Obligatory Statement: Don't own 'em, don't profit off 'em.
Author's Note: This is for Marti; a late birthday gift. Marti asked for a story that puts Chris through his own personal hell, after receiving a phone call. Marti, I hope this answers at least some of the questions we bounced around on the drive to Mediawest!
Acknowledgement: Thanks to Renegade, for doing beta duty for me on this one, taking time away from her holiday decorating to do it!
Chris Larabee groaned as the sound of his phone going off woke him. He squinted to bring the numbers on his alarm clock's face into focus and realized that it was only 2:45 AM. His head dropped back to his pillow as he waited for the answering machine to pick up. And if it was one of the boys calling, they had better be dying.
He sat straight up, the color draining from his face as the voice speaking through the machine threatened to seize his heart.
"Chris, pick up..."
Lurching across the bed, he tore the handset from the base. "Who is this?" His only answer was the dial tone, his caller had hung up. He frowned, playing back the message a second time. It sounded like Sarah, but of course it couldn't be. He had laid her to rest, along with their only child, six years ago. He shook his head, scrubbing a hand over his face. He rose and padded to the bathroom, where he washed his face, irritated that his hands were trembling. It was just a wrong number. It wasn't Sarah, it couldn't be. Yes, it sounded like he remembered Sarah sounded, but she had been gone or six years. It didn't sound like anyone else he knew, either, so there was only one explanation. Someone had just misdialed. Someone had called his number by mistake, calling some other Chris. It sounded preposterous, but what other explanation could there be? His wife was calling him from beyond the grave?
Returning to his bed, Larabee climbed under the covers and tried to calm himself enough to go back to sleep. It was elusive, though and what little sleep he got that night was filled with dreams of his dead wife and child. It seemed that their entire life together replayed itself that night; from the day he met his beloved wife, until that fateful day that tore his happy life asunder. Morning found him exhausted.
Pulling himself out of bed, he once again padded to the bathroom, squinting at his haggard reflection in the mirror. He went through the motions, showered and shaved, in general putting himself together to greet the day. As he came back out, he strode to the bedside phone and retrieved the handset. Going through the message menu, he found the one he was looking for. The entry announced that the phone number was "unavailable". He slammed it back into the cradle and finished preparing for the day, but his mind was elsewhere.
Who had called him?
"Morning, Boss," Josiah greeted the senior agent of ATF Team Seven.
"Morning," was Chris' automatic response as he reached for his coffee mug and the coffee pot. Pausing he asked, "You make it?"
"Yep. Vin won't be in until ten."
Frowning, Larabee asked, "Why?"
"Dentist appointment, remember?"
He didn't, but he simply nodded. "Yeah. Okay, anything new on the Wellborn case?"
The team profiler frowned now. "Chris, we closed the Wellborn case three weeks ago."
Trying to mask his confusion, the blond said, "Guess my brain hasn't caught up with me yet this morning."
With a grin, Sanchez replied, "Well, we all have those mornings. I'm guessing you mean the Lawrence case?"
"Yeah, of course." He didn't mean to sound short, but from Josiah's expression he knew he did. Heaving a sigh, he said, "Sorry, woke up around three this morning and couldn't get back to sleep."
"Yeah," he waved a hand dismissively, "just one of those nights."
The older man nodded in understanding. He knew that Larabee's position was difficult at best. It was a wonder he slept at all. "Well, it's quiet; you could always catch a nap..."
"No!" Stopping and quieting his temper, he Chris continued, "No, I'll be fine. Everyone else here... other than Vin?"
"Yeah, Ezra just wandered in about five minutes ago."
Making a show of checking his watch, the blond said, "Well, only twenty minutes late. Maybe I'm not the only one who couldn't sleep."
With a chuckle, Josiah nodded in agreement as the two men left the break room together.
Chris sat in his office, the shades drawn and the lights off. He had shed his coat and sunglasses and was simply sitting there, staring into the near darkness. But, although his body was still, his mind was racing. Over and over again the words played through his mind just as they had repeated themselves on the answering machine last night.
"Chris? Chris... sweet man, are you there?"
His heart pounded. It had been Sarah's voice. He could never mistake it, any more than he could cease to recognize his own name.
"Chris, honey, please... pick up..."
It couldn't be her voice. She was gone. He had watched as they lowered her casket into the ground, forever separating him from the only woman he would ever love.
Her nickname for him; at least when she wasn't angry at him. He never understood what she saw in him that could ever be considered sweet. He had been a SeAL, a cop and, finally, an agent with the ATF, not exactly the resume of someone that others would see as "sweet". But she had seen that in him. She had known everything about him.
"Chris? Chris... sweet man, are you there?"
Had he dreamed it all? Had he thought himself lying awake all night when, in fact, he had been caught in the throes of a nightmare? But no, it hadn't been. He had played the message after he had dragged himself out of bed, more exhausted than he had been the night before.
The words tumbled through his mind over and over. After an endless moment, Chris gasped, knotting his fingers through his short, blond hair. In a ragged whisper, he begged, "Please make it stop!"
He struggled to put the phone call out of his mind after that first, sleepless night. The logical part of his mind overrode that part that held onto the fantasy of being reunited with Sarah and Adam. He had long ago set aside any thought of an afterlife that would allow him to see them whole and well again. His life as a soldier and in law enforcement had shown him that no loving, Supreme Being would stand by and allow the atrocities he had seen to take place. But, late in the night, when sleep eluded him, that tiny part of his brain that held onto those old dreams, would construct a world in which he could once again hold Sarah and Adam in his arms. He had quieted that little voice though, and had returned to his more logical, pragmatic nature.
Lost in thought, he pulled up to the end of the drive. The thought of a beer and ESPN was drawing him to a quiet evening at home. With a groan as he rolled his neck to dispel the tension, he stepped out of the truck, not noticing the second vehicle parked nearby.
Jumping at the voice, he turned to find Vin Tanner standing near the barn. "Damn, Tanner, sneak up on me, already. What are you doing out here?"
"It's Friday, Chris, did you forget?"
Rolling his eyes as he came near, Vin said, "Yeah, you did, didn't you? We were gonna go fishin' up at Dorian Pond this weekend." Looking disappointed, the younger man said, "Hey, if we need to reschedule..."
"No, no, sorry, Vin. My mind was somewhere else."
With a grin, Tanner replied, "That's good, since I've already got the pack horse ready."
Managing a smile in return, Chris said, "You're not anxious to get out of here or anything, are you?" Their work schedule had kept him and his nature loving friend tied to town for weeks now. A trip into the mountains was way overdue. "Okay, give me enough time to change, get some stuff together and call Yosemite to come take care of the rest of the animals and we can get the hell out of here."
Thirty minutes later they were mounted and riding toward the nearby foothills. The fresh air seemed to revitalize both men, and they had the horses moving at a fast trot. Chris smiled as his gelding responded to him by moving a little faster. He heard Tanner curse at him as he moved ahead.
"No fair, Larabee, I'm at a disadvantage!" Tanner yelled as he tried to get the packhorse to move more quickly.
"Want some cheese with that whine, Pard?" Chris called back teasingly. He laughed harder at the string of curse words that rang through the air, in at least four languages. His only response was to coax more speed out of his animal.
They reached the foothills, slowed their mounts, and began traveling upward along a well worn trail. They reached the point were the mountain stream had formed a pond just in time to prepare the camp, tend the horses and watch the sunset over a bottle of beer. It was soon after that Larabee found a reason to climb into his tent for the night.
Vin wakened at the sound of a cry sometime in the middle of the night. Sitting up, he listened to the sounds, to make certain there wasn't trouble. After a few minutes he came to the conclusion that it was Chris, in the throes of a nightmare. He could identify the other man calling out to his dead wife and son. Heaving a sigh, he felt the sting of tears as he empathized with the other man's pain. There was nothing he could do for his friend, though, so he forced himself to lay back down and put the sounds out of his mind. It still took nearly an hour to go back to sleep.
"Smells good," Chris muttered as he exited his tent to find Vin putting the finishing touches on breakfast.
"Yeah, well, you know the rules, I fix it, you clean it up... and you know I'm a sloppy cook."
With a chuckle, the blond settled in one of the camp chairs, stretching his legs out before him. Accepting a mug of coffee from his friend, he sipped it, worried about the potency. Judging it strong but not deadly, he took another drink.
Nearby, Vin watched his friend, concerned about the nightmare of the night before. Chris looked a bit worn, but not too bad. They had all come to recognize the signs that said their supervising agent was going through, what Buck referred to as, "rough patch". Times when something would trigger memories of his life as a husband and father. At those times Larabee functioned only slightly below normal, but life seemed to be more wearing on him. They had learned to simply pick up any pieces that fell and wait until life returned to, what passed for the group as, normal. The nightmare last night was a very clear indication that this was one of those times. Silently he vowed to make the weekend as stress-free and enjoyable as possible, in hopes that it would help to hurry the end of this "patch".
The weekend passed uneventfully; the exercise and fresh air during the day left Chris tired enough that he didn't cry out during the night. He was quiet; seeming to be in a reflective mood and not saying much at all. That didn't mean a lot, considering the blond's normal, taciturn personality. Vin decided, by the end of the weekend, that whatever had been bothering Chris had run it's course and, like a virus, it was over.
They rode back late afternoon on Sunday, arriving back at Larabee's ranch just before dusk. Vin helped his friend untack and groom the horses, clean and store the camping equipment, and walked as far as their vehicles beside his friend.
"Sure you don't want to just stay here tonight?" Chris asked.
Not certain if it was him, or if the blond's voice actually had a hint of vulnerability in it, Vin replied, "Appreciate it, but I need to get back to my place. Promised Elora Vasquez I'd keep an eye on her kids; she's workin' the night shift at the plant tonight."
"What would the rest of the tenants in your building do without you?" Larabee forced a note of teasing into his voice.
"Hell, they'd manage... they always do. But Sammi and Austin have been lookin' forward to stayin' over tonight. I've gotta pick up some stuff on the way home, so I'd better move it."
Managing a grin as he shook his head, Chris slapped his friend on the shoulder and said, "You missed your calling, Pard, you should have been an au pair."
"That a fancy word for babysitter?"
Narrowing his eyes in mock anger, Vin said, "You callin' me Mary Poppins?"
Holding his hands up in surrender, Chris replied, "My apologies, what was I thinking? You're definitely not Mary Poppins."
"Wouldn't mind bein' able to fly, though," Vin thoughtfully scratched his chin, the soft rasp reminding him he hadn't shaved since Friday morning.
"Tanner... go home," Larabee shook his head and turned toward his home. He heard Vin's jeep rattling down his drive as he entered through the mud room. He toed off his old boots, shrugged out of his jacket, and removed his black, flat-brimmed hat. Putting them all in their place in the little room, he entered the silent house through the kitchen. The house had the musty smell of a home closed up for several days, so he walked from room to room, switching on ceiling fans as he checked the rooms out of habit.
Coming finally to the den, he saw the familiar red light on the answering machine that told him there were messages waiting for him. A cold chill ran down his spine, spreading out to cause goose flesh to appear on his arms. Huffing angrily he growled to himself, "Jesus Christ, Larabee, get hold of yourself!"
Stalking across the room, he punched the button angrily and listened as the machine informed him that he had four messages.
The first one was brief; Bill Cline at the feed store letting him know an order was in. Making a mental note to call and arrange a delivery in the morning, he deleted the message.
The second one was a hang up. He grumbled about people who waited long enough to initiate the machine's recorder before they hung up or, at least, apologized for misdialing, as he deleted the second call.
The third one was a hang up as well. He responded to this one with even more anger.
The forth one caused him to drop to the nearest chair as the voice rang out through the room.
"Chris, please. I keep calling but you don't answer. Honey, please, I need to talk to you!"
He could hear the tears in her voice, and his heart broke. It was the voice of his dead wife, of that he had no doubt. It had been years since he had heard it, but nothing would ever take away the intimate familiarity he had of every syllable and nuance of that voice.
"Sarah!" he cried out. Pushing himself out of the chair, he strode to the bar and poured himself a glass of bourbon. Tilting it back, he didn't stop until the glass was empty, then poured a second. Before he left the bar, he had consumed a third and was carrying the bottle. Steps only slightly unsteady, he moved out onto the deck and dropped to one of the chairs there. He wasn't really seeing anything around him; he was lost in the past. The vision of his wife and son, alive and well, was all that he saw.
He was losing his mind; that had to be it. There was no other explanation. Sarah Ellen Connolly Larabee had died six years, four months, two weeks and four days ago. She, along with their son, Adam Christopher Larabee, age four years, seven months and two days, were laid to rest six years, four months and two weeks ago at the Pleasant View Cemetery, three and a quarter miles away from where he sat. That was reality.
But his wife had called him, according to the answering machine, fifteen hours ago.
"Jesus... what's happening to me?" He moaned in a ragged whisper.
Assistant Director Orin "Judge" Travis studied the senior agent for Team Seven while, around them, the other senior agents were engaged in a lively debate regarding a new assignment coming up. Larabee looked, for lack of a better word, "ragged". Rather than engaging in the debate, his usual mode of operation, he was slumped in his seat, barely noticing what was going on around him. In fact, from time to time he, almost imperceptibly, flinched when one of the others grew too loud, as if it startled him. The rest of the time he looked out of red-rimmed eyes, staring into space.
"Dear God, I hope he's not hitting the bottle again," Travis thought to himself.
Larabee had been "The Golden Boy" when he entered the ATF nine years ago, quickly moving from agent to senior agent and taking command of his own team. Then, just over six years ago, tragedy struck. The then fledgling Team Seven had been given the lead on a group of militants set to "take over the country". As the ATF drew closer to arresting the leader and three of his lieutenants, things began to turn violent for them. Two of the three agents who had gone undercover were injured, one of them later dying, after the vehicle they were driving in was run off the road. Then mysterious messages began to be left on the answering machines of several of the team members assigned to the case. A variety of other incidents began to bog down the investigation as resources were pulled away from the case and assigned to protect team members and their families. Then the worst came along.
Sarah Larabee was taking four year old Adam to day care one morning. Since she was having trouble with her car, she was using her husband's while he took hers into town for repairs.
He would never forget the call he received that morning from DPD. Along with Buck Wilmington, he had raced to the Larabee home to find Chris being restrained by no less than half a dozen officers, while the fire department was fighting the last of the flames; all that remained of Larabee's truck, his family and, it seemed, his life. It had taken all of them, plus a tranquilizer that he would swear, later, could have knocked out a horse, to get Chris calm enough to release him. Then, he and Buck had accompanied a semi-conscious Larabee to the hospital to be checked out.
He had first and second degree burns on his hands and arms that would take months of rehabilitation and hard work on Chris' part to return them to normal. There was also some minor damage to his lungs from inhaling the smoke for the length of time it had taken someone to call 9-1-1.
But that had only been the beginning of Chris Larabee's headlong descent into near-madness. As soon as he was out of the hospital, and even before his hands were beginning to truly heal, the blond spent most of his time mixing his prescription medications with bourbon. By the time, six months later, that he was released to come back to work, he was a full blown alcoholic. He was a functioning alcoholic, but an alcoholic nonetheless. His eyes, which he hid behind sunglasses as often as possible, were red-rimmed, dark circled and sunken. He lost over forty pounds and his temper, already short, was even shorter. But, despite all that, he was still the best agent Orin Travis mused.
Orin pulled himself back from his reverie and returned his attention to the Chris Larabee that sat across the table from him. To the best of his knowledge, the blond hadn't had a drink of Bourbon in almost five years and, although he enjoyed having a few beers with the boys, he rarely became drunk. Typically, that was only in his own, morose celebration of each anniversary that marked the loss of his family. That, however, had already passed this year. And, while they had just wrapped up a long, difficult case, he and the other members of Team Seven had come through it unscathed, physically and - he thought - emotionally.
No, something else was definitely going on here. He would just have to figure out what it was. Since talking directly to the blond would get him nowhere, he would need to go about it more covertly.
Chris sat in his office, having put on the lights at least. He had tried to do some work, but had ended up time and again simply sitting there, staring out the window. He started when there was a knock at his office door. "Come."
Peering around the door as he opened it, Buck said, "Hey, boss, we're going to Shorty's for lunch, you in?"
Barely registering the question, the blond shook his head. "No thanks."
Taking a deep breath, Wilmington entered the office, closing the door behind him. Without invitation, he crossed to the desk, sitting down across from his old friend. "Chris, what's going on?"
"What do you mean?"
"You look like hell, stud. Pausing, he leaned forward, propping his elbows on his knees. "You drinking again?"
Delivering a glare, Larabee lied, "No. Now if you've got enough time to butt into my business, then perhaps I need to give you more to do."
"Damn it, Chris, I'm just concerned. You came in looking like a thunderstorm this morning -"
"I'm fine... agent. Now, if you don't have anything else job related to discuss, I suggest you get back to work."
Realizing that he wouldn't get anything else out of the other man, Buck turned and left the office. As he did, he knew what he would have to do. Chris would become more and more withdrawn if they pushed him to talk. He would have to run interference for the other man, and keep the others from doing anything to create that sort of problem. By the time he walked the few steps to the bullpen, he knew what he would have to say.
"Buck?" Nathan greeted him as he entered the bullpen.
"He's not eatin'," Vin observed.
"He's not hungry, all right? Let's go."
"If there's something wrong..." Tanner wasn't ready to let it drop yet.
Straightening to his full height, Wilmington managed his own version of a glare. "Son, I've known him a long, long time and I think I can tell when he's got something chewing on him. Right now, he just needs to have six noses out of his business. So, come on, let's go to lunch. I don't know about you boys, but I'm hungry."
Ten minutes later, the agents of ATF Team Seven sat around a table at Shorty's Diner, picking at the plates of food sitting before them. Conversation was sparse, their minds on their friend and boss, back at the office.
"Vin, you sure he didn't let anything slip when you were camping?" JD asked for what seemed like the hundredth time.
"Look, kid, I told you, he didn't. Everything was fine." Vin couldn't bring himself to tell the others about the nightmare. It seemed like a betrayal of trust; Chris was a private man, after all.
"Damn it, would you drop it, kid?" Buck barked.
"I don't understand why we're dancing around this, that's all," Dunne argued. "If there's something wrong, why shouldn't we try to help?"
"JD," Josiah said softly, "drop it for now. When Chris needs our help, he'll ask us."
"No, he won't," Vin put in. "You know him."
"I believe that's the pot calling the kettle black, Vin," Ezra tried to bring some levity to the conversation.
"Look, let's eat, we've got a strategy meeting in half an hour," Buck said, effectively ending the conversation.
"Chris?" Buck verbally nudged the blond. The senior agent had been late for the meeting he himself had called and, since then, had only seemed partially aware of the conversation around him.
"Look, maybe I'm outta line here, but you don't seem to be real interested in this meeting."
With a glare the blond barked back, "You're right, you're out of line. Ezra, when's the meeting been set with Wellborn?" He frowned when his question was met with silence. Looking around the table, he saw the other six men staring back at him. The conversation from several days ago, with Josiah, suddenly appeared in his mind, pointing out his mistake. "Damn it, I mean Lawrence."
"Six thirty on the evening of the twentieth," Ezra replied succinctly, not bring up the fact that he had announced that very fact not twenty minutes ago.
"All right. Vin, do you have the schematic on the meeting place?"
Taking a deep breath, that fact having already been discussed as well, Vin answered, "Yes," without adding anything to the statement.
"Any loose ends?" Chris might be distracted, but he picked up on the strange looks and too brief answers. Had he been so lost in thought that he had missed those very important points?
"No, Boss, I think we've got it covered," Josiah offered in a gentle tone. "Everyone's got their role set and jobs lined out."
"All right then, let's get to it." Not waiting for a response, Larabee pushed away from the table and strode from the room. His body language screamed out that he was barely holding it together.
After their supervisor had left the conference room, the others exchanged glances. No one said anything, each man lost in thoughts of concern for their supervisor. After a few minutes, they simply rose and left the room, going back to their desks to work on their part in the upcoming operation.
Chris felt his anxiety rising as he walked toward his house. He wasn't a man whose mind moved toward fantasy, but at the moment he was fighting off the urge to turn and run. There was that part of him that was hoping beyond hope to see Sarah standing in the kitchen, fixing dinner; Adam playing with his toys at the kitchen table. But, that part of him that saw things for what they were, without flights of fancy, feared that very scene. It would be yet another indicator that he had gone insane.
The house was quiet and dark when he entered and he let go of the breath he had been holding. Shrugging out of his coat he tossed it over the back of one of the chairs as he moved to the refrigerator. There he grabbed out a beer, uncapping it before he even closed the door. He didn't even bother moving away, just downing it where he stood. Emptying that bottle, he tossed it into the trash and reached for a second one. At least it wasn't bourbon; he rationalized as he left the room.
Going into the den, he reached for the TV remote as he settled on the couch, successfully ignoring the answering machine and it's taunting, red light. He turned on the television and started flipping through the channels, barely seeing what was on the screen. Finally he settled on a movie and dropped the remote onto the couch beside him. Twenty minutes and two trips to the kitchen for another beer later, he was finally relaxing. And then the phone rang.
His heart in his throat, he waited for the machine to pick up. It seemed to be an age before the mechanical beep announced an incoming message.
"Chris? Sweet man, please pick up. I'm worried about you, Chris, you didn't answer me earlier. Please, Chris, are you there?"
The half empty bottle dropped from numb fingers as the blond cried out. "NO! Damn it, what do you want!?" He lunged for the phone, tearing it from the cradle. "Who is this!?"
"Chris... oh, sweet man! I've been trying for days... please, Chris, I need your help!"
It was her voice. Of that he had no doubt. It was his wife. Somehow... some way... his wife was on the other end of the line. "Sarah! How? I don't... where are you?"
"Chris, please help me."
"Baby, where are you?" He was gripping the handset so tightly that his knuckles bled white. "I don't understand, Baby... you're... I buried..."
"It's all right, Chris. I promise, I'll explain it all. I need you to come and get us, all right?"
"Adam's right here, sweetheart. We need you to come get us. Please Chris. You have to come alone, though, please. No one can know."
"Where are you?" He stood, heading for the door.
"We're waiting for you, at - "
"Sarah? Sarah! No!" He continued to scream her name, begging her to talk to him, even though he could hear the dial tone. "Sarah!"
He woke slowly, staring around him as he tried to figure out where he was. Then it all came back to him; he remembered dropping to his knees, remembered screaming for his wife until he was hoarse. He vaguely remembered falling over, but that was it. From the fact that the sun was shining through the half drawn blinds at the den windows, it was morning. He moved, groaning as his body protested its night on the floor.
Just as he stood, he heard a knock on the door. He ignored it, hoping that, whoever it was would simply go away. Then he heard the sound of the door being opened. Damn it! He hadn't bothered to lock the door the night before. He padded to the couch and retrieved his shoulder holster. Removing the service revolver, he automatically checked it. Then, the weapon leading the way, he crept to the kitchen.
"SHIT! Stand down, stud, it's just me!" Wilmington called out at the same time. He held his hands out and away from his body.
"What the hell are you doing here?"
"You didn't show up for work, I drew the short straw and came out to see what the hell's going on."
A confused look overtook the glare Larabee had fixed his friend with. "What time is it?"
"What the hell?"
"That's what we're trying to figure out, Chris. Damn it, there's something going on, and you're not letting anyone in on it."
"We? Or just you?"
"We as in me, and the boys, and..."
"Who?" Larabee barked the question when the other man seemed reluctant to go on.
"Travis. He called me last week. Damn it, Chris, he's worried about you. You weren't acting like yourself at the last meeting."
"Travis is wrong and you're out of line," Larabee growled, "There's nothing going on. I've got a lot on my mind, that's all, agent. Now - "
The shrill ring of the phone interrupted the heated discussion and caused Chris to jump. He turned quickly and almost ran to the den, Buck on his heels. Just as he reached the phone, the answering machine picked up. He stabbed a long finger down on the button to disconnect it, but not before a single word escaped. "CHRIS!"
Wilmington stopped, frowning. He knew that voice, almost as well as the man it called out to. But it was impossible; some sort of cruel hoax perpetrated by... who?
"Who is that?" Buck demanded, even as his old friend barked, "Larabee" into the receiver. Stepping closer to the other man, he looked on with concern as Chris listened to the speaker at the other end of the call, paling as he did. After several, long seconds, he took the phone out of the trembling man's bloodless fingers and pressed the receiver against his ear. "Who is this!?"
"...is, please... need... elp... Chris!" The phone went dead.
Hanging up, Buck turned to find the blond still standing there, staring. As gently as if he were handling a traumatized child, he led the other man to the couch and urged him to sit down. Perching on the coffee table himself, he said softly, "Chris, how long has this been going on? Chris? Look at me, stud. How long?"
"It's... I don't know. Couple weeks... maybe? Buck, it's her. It's Sarah."
"No, it's not. It can't be, Chris. You know that as well as I do. It can't be Sarah. She's gone." His voice was soft, filled with emotion because, even as he said the words he, too, wished that it was true and that Sarah Larabee was alive. "She's gone, Chris."
"No! Look, I know what you're saying and I know that what you're saying is the truth. But... God help me, Buck... I also know that the voice on the phone belongs to my wife."
"It's impossible, Chris!"
"I know! Damn it, don't you think I know that!? I tell myself that every..." he stumbled over the words, his voice trembling, "I tell myself that every time she calls. I know, here," he pointed to his temple, "that it's not her but, here," now he pointed to his chest, "I know that it's her. God, Buck! I feel like I'm going crazy!"
Reaching out and patting the other man's knee, the big brunet said, "Okay, listen. We've got to get the others in on this, we need to investigate, find out who it is that's doing this. Someone's playing games, Chris. Whoever it is, they're trying to get you off balance. We'll have JD find out where they're calling from, and - "
"No! Buck, not yet, okay? Look, I know what you're suggesting is the best thing we could do. I know that. But... damn it, I need more time... I need to... I don't know..." he trailed off, his head dropping into his hands, elbows leaning on his knees.
Wilmington winced as a soft sob issued from behind those hands. Reaching out, he placed a hand on each of the other man's shoulders. "Chris, step back, okay? Step back and let me take the lead on this. Let me find out who it is, and then we'll... we'll figure out what the hell's going on."
It was nearly a full moment before the blond raised his head, tear-filled eyes connecting with the other man's compassion filled ones. "Yeah?"
Hating the lost sound in his old friend's voice, Buck barely managed a smile as he replied, "Yeah. Look, you go get cleaned up and I'm gonna go back to the office and fill the boys in on what's going on. We'll be back out here as soon as we can gather up whatever we need, okay?"
"Okay. Buck? Thanks."
Clapping a hand on his friend's shoulder as he stood, Wilmington said, "What are friends for? Be back as soon as we can. You go get a shower, okay?"
Pushing himself up from the couch, Chris frowned. "You saying I stink?"
Shaking his head, Buck said, "Nope... implying."
Swatting at the other man, Larabee said, "Smart ass. Go."
"I'm gone." The bigger man strode from the room with long, quick strides.
Behind him, Larabee's demeanor changed once he was alone. There was no way he would step back on this. There was something that he knew that he hadn't shared with the other man.
This time Sarah had told him where she was.
"Why the hell did he wait so damn long to tell us?" Vin grumbled as he tossed his ready bag into the back of the team's surveillance van.
"Look, we'll get to the bottom of all of it, later. Right now, we need to get out to the ranch and get set up before Sa - before whoever it is calls again." Buck replied as he slid behind the steering wheel.
The rest of the team took seats in the van, barely having the chance to buckle in before Wilmington left the garage.
The drive seemed to take far longer than usual, the time passing even more slowly because conversation was sparse. From time to time one or another of the men would begin talking about something, but the others only briefly responded, if at all. The silence was becoming oppressive by the time they turned onto the drive that led to Larabee's ranch. By the time they reached the end of the drive, pulling up to the garage, two things were glaringly evident. The garage door was open.
And Chris' Ram was gone.
"Son of a BITCH!" Buck bellowed, slamming his fist into the dash. Around him, the others silently agreed.
Chris pulled into the small parking lot that sat at the edge of the nearly hidden park. It had been a favorite place when Sarah had been alive. They would meet here when he was on his lunch hour, sometimes eating lunch and sometimes... not. His wife swore that their son was conceived at this very spot.
Putting the Ram in park, he turned off the engine and simply sat there, staring out the windshield at the untamed flora beyond the white rock parking area. Sarah was here, somewhere. She had promised to meet him here.
There was still that nagging voice, even though it was growing quieter, telling him that this was insane. His wife was gone. Dead. Her body long ago claimed by the creatures of the soil where she lay.
He was learning to ignore that voice though; sending it to the farthest corner of his overtaxed mind so that he could focus on the reality that he wished to believe in. The reality that found him reunited with his wife and son. Where his family was whole once more. He would reclaim that reality, no matter the cost to his sanity.
Movement caught his attention, just beyond the thick brush ringing most of the parking area. A slender figure, cloaked in the shadows even in the middle of the day. He caught sight of a stray shaft of sunlight, glinting off auburn hair, turning it golden. Fair skin, barely touched with color, drifted back into the trees, drifting away from him. "Sarah?"
He was out of the truck, running toward the specter, heedless of anything but catching up with the slight figure. "Sarah! Don't go... stay right there! Baby, don't go!"
A teasing giggle met him, taunting him as she moved farther away. He pushed harder, sprinting to the edge of the parking lot and crashing through the tangles of bush and briar. "Sarah!"
Rushing out into the clearing, where the city had placed a few benches and a small shelter, he stumbled to a halt. The park was empty.
Four sets of eyes were plastered to the windows, searching the countryside around them for signs of Chris Larabee. JD and Ezra had stayed behind at the ranch to set up the equipment necessary if they were going to figure out who was playing games with their friend and boss.
They had been driving along the back roads, uncertain of which way to go. Chris could very well have gone in just the opposite direction, away from Denver. It had come down to Buck's discretion as to which way they went, and he was acting on instinct.
"Wish we'd brought another car," Vin mused from the front passenger seat.
"If that son of a bitch hadn't bluffed me, I wouldn't have left him alone, so we're both shit outta luck," Wilmington grumbled.
"Buck, you didn't know," Nathan soothed. "We all know he's stubborn and bull headed. If he wanted to leave he'd have found some way to get you out of there."
Stomping the brakes, Buck had them all sliding in their seats, kept from piling on the floor only by their seatbelts, as he turned the steering wheel and bounced from the paved road onto the graveled road that led to a small parking area. They didn't slow as he brought the van to a rest beside a familiar, black Dodge Ram. All four men piled out as soon as the van was parked.
"What the fuck!?" Vin yelled.
"Just remembered this place... from before," Wilmington offered as way of explanation.
"To bad you didn't remember to say something like 'hold on'," Tanner groused.
"See him anywhere?" Buck asked, ignoring the other man's complaints.
"No," was the response, in unison, from the other three.
"Wait," Vin barked, the others immediately going silent while he listened to something they didn't hear.
"Vin?" Josiah said softly.
"I hear him." Tanner nodded, then took off toward the foliage, pushing through it into the clearing beyond.
He was following the faint trail Sarah had left behind her. He no longer doubted that he was chasing his wife; the woman he had mourned for so long; the woman he loved more than life itself. It was Sarah. She hadn't died, after all. It had all been some horrible hoax.
Larabee's mind was spinning, his thoughts racing; chasing themselves through his overtaxed mind, leaving him to move on instinct rather than reason. "SARAH!"
His voice was growing hoarse, the call as raspy as Tanner on a good day. He didn't notice it, though, and continued to call to his wife. From time to time he thought he heard her, laughing merrily in the distance. He didn't question any of it; not why his wife had suddenly come back from the dead, why she was leading him on a chase. None of that mattered. Only the thought that his wife was alive and had returned to him mattered.
And that was just what they were counting on.
He stopped so quickly that he stumbled and fell, landing on his hands and knees. Looking up, he found himself face to face with someone he never expected to see again. "Hank?"
"You look like you've seen a ghost, Larabee." The elderly man chuckled, the sound sharp and cold.
"What are you doing here? Where's Sarah?" Chris pushed himself up, standing to face off against his father-in-law.
"Sarah? You should know better than me that my daughter's dead, Chris."
"No! I... I saw her!"
"Oh... you mean..." he held out a hand, motioning for someone. As a cloaked figure came from behind a nearby tree, a slender hand reaching out to take his, he finished, "her?"
Chris got his first, clear look at the woman he had been chasing. It was true that there was some vague resemblance between this woman and his wife, but that was all. Shaking his head and taking a step back, he murmured, "No..."
Smiling, Hank Connolly continued. "I'd like to introduce you to Lillian. I met her... well, let's just say I met her a few months back. Like you, I took her for Sarah at the beginning. And it was then that I came up with my little plan."
"Plan?" Chris pulled himself up to his full height, glaring at the older man.
"Yes. Vengeance, Chris Larabee. Vengeance for the death of my beloved daughter. Vengeance against you, Chris Larabee."
"Beloved?" Larabee snorted. "So beloved that you disowned her? So beloved that you wouldn't even come to her fucking funeral!? This is bullshit, Hank!"
The blond spun on his heel and started back the way he came; rage pounding against his skull so hard that he could barely even see. So hard that he didn't hear the angry scream that cut through the air, or the sound of the handgun being discharged. He knew nothing until he felt something slam into his back with the force of a truck. He stumbled forward several yards, crashing through the brush and staggering against several trees. Then he dropped to his knees with a grunt, sitting back on his heels. Blinking, he tried to clear his vision. Breathing seemed almost beyond his grasp, and he wheezed, coughing as he tried to take a breath.
"You're gonna die, Chris Larabee! Out here. Alone! Just like my little girl died!"
Hank's voice rang through the trees at the same time several other voices, coming from somewhere in front of him, rang out as well.
"Drop it! I said drop it!"
Larabee managed to clear his vision slightly, meaningless swirls of color resolved in the fuzzy outlines of his friends. Meaningless sounds became concerned and angry words.
"Chris? Chris, look at me."
"Yeah, it's me. Look at me, Chris. Where are you hurt?"
Frowning, Larabee said softly, "I'm not... not sure. Back? I think... my back."
Carefully, Nathan Jackson shifted the blond so that he was sitting on the ground. He guided him so that he was sitting cross-legged, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees. Positioning him in that manner, he could shift around to take a look at the other man's back. He winced as he saw the wide swatch of blood that was growing wider across Larabee's shirt.
"Vin!" Jackson called out to Tanner. When the Texan hurried over to him, leaving Buck and Josiah to deal with a now compliant Hank Connolly and his equally submissive accomplice, he said, "Go back to the van and bring me my emergency kit, then call for an ambulance."
"You got it." Sparing a single, worried look at his injured friend, Tanner disappeared quickly into the woods.
"How... bad?" Chris asked, his voice giving away just how much pain he was in.
"We need to get the bleeding stopped," Nathan explained. "We get you to the hospital, you should be fine soon."
Larabee simply nodded, his head dropping forward so that his chin rested on his chest.
"Come on, get over here." Buck was pushing Hank before him, the man's hands secured behind him with Wilmington's cuffs. The bigger man, barely restraining his anger, pushed Connolly to his knees a few feet from Chris. "And stay down."
"How is he, Nate?" Josiah asked as he joined the rest of them, one large hand clapped over the woman's slender shoulder. Like Buck, he guided her to her knees.
"Losin' a lot of blood, but I don't think the wound itself it bad. Vin should be"
Jackson broke off as Tanner joined them.
"Here ya go, Nate," Tanner handed over the compact emergency medical kit to the EMT trained agent.
Jackson quickly applied a pressure bandage to the wound in Larabee's back. As he did he asked Vin, "ambulance coming?"
"On their way. Can he move? Don't think they'll be able to maneuver the stretcher back here."
"Yeah... I can move," Larabee growled, not liking his men talking about him while he was right there.
"You're gonna do what I tell you though, right? So you don't bleed to death on the trip over there?" Nathan asked, his underlying tone letting the injured blond know that he needn't consider ignoring the man's request.
"What... whatever you say, Nate."
With Vin leading the way, pressing back branches to allow him through, and Nathan at his elbow, making certain that he kept his feet under him, Chris moved back through the wild growth toward the parking lot. Josiah and Buck stayed behind, waiting for DPD to come relieve them of their prisoners, rather than risking one or the other trying to get away during the journey.
Not that it seemed that either of them were going to voluntarily move any time soon. Hank was sitting there, rocking back and forth on his knees, muttering to himself. From time to time a word would make its way to the other men. He was talking to his daughter, as if she was right there, begging her forgiveness for not avenging her death. Buck struggled not to turn away in disgust as his friend's father in law berated him as the reason for the death that had nearly claimed Larabee's soul.
"He's out of his mind, Buck," Josiah said softly, his tone one of warning. "He doesn't realize what's going on."
"I know that. Otherwise he'd already be dead."
Sanchez stared at the other agent, seeing the truth laid bare in those dark, angry eyes. "Buck..."
"He's gonna pay, Josiah, but I ain't gonna do anything... rash." He turned his back on the other man, sending a glare toward his prisoner. He had been the one to walk Sarah down the aisle when Hank should have. He had been there when she had delivered Adam and had become his godfather and adopted uncle. He had been the family Hank had refused to be. But, because of all that, he would never hurt the old man. He was, after all, Sarah's father.
Josiah turned his attention back to his prisoner, trusting his friend to keep his word. The young woman had dropped forward until her head was pressed against the ground, and she was weeping. From time to time, like Hank, she muttered words that they could understand. For the most part she seemed to be praying, begging for forgiveness in becoming wrapped up in the old man's scheme. He had the feeling that this was going to be quite a knot to unravel.
"Ow... son of a... " Larabee protested breathlessly as he stumbled over a thick tree root.
"Told you to stop, Chris," Vin replied calmly, in the face of a patented Larabee glare. He had his hands full, trying to move aside a particularly nasty tangle of brush.
"Can we go around?" Nathan asked, exasperated as he tried to keep the man between them upright.
"If we could'a, we would'a," Tanner replied in a sickly sweet, singsong voice.
"I'm just saying, we came through this way, didn't we? Why are we finding the way blocked? I thought you had such a perfect sense of direction." Jackson snapped.
"Hell, Nate, I know the direction... don't mean I'm literally retracing our steps. Reckon we're about a yard over maybe."
"Then why not go over a yard?"
"'Cause it's blocked between here and there, too. Hell, Nate, can I just finish up here?"
"Sh-should I just bleed to death... right here to make things e-easier on you two chuckle h... chuckle heads?" Larabee ground out in a breathless tone of anger.
"Nah, that'd be a waste of time and we'd have all that paper... work to fill out," Vin replied with a grunt. Then he added, "Besides, we're here, now."
Nathan managed to manhandle a now semi-conscious Chris out into the open. He moved up to one side of Larabee, while Vin moved to the other, as they guided him across the small park toward the parking lot. Just as they entered the lot, the injured man's legs gave out, leaving his two friends to guide him to the ground.
"Good timin'," Vin called to the EMTs as they approached with their equipment.
"Hey, Nathan," one of the EMTs greeted the tall agent as he knelt beside the men. "What's up?"
"Single gunshot in the back, small caliber handgun," Jackson began to describe Larabee's injury. As he did, the emergency team began to work on the injured man.
Vin, moving away to allow the experts to deal with his injured friend, saw that a DPD squad car was just entering the parking lot. He raised a hand to wave a greeting, and approached the car to talk to the officers, retrieving his badge as he did. "Hey guys, we've got a couple for you, back in the woods. I'll show you the way."
"What happened, agent... Tanner?" One of the uniformed officers asked as they followed him toward the woods.
"Not completely certain, but we've got two suspects back here. Two of our team are back there with them now. They wounded our boss," he nodded toward where the EMTs were just loading Chris onto the stretcher.
"Vin, I'm going with Chris in the ambulance," Nathan announced as the other man passed.
"Okay, we'll be there soon as we can get there. We'll grab JD and Ezra on the way," Tanner replied.
As Vin and the two officers entered the wooded area that surrounded the area, Nathan stood as the EMTs began moving toward the ambulance, the stretcher between them. He followed along, entering the stretcher bay to ride along to the hospital.
Two hours later. Nathan raised a hand, waving the five men over to where he sat in the surgery waiting room. Not surprising, Buck's long legs brought him across the big room a yard or so ahead of the others. He stood as the big brunet drew near, not missing the flare of anger in the dark blue eyes.
"How is he?" Wilmington asked without preamble.
Waiting until the others caught up, Jackson announced, "He's in recovery now. The wound wasn't bad, didn't hit anything vital." He had learned not to go into details with the others. They never understood the details, anyway. "There's the blood loss to consider but, baring complications, he should be well enough to be released in a few days."
"Then the fun begins when we take turns sittin' on him to keep him from going back to work too early," Vin drawled, relief showing on his face, just as it shone on every other face in the group.
"When can we go see him?" Buck asked brusquely.
"Probably another hour. Why don't we go get something to eat and see what we can sort out about this whole thing?" Jackson suggested.
"You boys go, I'll wait..."
"Buck," Josiah interjected, "if they need us, they have our contact numbers. We'll go down the street to Murphy's and be back before he's settled in his room. We need to take a break now while we can."
The big brunet looked as if he would argue, but then simply nodded, following the others from the room.
A short time later six of the apt named, "Magnificent Seven", sat around a large table at Murphy's restaurant, having ordered dinner and drinks. Ezra had separated himself slightly from the others after his phone rang. As for the others, their faces reflected concern, frustration and anger as Buck recounted the time he and Josiah spent with Chris' father-in-law while they waited for backup.
"... son of a bitch just kept saying over and over that he should have taken better aim... should have killed Chris. I tried talking to him, to try and find out what the fuck he'd been thinking, but nothing he said made a damn bit of sense." Buck paused, taking a long draw from his beer. The bottle made a loud *thunk* when he set it back on the table. "Why that son of a bitch hates Chris so much, I don't know, but I will tell you this. I'm gonna enjoy watching him sentenced and carted off to prison for what he did to him. And to Sarah."
"Sarah?" Vin repeated the name.
"Yeah, Sarah. She never deserved what that son of a bitch did to her. The day she told him Chris had asked her to marry him was the last time Hank, Gawd Almighty Connolly ever spoke to his little girl. The only time he ever spoke to Chris after that, was at her funeral. And, believe me, it wasn't to offer consolation. That son of a bitch called him every name in the book, and then some, blaming Chris for Sarah's death."
"Did he blame him for Adam's death as well?" Josiah asked incongruously.
"You've mentioned Sarah and how angry Hank got with both her and Chris. How did he feel about the death of his grandson?"
"Hell, he never mentioned the boy... pretended he didn't exist."
Nodding, the older agent said, "to acknowledge the existence of his grandchild would mean his daughter wasn't... pure, shall we say?"
"So he didn't want Sarah to have sex... like, ever?" JD asked, frowning at the thought.
"Perhaps. Anything we come up with is purely speculative."
"Yeah, the old man's the only one who knows the truth," Vin mused, nodding.
"Possibly, but maybe not," Josiah offered. "Are we so certain that Hank only recently had a psychotic break?"
"Actually, we do," Standish joined the conversation now, having finished his phone conversation. "And the answer is no. That was... a friend... who found some information on Mister Connolly for me. It would seem that, for the last four and a half years, he has been in a long-term psychiatric facility."
"Why?" Buck asked.
"He had a psychotic break. Began acting quite strangely during a board meeting at his company. My source wasn't completely clear on the details but it seems that he began ranting and raving about the devil claiming his only child and ordering different members of the board to hunt the demon down and kill him."
"Chris." Nathan said.
Nodding, Standish repeated, "Chris. Evidently he became physically violent toward one of the board members and had to be restrained. He was arrested, evaluated by a psychiatrist while in jail, and remanded to... Centennial Peaks Hospital, in Louisville."
"When was he discharged?" Jackson questioned.
"He wasn't." Ezra shook his head, looking sad as he explained, "He was on a day pass with a tech and gave them the slip. He escaped with another patient. A female..."
"Let me guess, the young woman he was with."
Acknowledging Vin's guess with a nod, Standish said, "Lillian DuChane, paranoid schizophrenic."
"Easy for someone like Hank to manipulate." Sanchez interjected.
"Evidently. Ms. DuChane had been a resident at the facility for approximately twelve years, after being arrested for attempting to blow up a federal building. She was convinced that the government had implanted a chip in her filling during a dental appointment, so that they could read her mind and broadcast her thoughts during the nightly news."
"So, he probably just had to tell her that Chris works for the government, and he was able to convince her to do anything he wanted." Buck surmised, his heart going out to the young woman, who's mental illness had left her unable to judge reality, let alone right and wrong.
The conversation was suspended then, as their meals were brought to the table. They ate in near silence, lost in their own thoughts about what had happened, and what could have happened.
Later that evening, Buck slipped into the semi-darkened room to find his old friend seemingly asleep on the bed. Quietly he moved over to the chair that sat in the corner and lowered his tall body into it, watching the blond.
Chris laid very still, his face showing the signs of stress from the last several weeks. One arm was in a soft restraint, an IV hooked up to it. The blood pressure monitor was clipped to his index finger, the soft beep of the read-out and the soft hiss of the oxygen being fed to him via canella were the only sounds, other than the occasional rustle of sheets when the sleeping man moved.
It was nearly an hour before anything changed. Buck was dozing, long legs stretched out before him.
"What time is it?" Chris rasped, his throat feeling tight and scratchy.
Sitting up straighter, the brunet smiled as he regarded a pair of glassy eyes staring in his direction. "Hey stud." Checking his watch, he added, "A hair past seven."
"Don't you have a date?"
"I don't have a date every night," Wilmington protested.
Chris chuffed and frowned, "Since when?"
His only response a chuckle, Buck asked, "How ya feelin'?"
Surprised by that response, the bigger man's brow furrowed as he repeated, "Foolish?"
"I was so... so stupid..." Larabee's voice cracked, and a single tear rolled down his cheek.
Rising and striding across the small room in two steps, Buck towered over his friend. "Now, you listen to me, Chris Larabee. You are not a stupid man. You've never been a stupid man, and you by god will never be a stupid man. What that... bastard... put you through... he had you twisted up like a twig in a tornado."
"But I knew, Buck... I knew that it couldn't be Sarah."
His heart breaking at the forlorn tone in the other man's voice, Wilmington said, "Your head might have known, son, but when did your head ever rule when it came to Sarah? You were hoping, Chris, and he did everything in his power to fuel that hope."
"But why, Buck? Does he hate me that much?"
Settling on the edge of the mattress, Wilmington said softly, "I wish I could answer that, Chris, I do. But one thing I can tell you is this, the man was crazy. And I do mean crazy. Insane." He continued on, sharing what Ezra had been able to discover earlier that day. By the time he was finished, the blond's face was a mixture of anger, sadness and pity.
"Damn. All those years I wished him ill... wanted him to hurt the way he hurt Sarah." Chris frowned and shook his head before looking at his old friend. "Guess I got my wish, huh?"
"Don't you go there, Chris Larabee. You did not create his problems, he did. That crazy old man cut his only daughter out of his life, refused to acknowledge his only grandson and blamed you for everything. Because he was so damned stubborn, he missed out on being part of a family. And losing his mind... losing everything... that was his reward."
Larabee heaved a sigh and closed his eyes, feeling exhaustion rushing over him in a heavy wave. He felt a hand on his shoulder and managed to crack an eye open. Buck was smiling down at him.
"Get some sleep, pard. I'll be here when you wake up."
With a nod, the blond drifted off, secure in the knowledge that his friend - as he always did - had his back.
November 29, 2009