader.
Vin leaned against the wooden gate surrounding the meadow he was in. Behind him reared the majestic peaks of the Denver Mountains. His jeep was standing below them, waiting for him on the quiet mountain road. He had no eyes for that grand view though, all of his attention was on what was in front of him, where the meadow dropped down steeply and found its way to a much lower road. On the other side of that road was what he had come here to look at one last time.
The ranch. Chris' ranch.
It would always be Chris' ranch to him, no matter what anyone said. No matter that Buck and JD practically lived there now.
Two tiny figures were walking around the corral where he could see the horses prancing, glad to be outside. With a pang of regret he recognized Chris' big hellish black and his own slightly smaller gelding. Leaving Peso behind was hard, but he was confident there would come a day he could send for the horse.
It all depended where he would end up and that would be where he thought he would have the best chance of finding Chris.
With a sigh he pushed back an unruly strand of his hair from where it was hanging over his forehead. He pushed both hands into the pockets of his leather jacket and stared at the sight below him.
Chris had shown him this spot, the ideal place to overlook the blond's home and property.
Hastily he pulled one hand out of a pocket and wiped his eyes.
Ten months... ten months had been a long, long time to search for a missing friend. Too long. Gradually everyone else had dropped the search, some trying to come to terms with the idea Chris was probably dead, others trying to console themselves with the belief he might one day reappear, surprising them all.
Ten months in which their ATF team had slowly fallen apart. Especially after Ezra had left.
Ezra had gone away almost three months ago, the day after any formal investigation into the disappearance of ATF Senior Agent Chris Larabee had been stopped. And it was made clear that the team wouldn't get any lenience whatsoever anymore to keep the search going on their own.
Their mercurial undercover agent had been chafing to leave the team ever since they had been assigned Bryce as their new SAC. Standish wasn't happy to serve under anyone else but Chris and even with Chris as his superior it had been touch and go many a time. Bryce's rigid attitude hadn't helped matters.
Ezra had made sure he would not be sent undercover on any of their new assignments with Bryce in command. Every time it came up, he seemed genuinely sick or was suddenly limping heavily, much to the amusement of the rest of the team who weren't fooled for a minute. And none of them cared in the least that it put a serious dent in their performances as a team. All they cared about was finding Chris; other cases were only a nuisance they tried to work around.
Until teenagers started dying from a new form of drug and they were confronted with the fact that all around them life went on as if nothing had happened, life and death. And that they had serious responsibilities to the people they were meant to protect.
It hadn't brought Ezra to a different decision though, he was adamant about not working for 'another moron who will only get us killed or worse' as he put it. When he refused to go undercover on this case as well, the rest of the team had realized what Vin had already known from the day Bryce stepped into their office, that Ezra had no intention whatsoever to stay on.
It had been a sobering day and they had gotten very drunk together at J. Watson's, the bar Inez managed. Very, very drunk.
What would Ezra be doing now? Would he ever be in touch with any of them again? God, Vin hoped so, he missed his friend fiercely.
He would miss them all, but none as much as he missed Chris. He was as determined as ever to find out what had happened to the best friend he had ever had, to the man who had provided him with a family of sorts, with a place he could always turn to when in need.
A place he could still turn to, he knew, with Buck and JD in charge, but it just wasn't the same. It no longer had the soul that had drawn him in and made him feel at home for the first time since he was five.
He looked at the two tiny figures down below. JD, Buck, Josiah and Nathan had decided to stay on as a team, for now. It was a gesture as profound as keeping the ranch going, a way to hold on to the belief that one day their leader might reappear. And when that happened, they wanted something to be left here for him to find.
Vin turned away. He had had enough, it was time to leave.
Time to start searching for his friend in earnest again, something he should have done the day the official investigation had been dropped.
Lost II: The Wheels of Life