Main Characters: Chris, Vin
WARNING: Child rape alluded to in one paragraph but not detail or expounded on in any way, shape or form!
Prologue - Chapter Three
Chapter Four - Chapter Seven
Chapter Eight - Chapter Ten
Chapter Eleven - Chapter Thirteen
The hum of the engine was soothing. Almost eight-year-old Vin, settled happily in his booster seat next to Chris, was enamored by the play of headlights over the wet asphalt in the darkness. With each turn in the road the silver rays probed the darkness and then swept around to reveal their path in trusted brightness. Where the light ventured off road, bright patches of snow caused the beam to explode into a galaxy of sparkles. That sight, coupled with the rare alone time with his adopted dad, were things to be savored with every one of his almost eight year old senses and Vin did so with silent appreciation.
It was cold outside. He could feel the aura of it emanating from the side window near his face. When he leaned toward it, the little boy could feel the temperature drop with each inch but the heat blasting on his feet from the truck's vents thoroughly warmed him. The cab had a slight tang of damp leather and enveloped him in comfort. Vin saw Chris glance his way and smile, making him grin in return. They didn't need words to communicate their feelings.
It was dark outside because the side road they had chosen to take home had no artificial illumination to spoil the night. Through the broad windshield Vin caught glimpses of a star-splattered sky beyond the tips of winter-bare trees whose branches reached up like needy children. The nearly full moon played peek-a-boo between their boney fingers.
Like the trees, Vin wished he would stand on his toes and touch the stars. He imagined they would feel cool and sharp, like diamonds. He'd seen a diamonds once in a store window, glittering against black velvet like ice. He didn't get to look at them too long, though, before being shooed away like a stray dog. "That's what I must have looked like when I lived in the warehouse," he realized. "A hungry dog." He hugged Cat closer, the stuffed toy representing how his life had changed.
Vin's thoughts turned inward as he mulled over the past and especially the last two years. So much change and all for the better since he'd found Chris. Or Chris had found him. Cat, his adopted dad's first gift to him, was one of his most cherished possessions and a constant reminder of how much he'd grown from his time of living in a warehouse.
"Looks like you're havin' some heavy thoughts," Chris said softly. He released one hand from the steering wheel and stroked Vin's hair, smiling. "You okay?"
Again, Vin warmed. He smiled at his dad. "Yeah, I'm good."
Chris grinned. "I bet Cat was glad to get out for awhile."
Vin rolled his eyes. "Dad, he's just a toy!" Still, he laughed shortly and stroked Cat's back.
"Oh, yeah. I keep forgetting." Chris chuckled as he returned his hand to the wheel. It was wonderful to see the boy acting like a boy. At times, Vin seemed to carry the world on his narrow, bony shoulders and for a long time after they had come together Vin was wary, reserved and skittish. "Want some music?" he offered. "You can choose."
"Nah. I like the quiet."
"Yeah, it's nice, huh? There's something about winter, moonlight and the open road."
""n no JD talkin'."
Chris snorted and glanced at Vin again. "I do love the boy, but quiet is nice on occasion."
Vin giggled again. His acquired little brother didn't really have an 'off' switch and tended to wear most everyone in their extended family down. He sighed and let the smooth hum of the Dodge engine soothe him as he dropped his head back onto the seat back, Cat cradled safely and snugly in his arms.
The truck vent blew a gentle heat that made him drowsy. Vin's eyes slipped closed, his body completely and totally relaxed. He was lulled into that floaty phase of pre-sleep by comforting warmth and contentment when the truck suddenly jerked violently to one side. His head knocked against the side window. Vin's eyes snapped open as Chris spat an expletive.
Vin felt a hard thud and then a blur of brown flew toward him. He saw the deer's shiny, dark eye ringed white in terror a fraction of a moment before the windshield exploded and his world slammed into darkness.
Buck glanced at the wall clock and debated his next move. It was a few minutes before ten P.M. and Chris was now three hours late. If he were a single man Buck would smile at the thought that maybe his friend and roommate was getting lucky - that Allison Watkins sure was a looker and she'd made it abundantly clear at the budget meeting this afternoon that her sights were on Chris. But neither he nor Chris were really single anymore since adopting two homeless boys, and Buck knew that Chris had ducked out of today's meeting early to take Vin to the dentist. Then he'd called Buck to declare it "boys' night out" so he could take Vin to an early dinner and movie.
Buck chuffed softly. Chris sure did "get lucky", but the definition had certainly changed in the past couple of years! His gaze drifted to the clock again as his hand absently stroked the cuddled lump in his lap. JD was deeply asleep yet still squirmed like a pile of worms. Buck adjusted his legs to keep his adopted son from sliding off his lap and tucked the loosened quilt snugly around him.
The movie should have been over by seven o'clock. If they'd had to attend a later showing, Chris would have called. Now Buck was worried. His cell phone was in the other room and the house phone was in the kitchen. Was he worried enough, though, to dislodge the snoozing bundle in his lap?
Yes, he was. Gently, Buck twisted and lowered his long legs from the couch, gathering up JD as he moved. By the time he settled the boy into the lower bunk and returned to the kitchen it was a quarter past ten. He snatched up the kitchen phone and dialed Chris' cell.
"Mercy General," a female voice replied, momentarily stunning Buck.
"What? Who is this?" he demanded as his heart rate increased.
"This is Nurse Simmons at Mercy General Hospital. Are you related to Christopher Larabee? I have his cell phone."
"No. Yes. I mean, I have his medical power of attorney. What happened?"
"It seems, Mr. . . ?
"Wilmington. Buck Wilmington."
"Mr. Wilmington, Mr. Larabee has been in an accident and was air lifted to us."
Buck fought to keep his voice low and began to pace the kitchen. "Why wasn't he taken to Four Corners?"
"Mercy General is the designated trauma center for major injuries. Mr. Larabee is alive, but he's been severely injured. It seems he hit a deer and then swerved into a tree. He's been unconscious."
"What about Vin?" Buck breathed.
There was a hesitation. "Vin?"
"Yeah, his son. Vin was with him."
"Mr. Larabee came in alone. I didn't hear anything about a passenger. The boy could have been transported to Four Corners if he wasn't badly hurt."
That didn't make sense to the anxious agent. If Vin weren't badly hurt, he or a nurse would have called home. If he was badly hurt, he would have been transported with Chris. Suddenly, Buck felt sick.
"What agency responded to the crash?" he asked, now all business. "Where did it happen?"
The next part of the hour was frantic, both cell and house phones utilized in Buck's search for information. He got the accident location from the responding agency's dispatch and sent Josiah to the scene since he lived closest to it. While he waited for the officer handling the report to call, Buck checked every hospital in the area. The county morgue number was at his fingertips but he couldn't get himself to dial it. Just the thought made his palms sweat and his eyes burn.
The cell vibrated and Buck snatched it up from the counter. "Wilmington."
"Agent Wilmington? This is Officer Beckett. I'm taking the paper on Agent Larabee's crash."
"Did you get to the scene before the paramedics?"
"Yeah. It was relayed by OnStar from the truck itself at about 7:10 this evening after the airbags deployed. Good thing, because he was hurt pretty bad."
"Did you see Vin? Chris' eight-year-old son? They were together."
The momentary hesitation made Buck's stomach twist. "No, I didn't. There was no indication of a passenger at all. Hold on." Officer Beckett spoke rapidly to someone else. "You sure they were together? My partner checked the area around the truck when we got here, but if the boy was small enough he could have been ejected quite a distance through the windshield. We're still here taking measurements. We'll check again and I'll call you back."
Buck could hear Officer Beckett yell to someone prior to disconnecting. He took a deep breath to stop his hands from trembling and immediately called Josiah.
"Sanchez," the team profiler answered.
"Josiah, are you on scene?"
"Just got here."
"They're looking for Vin. He may have been ejected. Keep me updated, will you?"
"You don't have to ask, Buck. It looks like the officer and his partner are the only ones here." Josiah's breathing told Buck the agent was walking. "The truck's been towed already and everyone else is gone. I'm sure they can use the help searching."
"Josiah . . ." Buck found it difficult push words through his thickening throat.
"We'll find him, Buck. Call Ezra and Nathan to help. It's pretty dark out here. And if the damage to the tree is any indication, there's a good chance Vin's hurt."
Buck swallowed, a strangled noise escaping from his mouth.
"I'll check in regularly," Josiah said calmly. "Now go call the other guys. We can use 'em." Buck was grateful for Josiah's steadiness.
"Okay," Buck managed to choke before hanging up. Every instinct told him to bolt, to get to the scene and look for his other son but he knew he had to be here for JD. He called Nathan and Ezra, telling them what had happened and where to meet Josiah. The conversations were very short.
With nothing else to do for the moment Buck called Mercy General to get an update on Chris. It was going to be a long night; he just hoped there would be answers by dawn.
By midnight, Josiah had checked in twice without any news and Buck felt like screaming. He paced a track in the living room rug, even wearing out their two young dogs. Finally, he knew he had to act. Snapping up the phone he started to dial Mrs. Potter, the boys' regular weekday caretaker, but remembered that she was out of town for the weekend. Nettie? He considered the boys' old caseworker for a moment but knew she'd recently taken on raising her niece and Buck didn't want to disrupt the two of them. Raine - no doubt she wasn't asleep anyway after Nathan had been called away.
The phone was picked up on the second ring. "Buck? You need me?" she said immediately.
Buck nearly cried in relief. "Yeah, sweetheart, I do. I don't want to leave JD and I don't want to wake him up, either. I don't want to upset him without any news."
"I'm already dressed. I'll be there in twenty minutes. Good thing I know all the local cops from the hospital."
That gave Buck a welcomed laugh. "Be careful, woman. It's dark and cold out there." When he thought of Vin, his throat constricted and he fought back a sob.
"I'm on my way."
When Raine arrived just before 1:00 Buck burst from the house, pulling on his heavy coat. "Chris is at Mercy General. I'll call when I know anything. If you hear anything. . ."
"I'll call," she said softly, quickly giving him a wave. "Go."
It was just before 2:00 when Buck blew into Mercy's Emergency Room, demanding to see Chris. Waylaid by a nurse to fill out some paperwork, he hurried through the sheets and then was directed to the second floor, Intensive Care. When he arrived in the area he slowed, looking for the nurse's station. Once there, a middle aged nurse led him to the center room.
"He had surgery to stop some bleeding in his abdomen and they had to remove his spleen, according to the doctor. He has a major concussion, a small skull fracture and stitches over his left eye. His left arm and leg are broken, but they broke cleanly and should heal without any problems. Considering what happened, he was lucky to have survived."
"He hit a deer?" Buck choked, unable to tear his eyes from the still, bruised form of his friend and boss.
"Apparently so, then ran into a tree. The deer should have killed him, as far as it was inside the truck, and the truck was wrapped well around the tree. The medics had a time extricating him."
Buck watched the monitors flicker blue light across Chris' face. The steady beep of the heart monitor was the only indication that he was alive.
"You can go in for ten minutes. Talk to him."
Nodding, Buck entered the room and found a spot between wires, tubes and IV racks where he could reach Chris' right hand. Taking it in his own, Buck was shocked at how cold it felt so he covered Chris' hand with both of his own as he leaned in. "Hey, Chris. I can't lie, pard, but I've seen ya look better. You just rest and I'll take care of everything, you hear? Relax while you have a chance."
Buck noticed how translucent Chris' right eyelid was - he could see tiny blue veins running through it like rivers on a roadmap. Heavy bandages, spotted red, covered his left eye and the left side of his forehead. Purpling bruises peeked out from the snowy gauze. "Looks like you're gonna have a hell of a headache, boss, but hey - you work with Ezra so you're used to it." Buck swallowed hard, fighting to keep his cool. "I'll watch over the boys, Chris, don't you worry about that one little bit."
"Time," the nurse called softly from the doorway.
"Gotta go, ol' son, but I'll be back, okay? You rest easy. Buck's in charge now."
He carefully laid the cold, still hand back on the mattress and backed away. "How the hell can I tell him we lost Vin?" he thought, his eyes starting to burn again.
Once out of the room, he turned and fled.
Ezra stood at the edge of the trees and pondered. He didn't want to believe what his eyes were telling him, but he certainly couldn't deny it. He wasn't much of a tracker but the little things he'd learned over the years were enough in this case. Agent Standish hoped there was more to it and they'd come across Vin at any moment, but his mind whispered otherwise.
Vin had been taken.
Someone had tried to cover the tracks but had done an appallingly poor job. Now all he had to do was tell someone what he had found and that was proving to be more difficult than he could ever imagine. He'd almost rather find his precious adopted nephew near-frozen in a ditch; the implications of this kind of kidnapping turned his stomach.
They had been searching for hours. Other officers were called in and the circle of searchers slowly grew and expanded, none of them finding any evidence that Vin had ever been here. Most of them were gathered by the nearly frozen pond nearly a hundred yards from the crash scene, waiting for the cold water rescue team.
Ezra, though, knew it would be futile. As he stood with a fluttering heart staring at the faint marks in the patches of old snow and damp earth, the sound of crunching footfall told him someone was approaching.
"Ezra." Nathan sounded as weary as Ezra felt.
"Mr. Jackson," Ezra responded automatically, his voice as whispery like the cloudy puff that came from his mouth.
"You comin' to the pond?"
Ezra considered the idea. He knew, though, that the motion would only serve to harbor false hope for a brief while. He ducked his head and jammed his hands more deeply into the pockets of his custom cut wool overcoat. "No," he finally whispered, accepting the inevitable. "Vin's not there."
In the corner of his eye he saw Jackson's head snap in his direction. "What? How do you know that? Where is he, then?"
"I fear he's gone, Mr. Jackson; spirited away by a nefarious soul." He withdrew one hand and waved it over the hastily covered tracks. "He's gone."
Nathan turned his attention to the ground. Ezra's finger indicated the trail he'd visually exhumed from the snow. Seeing Nathan's confused look, Standish retrieved his flashlight, ficked it on and held it low to the ground, perpendicular to the nearly invisible tracks. The resulting shadows jumped out as black on white and told the tale.
"Damn," was all Nathan uttered.
There was a visible line of tracks leading from where they stood into the woods. They both knew that the line lead directly to the crash site and paralleled the tracks of the doomed deer. Nathan's gaze followed the trail backwards to an area behind them. Ezra shifted his flash light in that direction, showing that the trail stopped perpendicular to two parallel tracks.
"Tire tracks. Vin was carried to another vehicle and then they tried to cover the tracks," Nathan realized. "They took the booster seat, too. That's why there was no indication of a passenger."
Ezra nodded to one side. "The branch they used to sweep the evidence is over there. The leaves - I mean needles - of the branch do not match the tree under which is lies, although the responsible party tried to conceal that fact."
Nathan pressed the flat of his hand against his stomach and looked decidedly ill as the realization obviously sunk in. "Oh, Lord," he whispered. "We have to tell the others and check all the clinics and hospitals in the area. We also gotta check the list of registered sex offenders around here."
"I know for a fact that Mr. Wilmington has already called the hospitals in the area. Whoever did this does not want to be found. The first thing we need to do is initiate an Amber Alert." He pulled out his cell phone and began to dial. "Although I think it, too, is a moot point."
Nathan headed to the pond. After a few steps he stopped and turned. "I sure don't want to be the one to tell Chris about this. I'm gonna pray we find Vin before Chris wakes up."
"I am on board with that train of thought, Mr. Jackson."
"WHAT?" Buck realized that every head on the floor whipped in his direction. Unfazed, he only turned his back to them and strode to the deepest corner of the waiting room. Enroute, he glanced at his watch and automatically realized that JD would be waking up in less than two hours. "You're telling me Vin's been kidnapped?"
It was hard to hear with his heart pounding so loudly in his ears. Buck rubbed his dry eyes and took a breath as he tried to focus his thoughts. "That makes the truck a crime scene. Ezra, make sure forensics goes over it with a fine-toothed comb. Josiah and Nathan need to make sure the crash site is sealed off until morning and another forensics team gets there and then someone has to get over here. Chris can't wake up alone." Buck ran his hand over his eyes and swallowed the large lump growing in his throat. "I need to get to the ranch. JD will need me when he wakes up."
Satisfied things were in control as much as they could possibly be under the circumstances, Buck slipped his cell phone away and sank into the closest chair, head in hands. "Where are you, Vin?" he whispered, his voice raw.
Four days passed, four long, agony-ridden days with no further information and no results. No clues. No chances to find his second son.
Buck walked wearily down the crowded hospital corridor feeling absolutely alone. The doctors said Chris would be allowed out of his medically induced coma today since the swelling on his brain had reduced to a safe level. They didn't predict any brain damage; Buck shook his head with the thought. They didn't take into account the heart damage that would occur when his friend found out that Vin was gone.
The F.B.I. had worked very hard in the past three days and had nothing. Vin had vanished like a puff of smoke in the wind. Buck's eyes burned anew, not an unfamiliar feeling in these last days. Unconsciously, he rubbed his biceps where JD's tiny finger bruises reminded him both physically and visually that he wasn't the only family member in pain. And soon there'd be another name on that list.
Buck Wilmington was tired - exhausted beyond any imagined belief. Between searching, checking on Chris and trying to soothe JD, he hadn't had much time to rest. Or eat. Or attend to any of the basics of living day to day. He just wanted this to be over, but it was beginning to look like it would never be over.
Buck scrubbed his weary eyes knowing they were bloodshot. He'd spent the last three nights in the rocking chair with JD until the boy cried himself to sleep, clutched to his Da's clothing like a frightened kitten. Morning always brought a sore neck, stiff back, sweaty shirts and red-rimmed, puffy eyes.
He sighed, continuing on with the day without really thinking anymore. "Just do it," was his mantra for each increment of time. With a miserable sigh, Buck pushed open the hospital room door, pausing with a tentative smile at the woman sitting there holding Chris' hand as best as she could around his cast. It had taken Claire Larabee a while to accept Vin as Chris' son, but once done, she was as devoted as a grandmother should be. Her red rimmed eyes and gaunt cheeks were proof enough of her sense of loss.
"Buck." Chris' father extended his hand as he pushed up from the wobbly chair at his wife's side.
"Matt," Buck said, his voice sounding strangled to his own ears. They shook hands briefly. "Did you get any rest yesterday?"
"Some," Matthew Larabee replied, taking his seat. Husband and wife looked rumpled and worn.
Buck found a place on the other side of Chris' bed and rested his hands on the cold side rail. "Did the docs say when he'd come around?"
"Any time now," Claire answered softly. Buck could see her thumb gently stroke the back of Chris' fingers protruding from the cast as her hand rested on top. "They removed the ventilator around three this morning."
"Good." Buck appraised his friend's face with sad eyes. Tape marks were still visible around his mouth and the general swelling had receded, leaving behind red-streaked bruises and multiple scrapes. The line of stitches that bisected his left eyebrow looked blacker than the fading bruises and, under all that, Chris' skin was a sickly pallor. The unshaven stubble of beard was the only natural color the man had at the moment.
And when he opened his eyes, the natural hazel would be dull and shadowed, lacking the spark that Vin had rekindled.
Buck took a deep breath to keep back the tears. They had decided to let Claire tell him about Vin; she had insisted, actually. Buck would then fill in the facts they knew. Matthew would be there to support his wife when she broke down; they held no illusion that she wouldn't. They were ready. All that was left was for Chris to do his part and wake up.
The subtle signs of awareness slowly began to show. Matthew stepped aside and called for the doctor. By the time he got there, a nurse trailing behind, wakefulness was apparent. Chris' heart rate sped up slightly and his breathing hitched. Arms and legs twitched and then shifted. The casts on his left side limbs allowed minimal movement.
"Mr. Larabee?" Doctor Mills dropped the rail on Buck's side and leaned over. He peeled back an eyelid, flashing the pupil with a light. "You're in the hospital, Chris. Don't move too quickly. Are you awake now?" Returning the flashlight to his pocket he rested on hand on Chris' shoulder and the other on his hip to keep him from rolling too much to either side as he woke.
A low moan rumbled from Chris' dry throat and Buck saw his eyes roll under his eyelids.
"Christopher?" Claire said lowly, now on her feet and leaning close. "Honey, do you hear me?"
Finally, slivers of dusty green emerged and he blinked, confused.
"Chris?" Matt peered over his wife's shoulder. "How're ya doin', son?"
Chris' head rolled slightly in his direction. "Dad?" Buck saw the word form on his lips rather than hear it. Chris coughed a little. "Mom?" The second word was scratchy and soft, but more easily understood.
"Hi, honey. I'm so happy to see your eyes open." Claire stroked his cheek and smiled.
Chris blinked at her and tried to say something again. It came out as a croak.
"Here." The nurse moved in and raised the head of the bed as Dr. Mills scribbled on Chris' chart. "How about some ice chips? Not too much."
Buck took the cue and grabbed the plastic cup on the bedside table. He angled it and dug out a few shards with the plastic spoon and bumped it against Chris' lip.
"Careful now," he said, causing Chris to frown as he parted his dry lips. Buck let the ice slide into Chris' mouth and he worked his jaw a moment. Then Chris' eyes found him and a small furrow creased his forehead in thought.
"Hey, pard. You look like a mile 'o bad road."
One corner of Chris' lips twitched, attempting a grin. "Feel . . . shit." His gaze flicked toward Claire. "Sorry."
She smiled, her eyes shiny. "It's okay, son."
After she said the word, Chris' expression fell and he looked puzzled for a moment, then his eyes widened and the heart monitor sang. "Vin!" he choked, struggling to sit up. "Where . . . where's Vin?"
The nurse moved to keep her patent from rising but Buck pushed his way in and took over. He pressed his friend's shoulders into the mattress with little effort and leaned over, telling him to calm down. Claire kept her hold on Chris' cast with both hands, tears running down her cheeks. Matt held the leg cast to the bed.
"Chris, stop. Stop movin' around or you're gonna hurt yourself more." Buck heard the doctor behind him say something to the nurse, who then pulled a bottle and syringe from her pocket as the doctor moved closer.
"Mr. Larabee - Chris - calm down or we will have to sedate you," the doctor gently insisted. "You've had surgery. . ."
Chris ignored the doctor and locked his eyes on Buck's. "Where's he, Buck? Where's Vin?"
Buck opened his mouth but nothing came out. He licked his lips and tried again, taking a breath. "Chris . . ." he started.
So much for the plan for Claire to break the news gently.
"WHERE IS HE?" Chris surged upward as the nurse grabbed the IV line. "TELL ME!"
"Honey," Claire sobbed.
Chris' hard eyes turned on his mother and instantly softened. When they focused again on Buck, they were etched with a pain that been gone for years. "Buck!" he begged. "Just tell me . . . please!"
"We don't know, Chris," Buck finally admitted in a shaky voice. "We just don't know. We can't find him anywhere. We think someone took him."
Whether from drugs, shock or pain Chris collapsed back into the mattress. "What do you mean? You can't find him?" He tried to sit up again, but pain made him wince and twist awkwardly. "Then look harder! He was with me!"
"I know, I know, Chris." Buck relaxed the pressure on his friend's shoulders. Beneath his hands, Chris trembled like a lost leaf in the wind. "It looks like he was taken from the crash site. He's gone. It's been four days and we don't have a clue. I'm sorry, Chris. I'm so sorry." Buck's voice cracked at the last and hot tears seared a path down his unshaven face.
Chris looked stunned as the sedation kicked in. He shifted his wide-eyed gaze from Buck to Claire. She could only stroke his arm, sorrow and tears stealing away any platitudes.
"They're still looking, Chris," Matthew said in a tentative voice. His son's eyes drifted, stunned, in his direction. "We'll never give up looking."
Chris' eyes filled as his body relaxed from the drug but he didn't drop his gaze. "He's mine, dad. Vin's mine. I can't lose him . . . I can't take it again - I just can't. I have to find him. I will find him . . . Vin . . . I was just talkin' to him . . ." Finally, he couldn't fight it any more and Chris' eyelids flagged shut. Even in his forced sleep, his breath hitched and tears trickled from under his lashes. His lips moved in wordless begging.
The nurse slid in front of Buck and adjusted the nasal cannula as she took his pulse. The doctor stood back, making notes and looking a bit grim.
"I don't think I can take it again, either, pard," Buck muttered, wiping his eyes with the heel of his hand. One glance at the others told him that he didn't stand alone.
Two Years Later
Buck entered Team Seven's office without looking up, flipping through an open folder as he walked. He paused by his desk, raising his brows at one particular part of a report.
"Chris here?" he said out loud to no one in particular.
"He is in his den," Ezra answered, never taking his eyes from his computer screen. "Beware."
Buck glanced at Chris' closed office door and took the warning to heart. Chris Larabee wasn't one to approach lightly in his best days, but since Vin's disappearance he'd become beyond unpredictable. "Unhinged" to some and simply "scary" to most, contacting Chris Larabee for any reason was a risky venture, even for his best friend. It had been awhile since the man had come to work hung over, but his mood was just as foul once he was in the office.
The last two years had fouled him good.
Buck's heart still clenched when ever he thought of Vin; it probably always would. It had been two years to the day, yesterday. Thoughts were all Buck had of his lost son because after those first, horrible six months, both JD and Chris refused to speak of him. That had lasted about six more months, then the two of them began to mention the boy in passing at home only - numerous and lengthy sessions with JD's therapist Dr. Will had helped with that breakthrough. JD was the only thing that kept Chris from withdrawing completely into a black abyss and oddly, they seemed to keep each other afloat. At home, Chris was bearable.
The ragged and ugly scar that carved a home across the left side of Chris' forehead, though, never changed. It always looked red and angry, his eyebrow split apart like a broken heart. Chris refused to get it fixed; any good plastic surgeon could lessen the shock of it but Chris would have no part of that. First he'd refused to get it fixed because he didn't want to take away the time from searching for Vin, and later, because . . . well, there was no reason stated later on. Buck figured it was the Larabee version of a hair coat, worn as a reminder to Chris of his failure as a protector and father.
Everyone healed one event at a time. Chris broke off his close relationship with Jack Daniels by the end of the first year and JD was finally, and regularly, staying in his own bed. They had to shift around all the rooms in the house to achieve that feat. Chris' den was now in the boy's old room, along with the remnants of Vin. None of them voiced any desire to put the missing boy's things entirely away and Dr Will said there was nothing wrong with that. Dr. Will even admitted that he hadn't put away Vin's case files, either.
JD refused to get rid of the bunk beds, though. Buck finally stopped feeling the upper bunk for the huddled form of their long lost family member when he put JD to bed, and he occasionally found JD in Vin's old bed, wrapped in Vin's blankets. They healed one step at a time, each in their own way.
One step at a time - it became a chant every time Buck was tempted to take JD and leave in that first year - one day at a time, one step at a time, one minute at a time, one second at a time. They all lived by that creed for the past two years but at least they were still together as a family even though it felt a bit lopsided at times.
Buck took a breath, closed the folder and stepped up to the door. After a light rap, he pushed it open and stepped just inside the door frame. "Chris?"
The office was encased in shadow and smelled sour. He saw the form of his friend and boss pulling up to a sit on the small, worn couch. What minimal light there was reflected off Chris' pale face, the scar slanting through his eyebrow a black shadow. "What?" Chris growled, knuckling an eye.
Buck knew by the tone to tread very carefully. They'd all worked long hours lately and were still on edge even though the huge bust in conjunction with the D.E.A. this past week was successfully completed. The ensuing cataloguing and paper work was boring and tiring, wearing them all thin. Especially Chris, who, for the last couple of years, didn't rest much, anyway. Thankfully, the D.E.A. was doing most of the follow-up legwork since the small amount of firearms was only a secondary haul compared to the methamphetamines. Getting the reports to satisfy both agencies was simply tedious
Buck stepped inside and snapped on the desk light. Chris blinked at the sudden intrusion and raised a hand to his face. "Shit!" he snarled. "Get it out of my eyes, damn it! Jesus, Buck, what the hell do you want?"
Narrowing his eyes in the face of Chris' uncalled for rudeness Buck redirected the lamp downward and clenched his teeth to stop an automatic reply. The Larabee temper and drinking were the reasons he'd almost moved out with JD early on. The threat to do so was enough, though - Chris was still smart enough to realize he didn't want to lose what family he still had.
"Got some hits on the warrants from the bust," Buck said flatly, dropping the file on the desk. "There's one I thought you'd be interested in, but if you'd rather sit in the dark . . ."
Chris, now sitting up with his feet on the floor and his head in his hands, cut a sorrowful picture and Buck regretted his snippy reply. Chris' voice was muffled by his hands covering his face, but the misery in his voice was still clear. "Just tell me what it is. I've got a headache."
Buck accepted the back-handed apology. "Seems one of the addresses the D.E.A. hit had a hidden room that looked like a jail cell. Looks like the some kind of black market child trafficking or something. Hidden, kid-sized bed with a leg chain, dead bolt on the room door, stuff like that. There was a fifteen year old boy living there that finally admitted he'd been abducted years before by the occupant, Harold Evans. Joshua, the fifteen year old, said other boys have been held in the room for the past five years or so. Evans brought Joshua here from back east somewhere."
Chris continued to rub his eyes, his shoulders a weary slump.
Buck eyed him and continued. "Anyway, they're running Joshua's prints and DNA to find out who he really is, but Chris, here's the part you might find interesting." He waited until Larabee tilted his head aside and focused one bleary, hazel eye on him. "Seems Harold Evans was in the habit of poaching deer off season and outside the legal hunting areas but was never caught on it. And he owned a 2000 GMC truck. The address is up in Longmont."
Now Chris was sitting up and giving Buck his full attention. They'd been fruitlessly down this road many times in the past twenty-four months. The tire tracks Ezra had found near Chris' crash scene, although well-worn, had been deciphered to be a tire normally sold on 1999 through 2002 GMC trucks. And there had been a theory that the deer Chris hit had been chased onto the road by a poacher based on the hastily covered prints at the scene.
Amazingly, there were a lot of known poachers with that vehicle profile and they'd checked out every single one without results. It had been the same result with every registered sex offender in the area, too. Vin and his captor had simply vanished into thin air.
"What do you mean, 'owned'? Evans doesn't have the truck anymore?"
"Well, technically not since Evans was one of the two killed in the raid."
"Great." Chris mumbled, rubbing his face again. "Longmont's pretty far away," Chris mused. "Have they interviewed the kid yet?"
"Briefly. As soon as they heard the jist of his story, they called the Fibbies. They're interviewing him this afternoon."
Chris stood and snatched up his jacket. "Let's go," he snapped.
"We haven't been properly invited, you know," Buck reminded him.
"I'll take care of that."
Buck laughed shortly. "With the famous Larabee charm? I don't think so. I suggest we try the Standish charm first."
Chris glared at him as he slipped on his jacket and then stomped to the door. "EZRA!" he bellowed.
Buck winced. "Yup, the infamous Larabee charm in action," he grumbled as he followed along.
On their way to the interview Ezra threatened Chris to not open his mouth while in the F.B.I. building. The undercover agent said he called in a lot of favors to get them into the interview area. They would be behind the mirrored glass in the observation area and Chris had to control himself or they'd be tossed out on their collective ears.
Buck had to admire Ezra's backbone to stand up to their prickly team leader. Then again, Buck knew Vin's absence wore on each one of them - it was as if the heart of the team had stopped beating - but Buck thanked God everyday for Ezra. If he hadn't been around, Buck wasn't sure JD would have gotten back on track in school so quickly. The undercover agent was essential to JD's survival in that arena especially with the likes of Eli Joe Chavez and Freddy Chaney on campus. Nights of homework became additional counseling sessions in survival in the real world without a protector. Agent Standish was well qualified in that area.
Larabee glared at Ezra's demands but grudgingly acquiesced and now the three of them stood and watched as Joshua Doe entered the interview room with a young agent who made the boy comfortable. Soon, the agent was excused by a pretty blonde female and a tall Hispanic male with F.B.I. ID cards dangling from their necks.
"Agents Spade and Taylor, from New York," Ezra said lowly. "It seems that the boy, Joshua Daniels, was taken from Central Park six years ago."
Chris' stomach inadvertently flipped, knowing exactly how the parents must have felt. He felt his teeth squeak as his jaws clenched.
"Hi," the woman said sitting next to Joshua. "My name is Samantha and this is Danny. We're F.B.I. agents from New York. We've been looking for you for a long time, Joshua."
The boy smiled tentatively then dropped his eyes and fidgeted without speaking.
Buck snorted softly. "Samantha Spade. Poor gal." He shrugged when Chris frowned at him. "Easy on the eyes, though." Chris rolled his eyes and turned his attention back to the interview.
"Your mom and dad have been very worried. They can't wait to see you." Danny stood with one hip hitched on the far end of the table, giving the boy space. He smiled when Joshua glanced at him.
"They . . . they're safe?" Joshua whispered.
"They're safe and on their way here. Did someone want to hurt them?" Samantha kept her voice light.
"He . . . he said he'd kill them if I left the house."
"Harold Evans told you that?"
"Harry," Joshua corrected. "He said to call him Harry."
"Your parents are fine, Joshua. Everything will be okay. Harry can't hurt you or any one else any more."
Joshua nodded and whispered, "Okay."
Chris didn't think the boy was entirely convinced.
"Did Harry threaten other boys?"
Joshua looked around nervously and nodded. "He'd keep them for awhile and then they'd just be gone one day. I don't know why he kept me. He called my 'his only son.'"
There was a slight pause. "Do you know where any of the boys went? Or where they came from?"
Joshua shook his head. "I didn't ask. He hit me if I asked questions."
Chris clenched his jaw unimaginably tighter. Buck's hand found a place on his upper back.
"I know this is hard, Joshua, but we want to help those other boys. Do you want to help them, too, now that Harry can't hurt you?"
Joshua hesitated a moment before nodding briefly. "How can I help them?"
Samantha placed her hand on the boy's shoulder. Chris could see him lean slightly into her in a motion reminiscent of Vin - he'd lean into Chris the same way whenever Chris put his arm around his shoulders. Chris' eyes burned and his breath hitched once. Buck squeezed his shoulder, acknowledging the pain.
"You can help by telling us any names you remember. If you spoke to the boys, anything they said that may help us to identify them. What they looked like. Anything can help, Joshua, any little thing. Can you do that?"
Joshua took a deep breath and Samantha took out a notebook and opened it. The boy seemed to relax a little. "When Harry would go out I'd sometimes talk to the boys through the door. I wanted them to stop crying."
"That's nice of you, Joshua," Danny said softly. "I'm sure they were scared."
Joshua nodded. "One boy said his name was Ryan. There was a . . . Matt, a Jeffrey . . . um, Steven. Mark . . ." Joshua was ticking off with his fingers as he said the names. "Um . . . I can't remember any more. One kid asked for his dad. Usually they asked for their mom."
"But there were more? All boys?"
Joshua nodded. "Yeah. There was one time I thought there was a girl but it was a boy with long hair."
Chris stiffened where he stood then fumbled for his wallet. Buck kept his hand on Chris' shoulder, afraid he'd bolt. Ezra moved in closer. Chris' shaky fingers managed to pull out Vin's last school photo from his wallet and he looked to Ezra, who picked up the viewing room phone. In the interview room, Danny picked up the receiver.
"I have a photo to show him," Ezra said much too calmly for Chris' taste. "May I bring it?"
Chris saw Danny say yes and hang up the phone. Ezra took the photo and slipped by his partners and out of the viewing room. Chris sank down in the closest chair, his suddenly watery legs unable to hold him any longer. He watched as Danny opened the door and took the photo from Ezra. When the door was gently closed, Danny turned toward the boy.
"Joshua? Can you look at this picture and tell me if you recognize this boy?"
Joshua nodded and took the picture. He frowned.
"Come on," Chris whispered.
"Maybe. I think so . . ." Joshua said, still frowning. Then he shook his head. "The hair looks like what I saw, and the eyes, but I didn't see his face too much."
Buck dropped his hand from Chris' shoulder and ran it through his own hair as Chris slumped.
"Why's that? He didn't let you see the boys?"
"Sure, I'd help with 'em, but that boy was trouble. That's what Harry said . . . trouble. He kicked 'n bit 'n stuff and Harry didn't want me to get hurt so I didn't go in there much. He wasn't there too long. Was real quiet, too, when Harry was gone."
Samantha and Danny exchanged looks and Danny glanced quickly at the mirrored glass. Chris felt sick.
"Where did the boys go, Joshua?" Danny asked casually. "Do you know?"
That question got Chris and Buck's attention again.
Joshua shook his head and handed the photo back. "I'm not sure about the others, but the long haired one got traded."
Joshua looked decidedly nervous again. "Um . . . pills and things. To keep the boys quiet. A bike an' a PS2 for me. A car - kinda beat up, but Harry said I could drive it when I was old enough."
"Did he give you pills, Joshua?"
"Sometimes, at first. Not for the last year or so."
"Really? Do you know why he stopped giving them to you?"
The boy became nervous and looked down. "Because I told him I wouldn't leave," Joshua said quietly, again fiddling with his fingers. "He said he trusted me. I just . . . didn't think I could leave. That he'd hurt me or kill m'parents."
He started to cry and Samantha put her arm around him again, murmuring quietly. Danny left the room and soon entered the viewing room. He handed the photo back to Ezra. "It's possible," he said. "We've collected lots of samples from the place to run DNA testing."
"Has Joshua been examined?" Ezra asked.
"Yes, there's been a thorough physical done," Danny said, flipping through the file.
"Was he abused?" Ezra's question drew hard stares from Chris and Buck.
"Yes, he was. Sexually, physically and obviously mentally." Danny Taylor glanced over to Chris when Ezra returned the photo. "It's a good thing Harold Evans is dead because I'd hate to lose my job for beating him to death," he said matter-of-factly.
The comment broke the tense atmosphere a bit as Chris dropped his head, his jaw muscles rippling under his skin. Buck nodded, numb.
When the phone buzzed, all of them jumped. Danny picked up the receiver. "Taylor." He nodded at what he heard and said, "Thanks. He'll be ready," and hung up the phone. "Gotta go. Joshua's parents are in route from the airport."
"Would it be possible for our agency, that is, us," Ezra indicated the three of them, "to look at the evidence taken from the house?"
"Sure. I'll leave word with the tech that you can look at it. You know your way to Evidence?"
"Yes. And thank you Agent Taylor," Ezra said politely, offering his hand. Taylor shook it with a nod.
"It had to be him," Chris insisted on their way to Evidence. "Did you hear? Vin would fight. He'd fight."
Buck exchanged a glance with Ezra as the three of them walked abreast through the hallway. "It's possible, Chris. Vin's DNA is on file and we've alerted them, so we just have to wait."
"It's been so long, Buck. Do you really think any DNA is left in that place, the place where he was kept?" Chris' voice cracked and his voice dropped. "Did you see the photos of the room? No windows. Dark. Vin would have gone crazy." The team leader's voice shook as his throat tightened. He swallowed hard, fury obviously on the rise by the way he clenched his hands.
No one said any more until they reached Evidence. Ezra signed them in and they were directed to a large set of shelves to one side, stuffed with labeled cardboard boxes.
"Those boxes are what we have so far. There's more stuff in the Lab." The clerk pointed to an empty table against the wall. "You can use that table but make sure the items are returned to the boxes they came from."
"Thank you," Ezra said.
Buck had already removed the lid from one box and was rifling through the bagged contents. Ezra lifted down another box but Chris didn't move. Instead, he stood staring at the dozens of various sized containers looking a bit shell shocked. The other two glanced his way a few times before he finally chose a box and brought it to the table.
They'd gone through several boxes in tense silence, none of them commenting on any of the items they examined, obviously sickened by where the items had come from. Nearly an hour passed when Chris gasped. Buck and Ezra's heads shot up to see their boss holding up a sealed, plastic bag that contained what looked like a very large, squashed dust bunny.
"It's Cat," Chris said, dazed, eyes locked on the filthy stuffed animal inside.
Buck stepped closer, Ezra at his side. "You sure?" Buck, though, knew Chris was right as soon as he got close enough to see more detail. "My God, Chris," he whispered. He reached out and touched the bag.
Chris noticeably paled. His first gift to Vin looked mange-ridden and physically stressed, the tail hanging on by a few threads and one eye missing, but it was definitely Vin's Cat. The bag shook as Chris' grip became white-knuckled.
"We need to get that to the Lab immediately," Ezra said quickly. "We need to confirm . . ."
"I don't need to confirm anything," Chris said dangerously. "It's Cat."
"I know that and you know that, Mr. Larabee, but the F.B.I. still requires physical confirmation. I am sure I can expedite the process." Ezra paused, both his and Buck's attention on their boss. They knew it would be difficult for Chris to let go of the only connection he had to his lost son. Slowly, Ezra reached out and took hold of one side of the bag, waiting for any acknowledgement from Chris.
Buck put a hand on Chris' shoulder. "Come on, Chris. The sooner they get to it, the sooner we get Cat back."
Without another word, Chris released the bag and stormed from the Evidence Room. Ezra and Buck quickly repacked the boxes and filled out the requested forms for testing on the stuffed animal. As Ezra wrote, Buck studied Cat a little closer, saddened by what he saw.
Vin - or some child - had worried most of the fur from the animal's stomach and chest and Cat had lost a lot of stuffing from the tear at the base of his tail. Bits of food were stuck to parts of the remaining fur and the animal's color was definitely off, dark from dirt and what could have been blood. Buck was amazed he could tell it was Cat, but it was.
They hand carried the toy to the Lab, and then went to find Chris. Larabee was waiting for them by the Ezra's car, pacing a tight track in the snow. Wordlessly, they got in the vehicle and headed home with Chris in the back seat. Silence hung heavy. After a while, Buck heard ragged breathing from behind him.
"Chris," Buck said gently, turning around to get his friend's attention. "Chris . . ."
"Stop the car!" Chris suddenly ordered, startling Ezra. "I SAID PULL OVER AND STOP THE CAR!"
Ezra pulled off the road quickly and Chris was out of the back seat before they came to a full stop.
"Shit!" Buck yelped, fumbling with his seatbelt before leaping out to follow his boss into the roadside woods.
Chris simply ran for a while and then came to an abrupt stop, pulling out his duty weapon. By the time Buck reached him, Chris had emptied his clip into a downed tree. With the first click of the empty gun, Chris threw it at the trunk and then began pounding the chipped bark with his fists. Blood was already drawn by the time Buck interfered, and when Chris swung at him the glancing blow left a smear of red on Buck's cheek.
"Oh, God, Buck, I'm sorry," Chris gasped, staggering to keep his feet. "I'm sorry! I'm so sorry . . . I can't go home, can't you see that? I can't go home and look JD in the eye. It's too much . . . too. . . much . . . I'll scare the shit outta him." Breathing heavily, he slumped against a mossy trunk, blood dripping from his dangling hands.
Buck took a moment to catch his breath and wipe the blood from his face. "Chris," he said. "You have to keep it together, stud. You have to. JD looks up to ya and takes cues from you. You have to be strong or he'll fall apart."
"That's bullshit, Buck," Chris muttered, also breathing hard. "He looks to you and you know it. He looks to you like Vin . . ." the air seemed vanish from his lungs. ". . . like Vin looked to me."
Buck let his head drop, shaking it slowly. "No, you don't get it. We're a united front. If we don't mesh, he'll feel threatened. I can't stand alone again, pard. You think you're the only one suffering? You're not. We're in this together. All six of us. When one hurts, we all hurt and I don't think JD needs any more hurt in his life, do you? Huh?"
Chris took a moment. "No. Of course not. I couldn't stand that."
"Good. Neither can I so pull yourself together and stand tall. JD needs you, Vin needs you and the rest of the team needs you. I know patience isn't your thing, but right now all we can do is wait."
Chris raised his head and focused on his closest friend. His eyes narrowed. "Fuck waiting. We can find every contact Harold Evans had in this state and follow up. I won't just sit and wait."
Buck cocked his head, considering. "Then neither will I. None of us will so let's get to work, boss."
Ezra looked decidedly relieved when the pair returned to the car. He surreptitiously slipped his cell phone back into his coat pocket, glad he didn't have to call the others for a Larabee hunt in the cold, snowy woods.
The last time they'd done that had been a disaster he cared never to repeat.