Disclaimer: Once upon a time in a land where dreams come true, I owned them. Here, in the harsh light of reality, they belong to the Alphabet Brigade. Reality stinks. And, as this is ATF, a tip of the hat to Mog, who created the universe in which I bring hurt and comfort to our fellas this time.
Warnings: Cult violence (mostly implied) and language
Notes: Very vaguely related to a Starsky & Hutch episode, but mostly comes from my warped imagination. This was originally written for Sasha, in honor of her birthday. This was written several years ago, so you may have already read it.
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Chris Larabee grunted for the tenth time in as many minutes as the jeep he was a passenger in bounced along the rutted road. If the truth be told it was less of a road and more of a deer path, filled with axle-bending holes and kidney-jarring dips, all well hidden with tall grass. He looked across the seat, shaking his head at the driver. Tanner was enjoying this, sitting behind the wheel with a broad smile on his face, whistling as he steered the battered vehicle along the almost invisible roadway.
"There's got to be something wrong with a man who can whistle while his internal organs are being reduced to pulp," Larabee complained.
"Ah hell, Cowboy," Vin answered with a chuckle, "this ain't nothin'. I think you've been hangin' round Ezra too long. You sound like you’re gettin' soft in your old age."
"Tanner, at this distance there's no way in hell I'd miss," the blond growled, "don't make me shoot you."
Shaking his head, the younger ATF agent only laughed louder. Nothing more was said until they reached their destination. The words Team Seven's leader uttered then were far worse than his earlier threat. When he had calmed down enough to approach civility, he glared at the long haired man. "These are the 'rustic accommodations' you found?"
Throwing his hands up in frustration, Tanner said, "hey, with the budget and location I had to work with, you ought t' be thankin' me we got this!"
Continuing to glare, the blond stared at the cabin they were expected to utilize during their current assignment. Cabin was being too kind, he decided. Shack, hovel, those words were more descriptive of the aged structure. Larabee was convinced that he had seen the place before...in a "Snuffy Smif" cartoon. Taking a deep breath and squaring his shoulders, the man drew from the depths of his courage and carefully made his way up the three questionable steps, across the sagging excuse for a stoop, and tried the door. Not surprised when he found it unlocked, he pushed it open. Or tried to. Moving a total of three inches, the door stopped. After several tries, Larabee shoved it forward with his shoulder, the wood protesting as it scraped across the warped linoleum of the floor.
Coughing as his entrance woke the dust bunnies and sand devils inside, Chris swept his hazel-eyed gaze across the entire shack. It took all of two seconds to assess the entire premises. The single room gave Spartan a bad name.
The door opened directly in the middle of the one-room dwelling. To his left, he saw a filthy window, barely allowing in enough light to see the rest of the dismal room. Beneath its splintered sill squatted an old metal table, flanked by two rickety ladder back chairs and topped by a hurricane lamp, its globe broken in at least two places. A few feet beyond it sat a metal utility cabinet, covered in at least three layers of peeling 'Con-Tact Paper' of various shades and designs. Beside it stood an old sink, a rusted pump perched ominously at one end. A tattered curtain hung hopelessly around the frame, pretending to hide the pipe works beneath.
Next was an old refrigerator, its arched top and layers of grimy fingerprints declaring its advanced age. Next to it was an old folding door, half its slats long ago letting go of the bracing at the top of the opening. He could see enough of the space beyond to note that it was a closet of sorts. Finally, at the right side of the room was a second, grime covered window and a set of military-style bunks. There was no mattress on the top bunk, and the lower one was heavily stained and had been home to who knew how many rodents.
Finishing his surveillance, Larabee turned back to the other man. "There is no fucking way I'm staying in here, Tanner."
Shrugging, the younger man said, "that's fine, I'll put the tent up, and we can camp."
Spitting out yet another string of curse words, the team leader left a splintered indentation at the bottom of the door with his boot. Stomping back out into the late morning sunshine, he considered the situation.
They were part of an investigation into a series of disappearances and three bizarre murders that had taken place in the area. Cult activity was suspected as the cause behind the events. Although these events spanned only six months, they were already seen as some of the worst crimes in decades. After days of looking over the information provided by one of the other teams, they had decided that working undercover appeared to be the best way to go. Josiah and JD had taken up temporary residence at the other end of the fifteen mile stretch that made up the event area. Buck, Ezra and Nathan had all established themselves in the small towns nearby, all of which had suffered losses to the suspected cult. Due to the nature of the investigation, they were all pretty much on their own for the time being, with a scheduled meet in four days, at a hotel just beyond the event area.
Looking back at the pathetic structure, Chris weighed his options: stay in the cabin, sleep on the ground, or shoot Tanner. The last option might relieve a little of his anger, but it wasn't going to make things any better. Folding his arms across his chest, he turned to glare at his friend once again. "Fine. Let's see what we've got to work with, then you can go back into town and pick up supplies."
Grinning, Vin threw the older man a salute and disappeared into the little shack.
Three hours later found the men covered in dirt and grime, and the air filled with dust. The mattress had been spread out in the sun after its multi-legged residents had been evicted. The tattered, rag-like curtains had been removed from the windows and sink and were piled up in a heap near the cabin's woodpile. The refrigerator door was propped open, a variety of foul odors only now dissipating. Vin had found the cabin's generator and, with a string of four-letter words that put Chris' to shame, finally pronounced it operational.
The blond made a lengthy list of items they would need to survive the stay. Handing both the list and his credit card to the younger man, he said, "see if you can do a better job at filling this order."
Frowning at the legal-size page of supplies, Tanner said, "so what the hell are you gonna be doin' whilst I'm bein' your damn pack mule?"
"I'll be doing the job we came up here for," Larabee growled. "I'll do some recon around the lake; see if I can find any sign of cult activity."
Vin's face lost all hint of a smile then, "Chris, you shouldn’t do that without back-up."
"I don't intend to do anything but look around." Picking up the fishing gear they had brought as part of their cover, he said, "If I'm real lucky, I'll even catch dinner."
He had spent a good part of the afternoon walking along the bank of the crystalline lake. The blond appeared to be nothing more than a fisherman, looking for the right place to drop his line. However, while he did cast out into the lake from time to time, Chris Larabee's mind was on only one thing; finding evidence that there was indeed a cult operating nearby.
Finding nothing more than a few broken twigs and a long-dead campfire, Larabee settled in beneath a tree, truly fishing now. His eyes never stopped searching, however. While he dangled his line in the clear water, he scanned the surrounding area for anything that could give him a clue concerning the deaths and disappearances.
As the sun threw shadows across the lake, he saw a pair of figures meandering along the opposite bank. Two young women in tight shorts and bikini tops. That in itself was suspicious; this was a far cry from the sort of 'spring break' get-away spot they were dressed for. His senses honed by years as a lawman, the blond sat stock-still, only his eyes following the two women as they moved casually around the end of the body of water. Stopping from time to time to look at something in the wild grass, or toss pebbles into the still water, they looked like nothing more than a pair of young women out for a stroll. His gut told him different. Larabee never took his attention away from the women.
They were nearly on top of him before he spoke. "Afternoon ladies."
The women looked up and smiled, not seeming to be shocked at his presence at all. The dark-haired one spoke up. "Hi. We were wondering if you were going to say anything."
Keeping his voice casual, Chris said, "didn't think you'd even seen me. Glad I didn't startle you."
The blond giggled, "No, we're used to seeing fishermen up here."
"Ah, you're from around here then?"
Nodding, the dark-haired woman replied, "born and raised. Haven't seen you around here before."
Shrugging, he answered, "just came up for a few days to fish."
"You're alone then?" The second woman, a blonde, asked just a little too quickly.
Sirens sounding in his mind, Chris answered vaguely, "not at the minute." He gave them one of his most dazzling smiles.
Both women giggled now, and the dark-haired one took up the conversation. "We were just coming to check out the lake. Some of us are going to have a celebration here this evening. Would you like to join us?"
Seeming to consider the invitation, the blond smiled and said, "I'd like that. What's the occasion?" He didn't hear their answer though; didn't see their smiles grow cold. Instead, he crumpled to the ground, unconscious.
A man stood over the unconscious blond, a heavy club in one hand. He looked at the two women, who turned toward him with hopeful looks on their faces. "You did well, Em...Es. I'll be certain to tell Simon how easily you were able to gain his confidence. He'll be impressed."
The two women bounced happily, hugging one another at the high praise. Finally the dark-haired woman, Em, said, "Thank you Joshua, thank you!"
His second trip to the cabin was not as enjoyable as the first. The long-haired agent's mood had slid downward during the long hours he had been gone. Vin felt as if he had been on a scavenger hunt gathering all of the things Chris had listed for him. There were a total of four stores in the nearest community, and one refused to take the other man's platinum card. Finally, having filled only half the huge order, Tanner pointed his jeep back out of town. Larabee could make do, do without, or go hunt down the rest himself. He wanted to jump into the lake before it grew too late, and wash off the day's accumulated crud.
Pulling up to the cabin, Vin climbed out of the driver's seat, stretching his arms above his head until his tired joints popped. Frowning when the other man didn't appear at the sound of the vehicle's approach he called out, "I sure as hell ain't unpackin' all this shit myself, Larabee. Drag your sorry ass out here and help."
When he still received no response, Vin began unpacking the jeep. Deciding that Chris was still at the lake, he started to move the supplies into the little cabin. As he entered the single room, he stopped, a curse escaping his lips. Something was very, very wrong. The equipment and supplies they had unloaded earlier were scattered all over the room, some things broken, others torn.
Dropping the box he carried, Vin hurried from the building. Stopping only long enough to retrieve his .357 from beneath the jeep's front seat, he quickly scanned the area. Nothing seemed amiss other than in the cabin; nothing other than the fact that his best friend and boss was missing. He moved toward the lake at a trot, his senses on full alert for anything that signaled an attack.
He slowly became aware...first of pain, then of sound, and finally sight. The pain threatened to overwhelm everything else, though. It radiated from the back of his head, coursing down his neck and back, its intensity nauseating him. Managing to lift his head, Chris worked at focusing his vision. He seemed to be alone, facing a wide clearing surrounded by trees. In the center, the vegetation had been scorched clear, blackened wood giving mute testimony to past gatherings. He had found the cult; there was no question of that fact in the blond's foggy mind.
Managing to look upward, he saw that he was hanging suspended from one of the big trees. Blood dripped down his arms from his wrists, torn raw by the rough hemp ropes that bound him. His head dropping, Chris saw that he had been stripped nude and groaned. 'Larabee,' he thought to himself, 'up shit creek doesn't even begin to describe this.'
"You're awake!" The vaguely familiar voice cut through his throbbing head like a knife. Looking up, he saw the blonde woman from before, entering the clearing. Her earlier attire had been replaced by a long, pale blue robe.
"Wh-what's going on?" He managed to whisper.
"Why, a celebration, silly," she chirped. "Simon has declared this a special night. Em and I will become true followers, he has so decreed it."
"True followers of what?"
She looked at him as if he had asked the stupidest question in the world. "Not of what, who. Followers of Simon, the earthly incarnation of Lord Azrea."
"Oh," he replied simply. As she came to stand before him, her body pressed against his, he looked into her face. Glassy green eyes stared back at him, pupils giving him the only answer he needed. She was drugged. "What's your name?"
"Simon has named me Es. After tonight, though, I'll take a new name."
"What was your name before...before you met Simon?"
She frowned, a look of confusion furrowing her pale brow. "Before? There was no before. "
Drugged and brainwashed. It had to be a cult. Larabee cursed silently. A lot of good this information would do him now. No one knew where he was, and only one other person would even know he was missing for days. Vin. If he had to rely on a single human being to save his ass, he was glad it was Tanner. But could even his fearless and resourceful friend outwit a cult? Suddenly the vision of Vin Tanner, broken and lifeless, flared into his mind. Chris groaned. As much as he wanted to see the morning sun, he didn't want it to be at the cost of his younger friend's life. There wasn't a question, however, that Vin would offer up that life for him. 'Vin,' his mind cried, 'don't come looking alone'.
Vin had found Larabee's gear, scattered along the bank. His pistol was missing, as was his identification. Both had been tucked away in the tackle box that now lay broken apart in the grass. Reaching for his cell phone, he cursed when he realized he had left it behind in his hurry to find his friend. Mentally kicking himself, Tanner stood to return to their campsite. Before he had taken three steps, he heard something that sent a chill through his lean body.
The notion of contacting the others quickly forgotten, Vin ran stealthily through the grass toward the eerie sounds. The sun was setting quickly, shrouding the wooded landscape in shadow. Any concern that the cult would be difficult to locate in the dark was quickly dispelled, as the flames of a bonfire lifted skyward among the trees. Even as he neared the fire, he saw the grotesque shadows of several figures cast against the flames. Reaching the trees, he tucked his gun in his waistband and carefully scaled one thick trunk. Crouching on a limb, he surveyed the bizarre display below.
The fire flickered and danced in the deepening shadows; a dozen people bobbing and weaving at the periphery. Each wore a robe; most a pale blue, the three remaining clothed in scarlet-trimmed black. Those last seemed to be whatever passed for the upper echelon of the cult, the others offering them wine and food. And weapons. Each of them soon brandished wicked looking knives, the blades cutting the air over and around the pale robed cult members.
Then he saw Chris.
The agent was dragged out of the shadows between two of the pale robed underlings, struggling to get free of their grasp. He had been stripped and, judging from the way he carried himself, Larabee had been fighting his captivity. As the others gathered around their prisoner, a thirteenth robbed figure entered the clearing. This one wore a scarlet robe, decorated in gold. Vin knew immediately that this was the one to watch.
Chris fought to stay focused. Already groggy from the blow to his head, he had been force-fed a cup of something he couldn't identify. The fact that, only minutes later, the world took on a new appearance, told him he had been drugged. Drawing on every vestige of strength he had left, he fought the effects, forcing his failing consciousness to divine the reality hidden behind the hallucinations. He found the human faces beneath the demon forms of the two men who held him, and fought their grasp. He knew before it began that he was defeated, but he refused to give up.
His struggles had cost him a variety of injuries; most of them minor, but painful nonetheless. He knew he had at least one injured rib, though, and he tried to protect that side of his body from further attack. Another hard punch had landed on his lower back, and he knew he'd probably piss red in the morning... if he was lucky enough to see morning.
Standing between his robed captors, fighting to keep from falling to his knees, Chris focused on one particular figure. The others had grown quiet, and seemed to regard this individual with a great deal of something akin to reverence. The scarlet-robed specter seemed, in his befuddled mind at least, to float across the ground. Larabee felt his heart pound with fear, but he managed to keep that feeling from showing on his face. Slowly he stared at the gilt-edged figure; the only emotion visible on his handsome face was rage.
"I don't know who the hell you think you are," Chris growled, "but you've got about one minute to let me go."
A cold sound, only marginally identifiable as laughter, emerged from the depths of the deep red hood. Two of the pale-robed creatures groveled near, reverently pulling the hood back to reveal the wearer.
The blond was disappointed. It was only a man, after all.
From his perch in the trees, Vin watched the proceedings, forcing himself to remain calm. He wanted nothing more than to start shooting and kill as many of the cultists as he could with his gun. Then go after the others with one of the knives that continued to flail in the air, or his fists if need be. Visions of slitting their throats, stilling the chanting that had begun again, filled his mind. Taking a deep breath, he erased those pictures from his mind, clearing it so that he could concentrate on a more practical resolution to the situation.
"I hate to disappoint you," Chris managed to say, "but if I'm supposed to be impressed, I'm not."
Simon, formerly John Simon, late of New Mexico, attempted his most intimidating stare. It quickly faltered under the even gaze of the blond. While he managed to regain his composure before any of his followers saw, doubt welled up in the sociopath’s mind. He thought he recognized a presence as strong as his own in this one. Their latest offering to his divine spirit would offer up great energy, but releasing that energy from the vessel that stood before him would be difficult.
"You have a great strength." Simon said, his voice echoing in bass relief over the chanting. "You will provide the Lord Azrea with a mighty energy."
Larabee continued to stare, not answering the man. While he hoped it seemed that he didn't consider the words worth an answer, the truth was that he wasn't certain he had the strength. He could feel the accumulated aches and pains, along with the drug he had swallowed earlier, draining the strength the madman before him was praising.
Above them, Vin saw what the others didn't. Chris was faltering, his energy being sapped by whatever injuries he had sustained, and his continued struggles against those holding him. Time was running short if he had any hope of rescuing his friend. Carefully he climbed down from the tree and slipped into the shadows.
The blond felt his knees buckle, but couldn't catch himself. Sagging between the other two men, he fought to keep the blackness from claiming him. The madman calling himself Simon was still talking to him, but Chris couldn't follow the rambling speech for more than a few words at a time. His captors jerked him upward by the arms, forcing him back to his feet. They stretched his arms roughly outward, the muscular arms twitching from the strain. No longer able to fight it, Larabee groaned as the flood of pain increased. Through tear blurred eyes, he watched the cult leader float nearer, until he was within arm's reach.
Simon held out a hand, and the handle of a knife was laid in his palm. With a grin, he closed his fingers around it, reveling in its feel. "You will be a fine sacrifice, the first so worthy of sharing their energy with Azrea."
With the last of his waning strength, Chris spit in the smiling face. It was almost worth the addition pain as, in a rage, Simon slashed the knife across his chest. Larabee cried out, the sound a pitiful shadow of what screamed through his mind. Then, just as he decided to give in to the beckoning abyss, he heard something that restored what little hope he had left.
"Drop the fuckin' knife."
'Vin!' The blond's fading mind cried.
The barrel of his gun pressed tightly against the red-robed man's neck, Tanner ordered, "the rest a you idiots back off. Any of y' even look like you're gonna move this way, your boss here gets to eat a bullet. Move!"
Looking hesitantly at their leader, the cultists murmured amongst themselves. On his part, Simon had little doubt as to what he wanted them to do. He could feel the cold steel pressing against his throat; knew that the man behind him would be wearing his brains before the others could stop him. it didn't matter whether or not they got him afterward, he would still be dead.
"Children," the self-proclaimed god called out, "do as this infidel says. It is but a test of your loyalty to Azrea... do as he orders."
Vin was hard pressed not to admire the man. It was no wonder he was regarded so highly by this band of fools. He was charismatic, a smooth talking conman. If it got them out of the clearing, he'd let the man talk.
Slowly, their faces displaying confusion, fear and rage, ten of the robbed figures fell back, responding quickly as Vin ordered them to stay where he could see them. Only the two men holding the bloodied agent upright remained. "Chris, can you hear me?"
Far too tired to speak, Larabee nodded.
"Can you walk?"
A second nod, less certain this time.
"Well, you better be right," Tanner said. "You two, let him go, and join your friends."
"Do it!" Simon ordered.
Dropping the blond's arms, the last two members of the cult backed away. Left on his own, Chris swayed, nearly falling to his knees. Slowly he managed to find his balance, and shuffled unsteadily the few steps to where Vin stood. Moving to Tanner's left side, he grasped his shoulder.
Keeping the gun trained against the madman's throat, and his arm wrapped around the man's shoulders, Vin said, "all righty then, we're gonna back up now. Chris, you keep hold of my shoulder. You," he pressed the cold barrel into the sweat-soaked flesh for emphasis, "start walkin' backwards with us. You try anything stupid and you're a dead man."
Nodding shortly, the robed man complied without argument. With short, measured steps, the trio moved away from the fire and into the shadows. By the time they reached the trees, Vin could feel Chris faltering and knew the older man wouldn't be able to stay on his feet much longer. They were hidden from the cultists by the shadows now, but he could see them as they milled around the fire. Doing a quick headcount, he was relieved when he saw that they were all there. With a single, fluid movement, the ATF agent flipped the gun around and cracked the butt across the cult leader's head. Easing the unconscious man to the ground, he turned to catch his friend as Larabee slumped toward the ground.
"Whoa there, pard,” Tanner whispered, “stay with me Chris." The injured blond nodded weakly and allowed him to pull a battered arm across his shoulders. Slipping his own arm around the man's waist, Vin guided him away from the fire and deeper into the woods.
They had been running for days...hadn't they? He didn't know where they were going, or why, but he could only vaguely recall a time when he wasn't being dragged through the dark woods. There were things staring out of the shadows, threatening them with sharp claws and low growls. He supposed they were running from them, but it didn't seem to be making a difference. The farther they ran, the closer the creatures seemed to be. He wanted to lie down and rest, to stop long enough to catch his breath. He wished things were clearer, he felt as if his mind had been replaced with tapioca or something...
The blond blinked, trying to clear his head. "Wha...Vin?"
"Hey pard," Tanner lowered the injured man to the ground. They had been running for nearly twenty minutes, their progress slowed by Larabee's flagging strength, the darkness, and the need to stay hidden. He had kept them moving through the trees, despite the fact that easier terrain was nearby. They could be too quickly spotted in the open and captured if the cultists had indeed followed them. He had the gun, but he also had a naked, wounded, and disoriented man clinging to him for support, and he was one man against a dozen. Where was John Wayne when you needed him?
"Where...where are we?" Larabee mumbled. At least his speech was clearing, although he was still having trouble coordinating his movements.
"In the woods. Look, I want you to stay right here, Chris, okay? I'm gonna see if those nut cases are followin' us. Chris? Chris!"
The blond was unconscious, the last of his strength draining from him as he was finally allowed to rest. Vin carefully eased the man into a more comfortable position in the thick grass. Then, he slipped his flannel shirt off and draped it across the nude man to cover as much of the lean frame as possible. Fixing their position in his mind, the young agent backtracked through the forest to check for pursuit. He spent a precious half an hour creeping through the trees, but heard no one following. Finally satisfied that the cultists hadn't been able to follow their circular trail, he returned to where he had left Larabee.
Squatting down next to the prone figure, Vin gently patted the slack face. "Chris? C'mon pard, I need you to wake up. C'mon Chris."
After several long minutes the dulled eyes fluttered open, closed, and then opened again. "V...Vin?"
Smiling, the younger man said, "Yeah, it's me. C'mon now, we've gotta go. Reckon we'll circle back to the cabin, get you some pants, and get outta here. We can come back later with the cavalry."
"Tired," Chris complained.
Sighing, Vin nodded, "I imagine you are, but we can't stop yet. C'mon now." He slipped an arm beneath the broad shoulders and lifted his friend up. Setting him up, Tanner braced the injured man while he slipped his own tee shirt off. Gently pulling it on over the blond's head, he tugged the tight shirt over the larger chest, taking care when he reached the shallow gash.
"Always knew you...skinny," Larabee mumbled.
"Yeah, well, it ain't the size of the package," Vin replied as he pulled the other man to his feet. Retrieving his flannel shirt, he wrapped it around the narrow waist, tying the sleeves around Larabee's waist. "There. Least you won't scare the critters this way."
Chris tensed at the mention of 'critters', still seeing the eyes in the shadows. "C... critters?"
Seeing something close to fear in the wide eyes, Vin said, "what's wrong?"
"Keep s... seeing things, Vin... eyes... claws..."
"Damn," he growled. "Chris, did they give you something? A drink... pill... shot?"
Nodding, Larabee replied, "d-drink."
Tilting the bigger man's head so he could look him in the face, Tanner said, "listen pard, they've drugged you. There ain't nothin' out here to worry about that walks on more than two legs. Now, I need you to listen to me, Chris. There ain't nothin' me and you can't handle. You hang on to me, listen to what I tell you and we're gonna get outta here. You with me Chris?"
Nodding again, the words tugging at a foggy memory, the confused man managed only, "y-yeah."
Pulling his friend's arm across his shoulders and wrapping his arm around Larabee's waist once more, he heard the older man grunt. "What's wrong?"
"H... hit me."
"They hit you?" A nod. "In the back?" Another nod. "Shit. Well, soon as we can get back to the jeep, we'll get you to town and get you looked at. ‘Til then, you're gonna have to grit your teeth Cowboy."
"All... heart," the blond teased.
They reached the cabin, Vin settling the other man on the ground while he checked things out. Making a complete circle around the clearing that housed their rental and his jeep, he returned almost an hour later, dropping down next to the blond.
Chris slowly straightened up, groaning as he leaned back against a tree trunk. "I was starting to worry."
Noting that the other man seemed a lot more coherent, Vin said, "wanted to make certain a how things stacked up. You look a lot better, pard."
Offering him a weak grin, the blond said, "Head feels less like tapioca. What's it look like?"
"Only see two of them, fellas in the black robes. They're waitin' on us in the cabin. Think if we can take care of them quiet like, we can probably get outta here without bloodshed. You stay here - "
"No," Larabee said quickly. "We're in this together Vin, I'm not going to sit here on my thumbs while you risk your neck."
"No offense, but I can handle this a lot better if I ain't worried 'bout pickin' your stubborn ass up off the ground."
Managing a faint imitation of a glare, Larabee said, "You won't. I've got a plan..."
They sat without speaking, waiting for the one Simon had chosen for his sacrifice, and the one who had stolen him away. Simon had ordered them to stay until told otherwise, and so they would. He had ordered them to kill the interloper, and bring their sacrifice back to him. The two of them, brothers even before Simon had ordained them so, had been with him longer than anyone else. They had proven themselves worthy of his praise on more than one occasion; had recruited most of the others into the group, and had provided most of the sacrifices to Lord Azrea. Both Joshua and Abraham had every intention of becoming Lieutenants in Azrea's Army when, at last, he came to earth to reign. All would be as it was meant to be then, and they had every intention of being among those who profited the most from that transition.
Joshua began pacing, his patience wearing thin as he thought of what they were missing. Simon had promised all three of his proven soldiers their choice among the newest converts for the night. Now, as long as he and Abraham sat here waiting, David was the only one who would benefit from that promise. It didn't seem fair that he would reap rewards they had been promised as well. "How much longer?" He muttered.
"Until we recover what was taken from Simon," Abraham said matter-of-factly.
"Why don't we just go looking, we - " Joshua stopped, listening.
His brother looked at him, then he too heard it. Someone was outside. Turning to Joshua, Abraham nodded toward the door as he slipped to the window.
Joshua pulled the door open as far as he could before it stuck. He peered out, looking for the source of the sound. It didn't take him long to find it. The man who had been stolen from Simon stood outside, facing the little cabin. He seemed lost...confused, his blond head drooped toward his chest, and his legs threatened time and again to buckle.
Turning to smile at his brother, the man called Joshua yanked harder at the door, pulling it across the warped floor with a creaking protest. His smile growing broader, he stepped out onto the old porch, ready to grab the half-conscious man. He never saw the figure that slipped up behind him from the shadows.
As the big man dropped heavily to the ground, Vin slipped back into the shadows, the heavy tree limb still in his hands. He spared a glance toward the blond, who was struggling to maintain his balance. He still didn't like the idea of using Chris as bait but, hopefully, they'd be on the road in a few minutes. From the looks of the injured man, it couldn't be soon enough.
"Joshua?" A voice called from the cabin.
"Out...here," Larabee managed to call in a hoarse whisper.
Footsteps announced the arrival of the second man. Again Vin moved stealthily from the shadows and felled the man before he had a chance to react. Satisfied that neither man would pose a threat any time soon, he bounded from the porch and grabbed hold of his friend just as Chris lost his battle with gravity. "Hold on there pard," he said gently. Holding the other man carefully, he guided him into the cabin. There he helped the blond into a pair of jeans, replacing his snug tee shirt with one of Larabee's roomier ones. Taking time to get his friend a drink from a bottle of water, Tanner pulled him to his feet, and led him out to the jeep.
Helping Larabee into the passenger seat, he pulled the long legs inside, and fastened the seatbelt around the trembling body. Moving around to the driver's seat, he saw that Chris continued to shiver. Grabbing a blanket left in the backseat, he covered the older man, tucking it around him carefully.
"Th-thanks...mom," Chris quipped.
"Just don't go askin' for a kiss good night, smart ass," Vin returned good-naturedly. "Ready?"
"Shaking his head yes, Larabee countered the motion with, "h-hell no."
With a chuckle, Tanner said, "glad t' hear it. You hang on, now pard, ‘cause I ain't gonna take time to dodge the holes this time."
Slanting a look across the jeep, the blond said, "and you did...before?"
Morning saw the last vestiges of the nightmare dissipating in the presence of daylight. Vin was stretched out on the molded plastic couch that was the most comfortable place to sleep in the dingy little waiting room. The tiny clinic had seen far better days, but it was the closest medical facility, so he had brought Chris there a few hours earlier. As soon as the blond disappeared into the examination room, he began making phone calls; first to the local police department, then to the other members of their team. Buck had been the first to arrive, coming in while Vin was making a statement to the young officer who had answered his call.
Now the big man was sitting nearby, watching Tanner's back so he could get a little rest. Wilmington had positioned himself so that he could keep an eye on the clinic's entrance, as well as the big double doors that led to the medical suite where Chris had been taken. Hundreds of hours of cheap 'B' movies nudged at his mind, making him consider more than once the possibility that The medical personnel were part of the cult conspiracy. Visions of Larabee being spirited away in the back of an ambulance gnawed at him. Shaking his head, Wilmington muttered, "you've got to stop watching those damn movies,” then he grinned, "even if it does get the ladies cuddlin' up against you nice and cozy."
The other men joined Tanner and Wilmington before they heard anything about their leader. Then, to their surprise, Larabee was wheeled out from the rear of the clinic in a wheelchair. The outline of bandages could be seen beneath his shirt, and he sported another on the back of his head. Both wrists were bandaged, as were his bare feet.
"Howdy boys," Chris greeted them as if he had just come to work.
The nurse pushing the wheelchair glanced around at the gathering in her typically empty waiting room. The good looking man who had carried her equally handsome patient into the clinic earlier was rising from the couch, looking as if he had just awakened. "Are you all with Mr. Larabee?"
Nodding, Buck leaned forward to read her name tag. "Yeah, we are...Sasha? The beat up fella there's our boss. Hope he ain't been too much of a bother."
Glaring at the big man's broad grin, Chris said, "Jesus, Buck, stop flirting for five minutes, will you?"
"Flirting? I'm just bein' friendly," Wilmington defended his actions.
"Um, fellas?" JD cut in. "Think we could give the lady a minute so she can fill us in on things?"
Smiling, Sasha said, "thanks." Her gaze taking in all six visitors, she said, "Mr. Larabee has opted not to stay here, and the doctor says that, as long as he takes it easy and someone stays with him for a few days, he should be fine. He has five stitches in the back of his head. The cut on his chest is shallow, so it should heal fine as it is as long as the bandage is taken care of. He has one cracked rib, but doesn't appear to be a serious threat. He sustained a blow to his lower back, but there doesn't appear to be any internal damage other than some deep bruising. His wrists are rubbed pretty raw, and he sustained several minor wounds to the soles of his feet, cuts and gouges. As long as he stays off them for as much as possible for the next day or so, they should be fine. There is evidence that he was drugged, but its worked its way through his system pretty well all ready.
"I'll be back in a few minutes with his 'scrips and some after-care instructions," she paused then said, "although from the number of scars we found during the examination, I'd venture to guess that he's already pretty well versed in those procedures."
The seven men laughed at her remark as the young nurse disappeared back through the doors. Pulling the wheelchair closer to the other chairs, Josiah said, "How are you feeling Chris...really?"
Rubbing at the nagging pain between his eyes, Larabee said, "I probably feel about as rough as I look right now Josiah, but I'll be fine."
"Are you certain it wouldn't be prudent to remain under the doctor's watchful eye for at least a day?" Ezra asked.
Shaking his head, their leader said, "I'll be fine. Besides, I know I'm gonna have six watchdogs on my heels right up until the moment I start shooting them." The other members of Team Seven shared a hearty laugh with the blond, but no one contradicted him.
Reinforcements were recruited from both local and Federal agencies, and a massive manhunt began later that morning. A dragnet was thrown across the area where Chris had been captured, men, women and dogs working tirelessly to search for the members of the cult.
The first indication that things were not likely to be favorably resolved came when the members of Team Seven returned with Larabee and Tanner to the cabin. Having borrowed a pair of moccasins from Josiah and slipped his bandaged feet into the too-big shoes, Chris hobbled between Vin and Ezra to the cabin door. There he saw what the others had already witnessed. The two cultists that he and Vin had bush-wacked the night before lay sprawled on the floor, their throats slit.
"Shit," Larabee muttered.
"Looks like ol' Simon don't take kindly to followers that don't do their job," Vin said softly, his hand unconsciously rubbing at his throat.
The search continued throughout the day, a large team of investigators converging on the clearing where the sacrifice had almost taken place the night before. They examined the site meticulously, finding scant evidence of the drama that had unfolded there. Other teams were dispersed to canvas the rest of the area, searching for the cultists.
Relegated to the base of operations, Chris became more and more difficult to deal with as the day progressed; increasing pain and decreasing patience causing him to snap at the others. Each of the other six men took turns staying with him, and more than once they suggested he might be better off at a hotel. He was not about to surrender, however; he wanted to be there when Simon was found.
The approach of nightfall and a building thunderstorm ended the search for the day. The seven ATF agents left the scene together, sharing a quiet meal in a nearby restaurant, and then taking up residence in three rooms in a small hotel.
Larabee spent a restless night in the room he shared with Vin. The storm outside worked in concert with the past day’s events, leaving him to toss and turn as visions of robed figures with glowing red eyes and long, claw-like hands threatened him with agonizing death. Twice he woke, sitting straight up in bed, sweat pouring down his face. He was relieved, but not surprised, when a familiar hand steadied him. Looking up into the knowing blue eyes, he apologized, "sorry I woke you."
"Don't worry 'bout it," Vin replied. "Don't reckon either of us is likely to be sleepin' real well for a while."
The second day of the search netted results even more gruesome than the first. Gathered in a shallow ravine, deeper in the forest, they found ten more bodies. Nine of them wore pale blue robes; the tenth wore crimson and gold. A fire had been set to destroy them, but the rains had come. The result was half burned robes, singed hair, but little else. When the word came in at the command post, Chris was adamant that he go there himself.
"Chris, they'll be bringing the bodies out soon," Nathan insisted. "Just wait ‘til they get here."
"Nathan, either someone helps me get out there, or I go myself." To make his point clear, the blond pushed himself painfully from his seat and limped in the direction the call had come from. If anything, he was feeling the pain even more than the day before, but he wasn't about to admit it.
With a frustrated sigh, the bigger man caught him quickly. Motioning to Vin, who was just coming back in from the woods himself, he slipped a hand under Chris' arm. Tanner made a mad dash back to where his jeep was parked and soon caught the two men. Jumping from the driver's seat, he yelled, "Cowboy, I swear you are the stubbornest damn fool!"
Chuckling as he turned the blond and got him into the jeep, Nathan said, "If that isn’t the pot callin' the kettle black."
The three men bounced and jostled across the landscape, coming up on the latest crime site quickly. Jackson and Tanner helped Larabee from the vehicle and toward the gruesome gathering of bodies.
Chris saw the now tarnished gold of Simon's robes, and hobbled to the corpse as quickly as his aching body would allow. Holding onto his two friends for support, he dropped to the ground beside the dead man. Pulling back the hood that had fallen across the man's face, he cursed.
"Chris?" Vin said.
"It isn’t him."
"You sure?" Nathan asked.
"I'll never forget that son-of-a-bitch's face Nate. This ain't Simon." He looked up, a chill running down his spine, accompanied by the feeling of being watched. Pulling himself up with the help of the other two men, he scanned the surrounding area. He could almost hear the demonic laughter; see the evil glint in the man's eyes. The hair on the back of his neck told him that the man was there, somewhere just beyond the trees. With a shudder, he felt the men flanking him tighten their hold on him. Larabee was thankful for the support, but wasn't certain if even the combined strength of Team Seven would be enough if Simon decided to return. As a second tremor shook through his body, he said in a quiet voice, "he's hiding right now...licking his wounds. But one thing I know for certain...he's out there...somewhere."