Mindjack by The Neon Gang

Editors' Note: The original version of this story first appeared in the Mag 7 zine, Let's Ride #12, published by Neon RainBow Press, Cinda Gillilan and Jody Norman, editors. When we all decided to post the stories that have appeared in the issues of Let's Ride that are more than two years old, we opted to use a generic pen name because, while Sierra Chaves and Erica Michaels were the primary authors of this story, they had so much help from the other folks writing for the press that it just made sense to consider the story to be written by the Neon RainBow Press Collective! Resistance was futile. So, thanks to the whole Neon Gang – Dori Adams, Sierra Chaves, Dana Ely, Michelle Fortado, Patricia Grace, Deyna Greywolf, Dani Martin, Erica Michaels, Karson Raine, Nina Talbot, Kacey Tucker, Rebecca Wright, and Lorin and Mary Fallon Zane. Story lasted edited 6-20-2008. Art by Shiloh

Authors' Note: This story was originally slated for A Small Circle of Friends, the multi-media recycling zine where plots from one series are retold using the characters from another. The plot here comes from the "Mindbender" episode of Counterstrike.

Secured Building, Inglewood, CA

Friday, 9 April 1999

0900 Hours
In a small, dimly lit room three men and one woman sat on cold metal folding chairs, studying the image captured by a slide in its projector. Aimed onto a plain white wall was a handsome man with short dark hair. Intense green eyes gazed out at something beyond the edge of the frame. His face was damp with perspiration. His expression was energized and focused.

"Ezra Standish," the man operating the slide projector stated nervously. "Former FBI field operative. Gambler. Con man."

"No," the woman said, her eyes narrowing at the image.

A soft click echoed though the almost barren room and the man was gone, replaced by a handsome black man. He had been caught while running his hand over his short hair, a slight grin playing on his lips.

"Nathan Jackson," the same man explained. "Former Army medic. Forensic specialist."

"Perhaps," the woman replied, tilting her head slightly to one side, admiring the man's good looks.

Another whir, another image. Another man, this one Caucasian with dark hair and blue eyes. The man's expression was happy-go-lucky.

"Buck Wilmington," the man continued. "Former Navy SEAL. Demolitions and electronics expert."

"Hmm," was the woman's only comment. "Next."

The fourth image was also of a Caucasian, a dark-blond. He stared out of the frame with focused green eyes. An air of authority that clung to the man, even in the photograph, a man more familiar with giving orders than taking them.

"Chris Larabee," the man explained. "Former Navy SEAL. He resigned his commission to avoid a court martial after disobeying a direct order from his CO."

"He is their leader," the woman stated rather than asked.

"Yes, Colonel," the man replied.

Leaning forward slightly, she stared at the projected image, trying to read the nature of the man. Her fingers slowly curled into fists. He would not make a good subject. He would be the man she must defeat to ensure success. "No," she decided.

The next image was of an older man, with blue-grey eyes and grey-highlighted hair. He was flashing someone a toothy grin.

"Josiah Sanchez, former military, profiler."

"No," she said immediately.

Another Caucasian, this one younger than the rest. His expression was open and somewhat innocent.

"JD Dunne, computer expert."

"We'll see," she said.

The final image was of another Caucasian man. His chestnut hair was worn long, to his shoulders, blue eyes focused intently on something they couldn't see. The slight quirk of his lips spoke of a dangerous edge.

"Vin Tanner," the man offered. "Former Army sniper. He was discharged for disobeying a direct order from a UN officer. Special Ops training."

"I see," the woman said, sitting back and running the tip of one fingernail along her jawline to her chin. A small smile finally reached her lips. She stood and one of the other men turned on the lights, bleaching out the last image on the wall. Turning, she asked, "And these men are all... how do you say it? Unorthodox?"

The man who had described the team members spoke, glancing down at his lap while he rubbed his sweaty palms on his thighs. "Yes. They're a special operations team inside the ATF who undertake, uh, more unique operations, you could say, for my government."

"I see" she said.

The man's gaze darted nervously around the room.

"Who is their keeper?" she demanded.

"Orin Travis," the man supplied. "My former boss."

Her smile grew, curling off her lip in a feral expression of triumph. "Give me their complete files. Then I will make my choices."

"I– I have them here," the man replied, nodding to the briefcase that sat on the table beside the slide projector.

The woman glanced at the other two men in the room, then said in Serbo-Croat, "He is no longer of any use to us. Kill him."

The two men nodded.

Federal Building, Denver, CO

Monday, 12 April 1999

0800 Hours

Chris Larabee entered the offices of Team Seven, his gaze automatically sweeping over the familiar space, looking for anything out of place, but nothing was.

JD peeked up from where he was hunched behind his large computer monitor. "Hi," he said, smiling.

"Morning, JD," he replied, mentally chiding himself for failing to notice him. He crossed the room to join Dunne, leaning with one hip against the edge of the man's desk. "Any news from the others?"

JD shook his head. "Nothing. No one's showed up at any of the remaining dead drops. You know, I think we got all of them this time."

"Hope so," Chris replied, crossing his arms over his chest and grinning. "We can't let these guys ruin tobacco sales, now can we?"

"I guess not," JD sighed, arching his back and rolling his neck to work out the stiffness. "Oh, Travis called," he informed Chris. "He's satisfied we found all the leaks, too, at least for now. Should I call the guys back?"

Chris thought for a moment, then shook his head. "It's Monday, tell 'em to take four and be back on Friday. I doubt Travis will let us sit around much longer than that."

His eyes rounded slightly as his eyebrows arched in surprise. "A vacation? Are you talking about a vacation here? I think I must've misunderstood."

Larabee grinned. "Hey, we all need a little time off, right?" he defended. He turned and started for his office, saying, "I'll give Travis a call, let him know we'll be busy for a few days."

JD swung back to the computer, clicked on his bookmarks and selected his favorite gaming site, then reached for the phone, muttering, "Wonder if I can finally beat Lowthar the Barbarian today…"

Rocky Mountain National Park


0830 Hours

Vin Tanner tossed his gear bag into the back of his Jeep, then climbed in behind the wheel. Turning the engine over, he maneuvered the truck out over an old fire-road that overlooked the popular picnic and hiking area, eventually reaching a paved two-lane highway heading back to Denver. Glancing at his watch, he guessed that he'd get back to the city around lunchtime, providing he didn't run into any major traffic hold-ups along the way. And that was like asking for ice cream in Hell.

Three days, he thought. It seemed like a lot of time, given the schedule he and his fellow agents had been keeping since Larabee had brought them all together fifteen month before. Weighing his options, he made up his mind to stop at grocery store. Then he'd head home for a long, hot shower and a good night's sleep. Tomorrow, with luck, he'd pack up and head up into the mountains himself.

He reached out and turned his CD player on. Shania Twain's voice echoed out, asking him whose bed his boots were under. He grinned and shook his head. "Not yours, darlin'," he sighed sadly, his fingers tapping on the steering wheel in time with the lively song.

Several hours and two major traffic tie-ups later, he reached the store, did his shopping and then headed for his apartment. Climbing out of the Jeep, he slammed the door shut and started for the building.

"Uh, hi, excuse me?" came a feminine voice.

Vin turned, his hand automatically moving toward the Glock he was carrying in a shoulder holster. He stopped far short when he saw the pretty red-haired woman wearing shorts and a clingy top. It was very obvious she wasn't carrying a weapon.

"You're Vin, right?" she asked, smiling.

"Yes, ma'am," he nodded, blue eyes narrowing slightly. He didn't like it when strangers knew who he was, even pretty strangers like this woman.

"Hi, I'm Molly, Molly Wilson," she said, walking up to join him, "I'm a new neighbor, well, not that new, I guess. I moved in a few months ago. Mrs. Hernandez told me you're an ATF agent?" She offered him her hand. "It's nice to meet you."

Vin accepted her proffered hand and shook it. Her skin was soft and without calluses. "Likewise."

"I'm afraid I need to ask you a favor," she said, large green eyes sweeping over him, her gaze openly appraising and admiring.

"Uh, well, sure… if I can," he said.

"Great, I really appreciate it. I, huh, locked my purse and keys in my truck, but the window's open…"

Vin followed the woman over to a tall pickup. She smiled, but dipped her head in embarrassment. "I feel really silly, asking you this," she said, gesturing to the truck. "I was just thinking that maybe you could…" She shook her head, her cheeks flushing pink as she shrugged. "I really need to get one of those magnet things to stick a space key in."

Vin grinned slightly, realizing what it was she wanted him to do. "So, you, uh, need a boost?"

She nodded, looking sheepish. "If you wouldn't mind? I wasn't sure who I could ask, then I saw you– Oh, listen to me. If you wouldn't mind, I'd really appreciate your help," she concluded. "I can offer you a cup of coffee after if you'd like?"

"Sure," Vin agreed, amused by her embarrassment. She seemed a little scatterbrained, but she was certainly easy to look at.

"Thanks," Molly said, relieved. She turned her back to him and lifted one of her feet.

He stared her for a moment, then bent over and laced his fingers, catching her foot in his hands and starting to lift her. The dart struck his neck and he slapped at it, but it was too late. Her smile was the last thing he saw before the blackness stripped away his consciousness, his last thought: This isn't supposed to happen when a guy's on vacation….

The Parrot Club, Denver, CO


2000 Hours

Buck Wilmington finished his beer while the band started another set. A moment later, he was being dragged back onto the dance floor by the curvaceous blonde he'd met earlier. He was finally coming down from his usual post-mission adrenaline high. Nothing like a beautiful woman to soothe the old nervous system, he thought gleefully.

Three days. I don't believe it.

He grinned. He still had three more days to enjoy. Chris was feeling particularly generous, which probably meant that they'd be getting a new assignment when they came back inn on Friday, one they would have to spend the weekend working through, but it was worth it, especially if Candy turned out to be as sweet as her name. His grin widened.

He studied the attractive blonde woman dancing with him. Her hair was long and slightly windblown, her skin tanned and unblemished. It was obvious she took care of her body, which was well-toned. The short shirt and lycra top she wore made that more than obvious. She smiled at him and he swallowed hard, then grinned back, his eyebrows climbing slightly in silent appreciation.

Well, there's plenty worse ways to spend a couple of days off, he thought, casually leaning in to kiss her.

"Mmm," she responded almost shyly, dipping her head slightly and gazing up at him through her long lashes.

"Mmm," he said back, finding the look extremely sexy. "You, uh, want to get another drink, or something to eat?"

"Sure," she agreed, glancing away in an almost bashful way. "I like the way you dance."

Buck smiled. "Well, now, I'm glad to hear you say that, but I'm afraid they're getting ready to change over to the stuff I don't really like."

"That's too bad," she said, affecting a slight pout. She grabbed his hand and pulled him over to the bar. "Want to find someplace else, then?"

The ladies' man glanced at the bartender, who shot him a smile that said "You are one lucky man, my friend."

"A coke if you please," Buck ordered, "and another of whatever the lady's having."

"Coke?" she asked, her large blue-green eyes rounding in surprise.

Buck shrugged one shoulder and said, "I like to keep a clear head, and I've already had a couple of beers."

She smiled. "Hmm, I like the sound of that." Her tongue darted across her lips invitingly.

Buck accepted his soda, took a swallow, then nodded toward the hallway leading back to the restrooms. "I have to go make a pit stop, but I'll be right back."

"Sure," she agreed, sitting up straighter and giving him a good look at some of her attributes. "I'm not going anywhere."

"I'm very glad to hear that, Darlin'?" he said, silently praying she was available for the next few days.

She leaned forward just far enough to give him a brief peek into her ample cleavage. "Better hurry up."

Buck took another long swallow of the soda, then scampered off. While he was gone, Candy glanced around, and, making sure no one was watching, emptied the contents of a small vial into his drink.

Secured Building, Englewood, CO

Tuesday, 13 April

0300 Hours

Buck woke to find himself sprawled, belly-down, on a cold, damp cement floor. An odd odor rose from the surface, threatening to make him gag, and he finally identified it as bleach. He kept his eyes closed and willed his breathing to slow, mimicking unconsciousness. Then he listened, but there were no sounds to suggest that he had a guard.

His eyes cracked open slightly as he tried to remember where he was and what had brought him there. The first solution to come to mind work-related: Had somebody they were investigating caught him?

He rejected the idea. If one of the groups they were currently watching had him, he'd be screaming by now.

He forced his thoughts through the lingering fog in his mind, then remembered – he'd been at the Parrot Club. Chris had given them three days off… Candy, he remembered. The blonde with the fetching assets.

The last thing he remembered was leaving the bar with her. He was going to drive her to her place…

Damn, he thought. An opportunity like that and, somehow, he'd wasted it.

So, who had him?

He forced his eyes all the way open and turned his head. The first thing he noticed was the white walls and the bare room; the second was the multiple pairs of rubber-soled shoes that silently surrounded him. He glanced up, finding several men looming over him, all wearing black clothes and ski masks.

Oh, boy, Buck thought as one of the men reached down and dragged him to his feet. Before he could respond, the men began to beat him.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Vin fell, the hard cement biting painfully into his knees. He gulped in a deep breath, absently wondering just how long the beating had already lasted, and how much longer they planned to continue. His entire body was one unending ache, and nothing he'd tried could overcome their superior numbers, or the lingering effects of the tranquilizer. As a result, he'd reverted to a defensive position, trying to protect himself and only venturing to attack them when he had a clear, open opportunity.

One of the masked men kicked him in the midsection, doubling him over so his forehead pressed against the cold floor. His mouth opened and closed convulsively as he tried to suck air into his now-empty lungs.

Another one of the men took advantage of the opening, landing a two-fisted blow between Vin's shoulders. Luckily, the sniper had seen the attack coming and managed to drop one shoulder and start a roll as the man's arms came down, deflecting the brunt of the attack.

Half-filling his lungs, Vin gritted his teeth and exploded off the floor, tackling one of his masked attackers around his middle and driving him into the wall. The man hung there a moment, then collapsed to the floor, leaving only a blood stain on the white paint where the back of his head had collided with the hard surface. One of the other men barked an order in a language Vin couldn't understand, but that he knew he'd heard before… in Bosnia.

The other men quickly stepped in, two of them touching electronic batons to Vin's body, one at his lower back, the other at his shoulder.

He cried out involuntarily, and staggered, his knees almost giving way. One of the attackers stepped in too close and the sniper grabbed him just as he was hit with the batons again. His grip loosened even as he fought to keep it tight.

The other men grabbed him, their fists pounding him back onto the floor.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Buck lay, beaten, bloody and gulping for air. He hurt, everywhere. And the hands were back, but this time they weren't pounding him, they were lifting him up, holding him on his feet and forcing him down a dimly lit white hallway. He tried to pull free, but he was simply too weak to manage it.

In another small, white room, the hands lifted him onto what looked like a hospital gurney. Velcro straps immediately captured his wrists and ankles, then his upper arms. Last they secured more straps across his thighs, hips and chest, effectively immobilizing him.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Vin fought weakly against the restraints, a low, frustrated growl escaping his puffed and bleeding lips at his lack of success. There was no way he was going to fight his way off the gurney. He was in deep, serious trouble, and he silently prayed that somebody knew about it; that someone was on the way to help him. But he had his doubts.

A tall, thin man loomed over him, unmasked, wearing a white lab coat. He checked Vin's pupils, then moved away, writing something on a stack of paper held on a clipboard. The sniper studied the man. He was probably only in his fifties, though he looked older, thanks to his almost solid gray hair. His shoulders were stooped and he shuffled slightly when he moved, favoring his right leg.

A moment later the man returned and a sharp burning started in the crook of Vin's elbow. He lifted his head and saw the IV needle sticking in his arm.

Before long the strange burning sensation had traveled up his arm, settling in his chest and head. He closed his eyes and fought back a moan that struggled to break free, his whole body suddenly feeling like it was on fire.

Secured Building, Englewood, CO


1300 Hours

The woman stood just inside Vin's room, studying the man as he lay strapped and immobile on the gurney. He was naked except for white briefs and she grudgingly acknowledged his sleek yet powerful build. He would probably be considered very handsome by American standards, but she was not moved. At the moment bruises covered his arms, chest, abdomen and legs. His face was also bruised, although someone had washed off the blood she'd seen before. When she had seen enough, she walked to the next room and studied Buck, who was secured just like his teammate.

"What is their status?" she asked Dr. Liudas Mikalonis.

The tall, too-thin, gray-haired man moved to stand just behind her, peering over her shoulder at the ladies' man. "We are beginning the drug therapy. Their dependency must be established first, then we can begin working on the details of their conditioning."

"They look terrible," the woman said, her gray eyes cold and challenging as she turned to stare at him.

The doctor's gaze immediately dropped to his clipboard. "But I explained, Colonel," he said softly, his voice shaking worse than his hands. "It is first necessary to break down their physical resistance, in order to make them more pliable to the drugs."

The colonel's gaze swept over the physician from shoes to eyes. She found him a detestable human being – weak and simpering – but her superiors had assured her that he was the only one who could prepare the two men in time. She drew herself up to her full height and squared her shoulders. "And there is no question as to your success?" she challenged.

"N-No, Colonel," Mikalonis stuttered. "This will work, I swear to you. It will work, given time."

"We have until Monday," she snapped, "no later. Can you do it by Monday?"

The doctor squirmed under her pinning gaze. "I– I 'm not sure, Colonel. The process has been designed to take ten days—"

"No!" she barked, slapping the man across the face. "They must be ready by Monday!"

He nodded, his hand coming up to press gently against his stinging cheek, fingers trembling. "Yes, Colonel. If we accelerate the dosage, it might be done."

"It will be done," she corrected through nearly closed teeth. Reaching up, she smoothed her short-cropped mouse-brown hair, enjoying the fear that radiated from Mikalonis' eyes.

The physician took a half-step back, cringing in preparation for a second blow as he said, "But I must warn you, there will be additional risks, Colonel." He did not want to tell her that less time meant that they might be able to overcome the conditioning, and she obliged.

"Then you will deal with them," she commanded. "We cannot fail. We will not fail. Do you hear me?"

The man nodded frantically. "Then I s-should return to the subjects," he said, nodding toward the door and his only means of escape. "I s-should oversee the new regiment."

"Go," she hissed, waving him away with all the attention one might give an annoying insect.

The man skittered into Vin's room, snapping orders to the two men sitting in the room, watching the American. They both moved, one preparing a syringe that was emptied into the sniper's IV. The second quickly attached a piece of headgear to Vin's head and forced a mouthguard between the man's teeth.

A moment later an electric shock had Vin jerking spasmodically against his restraints. A single, muffled scream escaped around the rubber mouthpiece.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

When the current stopped, Buck's body went slack. One of the men removed the mouthpiece, and the man yelled, "Who the hell are you? What do you want?!"

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Through the pain-induced fog that filled his mind, Vin still heard the smothered sound of BUck's voice demanding "Who the hell are you?"

He wasn't alone. The thought was both comforting and terrifying. Had these people captured the entire team? Were they all being tortured? Why?

He wasn't sure why, but knowing that it was Buck who was there with him was important, and he clung to that knowledge as the next round of conditioning began.

Secured Building, Englewood, CO


1000 Hours

Stepping into the large room Vin and Buck now shared, a privacy curtain ensuring that the men did not see each other, Colonel Halina Roszic snapped, "Doctor, are they prepared?"

The man ignored the question, finishing the last injection into Wilmington's IV. "I have not had time to ensure that there can be no possibility of unintended triggers, but I do believe they are prepared to carry out their mission at your order."

"Show me," she commanded.

The doctor walked to a rolling table and picked up a small electronic device, then moved to stand next to the woman. "This tone is the trigger," he explained, showing her the device. "They will respond to the tone with a benign phrase, at which time they will be receptive to your instructions. They will execute what you tell them to the letter."

The man pressed the key on the device and it emitted an odd-sounding, warbling tone. In unison, although they could not see each other, Vin and Buck left their beds and walked directly to phones set on tables near their beds. They each lifted receivers and dialed a number.

Roszic's and the doctor's cell phones both chirped. They pulled the instruments from their pockets, the physician holding his near Roszic's mouth. She answered, "Hello."

Both men intoned, "It's a golden opportunity."

Her blue eyes narrowed slightly. "I want you to go to the stand near your bed, open the drawer and remove the knife you find there. You will make a shallow incision on your left forearm. Do it now."

Both men returned the phone receivers to their cradles, then walked to the bedside nightstands and opened the top drawers. They removed the knives. Buck held his left arm close to his side and deftly drew a shallow line along the inside. Blood quickly welled up along the thin line.

Vin rested his left arm on the top of the nightstand and did the same.

The doctor leaned closer to Roszic and said softly, "Another application of the tone will, quite literally, turn them off." He pressed the switch again and the same tone warbled out again.

Both men moaned and grabbed at their injured arms.

"They are ready then?" the woman asked.

"Yes," Dr. Mikalonis said, "I believe that the conditioning will be completed tomorrow."

"And the problem you mentioned?"

Mikalonis nodded. "I have added a failsafe. If they should be interrogated, or should they feel the mission is threatened, I have programmed them to escape and call us."

"And you are sure this will protect the mission?"

"Yes, Colonel. A slow panic will build, pain as well, reinforcing the desire to flee, until they finally run away to escape both. If they are free, they will do as they are told."

Federal Building, Denver, CO

Friday, 16 April

1520 Hours

Chris paced in the office, the others watching him. He muttered under his breath, then stopped. "Where the hell are they?" he demanded, checking his watch for what had to be the hundredth time. It was already after three in the afternoon.

JD checked the e-mail for at least the tenth time in the last couple of hours. "Still nothing," he announced.

Josiah levered out of his chair and walked over to Chris. "Maybe they're just running a little late," he offered calmly.

"They've been announcing freeway accidents all afternoon," Nathan added. "They might be caught in traffic."

"That's why we have cell phones," Chris countered, his tone one of frustration and annoyance parceled out in equal measure.

"Does Travis have something for us?" JD asked, keeping his voice carefully neutral.

Chris shot him a scathing glare. "That's not the point! I told them to be back today! If we're going to operate as a team, I expect us to act like a team! I can't have people going A-W-O-L whenever they feel like it!"

The phone rang, interrupting the blond's tirade. He stalked to the instrument and snatched up the receiver. "Larabee," he snapped, sucking in a deep breath, ready to let loose on one of his wayward team-members.

"Chris? Something wrong?"

His breath escaped as a hissing sigh. "Travis," Larabee acknowledged.

"Listen, Chris, I think I might have a new assignment for you."

"Well, it's gonna have to wait until the rest of my team gets back," he said, annoyance clear in his tone.

There was a slight pause while Travis digested the comment. "I take it some of them are overdue?"

"Two, and they're getting there real fast."

"Could this be related to our militia friends?"

"No," Chris said, "I don't think so. I cut them loose on Monday." He rubbed at his forehead and the ache that was growing stronger.

"Well, this isn't anything that can't wait for a day or two," Travis offered. "I'll call you back on Monday."

"I appreciate that," Chris replied, then hung up without a good-bye. Turning back to the others, he asked, "Okay, where the hell can they be?"

The men exchanged glances, knowing the sooner they rounded up the two wayward men, the better.

An hour later, the four agents headed out, each with a list of locations to check out. As Ezra climbed into his burgundy Jaguar, he silently prayed that he, or one of the others, no Larabee, were the ones to locate the missing men; at least that would delay the inevitable. Dropping into the seat, he reached for his seatbelt, an uneasy feeling settling over him. This wasn't like Vin, or Buck. Had JD said something that implied they had the weekend free as well?

He shook her head. No, he'd told them Chris wanted them back at work Friday morning. So why weren't they here? He turned the engine over and pulled out of the parking lot, heading first to the Saloon.

Federal Building, Denver, CO

Saturday, 17 April

0700 Hours

Chris looked up when Josiah and Ezra entered the office. "Anything?" he asked.

"Not a damned thing," Ezra said, dropping into a chair. "And I was out looking all night."

"I didn't find anything either," Josiah said as he joined Nathan at the coffee maker.

"Damn," Chris sighed. "I doubled-checked the hospitals, morgues, jails and military installations. Nothing. Vin's not answering his phone or cell phone, and I don't know who Buck's seeing, if anyone."

JD shook his head. "Not like he has somebody steady."

"What do we have left?" Ezra asked.

"The bars," Chris replied. "But I thought we'd wait until later, when the regulars should be in."

"Well, I don't know about you," Nathan said, standing and looking at the other men, "but I'm going to get something to eat."

"Good idea," Josiah said.

JD and Ezra nodded.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

After a quick breakfast, the agents split up, each taking a short list of bars the two missing men were known to frequent.

Chris finally hit pay-dirt at his last stop, the Parrot Club. Holding out photos of Buck and Vin, he asked the bartender if he'd seen either man.

He nodded.

"Which one?" Chris asked.

"Him," the man replied, pointing at Buck's photo.


The man thought for a moment, then shrugged, saying, "Not exactly sure; this week sometime. He was here, dancing. "

"Did he leave with anyone?" Chris asked.

The bartender nodded and grinned. "A really hot blonde. Lucky bastard."

"Thanks," Chris said.

Secured Building, Englewood, CO


1400 Hours

Roszic and Mikalonis sat at a table in a mock-up of a restaurant. Vin and Buck each sat at different tables, keeping company with an attractive female companion. Several large potted plants sat, scattered around the room, ensuring that the two men couldn't see each other.

The colonel reached for the small tone-generator and pressed the switch. The particular sound echoed through the room. Vin and Buck immediately stood, ignoring their questioning "dates," and walked to wall-phones positioned near their tables. They removed the receivers, inserted change from their pant-pockets and dialed.

Roszic's cell phone rang and she answered it.

"It's a golden opportunity," she heard Buck say.

"You have your instructions, Mr. Wilmington. Execute them."

She hung up and her phone immediately rang again.

"It's a golden opportunity," Vin stated.

"You have your instructions, Mr. Tanner. Execute them." She hung up a second time and settled back to watch.

Buck accepted an old military issue M-9 from a man dressed like a waiter, then walked confidently to another table, raised the weapon and fired twice. The heads of two mannequins setting at the table exploded into worthless shards. His task completed, Buck remained standing like a living statue, the nine-millimeter still held out in front of him.

Vin accepted another weapon from a young man dressed like a busboy. He walked across the room, stopping behind Buck. Raising the weapon, he fired twice in rapid succession. A smear of neon-yellow paint appeared on the back of Buck's jacket and the back of his head. "Kill confirmed," he stated.

Roszic smiled. "Excellent," she hissed, prompting Mikalonis to smile.

"The post-hypnotic suggestion is in place," he explained. "They will act in accordance with your will."

"And there is no effect on their skills?"

The physician shook his head. "No, just their motivations."

The colonel stood and walked over to where the two men stood, staring sightlessly at the far wall. "It is such a waste," she said, shaking her head sadly. "To go to all the effort to prepare them, then have to kill them." She reached out, softly running a single fingertip along Vin's jawline. Then, turning back to Mikalonis, she snapped, "Place them back in the field."

"No, Colonel, I would like one more day to review their instructions and failsafe," Mikalonis said.

"Very well, but they must be returned on Monday."

"Yes, Colonel."

Federal Building, Denver, CO

Monday, 19 April

0800 Hours

The others sat, watching as Chris paced in the office. Before anyone could say anything, Vin bounced into the room. He smiled and started to say "hello," but stopped, watching Chris come to an abrupt stop, his hands on his hips, his eyes narrowed.

"My office," Larabee said softly.

Vin's blue eyes widened slightly. "Somethin' wrong?"

"My office," Chris repeated, leading the way.

Vin glanced once at the others, but they looked away. He followed Larabee into the small room, felling like he was back in grade school and stepping into the principal's office for a lecture or a paddling.

Once the sniper was inside, Chris stepped back and closed the door behind him. "Do you want to tell me just where the hell you've been?" he asked, keeping his voice below a roar.


"Where you were, Vin. I asked where you were," Chris interrupted, anger ringing clearly in his voice. "You were supposed to be back here Friday."

The sniper walked over to the short couch setting along one wall and sat down. He glanced up at Larabee, his expression confused. "Excuse me, but didn't you give us some time off?"

"Until Friday," Chris snapped, walking around the front of his desk and leaning back against it. "Today's Monday!"

"Well, hell, Chris," the sniper replied, shaking his head. "Since y' gave us 'til Friday, I figured we had the weekend, too. That's the way it usually works."

"Where were you?" Chris demanded for a third time.

"Drive down to Colorado Springs," Vin replied, his eyes narrowing as his head began to hurt and own anger began to flair. "Visited Pike's Peak, Cave of the Winds – you know, all the tourist stuff."

"And you didn't take your cell phone?"

"Y' said we had some time off; I took y' at your word. What's the problem? We get an assignment?"

"That's not the issue," Chris argued. "I told you Friday, and—"

"There's no mission," Vin interrupted, pushing to his feet, standing almost nose-to-nose with Larabee. "Nothin' happened, sir, so what the hell's the problem?"

"The problem is we spent the whole damned weekend looking for you and Buck!" Chris yelled.

"Look, Chris," Vin said, his voice turning soft and dangerous. "I headed out to have some fun, unwind. You know, down time? In case y' hadn't noticed, we don't get a chance t' do that too often. Y' just said y' didn't need me, so I don't see what the hell the problem is."

Chris opened his mouth to tell him, but changed his mind. The sniper had a point. Nothing had happened. Travis hadn't called with anything urgent. He shook his head. "Look, next time, you check in. Understand?"

Vin nodded. "Yeah, I hear ya."

Chris nodded, the muscles along his jaw twitching. "I guess I wasn't clear enough. And it wasn't just you. Buck hasn't made it back yet, either."

Vin took a step back, shook his head and grinned. "Well, you know how he is… Probably met some new lady friend…"

Chris allowed himself a small smile. He was still mad, but it appeared he wasn't facing a blatant disregard for procedures. "Yeah, I know. What happened?" he asked.

"Huh?" Vin replied.

"Looks like you took a punch on the chin."

The sniper smiled. "Naw, just got bruised up some when I did some rock climbin'. It's nothin'." Vin stared at the man for a moment, something niggling at the back of his mind. He shook the thought off, glad the headache was already fading, then walked out to join the other. Buck was sitting with them, talking animatedly.

The ladies' man looked up at Vin and smiled. "So, I hear I wasn't the only one who was late gettin' back."

"Sounds like Buck probably had a better weekend than you did," JD said, letting Vin know they had all heard the exchange.

"That so?" Vin asked, turning a skeptical look on Wilmington.

"You better believe it," Buck replied. "I just spent the last six days on a private island… in the Bahamas."

"Sure you did, amigo," Vin said, shaking his head and heading for the small refrigerator they kept in the room and a cold soda.

"I did! I swear," Buck countered. "I met this girl at the Parrot Club, Candy. Candy Wesston. She likes Jimmy Buffett," he added.

"Well, that tells us what kind of taste she has," Ezra interjected under his breath.

Buck shot the man a wounded look, but he continued his tale. "She invited me to her father's private island. We even took the old man's private jet to get there."

"How was the weather?" Nathan asked. "It doesn't look like you got much sun."

Buck's eyes twinkled. "Lousy," he replied, then grinned. "We spend most of our time… inside," he finished, then wagged his eyebrows suggestively.

"Sounds like the kind of golden opportunity that only rolls around once in a lifetime," Josiah teased.

Vin sucked in a soft breath and swayed on his feet. The can of soda he was holding slipped through suddenly numb fingers, bouncing once on the floor before rolling away, trailing liquid.

Josiah and Nathan were both on their feet, staring at the sniper, missing the empty expression that had settled over Buck's usually animated features. But JD saw the look.

"Buck?" he called.

"You okay, Brother Vin?" Josiah asked, walking over and reaching out to gently squeeze Tanner's shoulder.

"Huh?" the sniper replied, shaking his head slightly to clear the fog that was suddenly swirling through his thoughts.

Nathan headed straight for the kitchen, and a sponge to soak up the sticky mess.

"Vin? You okay?" Josiah asked again, squeezing a little harder.

The sniper shook his head, his eyes and mind clearing. "What?" He looked down at the spilled soda and Nathan, as he cleaned it up. "Damn," he said, "I'm sorry. Here, let me get that."

"What happened?" the former medic asked, handing him the sponge.

"Headache," Vin said. "Caught me all of a sudden. Too damned much junk food I guess."

Nathan stood, looking at Josiah, meeting his concerned gaze. "I'm, uh, going to go talk to Chris. I think we should all go get something to eat."

"Good idea," Josiah said.

"Yeah," Buck added, watching from his chair. "I'm starved."

JD and Ezra exchanged their own concerned looks.

"Buck, you feel okay?" JD asked him.

The ladies' man grinned. "Just a touch of jet-lag is all."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Chris was sitting at his desk when Nathan stepped into his office. "Buck's back," he said.

Larabee nodded and leaned back. "Well, that's something. Where was he?"

"The Bahamas, he says, with a blonde."

Chris snorted. "I'll just bet."

Moving to stand in front of the man's desk, he said, "You know, this is going to sound strange, but I think something's up with Vin."

"He's actin' like a damned civilian," Chris half-growled, tossing his pen aside. "I guess I make myself clear enough, though."

Nathan's lips twitched up at the corners. "Chris, we are civilians, well, you know what I mean."

"No, we're not," he corrected. "And he knows better than to disappear for six days. We all do."

"And Buck?"

Chris shook his head. "To be honest, I guess I expect this kind of thing from him from time to time," he said, then shook his head. "No, that's not true." He looked up at Nathan. "I don't know what the hell's going on here."

"Me either," he replied softly. "But I've got a bad feeling about it, and from the looks that were flying around out there, so do the others. Something's not right."

Chris' eyebrows climbed, prompting him to continue.

"I can't explain it," he admitted. "I just know something's wrong. Let one of us talk to Vin – alone."

Chris nodded, his forehead creasing with worry. Nathan was seldom wrong about his hunches. "Okay," he agreed. "And if we're gonna start playing twenty-questions, I want their stories checked out. Put Ezra on it. I want both their stories checked out."

Nathan nodded, but didn't look too happy about checking into his fellow team members activities.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Less than an hour later, Josiah and Vin sat in the last empty booth at The Peaks, a small restaurant near the federal building. A waitress arrived as soon as they sat down, asking if they knew what they wanted.

"Yeah, I'll have a cheeseburger with the curly fries," Vin told the girl. "And a Coke."

"Me, too," Josiah said.

The girl quickly brought them their drinks, then called in their order. Josiah picked up his soda and took a sip before he asked, "So, did you have fun?"

"Fun?" Vin asked, slowly turning his glass in circles on the tabletop. In his mind disjointed images flashed past, confusing and frightening.

"In Colorado Springs."

Vin looked blank for a moment, then he brightened and said, "You bet. It was nice to get away from the city for a while."

"Why didn't you tell Chris what you were doing?"

Vin's brow wrinkled in confusion and he asked honestly, "I didn't call?"

Josiah shook his head.

"Damn," he said. "Guess it just slipped m' mind. I wasn't sure I could get reservations, and I guess I just forgot."

"It's not like you," he commented casually.

"Maybe not," Vin countered, reaching up to rub at his right temple. "But everybody makes mistakes. I made one. I'll admit that. I guess when it come t' all the rules, I c'n get a little… obstinate."

Josiah smiled. "I can see how that might work. None of us is a real stickler for the rules, except maybe Chris – and even he's more flexible than most."

"That ain't no lie," Vin replied, the headache forgotten.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

"Uh, do you have a moment?" Ezra asked, leaning into Larabee's office.

"What's up?"

Standish stepped into the room and closed the door. "I checked Buck's bag. No sand, no blonde hair. But the date stamp on his passport is right."

Chris thought about what Buck had said. "If he stayed inside, like he said he did, no sand makes sense."

"And the hair?"

Chris shrugged. "Unusual, but not impossible."

Ezra nodded. "I hate to say it, but maybe he did get… lucky."

Larabee grinned. "Check the weather in the Bahamas."

"I will do that."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Vin and Josiah finished their burgers with little conversation. The profiler occasionally asked questions about his trip, and each time there was a slight delay, accompanied by a blank look before the sniper replied. After a few times he stopped, letting Tanner eat in peace.

Their burgers finished, they sat, working on their drinks. Josiah smiled, watching a young boy scamper back to the videogames that sat along the back wall near their booth. He poked in his quarters and grabbed the joystick on one machine that was almost too large for his small hand.

A jaunty tune echoed out of the machine and, a moment later, the boy was jerking the joystick and tapping the fire button while electronic explosions making conversation impossible. When he destroyed his first zombie a new, odd-sounding tune warbled out of the machine.

Vin straightened in his seat, then, without a word, he slid across the booth and stood.

"Vin?" Josiah called as he glanced around the room. He watched the sniper walk over to the payphone hanging on the wall near the register, fish change out of his pocket and feed it into the slot. Then he dialed a number. He rose and crossed over to stand behind Tanner.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Sitting in her office, Colonel Roszic jumped slightly when her cell phone chirped. She scowled at the instrument for a moment, then snatched it up, expecting Mikalonis.

"It's a golden opportunity," she heard Vin Tanner drawl softly.

"Your party is not here, Mr. Tanner. Terminate," she stated, then grabbed her triggering device and sounded the tone.

Slamming the device down, she snatched up the phone receiver and pressed a button. In his office Dr. Mikalonis answered, "Yes, Colonel?"

"Come to my office, now!" she snapped.

A minute later the man was standing before her, wringing his hands.

"Tanner just called me."

The physician's eyes rounded in concern, and fear for his safety.

"Why did he call me?"

The doctor shifted nervously from foot to foot as he stuttered, "I– I am not sure, Colonel. An inadvertent trigger must have promoted the call."

"I thought you said they were ready for the field!" she snapped.

"They are," he defended. "As you saw, he followed his instructions to the letter."

"But I did not activate him!"

Mikalonis shrank back. "No, Colonel, you did not, but he is still conditioned. He will carry out his assignment when the time comes."

"If they do not become suspicious!"

"He will run away if they coerce him."

"You had better hope he does," she hissed softly. "Or it will be your life."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Standing at the payphone, Vin jerked slightly, then shook his head and looked down at the receiver in his hand. A cold chill snaked its way down his back as he hung the phone up.

"Are you all right?" Josiah asked.

Vin started, but said, "I'm fine."

They walked back to the booth and sat down, the older man looking worried. "Who were you calling?" he asked softly.

"Huh?" Vin replied, fear roiling through his guts and making him cold. What the hell was he doing? Why couldn't he remember who he was trying to call? Had he reached someone? He couldn't remember.

"You called someone; who was it?"

Vin met his concerned gaze, the fear shifting to anger. "I don't know."

"Stay here," Josiah ordered, then slid off the booth seat and crossed to the phone herself. Tanner watched him drop in the necessary change and punch out a number.

"Larabee," Chris answered.

"Chris, something strange just happened," Josiah said. "I need to know all the numbers contacted from 555-4567 in the last ten to fifteen minutes."

"What's going on?" Chris asked.

"I'll tell you when we get back," he promised.

Hanging up, he returned to the booth and sat down across from Vin. The sniper was sitting, his forearms resting on the table, a faraway expression on his face. He reached out, gently resting his hands on Vin's arms and Tanner jerked back, hissing in pain.

"What's wrong?"

"I don't know," Vin replied, fighting back a wave of panic that told him to run, and run now.

Josiah got up and sat back down next to him, blocking his escape. Something in his mind labeled the big man the enemy, but he fought it off. Josiah was not his enemy.

Reaching out, Josiah tugged up the sleeves of Vin's shirt, finding a long cut running along his left arm, the healing wound held closed with four adhesive butterfly stitches. Looking up, he saw the confusion and fear in the sniper's blue eyes as he stared at the injury.

"What happened?" he asked softly.

Vin shook his head. "Don't know."

"Vin, this had to hurt," he pressed. "How did it happen?"

Anger flashed across Tanner's face, quickly reined in. "I said I don't know. Just leave it alone."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

"Mr. Larabee," Ezra said when Chris hung up the phone.

Larabee turned to face him, rubbing at the back of his neck.

"I have that weather report…"


"The weather was so-so on Monday and Tuesday, but it was so bad the rest of the week that all flights out or in were grounded until Sunday afternoon. I doubled checked that. His story checks out."

Chris' lips pressed into a fine line. "Where's Buck?"

"Sleeping off the jetlag."

"Do you believe him?" the blond asked.

The handsome undercover man shrugged. "I will admit that I was skeptical, but with the passport and now this… There is no reason not to." Ezra smiled. "I suppose even Buck can get lucky once in a while."

"Yeah," Chris agreed, grinning back. "But it makes you wonder about the young lady, doesn't it?"

Ezra nodded.

"Did you get hold of anyone one in Colorado Springs who can verify Vin's story?"

"Not yet. I'll keep trying."

"Let me know when you do."

"I will do that" Ezra replied.

Federal Building, Denver, CO

Tuesday, 20 April

0145 Hours

Chris ran his hand over his hair, then checked the clock. They had been at it for almost six hours and it was pushing two in the morning. He hit the rewind button on the tape recorder, listening to the soft whir. When the machine clicked, he looked up at his sniper, saying, "Damn it, Vin, can't you hear it?"

"Hear what?" Tanner asked, his voice tired and frustrated. "I told you, I went to the Springs. I went rock climbing, saw some of the sights, drove up to the top of Pike's Peak. End of story."

"No, it's not!" Chris countered, banging his fist against the surface of his desk. "Every time I ask you to tell me where you were, the story sounds exactly the same. It's like you memorized it and—"


"It's like you're compelled to tell us the same story every time," Josiah said, interrupting the two men before an argument could really get rolling.

"What're y' gettin' at?" Vin demanded, looking from Chris to Josiah, his head pounding so hard it was hard to even hear what they were saying.

"Why did you make that call?" Chris asked.

Vin looked back at Larabee, his chest starting to get tight. "Damn it, how many times have I got t' say it? I don't know!"

"Who were you calling?" Chris repeated, his voice more demanding.

"I don't know!"

"Why don't you remember?"

"I don't know!"

Josiah stood and walked over to stand next to the sniper, who was starting to tremble. "Vin, listen to the tape. It's like your subconscious is making you say these things, do these things."

"What? You're m' shrink now?" Tanner snapped, trying to ignore the voice inside his head telling him to run, to get as far away from his friends as he could.

"Where'd you get the number?" Chris demanded.

"I don't know!"

"Who were you trying to call?"

Vin shot to his feet, his head feeling like it as going to explode, fear making him sweat. "I ain't sayin' it again, Larabee! I don't fuckin' know!"

Chris looked up at the man, trying to decide what to do next. Vin's eyes had narrowed to dangerous slits.

"You know, don't you?" he accused. "You know who I called."

Chris leaned back in his chair and folded his arms across his chest. "I want you to tell me."

"Tell me who it was, damn it!" the sniper demanded, the need to know overriding his need to escape the interrogation.

Larabee hesitated for a moment, then stood. "The Serbian consulate here in Denver," he replied.

Denver, CO


1100 Hours

Vin glanced at the sign as they pulled into the underground parking lot: Summit Mental Health Hospital & Out-Patient Clinic.

Great, he thought. They think I've slipped a gear.

He shook his head, fighting the anger that was clawing around in his guts like a wounded animal, making it hard to breathe. A deep panic rattled through him in the wake of the anger and he searched for the root of it, finding nothing. The fear, the anger, none of it made any sense. He knew he could trust Larabee and the others. They were only concerned about him. They wanted to help. So why did he want to bolt out of the truck and run as fast as and far as he possibly could? It just didn't make sense. And it wasn't like him. Vin Tanner never ran from anything.

He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, willing himself to calm the same way he did before every mission. It didn't work. The sinister, haunting images were back, appearing and disappearing in the dark corners of his thoughts without ever coming fully to consciousness so he could face them. He chased after them, but they slipped away, leaving behind nothing but more apprehension.

Damn it! he cursed silently. He wasn't going nuts.

Chris parked and he, Vin and Josiah climbed out of the profiler's dark blue Chevy Suburban. Twice Vin almost fled into the sea of parked cars, but both times he fought back the impulse – its very presence convincing him that he needed to find out what was happening.

They walked into the large, modern building without a word. A smiling receptionist greeted them from behind an attractive inlaid counter. "Can I help you?"

"We have an appointment with Dr. Bennett," Josiah said, watching Vin fidget. Beads of sweat had broken out on his forehead and upper lip and his chest was heaving with every panted breath.

The attractive young women scanned a computer printed list, then looked up, asking, "Mr. Tanner?"

"Yeah," Vin said, not even looking at the woman. The panic climbed another notch. His blood began to burn in his veins, the sensation triggering a memory – a man, staring down at him, but he didn't recognize the face. With every ounce of willpower he had, he forced the panic down.

"Dr. Bennett's office is in suite three twenty-three, the elevators are right over there." She pointed across the lobby.

The threesome crossed to the elevators and rode up in silence. Vin hesitated when the door opened, the burning sensation scorching through his body, climbing in intensity. He snapped his head to the side, trying to unlock the tension that had settled into the base of his skull like a man with a jackhammer.

"Vin," Chris said, his tone leaving no opening for argument.

Taking a deep breath, the sniper followed his teammates, his jaw muscles twitching.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

The psychiatrist's actual examination took a little over two hours, and by the time the doctor finished, Vin had moved from annoyed to angry to downright terrified. He had honestly tried to answer each and every question the man had asked him, but there were far too many times that the information simply wasn't there, and it made no sense.

Why couldn't he remember which roads he had taken? Why couldn't he remember anything the people around him had said? What they were wearing? Why couldn't he remember what the hotel clerks had said when he'd taken the room? Where had he spent his nights? Where had he eaten? What had he eaten? How had he hurt his arm? Why was he so damned nervous?

Vin's head had started throbbing about twenty minutes into the examination and now it felt like it might explode at any moment. His blood still burned in his veins, and it was decidedly hard to breathe. He leaned forward on the examination table where he sat and watched the older, silver-haired psychiatrist gather up his papers.

When Bennett was done, he turned to smile encouragingly at the sniper. "I want you to just sit here and relax. I'm going to go speak to your friends, then I'll come back and we'll chat, all right?" he asked.

Vin nodded. The older man was treating him like a child, and it more than annoyed him. Still, there was little he could do except go along. Something was wrong – very, very wrong. His memories were shot to hell, he was making calls he couldn't remember… And why in the world would he be calling the Serbian consulate?

Several minutes passed, the silence in the room becoming painfully annoying as his headache subsided. Vin slid off the examination table, prowling through the room to pass the time. Reaching a multi-line phone sitting on a small desk, he reached out and randomly punched one of the buttons without really thinking. Dr. Bennett's voice echoed into the room, saying, "…he's functional, but there are definite inconsistencies in his story, conflicting forces and influences."

"Did you see what I meant about him telling the same story each time?" Chris asked, his tone worried.

"I did, and I agree. It's as if he's memorized the story, word for word."

Larabee asked, "Could he have witnessed something? Be having some kind of flashback?"

"Post traumatic stress syndrome?" the doctor asked and Vin could imagine Chris nodding, his expression a mixture of concern and hope. "I doubt it. Mr. Tanner's reactions aren't consistent with what I'd expect if we were dealing with PTSD. Did you happen to notice the bruises?"

"Bruises?" Josiah echoed.

"All over his body," Bennett said.

Vin lost track of the conversation, staring down at his shirt. He pulled it up and stared at the marks that decorated his skin, some of them already starting to fade to an ugly yellow-green.

"What are you saying, Doctor?" Larabee demanded.

"I have a colleague I think should see Mr. Tanner. She's more familiar with these kinds of cases."

What kind of case? Vin demanded silently, wishing he'd been paying more attention to what the man was saying.

"What else, Doctor?" Chris asked, his tone clearly upset.

"I'm afraid I really can't say at this time. Mr. Tanner needs to remain here for observation. I'll give Amelia a call and see if she can't drop by this evening. Given a little time, I think we can get to the bottom of this."

"How long?" Josiah asked. He didn't sound like he cared for the idea any more than Vin did.

"I can't really predict – an hour, a week, a month. We just don't know at this point. Clearly you feel he's not capable of continuing in his present capacity or you wouldn't have brought him here."

"He's right, Chris. What choice do we have?" Josiah asked.

"Whatever it takes," Chris said quietly. "I just want to know what happened to him. I want him helped."

Vin took a step back, staring at the phone. The panic he'd managed to suppress during the examination finally broke free, washing over him like a cold wave of sweat. His body began to tremble and the pain in his head swelled, making him sway on his feet.

A part of his mind was relieved, ready and willing to do whatever it took to find out the truth, regardless of the consequences. But another part cringed away from stalking, shadowy images of pain and control. That part screamed Run! Now!

And he did.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

In Dr. Bennett's office, Chris stood, sighing deeply. "I'll go tell him what you think might be going on," he said sadly. "I owe him that much. He'll listen to me."

The psychiatrist nodded.

Chris waved Josiah back into her seat when he started to stand and follow him. "I'd better do this alone," he said softly. "He's not going to like it."

Josiah didn't like it either, but he nodded, watching him go.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Stepping into the examination room, Larabee felt the blood drain from his face. Vin was gone.

From the speaker phone he heard Josiah ask the doctor, "Will we be able to see him?"

"Of course," Dr. Bennett replied. "Visiting hours are nine to nine, unless Amelia decides otherwise."

Larabee turned and bolted back to the office. Rushing through the door he said, "He's gone. He heard it all on the speaker phone."

"I'll call security," Bennett said, reaching for his phone. "They'll seal the building."

Josiah was out of his chair, joining Chris in the doorway. "Which way?"

Larabee thought a moment. "I'll go up, you go down." He looked back at the doctor. "Is he dangerous?"

Bennett thought a moment, then asked, "Are we the enemy?"

Chris' lips disappeared into a thin line. "I hope to hell not." He looked back at Josiah. "Be careful."

He nodded. "You, too."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Josiah made his way swiftly and efficiently down the halls on the third floor, then the second and finally the first, finding nothing. He glanced at the guards who stood at the main entrance and decided to try the sub-basement, then work his way back up through the parking levels. If Vin was hiding among the cars, they might never find him.

Stepping into the elevator, he frowned. This is wrong, he thought. Vin was the most stable person he'd ever met. He wasn't crazy. He wasn't sick. Something had happened to him while he'd been gone. Something bad.

The elevator door slid open and he stepped out into the dimly lit sub-basement. Several pipes of various sizes ran along the walls and the smell of dampness reached her nose, making it itch. He took a few more steps, then stopped, allowing his eyes to adjust to the low light levels before he started off. The last thing he wanted to do was run into Vin when he wasn't prepared. After a few steps he paused again, this time listening.

Footsteps. Running.

He cocked his head toward the sound, then turned his head slowly until he was sure of the direction. Setting out at a jog, he realized he was afraid. Vin Tanner was a dangerous man, and he was effectively hunting him. This is crazy, he told herself. He won't hurt me

I hope.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

He was closing in on him.

Vin stopped, leaning back against a wall, his hands coming up to grab his head. The pain was almost unbearable and he squeezed his skull, trying to relieve the pressure. The footsteps grew louder.

He glanced around, looking for a weapon and finding nothing better than an abandoned piece of pipe about a foot long that someone had left lying on the floor. It was better than nothing.

Staring at the pipe, he wondered briefly if he could use it on the man. Why? he asked himself. Why am I doin' this? Josiah's my friend. He's my teammate.

The reason why he was running was as much a mystery to the sniper as most of his recent activities, but he knew he couldn't allow them to commit him. He had to be free. He had to be ready to carry out his mission.

What mission? he demanded of himself, but there as no answer.

With a soft groan, he staggered down another hallway, trying to find a way out of the underground labyrinth. In the near-distance he could hear Josiah moving in on him. His heart beat faster. He had to escape. Now, before he found him and he had to hurt the profiler.

I can't hurt him! he barked at himself. Not Josiah, not Chris, not Buck, or JD or Ezra…

Buck. There was something about the man, something important, but he couldn't remember.

What the hell's wrong with me?!

Vin turned another corner, the piece of pipe coming up in his hands like it was a bat. Josiah skidded to a stop in front of him, his hands coming up to show that he was no threat to him.

Vin's eyes narrowed. Attack! a part of his mind ordered.


"Vin," he said, keeping his empty hands up where Tanner could see them. "It's all right. No one's going to hurt you."

"I'm not crazy," he managed to grind out past the torment in his head.

"I know that," Josiah replied. "Put the pipe down… please."

"I got t' get out 'a here."

"Vin, listen to me. You need to stay here. You need to find out what's going on. These people can help you do that. They're the experts. Now, put the pipe down."

"That guy wants to put me away for the rest of my life!" Tanner argued, the pitch and crack of his voice revealing how close he was to losing control.

"No," Josiah soothed. "No, he doesn't, Vin. He just wants to help you figure out what's going on; we all do. Vin, listen to me… you trust me, I know you do… Put the pipe down." He lowered his arms as Vin lowered the pipe.

"Give it to me," he said softly.

Attack! the voice in his head yelled and Vin groaned, his eyes squeezing shut against the agony that bounced inside his skull. The pipe slipped out of his grip, the metal ringing hollowly against the cement floor. He opened his eyes and looked down. Cement floor.

Images of men circling him, moving in for an attack, filled his mind and he moaned again. What the hell's goin' on?


He looked up, meeting Josiah's worried gaze. "We don't always see things eye t' eye," Vin said, his voice tight. "But I'd never hurt y'… or Chris, the others."

"I know," JOsiah said softly, watching the silent, internal war raging in the sniper's eyes.

"I don't know what's happenin' t' me," Vin admitted, his expression imploring the profiler to understand him, to help him. "I don't know what the hell's goin' on."

"I know," he repeated. "I know you don't. Vin, it'll be all right. Dr. Bennett just wants to help you. We all just want to help you. But you've got to let us."

Vin shook his head, the voice inside telling him to run reasserting itself with force.

"Vin," he said. "You know as well as I do that's something's wrong. Something's happened to you. These people can help you find out what it was."

Looking up, Vin let the truth of his words work their way into his thoughts, muffling the command to run. He had to know what the images meant. He had to regain control over his feelings, and his actions. There were no other options. He couldn't put the team in danger, and the way he was acting right now, he was the biggest danger to them he knew.

"We'll make sure you're all right, Vin. I swear we won't let anything happen to you, okay? But you've got to give the doctors a chance to help you." As he spoke Josiah moved closer to the sniper, slowly and cautiously, until he was standing directly in front of him.

The battle flared once more, but Josiah could see that reason was going to win. Vin did trust him, with his life and his soul, and that realization made his heart ache. They have to help him.

"Please," he said softly, reaching out to pull the trembling man into a tentative embrace. "Let's go back, okay?"

"Yes, sir," Vin whispered, his arms coming up to cling to the bigger man with all the strength he had left.

Josiah nodded against his shoulder, tears escaping his eyes.

Serbian Consulate, Denver, CO


1615 Hours

Colonel Roszic drew back her arm and slapped Mikalonis' face – hard. The man staggered back a step, cringing as another blow landed, then a third.

"This was not supposed to happen!" she screamed at the man.

Mikalonis' arms instinctively came up to protect his head and face, but there were no more blows. He lowered his arms and straightened, his legs trembling. "But, Colonel, I explained, we accelerated the process. There was no time to ensure that—" Her wrathful scowl stopped him in mid-sentence. "It should not happen again, Colonel."

"He is in a hospital, you fool!"

"They will not—"

"Why did he not flee as you said he would? Your failsafe seems to be as worthless as your conditioning!"

The doctor hesitated a moment, then offered, "He must not have felt threatened. Perhaps we underestimated the affinity shared by these individuals. But a hospital—"

"There is too much security! We cannot reach him without arousing suspicion! I cannot place my people in a position of being recognized later!"

The man reached out his hands beseechingly. "Colonel, please, perhaps there is a way to turn this to our advantage. They do not suspect the other—"

"Silence!" She paced in her office, anger making it difficult to think. Finally she stopped and commanded, "What is your idea?"

Federal Building, Denver, CO


1900 Hours

Chris dropped onto the couch in his office and leaned his head back. He was tired. And they were no closer to finding out what was wrong with Vin than they had been that morning. At least he was in the hospital, and cooperating, while bennett and his expert tried to uncover what had happened to him.

Brainwashing, he thought. This is nuts. Why? He sighed, knowing that he would have to call Travis.


Larabee opened his eyes and sat up. "Yeah? What've you got?" he asked Ezra.

Standish handed him a sheet of paper, saying, "Colonel Halina Roszic, Serbian Army intelligence, presently stationed at the consulate in Denver."

Larabee shook his head. "What the hell does she want with Vin?"

"Maybe she's got a thing for good old boys," Buck suggested, joining them.

Chris scowled at the man. "It's not funny, Buck."

The man sobered. "Hey, I know that," he said, looking wounded. "Just trying to… lighten the moment."

"Well, stop trying," Chris suggested.

"Sorry. I'm sorry," the ladies' man said, lifting his hands in a gesture of surrender.

Larabee stood. "I'll call Travis. Maybe he can get us some more information on this Colonel Roszic."

"I'm heading to the hospital to relieve Josiah," Ezra said.

Chris nodded. "Buck, you take the third shift."

"Right," the man agreed, rubbing the back of his neck to fend off the constant headache that had been dogging him for the last few days.

"Nathan, then JD – pass the word," Chris said. "I want one of us there with him twenty-four seven."

Summit Hospital, Denver, CO


1830 Hours

Vin lay on top of his narrow hospital bed, trying to sort out the tangle of emotions that pressed against his chest. Had he finally lost it? Was he crazy? Or were they right and he'd been brainwashed?

There was a soft knock on his door a moment before it opened and an orderly leaned into the room. "Tanner?"

"Yeah," he replied, not bothering to look at the man.

"You've got a call; come with me."

With a sigh, Vin rolled off the bed and followed the man down a hallway and into what would normally be a dayroom for ambulatory patients on the ward. The man pointed to a phone sitting off the hook on a small table next to a comfortable chair.

Crossing to the instrument, Vin picked the receiver up. "Yeah, it's me," he said.

The odd warbling tone sounded in his ear. "It's a golden opportunity," he stated.

Federal Building, Denver, CO


1830 Hours

Travis leaned forward, resting his elbows on his desk and tilting his head down so he could rub his forehead with the fingertips of his free hand. "…He has all the classic symptoms of brainwashing. Why didn't you contact me sooner?"

"Because I figured you'd tell me to do exactly what I'm doing," Larabee reasoned. "They've got some expert from Summit working on it now."

"I've heard of the woman. Mr. Tanner couldn't be in better hands. How did you know where to go?"

"Called in a favor," Chris stated. "You have any better ideas?"

"No. And I hope that file will help. The Serbians have plenty of reasons to come after us," Travis said. "Once NATO began the bombings, we should've expected something like this."

"But what could they want Vin for?"

"Chris, he's a sniper; I think it's—"

"Don't you think I know that?" Chris snapped. "But from what I can tell, there's nothing going down that would make his skills worthwhile to them – not here in the States, unless there's something that's not in the papers."

Travis leaned back in his chair again and sighed. "I'll look into that. Security's gotten awfully tight around here these last few days. Until then, you keep me informed, understand?"

"Will do," Larabee agreed.

"And, Chris?"


"If they did brainwash him, the whole team might have been compromised. Come to think of it, until now I hadn't thought much about the fact that one of my people took an early retirement. But now…" He trailed off.

"Great," Larabee muttered. "This just gets better and better."

"It's probably nothing, but I'll do some checking on this end. You be careful."

"My middle name," Chris said.


Larabee had no sooner gotten back to the office than the phone rang. He picked it up. "That was fast," he said, thinking it was Travis calling back with something he'd forgotten to mention.

"Chris, we've got a problem."

Larabee's expression hardened. "Ezra, what's wrong?"

"Vin's gone."

"Damn it."

"There's more. I think you'd better hurry over here."

"I'll be there as soon as I can."

Summit Hospital, Denver, CO


1915 Hours

Standing in a small examination room in the hospital, Chris stared down into the open but unseeing eyes of a dead orderly. "Did Vin do this?" he asked quietly.

Josiah, who stood next to Dr. Bennett nodded. "Looks that way."


Dr. Bennett pulled a white sheet up over the man's face. "Mr. Tanner received a phone call earlier; Jeffrey took him to the phone in the dayroom," he explained. "I assumed it was from you or one of your people."

"What now?" JD asked.

"Now we find him before they send him out to do whatever it is they want him to do," Larabee replied.

Secured Building, Englewood, CO


2100 Hours

In her office, Colonel Roszic studied the American sitting across from her, wondering what it was like to have your mind taken away from you. Her lip curled slightly off her teeth. No matter; she would never know.

She motioned to one of her men. "Prokos, take him to the hotel. Keep him in the room, give him a change of clothes and a hot meal when he's hungry. Wait for my call."

"Yes, Colonel," the man replied, reaching out and grabbing Vin's arm, pulling him to his feet.

"Kassoff," Roszic said, pushing a small metal case across her desk to a second man. "He will need this when the time comes."

Kassoff nodded and hefted the case, then grabbed Vin's other arm, directing the sniper out of the room with his partner.

Federal Building, Denver, CO

Wednesday, 21 April

0900 Hours

JD looked up from his computer, saying, "Chris, I have something."

Larabee tossed the newspaper he'd been scanning aside and walked over. He still hadn't found anything he thought the Serbians would need a sniper for in the press.

"What've you got?" Larabee asked around a yawn, leaning against the man's desk, one hand on his hip.

"The hospital switchboard records all incoming and outgoing calls," he explained, his fingers flying over her keyboard. "This is the call Vin received last night; now listen." She tapped a key.

"Yeah, it's me," they heard the sniper state in the familiar southern drawl.

An odd warbling tone echoed out of the computer's speakers.


"Shh," JD interrupted, silencing Larabee.

"It's a golden opportunity," the sniper said flatly.

JD tapped a key, pausing the playback.

"That's what I said he heard Vin say on the phone at the diner," Josiah said. "The only thing he said."

Chris stepped away from the table. "That sound—"

"Some kind of trigger," Josiah finished. "And the phrase is a part of it, too."

"Now, listen," JD said and tapped another key.

"Mr. Tanner," an accented female voice stated, "I want you to use whatever means necessary to escape from the hospital. Go to the corner of 7th and Ash. A gray sedan will pick you up. Do you understand?"

"Yes," Vin replied, his voice completely emotionless. "I understand."

"Execute," the woman said.

JD tapped a key. "That's it," he said. "What do you think?"

Chris glowered at the computer. "Roszic. I'd bet my life on it. We need to get a bug into her office, or on her line. Sooner or later she's going to call him with instructions."

"How?" Nathan asked. "In all likelihood we've all been compromised. And I'm sure they'll be sweeping the offices regularly for any surveillance equipment. That's S-O-P."

Larabee stalked to the end of the table and grabbed the file Travis had faxed them on Colonel Halina Roszic and the rest of the individuals assigned to the consulate. "I don't know, but the answer's got to be in here." He tossed it to JD. "I'm going to go see if Ezra and Buck have turned up anything during their surveillance. If nothing else, I'll see if we can't find a way into the building."

"Chris, we can't break into the consulate," Nathan said.

Larabee stopped, meeting his gaze with a hard expression of his own. "One way or the other, I'm going to get Vin back. And if that means we have to break into the Serbian consulate, we will."

Nathan nodded, understanding where he was coming from – 'everybody comes home' wasn't just a motto for Chris Larabee, it was his religion. "Look, Chris, I want to find him, too, but I don't think creating an international incident is the way to do it."

"Then find me an alternative."

Serbian Consulate, Denver, CO


1000 Hours

Across the street from the Serbian consulate, Ezra and Buck sat inside Josiah's Suburban, watching who entered and left the building and taking photographs of all of them. A light tapping on the tinted passenger-side window caused both men to jump.

Buck rolled the window down. "Hey, Chris, welcome to Candid Camera."

"Anything?" Larabee asked, ignoring the ladies' man's comment.

"No sign of our prodigal son," Buck said, then dropped a roll of film into Larabee's hand. "That's everyone going in or out up to about an hour ago."

Chris nodded. "Stay here," he told them. "It's still our best bet. If Roszic leaves, follow her, but stay out of sight. I'm going to go take a closer look."

"Will do," Ezra said

Buck nodded.

Federal Building, Denver, CO


1200 Hours

"There's not much here," Josiah said, waving the file folder at him when Chris returned to the office. "But I think we might have found one possibility."

Chris tossed JD the roll of film. "Maybe we'll get lucky with the photos."

"I hope so," he replied, heading for the technicians who could develop it for them.

"Tell me what you came up with."

"Let's let JD get those developed first," Josiah said.

Chris nodded.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

"This one," Nathan said, tapping one of the photographs that were now spread across an empty table. "Lucja Kabula." An athletic, somewhat sour-looking, dark-haired woman, Kabula was listed in Travis' file as Roszic's assistant.

"What about her?" Chris asked.

"According to the file, Miss Kabula has a soft spot for blond Russians – male or female."

Chris' eyes widened slightly. "You're not seriously thinking about—"

"No," JD stated firmly. "But I was thinking Ezra might be able to wrangle a dinner date out of her."

"If we could just get a handle on a timeframe for whatever it is they're planning, we'd be better off," Josiah added.

Larabee shook his head. "There's a chance that she could've seen our files. It's too dangerous."

"Then as far as she's concerned, Ezra Standish is an auburn-haired, green-eyed American. But Anton Darmenov is a blonde-haired, brown-eyed Russian," Ezra challenged as he walked up to join them, his Russian accent flawless.

Chris shook his head. "I don't know—"

"It's the best we've got," JD said, grinning at the man's performance.

Larabee hesitated, wanting to say no, but JD was right. "All right, but we might as well see if we can't plant a bug on her at the same time. Maybe we'll get what we need before they find it."

Ezra nodded. "Mr. Jackson has taken my place with Buck. I'll go make myself ready…"

Serbian Consulate, Denver, CO


1400 Hours

"There she is," Buck said, pointing as Kabula left the consulate and headed south down the sidewalk. "I'll call Chris," he said, reaching for one of the cell phone lying on the seat.

"I'll stay with her," Nathan said, grabbing the second phone and sliding out of the truck. "I'll call you with the location when she goes to ground."

"Roger that," Buck said, waiting for someone to pick up.


"Chris, our bird's just flown the coop. Nathan is on tail."

"Roger, let me know where she ends up. You stay put in case Roszic takes any trips."

"Roger that," the ladies' man replied.

HighLife Gym, Denver, CO

Thursday 22 April

1400 Hours

Anton Darmenov walked into the busy club, glancing casually around until he spotted Kabula power-walking on one of the treadmills. Making his way to the locker room, Ezra quickly changed into workout clothes that complimented his well-toned figure. Hanging his street clothes in the locker, he checked his now-blond hair and brown contacts in the mirror, then headed back out into the workroom, taking the treadmill next to Kabula's.

The Serbian glanced in his direction and smiled, her gaze sweeping over Anton provocatively. Under her breath she muttered, "Very nice."

Anton smiled and glanced at the woman. "Thank you," he replied in Russian.

Kabula's eyes widened. "You're Russian?"

Anton smiled. "Da, I transfer to Russian consulate in Denver. A temporary assignment," he explained. "Serbian?"


"I am very sorry about what is happening to your country," he said in Russian. "NATO is nothing more than a bully."

Kabula nodded, her eyes narrowing. "Yes, but they will pay. Wait and see."

"Do you come here often?"

Kabula smiled. "Every day."

"How nice," Anton replied in Russian, then switched to accented English. "We maybe see much of each other."

Kabula laughed. "Yes, perhaps we will." She hesitated, then asked in Russian, "Would you be interested in dinner? I could tell you about all the places you must see while you are in Colorado."

Anton smile. "Da, I would like that," he said. "Very much… especially places two should visit, yes?"

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Chris watched Ezra leave the gym. He was definitely a stunning blond. He pulled Vin's Jeep around the corner and parked, waiting for Standish to reach him.

A few moments later Ezra climbed into the Jeep and pulled the door shut with a bang.

"How'd it go?"

Ezra flashed him an annoyed glance, then removed the contacts. "It went fine, of course. I think she likes me."

Chris grinned. "You think so, huh?"

"Only for Vin," the undercover man muttered under her breath. "This woman's a shark, but I think she might know what's going on. She hinted that NATO would pay for the bombings."

"You two getting together later?"

"Dinner at the White Russian Café on North," he told him. "Did you get the earrings?"

"JD's putting the finishing touches on them right now," he told Standish, still grinning.


Chris shook his head. "I just didn't know you spoke Russian. It's not in your file."

Ezra looked a little sheepish as he said, "Yes, well, it was something I picked up as a child, really… Maude– Well, she met this Russian diplomat…"

"Never mind," Chris said, raising his hand. If it involved Maude, he was better off not knowing.

White Russian Café, Denver, CO


1930 Hours

The White Russian Café was a small, intimate establishment with several large, comfortable booths and a few tables. Ezra arrived first, picking a booth near the back where the light was dim, inviting secrets to be shared. He sat down to wait, his fingers reaching up to touch the clip-on gold earrings in the small velvet box he had. They were half-spheres with diameters slightly smaller than a dime. The bright surface was carved with a fine filigree design that was both simple, yet elegant.

Several minutes later Kabula arrived. She spotted Anton and headed straight for the table. Sitting down, she scooted as close as she dared.

Anton smiled, dark eyes taking in the woman through his long dark lashes. "I am so glad you came, my dear."

"How long have you been in Denver?" Kabula asked in English, trying to make small talk.

"Three days only."

Kabula nodded. "It is an interesting city. There is much to see and do. Perhaps we could… explore together?"

"Yes," Anton agreed, smiling delightedly, "I believe I would enjoy that… very much. You have been here a long time?"

"Not so long," Kabula replied. "Almost a year."

"That sounds like a long time. You must have seen many beautiful things here."

"You are very handsome," Kabula said, then stopped as their waiter appeared to take their order.

When he was gone, Anton replied, "Thank you, Lucja. You are also very beautiful."

Kabula snorted softly. "You have already learned the essential art of tactful lying, I see. I am too stout."

"No," Anton countered, reaching out to rest his hand lightly on the woman's for a brief moment. "It is the truth. You have a very attractive beauty, very strong and natural, like an athlete."

Kabula blushed. "I suppose some makeup would help," she admitted.

"Oh no," Anton said. "You do not need it. Perhaps just… a few accessories." He reached out and picked up the box, handing it to her. "Here, try these."

Kabula expression was unsure, but she opened the box and then smiled. She put on the clip-on earrings.

Anton smiled and clapped his hands softly. "Oh, yes, that looks wonderful. See for yourself," he added, nodding at her purse.

She smiled again and rummaged in her handbag, finally pulling out a compact mirror. Opening it, she held it up to admire herself.

The woman nodded, turning her head from side to side to study the effect. "They do look nice," she admitted, tucking her short brown hair behind her ears to see them better, then she reached up to take them off.

"No, please," Anton said, reaching out to stop her, capturing one of Kabula's hands in his own. "Please, keep them on. They look so lovely on you."

"I—" Kabula stopped, then nodded. "Very well, thank you."

"It is my pleasure," Anton replied as their meal arrived.

While they ate they talked, Kabula seemingly very interested in Anton's family, education and posting. In turn, Ezra was able to learn Kabula's schedule, and the fact that something important was happening on Friday. Now, if he could only narrow down the time…

When they finished their meal, Kabula ordered two glasses of sherry and they sipped their drinks, discussing where they should take their first trip. They decided on a Friday evening trip to the art museum.

"Would afternoon not be better?" Anton asked. "Fewer visitors to compete with?"

"I'm sorry, I cannot," Lucja replied. "I will be busy tomorrow afternoon."

Ezra shrugged, stating in Russian, "Evening it will be, then."

When they were ready to leave, Kabula reached out, capturing Anton's hands in her own. "I want to thank you for a wonderful evening. The first of many, I hope."

"Oh, yes, my dear, it will be, I promise," he replied smoothly.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Back at the Suburban Chris listened to the conversation between Ezra and Lucja and shook his head. Ezra was one hell of an operative.

"He has a real talent," Buck said, his expression admiring.

"That's one word for it," Larabee replied. "We'll have to take shifts. Why don't you start and I'll give you a break in four hours."

"Will do. What about Nathan?"

"I'm leaving him at the consulate," Chris explained. "Miss Kabula might not get us the information we need in time. Ezra will spell him later tonight."

"Sounds like a plan," Buck quipped.

In the Suburban

Friday 23 April

1200 Hours

Nothing. Still nothing. Chris scrubbed his hand over tired eyes and sighed. They were running out of time; he could feel it. Lucja Kabula had been at work for almost two hours. Before long someone was going to do a sweep and the earrings would be found. And they still had no idea where Vin was, or what they had planned for him.

He glanced across at Ezra, who was sipping on a cup of coffee, the bagel he'd brought in for breakfast sitting next to the cup, long forgotten. "Come on," he urged Roszic, "do something."

"What?" Chris asked as Ezra sat forward, his expression turning intense.

His hand came up, silencing Larabee as he continued to listen. "I think this is it…" He pulled the headphones off and turned up the volume on the transmitters.

"Mr. Tanner," Roszic stated into the phone. "Open the case."

In his hotel room, Vin did as she instructed, finding a semi-automatic machine pistol.

"Take out the gun. At 1600, go to the landing as instructed. At 1610, descend to the stairwell and step through the fire door. Empty the entire magazine into the body of your target. Execute."

"Landing?" Chris hissed, "Boat landing? Stair landing? And where?"

Ezra shook his head and shrugged.

"Damn it!"

Serbian Consulate, Denver, CO


1400 Hours

Buck was back behind the wheel of the Suburban, watching the consulate and snapping pictures while Ezra dozed. The cell phone rang and the ladies' man picked it up, saying, "Eyes are us."

An odd warbling sound echoed into his ear.

"It's a golden opportunity," he replied.

"Mr. Wilmington," Roszic instructed, "go directly to the Hilton Hotel on High Street. Your contact will be waiting for you in room four-oh-nine. You will take the gun you are given and at sixteen hundred hours you will go to the stairwell on the third floor per your instructions. At exactly sixteen-ten you will step through the fire door and empty your magazine into the bodies of your targets. Execute."

Buck closed the cell phone and set it back on the dash.

"Who was that?" Ezra asked, yawning and stretching as best he could in the confined space.

Before the undercover man could react, Buck pulled the Glock from its shoulder holster and pointed it at Standish's chest. "Get out," he ordered.

"Buck, this is not funny," Ezra half-growled, but there was no humor in the man's blue eyes.

"Get out now, Ez, or I'll have to kill you," Buck snapped, his tone making it clear he'd really rather not have to do that.

Ezra did what he'd been told, then watched the Suburban drive off. He sprinted up the street to a small convenience store, fished change out of his pant-pocket and called the office.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

"If we can't find him, he's going to kill somebody," Chris growled, pacing.

The phone rang and he stalked over to it and grabbed the receiver. "Larabee."

"Chris, I believe Buck might have been be compromised as well."


"He just pulled a gun on me and ordered me out of the Suburban. He took off, heading south."

"Did he get a call?" Chris asked.

"Yes. I thought it was you, but I guess it wasn't."

"Look, get a cab and get back here A-S-A-P."

"Will do."

Chris hung up, saying, "They had Buck, too."

"What?" JD yelped.

"He just ordered Ezra out of the Suburban at gunpoint and took off." Larabee shook his head. "Damn it. I knew his story wasn't right."

"But it added up better than Vin's," Josiah offered.

"We've got to find them."

The phone rang again and Larabee grabbed the receiver. "Yeah?"

"Chris, listen, I think I've found the target," Travis said. "It was completely hush-hush until today, but Tony Blair's in Vancouver—"

"Two of my men are programmed to kill someone right here in the city, Orin."

"Two? Never mind. That's what I was getting to. Blair's in Vancouver, but he'll be meeting with the Vice-President in Denver, this afternoon. From what I gather, the administration going to pressure him to tone down the rhetoric on the possibility of NATO sending in ground troops. It's just a short how-do-you-do meeting."

"That's it," Chris said. "It has to be. Vin's orders are for sixteen hundred."

"My God," Travis breathed. "Gore and Blair. That would be a helluva blow to NATO, and our countries."

"Where's this little tryst going to be?"

"The Hilton on High Street."

Serbian Consulate, Denver, CO


1500 Hours

Colonel Roszic sat behind her desk, tapping her fingers on her blotter while she watched the clock. Another hour and we will strike a blow against the devils who are trying to destroy our country, she thought. This will be a great victory.

Behind her, Prokos slowly worked his way through the office with a scanner. She ignored the soft, evenly spaced beeping until it began to pick up speed and pitch.

She turned, watching as Prokos circled around Lucja Kabula's desk. The woman's eyes widened, her hands snapping up to the gold earrings she was wearing.

"Bastard!" Kabula hissed, pulling them off.

Roszic stood and crossed to her assistant, holding out her hand for the earrings. With a softly muttered curse the colonel dropped both onto the carpeted floor and ground her heel against them until they were crushed.

Looking at her assistant, Roszic snarled, "If they fail, it will be your life, fool. Who was it?"

Kabula nodded numbly, too afraid to argue. "A man, a Russian—"

"Imbecile!" Roszic shrieked. "It was Standish!"

"No, Colonel, Anton was blonde, his Russian—"

"Shut up!" Turning to Prokos the colonel snapped, "Find Kassoff, we must ensure the Americans do not destroy our plan."

En-route to the Hilton


1530 Hours

Chris and the others rode in silence, Larabee deftly negotiating the freeway traffic on the way to High Street. The cell phone chirped and Ezra answered.

"Chris?" Travis asked.

"He's driving, sir," Standish replied.

"Listen, Gore's already at the hotel. Blair's scheduled to arrive around fifteen forty-five. You've got to hurry."

He looked over at Larabee. "Gore' already there. Blair's arriving at fifteen forty-five."

Josiah checked his watch. "That should give us about ten minutes to find them – if we're lucky."

"Tell Chris that I've already talked to the Secret Service," Travis continued. "An agent will meet you at the rear of the hotel and escort you inside. And good luck."

"Thank you, sir," Ezra replied. "We'll need it." He tossed the phone onto the seat and relayed the message.

Chris pressed down on the accelerator, picking up speed. "You have that recording?"

"Yes," Josiah said, his hand automatically reaching for the small tape recorder in his pocket.

"Think it'll work?" JD asked.

"It damn well better," was Larabee's reply.

Hilton Hotel, Denver, CO


1555 Hours

Vin held the machine pistol hidden under his jacket as he opened the door to his hotel room. Checking to make sure no one was in the hallway, he exited, pulling the door closed behind him. Bypassing the elevators, he headed for the door to the stairs and started down.

On the fifth floor he found a Secret Service agent keeping an eye on the fire door and speaking softly into his lip-mike.

Moving silently down the stairs, Vin slowly eased up behind the man, waited for him to stop talking, then brought the butt of his pistol down on the back of the his skull. The agent crumpled to the floor.

Two minutes later, the sniper was in position and waiting.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

In his own hotel room, Buck finished checking his own machine pistol, then stood. Walking to the door, he opened it an inch and scanned the hall. It was empty. Stepping outside, he closed the door behind him and headed straight to the stairs.

He found no agents along the way, but he did pass a man standing on the landing above the stairwell that was his objective. There was something familiar about him, but Buck ignored the curiosity that itched at the edges of his consciousness and was in position with nearly ten minutes to spare.

All thoughts of the man disappeared as he mentally reviewed what it was he had to do.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Chris parked near the loading dock at the rear of the hotel. A nondescript, dark-haired man in a dark blue pinstripe suit stood near the door, obviously waiting for them. Without a word, he escorted them inside, then turned, saying, "We've been told to give you full cooperation."

Larabee could tell the agent wasn't happy about that, but he didn't care. He wanted his two teammates back – alive. "Where's this meeting going to take place?"

"An executive suite on the seventh floor," the agent said, gaze sweeping over their black uniforms, lip-mikes and weapons. "The room is completely secure. There's no way anyone can get in there."

"Suite?" Ezra echoed, looking at Chris. That didn't fit the intel they had; something was wrong. Were the Serbians only after one of the two men?

Chris shook his head. "Is that the only time they'll be together?"

"No," the agent replied. "The Vice-President will be meeting the Prime Minister inside when he arrives and they'll ride up to the suite together. There are some business men who'll be present, a thank you for their contributions to the last campaign."

"Where?" Ezra asked. "Where will that meeting happen?"

"A small reception room on the second floor, but—"

"That's it," Chris said. "Show me."

"That's impossible. We have people inside, and at the entrance. No one is getting in that room."

"Show me!" Larabee snapped.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Vin stood on the landing halfway between the second and third floor. Sweat beaded on his forehead and upper lip, and his heart hammered in his chest. What am I doin' here? he wondered, but couldn't find an answer.

He tried to leave, but his body refused, holding him in place. Damn it, he hissed silently.

Why's Buck here? he asked, but again no answer.


Why's that important? Why?

They'd been together. They'd been together when… What?

The images I've been seein', he realized. Buck was with him when…

Pain. No… screams, he remembered. I heard him scream.

Who the hell are you?!

What happened to us? he asked the absent man.

Vin tried to force his feet to move again, but they refused. All his concentration turned to that one task, but no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't force his body to obey.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Below Vin on the stairwell, Buck continued to glance from the fire door to his watch and back again.

Five minutes and counting…

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

The reception area itself was clean, several agents posted around the space to ensure that no one unauthorized entered. Chris spotted the fire door and nodded to it.

Josiah and Ezra both nodded.

Larabee turned back to the agent, saying, "We're going to take a look at the auxiliary stairs. Keep your people out of the way."

The man nodded curtly. "We already cleared those. I have men on one, three, five, seven and nine."

"I'll start on five and work down," Chris said. "Ezra, you stay here in case that door opens. Josiah, take one and start up." He looked from Ezra to Josiah, then added, "If they shoot, take them down. We have no choice."

Both men nodded.

Federal Building, Denver, CO


1600 Hours

Travis sat at his desk, staring at his phone and willing it to ring. Come on, Chris, he urged. Call me and tell me it's all over.

Call, damn you.

He reached for the instrument, then pulled his hand back. He would simply have to wait. But that didn't mean he had to like it.

"Come on, Chris," he said softly. "Come on."

Hilton Hotel, Denver, CO


1603 Hours

"Listen up, people," Chris said into his lip-mike. "I have one down on five. They're definitely here. Josiah, go easy."

"Roger that," he replied into his ear. "Moving from one to two."

"No activity here," Ezra added. "But Blair just pulled up outside. The Vice-President's on his way down."

Larabee moved swiftly down the stairs, his back to the railing, his HK MP5 up and ready to be used. He moved the selector from three-round burst to single shot, determined to take the two men alive if at all possible.

He silently cursed the Serbians for what they had done to his men. If he could get out of this, they could be deprogrammed, or so Bennnett had told him. And by God he was going to give them that chance, one way or the other.

On the third floor stairwell he paused, taking a quick peek and finding Vin on the landing below him. He pulled back. "Target sighted," he said softly into the lip-mike.

"Roger, I have target in sight as well," Josiah replied.

"Josiah, sit tight," Chris said. "I'll move to you as soon as I can. If he moves, do what you have to."


The sniper was looking down the stairs, concentration clear on his boyish features. Chris took advantage of the man's distraction and eased silently down the stairs. Three steps from the landing, Vin dropped into a crouch and turned, the machine pistol he was holding coming up in his hands, aimed at Larabee's head.

Without thinking, Chris swung the MP5 up so it was no threat to Vin. "Easy," he said, his free hand also coming up, empty palm facing the sniper. "I'm here to help you, Vin. Put the gun down."

"Can't do that," the man said, strain clear in his voice.

"Why not?"

"I don't know," the sniper admitted, but Chris could see his hands beginning to tremble.

"Vin, I want you to listen to me. You've been brainwashed. The Serbians want you to kill the Vice-President and the British Prime Minister. I can't let that happen." He watched Vin grimace like he'd been hit, his face going gray. "Give me the gun… please."

"No," the sniper whispered, beginning to pant.

"We can help you, Vin, if you'll let us. Give me the gun."

"Not the Vice-President," Vin said, shaking his head slightly. "Buck."


"I've gotta kill Buck," the sniper said, forcing the gun down as his whole body began to shake. His lip pulled up into a snarl as he fought the imposed commands screaming through his mind.

Chris slowly descended the final three steps, moving closer to the man. "That's it, keep fighting. You can beat this, Vin, I know you can. Give me the gun."

"Can't do it," Tanner hissed through clinched teeth. "Take it… I swear… I won't shoot ya."

Larabee hesitated, watching the battle raging inside the sniper, the force of it making his body shudder. Sweat ran off his chin, dripping onto his shirt. "That's it, Vin, fight it," he encouraged, inching closer. "Come on, you can do it."

"Take it, damn it!" With a low moan the sniper squeezed his eyes shut and fell to his knees, the shock of the resulting intense pain shooting up his legs cracking the barriers the drugs had set in place.

He remembered.

The machine pistol dropped from his slack fingers and Chris immediately scooped it up and tossed it out of reach. He helped Vin to his feet, holding up most of the man's weight. "You all right?" When there was no answer, Chris gave the sniper a light shake. "Vin, talk to me. Are you all right?"

The sniper nodded, swallowing hard. "We've got t' stop Buck."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

JOsiah stopped, spotting Buck standing on the stairwell, looking from the door to his watch and back again. He was about to move in when Chris' voice stopped him.

"Target sighted," he said softly.

"Roger, I have target in sight as well," he replied.

"Josiah, sit tight," Chris instructed. "I'll move to you as soon as I can. If he moves, do what you have to."

His first thought was that Chris didn't trust him, but as he listened to Larabee's side of the conversation with Vin, he realized he was trying to break the hold the brainwashing had on the man, and it sounded like it had worked. Maybe they could do the same for Buck.

"Josiah," Chris' voice returned a few moments later. "I have Vin, we're coming down to you."

"Roger," he said softly.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Chris and Vin were halfway down the stairs when Buck started for the fire door.

"Buck!" Larabee snapped, halting the man, his hand on the handle. "Ezra, stand by."

"Roger, standing by."

The ladies' man turned, his machine pistol coming up, but he didn't fire. A flash of confusion crossed his face.

Larabee held the MP5 up, saying, "Buck, it's okay. It's just me."

Wilmington kept the gun trained on Chris, no spark of recognition in his eyes.

"Come on, Buck, it's me," Chris urged. "Put the gun down."

While Chris had the man's attention, Josiah moved up closer behind the ladies' man.

Wilmington spun, the machine pistol shifting from Chris to Josiah.

"No, not him," Vin said, his voice tight. He pushed past Chris, half-stumbling down the rest of the stairs to join Buck on the stairwell. "Not him," he repeated and this time Buck swung the weapon back to him. "Come on, amigo," Vin implored. "You've got t' remember what happened. Remember the guys in ski masks? The drugs? Remember?"

Buck's gaze flickered from Vin to Chris.

"That's it," Larabee said, smiling encouragingly as he moved closer to the stairwell. "Think, Buck. The Serbians grabbed you and Vin." He looked past the man, meeting Josiah's gaze, then nodded.

Josiah pressed the play button on the small tape recorder, the warbling tone echoing loudly in the tight space.

Vin grabbed at his head, the pain exploding like a grenade. "Stop! Stop!"

Josiah turned off the recorder and rushed forward, barely able to catch Vin around the waist and keep him from falling to the floor.

Buck staggered, then grabbed for his head as well, the gun sliding away. He moaned, pressing the balls of his hands against his temples just before he fell.

Chris lunged off the stairs, kneeling beside the fallen man. "Come on, Buck, fight it," he said, reaching out to grab the man's arms, pulling them away from his head.

"Where am I?" he asked, his voice rough. "Ah hell," he moaned. "Fire in the hole – my head gonna blow any minute now."

"Chris!" Vin shouted, pushing Josiah away and diving for Buck's discarded weapon as Roszic, Prokos and Kassoff appeared on the stairs above them.

"No!" Roszic barked. "Kill them!"

Kassoff fired at Buck, hitting him in the upper arm as his companions took aim on the other Americans.

Vin opened fire on the threesome a second before Chris and Josiah did as well. All three went down, their bodies tumbling the rest of the way down the stairs.

"Everyone okay?" Chris asked, as Ezra and an Secret Service agent crashed in through the fire door.

"Just a scratch," Vin reported, his fingers curled around his bleeding forearm.

"I'm fine," Josiah said, moving up next to Buck to help support him while Chris checked his arm.

"You'll live, amigo," Vin told the ladies' man, squatting down next to him and reaching out to grab his good arm, giving it a squeeze.

"What happened?" Buck asked.

Chris chuckled softly. "It's a long story, stud. Let's get you taken care of, then we'll talk."

Federal Building, Denver, CO

Monday, 24 May

1100 Hours

"Don't know about you," Vin said, "but I for one am damned glad t' be back to normal." He headed straight for the couch in Larabee's office, dropping down on it with a contented sigh.

"You won't get any argument from me," Buck replied, flopping down next to the sniper.

Josiah, Nathan, Ezra and JD grinned down at their teammates. They had played taxi service, picking them up from the Summitl and driving them back to the federal building.

"So, how does it feel to be d-washed?" JD asked the pair.

"Like I been though the wringer," Vin offered.

"Folded, spindled and well-and-truly mutilated," Buck concurred.

"Well, well, if it isn't the mindwarped," Chris greeted, grinning, when he entered his office.

Buck's expression went blank, his eyes starting to roll up.

The other agents – except Tanner – all looked horrified.

"Stop that!" Vin snapped, leaning over to slap the ladies' man's leg.

"Speak for yourself, Chris," Wilmington said, grinning widely. "Gotcha, didn't I?"

The sniper shook his head. "Maybe we ought t' send him back. I don't think they got all the bugs out."

"Do I look like a damned computer to you?" Buck grouched.

"Well, boys," Chris said, ignoring the impending argument, "I have some good news."

"And that would be?" Ezra asked.

"Travis is giving us a little more time off."

"Cool," JD said.

"What's the catch?" Vin asked, his eyes narrowing with suspicion.

"Yeah," Buck agreed.

"No catch. It's just his way of saying thanks. He's sending us on a trip."

"A trip?" Nathan echoed.

"Why don't I like the sound of that?" Josiah added.

"To where?" JD wanted to know.

"The Bahamas," Chris informed them.

"The Bahamas?" Buck asked. "But I—" He shook his head. "Never mind. Wasn't there, didn't do that… which is a real damn pity."

Larabee's expression turned serious. "It seems the man responsible for the technique they used on you is there. Travis and the Secret Service wants the man put out of business."

"My pleasure," Vin said softly.

"And when the job's done, we've got a week to enjoy the sand and the sun."

"And the ladies," Buck added, wagging his eyebrows.

Chris nodded. "As long as you stay away from anybody named Candy."

Buck placed his hand over his heart. "I swearing off 'em – permanently."

"What? Women?" JD yelped with surprise.

The ladies' man's eyes went wide with horror. "Hell no, kid! Might as well be dead!" He grinned. "Just blondes named Candy is all, just those."

Larabee grinned, shaking his head. "I'll hold you to that."

The others laughed, Buck joining in. It was good to be home.

Larabee caught Vin's eyes. The sniper still had a slightly haunted look about him, and he suspected it had to do with the orderly who had been killed. The authorities had already taken care of that, but Chris knew it would bother Vin for a while. There was nothing he could do about that, not really. But he planned to be there for the man, if he needed him. It was what friends did for one another, what family did. And by God they were a family – a little dysfunctional, a little crazy, and while a whole lot of loyalty and love. Yeah, they were family all right.