Characters: Chris, Vin, and Buck, but the rest of the guys are there as well
Disclaimer: I don't own Mag 7 or the characters, but hopefully this story will help keep them alive in our hearts and minds
Comments: This is written for Jennine and I hope she enjoys it. Thanks to Marti and Antoinette for the wonderful beta job and to Pamela for the pic to go with this fic
Warnings: Mentions of child abuse and kidnapping
Chris stared hard at the glass before him and reached for the half empty bottle of Jack Daniels. He filled the highball glass and drank half of it before throwing the glass across the room and running his fingers through his disheveled hair. A harsh sound escaped his throat, a cross between a sob and a cry for help, but there was no one there to hear him. Silent tears flowed down his cheeks, but he didn't wipe them away any more than he could wipe away the horrific memories that clouded his mind.
God, his heart ached and his head throbbed, but there was no medication that would ease the tightening band across his chest. He looked at the spot where the glass had shattered and watched the amber liquid slowly roll down the wall, bleeding, much the same as his own soul. Three years, that's how long it had been since his world had crashed down upon him, cutting away an integral part of his life and leaving him filled with hatred and self-loathing.
Three years ago today his family had been torn from his life and now laid in the earth, buried from his sight, but never from his heart. He'd been to the graves before the sun came up and had wept openly with no one to witness his sorrow, his pain, his grief, or his loss. When the sun came up, heralding the dawn of a new day his body had shook with rage and he screamed until his throat was raw. He'd raced back across the silent graveyard and climbed into his truck and recklessly driven back to the ranch.
Chris lifted his head, looked at the clock across from the kitchen table, and swallowed the painful lump that rose in his throat. How could this have happened? How could God give him such precious gifts and then rip them back? What kind of cruel joke was He playing?
"Why! Damn You! Why did you take them and not me? They didn't deserve to die! Adam...God Adam!" The name came out as a whimper and Chris Larabee felt his emotions hemorrhaging as if blood flowed from mortal wounds.
The shrill ringing of the phone shattered the silence of his home and he reached out to snatch it up, his hand stopping mere inches from the receiver. He knew it would be one of his team and right now he couldn't face them. He picked up the bottle and swallowed several mouthfuls, unmindful of the liquid escaping from his mouth and running down his chin. He sipped at the liquid, cursing when the ringing continued and holding his hands over his ears.
"Shut up!" he raged and slammed the bottle down on the table before reaching for the phone. "What the fuck do you want?"
Silence met his heated curse and he struggled to regain control as his chest heaved and his hand shook. There was no answer and his fingers tightened around the phone while angered belligerence overrode the other emotions.
"Who is this? That you Buck...think this is fucking funny? Getting a head rush are you?" Larabee breathed deeply and tried to control his emotions, but again was met with silence until a soft sound reached his ears. The sound was unmistakable and tore at Larabee's heart and he sank onto the chair.
"Who...who is this?" Larabee asked, his voice calm, his heart racing, and hope and fear mixing to tangle his emotions in Gordian Knots. He heard soft sobbing and it broke through his self-imposed hatred and he closed his eyes to listen to the sounds.
"Who is this?" Chris Larabee asked and nearly screamed when the voice repeated the words he thought he'd heard earlier.
"Da...daddy...help me...why angry?"
"Oh God, Adam!" the blond cried and sank to his knees on the floor as the emotional tidal wave washed over him.
"No, God, no, Adam! Daddy's not angry...where are you?"
"I d...don't know...man scary..."
The phone went dead in his hands and Chris Larabee screamed in anger. He hung up and tried to call back the number, but there was a block on the line and his anger increased.
Chris sat where he was for several long minutes, ignoring the pain that stabbed at his skull as he reached for the picture hanging on the wall beside him. He used the fingers of his right hand to trace the smiling faces of his wife and son and felt a thick band of pressure across his chest.
Larabee lifted his head and gazed at the phone and knew the voice he'd heard had to be his imagination or a combination of liquor and lack of sleep. He knew Sarah would be angry with him for dwelling on the bad things in his life instead of concentrating on the wonderful memories they'd made during their time together.
"I'm sorry, Sarah, I'm not strong...not strong like you," Larabee said and reached for the glass on the counter. He poured more of the amber liquid into his glass and downed it, grabbing for the phone when it began to ring. "Who the hell is this?"
"Easy, Stud, it's me, Buck."
"What the fuck do you want, Buck?"
"I was wondering if you wanted some company today."
Chris sighed and banged the glass down on the table. Buck would know what today was and just how hard it was for him. The others would also understand, but it was Wilmington who had been at his side on the day he'd married Sarah Connelly.
"Chris, are you there?"
"I'm here, Buck," Larabee answered, and knew he could not handle Buck's emotions on top of his own raw wounds. Not today, not when his world felt like it was falling apart all over again.
"I can be there in an hour."
"No, I'm okay, Buck, I just need some time to myself. I'm going to take Pony for a ride and maybe spend the night out at the creek."
"Are you sure...I could..."
"I'm sure, Buck. Look, I'll call you if I change my mind. Otherwise you and the boys can come out tomorrow for a BBQ and a few drinks."
"If you're sure, Chris."
Larabee could hear the disappointment in the other man's voice, but he didn't want the man along. "Yes, Buck, but could you do me a favor?"
"Pick up some cheesecake at Delvecchio's and maybe some of Mama's chocolate chip cookies."
"The ones with walnuts?"
"Hell, yes," Larabee said. "Tell the guys I'm okay and I'll see you all tomorrow."
"Will do...just remember I can be there in less than an hour."
"I know, Buck, and I'll call if I want some company. See you tomorrow," Larabee said and hung up the phone. Again he reached for the picture and this time he allowed the grief to manifest itself in the form of silent tears.
Replacing the picture, Larabee stood and walked toward the door leading into the backyard. Chris could see the stable and corral and Pony's head came up as if he sensed him there.
"What do you say, Boy, want to go for a ride?" he asked and grinned when he realized he was talking to himself. He hurried to the basement and grabbed the saddlebags he kept filled with supplies for just such an occasion. He hurried back up to the kitchen, grabbed his flask and filled it with Scotch before grabbing some crackers and cheese. He added some granola bars and a bag of pretzels before locking the doors and heading out to the barn.
Chris draped the saddlebags over the fence and moved into the corral, talking softly to Pony even as he reached for the blanket and placed it over his back. Next he grabbed the saddle and placed it on top of the blanket before cinching it and making sure it was properly secured. He reached for the saddlebags and made sure they wouldn't fall off before mounting up and using the reins to guide Pony out of the corral and closing the gate behind them.
"All right, Boy, looks like it's just you and me," Larabee said and let the horse take its lead as he checked to make sure he had his cell phone in case there was an emergency.
"How did he sound, Buck?" Vin Tanner asked once Wilmington hung up his phone and placed it back in his pocket.
"He sounded like he'd been drinking...probably before he went to the graves," the worried rogue explained. "He doesn't want company right now."
"Think he'd do anything stupid?" JD Dunne asked as he handed both men a fresh cup of coffee. The office was open for business, but no one expected Larabee because of the significance of the date.
"If he was gonna do anything stupid, JD, he'd have done it before now," Wilmington said as Josiah Sanchez and Nathan Jackson entered.
"Buck, did you talk to Chris today?" Jackson asked.
"A couple of minutes ago," Wilmington answered. "He sounded okay and said he was riding out to the creek. He said he'd be spending the night out there and asked me to let you guys know we're all welcome to go out there for a BBQ tomorrow."
"Was he drinking?" Sanchez asked.
"He sounded like he'd had a few," the rogue answered and knew the others were worried about their boss. "He asked me to pick up cheesecake and Mama's special chocolate chip cookies."
"Sounds like Chris," Jackson said with a slight smile. Today was a reminder of everything Larabee had lost and it weighed heavily on them all. He'd seen Chris at his worst, but the man had defied the odds and fought back until he was on solid ground again.
"No, Vin, give him some time...he's not going to do anything stupid," Wilmington said and hoped Vin understood what he was saying.
"Buck's right, Vin, give him some time to himself and we'll all be there for him tomorrow," Sanchez said.
"Guess so," Tanner said softly and reached for the file he'd been working on. It was a cold case, one they'd all like to put an end to, but it was always brought to the front on this date. 'Where are ya, Ella?' he thought, not realizing the same question was on everyone's mind.
Chris knew he should rein Pony in as they raced across the old quarry toward the back trail leading up to the creek, but it felt good having the wind in his face. Pony was surefooted and raced as if he'd been born to it and Chris felt free to let his emotions take a back seat to the violent race across open terrain.
Larabee knew the back of his property like he'd been born to it, and knew there was very little danger in the ride he was taking, unless he took the path across the narrow ridge. He and Vin had explored it on several occasions and had even traversed across it on foot, but would never endanger Pony or Peso by riding across the dangerous trail.
Chris knew Buck and the others were worried about him, but right now he needed to be alone. He needed to sort out the emotions that engulfed him whenever he dwelled on Sarah and Adam's death. His mind always returned to the woman who was behind the explosion that had taken them away from him.
Ella Gaines, God that woman was the devil incarnate and some day he would find her and send her to hell where she belonged. At one time he'd found her exciting and intoxicating, but that was another time in his life when he had youth behind him and danger didn't faze him. It had all turned cold when Ella became possessive and wanted him to give up his friends and family and travel with her as her 'husband'. The problem was Chris saw it more as a concubine at her beck and call and wanted nothing to with her. Ella was so angry with him she'd stabbed and nearly killed Buck Wilmington before disappearing from his life. He'd been totally shocked when that memory came back soon after Ella had destroyed his life...again. Buck had no memory of the vicious attack by Ella Gaines even after he'd woken in the hospital. Some day she'd pay for everything she'd done and he'd be there to throw the switch that sent her soul back to the devil's lair.
Leaning forward in the saddle, Chris smiled as his thoughts turned from Ella Gaines and the face of his beloved wife formed in his mind. Where Ella was cold, dark, and deadly, Sarah had been warm, bright, and full of a zest for life untouched even by her cold-hearted father. Sarah had told him stories that chilled him and he had been floored by the knowledge that she hadn't let that coldness capture her heart. She'd been so full of love for him that she'd given him a son, another bright light that shone in his life for only a short time, yet it would remain forever in his heart.
Chris eased back on the reins and slowed Pony's pace as they reached the narrow path that lead through the trees to the clearing filled with the softly flowing water and the scent of numerous wildflowers. Larabee patted Pony's neck and spoke softly to him as he used the reins to guide the animal into the darker area.
"We're almost there, Boy, what do you say to some fresh grass and a nice cold drink?" Pony's head came up and Chris smiled when the animal snorted and began to make his way along the path.
Chris' mind went back to the phone call and he knew it had to be his imagination. He'd been drinking heavily and thinking about Sarah and Adam and although the phone call had seemed real it must have been the remnants of some dream. A dream he'd woken from the minute the phone had rung and Wilmington's worried voice floated across the unseen connection. It would take another ten minutes to reach the clearing, and once he made camp he'd give Buck a call and let him know he really was okay.
"Buck, are you okay?"
"I'm fine, JD, just thinking."
"About Sarah and Adam?"
"Yeah, hard to believe it's been three years and that bitch is still out there."
"She'll make a mistake, Buck, and when she does she'll pay for what she did," Dunne said softly.
"I know, but it won't bring them back. Chris asked me once...asked me if I could bring back his wife and son. God help me, JD, but I'd give anything to be able to do that for him," Wilmington whispered sadly.
"Chris didn't know what he was asking, Buck, he was drunk."
"I know he was...hell, so was I, but that doesn't mean I didn't feel how much he was hurting, JD."
"Of course it doesn't," Dunne snapped. "We'd all like to bring Sarah and Adam back, but it's not possible. We just have to believe they're in a better..."
"A better place," Wilmington said and released a soft sigh. "Everyone says that, JD, but do they really believe it? Do you really believe it?"
"Mom always told me to believe with your heart, not your mind because there are too many thoughts going on in your mind while your heart is usually filled with hope and love. I believe they'll be waiting for him, Buck, I really do."
"Thanks, JD, I needed to hear that."
"I needed to say it," Dunne said. "Are you meeting Inez for lunch?"
"I am...and two's company and three's a crowd so don't even think about..."
"I wasn't about to, Buck, besides I'm meeting Casey at ...
"Let me guess. McDonalds?"
"What's wrong with McDonalds?" Dunne asked indignantly.
"Nothing if you want to die of heart disease," Nathan Jackson answered from the open doorway to Larabee's office.
"Oh, come on, Nathan, everything causes heart disease these days."
"Maybe, but fast foods cooked in grease and deep fried are only asking for trouble..."
"Come on, I'm as healthy as a horse."
"Right now you are because your metabolism is equal only to Vin's, but it'll slow down before long and you'll both be gaining fat where muscle used to be," Jackson warned.
"Hell, I wasn't taking her to McDonalds anyway," Dunne said. "We're going to that little Bistro that opened up in Rimrock Mall."
"That's where Inez and I were going," Wilmington said.
"I was going to ask Rain if she wanted to check it out this evening, but maybe she's free for lunch," Jackson said.
"Why don't we see if Vin, Josiah, and Ezra want to join us?" Dunne offered.
"Might not be a bad idea," Wilmington agreed.
"What?" Sanchez asked.
"We were just making plans for lunch at that new Bistro over at Rimrock Mall and were wondering if you, Vin, and Ezra want to join us?" Jackson asked.
"Thought you were taking Rain there tonight?" Sanchez said.
"Buck is taking Inez and JD is taking Casey there for lunch so we figured we could all check it out," Jackson advised.
"Well, I was planning on staying here and finishing a couple of files so maybe you could bring me back a sandwich," Sanchez told them.
"We could do that," Jackson agreed and looked into the outer office before speaking. "Vin, Ezra, do you guys want to come along?"
"Since I am without a charming significant other at the moment I would feel like a fifth wheel, but as Josiah said I would not turn down a chance to have you bring me a sandwich and soup," Standish said.
"What he said," Tanner agreed simply and took a bite out of the Snickers bar he'd been savoring.
"We can do that," Wilmington said and reached for his cell phone when the song Shameless began to play. "Wilmington."
"Buck, it's Chris."
"Are you all right?"
"I'm fine...I just wanted to let you know I'm at the creek and will be spending the night so don't spend the day worrying about me."
"Are you sure you're okay?"
"I'm sure, Buck...why don't you ask Inez to join you tomorrow...maybe Nathan can bring Rain and JD can ask Casey. Vin, Josiah, and Ezra can bring a date too if they want to."
"I'll ask them, Chris," Wilmington said, relieved that Larabee sounded sober and okay.
"I'll see you tomorrow around three."
"And don't forget..."
"The cheesecake and cookies, hell Vin won't let me forget that," Wilmington chuckled as Tanner glared in his direction. "Call if you change your mind, Chris."
"What's going on, Buck?" Jackson asked.
"That was Chris. He's okay, but he wanted to know if you guys want to invite a date along for tomorrow's BBQ. I told him I'd let you guys know."
"Sounds good to me," Dunne said and the six men began making plans for the next day, unaware that trouble had a way of sneaking up on you when you least expected it to.
Chris hoped he'd been able to put Buck's mind at ease and finished unsaddling Pony before taking his sleeping bag and setting up camp near the creek. The sun was high overhead and he let the warmth drive away the chill that had surrounded him the night before. Today was hard for him to face, but he knew if he allowed Sarah and Adam's memories to wash over him he would get through it without the need to drown himself in a bottle again.
Chris reached for the pack of Colt cigars he carried with him and pulled one out. It was a nasty habit, one he'd been trying to give up. He never smoked in his home or office and usually only lit one when he was on his own with no chance of anyone else being affected by second hand smoke. He could still hear Stacy Midland telling him that even an occasional cigar was hard on his lungs.
"I hear you, Doc," he whispered, but lit the cigar anyway as he lay back against a rock and listened to the sounds of nature surrounding him. Birds twittered in the nearby trees, the water gurgling over the rocks, Pony's tail swishing back and forth as if he was flicking at flies, and finally, the soft whisper of the breeze in the nearby willow trees. Chris inhaled deeply of the smoke and suddenly realized it didn't have the effect it usually did and that the taste was something he didn't enjoy anymore. He quickly put it out and realized it was probably the last one he'd ever indulge in.
"Well, Sarah, looks like I'm finally done with them," he said with a hint of a smile and reached into the saddlebag for the book he'd brought with him, frowning when his cell phone began to ring. He knew who it was without looking and flipped it open. "Your quarter, Buck..."
"Daddy...why didn't you come get me?"
"Adam?" Larabee said, sitting straight up as the sound of the child's voice tore down his defenses.
"Bad man hurted me...please, Daddy, come get me."
"Where are you?" Larabee asked, cursing as a sharp cry was torn from the child. "Leave him alone!"
"Hello, Larabee, how are you doing? It's been a long time."
"Who the hell are you and what are you doing to that boy?" the blond asked, refusing to use Adam's name.
"That boy is your son, Larabee..."
"Adam died three years ago you bastard!"
"Did he? I thought the bodies were burned beyond recognition?"
"I know you buried a body, but was it really Adam? There are ways of fixing reports and making you think it was Adam and for the right price anyone can be bought."
"Would you like more proof?'
"There's no way..."
"I can send you a picture of Adam. He's not doing very well right now, but if you cooperate then I'll make sure he receives medical attention. It's your call."
"It's not Adam."
"Very well...I guess there's no point in keeping him alive any longer...kill him!"
"No! Wait, don't hurt him!"
"So, you believe me?"
"It doesn't matter if I do or not. I won't let you hurt him," Larabee snarled.
"I assure you it is your son, Larabee, and I will send the proof. Be warned your home is being watched and Adam is dead if I find out you called for help. I'm also monitoring your cell phone and home phone so please don't do anything stupid to get your son killed...again."
"Bastard!" Larabee spat and heard the laughter from the other end of the line.
"Perhaps I am. Now I know you're languishing in that little clearing and it will take you an hour or so to get home so you'd better get moving. Everything you need will be waiting for you when you get home, but try anything stupid and you'll never see your son again."
"Let me talk to him!" Chris ordered.
"I don't think so...the boy needs to rest especially if I decide you're fucking with me. Are we clear on that?"
"We're clear, but you touch him and I swear I'll tear you apart."
"Such threats and with Adam listening to your every word. I wonder if he still thinks of you as a hero, Larabee? Doesn't matter because he will soon see you as the coward you are. Remember I'm monitoring your phones and I'll know if you stop anywhere. You have 90 minutes to make it to your house, Larabee..."
"What happens if I'm late?"
"Adam will pay for every minute you're late. See you soon, Larabee!"
The line went dead and Chris sucked in a deep breath of air as his mind tried to make sense of the conversation he'd just had. He stood on shaky legs and knew he had to move quickly. He didn't believe the boy could be Adam, but he was a child, someone's child, and he needed to be rescued from whoever was holding him. Chris hurriedly packed up his belongings and saddled Pony before mounting up and racing back the way he'd come.
Chris lost track of the twists and turns he made, but he knew he had to make it back home before time was up. Adam's life...a child's life depended on his being there to take the call from the unknown man. He fought the urge to call Buck and the others because he knew the man had people watching him or they wouldn't have known he was at the clearing. Hell, he hadn't decided to go there until after the first call.
That first call, God why hadn't he paid more attention to it? Why did he ignore that gut feeling instead of putting it down to booze and lack of sleep? Chris knew there was no point in trying to make sense of the calls, but he did know that Adam was with Sarah and that they were buried in the cemetery on Mullowney Lane.
God, if only it was true and Adam really was alive? Could he have survived the fire and been taken by the unknown kidnapper or was it all an act? Either way, Chris knew he had to find out and that meant keeping the others in the dark until he found out more. He spotted the roof of his house in the distance and unconsciously took control of Pony's reins as they raced across the open field at breakneck speed.
They reached the house and Chris quickly pulled the saddle and blanket from Pony's back and ushered him into the corral. "Sorry, Boy, I need to get to the house...I'll make it up to you as soon as I can!"
Larabee hurried up to the house and unlocked the patio doors before hurrying inside and glancing at the clock. Eighty-two minutes had passed since the call in the clearing and he silently cursed as the phone in the living room began to ring. "Larabee!"
"Well, I must say you surprised me, but then again I always knew you were an asshole when it came to time limits. You always did strive to be the best didn't you, Larabee?"
"Where's the proof?"
"Still got the same straight-down-to-business attitude as well I see..."
"Where's Adam...where's the boy?"
"So, maybe you are not so sure Adam is dead. Well, go into your den and turn on your computer. Be warned I am also keeping tabs on you in there and it would be a grave mistake to try anything...no pun intended I assure you."
Chris took the phone into the den and quickly booted up his computer before hitting the speaker button on his phone and placing it on the desk beside his laptop. "Now what?"
"Now I want you to go to a website I have designed especially for you. It will take you approximately five minutes to go through it and I will call you back then. Open up your inbox and you'll find the address and please don't go trying to send a link to anyone because Adam's life depends on just how well you obey orders! We both know you were never very good at that don't we, Larabee!"
Chris silently cursed as he brought up the inbox and waited for it to completely load before clicking on the one whose subject header was Adam. The inside held no clue as to who was behind this, but there was an address that brought him directly to the sight as soon as he clicked on it.
The opening page of the website took his breath away and he jerked his body back against the chair as he stared at the face of an angel. "Adam," he gasped and reached out to touch the screen. It was his son, there was no doubt of that and the picture was one Chris had taken while he slept next to his mother. Adam had been three at the time and had a summer cold so Sarah had lain down with him to offer comfort and her own peace of mind. Sarah's image had been removed, but Larabee knew it was the same picture that hung on the wall above his bed.
"Sonofabitch!" he said and knew whoever the bastard was he'd done his homework. He clicked next and was shocked to find thumbnail shots of Adam at various ages and slammed his fist down on his desk as tears stung his eyes. He knew he had to continue and felt the loss of his wife and son as if it had just happened with each click of the mouse. Pictures and images flashed across his field of vision and he fought the nausea churning through his stomach.
The final picture had been taken the week before Adam and Sarah died, and Chris no longer tried to stop the tears from sliding from his eyes. He pressed the button that now read 'FINISH' and gasped as another picture was superimposed over the first one. His mind could not quite comprehend what he was seeing, but his right hand touched the screen as if the very motion could bring his son home to him.
"Adam...how..." the phone beside him rang and he grasped it tightly in his fist as he spoke. "What the hell is this?"
"Ah, so I see you now realize I was not lying, Larabee."
"What do you want?" Chris spat.
"What do you think I want, Larabee?"
"I want to see him..."
"Of course you do and I am more than willing to let you see him, but you have to make some concessions before I allow that to happen."
"What kind of concessions?"
"I will send a car for you..."
"Not until you release Adam."
"Sorry, that's not going to happen until I have you where I want you. As I said I will send a car for you. It should arrive in approximately 10 minutes and you should be ready when it gets there. The car will take you to a clearing north of Billings where a helicopter will be waiting for you. From there you will be delivered to me and allowed to see Adam before I release him."
"Bring him here and I'll go with you..."
"Now that would be a stupid mistake and I assure you I am not stupid. Adam will remain with me until you are safely ensconced in a prison of my choosing."
"How do I know you won't kill him the minute you have me?"
"I am not an animal, Larabee, and do not believe in murdering children. Adam will be released once you are in my hands. The car should be there in another nine minutes and that means we should finish this. I want you to strip down and leave everything inside before meeting my men outside your home. They will have suitable clothing for you and I warn you they are in direct contact with me. If you attempt to do anything other than what I have said your son will die in spite of how distasteful that is for me. Do I make myself clear?"
"Yes," Larabee answered.
"Now, delete everything from your computer and make sure you empty your recycle bin. My men will check to make sure you have complied and the boy will suffer if they find anything wrong. I will allow you to go get ready and I must say I am anxious to see you again, Larabee."
The phone went dead and Chris quickly did as he'd been told before quickly shedding his clothing and walking toward the main door. He could hear Vin's voice in his head, but he could not heed the other man's warnings, not when it could mean living through his son's death all over again.
Larabee heard the sound of a car pulling up outside and opened the door just as the passenger door opened and a squirrelly looking man with horn rimmed glasses stepped out. He held something in his arms and Chris grabbed it from his arms as a second man got out of the driver's side holding a Glock in his right hand.
"Mr. Raymond, go make sure his men don't find anything on his computer," the man said as Larabee reached for the blue jumpsuit.
"For your son's sake I hope you didn't do anything stupid," the man he now knew as Mr. Raymond warned before brushing past Larabee and into the house.
"Put that on unless you'd rather see your son in nothing but your birthday suit," the second man ordered.
Chris slipped his legs into the jumpsuit and prayed JD had been right when he'd said it was impossible for anyone to find the hidden password accessible file. He'd designed it so that it held copies of all Chris' correspondence even those he'd deleted. It was a program that was on all their computers and Dunne had records of each password in case of an emergency.
"Hurry up, Larabee, unless you want me to show you how to put that on?"
Chris didn't bother answering the sneering man as he pulled the soft denim jumper up over his shoulders and zipped it up the front just as Raymond returned. The man looked like he'd jump out of his skin if someone said boo and Chris wondered if he'd be able to use him to find out where they were headed.
"The computer is clean," Raymond said and headed for the car as the driver opened the back door.
"Get in, Larabee," the armed man ordered.
"Don't forget the handcuffs, Giles," Raymond said.
Larabee now had the second man's name, but he wasn't sure that really mattered, because he was stuck playing the hand he'd been dealt until he found Ad...the boy. Chris stayed where he was as Giles handed his gun to Raymond and reached into the car. He brought out a set of handcuffs and motioned for Chris to turn around. Larabee did as he was told and soon felt his arms pulled roughly behind his back and encircled with the metal bands.
"Gotta make sure you can't slip out of them," Giles said.
Chris held his breath as the cuffs were tightened until they threatened to cut off the circulation to his hands. Giles turned him around and shoved him toward the back of the car.
"Get in, Larabee!" the bigger man ordered, smiling when the blond glared at him. He'd read this man's file and understood Larabee could probably give him a run for his money in hand to hand combat, and hoped sometime in the near future he'd be able to teach the man a lesson or two.
Chris ducked his head and moved into the car, cursing as something sharp was pressed into his arm. He stared at the man called Raymond as he withdrew the needle from his arm. "Bas...tard..."
"We can't have you messing this up, Mr. Larabee," Raymond said, a hint of sympathy in his voice.
"Sleep well, Larabee, your son is waiting for you," Giles snorted and waited for Raymond to cover the now sleeping man with a blanket. For all intents and purposes it would appear that Larabee was simply sleeping during the trip out of the city.
As often happened on a Friday night after a long week the members of The Firm made their way to Buck's Bar and Grill. Inez Recillos enjoyed seeing the team, but even more she looked forward to the light hearted teasing match she had with Buck Wilmington. The lunch they'd had at the Bistro that day had been quite enjoyable and she wondered if the other members of the team realized just how close she and Buck were becoming.
Inez looked up as the door opened and Buck sauntered in, a smile on his face when he saw her. He quickly made his way toward her and was glad he'd left before the others as he leaned across the counter and kissed her.
"Hello, Darlin', did you miss me?"
"I hardly think there was time to miss you, Buck, after all we did have an extended lunch today."
"Not even a little?" Wilmington asked as if her words had broken his heart.
"Nunca," she said, but her eyes told him differently. "Are you coming over tonight?"
"I was hoping you'd ask," Buck told her, sitting back as the door opened and the others entered, laughing loudly as they made their way toward their usual table.
"Inez, is he bothering you? I can..."
"Now, JD, you know I never bother the ladies," Wilmington said, squeezing her hand before releasing it and heading to the table.
"She still turning you down, Buck?" Jackson asked.
"What do you think, Nathan? I mean you saw her at the Bistro today. She could hardly keep her hands off me. I guess you could say she's warming up to me," the rogue said.
"I think you were the one with the hand problem, Buck," Dunne said as Inez came toward them carrying a tray of drinks.
"Where's Chris?" Recillos asked.
"He's taking a little time to himself," Wilmington explained.
"This is a hard day for him...he should not be alone," the pretty woman said.
"Sometimes a man needs some time to think, Inez," Sanchez said. He knew how Larabee felt and had experienced his own loss on a similar scale. His wife and daughter had both succumbed to an illness and their deaths had nearly been his undoing. Through the long, hard years that followed he'd questioned everything about his faith and whether there really was a God. Now, through the help of Father Thomas and these men, he could look upon their deaths with a sense of peace that someday they would be reunited.
"I am sorry, I did not mean..."
"It's okay, Inez. Chris is fine and he's invited us all out to his place for a BBQ tomorrow. I was hoping you would be my date," Wilmington said with a smile.
"I would be delighted...perhaps I should make something special...something hot and spicy," Recillos offered.
"There's nothing as hot and spicy as you," the rogue said.
"Perhaps you are in need of a little ice," Inez said and dumped the glass in the ladies' man's lap.
"Whoa, Buck, I thought you said she's warming up to you," Jackson asked as Wilmington brushed off the ice and sat back down.
"She is...she's just taking pity on me because I'm so damn hot..."
"You're so full of crap, Buck," Dunne said standing and waving toward the door as a familiar young woman entered. "Over here, Casey."
"Hi, JD," Casey said and hugged him before sitting down at the table.
"Do you want a glass of wine?" Dunne asked.
"No, tonight I'd rather have a Strawberry Daiquiri," the young woman answered and smiled when her date ordered her drink.
"Casey, Chris wants us all out at his place for a BBQ tomorrow," the Bostonian said.
"Oh, that sounds like a wonderful idea. It's supposed to be hot and sunny. Are you going to ask Inez, Buck?"
"I already did. We'll be there," Wilmington answered, frowning when he looked at Vin and saw something he didn't like. "Vin, are you all right?"
"Yeah, I'm fine." Tanner lifted his bottle of beer and took a long drink, unable to shake the feeling that something was wrong.
"Are you bringing a date, Vin?" Casey asked.
"I never really thought about it," the Texan answered.
"What about that gorgeous traffic cop who pulled you over the other night? I'm sure she wouldn't mind tearing up that ticket for a chance to go out with you," Wilmington said and waggled his eyebrows suggestively.
"That ticket had only one thing on it, Bucklin," Tanner said.
"She gave me her number..."
"Yeah right," Wilmington said.
"He is telling the truth, Buck, I saw the ticket in question," Standish said.
"The red head...the one Miller said was untouchable?" the rogue asked.
"One and the same," the gambler answered.
"Hot damn, Vin, you're a lucky SOB," Wilmington said. "Tell me you're going to call her?"
"What makes you think I ain't already called her," Tanner asked.
"No way...hell, Vin, what's she like?" Dunne asked.
"JD!" Casey said and slapped his arm.
"Ouch. I'm just asking," the Bostonian said with a hint of a smile.
"A man don't kiss and tell, JD," Tanner said.
"Unless his name is Buck," Sanchez offered and the group chuckled as Buck tried to look offended. Several other tables began to fill up as the DJ began setting up his equipment.
Vin sipped at his beer and thought about Chris Larabee. The man wanted some time to himself, and Vin respected that, but he could not quite shake the feeling that something was wrong. He reached for his cell phone, but stopped when he felt Buck watching him.
"It's nothing, Buck," Tanner lied.
"Is it...are you sensing something up with Chris?" Wilmington asked.
"Maybe...could be I's just sensing what today means for him."
"You're not the only one. He's at the creek, Vin. You could always ride out there in the morning if you think there's something wrong," the rogue offered as Inez brought another round of drinks. He knew Nathan was their designated driver and would be driving them all home when the night was over.
"Yeah, maybe I will," Tanner said.
"Well, you're spending the night with me and JD so maybe I'll join you on that ride," Wilmington offered.
"Might be just the thing," the Texan said. "We could bring him coffee and donuts."
"Coffee...but donuts? Chris isn't a donut fan especially not for breakfast."
"More for me," Tanner said and smiled when a pretty brunette pulled him to his feet and dragged him toward the dance floor. All thoughts of Chris Larabee were forgotten as the woman rubbed up against him and drew him close as she whispered seductively in his ear.
Time was something he would have plenty of once Chris Larabee was delivered to him. He'd waited so long for this and planned everything down to the smallest detail. Larabee would suffer in so many ways for what he'd done. For what he'd taken that didn't belong to him.
The years had been hard on him, years wrought with shame and disgust as his father turned his back on him. Even in death, his father had tried to show his disgust by cutting him out of his will. His mother was a different matter. She didn't care whether he made a name for himself as long as he stayed out of trouble and didn't interfere in her social standing. He didn't have to worry about money, his mother had seen to that even when his father was still alive.
He picked up the framed picture of his classmates, and perused it until his eyes came to rest on a single face in the front row. Chris Larabee had graduated with the highest possible honors, taking everything that should have been his. That would all change very soon and he would watch as his one time friend was forced to watch his 'son's' death all over again.
Chris was sure his head was going to explode and silently cursed his stupidity for drinking too much...again. He worked to open his eyes and shifted to find a more comfortable position, but his arms felt leaden and any movement was restricted as if his shoulders were frozen in place.
Larabee tried to remember what he'd been doing to get himself into this situation. Was he drinking and if so was this some kinky game he was playing with someone of the female persuasion? Somehow he knew that wasn't the case as his mind and body finally registered the fact that he was in some kind of moving vehicle.
Chris could hear voices, but at first he couldn't make out what they were saying. He forced his eyes open to half-mast and felt someone shift beside him. The smell of a sickly, inexpensive aftershave nauseated him and he fought to keep the bile from rising in his throat as an elbow was slammed into his gut.
"Sit still, Larabee, it won't be much longer now," Giles said as the pilot expertly flew the small chopper toward a landing zone at the back of a well-manicured lawn with sprawling hills and trees as far as the eye could see.
"Where the hell are we?" Larabee asked, frowning as he tried to ignore the stabbing pain in his skull.
"You'll find out soon enough," Giles told him as the chopper skimmed the treetops and flew west until it hovered above the marked landing area.
Chris leaned forward and stared out through the side window as the pilot landed the craft safely on the ground. He saw several men standing on the outer ring, untouched by the wind whipped up by the rotary blades. There was no doubt that they'd been hired by whoever owned this place and would do whatever their boss told them to do.
"All right, Larabee, it's time to meet the man who owns you body and soul," Giles said.
"No one owns me," the blond snarled. He saw movement near the house and saw a figure standing on the patio watching him. He wasn't close enough to make out features, but he could tell it was a man.
"Come on, Larabee, he doesn't like to be kept waiting!"
"Too fucking bad for him!" Chris spat.
"He'll make your kid pay," Raymond warned, relieved when the prisoner stepped onto the ground.
Chris glanced around the perimeter, spotting several guards at strategic intervals and knew each man had a weapon hidden somewhere. Larabee stumbled forward as Giles grew impatient with their progress and struck him between the shoulder blades. Chris managed to stay on his feet and walked toward the house even as he studied the layout. He glimpsed a high fence between the trees, but no sign of a gate, which meant it had to be at the front of the premises.
Larabee knew he needed to stay on his toes in order to save himself and the boy. He refused to believe it was Adam, but it was hard because the child had looked and sounded so much like his son. Chris kept moving toward the house and frowned when he was finally able to see the man standing on the patio. There was something oddly familiar about him, but Larabee could not quite place where he'd seen him before.
"Bring him here!" the man ordered as a young woman dressed in a sheer black dress refilled his glass.
"You heard him, Larabee, get up there!" Giles ordered and shoved the prisoner.
Chris didn't go down, but he turned and glared at the man behind him before climbing the six steps leading up to the patio. He reached the top and looked around, unimpressed by the obvious wealth this man seemed to covet.
"It's been a long time, Chris," the man said.
"Who the hell are you?" Larabee asked, searching for any sign of the boy.
"You don't remember me? I should be hurt, but that's okay because we have plenty of time to renew our 'friendship'."
"Where's the boy?"
"The boy? Why do you insist on calling him that when we both know he's your son?"
"Adam died three years ago," Larabee said simply, yet there was a murderous undertone in his voice.
"Oh yes...the fire. Adam didn't die in the fire, Chris. Ella Gaines..."
"Where the hell is that bitch!" Larabee snapped and looked around expectantly. "I'm not playing your games, Ella, so give it up right now."
"As much as I'd like to see your face if she was truly here, I'm afraid she has nothing to do with my plans for you."
"I don't believe you!"
"That's too bad, but as I was saying Ella Gaines tried to kill Adam three years ago, but somehow the boy escaped the flames..."
"I saw his body."
"You saw a body, but I'm sure it was unrecognizable because of the damage from the flames. I assure you the boy is your son..."
"Let me see him."
"All in good time, but right now you and I have some thing to discuss."
"Like what?" Larabee asked as Giles shoved him into one of the patio chairs.
"Like what a liar and a cheat you are..."
"I'm not the one who's claiming he has my son," the blond said softly.
"Touché, but again that has nothing to do with why you're here. Adam was simply a means to an end...your end!" the man said and finished his drink before motioning for the woman to fill it again. "I can't believe you don't remember me."
"I guess there's not much memorable about you," Larabee sneered.
"We were friends at one time, Chris. We did things together and even planned to go into the Teams together, but you fucked that up royally. My father never forgave me for losing that prestigious award to you..."
"What the hell are you talking about?" Larabee said, snarling at Giles when he struck him in the gut with his elbow.
"You went to the Board and had me kicked out. They didn't even give me a chance to explain my side. No, they just took your word and the word of that little whore," the man spat and moved closer to the man seated in the chair. "You betrayed our friendship and that is unforgivable..."
"Ronald...my name is Ronald Milhous the third..."
"You would have raped that girl..."
"She wasn't a girl and she asked for it! She took the drinks I bought her and she had her hands all over me..."
"She told you to stop and you wouldn't!" Larabee snapped and stood up in spite of the warnings from Giles and several other men.
"You were supposed to be my friend, Chris, but you betrayed me for her! For a bitch you didn't even know..."
"She was a woman, Ronnie..."
"I told you my name is Ronald!" Milhous spat and struck Larabee across the face. "You don't have the right to call me Ronnie!"
"Stay where you are, Larabee!" Giles warned when it looked like the man was trying to stand up.
"I believe it's time to show Chris to his quarters. Bring him along, Giles."
"Yes, Sir, Mr. Milhous," Giles said and pulled the blond to his feet.
"If you try anything, Chris, Adam will pay for it!" Milhous warned.
"Animal," Larabee spat as Giles and another man dragged him toward the house. It went against everything he'd been trained for, but he didn't lash out. Not when it would put a child's life in danger, even if he didn't quite believe it could be his son.
Chris pulled away from the two men as he was shoved through the open patio doors. Giles moved in front of him and lead the way deeper into the spacious home. There were several servants working in different areas, but no one looked in his direction as he was escorted through the house. Chris kept track of the twists and turns and realized the house was a lot bigger than he realized as Giles motioned for the other man to open a locked door.
"Inside, Larabee!" Giles ordered and followed the captive into a narrow corridor that had a decidedly downward slope to it.
Chris noted several doors on either side and felt as if the temperature had dropped a couple of degrees. He wondered if this part of the house was actually built into the ground. It was possible because he hadn't seen much of the landscape except for the back of the property. He stopped when he heard the soft sound of a child crying and turned toward the door on his right.
"Keep moving, Larabee!" Giles ordered.
"Where is he?"
"None of your business...now move it!"
"No!" Chris snarled and moved toward the door as the sobbing intensified. "Adam!"
"Daddy...help me...hurted...hurted me..."
"Open the fucking door!" Larabee ordered, but was driven to the floor when Giles struck him behind the knees. He struggled to stand, but with his arms cuffed behind his back Giles and the second man easily held him to the floor.
"Stop fighting or the kid pays!" Giles ground out and felt the change in the prisoner. "Now, we're going to release you and you're going to do exactly as I say or I'll be visiting Adam once we lock you up! Got it?"
"I got it," Larabee snarled. He was pulled to his feet and shoved toward a door at the end of the hallway. Once there he fought the urge to attack the two men because to do so would just get the boy...just get Adam hurt. God, was it possible the child really was Adam?
"Inside, Larabee," Giles ordered once the door was opened.
Chris stepped into the cold room and realized this part of the house was indeed either built underground or into the side of a cliff. The walls were stone and the smell of dampness reminded him of a prison he'd shared with Buck when they'd been captured while on a SEAL mission. Chris thought he heard the faint trickle of water, but the overhead lighting was such that it cast weird shadows across the room.
"Enjoy your new digs, Larabee."
Chris turned as the heavy door was closed and he was alone in the stone cell. He moved to the door and looked out through the narrow opening about two thirds of the way up the six foot barrier. Giles and the other man were nearly at the end of the corridor and a shiver crept down his spine as the outside lights were extinguished.
Chris listened for the sound of crying, but heard nothing except the trickle of water somewhere near the back of his cell. With an expert eye Chris began searching the cell. He used his feet to push the cot away from the wall, grimacing in distaste as a rat scurried through a fair sized hole at the base of the stone wall. He knelt down and looked through the hole, but it was completely dark on the other side.
Unwilling to share his cell with the rat, Chris pulled a small blanket from the cot and sat down so that he could push it as far inside as possible. Satisfied that he wouldn't have any more furry visitors, Larabee began searching the cell until he spotted something at the far corner nearest the door. It was in the top, a small lens hardly bigger than the tip of his finger, but he knew what it was. Milhous was watching him and he smiled before tipping his head in acknowledgment.
Chris moved to sit down on the cot, but a sharp cry from the outer corridor caught his attention and he quickly moved to the door. He looked out just as Giles disappeared into the cell he had heard the crying from earlier. The sobbing intensified and Chris slammed his shoulder against the door.
"Hey, Asshole, leave the kid alone!" Larabee shouted, cursing when the crying grew louder and more pronounced as if someone was physically hurting a child. Chris slammed his body against the door, but it did nothing except make his shoulder ache. He stopped and looked out into the corridor, but there was no movement and the crying had stopped. He stood listening for several minutes, but the only sound was his own breathing.
Chris looked pointedly toward the camera mounted above him and spoke through gritted teeth. "If you hurt him I'll tear your fucking heart out!"
Ronald Milhous watched the screen and smiled at the reaction he'd gotten from his one time friend. There were so many ways to hurt a man, both physically and emotionally and this promised to be a mixture of both. God, he'd waited so many years, suffered through so much humiliation because of Larabee's strict 'do right' attitude. It had cost him the respect of his father and that above all else was what had brought them to this point in time.
He'd given his friendship and loyalty to this man and when it came time for Larabee to return the favor he'd turned his back without even a backward glance. Chris had gone before the Board of Ethics and told them he'd forcibly raped the woman and no amount of bribery on his part had worked to change Larabee's story.
Ronald cursed his one time friend and blamed him for everything that had gone wrong in his life. It didn't matter that his mother had made sure he had everything a man could want because his father had turned his back on him. The man had been disgusted that he'd fathered him and that was unforgivable.
Chris Larabee would pay, and this was only the beginning. 'Adam' would play an integral part in the plans he had for his prisoner and by the time he was through, Chris Larabee would beg his forgiveness. At that point, he would kill 'Adam' and Larabee would know his 'son' had died because of his betrayal. He listened to the blond's threats and smiled as the muffled cry of a child reached his ears.
"This is just the beginning, Chris," Milhous said and lifted his glass in mock salute.
"Vin, are you ready to go?" Wilmington asked.
"Been ready since sunup," Tanner told him.
"Yeah, well, not everyone likes to be up with the cows. Did you eat...hell, that's a stupid question," the rogue said as Dunne joined them.
"What's a stupid question?" Dunne asked and tried to straighten out his unruly hair.
"Nothing...look, Kid, we're going to ride out to the creek and check on Chris. Will you pick up Inez and the cheesecake before heading out to Chris' place this afternoon?"
"Sure, did you tell Inez that Casey and I would be picking her up?"
"Yes, last night," Wilmington answered as Tanner grabbed his jacket and pulled on his boots. "Are we taking your jeep?"
"Might as well...you can get a ride back with JD tonight," Tanner said.
"Sounds good," the rogue said "JD, don't forget..."
"I won't, Buck," Dunne said as the door closed behind the two men. He turned and smiled at the woman standing in the kitchen doorway. "Good morning, Casey, would you like some breakfast?"
"Not yet," she said and motioned for him to follow her as she dropped the robe she'd hastily donned when she heard the voices. She'd waited until Vin and Buck left before making her presence known to Dunne.
"Oh yeah!" Dunne said and followed her to the bedroom.
The crying had stopped at some point, but the memory of the sound chilled him. Worse still was when the boy's voice called out to him and begged him to stop the 'bad man' from hurting him. Chris felt cold as he sat on the edge of the cot and stared at the camera in the corner. He had no idea whether it was monitored constantly, but something told him it was.
Larabee had no way of knowing how much time had passed since Giles shoved him into the cell, but his stomach rumbled signaling that he hadn't eaten in some time. He sat back, leaning against the stone wall and feeling the dampness surrounding him. He thought about Ronald Milhous and the events that had led them to this place in time.
Milhous had been his roommate during the first few months at the Naval Academy and they'd gotten along pretty good for the most part. Chris spent most of his time studying to keep up his grades, while Ronald liked to party with several other recruits. Chris' first year marks placed him in the top four percent, while Ronald barely made it into the top 50 percentile. That had been the beginning of the end of their friendship. Milhous was jealous and angry that Larabee was getting so much attention from his fellow classmates and instructors. He'd spoken with his father who'd quickly found out that his money was being squandered on parties and booze instead of books and studies. It was at the end of the first year that things had blown up around them.
Chris closed his eyes and remembered the scene he'd walked in on. Ronald had taken his date, a pretty, young, raven-haired recruit under his wing with the promise of a future together. Chris had met her several times and wondered why she was so easily taken in by Milhous' promises, but it was not up to him to interfere. Not until he'd walked into the quarters he shared with Milhous and found his roommate forcing himself on the sobbing young woman who struggled to get away from him. He'd later testified to what he'd seen and heard and knew Deanna Johansson had been raped by Milhous and if not for his testimony it would have been her word against Milhous.
Milhous lost any standing he might have had with the committee and had been 'dismissed' from the academy. Deanna Johansson refused to press charges and left before Milhous. Chris had heard she'd become an advocate for women who'd been raped or abused and she'd made quite a name for herself. She had an organization set up in several cities and often spoke at inspirational seminars. She had a strong following and often spoke of her own experience. He remembered reading an article several years ago where Milhous denied having done anything wrong and that it was jealousy and hatred that had led to his being 'drummed out of the service'.
Chris realized he'd dozed off when he heard the door creak and footsteps inside his cell. He opened his eyes and spotted Giles standing in front of him. It would be so easy to kick the man, but there was someone else whose life depended on what he did.
"Now, Larabee, it seems Mr. Milhous wants you to join him for breakfast."
"It doesn't matter whether you're hungry or not. Get on your feet."
"Go to hell!"
"Very well...then I guess Adam will have to..."
"Leave the boy alone!"
"I would, but Mr. Milhous was adamant about having company this morning and since Adam is a lot smaller and easier to handle than you I will..."
"Bastards!" Larabee spat and stood up.
"That's better, but the next time Adam will pay for your disobedience. This way," Giles said and motioned Larabee through the door.
Chris thought about attacking the man as they passed the first door, but the sound of a gun cocking drove away any doubts that they were alone. There were several armed men stationed at intervals along the corridor and two at the top of the slope leading into the main house.
"Were you comfortable, Larabee...maybe just a little chilled?" Giles asked, but received no answer.
Chris exited onto the main floor and felt the difference in temperature immediately as he was led through another corridor and out onto the back patio. Ronald Milhous was already seated and smiled before motioning for Larabee to join him.
"I do hope you found your accommodations to your liking, Chris," Milhous said as one of the male servants poured coffee into a cup.
"I'm here, Ronnie, now let the kid go!" Larabee snapped.
"What Kid?" Milhous asked with a smile. "Oh, you mean Adam? Do you think by not calling him by his name it changes who he is?"
"Does it matter? I don't believe for a minute you have Adam..."
"Yet you came anyway? Always the good Samaritan, Chris?"
"Whatever you say," Larabee spat.
"We have a lot to discuss, but I hate dealing with business on an empty stomach so why don't we enjoy breakfast before we get down to business?"
"Not hungry," the blond lied.
"Return him to his cell and bring Adam..."
"Leave the kid alone!"
"I don't like eating alone, Chris, so if you are going to sit there and sulk I might as well enjoy the company of your brat!"
"Come on, Larabee!" Giles ordered.
"Hard to eat like this," Larabee said of his cuffed hands.
"I'm sure we can fix that. Giles, remove the cuffs..."
"Are you sure, Mr. Milhous? What if he tries something?"
"Then you can take it out on Adam..."
"Touch him and I'll kill you!" Larabee warned as Giles unlocked the cuffs. Chris pulled his arms around in front of him and rubbed the circulation back into his hands as he glared at the man seated at the opposite end of the table.
"Doris, you can serve us now," Milhous said as Giles moved back.
Chris waited until the woman served the food and reached for the cup of black coffee beside his plate. It smelled strong, but not unpleasantly so and he took a sip before reaching for the napkin and placing it on his lap. The umbrella kept the bright morning sun from shining in his eyes and while he ate he searched the landscape for a means of escape when he had a chance to rescue the boy.
"Try the Eggs Benedict, Chris, you'll find that my chef is very good at his job," Milhous said and picked up a warm biscuit.
Chris wasn't in the mood for small talk, but had the feeling Milhous would make good his threat to bring the kid up if he didn't cooperate. He tasted the food, but was indifferent to the flavor as he chewed it disinterestedly. "You said you'd let the kid go if I cooperated."
"Yes, I did and I will, but first I need to make sure you understand why you're here."
"I'm here because you figure I screwed up your chances of following in your daddy's footsteps and Daddy wasn't too pleased with you pissing off the people in charge," Larabee said softly.
"You have no idea what you did do you, Chris?"
"I stopped you from ruining a woman's life."
"She asked for it! She came to our quarters knowing full well what it meant!"
"You brought guys there, but you didn't expect them to give you sex...or did you? Is that what it was all about, Ronnie, proving your manhood?"
"You bastard! You betrayed our friendship! You betrayed our Code!"
"I'm not the one who betrayed the Code, Ronnie, you are!" Larabee said, his voice edged with anger as he stared at the other man.
"What about the Code that a man never betrays his fellow recruits? You did that..."
"No, I did what I had to. She didn't deserve what you did to her and no amount of money was going to get that taken off your record."
"What about what you did? Didn't you deserve to be punished for betraying..."
"Not according to the board of inquiry and not according to the other recruits," the blond said, cursing as his vision blurred.
"What's wrong, Chris? Was there something wrong with the food or maybe it was the coffee?"
"What did you do?"
"I did nothing, but perhaps one of my employees took it into their own hands to make sure you did nothing more to hurt me!"
Chris tried to make sense of what he was seeing, but his eyes refused to focus and his gut felt like it was on fire as he tried to stand. His legs refused to hold him and he sank back onto the chair as a commotion arose behind him. He twisted in time to see Giles striding toward him carrying something or someone under his arm. Chris struggled to stand and grabbed onto the table until the world around him stopped spinning. A sound reached his ears, and he knew whom Giles carried.
"Let him g...go!" Larabee managed.
"You're in no position to give orders, Chris," Milhous said. "Bring Adam to me, Giles!"
"Yes, Sir," Giles said and carried the struggling boy past Larabee.
"A...Adam..." God, could it really be Adam? Could he have survived the fire? The tuft of curly hair was so much like Sarah's, but he couldn't be sure. Not when his vision remained unfocused and his stomach convulsed with cramps. He tried to stay on his feet as Giles handed the boy to Milhous, but he didn't have the strength or coordination needed to stay upright. He could hear the boy crying and wanted so badly to help him.
"Now, Chris, sit down and we'll talk..."
"Let him go, Ronnie!"
"Not until you learn some respect, Chris. My name is Ronald and you will remember that or..."
"Ronald," Larabee ground out and tried to focus on the boy, but blinking did nothing to relieve his double vision. "The boy..."
"Please, Daddy...help me..."
"I'm going to...I just...I...I can't..." the world around him disappeared and he felt himself falling. The last thing he heard before darkness fell was a child's scream that tore at his heart. "Adam..."
Vin turned off the main road into Larabee's driveway and pulled to a stop behind the familiar black truck. He and Buck exited at the same time and made their way to the front door. Vin rang the doorbell several times before trying the doorknob, surprised to find it unlocked.
"Maybe he's out back," Wilmington said hopefully as they entered the main house. "Chris, are you in here?"
"You check the house...I'll see if Pony's out back."
"He could still be at the creek and forgot to lock the door," the rogue offered.
"How long have ya known Chris?"
"Long enough to know he doesn't forget to lock the door," Wilmington answered and moved deeper into the house.
Vin moved toward the patio doors and found them locked. He reached for the door and spotted Pony in the corral. "Larabee's here somewhere!"
"He's not back here!" Wilmington called.
"Probably putting things away," Tanner said sliding open the door and hurrying toward the corral. Something didn't sit well, but he couldn't quite figure out what it was. Pony's head came up as he neared the corral and he realized the animal looked as if he'd been rode hard and put away wet. That alone told him something was wrong, because Chris would never put Pony in the corral without rubbing him down.
"Vin, did you find him?"
"No," Tanner answered and checked the barn. There was no sign of Larabee and he returned to the corral to find the saddle Ezra had given Larabee tossed on the ground as if Chris was in a hurry. "He ain't here."
"Maybe he went for a walk," Wilmington offered.
"He didn't rub Pony down and he left the saddle there," Tanner explained. "That ain't like Chris."
"Hang on, Vin, he could have had a phone call...maybe Nettie needed him," the rogue said.
Vin pulled out his cell phone, but stopped when he realized calling the woman would just alarm her if Chris hadn't called. "His truck's still here, Buck...it just don't feel right!"
"I know...look, you take care of Pony. I'll see if there's anything in the house that might tell us what's happened," Wilmington said and hurried toward the house. There were so many things running through his mind, including the possibility that Captain Dunne had called and Chris was needed on some overseas mission again. The last time that happened Larabee had nearly died, and Buck swore he wouldn't let that happen again.
Buck pulled open the sliding door and hurried into the house. The first place he checked was the kitchen, but there was no message of any kind that would tell him where Larabee was. Once he finished with the kitchen he moved toward the living room, but again there was no sign of the missing man. Wilmington made his way along the hallway, checking the bedrooms and guest bathroom before stopping at the room Chris used for his office.
Buck noticed a flashing light on the laptop and realized whatever Larabee had been doing he hadn't taken the time to properly shut the computer down. He moved to the desk and pressed the button that would reboot the laptop and hopefully bring up whatever Chris had been working on before the shutdown. He watched the monitor, impatiently waiting for the initialization to finish and stared at a blank screen.
"What the fuck," Wilmington cursed when he realized Larabee's computer seemed to have been wiped clean. He didn't touch anything else as Tanner entered.
"What's wrong, Buck?"
"Chris' computer...if I didn't know better I'd say he formatted the whole thing. There's nothing on it."
"We need to get JD and Ezra out here," Tanner said.
"I was just going to call JD," Wilmington told him.
"I'll call him...just don't do anything unless you're sure of what you're doin'," Tanner said.
"Why the hell would he do this?"
"I don't think he did," the Texan said, holding up his hand as the call went through. "JD, we need you and Ezra out at Chris' place."
"Not sure anything's wrong, but Chris put Pony up without a rubdown and it looks like he was rode hard..."
"Maybe he was in a hurry to go somewhere..."
"His truck's parked out front and his front door was unlocked."
"Maybe someone picked him up."
"His computer's been wiped clean."
"What? Who the hell would do that?"
"Not Chris," Tanner said. "Might as well get Nathan and Josiah out here too...bring yer kit."
"Sure, Vin, we should be there in about an hour. Don't touch the computer until Ezra and I have a chance to check it out."
"We won't," the Texan said and hung up the phone. "Buck, JD says not to touch the computer."
"I wasn't planning on...just don't get why someone would wipe it clean of everything? Why not just get rid of whatever it was they didn't want seen by anyone, but Chris?"
"Who knows? Look, I'm gonna take a look around...maybe there's somethin' we're missin'."
"All right, but be careful. Whoever did this could still be around."
"No, I don't think so," Tanner told him and hurried away. 'Where the hell are ya, Cowboy,' he thought and headed outside.
Ronald Milhous had never felt such satisfaction as he reached for the glass of whiskey on the table. The sun was shining on him in more ways than one and he watched as Benjamin Raymond went over the reports. The man was a damn good accountant, but he was also a coward who would do anything he was told because he feared his boss.
"The accounts are still frozen," Raymond said with a hint of fear.
"Have they given you a reason for it?" Milhous asked.
"The manager, Mr. Dawes, told me there's been suspicious activity and until they figure it out the account will remain frozen. I'm sorry, Mr. Milhous, I'm doing everything I can."
"Benjamin, there's nothing to worry about as long as you did as I told you."
"I did...your overseas accounts are safe and protected. What about..."
"I have plenty of cash in the safe and we both know you can get me more if I need it. Don't worry, Benjamin, I know none of this is your fault and right now I'm enjoying myself too much to let money and banks worry me. Go home to that pretty wife of yours and take a few days off. I'll call you when I need you," Milhous said and smiled as the accountant shuffled the papers and placed them in his suitcase.
"I'll check with Mr. Dawes..."
"That's fine...keep me up to date on what's happening, but don't worry about the money situation right now. I will call you when I'm ready to dispose of..."
"What about the boy? Will you..."
"The boy is a witness to everything and I'll have Giles take care of him when I'm done with Larabee."
"I can understand you killing Larabee, but the child is innocent."
"Benjamin, don't interfere in things that don't concern you or Giles will make a house call."
"No, please, I was just asking. You know I wouldn't do anything..."
"I know...you're a coward, Benjamin, and that's why I keep you around," Milhous said and watched the man leave. He sat back in the chair and looked at the sweat trickling down the outside of the glass. The response from Chris Larabee had been perfect, the drug working just in time to make the blond believe the boy was Adam. His plans for revenge were working far better than he ever expected and he looked forward to making damn sure his former friend suffered before he died.
"To revenge...a dish best served cold," he whispered before finishing the whiskey and heading for the pool. A swim was just what he needed to kill time until Larabee woke up.
Vin and Buck had been busy while they waited for the others to arrive. They'd made a thorough search of the barn, the house, the truck and the surrounding grounds. There'd been no sign of Chris, except for what appeared to be hastily discarded clothing and his wallet and other personnel belongings.
They'd checked the wallet and found everything intact and fished Larabee's keys from his pant's pocket. Something wasn't right and it took everything they had to keep it in check and go over every piece of evidence before them. They'd spread everything out on the table and gone over everything with a fine tooth comb, but nothing gave any clue as to what had happened to Chris Larabee.
"In the kitchen, Josiah!" Wilmington answered.
"Did you find anything?" Jackson asked as they joined the two men.
"Chris' clothes were in the living room and his wallet and keys were in the pockets. Cell phone too," the rogue answered.
"JD, you and Ezra need ta take a look at Chris' computer," Tanner ordered.
"You said it was wiped clean?" Standish asked incredulously.
"Sure looks that way," Wilmington answered.
"Did you do anything with it?" Dunne asked.
"No, kid, figured we'd leave that to you," the rogue answered.
"Did you call Miller?" Jackson asked.
"And tell him what?" Tanner asked impatiently.
"Tell him that Chris is missing," the medic answered.
"Just what do you think he'll do, Nathan? I mean as a police officer, not as a friend," Wilmington asked. "Look, we both know the law and this won't be taken seriously until he's been missing for 24 hours. All we have are Chris' clothes and wallet..."
"And his truck and keys," Sanchez offered. "Chris wouldn't just leave without telling us."
"Wouldn't he?" Tanner asked and remembered at least two occasions that Larabee had gone off without telling anyone. He didn't blame the man, but at the time he'd been pretty pissed.
"Come on, Vin, we all know why Chris did that and we'd have done the same damn thing in his place," Wilmington said.
"I know...don't make it any easier ta take," the Texan said.
"Never does," Sanchez agreed. "Well, since JD and Ezra are busy with the computer I guess I'll check the place for fingerprints."
"I'll help ya, Josiah," Tanner offered.
"Guess that leaves me and you to fix something for lunch, Nathan," Wilmington said. "Guess we'd best call Inez and the others and cancel the BBQ until we find out what's happening?"
"Rain's going to let them know," Jackson said and opened the fridge door as Wilmington left the room.
Buck hurried into Larabee's office and found JD seated at the computer with Ezra looking over his shoulder. "Find anything?"
"We just started looking, Buck," Dunne answered.
"You were right about it being wiped clean, but Chris had a bunch of backup systems. They're password protected, but JD and I will figure them out," Standish offered.
"All right, Nate and I are going to fix some lunch. Come get us if you find anything," the rogue ordered before leaving the two men to do their job.
God, he really needed to quit drinking or else not wake up the morning after. Chris rubbed at his temples and managed to open his eyes, frowning when he realized he was not in his bedroom.
'What the hell?' Chris thought and sat up, cursing when he saw the length of chain attached to his right ankle. He reached down to touch it and tried to push it off, but this was real and there was no escaping it. The cobwebs that had enshrouded his mind since waking suddenly cleared and he turned to look at the camera in the corner.
"Ronnie, where is he? If you hurt him I swear I'll tear you apart!"
His angry words were met with silence and Chris reached for the chain attached to his leg. He struggled to pull it from the wall, but there was no weak point in the links.
"Daddy, help me...hurted..."
"Adam...I'm coming!" Chris shouted as the words seemed to echo off the walls. The words changed to soft sobs and Chris' heart ached with each sound. He returned his attention to the camera and screamed until he was hoarse.
"Ronnie, you bastard! Let the kid go and face me like a man!"
"Daddy...please help me..."
The words cut through him, tearing down the armor he'd built up around him with each soft cry. His eyes filled with unshed tears and he lost track of time as the child continued to call to him. Chris turned toward the door as it opened and the bright hallway light framed Giles.
"Having fun, Larabee?"
"Hurting a child seems just your style, Giles!" Larabee snapped.
"Yep, and I enjoy pulling the wings off flies and pinning live butterflies to the wall! I'd love to show you my collection, but Mr. Milhous has other plans for you," Giles said with a malicious grin.
Chris glared at the man standing in front of him and felt the fires raging inside him. He knew it was useless to attack the man, but that had never stopped him before and he lashed out. His fist grazed the man's jaw and he saw surprise in Giles' eyes just before the bigger man struck him in the gut. Larabee doubled over as his nemesis quickly wrapped his arm around his throat and pulled him upright.
"Now see, Larabee, I just might have to visit your son if you try something stupid like that again!" Giles said and released his hold on the blond.
"Don't touch him!"
"You're in no position to stop me, Larabee!" Giles said. "Now Mr. Milhous is waiting for you so let's not keep him waiting."
"Go to hell!"
"Maybe some day, but not yet," Giles said. "Now put your arms behind your back and don't try anything stupid!"
Chris stared into the other man's eyes and fought the urge to drive the man's off white teeth down his throat. Every bone in his body told him to fight back, but the child's cries tore through his heart.
"Come on, Larabee, I don't got all day and Mr. Milhous is a busy man. He did tell me to bring Adam if you weren't in a cooperative mood. So what'll it be? You or the kid?"
"Me," Larabee said and allowed the man to cuff his hands behind his back. Chris felt the chain around his ankle removed and stumbled toward the door when Giles shoved him. Larabee managed to stay on his feet even with Giles holding the length of chain. He knew the way now without having to be told and soon found himself on the patio overlooking the pool where Milhous swam several laps before exiting the pool. He heard the clink of the chain and turned to see Giles locking it to a hoop set in one corner of the deck.
"I hope you slept well, Chris," Milhous said and motioned for Larabee to take the seat opposite him.
"Why are you doing this, Ronnie?" the blond asked.
"I already told you, Chris, but if you'd like a reminder there are several files that go over and over exactly what happened and why you betrayed me and everyone else who ever believed in the Code."
"The Code was not meant to protect a rapist!" the blond spat.
"I told you she asked for it!"
"Sure she did...that's why she spent so much time in the hospital. She needed reconstructive surgery because of what you did!"
"She didn't have to..."
"Fight? She had no choice, Ronnie..."
"Yes, she did! She knew what she was getting when she came back to my quarters..."
"Our quarters. Damn good thing I came home when I did," the blond said.
"No...don't. Leave him alone!"
"I will, but you have to do something for me."
"You have to confess."
"To lying. You have to tell everyone you made a mistake back then and that you lied because you were jealous of me and wanted what was rightfully mine."
"I'd be lying." Larabee said.
"Eat, Chris," Milhous ordered as a plate was placed in front of him.
"Not hungry," the blond said.
"Oh don't worry, this isn't drugged. I want you wide awake so you can make your confession properly."
"No one would believe it."
"Maybe not, but it would give me great satisfaction to know I was finally cleared of all those trumped up charges. Imagine what I've felt like knowing my father told me I was dead to him because of what you did to me. Me being in the Naval Academy meant everything to him and because of you I lost his respect," Milhous said.
"You didn't deserve his respect!" Larabee snarled and felt strong hands on his shoulders as Giles pressed him against his chair.
"I deserved that and more, Chris! I deserved to be at the top of the class! I deserved to be given top honors! Not you...not after you screwed up."
"I'm glad no one else saw it that way," the blond said softly.
"You self righteous sonofabitch!" Milhous said and came around the table, his body glistening with water droplets left over from his swim. "Who made you judge and jury?"
"I wasn't...I was just a witness to your sick perversion!"
"You bastard!" Milhous said and backhanded Larabee several times. "I should kill Adam..."
"Don't," Chris whispered as Giles continued to put pressure on his shoulders. He knew he'd have finger shaped bruises, but that seemed the least of his worries right now. "Want me to put him back in his cell?"
"No," Milhous said and smiled as he went back to his seat. "Chris and I are going to enjoy lunch and then he is going to be given a shot that will send him on a wild ride, but he won't fight. Not if he wants Adam to survive. Isn't that right, Chris?"
"Don't hurt the boy," the blond told him.
"I won't as long as you cooperate. Release him, Giles," Milhous ordered and watched as his captive reached for the fork. The chicken had already been cut into bite size pieces because no way would he trust Larabee with a knife.
Chris ate the food without tasting it and studied the landscape hoping to find some chink in Milhous' property. The guards were stationed equidistant around the perimeter as if Milhous understood he would do anything needed to get the boy out of here. If there came a time when he could make a move safely, he needed to know where the weak spots were.
"The guards have orders to take you down if you try anything, Chris," Milhous said as if he'd read the blond's mind. "Oh, they won't kill you, but they'll incapacitate you and then I'll have Giles visit Adam."
"Why do you keep calling him Adam?"
"Why do you think? That's his name and imagine how disappointed he is in his daddy for not helping him."
"So you keep saying," Milhous said and reached for his fork as he continued. "I've never met a man so hell bent on denying his child."
"Ronnie, you and I both know he's not Adam."
"Then I guess there's no point in keeping either of you alive. Giles get rid of Adam!"
"My pleasure, Sir!"
"I thought you said he isn't Adam," Milhous said and knew the seeds of doubt were still present in Larabee's mind.
"Killing us now won't get you what you want," Larabee stated and dropped his fork.
"What makes you think you know what I want?"
"I know you, Ronnie, and the fact that you blame me for your own mistakes tells me you want me to suffer."
"Perhaps I've seen enough?"
"Somehow I doubt that very much or I wouldn't be sitting here," the blond answered and leaned back in his chair as Milhous' face showed he'd read him correctly.
"Giles, I believe it's time for Chris to go on his little trip," Milhous said.
"Yes, Sir," Giles said and uncapped a syringe.
"Try anything and Giles will make Adam suffer."
"You bastard!" Larabee spat as a second man grabbed his right arm and held it on the table while Giles searched for a spot to insert the needle. Chris jerked as the man shoved the sharp point into his forearm and slowly injected the contents. He knew whatever it was did not bode well for him and cursed as cramps hit his gut even as the world around him seemed to shift in and out of focus.
"Giles, bring Adam!"
"No! Leave the boy alone!" Larabee snarled through a haze of pain and nausea.
"You're not in charge here, Larabee. Mr. Milhous is," Giles said and hurried to do as Milhous ordered.
"Ronald, Chris, call me Ronald or Adam will suffer!"
"Ron...ald," Chris managed through gritted teeth. "Let the boy go..."
"I want to hear you call him Adam, Chris, or so help me Giles will break his arm. Will you be able to live with yourself knowing you let your son be hurt because of your insolence?"
"Let him - let Adam go. You have me..."
"Yes, I do, but I'm not ready to free Adam yet. Not until you admit he is your son."
"He's my son...let him go."
"Too easy to be remotely believable. I know you're fighting the drug, Chris, but it'll go easier for you if you relax and let it run its course. It won't kill you, but it will make you uncomfortable and from everything I've been told it will break down parts of your mind and open you up to suggestions. Eventually you will come to realize Adam really is your son, but what makes this even more interesting is that I'm the only one who knows the truth and when you die I'll raise your son as my own and make sure he curses your name with every breath he takes. I might even let him be the one who finally kills you..."
Chris felt as if every bone in his body ceased to exist as he slid from the chair and laid on the floor as his body was racked by convulsions that left him breathless and anxious. He heard footsteps behind him and lifted his head until he could see who the newcomer was. His mind refused to work properly, but the child's cry woke the need to act and he fought to get to his hands and knees.
"Hello, Adam, would you like to go for a swim?" Milhous asked.
"Daddy," the boys cried and rushed over to Chris. "Daddy, help me..."
"A...Adam, listen to me..."
"Giles, take Chris back to his cell while Adam and I get better acquainted!"
"Yes, Sir," Giles said as he reached for the drugged blond.
Chris acted on instinct and brought his elbow up into the man's gut at the same time he struggled to stand. He heard a child's sharp cry of pain and turned to see Milhous wrap his arm around the child's neck.
"Back off, Chris, or I'll snap his little neck!"
"Let him g...go!"
"Not a chance! Do you want to watch Adam die again, Chris?" Milhous asked and tightened his grip until he cut off the boy's air supply.
"Don't what?" Milhous asked as Giles regained his composure and slammed both fists into Larabee's lower back. The resultant grunt of pain brought a hint of satisfaction to his face and he released the child, smiling when Adam dropped to his hands and knees. "Like father...like son."
"Adam," Larabee whispered and reached for the boy as a lump formed in his throat and threatened to choke him. His left hand reached out and touched the boy's curly hair and his heart pounded in his chest at the scent that played on his senses. Sarah had always used the children's shampoo that smelled of bubble gum and that's what took his breath away.
"Let's go, Larabee!" Giles ordered and pulled him away from the child.
"No, Adam," the blond cried wistfully.
"Adam will be fine as long as you do as you're told, Chris," Milhous warned and grabbed the boys right hand. "Giles is going to take you back to your cell and give you another shot to help you rest and think about how hard it was to bury a boy who wasn't even your own flesh and blood. Imagine how much harder it will be to do that knowing you could have saved him this time by simply confessing the truth about what you saw back then! Come Adam, it's time for a swim."
"No, Daddy, help me!"
"Adam," Larabee whispered as a fist was driven into his gut before he was hauled to his feet and dragged toward the door leading into the house. The scent lingered with him as Giles grabbed his arms and pulled them behind his back. He didn't feel the sharp pain as muscles were pulled to the straining point. His mind reeled with the possibility that the boy really was Adam...that somehow he managed to escape Ella's fire three years ago.
Chris stumbled along and tried to make sense of what was happening, but it was hard to focus as Giles kept pushing him forward. He chanced a look over his shoulder and wanted to shove his fist into the man's smiling mouth, but he could not chance Milhous hurting Adam, hurting his son. He'd do whatever was necessary to stay alive long enough to bring Adam home.
"Get in, Larabee, and lie down. This shot's going to send you on a wild ride and with any luck I'll be the devil in your nightmares!"
Chris dropped onto the bed and didn't have the strength to fight as a second needle entered his arm. He could hear Giles speaking, but the words didn't make sense as he sank deeper toward the nightmares that often plagued him during the darkest hours of the night. Flames burst to life behind closed lids as horrific screams echoed through the darkness and knifing pain cut through his heart.
"Adam...I'm sorry, Adam...so sorry..."
Giles smiled as he closed the door and the cries were muffled, yet unmistakably filled with sorrow. Whatever was in the shot he'd given Larabee was having the desired effect and the blond was reliving the horrors of his life. Giles chuckled softly before making his way back to the main house and knew things were only just getting started and that Larabee's suffering had only just begun.
While Ezra and JD went over Larabee's computer the other members of the agency were busy scouring Chris' home in search of anything that would clue them in to the blond's whereabouts. So far they'd been unable to find anything except little things that felt wrong, including the tire marks behind Chris' truck. The agents knew they could have been made by anyone, even someone who came in delivering something or asking for directions. That didn't stop them from taking pictures and making sure they documented everything because worst-case scenarios had a way of popping up at the worst possible times.
Buck watched as Vin took care of Pony's needs and knew the calm façade hid the worry that plagued them all. Anyone who came upon the scene would never have guessed that Vin's mind was working overtime trying to make sense of what had happened. There was no doubt in their minds that Larabee was in trouble, but there wasn't enough evidence to take to the police, especially with all the budget cuts implemented by the mayor's office.
"Is he all right?" Sanchez asked as he handed Wilmington a cup of coffee.
"What do you think, Josiah? We all know something's happened to Chris, but Vin feels things. Him and Chris have that strange thing going and no matter how strange it seems to the rest of us he's usually right."
"Does he have any idea what's happened?"
"No, Josiah, I ain't got a clue, but it's bad. Chris is hurtin' and he's not thinkin' clearly. Ain't got a clear sense of 'im, but what I'm getting' ain't good," Tanner said as he joined the two men at the fence.
"Have Ezra and JD gotten anywhere with the computer?" Wilmington asked.
"Not yet, but they're working on the password protected area of Chris computer log. It seems whoever formatted the computer had a good idea about backdoor passwords amongst other things," Sanchez answered.
"Maybe he did, but Ezra and JD will figure it out," the rogue explained.
"Buck, you boys better get in here. Looks like JD and Ezra found something," Jackson called from the patio. He waited for the trio to join him and together they headed inside and made their way in to Larabee's office.
"What did you boys find?" Sanchez asked.
"Whoever wiped Chris' computer did an excellent job of deleting everything that could lead to their identification, but JD and I managed to get several listings back including the last website Chris visited," Standish explained.
"What does a website have to do with Chris' disappearance?" Wilmington asked impatiently.
"Have a look, Buck," Dunne answered and brought up the site.
"Oh, God," Wilmington said and grabbed the back of Dunne's chair for support. "That looks like...like..."
"Adam," Sanchez finished for the distressed man.
"That's what we thought," Dunne said and began scrolling down the page. "It looks like Chris copied everything on the website because there's nothing there now. It just says requested URL has been removed."
"Then how did you get this?" Jackson asked.
"It took some creative backtracking, but JD and I managed to figure out Chris' password..."
"Ez, Chris gave you guys the password when ya were settin' up the system in case somethin' like this happened," Tanner said.
"Yes, well, we still had to do some pretty impressive back flips to make this work," Standish offered. "Whoever formatted his computer didn't want us to find him."
"If the website is gone how the hell do we find him?" Wilmington asked.
"We're working on bringing up Chris' emails," Standish offered. "Buck, you did check Chris' phone didn't you?"
"Of course I did, but there's nothing on there. Whoever formatted his computer also made sure the numbers were erased and yes I checked with the service provider and whoever is behind this had the calls sent through several different systems and they're trying to figure out where the calls originated from" the worried rogue answered.
"Perhaps it's time to call Miller," Jackson offered.
"It can't hurt," Sanchez told them. "Miller can't officially get involved yet, but there are enough people who know Chris that he won't have any trouble sending out a team."
"Guess we should call Travis," Tanner said tiredly. "Josiah, you call Bob and I'll speak ta Travis."
"Sounds like a plan, Vin," Sanchez said and left Larabee's office.
Chris was growing tired of waking up with the headache to end all headaches. It seemed like it took longer to make sense of what was happening around him, and even then it didn't really make sense. How could Adam have survived the fire? Where had he been the last three years? How did Milhous find him?
Those were questions that required answers, but there were none forthcoming. Chris struggled to open his eyes and managed to sit on the edge of the narrow bed without falling flat on his face. He had no way of knowing how much time had passed since Giles had brought him back to the room, but his throat felt excessively dry.
Chris thought about the boy, but his mind still felt the influence of whatever drug he'd been given and he couldn't get a clear image of 'Adam'. He ran his fingers through sweat soaked strands of blond hair before rubbing his eyes in an effort to clear his head. Did he really believe the boy was Adam? Could Milhous be telling the truth or was this a sick game of revenge. The agent inside him knew it was the latter, but the father inside him held onto the hope that his son had survived.
Larabee stared at the length of chain attached to his ankle and tried to pull it free, but frustration turned to anger and he cursed before finally releasing it. A sound carried through the small opening in his door and his heart ached with each soft sob.
"Adam," he whispered and walked to the door. He looked through the opening and listened for any sign that Giles was returning.
"I know, Adam, just try not to think about it."
"She's not here...I'm going to get you out of here..."
"The man hurted me...he said you don't love me..."
Chris heard the sadness in the child's voice and knew he could not hurt him or refuse him the comfort of knowing he was there. "Adam, I love...love you, Son," he managed through his constricted throat and saw small fingers push through the opening in the cell door not far from his own.
"I want...I want to go home."
"I know you do, Son, and we will."
The single word cut through his heart like a sharp knife through soft butter and Chris swallowed convulsively before speaking. "I don't know, Adam, but we'll get home soon."
"I don't like it here...I don't like the d...dark."
"The bad man's coming, Daddy," the boy sniffled.
Chris knew the child was right as the sound of footsteps reached his ears. He saw Giles and another man striding down the corridor and wanted to wipe the smile off the big man's face.
"Glad to see you're awake, Larabee, because Mr. Milhous says it's time for another trip. I'm afraid this one is going to be a little rougher on you, but you should be getting used to that. Now I know you're a man of action and I don't trust you to behave so while Dr. Connors is giving you the shot I'm going to visit your son. I'm sure Adam will behave himself, but I don't trust you to do the same," Giles told him.
"Leave him alone!" Chris snarled.
"He won't be hurt unless you fuck with the good doctor," Giles said and opened the door to Adam's cell.
"You bastard! Leave him alone!" Larabee shouted and tugged on the chain with Herculean effort that left him breathless and his fingers bleeding.
"Just sit back, Mr. Larabee," Connors ordered with a sympathetic smile.
"Doc, is he doing what you tell him?" Giles asked as Adam continued to scream for his father.
"Please, Mr. Larabee, I'd rather not see your son hurt."
Chris sat back on the bed with enough force to shove it against the back wall. He glared at the man who held a syringe in one hand, but realized there was nothing he could do to help his son while the chain was in place. He held out his left arm and soon felt the needle pressed into his flesh and the contents slowly deployed.
"Why are you doing this?"
"The money," Connors answered honestly.
"What about the Hippocratic oath?"
"That only applies to doctors with a license to practice medicine in your country..."
"Doc, are you done?"
"We're finished," Connors said and recapped the syringe before leaving the cell.
Chris breathed through his nose as he heard the echo of departing footsteps, but wasn't surprised when he looked up and found Giles standing before him. He could hear Adam's soft cries and climbed unsteadily to his feet. "If you touched him I'll tear you apart."
"That's a harmless threat considering I can make him pay for anything you do that I don't like, Larabee." Giles reached out and grabbed Chris' shirt and pulled him to his feet. "You best remember I'm the one that holds his life in my hands."
Chris blinked several times and tried to speak, but whatever he'd been given made his body feel like it was weighted down. A strange tingling sensation coursed along ragged nerve endings and he gasped for air as Giles shoved him back on the bed.
"I see the ride is starting, Larabee, wish I could stick around for the show, but Mr. Milhous requested the company of a certain little boy and he does hate to be kept waiting."
"Bas...bastard!" the blond gasped and tried to get to his feet, but his body shook and his eyes refused to focus on anything. He heard the door slam shut and the sound of cackling laughter even as nightmarish images flashed across his closed lids.
"Adam..." his voice was low and quivered as he called to the boy whose image was now engulfed in flames. The beautiful curls framing the terrified face in a halo of smoke and fire. Chris reached for the child, but the fire burned his hands even as the imaginary cries scarred his soul with a lifetime of anguish.
Larabee coughed as if his lungs were filled with smoke, his eyes burning as he fought to open them and reach for the boy whose cries tore down the memories made a lifetime ago. Chris doubled over, panic now setting in as the raging fire obliterated his son and left nothing but the image ingrained on his mind.
"Adam...God, don't take him from me...not now...not again...not...not this way," Chris cried and rolled off the bed. His body hit the floor with a hollow thud, his head cracking off the cement, opening a cut above his right eye as the flames were extinguished and darkness beckoned to him.
The cramping pain in his gut intensified, and was soon joined by the trip hammering of his heart pounding against his ribs. Chris knew he was going to die as he lay on the hard floor with Adam's cries growing weaker and further away. A father's hope, born of a precious need, began to die as darkness took him away.
Vin Tanner watched as Miller's men went over the crime scene. Buck was right about the 24-hour waiting period, but most of the officers knew the members of The Firm and held a deep respect for them. There'd been more volunteers than necessary when Miller had asked for help and the Texan was glad the Billings police department did not hold anything against the team.
Vin moved down the steps and watched as Jose Melendez measured the tire tracks before snapping pictures from all angles. He knew they'd do a search to find out what type of tires they were and what vehicles used them. It wasn't an exact science, but at least it gave them a place to start. The Texan spotted a familiar car pulling into the driveway and hurried over just as the driver's door open.
"Vin, has there been any word?" Travis asked worriedly.
"Not a damn thing, Orin. Ezra and JD are still trying to back track the website address where Chris downloaded the images. Buck's been talking to Chris' cell phone service, but so far they're hitting a roadblock," Tanner answered.
"We'll find him, Vin."
"I know we will, Orin, I jest hope it ain't too late."
"Have you...you know," Travis asked, still unsure of the weird connection these two men seemed to have.
"Nothin' clear, but what I am feelin' ain't good, Orin. Wherever Chris is he's in pain and he's feelin' helpless," the Texan explained.
"I thought he was at the creek?"
"He was, but me and Buck came out ta check on 'im this mornin' and found Pony in the corral and the door ta his house unlocked," Tanner told him.
"Could he have had something he needed to do?"
"Maybe, but how would he have got there? His truck's still here and Pony was in the corral."
"Did you call Nettie?"
"She ain't heard from 'im," Tanner answered.
"Damn, okay, so what's been done so far and what can I do to help?"
"Most of the bases are covered, but we'll need a list of the cases we've been workin' on. Especially those that have something ta do with Chris in particular."
"Are you thinking it's got to do with someone holding a grudge against Chris?"
"Usually does...ain't like we make a lot of friends in this business."
"I wouldn't say that, Vin. You boys have done a lot of good for a lot of people and if the letters in your files are an indication the friends far outweigh the enemies you've made. Let me call in a few favors and maybe we can get some answers," Travis said.
"Thanks, Orin," Tanner said.
"Vin, we're going to get this stuff to the lab," Melendez said upon joining the two men.
"Thanks, Jose," the Texan told him.
"Miller said to put a rush on it and he'll get back to you as soon as the results are in. I hope this is all for nothing, Vin, and that Chris is off somewhere with a hot woman," the cop assured him before taking the sealed items to the car and climbing behind the wheel.
"See, Vin, you've even got friends in the police department," Travis said and followed the younger man into the house.
Ronald Milhous watched the monitor with a smile as his one time friend tossed fitfully on the floor. Giles and Connors had done as they were told and Adam's voice echoed through the speakers hidden behind the wall in Larabee's cell. The child had fallen asleep curled on his bed and clutching a rather tattered and torn blanket that had seen better days. The sounds feeding through the speakers had been taped before he'd brought his nemesis here.
Each time Adam called out to his daddy or a soft cry escaped, Chris Larabee's mind cleared long enough for him to fight the effects of the drug. He turned to look at Johan Connors, a man whose presence in this country was illegal, and knew he was worth every cent he paid the man.
"Whatever this concoction of drugs is, it's certainly doing exactly what you said it would. How long do the effects last?"
"It depends on the person. Mr. Larabee is strong and he fights the drug and that makes it necessary to give it to him more often and in stronger doses. The problem is that the longer it's used the more damage it can cause to his nervous system."
"I don't really give a damn about his nervous system, but I want him alive long enough to make his confession and watch his son die," Milhous explained.
"I thought you were going to let the boy go when you finished with Larabee?"
"The boy can identify me...I can not allow him to do that. He will die in flames and Chris will watch it just like he did before only this time he will also die by the flames," Milhous snapped and reached for the bottle of Chablis. "Would you like another, Doctor?"
"Yes," Connors said, angry that he'd let this man buy his loyalty, yet unable to turn his back on the money.
"Look at the way his body curls into itself. I swear he's going to snap his spine if he keeps that up."
"No, he's losing the fight to stay conscious," Connors said as Larabee's body grew still. "The next dose should be given in two hours if you want it kept at an even dosage in order to keep him from thinking straight."
"Giles will come for you when the two hours are up," Milhous said and stared at the sweat soaked face that glistened in the light of the overhead bulbs. "This is working far better than I hoped, Chris. Your son is the perfect weapon to use against you!"
Ezra rubbed at tired eyes and looked at JD. The younger man looked as bad as he felt and Standish understood that the whole team could probably use some rest. That was not to be, not while a member of their 'family' was missing. Orin Travis had left around nine PM with the promise that he would call in as many favors as he could.
Josiah and Nathan had gone to the office and would be going over their most recent cases, but so far they'd found nothing. Vin and Buck had ridden out to the creek in case something had happened there before Larabee had ridden home.
"Ezra, I think we got something," Dunne said excitedly.
"That's what you said five minutes ago," Standish said tiredly.
"I know, but look here. This is the log from Chris' email folder from yesterday."
"Yes, I have seen that several times today."
"I know, but watch this," Dunne said and keyed in several commands, bringing up the file with several added entries. "See - here and here."
"What is that?"
"Near as I can figure someone tried to erase the command prompts, but they weren't entirely successful."
"Can you open them and find out who the sender was?"
"Isn't that what I do best, Ez?" Dunne said with a grin.
"Of course, but since time is of the essence I suggest we find out who has Chris and bring him home," Standish said and pulled his chair closer.
Giles opened the door to the cell and smiled at the man who lay bathed in the glow of the overhead light. Larabee was curled into a fetal position as if trying to protect himself from an unseen attacker. He moved into the room and reached down to pull the man to his feet.
"Fuck off!" the blond sputtered as consciousness slowly return, bringing with it a stabbing headache that threatened to blind him.
"Watch that mouth, Larabee, you wouldn't want your son hearing those words would you?"
"Go to hell, Giles!" the blond said and found himself nose to nose with the bigger man.
"You're already there..."
"Guess so...Jesus, Giles, have you ever heard of mouthwash and soap?"
"You're real funny, Larabee..."
"Wasn't trying to be," the blond growled and was shoved backward as Giles reached down and unlocked the chain from the wall.
"I'm going to teach that kid a lesson he'll never forget..."
"Touch him and I'll kill you!"
"Nice threat...too bad you can't act on it," Giles said and pulled the captive to his feet once more. "Mr. Milhous don't like to be kept waiting and he said to remind you that the boy will suffer if you try anything stupid!"
"You're a real dick, Giles!" Larabee said, shoulders slumping in defeat as Giles tugged on the chain and nearly pulled his foot out from under him.
"I'm going to enjoy seeing Mr. Milhous take you down, Larabee."
"Means you're a coward too," the blond said and grunted when a fist slammed into his lower back. He managed to stay on his feet and kept moving, but his eyes strayed to the door where he knew 'Adam' was being held.
"Move it...behave and you might get to see your boy again," Giles snapped.
Chris walked unsteadily toward the door at the end of the upward slope and stopped while the main door was opened. A second man stood there, the scar along one side of his face reminding Chris of the character played by Al Pacino in the movie Scarface. Chris brushed past him and walked toward the door leading out of the house. He knew the route by heart and was starting to get a feel for the place in hopes of getting himself and Adam away from here.
"Hello, Chris, I trust you slept well," Milhous asked when they stepped out on the patio. "I'm sure you must be famished after your little trip so have a seat and Juliet will bring breakfast."
"Rather eat alone," Larabee said as Giles shoved him into a chair and locked the end of the chain to the hoop once more.
"That's not an option I'm afraid. You are a guest..."
"Funny way to treat a guest," the blond snarled.
"Some guests are honored while others deserve to be treated like animals," Milhous said as Juliet pushed a breakfast trolley toward them. "Today we're having blueberry pancakes, Canadian bacon, and fresh fruit."
Chris didn't say a word as the woman put a plate in front of him. At any other time he'd appreciate the way it looked and the wonderful aroma of hot food, but right now it nauseated him. He reached for the cup of coffee and sipped it as Giles stood behind him, and fought the urge to drive his elbow into the man's groin.
"Juliet is such a wonderful cook and her pancakes are the best I've ever had. Go ahead, Chris, enjoy them because there is nothing in them that will hurt you. Dr. Connors is waiting until I let him know you're ready for your next trip. You did enjoy your last one didn't you?"
"Just fucking lovely...wish you'd been there," Larabee said of the nightmarish hallucinations the drugs instilled in him. He looked at the food and wondered how the hell he could eat it without puking and knew there was no choice but to try as Milhous watched his every move.
"Now, Chris, Juliet worked hard to make this for you so please don't make me have Giles bring Adam here. The boy already ate and enjoyed the pancakes and milk, but I'm sure Giles can keep him entertained," Milhous warned.
Chris didn't say a word as he picked up the fork and took a bite of pancake. He ate it disinterestedly, hoping and praying the guys were aware that he was missing. He knew at least a full day had passed since Milhous had sent the car for him, and that the guys would have found the empty house when they arrived for the scheduled BBQ.
"What are you thinking about, Chris?" Milhous asked.
"You're right...Juliet is a wonderful cook," Larabee said softly.
"Yes, she is, but that's not what you were thinking about," Milhous said and reached for a piece of bacon. "It doesn't really matter since you're my guest here indefinitely."
"Don't bet on it!"
"Oh, I believe it is a sure bet since I have your son...of course if you'd rather I have him killed..."
"Don't," Larabee whispered with a hint of the anger that was surging through his veins.
"Well, that depends on you doesn't it, Chris? Whether Adam lives or dies is up to you and as of right now he's going to suffer for the way you've talked to me."
"Leave the boy alone..."
"You know calling him boy or kid does not take away his identity, Chris, perhaps I should have him brought here so you can renew your father and son relationship. Giles, go bring Adam..."
"My pleasure, Mr. Milhous," Giles said smiling at the irate blond before hurrying back into the house.
"He's just a kid, Ronnie..."
"Ronald, Chris, and that's something else your son will pay for. Every time you call me Ronnie I'll let Giles come up with a punishment that suits him."
"Don't," Larabee said and shoved back the plate.
"Don't hurt the boy, Ronald," the blond managed.
"Very well...this time is a freebie, but from now on every time you forget your place your son...Adam...will suffer for it. Do I make myself clear."
"Perfectly," Larabee spat.
"Finish your breakfast," Milhous ordered.
"I had enough," the blond said.
"Very well...as soon as Adam gets here and you have a short family reunion Dr. Connors has another concoction for you," Milhous said as Juliet refilled his coffee cup.
Chris turned to see the small boy struggling to get free of Giles and stood up. "Let him go!"
"Mr. Milhous?" Giles said.
"Do as he said, Giles, it's time to see a father and son reunion," Milhous ordered and watched as the child ran to the blond, tears escaping as he wrapped his arms around Larabee's neck.
"Daddy...wanna go home..."
"I know you do and we will."
"When...I miss...I miss mommy."
"I do too, Adam, but right now I need you to be good and do as they tell you until I can take you home, okay?"
"Think so...scared...hurted you?"
"I'm okay, Adam," Larabee said, taking a deep breath before ruffling the curls and felt his heart skip a beat as he stared into the eyes that were so like his own.
"Giles, it's time to take Adam back to his room," Milhous ordered.
"No, Daddy, please don't make me...go back there," the boy cried.
"It's okay, Adam, it's only for a little while," Larabee said, turning to protect the child when Giles roughly grabbed for him. "Leave him alone!"
"Chris, Adam won't be hurt as long as you cooperate," Milhous vowed.
"Adam," Chris said and sank down on one knee before speaking softly to the child. "Right now we don't have a choice, but to do as he says. Ronald says Giles won't hurt you if you go with him and I believe him. Can you be a big boy and do this for me?"
"I'm a big boy, Daddy," the boy said and wiped away the tears that formed in his eyes.
"Yes, you are..."
"All right, Kid, let's go!"
"Be nice, Giles, don't hurt him," Milhous ordered.
"Yes, Sir," Giles said before dragging the child away from the table.
"I bet you were a wonderful father to him, Chris, but he is going to be upset when he thinks about how much time has gone by and you didn't look for him," Milhous said with a grin.
Chris watched as the other man ate the remainder of his breakfast in silence before he returned his attention to Larabee. Chris could see how hard the years had been on his one time friend, but he had no sympathy for him. Ronald Milhous had ruined his own life and someday he would pay for what he'd done.
"Well, Chris, it looks like we're in for another hot, sunny day and I believe that pool is calling to me," Milhous said and motioned for someone behind Larabee to join them. "Johan, I assume you have another lovely mixture for Chris?"
"Yes, Sir," Connors said and placed a case on the table.
Chris could only watch as the 'doctor' mixed several liquids from different vials before loading them into a syringe and turning toward him.
"Your arm, Chris," Milhous said, smiling when Larabee placed his right arm on the table. "I must say I really am enjoying the power I have."
"You're using a boy to get what you want, Ronald, that's not power," Larabee said as Connors wiped an alcohol swab over his arm and injected the drug into his vein.
"How long before the drug starts to work, Johan?" Milhous asked.
"He should start feeling disoriented in a couple of minutes."
"Does this one cause hallucinations?"
"Of course, you asked me to be sure every mixture would do that," Connors advised.
"I did, didn't I," Milhous said as Giles returned. "Is Adam safe?"
"He's in his room, Sir."
"Very good. I believe Chris is going on another trip and this time I wish to see it. Bring him over to the pool and make him comfortable on the deck."
"Yes, Sir," Giles said and pulled the prisoner to his feet.
"Don't touch me!" Larabee snarled. Where Giles grabbed him it felt like his skin was on fire and he tried to pull away.
"You don't give the orders, Larabee," Giles said and yanked on the chain around the man's ankle.
Chris grabbed for the chair to save himself, but misjudged the distance and fell to his hands and knees. Whatever Connors had given him was making his body shake as if he'd been on a weeklong bender and suddenly stopped cold turkey. His head ached and it became increasingly difficult to breathe as he was pulled to his feet once more. Giles still held the chain and the smirk on his face was all Larabee needed to see in order to realize what the man would do if he continued to fight.
"Nothing I can't handle, Sir," Giles said with a grin as he shoved Larabee toward the pool.
Chris had no idea how he'd gotten from the patio to the pool and licked at dry lips as he swayed on his feet.
"It's getting pretty ripe around here, Mr. Milhous," Giles said.
"The pool is right there, Giles," Milhous said.
"Yes, Sir," Giles said and shoved the blond toward the edge of the Olympic sized pool.
Chris didn't have the strength to fight as Giles pushed him and he lost his balance. He teetered on the edge of the pool before toppling sideways and falling as if in slow motion. Water quickly covered his body as he dropped below the surface and he instinctively held his breath. He tried to swim, but at some point in time Giles had cuffed his arms together behind his back. He knew the drugs were affecting him, because his mind couldn't figure out how or why he was beneath the water.
Larabee used his legs and tried to swim toward the surface, but something pulled on his leg and he grew even more disoriented. His lungs felt ready to burst, but the pressure on his ankle was such that it kept him just below the surface. He felt dizzy and nauseated as he fought with what little strength he had left. Just before he opened his mouth, the pressure on his ankle was released and he gasped as his head rose above the surface and he grabbed the edge of the pool in an effort to keep from repeating the experience.
"What's the matter, Chris, did you forget how to swim?" Milhous asked as Giles exited the water and rejoined them. The man's clothing was soaked, but it didn't seem to bother him as he reached out and pulled the prisoner out of the water. "Giles thought you needed a bath and this seemed like the best way."
Chris lay on his back, fighting to catch his breath and turned on his side, coughing wetly as he expelled the water he'd swallowed before being allowed to surface. He lay where he was for several minutes, even as the world around him blinked in and out of focus. Larabee could hear someone talking to him, but he could no longer make sense of the words as a roaring explosion echoed through his mind. Kaleidoscopic images flashed across his mind, bringing with it a crimson tide that made his stomach churn. He pulled his legs up and gasped as someone pulled him to his feet. Voices, louder than he thought possible, drowned out his thoughts as he was dragged away from the pool.
JD had never felt so frustrated in his life, and knew he needed to get away from the computer for a while and come at it with fresh eyes. He and Ezra had managed to grab a couple of hours sleep, but neither one wanted to stay away from the computer until they found the answers they sought. Dunne stood up and stretched the kinks from his back before turning and finding Wilmington watching him.
"Are you okay, Kid?"
"Just tired, Buck, any word from Nathan and Josiah?"
"Nothing new, they're still working on the files. Anything new here?"
"Not really, whoever did this was good..."
"Not as good as you and Ezra...you'll find them," Wilmington said seriously.
"Thanks, Buck, is there any coffee?"
"That's why I'm here. Coffee and breakfast are ready. Tell me what to watch for."
"It's running a search right now and will stop when it finds the right commands. Come get me if it says search completed," Dunne told him.
"I will, Kid," Wilmington said and sat down at the desk. God, he was so damn tired, but right now that was the least of his worries. The more time that went by, the harder it was going to be to find Chris, and even less likely that they'd find him alive.
The big problem was Chris had more enemies than most men and even more since Travis had given him the reins of his pet agency. The Firm had solved a lot of cases and each time they'd made an enemy and said enemy often had family or friends ready and willing to take it out on the team.
Buck looked at the computer screen and knew JD and Ezra had already uploaded the missing systems and programs. The duo had forgotten more about computers than most people would ever know; yet in the last 30 hours they'd come up with very little. Most of the deleted e-mails had gone to the saved file, but there were several that would not open. Those were the ones Dunne and Standish were working on now.
"Come on...damn it!" he snarled in frustration as the computer continued working through whatever commands it was given.
Josiah looked up as Nathan slammed down another file and reached across the desk for the next stack. He knew the younger man was frustrated, but they were slowly working their way through the backlog of cases, both solved and unsolved. The file he held spoke of a madman who was in maximum security and yet, he still had ties to the outside world.
Donald Mercer was a serial killer of the worst kind. He preyed on young girls between the ages of 14 and16, and his victims were usually found with their throats slit and sexually abused. Mercer had also had his own organization that dealt in drugs and illegal firearms. The organization had also been brought down, but Josiah knew they had only touched the surface and Mercer continued to use outside contacts to get what he wanted.
"Damn it, Josiah, the list keeps getting longer instead of shorter!" Jackson snapped.
"We knew it wasn't going to be an easy job, Brother, but sooner or later we'll catch a break."
"I just hope it's not too much later or it might be too late for Chris. What's worse is we can't even rule out the bastards already behind bars."
"I know...Donald Mercer..."
"That sonofabitch is still in maximum security isn't he?"
"Death row, but even that hasn't stopped him. He's had several new charges added in the last month alone," Sanchez answered.
"We've pissed off a lot of people," Jackson observed softly.
"Yes, but we've helped a lot as well," the ex-preacher proclaimed and leaned back in his chair. "What makes this worse is that we really have no idea where Chris is or who has him!"
"Hell, we don't even know anyone has him. For all we know he might have..."
"Gone off somewhere so he could drink until the memories went away?" Sanchez asked.
"Wouldn't be the first time."
"No, it wouldn't, but somehow I doubt that's what happened. There are too many things pointing to someone taking Chris. The computer, the unlocked door..."
"Vin's spidey senses working overtime," Jackson said with a hint of a smile.
"Exactly, if Vin's right then something has already happened to Chris and we need to find him ASAP," Sanchez said and reached for another file.
"Guess I'll make another pot of coffee," the medic offered and stood up.
"Make it strong, Nathan," Sanchez said and stared at the list of names the computer had given them. Some dated back long before the team was formed and Josiah knew it would take days to go over each and every one. He could hear Nathan in the kitchenette, but his attention was on the task at hand as he studied each name and made separate piles with those who were in position to hurt Chris Larabee and those who were either deceased or imprisoned with little contact to the outside world.
Vin Tanner stood beside Pony, carefully rubbing the beautiful animal down and thinking about its owner. Chris Larabee had extended his hand and offered him a place in the agency when many others had turned him down flat. He'd worked for years chasing down men who deserved to spend their lives behind bars and had the battle scars to prove how dangerous an undertaking that had been. Days and nights on stakeouts with only the sound of his own breathing to keep him company, hours spent lying in swill while he waited for his mark to make a mistake.
Vin hadn't even realized how devastatingly lonely his life had been until he'd become part of the team. He didn't want to lose that sense of belonging and he owed that to Chris Larabee. The man could be downright ornery and as stubborn as a bull, but he fought for what was right and had proven time and again he deserved the loyalty that his team gave so freely. Hell, he'd earned that loyalty and it seemed to go both ways because every member of The Firm would stand by each other and had done so many times in the past.
Vin finished Pony's rubdown and released the animal who immediately began running around the enclosure. He knew he'd have to go to his own ranch and take care of Peso, but he hated leaving while there was still no word on Chris' whereabouts. Tanner turned and exited the corral, latching the gate behind him before returning the grooming items to the barn.
A shiver of dread raced down his spine and he closed his eyes as a wave of nauseating dizziness washed over him. His head felt like it was going to explode and he dropped to his knees in the grass beside the corral. He knew what he was feeling wasn't real, not for him anyway, but somewhere out there, Chris Larabee was in a mess of trouble and it would only get worse if they didn't find him soon.
Vin waited for the feelings to ease before standing and making his way back to the house where JD Dunne met him.
"Vin, Miller called with an update and sent the info they had to Josiah and Nathan. They should be able to figure out what type of car uses that brand of tires, but it's going to take some time."
"Time ain't somethin' Chris' got," Tanner told him. "Did ya get those e-mails open yet?"
"Not yet, but Ezra's working on it," Dunne explained. "We're doing everything we can, Vin."
"I know, but right now I'm thinkin' it ain't enough," Tanner told him. "Look, JD, I gotta go over ta my place and check on Peso..."
"Go ahead, Vin, I'll call you if we get the damn thing to work," the Bostonian assured him.
"Thanks, Kid, somethin' tells me if we can figure out who sent the e-mails we'll find out who set up the website," Tanner said and hurried around the house to his jeep. He quickly drove out of Larabee's driveway and hoped they'd get some answers soon.
Chris turned on his side as bitter tasting bile rose up in his throat, burning with an acidity that rivaled the mornings when he'd woke up sick and hung over. He kept his eyes closed for several minutes before finally giving in to his need to sit up and ease the tension in his lower back. He shivered as if cold and realized somehow during the last few hours his clothing had gotten wet.
Chris looked down at his feet, frowning when he noted the dried blood around the cuff that encircled his right ankle. He shifted it toward him for a better look, and felt the metal cut into his flesh.
"Damn it!" Larabee spat, and sat back in an effort to ease the pain in his back and head. His eyes refused to work properly, making the room waver as if the walls were breathing on their own. He knew this had to be caused by whatever drugs he'd been given, but even that wasn't clear as he struggled to get past the nausea.
Chris had no idea how much time had passed since he'd been kidnapped, but he knew the guys had to be looking for him. How long would it take them to find him depended on how fast JD and Ezra could work their magic. He had no doubt that the two men would figure it out, but did he have the time they needed? Right now, if anyone asked, he'd have probably told them no because it felt like his body was shutting down, breath by agonizing breath.
Larabee looked toward the corner and frowned when he realized someone had left a bucket there and he carefully climbed to his feet. He took several shuffling steps before dropping to his knees and crawling the rest of the way. He grabbed the bucket and lost track of time as his stomach gave up its contents and he finally sat back, shivering as he coughed and wiped his mouth.
Chris looked toward the cot he'd been sleeping on and wondered if he'd have the strength to reach it as the sour smell of vomit reached his nostrils and threatened to make him puke all over again. He closed his eyes until the dizziness eased and managed to get to his feet. Using his hands as a guide he leaned against the wall until he made it to his destination and sank down on the bed with a heavy sigh.
Chris lay still, silently hoping his skull wouldn't explode even as a new sound reached his ears. He shifted on the bed and sat up, listening to the soft whimpering of a child and remembered he wasn't the only prisoner in this hellhole.
"It's okay, Adam, I'm going to get you out of here," Larabee vowed, but the ache in his heart intensified as the sobbing increased. "Adam, can you hear me?"
"I's scared, Daddy...I want...want to go home."
"I know you do, Son, and so do I, but right now we just have to be strong okay?"
"Otay...I's strong like you."
"Yes, you are," Larabee said and couldn't help but smile at the way the child tried to sound like he wasn't afraid. He listened as the soft sobs subsided and wished he could wrap his arms around the child and calm his fears. "Do you like school, Adam?"
"School's fun, but he won't let me go any more. Can I go to school again, Daddy?"
"As soon as we're out of here, Kiddo," Larabee said, fighting the lethargy that swept over him. He looked toward the camera high in the corner and wondered if Milhous was watching him. The man seemed to know just how to get to him and Chris closed his eyes as Adam started humming a nursery rhyme, one he'd sang with Adam during the nights when his son couldn't sleep.
"Adam," he whispered as the darkness took over once more.
JD reached for the bottle of water and watched the screen, eyes widening in surprise as the screen changed to reveal the password locked e-mail. He looked at the subject header and the name of the sender.
"I got something!" Dunne called and heard the sound of footsteps behind him.
"What is it, JD?" Wilmington asked hopefully.
"Just the name of the guy who sent Chris to that website," Dunne answered with a grin.
"Milhous," the rogue whispered the name and frowned. "Why does that name ring a bell?"
"It does not ring any bells with me," Standish advised. "JD, what's the return address?"
"It's a yahoo account, but at least we have a name," Dunne told them.
"Could be an alias," the gambler offered.
"I don't think so," Wilmington said and tried to remember where he'd heard the name before.
"Buck, I can run a search through Chris' files...see if he's in there," Dunne offered.
"Do it, JD, and see if there's an address on the bastard," the rogue snapped and pulled out his cell phone. "I'll call Josiah and see if there's anything in the files about Milhous. Ezra, call Vin and tell him to get his ass back here."
JD could hear the other men talking, but he was concentrating on the message and website address. He knew every trick in the book, some legit while others were illegal, but at times like this illegal simply meant he'd have to do it without anyone's knowledge. Although the rest of the team knew exactly what he was doing, hell, Ezra was the one who'd actually taught him a few things about backdoors and passwords.
"Vin's on his way over," Standish told them.
"Josiah and Nathan are checking through the files to see if we have anything on Milhous," Wilmington told them and frowned.
"You still think you know him?" Dunne asked.
"Maybe not, but I know the name," the rogue said. "I think he and Chris had a run in at some point in time...maybe before I met him."
"Jesus, Buck, you're talking medieval times," Dunne quipped in an effort to lighten the mood.
"Real funny, Kid, remind me to laugh later," Wilmington said. "JD, can you go into Chris' personal files and see if Milhous' name is in there?"
"Sure," Dunne answered and used the password Larabee had entrusted him with when he'd first programmed the computer. He knew this computer was linked to the ones at the office where Chris kept most of the information in his own personal files.
"Milhous," Buck repeated the name and a shudder ran down his spine. Somehow he knew Ronald Milhous had something to do with Larabee's disappearance. One way or another he would find the bastard and when he did he'd tear him a new hole.
Chris was really growing tired of waking disoriented and sick, but he had little choice once Giles yanked on the chain attached to his right ankle and pulled him from the bed. He landed hard, moaning softly as he turned on his side and Giles grabbed him by the rumpled shirt.
"Now, Larabee, Mr. Milhous has requested that you join him in his office. I believe he has a proposition for you before the doc gives you your next wild trip! So let's not keep him waiting," Giles said and dragged him to his feet.
"Go fuck your...self," Chris managed before an attack of coughing left him gasping for air.
"Sounds like you're getting sick, Larabee, maybe the doc can give you something for that too," Giles laughed as he dragged the ailing prisoner from his cell. The fact that the captive seemed unable to walk a straight line and had to grab the walls several times to keep from falling brought a smile to his face.
Chris fought down the urge to strike out, because he knew Adam would be the one to pay for the attempt. Adam - God could the boy really be his son? As soon as he got them out of this mess he would find out, one way or the other the boy would have a better life than the one he was leading now. He felt Giles' strong hand on his arm as the big man maneuvered him along the corridor and onto the main floor of the house. This time they made their way through the family room and stopped in front of an open door.
Chris' breath caught in his throat at the sight before him. Milhous had Adam sitting on his knee and the boy's big round eyes were filled with fear as he tried not to move. There were tears in the child's eyes, and there was no doubt that he was terrified as he stared at Chris. Larabee had to fight his instincts to grab the child and run because he knew all that would accomplish was to get him and Adam killed.
"Come on in, Chris, Adam and I are just having a little chat. I've been telling him about how we met and what you did that caused me so much pain. He knows it's your fault that he's here and he's a little angry at you right now," Milhous said and ruffled the boys hair. "Adam, say hello to your father."
"H...hello, Daddy," the boy obeyed with a quiver in his voice that spoke of a child's fears.
"Adam, come here," Larabee tried and shook with anger when Milhous held the boy so tight that Adam cried out.
"Now, Adam, I won't hurt you as long as you do as I tell you. Chris may be your father, but I'm the one who's cared for you and given you everything you need. I believe you are better off with me, don't you agree, Son?"
"Leave him alone, Ron...nald," Larabee let the name stretch out, feeling the hatred as it rolled off his tongue.
"You are in no position to tell me what to do, Chris," Milhous warned and squeezed the child's arms until he cried out.
Chris could not fight it any longer and launched himself at Milhous. He managed to grab the man around the throat and was relieved when Milhous released his hold on the boy. "Adam, get out of here!"
"Giles, stop him!" Milhous managed as the boy jumped down and ran for the door. He fought against Larabee's hold and was amazed that his one time friend had so much strength after everything he'd been put through. The blond's fingers squeezed around his throat, his thumbs digging into the flesh with a ferocity that Milhous had never felt before.
"Stop, Larabee, or I'll snap the kid's neck!" Giles warned as a second man joined them and he shoved the kid away. "Hold him!"
Chris could hear the pain in his son's cry and felt a blow to his lower back. No matter what happened he would pay for this attack, but Chris knew Adam would also suffer. A second and third blow followed in quick succession and he felt his grip lessen as the pain finally registered. A fourth blow sent him to his knees as something struck him at the base of the neck and he pitched forward as a dark veil landed over him.
"Josiah, I found it," Jackson said and pulled out a folder that was nestled at the back of the file cabinet in Larabee's office.
"JD found several references to the Milhous family in the Billings Gazette, but most date back ten years or more," Sanchez explained as he read through the file Dunne had sent him.
Nathan opened the file and went through it, spreading the contents on Larabee's desk as the older man joined him. There were several pages, and they were all pretty damning in Jackson's eyes. The first page was a picture of a class at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Nathan's eyes were drawn to a young man standing in the front row and he knew immediately he was looking at Chris Larabee.
"I didn't realize Chris went to the Naval Academy," Sanchez said.
"I thought I heard Buck mention it a couple of times," Jackson said and read the names beneath the picture. He pointed to the man standing next to Larabee and a shudder raced down his spine. "That's Ronald Milhous the third."
"So we could be on the right track," Sanchez said and reached for the other papers. "Milhous was kicked out of the Naval Academy soon after this picture was taken. There are several notes here...a couple talk about the reason for his dismissal and that Chris was the catalyst in the testimony at Milhous' trial. It doesn't go into specifics, but the charges and Chris' testimony were enough to get Milhous dismissed and from the looks of it he pissed his daddy off pretty good too."
"Ronald Milhous the second disowned his son and cut off all ties with him," Jackson offered and handed over an old newspaper clipping.
"I could see why his son would be angry. If the papers are right the Milhous family is worth close to ten million dollars," Sanchez explained.
"If he's got Chris you can bet it's more than just revenge he wants. He'll kill him when he's ready...if he hasn't already done that."
"No, Chris is alive...Vin's still sensing him," Sanchez said as he read through the remaining papers, stopping on a letter that had been written by the man they now suspected of kidnapping their boss. "Milhous blames Chris for getting booted out of the Academy and that means he'll want revenge. He'll want to take Chris down for ruining his relationship with his father and the bastard has a mean streak if the pictures of his victim are any indication."
"At least the girl was able to go on with her life and she seems to be making a difference for others who were victimized like she was," Jackson said.
"We need to find out where Milhous lives," Sanchez said and began typing the name into the computer in an effort to find everything he could on Ronald Milhous the third.
Chris knew he was waking, but God help him he really didn't want to open his eyes. Something had changed, but the change wasn't good and his head rocked back as a hand slapped him several times until he finally opened his eyes and stared at Giles.
"It's 'bout time you woke up, Larabee, Mr. Milhous is growing impatient!"
"You hit l...like a girl," Chris managed and spit blood at the other man's feet. His chest felt tight and he coughed in an effort to clear his lungs, but nothing seemed to help as Giles grabbed his chin and lifted his face.
"I hit like a girl? You'll rethink that when I get through with you!"
"Giles, not right now," Milhous said and waited for Larabee to look at him.
"Where's Adam?" Larabee asked of the man seated behind the desk.
"He's in his cell for now. I'm afraid he's not feeling very well, but that's your fault isn't it, Chris? I mean you were warned not to do anything that might get him hurt."
"Bas...bastards!" Larabee cursed the two men even as Giles finally released his chin.
"You're the one who brought this on Adam, Chris, so don't go blaming me," Milhous warned and reached for the bottle of Sherry on his desk. "Would you like one?"
Chris just glared at the man through swollen eyes and wanted to shove the bottle down Milhous' throat. He lifted his head and looked at Giles who now stood between him and the man he hated above all others. Larabee knew he was going to die, but he silently vowed he'd take these two with him no matter what it cost. He coughed several times, fighting to catch his breath as it finally subsided.
"Jesus, Chris, that does not sound good. Perhaps I should let you die of pneumonia...that way there's no charge of murder if we get caught. Then again Giles would be pretty pissed if I didn't let him have his fun. Go ahead, Giles, but don't kill him."
"My pleasure, Mr. Milhous," Giles said and struck Larabee open handed across the right cheek. "Don't go passing out on me, Larabee, or I'll be forced to pay a visit to your son."
Buck watched as JD and Ezra continued to type in specific commands to the computer. They knew the Milhous family still has a house in Billings, but Josiah and Nathan had already checked there and found the place empty except for a couple of servants who took care of the house and surrounding grounds.
The cell phone service had finally come up with a partial answer to the mysterious cell phone call and now it was up to Standish and Dunne to come up with the final answer. Buck understood the two men were doing everything they could to find Milhous, but he was growing impatient and each time he looked at Tanner he knew things were getting worse.
"Buck, we've narrowed it down to two places...one is in Helena and the other is Lake Tahoe," Dunne said.
"Damn," Wilmington said.
"It's Helena," Tanner said softly from the doorway where he was leaning against the doorframe. "Buck, call Orin and see if he can get us a chopper."
"Are you sure, Vin?" Wilmington asked.
"Chris is there," the Texan said as the worried rogue dialed the number.
"Orin, it's Buck."
"Did you find Chris?"
"We think so. We found a couple of addresses for Milhous...one in Helena and the other is Lake Tahoe."
"How do you know which one?"
"Vin," Wilmington answered simply.
"Tell me what you need."
"We need a chopper and preferably a pilot who won't ask any questions," the ladies' man answered.
"I know just the man. Are you boys still at Chris' ranch?"
"Yeah, Nathan and Josiah should be here any minute."
"Good, I'll have Mike pick you up there in less than an hour."
"Don't thank me, Buck, just bring him home."
"We'll do our damndest," Wilmington said and hung up. "JD, can you bring up a layout of the house and surrounding grounds?"
"Already done," Standish answered for the youngest member of the team.
"Any chance you can get satellite photos?" Tanner asked.
"Working on it," Dunne answered.
"Buck, where are you guys?"
"We're in Chris' office, Josiah," Tanner answered.
"Anything new?" Jackson asked.
"Think so," the Texan answered. "Helena."
"That's not far," Sanchez said. "Take us a couple of hours..."
"Orin's sending a chopper," Wilmington offered. "It should be here in less than an hour."
"I've got satellite images," Dunne told them and waited for the others to gather round.
"We need a place to land that's close enough to go in by foot, but far enough away that we won't be noticed," Jackson observed.
"There's a clearing here," Dunne said and pointed to the image on the screen.
"By the time we get there it should be fully dark," Sanchez said.
"Chris' got equipment stored from the last operation," Wilmington told them. "It should be in the basement and I'm pretty sure there's night vision glasses and laser equipped sniper rifles."
"There is," Tanner agreed. "Me and Chris checked them last week."
"JD, take your laptop. We'll review the best place to land on the way," Sanchez ordered. "Buck, Vin, give me a hand with the equipment. Ezra, help Nathan with the first aid supplies."
JD unplugged the laptop, but kept the programs running as he hurried out of Larabee's office. He knew it would be up to him and Ezra to find the best way into the Milhous grounds without alerting whoever was there. If it was Ronald Milhous and he did indeed have Chris Larabee they'd need to have the element of surprise on their side. If it was another member of the Milhous family then they'd have to make their apologies and smooth things over as best they could.
Forty minutes later the six men and the equipment were loaded on the helicopter and flying toward Helena. JD had Larabee's laptop open and they were quickly making plans for the best way to rescue Chris Larabee and the boy who looked so much like his son, Adam.
Ronald Milhous stood on the patio and looked around his property. It had belonged to his parents, but his mother had given it to him in spite of his father's protests. It was a beautiful setting with the mountains to the west and the town of Helena within driving distance.
Milhous reached for the cigars on the table and lit one as he searched the grounds for any movement. There were three men who walked the perimeter, not because he was expecting trouble, but because he was cautious by nature. He knew he'd made some enemies in his recent business dealings, but so far he'd been able to smooth things over. His mother had always been a pushover where he was concerned and he took advantage of her wealth whenever he found himself in financial difficulties.
Ronald looked toward the lighted pool area and wondered if he should go for a swim, but first he wanted to look in on Larabee. It was time to finish this once and for all. The boy's death would be the last thing Chris Larabee witnessed before he died, leaving Ronald with no reminders of his one time friend's betrayal. He walked into the house and made his way toward the corridor leading to the level that housed the cells. They'd been built when the house was finished, but there was no history as to the reason for their additions.
Milhous stopped at the first door and pushed it open, not at all surprised to see Larabee tied to a chair and Giles standing in front of him. The blond head was caked with dirt and blood and the man's body was a mottled collection of bruises that could be seen through the tattered remains of his shirt.
"Giles, bring Adam," Milhous said and moved past his employee until he stood in front of the injured blond. He reached out and clamped his fingers on Larabee's chin and lifted his head until he could look into the grotesquely swollen eyes. "You don't look very well, Chris, and if I'm correct you won't last much longer under Giles heavy hands. Perhaps it's time to put you and your son out of your misery. What do you say? Is it a good time to die?"
"Leave...leave Adam a...alone," Larabee managed with an edge to his voice as he stared through the narrow slits of his eyes.
"I'm afraid that won't happen. Adam is a witness and I cannot allow him to live, but that's your fault too isn't it, Chris? You couldn't protect your son three years ago and you can't protect him now. I am going to let you watch him die this time so that you know there is no hope of his survival. Giles is only too happy to take care of both of you before he gets rid of your bodies in one of the deep caves high in the mountains. No one will ever find your bodies and perhaps you'll both be fossils for some future spelunker to find."
"You fucking animal," Larabee ground out and stared at the man whose eyes were as dark as his soul was. He knew he couldn't help Adam now and it tore him apart that this bastard was going to take his son away from him again. Tears welled up in his eyes as he heard the soft sobbing from the doorway and he renewed his effort to get free.
Under a cloak of darkness the six men exited the helicopter and made their way along the back trail that led to the Milhous home. JD had managed to find several weak points in the fenced perimeter that meant dividing into three teams of two. Josiah and Ezra would come in over the fence along the east side and take care of anyone at the front of the house. Nathan and JD would take the north edge, checking the area including the pool house. Buck and Vin would take the west side over the roughest terrain and that meant they'd need extra time to coordinate the attack. It would take the first two teams 15 minutes to reach their target, while the last team would need 25 minutes to reach theirs. Once inside they would head straight for the main house and hopefully find a way inside without alerting anyone to their presence.
They reached the place where they would part ways just as rain started to fall.
"Jesus, can anything else go wrong?" Wilmington spat.
"Actually, Buck, this could be a Godsend," Sanchez said. "If this is the right place..."
"It is," Tanner said adamantly.
"The rain will probably keep everyone under cover and give us a chance to reach the house without being discovered," the ex-preacher told them.
"We need to get moving," Wilmington said having seen the look that crossed Tanner's face. There was no doubt in his mind that Vin was sensing Chris and if he was right then Larabee was in serious trouble.
"All right, boys, let's move out," Sanchez said. "Buck, signal us as soon as you two reach your target."
"We will, Josiah, you guys be careful and we'll see you on the other side," Wilmington said and adjusted his night vision glasses before following the Texan through the rain soaked brush.
"I'm here, Adam," Larabee said as Giles dragged the boy into the room. Deep down he still wondered if the child was his son, but exhaustion and pain mixed with hope and Chris wanted so badly to hold him and soothe away his fears.
"Let me go!" Adam fought the man holding him, but Giles held tightly to him, laughing when he saw the hatred on Larabee's face.
"Be quiet, Kid!" Giles snapped.
"Leave him alone," Larabee said as Milhous motioned for Connors to enter. Chris could see he was holding a needle and knew he was going to die. He could deal with that because he'd faced death many times during his life, but Adam had only just begun to live. "Ronald, let him go...he won't tell anyone about this."
"Sorry, Chris, but that's not possible," Milhous said as Connors injected a drug into Larabee's arm. It would not kill him, but it would make him even more susceptible to suggestions and it would be the final nail in his one time friend's coffin when he was forced to watch Adam die all over again. He waited several minutes until he was sure the drug had taken effect and lifted Larabee's face until he could see into his eyes. "Adam is going to die because of you Chris."
"No, don't...don't do this, Ronnie...let him go."
"Sorry, I can't do that, but you can hold him if you want to. Would you like that, Chris?"
"I want...I want to hold him," Larabee answered, his voice weak and filled with raw emotion.
"I am going to release you and I'll give you exactly ten minutes to say your goodbyes and then you can watch as Giles takes care of him," Milhous said and released the blond's hands and legs. He watched as Larabee slid from the chair and nodded for Giles to let the boy go.
"Daddy," the boy cried and wrapped his arms around Chris' neck, clinging tightly as if he knew this was the last chance he would ever get to do so.
"I'm here, Adam...I'm here, Son," Larabee said as tears slid unchecked down his cheeks. He heard the door close behind Giles and knew they were alone in the room. With gargantuan effort he pushed the boy away and climbed unsteadily to his feet.
"I am, Adam, but that never stopped me before," Larabee said and smiled in spite of the pain of cracked lips and swollen eyes. "Adam, I need your help."
"Can we go away?"
"Yes, Son, we're going to go away, but first I need you to stay over here and pretend you're sleeping."
"Because those men are coming back and I need to make them think we're lying down here, Okay?" Chris blinked his eyes in an effort to clear his vision and wished Milhous had waited longer to give him whatever the hell the drug was.
"Okay," the boy said, but continued to cling to Larabee's leg.
"We need to hurry, Son," Larabee said and prayed the chair was not as strong as it looked. He tipped it on its side and lifted his leg, bringing his foot down as hard as he could on the back leg, relieved when he heard the sharp crack. He repeated the move until the back legs splintered and he could pull them free of the broken chair. There was no light switch in the room and Chris knew time was running short as he looked up at the bright, uncovered bulb.
"It's okay, Adam, I'm just going to break the light so I need you to stay back out of the way."
"I'm afraid of the dark..."
"I know, but I'll be here with you, Son."
"You won't let the bad man hurted me?"
"No, Adam, I won't. Now I need you to lie down by the chair so the man will think I'm beside you," Larabee explained. "I'll be right over there by the door..."
"But...but it'll be dark and I'll be 'lone," the boy said.
"No, Adam, you won't be alone, I'll be right there by the door. Okay?"
"Me too, Adam, but as long as I know you're here I can be strong."
"I can too, Daddy," Adam said, swallowing convulsively as Chris helped him lie down.
Larabee hoped the chair would fool Giles and Milhous long enough for him to use his makeshift weapon, but even if it did, was he strong enough to carry out any real attack? It didn't matter because if he failed they were both dead anyway. At least this way he had a chance to keep his son alive. Chris broke the bulb and moved to the door. He leaned against the wall and fought the drug that seemed to be sapping not only his strength, but his ability to think clearly.
Nathan and JD reached the north edge of the property and looked around for the easiest way onto the property. The rain that had begun to fall lightly was now falling fast enough that the ground was soggy underfoot. There were several trees close enough to give them a way onto the property without detection, but it was the rock formation that caught their attention. It was close enough that they could easily jump over the eight foot fence without detection, but they studied the grounds for several minutes before getting in to position.
"I don't see anyone, Nathan."
"That doesn't mean they're not around, Son," Jackson answered softly. "Look over at the pool house...see that?"
"Someone's smoking a cigarette," Dunne told him.
"He's there because it's out of the rain," the medic explained. "There's another one near the patio...I'll take care of him while you take out the smoker."
"Sounds like a plan," Dunne said and wished they'd hear from the others.
Josiah and Ezra reached their destination within minutes of Nathan and JD finding a way onto the grounds. There was a man in the gatehouse, but he seemed to be more interested in sleeping than watching for approaching vehicles. It would be easy enough for them to take the man out of the picture and enter the grounds through the main gate without alerting anyone on the inside.
"There is one problem we have yet to discuss," Standish whispered as they waited for the signal from the others.
"What's that?" Sanchez asked, ducking back under the tree as lightning streaked across the sky.
"What if there are guard dogs?"
"Then I'll have to run faster than you do," the ex-preacher explained.
"That's hardly reassuring," Standish said.
"Oh, I don't know. It sounds like a good plan to me," Sanchez said and smiled in spite of the cool rain dripping off the heavy branches.
Vin and Buck reached the west side and quickly found an area where they could scale the lowest point of the fence and enter the grounds. They watched for several minutes, spotting two men near what looked like a storage shed built against the fence itself.
"We'll need to take care of those two," Wilmington said softly.
"Easy 'nough once we get in there," Tanner said as the rogue used his cell phone to signal the others that they were ready to move in. He waited until Buck gave the okay before climbing the fence and landing softly on the wet ground. He pointed toward the structure nearly fifty feet away and knew Buck understood what he was saying.
Buck moved quickly, his footsteps muffled in the wet ground as thunder echoed through the surrounding hills bringing with it more rain and heavy winds. It hampered his movements, but not enough to make him stop as he reached the shed where a man stood huddled beneath an overhang. The man hadn't seen him yet, but Buck saw the weapon cradled in the man's hands. He had an advantage in that he was wearing the special glasses that helped him see in the dark.
Wilmington saw Vin move as if he was part of the land and knew the two guards would not see him. Tanner had a natural ability to blend in and that had saved his life on more than one occasion during his days as a bounty hunter. Buck returned his attention to the man he was closing in on and smiled when he heard him whistling softly as the rain pounded off the roof. Buck was so close now he could smell garlic off the man's breath and picked up a rock. It was a simple enough weapon and he quickly brought it down on the back of the guard's head, catching him as he slumped toward the ground.
Buck dragged the man deeper into the shadows and checked to make sure he was breathing. He had no doubt Tanner was right about Larabee being here, but if this was the one time he made a mistake, Buck didn't want to kill an innocent man who was simply doing his job. He glanced around, noting the lights above the distant pool had gone out and searched for any more men, but the only one he saw was Vin who signaled him to follow him toward the house.
Chris had no idea how much time had passed, and was fighting to stay on his feet as he listened to Adam's soft sobbing. The boy was afraid and the truth of the matter was so was Chris, afraid of losing his son all over again. Larabee leaned against the wall, anxiously waiting for it to open and blinked several times in an effort to clear his head.
"I'm here, Son, but I need...need you to be quiet a little lon...longer, okay?"
"O...okay," the boy answered softly, but Chris could hear the fear in his voice and prayed he could protect his son this time.
Nathan and JD made quick work of covering the ground between the fence and the pool house. It wasn't long before they dispatched the two guards and had them tied up beneath an umbrella at the edge of the fenced off pool area. There were no other guards in the area as Jackson and Dunne made their way toward the patio doors.
Nathan held up a hand to stop JD when he heard voices through the open doors. The two men stayed hidden below the deck, but could not quite make out what was being said. It was another ten minutes before whoever had been talking grew quiet and Dunne slipped up the steps and stared through the rain soaked glass doors.
The lights were on inside and JD could see an empty living room area with a fireplace and large screen flat panel TV. He turned and signaled for Jackson to follow and the two men quickly made their way to the house. They stood on opposite sides of the door, listening for anything that might tell them how many people were inside the Milhous home.
Nathan held his finger up to his mouth and reached for the door, gently gliding it open and listening for any sound from inside the house. From somewhere deeper in the home came the sound of a TV and Jackson remained still until he was sure they were still undiscovered. He stepped through the door and felt JD move in behind him and close the door before moving quietly through the living room.
"Adam, I need you to stay where y...you are," Larabee warned when footsteps sounded outside the room. He could hear Milhous talking to Giles, but could not understand what was being said as the muffled sound of thunder reached him.
"Me too, but we're going to be okay, Son, I'm going to get us out...out of here," the blond vowed and lifted the chair leg above his head as the handle turned and the door began to open.
Josiah waited while Ezra made his way to the gate and knocked on the door until the guard opened the window. He knew Standish could handle himself and would probably talk the man out of his shelter faster than he'd be able to knock the man out. He listened as Ezra told the guard that he'd gotten a flat tire about a mile down the road and needed to call for help. The guard's voice reached Sanchez and the man seemed genuinely sorry he couldn't help.
"Please, my wife and baby are waiting in the car and I really could use some help," Standish shouted above the howling winds.
"I'm afraid I can't let you onto the grounds," the guard said.
"Can you at least have someone call for help?"
"I'm afraid Mr. Milhous is a busy man and told me he wanted no interruptions tonight."
"Can you at least show me the shortest route to Helena?" Standish asked and pulled out a rumpled map that was quickly soaked through. He cursed softly, smiling inwardly as the guard open the door and stepped out of his shelter.
"Let me see the map," the man said and studied the paper, frowning when he realized it was a map of the streets of Billings. "What the hell is this?"
"Keep your hands where I can see them," Standish warned as Sanchez joined them. "Now you mentioned Mr. Milhous is a busy man...would that be Ronald Milhous the third?"
"Yes...yes it is," the guard stammered, uncertain what he should do as the two men seemed to have the upper hand.
"Does he have any guests?" Sanchez asked.
"Be careful how you answer because you could be an accessory to kidnapping," Standish interrupted.
"Look, Mister, I'm just a guard. I don't have anything to do with Mr. Milhous' business dealings?"
"Does Mr. Milhous have any guests?"
"I don't know. He might have had guests before I came on duty," the guard tried.
"How many employees does Milhous have here?" Sanchez asked.
"It depends on the number of guests and whether he's entertaining potential clients. I think he has five or six walking the grounds and Giles is here..."
"Giles," Standish asked.
"Big, mean, sonofabitch...he's always here when Mr. Milhous is in residence."
"Open the gate," Sanchez ordered.
"I can't," the guard said.
"You better...or should I remind you this could involve kidnapping and confinement," Standish warned and smiled as the man quickly pressed the keys on the console and the gates began to open. Ezra reached into his pocket and pulled out a set of handcuffs.
"What're you going to do with those?"
"We certainly can not allow you to warn your employer that we are here. Now it 's either these metal bracelets or I knock you out...the choice is yours," Standish told him.
"Those," the guard said.
"Wise decision," the gambler said. "Now please put your hands behind your back."
Josiah watched as Ezra quickly locked one cuff over the guard's right wrist before passing the other one through the fencing and locking the second cuff around the guard's left wrist.
"What if lightning hits the fence?"
"Do you believe in God?" Sanchez asked.
"Yes, I think so."
"Now's not the time to be indecisive," the ex-preacher said. "Now's the time to pray for some guidance and a little mercy too. Just relax and we'll be back to check on you as soon as we can."
"I'm sorry, but we can't have you calling for help either," Standish said and reached for a silk handkerchief that he quickly stuffed into the guard's mouth.
"Come on, Ezra, it's time to find Chris and get him out of here," Sanchez said and strode through the gate.
The door began to open and Chris held his breath expectantly as light entered through the narrow slit.
"What the hell?" Giles said and stepped inside.
"Is there a problem Giles?" Milhous asked.
"The light's out..."
Chris attacked without giving the man a chance to realize his mistake. The chair leg caught Giles on the shoulder and side of the head, but there wasn't enough force behind it to do any real damage. The big man staggered slightly, but turned to meet the threat head on. Chris could see the smile on his nemesis' face, as he swung the leg like a club for the second time.
"Don't worry, Mr. Milhous, I can handle Larabee!" Giles said and ducked away, chuckling softly as the battered blond lifted his weapon again.
"You hear that, Vin?" Wilmington snapped and raced toward the open doorway. The Texan was a couple of steps ahead of him, but they spotted the man in the corridor at the same time.
"What the fuck are you doing in my house?" Milhous snapped as the two men hurried toward him.
Neither man bothered to answer, but continued toward the man even as he stepped through the open doorway.
"Giles, I'll take care of him," Milhous said and knew Giles could handle the duo coming down the hallway. "You're a dead man, Chris!"
"Not fr...from where I'm standing," Larabee said and moved to protect the boy as Milhous reached for him.
"I'll kill him..."
"Just your style...picking on a kid," the blond said and swung the chair leg as Milhous came closer.
Vin saw a man exit the room and tackled him before he could get a shot off. He knew Wilmington would handle whatever was happening in the room and it was up to him to keep this one from hurting anyone else.
Giles was shocked when the smaller man launched an aggressive attack that sent them both staggering backward until they both regained their balance. Fists struck him in the face and the gut even as a foot connected with his knee. He reached for the switchblade he kept hidden inside his coat and slashed it toward the newcomer.
Vin felt the blade slice through his shirt and cut into his left side, but he didn't take the time for his body to realize it was injured. He jumped back when the man tried for a second time, but the blade missed him totally as the Texan turned and aimed a kick at the man's side. Tanner quickly reversed and struck the man's wrist, loosening his grip on the knife, but not quite breaking his hold.
"I'm gonna enjoy killing you!" Giles snapped and slashed toward the Texan's throat, but missed completely as a second attacker joined the injured man.
"Vin, you okay?"
"Take the sonofabitch down," Tanner said as his legs threatened to give out. He saw the knife coming for him again at the same time a shot rang out. His vision blurred and he tried to understand why he suddenly felt detached from his surroundings.
"Easy, Vin, the bastard cut you deep," Sanchez said as Standish checked the man to see if he would be causing any more trouble.
"Damn it...you find...find Chris?" the Texan asked.
"Chris, you in here?"
Larabee recognized Buck's voice, but he couldn't take the time to answer as Milhous reached into his jacket and pulled out a small gun. The man smiled as he pointed it at Adam, but Chris reacted on instinct and covered the boy with his body. He felt something slam into his right side with enough force to drive him to his knees.
Adam's cry reached Chris' ears at the same time as a second shot sounded and he tensed his body. He heard a heavy thud and turned his head to see Milhous facing him, eyes open, but unseeing. Larabee could hear the child's soft sobs and held him as Wilmington hurried toward them.
"Buck...take care...take care of Adam," Larabee managed and heard voices outside the room. His mind was slowly shutting down, but he felt the child holding him as if his life depended on him. Chris swallowed several times, choking on the taste of blood at the back of his throat.
"Nathan, we need you in here!" Wilmington called, ripping his shirt and pressing it against the bullet wound to Larabee's right side. He knew Tanner had been injured, but hoped it was nothing serious because right now it looked like Chris was in serious need of help.
"I know, Chris, but we need to take care of you now," the worried rogue said, unwilling to really believe the child was Adam Larabee.
"Don't hurt my daddy," the boy cried and continued to hold tightly to the injured blond even as more people entered the room.
"They w...won't, Adam...friends," Larabee managed between gasping breaths.
"Nathan!" Wilmington repeated.
"He's with Vin, Buck," Standish told him.
"How bad?" the rogue asked.
"Knife wound...bad one," Dunne answered.
"Vin okay?" the injured blond managed.
"He will be Chris...you and him are probably going to be sharing a room...man I pity the hospital staff," Wilmington said and finally looked at the child. "Adam, we need to take care of your...take care of Chris."
"A...Adam, it's okay," Larabee told the boy and tried to soothe the boy's fears. "Buck's going...going to take care of you."
"Come on, Kiddo, ol' Buck won't let anything bad happen to you," Wilmington vowed as the boy finally released Larabee and wrapped thin arms around his neck. Buck held the boy, watching as Standish eased Larabee down onto his side and tucked his jacket underneath the blond's head. He knew the coat was wet, but at least it helped the injured man breathe a little easier.
"JD," Wilmington said when the youngest member of the team entered the room.
"He's hurt and we need a first aid kit. Go find one of the staff and tell them we need clean towels and something to carry Chris on," the gentle rogue ordered.
"Not now, Kid," Wilmington warned as the boy settled against his shoulder. He looked toward the doorway as Nathan and Josiah supported Tanner into the room, with Jackson grumbling about pigheaded Texan's being the death of him yet.
"Nathan, I'm going to help JD get the supplies and see if we can't figure out a way to carry Chris and Vin upstairs," Sanchez said.
"Sounds good, Josiah, and see if there's any cell reception out here. We're going to need Medivac ASAP," Jackson ordered and began checking Larabee for injuries. "Buck, how is he?"
"He's pretty shook up, Nate, but I can't see anything seriously wrong. He's shaking though...probably cold and maybe in shock," Wilmington observed.
"Take him up to the main house and warm him up. See if there's something warm for him to drink. Maybe a bowl of soup or some hot chocolate," the medic said.
"What do you say, Kiddo, want to go get something to eat?" Wilmington asked.
"I want to stay...stay with daddy," the boy said.
"I know, but daddy...but Chris needs help right now and...me and you are just in the way. Nathan's going to take care of him while I take care of you, okay?"
"O...okay," the child said and pressed his face into Buck's neck as the ladies' man carried him out of the room.
"Chris, I won't ask you how you're feeling, but I need you to be still while I check you over," Jackson said, not liking the way Larabee's breathing sounded.
"I'm fine, Cowboy," Tanner lied and held his hand tight against the wound to his left side.
"Sure...sure you are," Larabee whispered, crying out when Nathan prodded his ribs.
"Sorry, Chris," Jackson apologized as Josiah rejoined them carrying several towels and a first aid kit. "Did you find anything we can carry them on?"
"JD's gone with one of Milhous' employees to get the stretcher from the pool house. The maid is fixing up the guest room...it has two beds so we figured you could take care of them there until the Medivac gets here," Sanchez answered.
"There's no signal out here...even the land lines are down and a major storm cell is moving through the area."
"Damn it," Jackson swore as Dunne and Standish entered with a stretcher held between them. He hadn't even noticed the gambler's departure, and it still shocked him when the man showed this side of himself.
"Josiah, get Vin upstairs and make sure he lies down and stays put!" Jackson ordered and continued his examination of the injured blond as Sanchez and Standish eased the Texan onto the stretcher.
"We'll be right back," Standish said.
"Just go easy with him," the medic ordered as Dunne moved to the opposite side.
"What can I do, Nathan?" the Bostonian asked.
"Keep pressure on this," Jackson said and moved his hand so that Dunne could place his against the bullet wound. He reached inside the kit, but found very little he could use to help Larabee. The blond was bruised from head to toe and if he was right, there were internal injuries he couldn't see, plus there was a definite wheeze that spoke of lung involvement.
"Na...Nathan," the blond whispered.
"I'm here, Chris, just rest," Jackson ordered.
"Make sure Adam's o...okay."
"Buck's with him, Chris, he's fine," Jackson said as Sanchez and Standish returned. "We're going to get you off the floor now, Chris, and make you comfortable until the Medivac arrives. I don't think there's any neck or spinal injury, but we'll use the logroll maneuver to move you. Josiah, you have his legs, Ezra, you got his body, and I'll take care of his head."
"On three," Sanchez said and counted before helping ease Larabee onto the stretcher.
Chris held his breath while they moved him, but cried out as pain erupted in his right side. He felt hands on his body and something was pressed against his back.
Nathan knew they'd caused the injured man more pain, but it was necessary to get him out of the damp room. He walked alongside the stretcher until they reached the upper level and made their way toward a bedroom at the back of the house. Milhous' employees were watching them, but no one moved to stop them.
"Excuse me," an older woman said and waited for Jackson to acknowledge her.
"Who are you?" Jackson asked.
"My name is Marie. I have worked for Mr. Milhous for nearly ten years...is he all right?"
"No, Ma'am, he's not. We're trying to get through to the police, but there's no cell reception out here. Did you..."
"The land lines are down as well," a gray haired man in a black suit answered the unspoken question.
"Do you have a car?" Dunne asked.
"Yes, Mr. Milhous' Limo is in the garage," Marie answered.
"What's your name?" Jackson asked the elderly man.
"Simpson...John Simpson. I've worked for the Milhous family for thirty years. I knew Ronald would end up on the wrong side of a bullet some day. Is there anything I can do to help?"
"There's a clearing about half a mile from here," Jackson said.
"I know the place. There's a small access road off the main road leading into Helena," Sampson offered.
"Do you think you could find it in this storm?"
"I think so," Sampson answered.
"JD, take John and get to that chopper. Bring me back my kit," Jackson ordered.
"Come on, John, looks like we're on a mission," Dunne said. He knew the medic's kit had what he needed to help Chris and Vin until they could get medical help out here.
Nathan hurried into the room to find Sanchez easing the blanket up over Chris Larabee. The blond needed medical attention badly and Jackson winced sympathetically as the injured man began to cough and held his arms tight against his chest.
Buck fought the urge to go check on Larabee and Tanner as he studied the boy who was sipping hot chocolate with marshmallows and eating a cookie. Could this really be Adam Larabee? The hair and eye color were right and he even had Sarah's unruly curls. He was the right age, but small...that didn't really matter because Adam had always been a small child.
If it was Adam why hadn't the boy recognized him? Then again if it was Chris' son, he'd been through a traumatic experience and maybe his memories were not intact. God, he wished it was Adam Larabee because if it wasn't then Chris would have to live with the loss all over again. No parent should have to do that once, let alone twice.
"Buck, how is he?"
"He's quiet, Josiah," Wilmington answered softly and accepted a cup of coffee from the maid. "The poor kid's been through hell."
"Do you believe it's Adam?"
"I guess it's possible, but how did Milhous get him and who did we bury? There are too many unanswered questions and we need to find out if it really is Adam."
"Ella Gaines could have kidnapped him and taken him before the explosion," Sanchez offered.
"Still doesn't answer the question of who we buried," Wilmington answered.
"Well, DNA testing takes time, but it's the best way to be sure," the ex-preacher told him.
"We'll make arrangements as soon as we can," the rogue said and noticed tears slipping down the boy's cheeks. He made his way over and picked him up, rubbing the boys back when he snuggled his face into Buck's neck.
"Nathan said he'll take a look at him as soon as he's finished with Vin and Chris," Sanchez told him. "JD's gone with the chauffeur to get his kit from the chopper."
"There's still no phone service," Wilmington said.
"I know," Sanchez said.
"The boy looks exhausted," the maid said, unable to believe what had really been going on in the house. Milhous had managed to keep most of the staff in the dark about the two prisoners, but she had a feeling some of them must have known.
"He is, Marie, is there somewhere he can lay down and sleep?" Wilmington asked.
"There's a guest room set up for young children...would you like me to take him?"
"No, that's okay, just show me where it is," the rogue told her.
"Of course, come with me," Marie told him and led the way out of the kitchen.
Johan Connors knew sooner or later they were going to find him, but he continued to hide in the hidden room at the back of Milhous' bedroom. His hands were shaking and he wanted a drink so badly he was tempted to come out of hiding. He'd heard voices and the sound of a scuffle, but even Milhous' staff knew nothing of this hideaway.
Connors stood up and paced the narrow confines before stopping in front of the single bed and wondered who had been staying here. Perhaps this was where the boy had been kept, that thought made him tremble and he wondered if the newcomers had arrested Milhous. If so, could he turn state's evidence against his employer and maybe not even spend a day in jail?
Connors knew he would be discovered as soon as they began searching the house, and it wouldn't be good for him if he cowered inside this room. Taking a deep breath he reached for the handle and slowly opened it, listening for any sound that the others had been alerted.
Johan stepped out of the room just as Milhous' maid walked past the bedroom door and gasped as she stared at him. "Marie, where are they?"
"Who are you?" Wilmington asked after handing the sleeping boy to the maid.
"Johan Connors...I work for Mr. Milhous," Connors answered.
"Not anymore...Milhous is dead," Wilmington said, relieved that Marie had taken the boy to the bedroom.
"Who are you people?"
"Did you know what Milhous was doing?" the angry rogue asked.
"No...yes...I was forced to do what he said," Connors tried.
"Why don't I believe that? What did you do for Milhous?"
"I'm his doctor..."
"Oh really, then why are you hiding in here?" Wilmington asked dubiously.
"I wasn't hid....hiding..."
"Certainly looks that way to me," the rogue said and grabbed the man by the throat. "What do you really do for Milhous?"
"You what?" Wilmington asked applying more pressure to the man's throat.
"I...he made me give Larabee drugs," the man answered fearfully.
"Buck, are you all right?"
"I'm fine, Ezra, but it looks like we've got a prisoner," Wilmington said and shoved the man toward the door as he explained to the gambler what Connors had said.
"Perhaps you would care to enlighten us as to what drugs you injected?" Standish asked, his voice ice cold.
"It was a combination of several drugs designed to make Mr. Larabee open to suggestions as well as make him hallucinate and there were several side effects," Connors answered.
"I believe you should explain this to Nathan," Standish snapped and shoved the man ahead of him.
Nathan looked from one injured man to the other and knew they both needed medical attention, more than he could provide, but right now they were stuck where they were until further notice. It had been nearly half an hour since Dunne had left and he kept glancing at his watch impatiently. He looked up as someone entered the room and put his finger up for the man to be quiet.
"How are they, Nate?"
"They've both lost a lot of blood and Chris' running a fever. God only knows what Milhous was giving him," Jackson answered.
"Maybe this sonofabitch can shed some light on that, Nate," Wilmington said.
"Who's he?" Sanchez asked as the rogue roughly pushed the man down on a chair, far enough from the injured men so he couldn't do anything to hurt either of them.
"Says he's a doctor...he's been giving Chris some kind of injections," the rogue answered.
"What did you give him?" Jackson asked angrily and listened as the prisoner named several drugs he recognized and still more he didn't. "It's men like you that gives doctors a bad rap!"
"I did what I had to..."
"No, you did what you were paid to do!" Jackson spat and turned when a low moan escaped the battered blond. "Easy, Chris, just lie still...help's going to be here soon."
"Nathan, I got your kit and the pilot was able to get a call through to the authorities," Dunne said upon entering the room with two bags.
"How long before they get here?" Wilmington asked.
"Not sure...the road's washed out and the storm's still making a mess of communications. The Medivac chopper will be in the air as soon as the weather clears," the Bostonian explained as Jackson began setting up an IV for Larabee.
Nathan looked for a spot on the injured blond's arm to insert the IV and finally decided the top of his right hand would have to do. He cleaned the area and inserted the tiny needle and soon had the solution running into Larabee's body. Next he took out the oxygen cylinder and placed the mask over his patient's mouth and nose.
Jackson turned his attention to the second patient and soon had an IV inserted and flowing into the Texan's arm. Tanner was awake and breathing fine, but Nathan knew he was in pain and added morphine to his IV before sitting back and rubbing tired eyes.
"Who's he?" Tanner asked softly when he noticed the man sitting in a chair with Buck's hand pressing down on his right shoulder.
"He's the bastard who was helping Milhous. He gave Chris a mess of drugs," Wilmington answered.
"Damn it!" Tanner snarled and tried to come off the bed, but pain and blood loss had already sapped his strength.
"Let that be a lesson to you," Jackson warned. "Just lie there and let that morphine take affect and get some rest."
"Nathan, how's Chris?" the Texan asked as Jackson used his stethoscope to listen to the blond's chest.
"He's okay for now, Vin, but you both need a hospital and a lot more stuff than what I got here," the medic answered.
"Easy, Brother, you're doing everything you can and that's all we can ask of you," Sanchez offered.
"Looks like the rain's stopping," Dunne told them.
"Thank God," Wilmington observed.
"I already did," the ex-preacher assured them.
"I have a signal," the ladies' man said.
"Good, see how long before the chopper is in the air," Jackson ordered and hoped it would be soon.
Vin had dozed on and off, but opened his eyes when he heard new voices, ones he didn't recognize, speaking to Jackson and Wilmington. He shifted on the bed, still under the influence of the shot Jackson had given him and looked across the room at the second bed.
"He's fine, Vin," Wilmington advised. "Medivac just landed and they'll be getting you both to the hospital."
"How's the kid?"
"Still sleeping, but he'll be going to the hospital too," the gentle rogue answered.
"Is he hurt?"
"A couple of bruises, but Nathan said he's probably emotionally hurt more than physically."
"Any chance he's really Adam?"
"Right now your guess is as good as mine," Wilmington answered. "He's got the right eye and hair color and he's Adam's age, but until we do some DNA testing we won't know anything."
"Either way it's gonna be hell for Chris," Tanner said as two men hurried into the room. He watched as they checked Larabee over and hooked him up to the monitoring equipment before carrying him out of the room.
"Stay put, Vin, they'll be right back for you," Jackson explained.
"Where are they taking them, Nate?" Wilmington asked.
"St Peter's Hospital in Helena," the medic answered as the two men returned for the second patient. Nathan moved back as they carefully loaded the second patient and hurried out of the room.
"The police are here and they've arrested Connors," Wilmington advised. "Adam's still sleeping...poor kid's exhausted. The police want to talk to him, but they'll wait until someone from child protective services is present."
"Good, the boy needs someone in his corner."
"He's got us," the rogue assured him.
"I know...we need to find a ride."
"Already done. Our chopper should be outside in five minutes, but I'm not leaving until Adam is taken care of," Wilmington said. "You guys should go with the chopper and I'll ride in with the kid."
"Are you sure, Buck?"
"Chris would never forgive me if I let Adam be scared and alone right now. It doesn't matter if he's Chris' son, what matters right now is that he's a scared little boy who's seen way too much."
"You're going to make one hell of a father someday, Buck," Jackson observed.
"Maybe sooner than you think," Wilmington said and thought about Inez Recillos and a possible future with her.
"The chopper's here," Dunne called from the living room.
"Go ahead, Nate, I'll see you boys at the hospital," Wilmington assured him and made his way toward the bedroom where the boy was sleeping. A female police officer was standing just inside the door and Buck acknowledged her presence before pulling up a chair and sitting next to the bed. 'God, Sarah, could this really be Adam?' he thought and sighed heavily before settling back to wait for the ambulance and social worker.
Daniel Cooper watched as the Medivac chopper touched down and ducked below the spinning blades before helping pull the gurney toward the aircraft. He was part of the emergency room staff and had been a member of St. Peter's Hospital for nearly 15 years. He was damn proud of the staff and the hospital facilities and knew they could handle the two patients being transported by the helicopter.
Cooper knew that his colleague, Angie Thompson would be taking the second patient, but his own attention was completely on the man now being transferred to the stretcher. He listened as the medics rattled off the vitals and treatment given to the patient en route and he took charge as they rushed the injured man toward the hospital and into the emergency room already set up for him.
"Dr. Grady is on his way down," Cindy Ryan said once they'd hooked the patient up to the hospital's equipment. Simon Grady was a cardiovascular surgeon with 20 years in the specialized field. From the looks of the man they'd just brought in he would need Grady's help.
"Good," Cooper said and shone the light in the patient's eyes, shocked when the man tried to speak.
"Don't...hurts," Larabee mumbled.
"What's your name?" the physician asked softly.
"Chris Larabee...where...hell am I?"
"You're in St. Peter's Hospital. My name is Daniel Cooper and I'm one of the doctors who'll be taking care of you. Now I know you're in pain and we're going to give you something to help with that," the man advised.
"Pardon me?" Cooper asked.
Cooper stared at the nurse and frowned. There'd been another man brought in with Larabee, but there was no way they could be father and son. "Chris, there was just you and another man brought in..."
"Vin...he's hurt...Adam's my son...need to know if he's okay," the blond managed.
"We'll find out as soon as we take care of you, Chris," Cooper advised. "Cindy, make sure we get the test results back ASAP and put a rush on x-rays. He has a bullet in his back and we need to find out exactly where it is."
"What have you got, Daniel?" Simon Grady asked, passing one of the nurses as he entered the room.
"His name is Chris Larabee. He has a gunshot wound to the back...lower right side. Portable X-ray should be here shortly. He's been beaten pretty severely and we could be dealing with broken ribs. His lungs sound congested and we could be dealing with pneumonia," Cooper said.
"Any chance the breathing problems could be from a punctured lung?" Grady asked.
"It's possible...there was blood on his lips, but he doesn't seem to be in distress," Cooper answered. "I'm just going to give him something for pain."
"Has he had anything yet?"
"Not yet," Cooper answered as the nurse readied the prescribed medication.
"Chris, my name is Simon Grady and I'm going to help Daniel make you comfortable. We're going to get that bullet out and then make sure you're settled in ICU. For now just relax and let us take care of you."
"Chris, that medication is going to make you sleepy so don't fight it. I'm going to check on your son as soon as we're through here," Cooper vowed.
"Okay...thanks," Larabee said with a heavy sigh as he surrendered to his body's need for rest.
"His blood pressure is low," Grady observed and told the nurse to start a second IV.
"I've ordered a couple of units of O-positive for now, but it looks like he's one of those rare blood types," Cooper said.
"Damn, I hope we've got some on hold because he's going to need it," Grady said and began checking the chart the nurse had started.
Vin knew he was being stubborn, but that had never stopped him before as he stared at the woman standing beside his bed. Her hands were on her hips and she had a no nonsense attitude that would have made Roy Simmons proud.
"Look, Doc, I just need..."
"What you need is to stay where you are and let us take care of you..."
"I will, but can ya find out 'bout Chris. He was brought in with me," Tanner griped.
"I know he was and right now Dr. Cooper and Dr. Grady are with him. I will talk to them as soon as I make sure you're taken care of. Now I know you've lost a lot of blood and that you have a rare blood type and we've sent out an order to see if there's any at the other hospitals. Until then we're going to start you with a unit of O-positive and get another IV started."
"Doc, I'm okay..."
"Like hell you are. That knife wound is deep and you're going to need stitches and probably IV antibiotics," Angie Thompson warned.
"Just check on Chris and I'll stay put," Tanner tried.
"Nila, check on his friend and report back to me because something tells me Vin's not going to relax until we find out," the physician said.
"Yes, Dr. Thompson," Nila Mohammad said and hurried from the room.
"Thanks, Doc," Tanner said, slightly relieved that he'd have some answers.
"Don't thank me yet, Vin, now comes the hard part," Thompson said and removed the bandage covering the jagged cut along the man's left side. She heard a soft hiss and looked into the deep blue eyes sympathetically. "I'm going to give you something to help with the pain."
"Not...not until I know 'bout Chris," the Texan told her.
"It won't knock you out, Vin, but I need to make sure there's nothing more going on here and I can't do that if you're hurting," Thompson said softly and turned to see Daniel Cooper standing in the doorway.
"Nila told me you have a stubborn patient," Cooper said.
"Come in, Daniel," Thompson said and turned to her patient. "Vin, this is Daniel Cooper, he's the doctor looking after your friend."
"How's Chris?" Tanner asked worriedly.
"He's stable enough that we're going to take him to surgery and remove the bullet," Cooper said and explained their findings to Larabee's friend.
"Doc, me and Chris got the same blood type..."
"Hell," Thompson said.
"It looks like we're going to have to do a little blood drive," Cooper said and patted Tanner's leg. "Try not to worry...we've got a donor list and I'm sure we'll have people here within the hour. Rest easy, your friend is in good hands."
"Thanks, Doc," Tanner said and closed his eyes. He soon felt himself relaxing and knew Thompson had given him a shot of pain medication.
"Sleep, Vin, and you'll both be fine," Thompson explained and set to work caring for the wound.
Buck stayed with Adam as the child services worker and the paramedics checked him over. It was decided that he be taken to St. Peters and given a complete physical by the staff there. When it became obvious that the boy did not want Buck to leave, Wilmington refused to leave the child alone. He carried him to the waiting ambulance as the police and detectives continued to check the house and take statements from the staff and the agents of the Firm.
Buck had spoken with the officers, but had been allowed to leave with Adam. The boy clung to him as if he was a surrogate for Chris and Wilmington knew the child had been through hell. The doctor had made a cursory examination and found that Adam was slightly malnourished and dehydrated, but they would not need to start an IV if they could get him eating and drinking.
"Buck...I want...I want daddy," the boy sobbed.
"I know you do, Adam, but he's with the doctors and they are going to make him better. You want him to get better don't you, Son?"
"I want daddy better."
"I know and he will be. What I want you to do now, Kiddo, is get some sleep. I'll stay here with you."
"You won't let the bad man in?"
"No, Adam, I won't let him in," Wilmington vowed and watched as the boy's eyes finally closed and he seemed to be sleeping.
Josiah, Nathan, Ezra, and JD made their way toward the room at the end of the corridor where Vin Tanner was now a patient. The Texan had been admitted because of blood loss and would probably be kept for several days. Chris Larabee was in surgery and the doctor would be advised as to where they could be found.
Josiah gently pushed open the door to see a nurse checking Tanner's IV and she placed a finger against her lips in an effort to silence them. "How is he?" Sanchez asked softly.
"He's resting comfortably and I'd like it to stay that way. Hospital policy allows only two visitors at a time," Maria Alverez warned.
"Yes, Ma'am, but he's an important witness..."
"Cut the crap...I don't fall for that anymore," the nurse told the young man who'd spoken. "I'm not a prude either and I don't mind bending the rules as long as you don't break them. You can stay with him as long as you let him rest because I know he's worried about his friend."
"Thank you, Ms Alverez," Standish said and smiled before moving past her and into the room. He could tell the Texan was sleeping and sat on the single chair by the window as the others moved in and took up positions around the bed.
"Guys are thinkin' so hard yer givin' me a headache," the Texan's voice was edged with weariness as he opened his eyes and looked around the room.
"Hey, Vin, how are you feeling?" Dunne asked.
"Sleepy," Tanner answered honestly.
"Go ahead and sleep, Vin," Jackson advised.
"Any news on Chris?" the injured man asked.
"Nothing yet," Sanchez answered. In the 40 minutes since their arrival they'd checked with the nursing staff on the surgical ward, but so far all they knew was that Larabee was still in surgery.
"Where's Buck?" Tanner asked of the missing man.
"He is with Adam," Standish told him.
"Kid's been through a lot. Gonna need ta find out fer sure if he's Chris' boy," the Texan said and succumbed to sleep once more.
Daniel Cooper and Simon Grady helped settle their newest patient in SICU. Chris Larabee had come through surgery with minimal complications and would be in the SICU for the next 24 hours. If all went well he would be moved in with Vin Tanner the next afternoon.
"Janet, keep an eye on his temperature and let me know if there's any change," Cooper ordered.
"Yes, Doctor," Janet Walberg answered.
"Daniel, I've got surgery scheduled in an hour so I'll check back with you later today," Grady told him.
"Thanks, Simon," Cooper said and returned his attention to the newest admission to the specialized unit. The nurse was relatively new to the hospital, but she'd proven she was damn good at her job. "Janet, I'm going to go see his friend, but I'll be in the hospital for a couple of hours. Notify me if there are any problems."
"I will, Dr. Cooper," Walberg said and continued to monitor her patient.
Daniel Cooper left the SICU and headed toward the information desk. He knew Angie Thompson had admitted Vin Tanner, but didn't know the room number. It didn't take long to find out where the second injured man was and he quickly made his way to the second floor room.
Daniel pushed open the door and was surprised to see four men standing inside the door while the patient seemed to be sleeping. "I was told Vin Tanner was here?"
"I'm here," Doc," the Texan said and opened his eyes.
"Do you know Chris Larabee?" Cooper asked.
"Is he okay?" Tanner asked, raising the head of his bed.
"I'll take that as a yes," Cooper said and looked at the other men before continuing. "Chris gave us a few trials, but he should make a full recovery. Dr. Grady repaired the damage from the bullet. He's bruised from head to toe and suffered a couple of cracked ribs. That's going to make things a little difficult because he's also suffering from pneumonia."
"Hell," Jackson swore softly.
"Hell is right, but like I said he should be fine. He'll spend the next 24 hours in SICU, but if everything goes well he should be moved to a regular room tomorrow afternoon. I'm sure we'll probably be able to have him moved in here if that's what you want," Cooper offered.
"That'd probably be easier on your staff, Doc," Jackson advised.
"I have a feeling you're probably right."
"Can I see him?"
"Not right now, Mr. Tanner, but if one of the others wants to check on him that'll be fine. Just give the staff an hour to make sure he's settled."
"Nathan," Tanner said.
"I'll go, Vin," Jackson said.
"Just don't stay too long because he'll be groggy and needs his rest. So do you, Mr. Tanner," Cooper said before leaving the room.
"Guess I'll go fill Buck in on what's happening," Sanchez offered.
"I'll be back shortly, Vin," Jackson vowed and understood how worried the Texan was about Larabee.
"Thanks, Nate," the Texan said and closed his eyes. He shifted slightly and tried not to show his discomfort, but knew he failed when he heard Standish ring for the nurse.
Nathan found his way to the SICU and stopped at the desk to find out where Chris Larabee's room was located. Once he reached the area he entered to find a nurse checking on the patient and was told to come in. His gaze automatically moved to the monitors and he knew Larabee's temperature was still elevated.
"Talk to him," Janet said.
"Is he awake?"
"Not really, but at times he seems to be on the verge of waking," the nurse explained.
"Hey, Chris, it's Nathan, just wanted to see how you're doing," Jackson said and watched the blond closely as he fought to open his eyes and tried to reach for the oxygen mask covering his mouth and nose.
"Mr. Larabee, you're in St. Peter's Hospital in Helena and you're going to be fine, but you need to leave the mask where it is," Janet warned.
"O...okay," the blond whispered and sighed heavily before drifting off to sleep once more.
"He's doing fine, Nathan," the nurse said and smiled as she continued to care for her patient.
"I need to go let the others know how he's doing."
"You go ahead, he won't be alone here," Janet said and watched the man reluctantly leave the room. She checked the monitors and noted the results on his chart before turning the lights down low and allowing him to rest.
"How's he doing, Buck," Sanchez asked upon entering the child's room on the Pediatric Ward.
"He's okay, Josiah, the doctor says he's slightly malnourished and dehydrated, but he's eating and drinking now."
"That's good. Are you okay, Buck? I know how close you were to Adam and Sarah."
"We all were, Josiah."
"True, but you were Adam's Godfather and you knew Sarah from the beginning."
"Hell, Josiah, I even made a pass at Sarah before Chris did, but I guess she wasn't into tall, dark and..."
"I believe Vin would say 'full of shit'," Sanchez said softly and was relieved to hear a soft laugh from the ladies' man.
"Probably. How is he?"
"He's okay...they're giving him heavy duty pain meds and he's sleeping. Dr. Cooper just came down to update us on Chris...he's going to be okay, Buck," Sanchez said and watched the relief come over the other man's face as he sank down on the chair.
"Thank God," Wilmington said and looked at the sleeping boy.
"Buck, why don't you go on up and see Chris?"
"I can't leave him."
"I'll stay with him," Sanchez offered.
"I...he should sleep, but if he wakes up...and he's having a nightmare."
"Who wouldn't after everything he's been through?" the ex-preacher said. "Go, Buck, I'll make sure he's okay."
"Thanks, Josiah," Wilmington said and hurried from the room. He stopped at the information desk and found out where the SICU was and hurried toward it. Nathan was just exiting the room as Buck reached the proper door. "How is he?"
"He was awake for all of ten seconds, Buck, but right now that's good news. I need to go let the others know how he's doing so you go ahead and stay with him," Jackson said.
"Thanks, Nate," the ladies' man said and entered the room. He took a deep breath and was slightly taken aback by the equipment around Larabee, but he knew most of it was standard in SICU. He smiled at the nurse and read the nametag with a smile. "Chris, you're a lucky man to have Janet taking care of you. Maybe she'll agree to meeting me for coffee..."
"Sorry, Buck, but I'm engaged and he wouldn't take kindly to me making a coffee date with someone as devilishly handsome as you," Janet said with a grin.
"Damn, he's a lucky man, Ma'am," Wilmington said and pulled a chair closer to the bed. He sat down tiredly and briefly wondered how long it had been since any of them had slept.
Chris could hear a buzzing sound as if bees were humming around his head and fought to open his eyes. There was something covering his mouth and nose and he reached for it, but his hands were caught and held until he finally managed to focus on the person beside his bed.
"Easy, Pard, don't go trying to take that off or they'll tie your hands down," Wilmington explained. He'd been with Larabee a couple of hours and was relieved the man was actually awake even if he looked and sounded like hell.
"Buck...happened?" Larabee asked.
"You're in the hospital, but you're going to be fine."
"F...feel so damn tired."
"Go ahead and sleep. Me and the boys will take care of everything," Wilmington told him.
"Boys?" the blond mumbled. "Boy...Buck... Adam. I need...need to find out if he...if he's really my son."
"I know you do, Chris, but right now you need to sleep. The rest will take care of itself when the time is right."
"O...okay," Larabee agreed. "Is he...okay?"
"He's okay, Chris, thanks to you," the ladies' man assured him before the blond's eyes closed and he surrendered to the heavy drugs.
Ezra Standish glanced at the sleeping man, relieved to see there was no sign of the pain that had been etched on his face when he woke up. Vin was worried about Chris, for that matter they all were, but it seemed that their boss was doing much better and should be sharing the Texan's room before nightfall.
Buck was staying with 'Adam Larabee' while Nathan was with Chris. JD and Josiah had rented rooms at a nearby hotel and would grab some sleep before checking back and relieving him, Buck, and Nathan. Ezra could not remember ever being so tired and wished, not for the first time, for his feather bed and down filled comforter.
"Ezra, I ain't goin' nowhere," the Texan's voice was low, but there was a hint of a smile on his face.
"I should hope not or the medical staff will be pursuing me with chants of 'off with his head'," the gambler said.
"Anythin' new on Chris?"
"As a matter of fact he should be moved in with you before the end of the day."
"That's great," Tanner said, allowing the relief the news brought him to show for a second before relaxing against his pillows. "Ya look like ya could use yer bed."
"Indubitably," Standish said.
"Sherlock Holmes on again?"
"My twilight hours are always put to good use."
"Hell, Buck still with the boy?"
"Yes, Child Protective Services was here and they will be taking Adam to a home until they figure things out. Buck is arguing that since he could be Chris' son then the boy is best left with us."
"He's right," Tanner said. "Chris would want us...want you boys ta look out for him," Tanner agreed.
"That's what we're fighting for and since Mrs. Wells works with children we were hoping she would have some influence on the workers here. I believe Josiah spoke with her and she should be arriving before they take the boy into custody," Standish explained.
"Miss Nettie will know what to do," the Texan said as a nurse came into the room with a tray. She placed it on his table and smiled before leaving the room.
"I wonder why hospitals can't make patient meals more palatable."
"Smells pretty damn good ta me," Tanner said and lifted the lid off a plate revealing a stir fry served over long grain rice.
"You have always had an iron stomach," Standish said as his friend started eating.
"Anythin' new on Milhous' people?"
"The police have made several arrests including his accountant, that creepy doctor, and a couple of servants, but that's as much as they've told us so far," the gambler explained.
"Ez, any chance you've found a place that serves a decent cup of coffee?"
"By decent you mean something you can cut your teeth on?"
"Strong as it can be," Tanner told him.
"I believe the tar they serve in the vending machine should be just up your alley," Standish said. "Would you like me to get you one?"
"Maybe later...this'll do fer now," the Texan answered.
"Vin, you were very close to Adam...do you think the boy is...is he Adam Larabee?"
"I don't know, Ez, wish the hell I did, but it's gonna take some time before we know fer sure. As soon's Chris is up ta it he'll prob'ly ask for a DNA test to be sure."
"Either way it's going to be hell for Chris," Standish answered. Larabee had lived through the death of his son once, could he live with the fact that the boy had been alive all this time and in the hands of a madman?
"Chris'll be okay, Ez, he's got us ta watch his back," Tanner told him.
Chris shifted slightly and watched the nurse, whose name he couldn't pronounce, continued to get things ready to move him out of the SICU. Cooper had already been in and given the okay and he was actually looking forward to the move because usually it meant he was not only getting better, but they would be easing off on the heavy drugs that made it so damn hard to think.
The nurse had already removed several invasive tubes, but they would continue giving him oxygen and IV antibiotics. Chris lifted his hand and rubbed his throbbing head, but there was no easing the pain that stabbed at his skull. He'd been thinking about the boy and whether he really could be his son. If so, what had Milhous done to him and if not, the question remained the same only now they would need to find out who he was and why Milhous had homed in on him.
The boy was so much like Adam, but he seemed a bit on the youngish side for his age. The use of the word 'hurted' bothered Chris and he knew instinctively the child had very little education. Whatever Milhous had done to him, Chris knew he would do anything in his power to help the boy adjust to life.
"Mr. Larabee, the orderly is here to take you to your new room," the woman said.
"You're welcome. Take it easy and don't try to do anything too strenuous."
"You make it sound like I'm going home," Larabee said with a slight smile.
"No, I don't think that'll happen for at least a week, but sometimes patients who are released from the SICU tend to think they can do anything."
"You sound like Dr. Midland...she's always on our case about that," Larabee said and relaxed against the pillows as his bed was maneuvered out of the room. He sighed heavily and closed his eyes, hating the heavy feeling in his chest as he resisted the urge to cough.
It wasn't long before he heard the orderly talking with a nurse and he felt his right hand lifted as she checked the name on his hospital bracelet.
"Mr. Larabee, my name is Doris and I'll be one of the nurses taking care of you this evening so why don't we get you settled in your room so your friends will stop hassling the nursing staff," the nurse said with a smile.
"They giving you problems," the blond asked.
"Not really, but they are worried about you," Doris answered and looked at the orderly. "He's going to room 124."
Chris closed his eyes again as the bed started to move and felt himself drifting toward sleep as the nurse checked his vitals and made sure the IV and oxygen flow were working properly.
"Now, Mr. Larabee, if you need anything your call button is right here beside your right hand."
"Thanks, Doris," the blond said and turned his head toward the second bed to find Vin watching him.
"Hey yourself...you okay?"
"Think so, but no one seems ta believe me," the Texan said.
"Think Midland or Simmons sent them a report?"
"Probably...or else Nate's been talkin' to 'em," Tanner answered. "You okay?"
"No, but I will be," Larabee told him. "Is Buck still with Adam?"
"Vin, what's wrong?"
"Nothing ya can do anythin' 'bout right now, Chris, so ya might's well relax," Tanner said, relieved when the door opened and Josiah and JD entered the room.
"Well, Brother, it's good to see they've moved you out of SICU," Sanchez said.
"Thanks...now what's going on with Adam?" Larabee asked, fighting the lethargy creeping over his mind and body as the morphine infusion pump delivered the prescribed medication. "Damn it!"
"Go ahead and sleep, Chris, everything's going to be okay," the ex-preacher vowed.
"No, I need to know about Adam...I need to know about my son," the blond whispered, but could not summon the energy to keep his eyes open.
"He's not gonna rest until he knows Adam's okay," Tanner said.
"Child Protective Services is with him now. Nettie just got here and she asked us to let her speak to them about Adam," Dunne offered.
"Nettie knows what to do. She'll be able to make them see that Adam needs his family," Sanchez said.
"I hope so, Josiah. The kid needs someone in his corner 'till Chris gets on his feet," Tanner said.
"Nettie's not the only one in his corner," Dunne said.
"I know, JD, but she's got the experience and knows how to get around the 'red tape'," the Texan agreed tiredly.
"Why don't you get some shut eye, Vin, everything is going to work out," Sanchez assured him and was relieved when the younger man seemed to do as he suggested. "JD, how about getting us a coffee?"
"Sure, Josiah, I'll be right back," Dunne said and hurried from the room.
Nettie Wells stood in the doorway and felt as if her heart would burst at the sight of the boy who looked so small in the bed. She'd been prepared for this sight when Buck had called her and told her everything he knew about the child called Adam. God, even though he was so pale he looked washed out, he still had the coloring that could make her believe he was her great nephew Adam Jonathan Larabee.
"Nettie, are you all right?" Wilmington asked softly from the window.
"I'm fine, Buck, how is he?"
"He's ready to be released, but I convinced the doctors to hold off on that until you got here. Child Protective Services is waiting to meet with you," the gentle rogue explained.
"Buck, do you...do you think it's possible that he's Adam?" Nettie asked, watching the sleeping child closely.
"I don't know, Nettie, his coloring is right and he says he's eight, but he doesn't talk or act like he's eight years old. It's like he hasn't had any real education," Wilmington told her.
"We need to make sure he's taken care of until Chris is ready to do the DNA testing," the elderly woman told him.
"That's why we asked you to come down here, Nettie. I know how hard this is for you, but we really need to find a way around the red tape."
"I know, Buck, and I may be taking Adam home with me once he's released. Orin Travis is working on it now and we should have clearance by the end of the day."
"Thank God, Nettie, because even if that boy isn't Adam he needs someone who can take care of him and knows what he's been through," Wilmington said and heard a soft sound from the bed.
"I'm right here, Kiddo, did you have a good sleep?"
"Yes," the boy said and stared at the woman standing beside his bed.
"Hi, Adam, my name is Nettie Wells and I won't hurt you. I'd like to talk to you if that's okay."
"I don't want to go to no home, Uncle Buck," the child said and clung to Wilmington's arm.
"Sh, it's okay, Adam. Nettie Wells is Chris' aunt and she's not going to let anyone take you away," the rogue explained.
"Daddy's aunt?" the boy asked softly.
"That's right, Kiddo, and we're hoping you can go home with her when the doctors say you can leave," Wilmington said.
"I wanna stay with daddy."
"I know you do, Son, but Chris has to stay in the hospital so the doctors and nurses can make him better. He wouldn't want you to stay in a hospital when you don't have to," Wilmington said and leaned closer to say conspiratorially, "She makes the best chocolate chip cookies you ever tasted."
"I likes chocolate chip cookies," Adam said and looked at the elderly woman with a small smile. "Can I help you make cookies?"
"Of course you can and you can lick the bowl when we're done," Wells told him and gently hugged the too thin child.
"Can I go see daddy?" Adam asked softly.
"I don't know, Son..."
"Buck, I think it will do them both good," Nettie said. "I checked with the information desk and they were moving Chris in with Vin. Why don't you go clear it with Adam's nurse and I'll find something for him to wear?"
"All right, Nettie," Wilmington said and left the room.
"Can I...can I call you Aunt Nettie?"
"You sure can, Adam," the elderly woman said and hugged him close, hoping and praying this child, this small boy, was her great nephew.
Chris slowly returned to consciousness and raised the head of his bed, not all that surprised to find Josiah, Nathan, Ezra, and JD in the room with him and Vin. The Texan seemed to be sleeping and his head was turned toward the window where the last hint of the sunset was slowly fading to darkness.
"Chris, how do you feel?" Jackson asked.
"Hungry," Larabee answered simply.
"You slept through dinner, but I'll see if the nurses can scare something up for you," Jackson said before leaving the room.
"Chris, are you up for company?" Wilmington asked from the doorway.
"I thought you were all here," Larabee said.
"Well this one's a half pint and Nettie's here as well," the rogue said and opened the door to reveal the child who now seemed to cling to Nettie Wells.
"Adam," Larabee whispered and sat forward, hiding the discomfort the movement caused.
"Daddy," the boy cried and pulled away from Nettie Wells only to be scooped up by Buck Wilmington.
"Easy, Kiddo, remember what I said before," the gentle rogue said.
"Daddy's hurted...I's sorry," the boy said.
"It's okay, Son," Larabee said, smiling as he shifted over to make room for the boy. "Put him here, Buck."
"I'm sure," the blond answered and smiled as Adam was placed on the bed beside him. He could see Nettie watching him and knew she would take care of him until he was back on his feet.
"Does it hurt?" the boy asked.
"Not much," Larabee lied. "How are you feeling?"
"I'm not hurted anymore and Aunt Nettie said she would take me to her house to make cookies and I could lick out the bowl and we could bring you some cookies too and..."
"Easy, Adam," Wilmington warned.
"It's okay, Buck," Larabee said, enjoying the excitement in the boys voice and wishing he had that kind of resilience to bounce back.
"Did I hurted you, Daddy?"
"No, Son, you didn't hurt me," Larabee said and turned to see the Texan sit up in his bed as Nettie came and stood between the beds.
"Chris, Orin called in a couple of favors and I am going to take Adam home with me tomorrow morning. He'll stay with me and so will you once you're released from the hospital," Nettie said and turned to the Texan. "The same goes for you, Vin."
"Sounds good," Tanner said.
"Now, Adam, it's time to get you back to your room and let Chris get some rest," Wells said.
"I want...to stay with Daddy," the boy cried.
"Easy, Son," Chris said and shifted slightly so the boy could snuggle against him. He reached up to remove the nasal canulas, but Nettie stopped him with a stern look. "Adam, I have to stay here a little longer, but when the doctors tell me it's okay I'll be coming to Nettie's house as well. We'll have lots of time to spend together and maybe we'll even go for a pony ride."
"Pony rides...we can really go on a pony ride?"
"Yes, Adam, we can," Larabee vowed.
"Now, Adam, it's time to get you back to your room so you can rest. Tomorrow we can come see Chris before we go home," Nettie explained.
"Okay," Adam said and hugged his father before allowing Wilmington to lift him down from the bed. He reached for Nettie's hand and allowed her to take him from the room.
"Buck, can you arrange to have DNA testing done ASAP,' Larabee asked softly with a hint of hope in his voice.
"Are you sure ya want ta do that now, Chris?" Tanner asked.
"I need to, Vin, not just for me, but for Adam. If he's my son I need to know for sure. If he's not we need to find out who he is and if there's someone out there looking for him. I...I really hope..." Larabee stopped as a lump formed in his throat and closed his eyes as he thought about his son. God, could this really be Adam? How could he live with the fact that he had buried someone else and left Adam to the whim of a madman?
"Chris, we'll figure it out," Wilmington assured him and placed a hand on the blond's shoulder.
"Thanks, I know we will," Larabee said and sat up as a nurse entered carrying a tray.
"Mr. Larabee, I know you slept through dinner," Doris said and placed the tray on his table before moving it over his bed. "It's not much..."
"It smells great," the patient said of the tomato soup and coffee. A vanilla pudding and a sliced apple accompanied it.
"Gonna share?" Tanner asked.
"No," Larabee answered simply.
"Now, Vin, you had your dinner, but if you're hungry I believe I could find some prunes or..."
"No, thanks, Doris, I don't need none of that sh...crap," Tanner said.
"I'm teasing, Vin, but if you'd like something I'm sure there's more soup and crackers."
"It's possible," the nurse told him.
"I could use a piece of that cake," Larabee said.
"I'll see what I can do," Doris said and left the room.
"Buck, will you make the arrangements?" Larabee asked.
"You know I will, Chris," the ladies' man vowed.
"Thanks...and thanks for staying with Adam. I know how hard this is for you...for all of you."
"No need for thanks, Brother, we take care of our family," Sanchez offered and realized truer words were never spoken.
Nettie smiled as she watched the boy playing nearby. She hadn't told him Chris would be coming home today in case something happened to change the plans. Chris and Vin would be sharing one of the guest bedrooms while Adam stayed in the room 'he'd' once occupied. Nettie couldn't quite bring herself to believe, to hope, that the boy was her great grandson, but no matter what the outcome of the DNA tests she knew he'd already found a place in all their hearts.
"When daddy comes home is he going to take me for a pony ride?" the boy asked and continued to play with the wooden animals she'd kept in a special box of Adam's favorite toys. The boy had taken them immediately, as if he recognized and understood what they were and who had carved them.
"He won't be able to for a while, Adam, your daddy is going to need some time to heal. When the doctors tell him it's okay to ride I'm sure he'll take you," Nettie explained.
"Okay...will Uncle Buck come too?"
"Maybe, I guess..."
"Someone's coming, Aunt Nettie," the child said as the agency's club van turned down the driveway. He stood up and held tight to the two horses until the vehicle came to a stop behind Wells' car.
"Hey, Adam," Wilmington said with a grin and laughed when the boy excitedly jumped up and raced toward him.
"Uncle Buck!" Adam said and wrapped his arms around the rogue's neck.
"Are you listening to Nettie?"
"Aunt Nettie says I's being a good boy," Adam said and suddenly caught movement from the other side of the van. "Daddy!"
"Easy, Kiddo, Chris is still hurt and you need to be careful. Okay?"
"I'll be careful...I'll make sure he's not hurted any more," Adam said and resisted the urge to run to the injured man.
"Hi, Son," Larabee said and he smiled when the boy gently hugged him.
"Uncle Buck says I has to be careful 'cause you're still hurted. Does it still hurt?"
"A little, Adam, but I'm getting better," the blond said and hugged the elderly woman who had joined them.
"Chris the guest room is made up for you and Vin," Nettie said.
"Thanks, Nettie," Larabee said as the Texan joined them.
"Do you want to rest?" Wells asked.
"Not me...restin's 'bout all I've been doin'," Tanner told her and headed for the swing on the front porch.
"Chris?" Nettie asked.
"I'm fine, Nettie, and that swing looks mighty inviting," Larabee said as Adam grasped his hand.
"Come on, Daddy, I's going to help you," the boy said with a smile.
"Thanks, Sport," the blond said and was soon seated beside the Texan. He sighed heavily and coughed several times as his weakened lungs reminded him he wasn't totally healed. He smiled at Nettie Wells who'd somehow managed to find a pitcher of lemonade and several glasses.
"Daddy, do you want some cookies? Me and Aunt Nettie made them this morning."
"I'd love some, Adam," Larabee answered.
"Don't forget about me," Tanner said.
"I'll bring lots," the boy said and hurried into the house.
"How's he been, Nettie?" the blond asked.
"He's been doing fine, Chris, but he's also hiding his pain. He's missed you, and he refuses to talk about anything that happened before he saw you. I didn't want to push him, but he's going to have to talk to someone about how he's feeling," Nettie explained.
"I called Susan James from the hospital and she set up an appointment for Adam and I next week. If anyone can get him to open up it's Susan," Larabee told her.
"He'll need to know you're there with him, Chris," Nettie advised.
"I'll be with him no matter what happens, Nettie," the blond vowed, smiling as Adam returned with a container of cookies.
"I made this one 'specially for you," Adam said and passed an oversized cookie to Chris.
"Hmm, smells great, Sport," Larabee said as the cookies were passed around. It wasn't long before the long trip and accumulated injuries caught up to him and Chris sighed heavily as he placed the empty glass on the floor of the porch.
"Chris, remember what Dr. Cooper said," Wilmington warned.
"No, you're not," Wells interrupted.
"What's wrong?" Adam asked, his face sad as he looked at the others.
"I know we only just got back, Kiddo, but Chris and Vin both need some rest," Wilmington told the child.
"Daddy and Vin need a nap?"
"That's right, Adam," Nettie explained and smiled as the boy took Chris and Vin by the hand.
"I can tuck you in and read you a bedtime story," the boy said, making as stern as face as he could before pulling on their arms.
"Nettie, I need to go update the guys on what's happening. Are you going to be able to handle those two?" Wilmington asked.
"I don't think I'll have any trouble...not while we have Dr. Adam on call," Wells said with a smile.
"He's a great kid...God, Nettie, what if...what if..."
"Let's not play the what if game, Buck. We will take care of Adam as if he is Chris and Sarah's son and deal with everything else if and when the time comes," Nettie told him.
"I hope it is Adam, Nettie, because it'll devastate Chris..."
"Chris will be able to handle whatever happens, Buck, he's proven again and again how strong he is," Nettie told him.
"I know," Wilmington told her. "I'll be back later this evening unless you need me before then," the ladies' man told her and hurried to the agency's van.
Nettie turned and picked up the empty pitcher and placed the glasses on the tray with it before going into the house. She placed the dishes in the kitchen and slowly made her way along the hallway. The sound of Adam's excitedly animated voice reached her ears and she thought she heard Chris and Vin laughing softly at something the child was saying.
Nettie leaned against the wall and listened to the small voice, letting her heart reach out and knew whatever happened this boy had touched her. Even if he wasn't her great nephew he'd already become part of her family and she would do everything in her power to keep him safe.
"Aunt Nettie says I reads this really good," the boy told them.
"You do, Adam," Larabee whispered and smiled as Nettie peeked around the corner. Adam was lying down beside him and holding a simple book with a few words on each page. The boy was able to read the words, but he had difficulty with some of them and he knew Nettie had taken him under her wing.
"Are you boys all right?" Wells asked.
"We're fine, Miss Nettie, Adam's readin' us a bedtime story," Tanner said as the boy snuggled closer to the blond.
"Adam, see that they both rest."
"I will, Aunt Nettie...does that mean I's in charge?"
"That's right and don't let these two tell you otherwise," Nettie said before leaving the room, content in the knowledge that the boy was safe and happy where he was.
The days slowly passed and Chris felt himself connecting with Adam in more ways than he planned. There was something about the boy that made him believe he was his son. Vin had returned to his home and would be returning to light duties the following day while he took Adam to see Susan James.
Chris had been seen by Stacey Midland and was told it would be several weeks before she gave him the okay to return to work. She'd been surprised when he hadn't argued the point with her, but had quickly understood his motives when she saw him with Adam. Stacey had also told him she hoped there would be good news when they got the DNA results and he'd thanked her for being not just his doctor, but his friend as well.
"Chris, would you like some coffee?"
"I'd love some, Nettie," Larabee answered and smiled as he watched Adam playing on the swing Buck had built in the tree near the house. He'd already told her of his plans to return to his own home the next day and had promised he would call her if there were any problems.
"Here you go," Nettie said and sat down beside him. "How long before you know the results of the DNA tests?"
"They told us it could take up to six weeks," Larabee answered, unable to keep the tremble from his voice.
"I know how hard this is on you, Son..."
"It's hard on everyone, Nettie," Larabee whispered. "God help me, but I can't help hoping he is Adam."
"I know and I do too, Chris, but..."
"If it is then I left him with that madman for three years and he's suffered so much."
"You couldn't have known, Chris, and blaming yourself is not what you should be doing right now. Make sure you talk to Dr. James about how you're feeling tomorrow."
"I will, Nettie," Larabee said and leaned over to kiss her gently on the cheek.
"What was that for?"
"For being you," the blond answered simply, sipping the coffee and watching the boy who could be his son playing nearby.
Chris knew Adam was nervous as he clung tightly to his hand, but Susan James understood and stayed back as they entered her office. He sat down and lifted the boy onto his lap, ignoring the reminder that he still had to be careful where his healing body was concerned.
"Good morning, Chris," James said and turned her attention to the boy. "You must be Adam...it is so good to finally meet you especially after hearing such wonderful stories about you."
"Stories?" Adam asked with a small smile.
"Yes, I have heard that you are a very brave and strong young man," Susan answered and watched as he relaxed in his 'father's' arms. She spoke gently to him, keeping her voice and words tuned so that a child could understand them and soon had Adam telling her about himself.
Larabee listened, fighting hard to maintain control of his emotions as he heard the quiver in Adam's voice when he talked about being with Milhous. The man was crueler than Chris remembered and he silently cursed how easily the man had died and therefore escaped the punishment he so deserved.
"Adam, would it be all right if I spoke with Chris alone for a few minutes?" James asked.
"It's okay, Sport, I won't be long and there are some books and toys for you to play with," Larabee explained.
"Adam, you'll be able to see your daddy if you look through the big picture window," Susan said and pointed to a room set up for children so that they could watch their parents and parents could see their children. There was a drape that could easily be drawn for privacy, but right now the child and his 'father' needed to watch over each other.
"I can see you?" Adam asked.
"Yes, Son, I'll be right here with Dr. James and as soon as we're done you and I are going to McDonalds?"
"Can I have a chicken nuggets happy meal?"
"You certainly can," Larabee answered knowing the boy had grown to love the happy meals and toys Wilmington brought home. He hugged the child as a young woman entered and led Adam from the office. He waved at the child when he stood in front of the picture window and finally sat down to play with a stack of large Lego blocks.
"Chris, how are you really doing?"
"I'm okay, Doc. The doctors say everything is healing," Larabee answered.
"That's not what I mean, Chris. I know how hard this is for you and that you are doing a great job of keeping your emotions in check where the child is concerned. How are you going to handle things if Adam is your son?"
"He'll live with me and I'll do my damndest to make up for the last three years," Larabee told her.
"Chris, you didn't know..."
"That doesn't make this any easier, Susan," the blond said softly. "What if that boy is Adam and I left him out there with that madman for three years? How can I...how can I live with that?"
"You will find a way...you both will," James answered and leaned back in her chair as she gently tapped a pen against her fingers. "What if he isn't Adam?"
"I don't know...I hadn't really thought that far ahead. The guys have been searching through old online papers to see if there's anything that might fit Adam's story."
"Either way this is going to be very hard on you," Susan said.
"I can handle it," Larabee told her.
"I know, but you will also need the support of the people who care about you, Chris. Don't forget they are there."
"They always are, Susan," the blond observed. "No matter what happens I want to help Adam. If he's my son...God, Susan, if he's my son then he's been alive all these years and maybe...What if...what if Sarah escaped too? What if I buried the wrong people and...how can I live with that?"
"Chris, I know they did an autopsy on Sarah and Adam and the bodies were identified through DNA and dental records..."
"They could have been doctored. Ella Gaines has the money to do what she wants and she could easily have set this up," the blond said and smiled as Adam looked up from his toys and waved at him. "Look at him...he's so much like Adam."
"Yes, he is, Chris, but there are other kids with similar appearances and there's also the old adage about all of us having a double out there somewhere," James said with a smile.
"I just don't know how to feel right now, Susan," Larabee said. "I mean I look at him and I see my son, but he could be someone else's and I don't know if I can deal with that."
"What if you let him stay with Nettie Wells for a few more days?"
"No, I want him with me...I need to be there for him whether he's my son or not," the blond answered.
"You're a good man, Chris Larabee," James told him.
"Some people don't think so, but I'll take your word for it. I guess I should be heading home. It's been a long day," Larabee said.
"All right, Chris, why don't we make an appointment for after the DNA results?"
"Sounds like a plan, Susan," Larabee agreed and left the room. He found Adam waiting for him and smiled as the boy reached for his hand and they walked out to his truck. He helped his 'son' into the smaller back seat and fastened the belt, relieved that Nettie allowed him to have the booster seat she bought for those times when she cared for the neighbour's children.
"Are we going to Mickey D's now, Daddy?"
"That we are, Sport. Chicken nugget happy meals for two," the blond said and drove away from the building. He went through the drive through at MacDonald's and picked up their meal before driving to the nearest park. He carried the bag and held Adam's hand until they reached a picnic table and sat down. They ate in silence, but they communicated with a smile or the touch of a hand. Chris couldn't contain his laughter when Adam reached across and took one of his fries. "Hey..."
"Sorry, Daddy, but Vin says I's a growing boy and need lots of food like fries and chocolate and chips..."
"That sounds like something Vin would say, but you need healthy food too, Sport," Larabee told him, pushing the hair away from his forehead and smiling when the boy did the same thing. It didn't take long to realize Adam was copying every move he made and Chris forgot about everything else except spending time with his 'son'.
Chris followed the boy toward the back of the house and knew it was time to introduce Adam to Pony. He still hadn't been cleared for riding, but that didn't mean he couldn't let the boy ride. They'd stayed at the park for nearly two hours and Adam had made friends with a brother and sister who seemed to be his age. Chris had spoken with their mother while the kids played on the equipment.
"Are we going to see Pony now?"
"Yes, we are, Adam. Pony is a big horse and we have to be careful around him if we want to be friends, okay?"
"Okay," the boy said and pointed at something in the distance. "Is that Uncle Vin?"
"Yes, Sport, it is and that's Peso he's riding," Larabee answered and waited for the Texan to reach them and dismount. "Nathan sees you he'll tear you a new hole."
"What Nate don't know ain't gonna hurt him," Tanner said with a grin. "Hey, Adam, is Chris feedin' ya right...he ain't makin' ya eat them things that look like trees and tryin' ta cover the taste by adding cheese ta it is he?"
"Daddy took me to MacDonald's," Adam said conspiratorially.
"He did? Wow, Kiddo, maybe we'll teach 'im the proper foods ta eat yet," the Texan said.
"If I left it up to you he'd eat nothing, but burgers and fries and milkshakes," Larabee said.
"Milkshakes is healthy."
"Sure they are," the blond said and walked toward the barn with Adam walking close beside him.
"Want me to bring Pony out?" Tanner asked and looped Peso's reins over the fence.
"Thanks, Vin," Larabee said and lifted Adam so he was sitting on the fence.
"Nate sees that I ain't the only one gonna get chewed a new hole," Tanner said from the open doorway.
"What does that mean?"
"What does what mean, Adam?" Larabee asked.
"About Uncle Nate chewing you and Uncle Vin a new hole?"
"It just means we've done things we shouldn't and he would be upset with us," the blond said and saw tears in the boys eyes. "Hey, what's this about?"
"Uncle Nate's going to hurted you and Uncle Vin," the boy cried.
"No, Son, Uncle Nate isn't going to hurt us. He's just worried that we're doing things we're not supposed to like Vin riding Peso and..."
"Chris liftin' ya up on the fence," Tanner explained and ruffled the child's hair affectionately.
"Oh," Adam said and tried to look stern. "You're going to bed early!"
"Uhoh, Pard, looks like yer in trouble," Tanner said with a grin as he unsaddled Peso and released him into the corral.
"And you don't get no dessert," the boy said.
"Now that's what I call just desserts," Larabee said as the Texan tried to look serious. "Vin, could you saddle Pony and maybe take Adam for a ride?"
"Sure thing," Tanner said and placed a blanket on Pony while Chris and Adam watched.
"Are you going to ride too, Daddy?"
"No, Son, but Vin is going to take you for a ride on Pony," Larabee said. Pony whinnied softly as if he understood what was happening.
"But he's big," the boy said.
"Yes, he is and that's why Vin is going to ride with you."
"We'll both ride Pony together?"
"That's right, Kiddo," Tanner said as he put Pony's saddle on his back.
"What about Peso? Won't he be lonely?"
"No, Adam, I'll take care of Peso while you guys are gone," Larabee assured him.
"Are you ready, Kiddo?" the Texan asked and climbed into the saddle.
"Go ahead, Son, I'll go make some lemonade," the blond said and opened the gate once Adam was safely seated in front of the Texan. He latched it again once the duo rode away from the barn. Chris walked back to the house and opened the front door before carrying his and Adam's bags inside. He coughed several times and rubbed at his chest when reminded that his lungs were still not totally healed.
Chris made a pitcher of Lemonade and placed it in the freezer before making ham and cheese sandwiches with the supplies he'd bought at Delvecchio's. He put them in the fridge before making his way out on the patio to wait for their return. A sound at the front of the house alerted him to the fact that he was no longer alone and he frowned when Josiah and Buck joined him. He knew there was something on their minds and instinct told him it was not good news.
"Where's Adam?" Wilmington asked softly.
"Vin took him for a ride on Pony," Larabee answered. "What's wrong?"
"I think we found Adam," Sanchez answered and sat down beside the blond.
"Found him?" Larabee asked.
"Chris, he's not...I...look I know how much you hoped...hell, we all hoped it was Adam, but he's not," Wilmington answered.
"What the hell are you saying, Buck? The DNA results won't be back for at least another week," Larabee spat.
"I know, Chris, but...we checked this again and again and Adam was born in Ohio and disappeared approximately three years ago when his parents had taken him and his younger sister to a fair. The boy was sleeping on a blanket while his parents were talking to several other parents, but when they went to check on him he was gone."
"Why didn't they look for him?" Larabee asked.
"They did, Chris," Sanchez said and placed his laptop on the table. He opened it and brought up the website and knew by the look on Larabee's face that he was devastated. "I'm sorry, Chris, I know how much you wanted this to be Adam, but..."
"These are just pictures, Josiah, they could be doctored," the blond whispered.
"Yes, they could be, but you know they're not, Chris. Look at the picture of Adam with his mother and father. Look closely at his father and you'll see why Adam thinks you're his daddy," Wilmington said and sat to the blond's right. He placed a hand on Larabee's shoulder and wished there was some way to spare him this, but there was nothing easy about ending a father's hope.
"Have you spoken to them?" Larabee asked.
"Not yet...we thought we'd speak with you first," Sanchez answered. "They care, Chris, and they haven't stopped looking for Adam. Their website is called 'Adam's Life Line' and it's updated on a regular basis."
"What's his real name?"
"Adam Leonard Burton," Wilmington answered.
"Strange coincidence that his name is Adam," Larabee observed.
"Yes, it is, but maybe that's why Milhous chose him. He looks enough like your boy to fool us...all of us," Sanchez told him.
"Do we have their number?" the blond asked.
"Yes, do you want me to call them?" the ex-preacher asked.
"No, I think...I need to do this."
"Want us to stay with you?" Wilmington asked.
"Yes," Larabee answered simply as he reached for his cell phone. His throat was suddenly so dry he found it difficult to speak and nodded his thanks when Josiah handed him a glass of water. He drank half of it before checking the phone number and keying it in. Chris expected to get a recording as was the case with most of these calls, and was surprised when a real person picked up the phone.
"Adam's Life Line."
"Can I speak with Mr. or Mrs. Burton?" Larabee asked softly.
"Who should I say is calling?"
"My name is Chris Larabee and I'm calling...I'm calling about their son." Chris held the phone in a tight grip as he heard someone speaking and realized the person on the other end must have placed their hand over the phone.
"This is Donald Burton, who are you and what do you know about my son?"
"Adam...your son is...he might be with me. I don't know for sure, but if the computer generated pictures are any indication than the boy with me could very well be your son," Larabee said.
"Where did you find him? When can we see him?"
Chris swallowed the lump that threatened to cut off his oxygen as he listened to the desperation in the man's voice. "We need to figure out a way for you to see him without it being too much of a shock for him."
"You never said how you found him."
"It's a long story and one I'll tell you once we meet."
"Where do you live?"
"I'm not ready to concede that he's your son yet, Mr. Burton, but if he is we need to take things slow and make sure he isn't hurt."
"I would never hurt him, Mr. Larabee. We just want him home where he belongs."
"So do I and that's why I'm willing to meet with you and your wife," Larabee said.
"Tell me where and when."
"How soon can you get a flight to Billings, Montana?"
"All it takes is a phone call and we can be there in a couple of hours."
"Make the arrangements and call me with the details. I'll have someone meet you at the airport," Larabee said and gave the man his phone number.
"I will...thank you, Mr. Larabee."
Chris hung up and ran his fingers through his hair before turning toward the two men watching him. "Mr. Burton is going to call back with the details of their flight. Josiah, would you pick them up?"
"Of course. Do you want me to bring them here?"
"I don't know. I'm just not sure what the best way to do this is," Larabee said.
"Chris, what if we had the Burtons come out here, but kept Adam from seeing them until we saw their reaction to him? I really believe they'll know if it's Adam and then we can let Adam see them and watch his reaction," Wilmington explained.
"What if he doesn't know them? What if he doesn't want to go with them?" the blond asked.
"We'll deal with that if it happens, Chris, but right now we need to protect that boy and make sure we do what's best for him," Sanchez said.
"What if what's best for him is to stay here?" Larabee stated.
"You don't really believe that, Son, not if the Burtons are his family and you can see by their website that they care deeply about their son," Sanchez explained watching as the blond made his way toward the edge of the patio and watched as Vin returned with Adam calling excitedly to the man he thought was his father.
"Daddy, Vin made Pony gallop and we went fast and we saw a deer," the boy said when Vin lowered him to the ground so he could run to his 'father'.
"You had a good time?" Larabee asked, fighting to keep the sadness from his voice.
"I did...hi, Uncle Josiah and Uncle Buck. How come you comed out here?"
"We came to see how you and Chris were doing, Kiddo," Wilmington said as Larabee's phone rang. "Why don't you and I go help Vin give Pony a rubdown before we put him in the corral?"
"Can I, Daddy?"
"Go ahead, Adam," Larabee said softly before answering the phone. His heart was heavy as he listened to Donald Burton give him the details about their arrival. He could hear a woman's voice in the background and sighed tiredly before hanging up. "They'll be flying in tomorrow morning, Josiah. Their plane lands at 9:03."
Chris had waited for the others to leave before turning on the TV and tuning it to the news channel. Adam had been in bed for nearly two hours and Chris had looked in on him several times. The boy looked so much like his son that Chris thought his heart and soul had been torn from him and put back in shattered pieces. Tears formed in his eyes, but he did not let them fall as a soft sound, like a whispering breeze on a sunny day, made him look up.
"Daddy, are you okay?"
"I'm fine, Adam," Larabee said, smiling as the child came and sat on his knee. The boy was small, but he'd been slowly putting on some weight thanks to Nettie's cooking. There was also more color to his cheeks and Chris brushed his fingers through the unruly curls.
"Daddy, when can we go see mommy?" Adam asked softly, clutching tightly to the blanket Nettie had given him. It was hand-made and Adam seemed to have latched onto it with childlike glee.
"Adam, what do you remember about your mother?" Chris asked.
"Mommy has pretty eyes," the boy said, a dreamy quality to his voice as if he was half asleep.
"Do you remember what color they were?"
"Daddy said they were the same color as the sky."
"Blue," Larabee said and placed a gentle kiss on top of the boy's head.
"What about her hair?"
"Red...like fire," the boy answered sleepily.
Chris felt his heart ache as he clung to the child and finally realized this wasn't his son, but he would do anything to help him. They would have to do this carefully and he'd already asked Nettie to be present when Josiah brought the Burtons to the ranch. Larabee felt the boy relax in sleep and knew he should carry him to the bedroom, but right now this felt right and he needed to let the dream work for him just a little longer.
Chris knew Nettie and Vin would keep Adam at Tanner's ranch until he called. Buck would be out later in the day because there was a lawyer he needed to meet with and the man had threatened to press charges against Buck if he didn't keep the appointment. There was a soft knock on the door and it was with deep-rooted sadness that he opened it to find Sanchez and the Burtons standing there.
"Chris, this is Donald and Marie Burton," Sanchez made the introductions as Larabee shook hands with the couple and motioned for them to come inside.
"Mr. Larabee, where is he?" Marie Burton asked softly.
"I didn't want him here until you know the story," the blond explained, staring at the blue eyes set in a face that was framed by fiery red hair.
"But, we need to see him," she said.
"I know you do, but right now we need to do what's best for your...for Adam. No matter what we feel or what we want he must come first," Larabee told her and stepped into the kitchen where the smell of fresh perked coffee permeated the air. "I know how much you want to see him, but what if he's not your son? What if he doesn't recognize you?"
"If the boy is our son he'll know us," Donald Burton said and nodded gratefully when Sanchez placed a cup of coffee before him.
"It's been three years and Adam has been through so much," the blond told them.
"Mr. Larabee," Marie Burton said and gently placed her hand over his own. "We know who you are and we know what happened to your family and God only knows how grateful we are for what you've done...for what you are doing. I promise you we will do nothing to hurt him whether he's our son or not."
"Thank you," Larabee said and couldn't help, but feel that this man and woman were good people. "What you need to know is that Adam thinks I'm his father..."
"Oh, God," Marie said softly as tears filled her eyes. She studied the man seated across from her and suddenly realized there was an uncanny resemblance between him and her husband, although Donald was at least ten years Chris' senior.
"Chris didn't do anything to hurt Adam, Marie, the boy was told he was his father and looking at both your husband and Chris I'd say there was good reason for him to believe what he'd been told," Sanchez observed.
"Mr. Larabee, I know how hard all of this is for you, but we really need to see Adam," Donald told him.
"Josiah, would you call Vin and have him and Nettie bring Adam over?"
"Of course," Sanchez said and walked out of the room.
"I think the best way to do this is to let him see both of you, but I don't want you to say anything about who you are until we see his reaction," Larabee suggested and watched the couple closely.
"We'll do as you ask," Marie assured him. "How long before they get here?"
"Vin's ranch borders on mine so they should be here in about ten minutes or so," the blond answered as Sanchez returned. "Why don't we go out on the patio and wait for them?"
Chris stayed back as Josiah led them through the dining room and out onto the patio. He leaned heavily on the table for several minutes as he tried to come to terms with what could happen in the next few minutes. He fought the urge to call Vin and cancel the whole damn thing until the DNA results were in, but that wouldn't be fair to the Burtons or Adam. Somehow, deep down he knew these people were Adam's parents and that he was losing his 'son' all over again.
"Are you all right, Brother?" Sanchez asked softly.
"No, Josiah, I'm not, but that never stopped me before," the blond assured him and joined the Burtons outside. It wasn't long before they heard the sound of Vin's jeep and then Adam's laughter. His heart beat faster as the boy came around the corner and stopped at the bottom of the steps.
"Hey, Sport," Larabee said, but the boy seemed to be staring at something behind him. For Chris it felt like the world had come to a sudden stop. He'd told himself over and over he could handle anything that happened, but the look on Adam's face devastated him. The boy's face was filled with excitement until he looked from Chris to Donald and back again before finally settling on Marie Burton.
"Mommy!" Adam squealed in delight and raced to her. His small arms wrapped around her neck and he cried, great sobs that shook his body until he trembled convulsively and buried his face against her neck.
"Oh, Adam, my Adam, I never gave up looking for you," Marie said and looked at her husband and Chris Larabee. She saw happiness and excitement on one face, while the other was filled with sadness and despair.
"Mommy...I thought I'd never see you again," the boy sobbed and turned to look at his father. "Daddy?"
"Adam, it's me," Donald Burton said and smiled at his son. "It's really me, Little Man."
'Oh, God,' Nettie thought as she watched Chris' face as he fought to keep his emotions in check. There were so many similarities between these men, but the nickname was one Larabee had used on his own son. She quickly moved to stand beside her nephew-in-law and tried to show him he was not alone.
"Daddy," the boy released his mother and ran to Donald Burton.
"That's right, Little Man, I'm here and we're going to take you home," Donald said. "Nana, Papa and Natalie are waiting for us to bring you home."
"I missded you," the boy said, his voice trembling as his bottom lip quivered.
"We missed you too, Adam," Marie said, rubbing circles on his back just as she'd always done when he needed comfort.
Chris took a deep breath as tears filled his eyes. Without a word he turned and walked off the deck. He knew the family needed time to be with their son, but he could not stand there and watch as his own world was shattered once more...so much for a father's hope, because God had simply found another way to shatter his world. He made his way toward the corral and sighed as Pony lifted his head and walked toward him.
Chris reached over the fence and gently rubbed Pony's muzzle, catching the scent of fresh hay as he fought for control. He hoped Josiah and Nettie would take care of the Burtons, because right now he could not face them. He heard footsteps behind him and felt a hand on his arm.
"Chris, I know how hard this is for you," Nettie said.
"I'm okay, Nettie, it's Adam that counts and they seem like a nice couple. Adam knew them right away," Larabee said.
"That doesn't make it any easier on you, Son."
"No, it doesn't...God, Nettie, it's like I'm losing him all over again," the blond said softly.
"I know, but this time is different...this time he's simply going home. He's got a family that loves him, Chris, and that makes this..."
"A little easier...maybe, but it still feels like God's playing a sick, twisted joke on me."
"Not God, Chris. Put the blame where it belongs. Ronald Milhous must have seen a picture of Adam and his family and realized he could use the boy to get to you. He thought this through, Chris, and he did the one thing that could hurt you more than anything he did physically."
"It's hard for you too, Nettie...it's hard on everyone," Larabee said and turned to see the child running toward him. He wasn't sure what he should do, but he saw the Burtons standing at the edge of the patio. He reacted on instinct as the boy reached him and held up his arms. There was no mistaking the tears flowing from his eyes as the small arms wrapped around his neck and Chris picked him up despite the sharp pain in his chest. "It's okay, Adam," Chris said and rubbed the boy's back.
"Mommy and Daddy founded me."
"Yes, they did, Kiddo, and they love you very much."
"But the bad man tolded me you were my daddy."
"I know he did, and for a little while I thought I was your daddy, Adam, but your real daddy loves you very much. They want to take you home and take care of you."
"Can you come live with us? You can stay in my room with me," the boy offered.
"I wish I could, Adam, but I need to stay here and take care of Pony and make sure he's not lonely," Larabee said and walked slowly toward the house where the Burtons anxiously waited.
"Chris, Mrs. Burton," the blond said.
"It looks like we may be speaking again so please call me Marie," the woman said. "I...we want to thank you for everything you've done for Adam. He's grown to love you very much and I can see that you feel the same way."
"He's a great kid," Larabee said and allowed Donald Burton to take his son. They were silent until father and son were out of earshot and Adam was telling his father about Pony.
"I was wondering if it would be possible to keep in touch with you. Adam is a smart boy and he understands you can't come live with us, but would you be able to visit us or if not could we bring him to see you," Marie asked softly.
"I'd like that," Larabee said. "I bought some things for him and if it's okay I'd like him to have them."
"We could reimburse..."
"No, there's no need...I want him to have them," the blond said.
"I would like to take Adam home today, but if you need more time we could stay longer."
"Thank you, Marie, but I think Adam needs to be with his family right now and hopefully you'll be patient with him until he's settled back in."
"We will be, Chris. I have arranged for all of us to meet with a therapist when we return to Ohio," Marie explained.
"That's good, but make sure he can see you at all times while you're there. You'll probably find he doesn't want to let you out of his sight when you go out anywhere," Larabee told her.
"He's not the only one who'll react that way," Marie said as the others joined them.
"Chris, Daddy said we'll be going home today...but I want...I want to stay with you too," Adam said as tears flowed from his eyes once more.
"I know, Kiddo, but right now you really need to be with your mommy and daddy. They love you very much and they want you to go with them so that you're a family again. You're a big brother, Kiddo, and I bet Natalie is going to be so happy to see you," Larabee told him.
"Will you come see me?"
"You bet I will, Kiddo," the blond said with a smile and hugged the child. "Now why don't you and I go make sure you have everything ready when it's time to leave?"
"Can I take my blanket, Aunt Nettie?" the boy asked.
"Of course, Adam, that blanket is yours," the elderly woman answered.
"Can Mommy and Daddy come too?"
"Adam, Daddy and I need to make arrangements for us to fly home..."
"On a big plane?" the boy asked excitedly.
"Real big, now you go with Chris and we'll be here when you're done," Marie answered.
"Okay, Mommy," the boy said and took Chris by the hand.
Chris sat at the patio table as the sun slowly dipped below the horizon. The Burtons were probably already back home now, and Larabee hoped they understood how hard things would be for all of them. He knew they would be able to get past whatever challenges they faced, because they had their son back and their family was whole once more. Adam Burton would need counseling and tutoring to bring him up to par with kids his age, but he was a smart boy and Chris knew he would excel at it if given the time to do it at his own pace.
Larabee rubbed at his eyes and heard the sound of a car, but he didn't bother to check who it was and smiled when six men came around the corner carrying a case of beer and several pizzas.
"Hey, Chris, we figured you probably forgot to eat so the doctor prescribed beer and pizza," Tanner quipped.
"What kind of doctor would prescribe that?" Jackson asked.
"My kind," Larabee said and reached for a cold brew.
"Are you feeling okay, Chris?" the medic asked.
"I'm okay, Nate, not great, but you know seeing the Burtons with Adam made things a lot easier. They sent me a picture of him with his sister when they got home. She looks like him," the blond said.
"So he's settled in?" Tanner asked.
"It looks that way, but they know things are not going to be easy," the blond said.
"They'll all need to talk to someone about what happened," Sanchez advised.
"They've already arranged for therapy," Larabee assured them as Jackson handed him a piece of pizza.
"You should know that Connors and several of Milhous' employees have been charged with accessory to kidnapping and assault," Standish explained.
"I hope they get what they deserve. They put Adam through hell," Larabee said.
"Not just Adam, Chris...you and his family also suffered because of them," Sanchez said.
"I owe all of you my life...especially you two," he said lifting his bottle to JD and Ezra. "Good work on finding Milhous."
"You're welcome, Chris," Dunne said with a hint of pride.
"So, Chris, it's Saturday night and we brought the beer and pizza...you're supposed to crack a new deck of cards," Wilmington said.
"I brought my lucky..."
"Not on your life, Ez, I've seen your lucky deck," Larabee said.
"You wound me, Chris, I assure you my lucky deck..."
"Can it, Ezra, no one is fooled by yer lucky deck any more," Tanner said.
"Chips are in the cupboard and dip is in the fridge," Larabee answered Sanchez's query from inside the house.
"Salsa?" Dunne asked.
"Hot and spicy," Tanner added.
"In the fridge and tortilla chips are in the pantry," Larabee told them. Dunne, Jackson, and Standish hurried into the house to help Sanchez, leaving him alone with Tanner and Wilmington.
"Chris, are you sure you're okay?" Wilmington asked.
"No, Buck, I'm not, but I will be," Larabee said and looked at the two men. "As long as I have my family around everything is going to be all right."
"You got it, Cowboy," Tanner said as the others rejoined them and the team relaxed in the company of their closest family, one formed by necessity, but lasting because of friendship.
Chris sighed contentedly and knew he would stay in contact with the Burtons for as long as they allowed it and hoped the boy would always be a part of his life.
"Your deal...your choice, JD," Wilmington said.
"Smoke and Fire..."
"JD, don't make me..."
"Kid, you're cruising..."
Yes, this was his family and it all seemed so normal with Buck and JD carrying on like Abbott and Costello. He grabbed the cards from Dunne and shuffled them before dealing them out. "Texas Hold'em," he announced.
"Now that's what I call a good game," Wilmington said and elbowed JD when he reminded him he was the big blind. Buck watched Chris closely and relaxed knowing the man was going to be all right as long as he leaned on them when he needed to. Wilmington knew he might have to remind the man sometimes, but that was okay, because that was something he'd always done in the past and would continue to do so in the future.
"Thanks, Boys," Larabee said, glad that they'd shown up when he needed them the most and knew he could always count on his team...his family...his brothers.