Main Characters: Chris, Vin (cameos from Buck and JD)
Universe: My own modern AU – Larabee Investigations
Summary: Locating a student camping in the wilderness seems like a straightforward job to Private Investigator Chris Larabee – until he and his companions find themselves on the run from ruthless pursuers.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to Jen and Liette for their invaluable editing skills and to the Vinfeedback group for encouragement and constructive feedback.
Disclaimer: This is a work of fan fiction. I don't own the rights to the Magnificent Seven and I don't make any money from this work.
Chris Larabee brought his jeep to a halt in the parking lot of the Powder Mountain Wilderness State Park Visitor Centre and killed the engine.
Without the background drone and accompanying blare of the radio, it seemed unnaturally quiet. Only when he got out of the car, glad for the opportunity to stretch his legs after the six-hour drive from Denver, did he hear the sounds of nature around him – the melodic cheeping of birds in the trees, the chirping of a ground squirrel disturbed by the opening of the car door. Looking up into the cloudless cerulean sky, he spotted a hawk of some kind gliding past, just above the tree line.
The air in this sparsely populated northwestern corner of the Colorado Rocky Mountains smelled fresh and pure, pleasantly tinged with pine. Chris stood on the spot for a moment, simply enjoying the warmth of the late afternoon sun soaking through his short-sleeved shirt.
There were times when his job felt like a chore. Sometimes, on days like this, it was pure pleasure.
He caught that thought, realizing that there were more and more times now when he felt almost happy, free of the black cloud of despair that had dogged his waking moments for the past three years.
Pushing aside these introspective thoughts in favor of focusing on the job at hand, he crossed the lot, walked up the wide gravel path and climbed four steep wooden steps to the large, one-story log building. The heavy wooden door creaked as it opened and he entered a spacious room. Straight ahead stood a large counter, its top covered in maps trapped under glass, with leaflets piled up alongside. To his right, a section of bookcases and racks held post cards and other souvenirs. To his left was a display area featuring a topological map of the park, leading into what looked like a substantial exhibition of the geology, flora and fauna of the area.
He walked over to study the map, but the location he sought proved elusive.
Chris strolled across to the desk. The pleasant, grey-haired woman who sat behind it looked up and smiled. “Can I help you with something?”
He smiled back and produced his ID. “I hope so, Ma'am. Name's Chris Larabee. I'm a private investigator. I'm looking for a kid who might be hiking in the park. His family has asked me to locate him. It's a private family matter,” he added, as her expression turned to one of concern. He fished in his jacket pocket, produced the photo the kid's mother had given him and held it out to her. “Have you seen him come through in the past couple of days? His name is Simon Barton.”
She took the photo from him, putting on a pair of glasses to examine it closely. Then she shook her head. “He isn't familiar, but I'm not on duty all the time; someone else may have helped him.”
Chris produced another photo. “Can you tell me where this is?”
She studied it and nodded. “I know the place. That's the climbers' cabin at Top Meadow Bluff. It's not one of our more popular locations.”
“It's a long hike. The Bluff itself used to be popular with climbers, but recently they've been favoring The Devil's Cauldron. Much easier to get to and a more challenging climb.”
“How long would it take me to hike to the Bluff?”
She looked at him appraisingly. “Are you an experienced hiker?”
“I've done my share in the past. I know my way around a map and a compass.”
“Well, it's a good day's hike and you'd have to camp at the cabin overnight. Difficult trail, too, easy to lose your way and the markers are few and far between – we don't maintain that route. Are you sure he's gone there? There are a lot of easier and more scenic hikes in the park.”
“No Ma'am, I'm not sure, but it's the only lead I have.”
“In that case, I suggest you hire a guide, then. He could take you on the quickest route, which isn't marked on the tourist maps.”
Chris debated his options. Normally, he avoided involving civilians in his cases, but there was no reason to suspect that there was any danger involved. The kid's father had suffered a serious heart attack and was hovering between life and death. His mother had been unable to contact her son, understandably, if he was camped in the back of beyond, and had hired Chris to find him. And while Chris didn't relish the thought of having a stranger's company on the trip, it did seem to be the best option.
“Know anyone for hire?” he asked.
The old lady pursed her lips. “There's Frank Randall over to Newton, he might… no wait, he's away, gone to visit his sick sister.” The sound of youthful laughter drifted over from the exhibition area and Chris's eyes followed hers as she glanced across to where a man dressed in a ranger uniform was addressing a group of teenagers. Her face lit up and she smiled.
“Vin's your man. He's one of our rangers and no one knows the park better. He has a few days off from tomorrow and I know for a fact that all he has planned is a few days hiking on his lonesome.”
“Vin Tanner. That's him over there, with the school children.” She smiled fondly. “He says he hates teaching the groups, but he's the best we have. The kids love him – he treats them like adults. The boys respect him and the girls… well, I don't know how much history of the Park they remember, but they certainly hang on his every word!”
Chris looked across and studied Tanner as he talked, pointing from time to time to a map of the park on the wall behind him. The ranger was a man of average height and slight build. His collar-length blond-brown hair framed a handsome, intelligent face set off by a square jaw. As he laughed at something one of the boys said, his face lit up, blue eyes crinkling, and Chris understood the old lady's comment. This man must be a magnet for all the women in the area, not just the teenage girls whose eyes never left his face.
Chris watched the ranger as he continued his talk, something niggling at the back of his mind. He had the feeling he'd seen Tanner's face before, but was equally sure he'd never met the man in person. There was something vaguely familiar about the name, too. He was beginning to search his memory for clues when Tanner glanced at his watch and said something that had the kids groaning. Presumably, the lesson was over. The woman waited until Vin had gently but firmly encouraged the last of his admirers out of the door before calling him over.
“Vin, this is Mr. Larabee. He's a private investigator and he's looking to hire a guide to take him up to Top Meadow Bluff tomorrow.”
Chris held out his hand. “Good to meet you. You really have a way with those kids.”
After a moment's hesitation, Tanner took the proffered hand in a firm grip. “Don't know about that,” he admitted in a soft Texas drawl, glancing after the retreating group. “Sure don't come easy.”
“Maybe not, but they love you, you know they do – especially the girls!” the woman said warmly and Chris was amused to see Tanner blush. “Well,” she went on, “I'll leave you two to talk, but don't forget you need to finish those briefing notes for next week's sessions before you leave, Vin.”
Vin nodded. “Don't worry Ellen, I'll have them on your desk by five.”
Ellen patted his arm and wandered off.
“Look,” Chris said, “I can see you're busy. If you're interested in some work for the next couple of days, let me buy you a drink later and I'll tell you what I have in mind.”
Vin held his gaze for a moment, his eyes seeming to search for something. Whatever it was, Chris assumed he passed the test, for the Texan nodded. “You stayin' in town?”
“The Wilkins Inn.”
Vin nodded again. “There's a bar a couple of blocks west of the Inn on the main drag – Old Joe's. I'll meet you there at eight.”
Chris checked into The Wilkins Inn in the nearby town of River Bend at just after five pm. The single queen-bedded room was sparse and basic, but clean and adequate for his needs. He took off his jacket, cranked the air up to full, sat down at the desk and punched a number into the hotel phone.
After two rings, a cheerful, youthful voice replaced the dial tone. “JD Dunne at your service.”
Chris smiled. “Hi, JD.”
“Hey, Chris. Why aren't you using your cell?”
“No signal. Must be the mountains.”
“Figures. You need to invest in a top-of-the-range satellite phone, they work everywhere.”
“I assume they come at a top-of-the-range price, too?” Chris asked dryly.
“Well… the good ones can be a bit pricey, but they're worth it.”
“I'll think about it.”
“Let me know, I can tell you the best one to get. So, what's up?”
JD Dunne was a postgraduate student working for his PhD in Information Technology. Chris had found him through a friend of a friend. The kid needed to pay his way through his education and Chris needed someone to do background research on his cases. JD turned out to be more than competent. He was a high-flyer, intelligent and quick thinking, yet with the naivety and exuberance of youth that often exhausted Chris, who couldn't remember ever being that young. JD was enthusiastic about everything. Chris could picture him now, pushing back his shaggy black hair, huddled over the phone, pad and pen at the ready.
“I need you to do a background check on someone.”
“Name's Vin Tanner. The Vin may be short for Vincent, but don't assume that. Caucasian, about 5'11, blue eyes, brown hair. Age…” he paused, considering. At first glance, he would have put Tanner in his early twenties, but during their conversation, he had quickly revised that opinion. There was too much experience in those eyes. “Age mid-twenties to mid-thirties. Currently working as a ranger at the Powder Mountain Wilderness State Park. Address unknown, but probably in River Bend.”
“Anything in particular I'm looking for?”
“Nope.” Chris paused. “There's something… I think I've seen his face somewhere, and the name rings a bell, but I can't remember where or why. Could be law enforcement; maybe he hit the headlines somehow.”
“Okay, I'm on it. When do you need the information?”
“Later tonight if you can, JD.”
“You'll have it.”
Chris put the receiver down and looked at his watch: 5:30 pm. He had over two hours to kill before meeting Tanner. He decided to take a stroll around town, grab some dinner and then come back for a shower before heading out to meet the Texan.
It occurred to him that a year ago, he wouldn't have had either the interest or the energy to look around. On one level, he welcomed the change. On another, irrational, level, he couldn't shake the feeling that moving on was a betrayal of his family's memory.
He jolted out of his reverie with a wry smile. He wasn't usually much for introspection. Maybe it was something to do with the air up here in the mountains. He grabbed his jacket and left the room.
Chris arrived at Old Joe's early for his meeting with Tanner. He ordered a beer, took a table near the back of the room and settled down to observe.
The bar was half-full with a mixture of locals and visitors, easy to tell apart. The bar stools were occupied mainly by locals, mostly grizzled old-timers. The bartender, a man who looked to be in his 70s, could easily have been Old Joe himself.
At one minute to eight, the door opened and Tanner entered. He had exchanged the ranger's uniform for a pair of faded blue jeans and a tight black T-shirt and carried a denim jacket slung over his shoulder. He paused in the doorway, eyes scanning the room until he spotted Chris. He raised a hand in acknowledgment and headed across the room.
A few locals and a party of hikers who all greeted him warmly as he passed hampered his progress. He exchanged a few words with each of them politely but refused to be drawn into conversation. Chris noticed with amusement that most of the women in the room tracked his movement across the room, but he seemed oblivious to the openly admiring stares. As he passed, the bartender called, “I'll bring your beer over, Vin.” Tanner smiled. “Thanks, Joe.”
Tanner took a seat across from Chris, nodded a greeting, and then gestured towards Chris' nearly empty glass. “Buy you another?”
Vin called across to the bartender, “Same again over here, Joe.”
Joe gave him a half-salute and Vin grinned. “Joe's been working this bar for almost fifty years,” he said. “Knows everyone's business from here clear across the State.”
“How long have you been here?” Chris asked.
“Not from around here, though.”
Tanner smiled. “What gave me away?”
“Nothing at all,” Chris deadpanned. “Just my superior investigative skills kicking in.”
Joe appeared at the table and put two glasses of beer down in front of them.
“Thanks Joe,” Tanner said. Chris nodded his thanks. Joe hovered for a moment, then grunted and returned to the bar when Vin didn't introduce his companion.
Vin grinned. “Wasn't sure you'd want your business spread across the county.”
“Thanks,” Chris said, raising his glass in a salute.
“So, about that business,” Tanner said. “You working a case?”
Chris saw no reason to hold back the information. “Been hired by a lady to track down her son. He left home unexpectedly, said he was going camping, and she's pretty sure he was coming down here. He's been here for the past few summers with friends.”
“They have an argument or something?”
Chris shrugged. “She didn't say and I didn't ask. I just need to find him and bring him back; his father had a heart attack two days ago and it isn't looking good.”
Tanner grunted. “Your cases usually that exciting?”
Chris smiled. “Some of them have their moments, though. But I'm not complaining about a couple of days out in the Park. This is beautiful country, Mr. Tanner.”
“Vin. Yeah, it sure is. So, what makes you think the kid's up at the Bluff?”
Chris took the photo out of his pocket and handed it to Vin. “I'm told this is the Bluff. He had the photo on the wall in his bedroom. His mother remembers him saying he and his friends stayed there last year.”
Vin shrugged. “Mebbe he's there. Could have gone any number of places, though. Nobody goes to the Bluff much these days.”
“So I hear. But it's the only lead I have,” Chris admitted. “I asked around in town this morning, no one seems to have seen him. I need to start somewhere.” He paused. “So, you in?”
Vin cocked his head. “Don't you want to know how much I'm gonna cost you?”
Chris leaned back and grinned. “Nope. I figure you're not the kind of man who'll cheat me.”
Vin raised an eyebrow. “You sure about that?”
Chris took a swig of his beer. “Pretty sure.”
Vin was silent for a long moment, staring into his beer, his expression unreadable. Then he looked up and nodded. “Then you've got yourself a guide. I usually like to spend my downtime on my lonesome, but I reckon you might be okay company for a couple of days.”
Chris smiled, and put his hand out to seal the deal with a shake. “Seeing as we're gonna be hiking companions, you can call me Chris.”
Chris returned to his hotel at around 10:30 pm. He slung his jacket over the back of a chair, sat down at the small desk and turned on his laptop. There was an email from JD waiting for him. He smiled slightly. This kid was proving to be both resourceful and reliable.
He clicked open. The text was short and to the point. “Chris, attached is the information you asked for. Call me if you need anything else. JD.”
There were three Word files and a JPEG attached. Chris opened the JPEG first and studied the man in the photo. It was Tanner all right. The hair was longer, hanging in tangled curls almost to his shoulders, but the eyes were the same. This was his man.
Chris opened the first Word file, marked “Summary.”
“Vincent Michael Tanner, formerly a detective in Houston PD. Worked the Narcotics Division for three years before his involvement in the Hernandez case.”
Chris paused. He remembered the Hernandez scandal. Half the detectives in a squad were found to be in bed with a local drug cartel. Internal Affairs discovered the operation with the help of another member of the squad. He read on quickly.
“Tanner was instrumental in exposing the conspirators, working undercover for IA and providing evidence that was crucial in convicting five members of his squad. A take down in which Tanner was injured blew the operation wide open. Tanner never returned to duty, eventually resigning from the department. I lost track of him for six months, then he surfaced as you said, working as a ranger for the National Parks department. He's been there for the past two years.”
That explained where Chris had seen the name. He remembered reading about the case at the time, and had been sickened to think that so many men in one division could have been corrupted in that way, although, human nature being what it was, he hadn't been surprised. He did remember wondering what it had been like for the officer who uncovered the conspiracy. It would have taken a lot of guts and a strong character to do what Tanner had done.
Chris opened the other files. Both were newspaper clippings of the case. The first was an editorial from a Houston Daily, entitled, “Unsung Hero.” It was a scathing attack on the Houston Police Department who, the writer claimed, had failed a man whose heroic actions had rid the police force of its bad apples. “But did his fellow officers applaud his actions? To their eternal shame, they did not. I have it on good authority that Tanner was shunned by the remaining members of his team who saw him as a traitor in their midst. Throughout his ten-day stay in the hospital, not one of his colleagues visited nor even sent a card. The hero of the Hernandez conspiracy, injured in the course of duty, woke up in a hospital bed alone and not one of his so-called friends gave a damn.”
The second article was from another Houston newspaper, and was entitled, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” This article was based around rumors that had been spreading at the time that Tanner had been secretly involved in the conspiracy and had turned sides to save his own skin when he discovered that IA were getting close. “As the old saying goes,” the writer finished, “there's no smoke without fire. Either Vincent Tanner is a squeaky-clean boy scout, or a cold-hearted opportunist with a highly developed sense of self-preservation. I'll leave you to make up your own mind.”
Chris switched off the laptop and sat quietly for a while, reviewing the two hours he'd spent with Tanner and glad that he'd had the chance to assess the man before reading JD's research.
The idea that the softly spoken Texan was a ruthless opportunist who'd been involved with a drug cartel sat badly with him. Sure, it had been clear from their conversation that Tanner didn't like talking about himself or his past. He'd talked readily about the Park and the routes they'd have to take to reach the cabin, but when the conversation had strayed onto personal matters, he'd answered politely enough, but given very little away.
That response meant nothing in Chris's book – guilty or innocent, Tanner would be unlikely to want to talk about the incident that had caused him to leave the force and hide himself away in this backwater. But Tanner had also struck Chris as honest and genuine. And there was something about him, something that Chris had only felt once or twice before in his life. He wasn't sure how to put this “something” into words, but it made him trust the Texan without question. It made no sense. He'd only known the man for two hours!
Chris frowned. The closest he could come to describing this feeling was the bond he'd had with his brother James, who had died in combat fifteen years ago. Since then, he'd met a lot of people and made a number of good friends, like Buck Wilmington, his closest friend and partner in the firm, but theirs was a friendship that had grown out of two opposites coming together. Neither totally understood the other or how he ticked and that was both a strength and a weakness. Yet he hadn't met anyone with whom he felt as much at ease as with James – until now. It scared him a little that he could have such a strong reaction to a total stranger.
He thought briefly about calling Buck to get a second opinion on this information. Buck had been his partner in Denver PD and had stuck with Chris through the bad times. He was a good friend and a first class detective and six months ago, Chris had persuaded him to leave the force and join him in the agency. Since then, the agency had gone from strength to strength and Chris was even contemplating taking on another partner.
Then, he remembered that Buck had a hot date that night. He grinned. When didn't Buck have a hot date? He wouldn't thank Chris for disturbing him and there was no real need. Chris's gut told him he could trust Tanner, and that was all that mattered.
At six am the following morning, Chris ate a quick breakfast of a bagel washed down with two mugs of black coffee. He hefted his backpack, walked down the two flights of stairs from his motel room and out into a new day. The sun was up just over the horizon and the air was crisp and clean. Later, it would get much hotter, but now there was a slight nip in the air, a warning of autumn just around the corner.
Tanner was waiting outside, leaning casually, arms folded, against a beat-up old jeep. Chris eyed the vehicle speculatively.
“Is this tub gonna get us to the trailhead?”
Vin looked indignant and reached out a hand to pat the jeep. “There's nothing wrong with old Betsy. You just need to know how to handle her.”
Chris took his word for it and said nothing when the jeep failed to start on the first two attempts of turning the key. He even refrained from commenting when Vin reached under the dash and resorted to hotwiring his own jeep.
Once she got going, Betsy got them to the trailhead without incident. Vin pulled off the road beside a small, battered and faded trail marker that Chris would probably not have even noticed. “This is it.” He jumped out and pulled a large, heavy-looking pack out of the back of the jeep, swinging it easily onto his back.
Chris eyed the pack, which was at least twice the size of his own. “What the hell you got in there?” he asked. “I thought we were on a two-day hike, not a week's trek!”
Vin grinned. “Out in this country, pays to be prepared for anythin'. Let's go, daylight's burnin'.”
For the next eight hours, they followed a narrow, often indistinct trail. Vin kept up a steady pace, stopping occasionally for a quick water break. At noon, they took a break at a spectacular viewpoint to eat the sandwiches Vin had brought with him for them both.
For some of the time they walked in a companionable silence, broken only when Vin pointed out landmarks or told an interesting anecdote about the history of the area. He knew a lot about his subject and was well versed in the habits of the local wildlife, too. Several times he stopped dead, placing a hand lightly on Chris' arm and pointing silently with the other, drawing Chris' attention to wild deer that Chris was sure he'd never have spotted himself.
As the day wore on, they talked more, though Vin seemed happy to talk about almost any subject except himself. Chris didn't push him for information. Vin's past was none of his business. Conversely, he found himself telling this stranger more about himself than he'd shared with anyone in the past couple of years. Something about the man encouraged him to share confidences. Maybe it was because Chris sensed in him a non-judgmental attitude and a willingness to accept a man for who he was.
“You been in the PI business long?” Vin asked as they paused for a moment at the top of a long incline.
Chris shook his head. “Coming up eighteen months. Before that, I worked homicide for Denver PD.”
Vin turned to look at him. “Why'd you leave the force?”
“Sorry, didn't mean t'pry,” Vin said quickly.
“It's okay,” Chris said and strangely, it was. He found himself wanting to talk to this stranger about things he hadn't discussed with anyone before. “Three years ago, my wife and son were killed in a car crash.”
“I'm sorry,” Vin said simply.
Chris nodded his acknowledgment of the other man's quiet comment. “I was in a bad place after Sarah and Adam died,” he went on after a moment. “I was barely functioning – just going through the motions. Came to a point in the job where it was jump or be pushed.” He paused. “I chose to walk away. After that, I bummed around for a while, not even trying to get my life together.” He gave a small laugh. “I was pretty much a waste of space back then.”
“Sounds like you were a man in pain, close to the edge,” Vin remarked in his soft Texan drawl and when Chris glanced at him he saw understanding rather than the pity or sympathy he so disliked.
“Seems like you moved on, though.” It was a statement, not a question, giving Chris the choice to cut the conversation short.
Chris nodded. “Yeah. It was kind of strange, how that happened.” He paused, wondering whether to go on. He'd never shared the truth with anyone, not even Buck. Certainly not with a man he'd just met. Nonetheless, he found himself continuing. “Second anniversary of Sarah and Adam's deaths, I went up to the mountains, to the cabin where Sarah and I spend our honeymoon. Pretty maudlin, huh?”
“Mebbe. Reckon it'd either be a place of nightmares or a place of healing, dependin’ where a man's at.”
Chris stared at Vin for a moment, impressed at the man's insight. “I took a couple of bottles of Jack with me,” he went on, “got blind drunk and passed out on the veranda. And I had a dream. I dreamt that Sarah was there with me, telling me that what I was doing, wasting my life – that wasn't what she wanted for me. She wanted me to get a hold of myself, get on with my life, be happy – make a difference. To be the man she loved, a man my son could be proud of.” He could feel his throat tightening at the memory.
Vin said nothing, just waited patiently for Chris to go on. Chris cleared his throat. “Anyway, when I woke up the dream was still so vivid… I've had dreams before, but nothing like this. It felt like…” he paused.
“Like Sarah's spirit had really been there with you?” Vin offered.
“Yeah, that's exactly it. Crazy, huh?”
Vin shrugged. “Not crazy. I had me some kind of experience once. I wasn't much more'n a kid, kind of hit a crossroads where I coulda taken the wrong path. I dreamed my dead ma came to me and told me I'm a Tanner and I had to live up to that name. Changed my life.”
Chris nodded. “I know what you mean. Changed mine, too. I thought about going back into the force, but it seemed like a backward step. Next day I applied for a PI license. That was almost two years ago.”
Vin nodded. “Sometimes a man needs a fresh start.” He was quiet for a moment, then turned abruptly and pulled his pack onto his back. “We'd best get moving, there's some way to go yet.”
Chris looked after him as he walked back onto the trail, sure that Vin's final comment had referred to more than Chris' own situation.
Buck Wilmington sank down contentedly in his big, worn leather chair in the small office of Larabee Investigations and put his feet up on the desk. Last night's date had been little short of perfection, if he said so himself, and he was looking forward to another close encounter with the lovely Tanya the following evening. And unless Chris had taken on a new case in the last twelve hours, the day held nothing more challenging than a few hours of paperwork followed by some networking at the local golf club.
He powered up his computer, mind still happily occupied with auburn hair and dancing green eyes. Scrolling quickly through his new mail, he found an email from his latest client, thanking him profusely for locating her errant husband who had left home taking her prized afghan hounds with him. He rolled his eyes at her flowery praise. He deleted several spam messages extolling the virtues of Viagra – if last night was anything to go by, he definitely had no need of artificial assistance in that department.
The remaining emails were from Chris and JD. He opened Chris' first and scanned it quickly. He grinned. Chris would genuinely enjoy a two-day hike in the wilderness, having a liking for the great outdoors. Buck preferred a little luxury in his life. He pitied the guide Chris had employed. Larabee had many virtues, but he was a man of few words and could come across as surly or unfriendly until you got to know him.
His grin widened as he opened the copy email from JD, noting that the researcher had sent it late last night. The boy was gold, but he really needed to get a social life. He scanned the covering summary, the grin replaced by a frown. He remembered the Hernandez case. It had been the talk of Houston PD for several weeks and everyone had a different opinion on whether Tanner was a hero or a villain who had seen the writing on the wall. Buck himself had never formed a clear opinion, preferring to size up a man for himself before making a judgment. Still, if Tanner wasn't the saint he appeared to be, Buck wasn't sure he liked the idea of Chris taking a trip in the wilderness with him.
He was scanning the second newspaper article when the phone rang.
He picked up the receiver on the third ring. “Larabee Investigations, the brightest and the best at your disposal.”
There was a silence, then, “Mr. Larabee?” a female voice said tentatively.
Buck turned on the charm. “This is his partner, Buck Wilmington at your service.”
“Oh! I need to speak to Mr. Larabee.”
“I'm afraid he isn't available right now, Ma'am, but I'm sure I can help.”
“Well, it's about a case he's working on for me.”
“And you are?”
“Mrs. Louisa Barton.”
Barton. That was the kid Chris was looking for in the mountains. “Is there a problem, Ma'am? Mr. Larabee's out right now looking for your son.”
“It's just… last night two men came to the house. They… they wanted to know where Simon is.”
“Do you know these men?”
“No, I've never seen them before. But… I think they're criminals, Mr. Wilmington. They were very rude and when I told them I didn’t know where Simon is, they threatened to hurt my daughter. So I… I told them where they might be able to find him. I was afraid…”
“You did the right thing,” Buck reassured her. “Did they give you any idea why they were looking for your son?”
“Not exactly, but they said he owes their boss and he needs to pay up. I had no idea… Simon's a good boy, I don't know how he could be mixed up with men like them…” her voice trailed off and Buck could tell she was on the verge of tears.
“Don't worry, Mrs. Barton,” he said gently, “We'll sort this out.”
“I'm afraid they'll go to the Park to find Simon.”
Buck thought so too. “And you're sure you haven't seen them before?”
“No, but I have a photograph of them.”
“My younger son Toby was up in his room when they arrived. He had the sense to stay where he was, but he took a photo of them through the window as they left.”
“That was very brave of him, and showed a lot of initiative, Mrs. Barton.”
She laughed lightly. “Reckless, more like. That's Toby for you. He wants to be a policeman when he grows up.”
“Well, I think he'll go far. Can you email me a copy of the photo?”
“I'm sure Toby can.”
Buck gave her his email address, reassured her again that he'd take care of everything, and cut off the call. While he was waiting for the photo to come through, he tried Chris' cell. No answer. Then he tried the hotel number Chris had left him, to be told that there was no answer from Chris's room. It had been a long shot. It was twelve noon and Chris would be long gone. His final call was to the Visitor Centre who informed him that there was no way to get a message to someone in the wilderness unless they had a satellite phone. He knew Chris didn't and apparently, his guide didn't either.
Buck put the receiver down, the first flickering of alarm running through his gut. Chris could take care of himself, but then again, he wasn't expecting the boy to be pursued by two hardened criminals.
A sultry female voice announced the arrival of mail and he clicked open the photo from Toby Watson.
He was right. Toby would go far. The photo was sharp and must have been taken with a camera with a decent zoom, as the features of the two men were clearly distinguishable.
He took a good look at both men and then frowned. He'd seen one of their faces recently. He re-opened the email from JD and called up the first newspaper article. It contained photos of all the conspirators in the Hernandez case. There, staring back at him with a belligerent expression was the man in the photo. He scanned the article quickly. Martin Vesper, one of the detectives implicated in the conspiracy.
What the hell was going on? Was Tanner somehow involved in this, or was his presence a huge coincidence?
He googled Martin Vesper, something nagging at the edge of his memory. Most of the articles returned by the search related to the details of the Hernandez case, but he finally came across one that reported Vesper's release from prison six months earlier. Because he hadn't been as heavily involved as the others and had chosen to cooperate and give evidence against his co-conspirators, he'd been given a lighter sentence.
Whatever was going on, Chris was right bang in the middle of it. With a growing sense of foreboding, Buck reached for the phone again.
It was just short of seven p.m. Although the sun had dropped low in the sky, it still shone strongly in a defiant attempt to hold back the inevitable onslaught of dusk.
Chris and Vin had been climbing steadily for the past hour and the trees had begun to thin out a mile or so before.
Finally, Vin stopped and pointed ahead. "Up there. That’s the bluff. Cabin’s just there at the foot of it.”
Chris studied the landscape ahead, squinting a little in the direct rays of the dying sun. The cabin was a small, unprepossessing wooden building, constructed with its rear wall almost flush against the sheer face of the near-vertical cliff. Its wooden boards were faded and green paint peeled off the window frames. There was no sign of life, but that meant little. If Simon was staying there, he could easily be out hiking.
There was no obvious need for caution, but Chris’ experience as a cop had taught him to expect the unexpected. He paused to take his gun from his pack, tucking it out of sight in the waistband of his jeans. Vin flicked him a glance, but didn’t comment. Despite his seemingly relaxed posture he too was alert, eyes scanning the area around.
About twenty yards from the cabin, Chris heard raised voices coming from inside.
The two men stopped and exchanged glances. "Sounds like someone's home after all," Vin drawled.
As Chris was deciding on his approach, the door burst open and a figure ran out. It was a boy in his late teens, with short, curly brown hair, dressed in jeans and a white T-shirt with a bright pattern emblazoned on the front. He caught sight of Chris and Vin and ran towards them. "Help! Help me! They're trying to kill me!"
The fear in his voice was unmistakable.
He skidded to a halt beside Chris. “Help me!”
This was definitely Simon Barton – Chris recognized him from his photo. “Who’s trying to kill you, Kid?” he asked, mind racing to make sense of this unexpected turn of events. Before the kid could answer, another man emerged from the cabin. Tall and heavily built, he had thick black hair and a swarthy complexion hinting at Mexican blood. His face creased in a dark scowl. He stopped a few feet from the doorway and, with obvious effort, pasted on an approximation of a smile.
"Hi there. Don't listen to the kid – I think he's simple, or something. We were just making conversation and he went all psycho on us."
"He's lying!” Simon said. “He said they'd kill me if I didn't… If I didn’t give them the money!"
Chris could see the situation going downhill very quickly. He held up a hand in a placatory gesture and smiled. "Look, I don’t know what’s going on here, but I’m sure there's an explanation for all this. Let's just keep calm and talk about it."
His other hand hovered near the butt of his gun while he kept his eyes focused on the swarthy man. Out of his peripheral vision he noted that Vin had eased off his backpack and knew his companion was preparing for action should the situation escalate. He’d seen the rifle Vin carried strapped to his pack and was confident that the ranger could provide adequate backup should he need it. He fervently hoped he wouldn’t.
Before either Simon or the swarthy man had chance to reply, a second man stepped out of the cabin. The newcomer was taller, leaner and younger than his companion, a good-looking Caucasian with collar length, disheveled dirty-blond hair.
Chris heard a growl from Vin and risked a quick glance at his companion. He was alarmed to see that Vin had gone white, his expression a mixture of incredulity and confusion.
The blond swiftly took in the scene. When his gaze fell on Vin, his expression changed to mirror the Texan's. "Tanner, what the hell?" He shot a glance at his companion. "This is the guy who gave me up! He's a cop!"
Chris shouted, "Down!" pushing Simon off his feet and hitting the ground himself as both strangers drew weapons. Beside him, Vin followed suit, landing, rolling and drawing his rifle from his pack in one fluid motion.
A bullet blew up dust a few inches from Chris' left foot. Simon let out a cry of fear and jumped to his feet, making himself an open target. "Kid, get down!" Chris roared. He rolled onto his back, leveled his gun and fired at the men near the cabin.
Vin leapt up and brought Simon back down with a flying tackle. Chris’ shot sounded a fraction of a second before two more rang out. Vin uttered a grunt of pain as momentum took him down on top of the kid.
Chris saw that his shot had missed the shorter man by a hair’s breadth, slamming into the wall of the cabin behind him. Both men hastily retreated into the cabin, slamming the door behind them.
Chris crabbed across to where the kid and Vin lay in a tangle on the ground. With a groan, Vin rolled off the kid, right arm clutching his left shoulder. Blood ran between his fingers, soaking the arm of his shirt. Simon seemed uninjured. Chris ordered, "Simon, when I give you the word, you run for those trees, fast as you can, and find cover.” To his credit, the boy didn’t question him, but simply nodded. Chris twisted around, took aim at the cabin, and said, “Now!” He fired several shots at the window, shattering the glass. The boy set off at a sprint.
The men in the cabin returned fire, their bullets hitting the ground a few feet away. Chris fired back, aiming for the broken window. This time there was no returning fire.
"Vin, how bad is it?" he asked tersely as he quickly reloaded.
Vin grunted. "Had worse. I can make it to the trees."
Chris frowned, but had no choice other than to take him at his word. "Okay. Get ready; I’ll cover you. Go on three. One. Two. Three!" Chris fired another volley at the cabin then jumped to his feet. Just ahead of him Vin was running, weaving slightly. Chris shouldered the Texan's backpack and followed.
A few yards into the cover of the trees Vin sank to his knees beside Simon who was crouched behind a sizeable fallen tree trunk.
Chris dropped beside him. As he reloaded, he saw Simon staring at him, fear in his eyes. “It's okay, Kid, we're the good guys,” he explained quickly. “My name's Chris Larabee, I'm a private investigator. This is Vin Tanner, he’s with me. Now, we don't have much time, so while I see to Vin, I need you to keep an eye on that cabin, let me know if you see movement. But keep your head down."
Simon frowned a little and Chris hoped he wouldn’t have to deal with a barrage of questions. But Simon surprised him. He just nodded and crawled cautiously to a position from which he could see the cabin while remaining out of sight.
Chris knelt beside Vin and checked the wound. The bullet had entered the shoulder just beneath the collarbone. Blood flowed freely and there was no exit hole. Damn it!
He helped Vin settle with his back against the fallen trunk, then quickly rifled through the ranger’s backpack to find the first aid kit, thankful that his new friend had come so well prepared. While he worked, he ticked off a list of options in his mind. It was a short list. He figured his and Vin’s unexpected appearance had knocked the men in the cabin off balance. They would need some time to work out what to do next, which would buy a bit of time. Yet with an injured man and a terrified kid, he was at a disadvantage and it wouldn't take the two long to work that out. Their best option was to find a place to hole up until he could come up with a plan.
The reason two men were shooting at Simon and the fact that Vin and the younger man seemed to know each other were questions he filed away for later. Whatever the explanation, he was confident that Vin had been unaware of the men’s presence. His shocked reaction was genuine.
Chris knelt down beside Vin. “Vin, I have to stop this bleeding,” he said.
Vin grunted. “Do what you gotta do, but do it fast. We can’t stay here.”
“I know.” Chris cut away the blood-soaked arm of Vin’s shirt and cleaned the wound quickly with a sterile wipe. “Do you know anywhere nearby we could hole up for a bit?” he asked to take Vin’s attention off the pain as he pressed a pad hard against the small, round hole in Vin’s shoulder. “Yeah, there’s a place—” Vin’s words were cut off by a gasp of pain.
“Sorry, I have to— ”
“Stop the bleedin’, I got it,” Vin forced out between clenched teeth. “But there ain’t no need to push the bullet out the other side.”
Chris couldn’t help but smile at the ranger’s attempt at humor. He would have dealt with this situation the same way.
Steeling himself against the agony he was causing Vin, Chris continued the pressure until he was sure the bleeding had mostly stopped. Then he wrapped the wound and tied the bandage off tightly.
He took a close look at Vin, who was pale and sweating.
"I’m done. How are you holding up?” he asked softly.
Vin grimaced. “It hurts, but it’s better now you’ve stopped torturin’ me. I reckon I can walk, if that’s what you’re askin’.”
“So, this place?”
"There's a cave in the cliffs, about a mile or so east. It's hard to spot and it'd be easy to defend."
“Good. That sounds perfect.” Chris wasn’t sure Vin could make it a hundred yards let alone a mile, but they were out of choices.
“Mr. Larabee!” Simon's tone was urgent and scared. Chris joined him and the boy pointed. “One of them just stuck his head round the corner of the cabin!”
Chris watched and a moment later the head popped out again, scanning the treeline. Then his eyes shifted to the trees to his left and Chris knew what he was planning.
Without moving his eyes from the danger, Chris said tersely, “Kid, we need to move. Can you help Vin up and start off down the trail. Be quiet as you can. I'll be right behind you.”
Chris reached out a hand and squeezed his shoulder. “You’re doing just fine, Kid.” he said encouragingly.
Simon scrambled away and Chris heard him explaining the plan to Vin. Then he heard a grunt of pain and risked a quick glance. Simon had hauled Vin to his feet and draped an arm around his waist. "Let me take most of your weight, okay?" Vin murmured assent, which in itself worried Chris. He had a feeling that Vin wasn't the type to accept help easily, which meant he must be hurting badly.
He nodded to them to get moving, and then returned his attention to the cabin. A moment later he saw the older man break cover and run for the nearest trees. He took careful aim and fired. His intention was to scare the man – it was unlikely he could wing him at this distance – and was surprised when he heard an exclamation of pain. The man dropped his gun, clutched his arm, and changed direction, running back to the cabin. Chris fired another shot for good measure, and gave thanks for the first break he'd had since this started. He didn't think the injury was bad, but it would take time to check the wound and it was unlikely that either of them would think of leaving the cabin any time soon.
Before he left, Chris tugged a spare T-shirt from his pack and draped it over a bush, adding a baseball cap above it. With luck, it would look to the men in the cabin like a body hiding in the bushes. He shouted, "We have you pinned down in there. It's just a matter of time before you have to come out."
His answer was total silence from the cabin.
Vin's backpack was far better equipped than his own, so he hid his pack in some bushes, hefted Vin's onto his back, and headed off after his companions.
Chris quickly caught up with Simon and Vin. They were making progress but the going was slow and Chris was glad that the cave wasn’t too far away.
After about two thirds of a mile, Chris noted that Vin was leaning more heavily on his young companion. He called a brief halt. Simon steadied Vin as the ranger sank down carefully onto a tree stump.
Chris lowered the pack to the ground, pulled out the water bottle and offered it first to Vin. “How’re you doing?” he asked softly. “And I want the truth.”
Vin drank deeply from the bottle before he answered. “It isn’t far now. I'll make it,” he said simply, but his pallor and the lines on his face threw doubt on his words. Chris said nothing, though, and handed the bottle to Simon.
Vin needed to rest, but Chris knew they had to push on. When the three of them had drunk their fill, he said, “Simon, let me help Vin for a while. Can you take the pack?”
“Sure,” Simon said, his face expressing relief at being relieved of the responsibility. Chris turned to Vin. “Ready?”
Vin nodded. His face contorted in silent pain as Chris helped him stand and steadied him when he swayed a little.
“Are you sure you can do this?” Chris asked quietly.
Vin licked his lips, then nodded. “I’m sure. Let’s get going.”
They continued on. It wasn't long before Chris found himself bearing more and more of Vin’s weight as fatigue and blood loss took their toll. By the time they reached their destination, he was virtually carrying the injured man. Fortunately, Vin hung grimly onto consciousness and was able to direct them along the narrow trails through the forest.
Eventually, they emerged from the trees into a more open landscape. To their left cliffs towered above, shrouded now in shadow as day gave way to night. To the right lay an open meadow of short, sun-bleached grass and beyond, just a glimpse of a river. Vin pointed to the rocky terrain leading to the cliffs. “The cave's just up there. You can't see it from the trail. There's a rabbit path just beyond that fallen pine.”
Chris followed Vin's directions to the cave. It was a good choice – well off the trail and obscured from view by dense bushes and a stand of pine. Several large boulders offered excellent cover and a clear view of anyone approaching.
The opening to the cave was low and narrow. Chris handed Simon a flashlight. “You go first.” He waited until Simon called out, “It’s fine, you can come ahead,” before helping Vin negotiate the narrow opening, taking care not to jog his injured arm too much. Just inside, a narrow path led around a corner and then opened out into a surprisingly large space. Simon looked around at him. “This place is cool!”
Chris had to agree. It was better than they could have hoped for under the circumstances. He found he was able to stand up straight with the roof of the cave still several feet above him. The floor was solid rock but dry and even and scattered with several large flattish boulders.
Simon sank down onto one of the boulders and Chris carefully lowered Vin onto another. He unrolled a groundsheet from Vin's pack, and then helped the injured man lie down, placing a rolled up waterproof jacket under Vin's head as a pillow.
By now, Vin was pale and sweating from the exertion, lips pressed together in a thin line. When he spoke, his voice was little more than a harsh whisper. “Chris, you should get back out there and try to obscure our tracks a bit. Maybe set a false trail to the river.”
Chris nodded. “Good idea. Just let me take a look at that wound first.”
To Chris’ relief, a quick examination of the wound revealed that the bleeding had almost stopped, despite the exertion of the trek to the cave. After a moment's consideration, he decided it could wait a few more minutes for attention.
“Simon, can you get the first aid kit ready and get Vin some water? I'll be right back.”
Chris stepped outside cautiously, senses alert for any sounds of pursuit. He paused, crouched behind a boulder, but heard nothing other than the expected sounds of night. It was fully dark now and the moon wasn’t yet bright enough to see, yet he only used his flashlight when absolutely necessary as he retraced their steps to the main trail. He walked back up the trail for a hundred yards and set about making some new tracks across the meadow towards the river. Returning to the trail he did the best he could to obscure the signs of their passage, wishing Vin was with him - he knew the ranger would have done a far better job. He himself had done some survival training, but tracking was a different matter. His hope was that their pursuers were city dwellers themselves and know no more than he about following tracks.
Satisfied that he'd done the best he could, he scrambled back up to the cave.
Vin lay where Chris had left him. Simon was sitting on a rock nearby. He’d laid out the first aid supplies he thought Chris would need and it looked like he’d also found Vin’s emergency food rations as he was chewing on a cereal bar, his expression morose.
“We’re safe for now, Kid,” Chris said. “We’ll talk in a while, but I need to see to Vin now, okay?”
Chris turned his attention to Vin. “Hanging in there?” he asked.
Vin smiled faintly. “Yeah. Forgotten how much it sucks ta be shot.”
Chris thought fleetingly of the one occasion he knew the Texan had taken a bullet and wondered if his new friend would trust him enough to tell him the story at some point.
“I need to check the dressing. Might hurt a bit.”
He carefully removed the dressing he’d applied and was pleased to see that there was no sign of infection. He ran his fingers gently along Vin's back but there was no bump that would indicate the bullet was near the surface. He bit his lip wishing the wound was a through and through. Vin was clearly in considerable pain; it was likely that the bullet had lodged against the bone where the slightest movement would be agony. Well, there was nothing he could do about that now. He carefully reapplied antiseptic ointment to the wound then put on a fresh dressing and bound it up again. He tried to be as gentle as he could and Vin bore his ministrations stoically, but by the end the Texan was obviously nearing the end of his endurance.
Chris finished up and laid a hand on Vin’s good shoulder. “All done,” he said.
“Thanks,” Vin breathed. “What’s the verdict?”
“The bleeding’s stopped and there’s no sign of infection. You’ll be fine, as soon as we get you to a hospital. When it’s light, I’ll go for help. You and Simon should be safe here.”
Vin grunted. “I don’t like the idea of you out there alone.”
“Me neither,” Chris said dryly. “But we don’t have too many options. Try to get some rest while I have a talk with Simon.”
Vin reached out and grabbed Chris’s wrist. “Chris, there’s something I need to tell you.”
Chris nodded. “I know. But just rest for a few minutes, okay. It’ll keep.”
Vin hesitated, then let go of Chris’s arm and lay back. “’kay.”
Chris settled down beside Vin and turned his attention to Simon. “Simon, come on over here.”
Simon hopped off the rock and with obvious reluctance sat down beside Chris.
“How are you doing, Simon?” Chris asked softly.
Simon stared at him. “How do you know my name?”
“I told you I'm a private investigator. Well, the fact is, I'm not here by chance. Your mother hired me to find you.”
Simon looked surprised and a little suspicious. “Why would she do that? I told her I needed to get away for a few days. She just doesn't get that I'm not a kid any more.”
“That's not it. Your father's been taken ill. She needed me to find you to bring you home.”
“Ill?” Simon looked puzzled. “But... my dad's never ill.”
“He had a heart attack. He's in intensive care.”
“Oh.” There was a long pause before Simon asked quietly, “Is he going to die?”
“I don't know Simon. I'm sorry.”
Simon took a shaky breath. “Dad and I ... We don't get on that good, but I don't want him to...”
“I'll do everything I can to get you back home soon, but first you need to tell me what was going on back there.”
Simon immediately looked evasive. “I don't know. I don't know those men. They must have mistaken me for someone else.”
Chris heard a snort of disbelief beside him. He glanced at Vin and saw that his eyes were on Simon and he was following the conversation intently.
“That's bullshit,” Chris said, returning his gaze to Simon and deliberately making his voice hard. “You know exactly what that was all about and you need to tell me the truth now.”
Simon set his mouth in a stubborn line.
Something snapped. “You think this is some kind of game, Kid?” Chris growled. He reached out, roughly grabbing Simon's chin and turning his head towards Vin. “My friend saved your worthless life and took a bullet for his trouble.”
Simon tried to pull out of his grasp. “No! I'm sorry, I never meant for any of this to happen. I just needed money fast. I'd got into debt and Dad would have killed me if he'd found out.”
“What did you do?” Chris asked sharply.
Chris felt a hand on his arm. “Chris, ease up on the kid,” Vin said. “Don't reckon he's ever bin shot at before, have you, Simon?”
Simon shook his head.
Vin went on, “We ain't here to judge ya, Kid, but we need to know what we're dealing with if we're gonna make it out of here in one piece.”
Chris wasn't feeling so charitable, but Vin's softly spoken words seemed to get through to Simon more effectively than his own anger. The kid licked his lips and continued.
“A friend in college put me on to these guys who needed a runner to deliver packages on campus and pick up payments.”
Simon dropped his head. “Drugs.”
Chris felt Vin stiffen beside him.
“I did two runs, and it all seemed to go fine. It was so easy and I got $500 for each one. Then the third time I delivered the package and picked up the payment as usual. I was on my way to the drop off point when I was mugged.”
Chris rolled his eyes. “I guess I don't need to ask if they took the payment.”
Simon shook his head.
“What did you do?”
“I was scared. I didn't know what they'd do when I didn't make the drop. So I ran. Told my mom I was going camping for a few days. I just needed some time to think.”
“Any idea how much money was in the payment?”
Simon shifted uneasily. “First run I did, I took a quick look. I reckon it must have been about fifty grand. This one was much bigger.”
Chris exchanged a glance with Vin. “What do you think?”
Vin hesitated, then sighed. “If there was fifty grand in that payment, then this is bigger than your usual college drug trade. Look, one of those two guys – you know he recognized me. I used to be a cop. He was too, but he was dirty, in with a local drug cartel. It got busted and he went to prison. I heard he got out on parole six months ago. I tried to keep tabs on him, but he disappeared after the first month. Guess I know now where he went.”
“What about the other one?”
“Never seen him before.”
“Well, they went to a lot of trouble hiking out here to find Simon,” Chris said grimly. “I don’t think they plan to leave without him.” He turned to Simon. “What you did was really stupid, Kid, but don’t worry. We're going to get out of this mess.”
“I'm working on it.”
Chris and Simon took turns keeping watch at the cave mouth. So far, there had been no sign of movement and no sound other than the occasional hoot of an owl and the distant cry of a coyote. The moon was fully out now and its light illuminated the surrounding terrain clearly enough that Chris was confident they would easily spot anyone moving around.
Chris glanced at his watch and was glad to see that it was three am. Simon was due to relieve him any moment now and he was anxious to check on his injured friend. Friend? The term had come to mind automatically. It seemed the appropriate way to describe Vin Tanner, even though he'd only known the man for a short while.
He heard footsteps and Simon appeared beside him.
“How’s he doing?” Chris asked immediately.
Simon hesitated. “I don’t think he’s doing so good. He’s trying to hide it, but he’s in a lot of pain.”
Chris just nodded. It was to be expected. Vin needed a hospital and the Tylenol from the First Aid kit would do little more than take the bare edge off the pain.
“And you? How are you doing?” he asked then.
Simon gave him a fleeting smile. “Okay, I guess. Look,” he hesitated. “I… I want to say I’m sorry about this, getting you involved in my mess. What I did was stupid and wrong.”
Chris studied him for a moment. “Easy to be sorry once you’ve been caught.”
Simon bit his lip. “It isn’t just that. It’s… look, I know drugs are bad news, but I was so desperate all I thought about was earning some quick, easy money. I don’t know what I was thinking.”
He seemed sincere. “What’s changed your mind?” Chris asked, curious.
Simon hesitated. “Vin and me talked a bit.”
Chris wondered exactly what Vin had said to Simon to cause this contrition, but Simon seemed to genuinely regret his action. “We all make mistakes,” he said. “You won’t get off scott free, but I’ll speak up for you.”
“That’s what Vin said.”
“Okay then. I’m going back to check on Vin. You make sure you stay awake. It’ll be dawn soon and I can get moving.”
He patted the kid on the shoulder and went back into the cave. He sat down beside Vin, noting with chagrin how his knees protested the movement. That wouldn’t have happened even five years ago.
He studied Vin closely. It wasn’t totally dark due to moonlight streaming into the cave from an open cleft in the rock and he could clearly make out the Texan’s features. Vin’s eyes were closed, his face slightly flushed. Chris reached out a hand to check Vin’s forehead. Slightly warm. It didn’t surprise him that Vin was running a slight fever.
“Hey, Mom,” Vin breathed as his eyes opened half-mast.
Chris smiled. “Thought you were asleep.”
“Nah. Just restin’ my eyes.”
“Got a nice comfy bed and a bottle of whiskey?”
“Pretty nurse with some morphine?”
Vin gave him a wan smile. “Thought not. Guess I’ll settle for some water.”
“That I do have.” Chris handed over the bottle and helped the injured man raise his head a little. Vin took a couple of sips.
“How’s the pain?”
There was a pause. Then Vin said, with obvious reluctance, “Hurts some.”
Chris correctly interpreted the admission to mean his companion was hurting badly. It had been several hours since he’d last had painkillers. Chris searched around for the bottle of Tylenol and shook three pills into his hand, then helped Vin swallow them down with another mouthful of water. “Should take the edge off,” he said.
“Thanks.” Vin sank back down with a sigh.
“Whatever you said to Simon seems to have made an impression,” Chris remarked.
Vin grunted. “We talked some. He made a stupid mistake, but I don't think he's a bad kid. He panicked, didn't think beyond his need to make a few fast bucks. I told him a bit about what drugs can do. I think I maybe scared him enough that he'll never do it again.”
“Let’s hope so. If he cooperates with the cops, they should go easy on him.”
“Yeah.” Vin closed his eyes again. “’Time is it?”
“Just after three.”
“Be dawn in a couple of hours.”
“Yeah. I’ll head out then.”
Vin grunted. “Chris, can you help me sit up a bit?”
Chris frowned. “You sure? You should be resting.”
“Bin doin’ nothing but restin’ for hours. I just want to sit up a little.”
“All right. Let me help you.”
Chris eased Vin up a little and propped a rolled up waterproof behind his back. “Better?”
Vin smiled. “Much. Thanks.”
Chris made himself more comfortable beside his injured friend and they sat in companionable silence for a while. Then Vin said, “Listen, I reckon the best thing is for you to carry on the trail to the ranger station in the next valley. There’s a satellite phone there. It ain’t an easy trek and you gain a lot of altitude quickly, but if you’re up for it, it should only take you about five hours; be quicker than going back the way we came and with luck they won’t expect it.”
Chris nodded. “I’ll make it. And I’m hoping they’ve either given up or are wandering round lost in the woods.”
“Maybe.” Vin sounded doubtful.
Silently, Chris agreed. These men wanted Simon too badly to give up now.
They still had two hours to kill and he reckoned that the best thing would be to keep Vin talking, to take his mind off the pain, so he decided to bring up a subject he'd been thinking about on and off all day.
During the trek, they'd talked quite a bit about his job as a private investigator and the kind of cases he took on. He'd been impressed by Vin's insightful questions and astute observations. If he hadn't already known that Vin was an ex-cop, he could have guessed. The man was intelligent and intuitive. The question he was about to ask Vin was unusually impulsive for him and Buck would probably kill him slowly when he found out, but he was also confident he was right about this.
"I was thinking," he began.
"Don't strain yerself.”
Chris smiled and decided to come straight to the point. "I was hoping that you'd consider coming to work for me, when this is all over."
Vin shifted and Chris saw his eyes gleam in the dark. "Work for you?"
"I'm looking to expand and I think you're the right man for the job."
"Just like that."
"You know nothing about me." Vin sounded incredulous.
"I know enough."
"Uh huh. So you don't even want to ask me about the Hernandez case?"
Chris paused. Vin must have guessed he’d done a background check on him and he wasn’t sure how his new friend would react.
Vin sighed. "It's okay, Chris. I know you checked me out – it's what I woulda done”
Chris shrugged. “That's in the past. None of my business."
"Was in the past,” Vin said dryly. “In case you hadn’t noticed, the past's just caught up with me."
Chris grunted. “Unless there’s something you’re not telling me, that wasn’t something you were looking for.”
“Look,” Vin persisted, “If you know what happened, you must know that some were sayin' I was one of 'em all along and turned them in to save my own skin."
"Did you?" Chris asked mildly.
"Hell, no!" Indignant, Vin leaned forward and fell back with a grunt of pain.
Chris put a restraining hand on his good shoulder. "Easy! I believe you."
After a moment, Vin went on, "And you're just gonna take my word on it?"
"You think I shouldn't?"
"Chris, you've known me for less than a day."
"I don't need more than a day. I know what I need to know and I trust you when you say you weren't part of it."
Vin was silent.
Chris hesitated. "Want to tell me about the Hernandez case? It won't make any difference to my decision, but…." He left the words hanging, thinking it might help Vin make his decision if he told Chris the whole story.
Vin shifted a little. "Not much to tell,” he said after a long pause. “I was working with the drug squad down in Houston. Bin there about eighteen months. It was an okay team. I didn't hit it off too well with some of the guys, but I was thick with one of them – Martin Vesper, the guy who recognized me at the cabin. We hung out all the time. I dated his sister, Anna, was even thinking of asking her to marry me. I thought my life might finally be heading somewhere…" he trailed off.
Chris wondered what his life had been like before, but waited patiently until he was ready to continue.
"I started seeing things that got me suspicious, did some digging round on my own, found out that half the guys on the squad were on the take. I didn't know what to do. I mean, I know the unspoken rule, you don't rat on your own, but… this was drugs. I couldn't stand by and let it go on."
"So you contacted Internal Affairs?"
"Yeah. Spent the next three months working for 'em, digging up evidence. Reckon you know what happened then. There was a big deal going down, we raided it and caught three of the guys red-handed with the cartel."
"How did you get shot?"
"Things got a bit hot. I had a stand off with Martin – and I just couldn't shoot him. Turned out, he didn't have no problem shooting me." His voice was steady but Chris could sense the underlying pain, still raw even now. Vin sighed. "Guess he still don't have no problem with that."
“I’m sorry, Vin. Must have been hard, making the decision to turn in a friend.”
“Yeah. At first, I couldn’t believe he was part of it. Then I started noticing stuff… phone calls, a couple of time I knew he’d lied to me about where he was. Turned out he had huge debts he’d inherited from his father. When they approached him, he couldn’t turn down the money.”
His voice faded out on a note of sadness. Chris understood. He’d had a friend go bad once, a long time ago. It still hurt.
“It’s just,” Vin hesitated. “It’s just that I thought I knew him, you know? I trusted him with my life. Since then... guess I’m not sure I’m as good judge of character as I thought.”
“It’s not you, Vin. Sometimes, even the best men make a bad mistake and it changes them.”
“I guess. The man I saw at the cabin? I barely recognised him as Martin. He used to be full of life, always joking about. That man… that man was gone. Guess that’s what prison does to you.”
“Don’t blame yourself.” Chris said sharply. “He made his choice, Vin.”
“I know. But I keep thinking maybe I owed it to him to tip him off, give him a chance to come forward of his own accord. It woulda gone easier on him.”
“Do you think he’d have done it?”
After a long moment, Vin shook his head. “I think he was in too deep, and too obsessed with the money,” he said softly. “ I think he might have run, made things even more difficult for himself.” He grimaced. “He broke parole fast enough.”
“So, you had no choice, Vin. He’s the one who betrayed you, the way I see it.”
"And when it was all over, you resigned?"
"Yeah. Weren't no choice. None of the rest of the squad wanted anything to do with me. They were gonna transfer me, but I decided to get out. Just didn't have the heart for police work no more. I needed to get away."
"What about Anna?"
Vin gave a bitter laugh. "She didn't want nothing to do with me neither. I'd turned on her brother. Didn't matter that he was guilty; she couldn't get over it. So I left, bummed around for a while, then landed the job here. Been here ever since."
“Hiding?” Chris asked softly, wondering if he was probing too deep.
Vin frowned. “I’m not hiding. I like it here. It’s a good job, good people. I got nothing and no one to go back to, anyways.”
Chris started to speak, then bit his tongue. This wasn’t the time. Instead, he asked, “So, what made you choose the drug squad in the first place?"
Great. I’ve hit another nerve, Chris thought, and said quickly, "It's okay if you don't want –"
"No, it’s okay. Just not easy to talk about. My Ma, she was only seventeen when she fell for a musician passing through town. Her parents disapproved, so she ran off with him. Don't know if he was any good or not – he died in a motorbike crash a year later. By then, she was pregnant with me." He paused, swallowed. "She called her parents, but they didn't want to know. She didn't have no money, or a job. She ended up on the streets. Reckon you can prob'ly guess the rest. Same old story. She got hooked on drugs and died of an overdose when I was five."
"I don't remember her too clearly, but I do know she loved me. And whatever else she was – I got that to hold on to. Anyway, when she died, I got put into care, spent most of my childhood in the system. I got in some trouble, but I never touched drugs and I hated the men that supplied them to desperate people. That's why I joined the force and why I had no choice but to turn my friends in."
Chris was silent for a moment. Between the lines of the sparsely told story was a tough and tragic childhood.
They were both silence for a moment. Then Chris said, "So, you didn't answer my question about the job."
Vin turned to look at him, holding his eyes steadily. "You're really serious?"
"Wouldn't have asked otherwise."
There was a long silence. "What about your partner? Don't you want to talk to him first?"
"He won't be a problem. Anyway, it's my business, my decision."
"All right. I’ll think about it.”
Chris smiled. "That’s all I’m asking.”
Chris checked the supplies he was leaving behind one more time, and then crouched down beside Vin.
“I’m heading out now.”
Vin had watched silently as he made his preparations, but his frown gave away his feelings about the plan. He’d strenuously objected to Chris going alone, but when challenged, had been unable to suggest a viable alternative.
Vin was still putting up a good front, but his skin shone with perspiration and his hair clung damply to his head. The long night had taken its toll. He hadn’t once complained, but Chris could tell that the pain had gradually worsened. Chris had just checked the wound and noted the almost inevitable signs of infection, reflected in the warmth of his skin.
It was time to get him some help.
“Remember what I told you,” Vin said. “The trail to the river is less than a hundred yards on and it’s easy to miss.”
“I’ll find it,” Chris reassured him as he stood up and lifted the pack.
“At least let me come out and cover you, just in case.”
Chris shook his head. “You start moving around, you’ll start that wound bleeding again. You stay right here and rest.”
Vin’s petulant expression would have been amusing in other circumstances. “I’ve been restin’ all night. You need someone to watch your back.”
“I’ll get Simon to keep a look out.”
Vin snorted. “And what’s he gonna do if they’re out there waiting for you?”
“Warn me,” Chris said mildly.
That comment was greeted with another derisive snort. “At least take my rifle.”
Chris shook his head. “No. I’m not leaving you unarmed. Vin, stop worrying. You’re worse than an old woman. I’ll be fine. You just rest; drink as much as you can and I’ll be back before you know it.”
Vin sighed, a gesture of defeat. Then he reached up and snagged Chris’ arm.
“Take care, Chris. I don’t wanna be out of a job before I even start.”
Chris grinned. “That means you’re taking me up on my offer?”
“I’m still thinking on it.”
“You keep thinking. I’ll see you soon.”
Chris left the cave quickly before he was tempted to change his mind. He hated leaving a green kid and an injured man alone with two armed men hunting them, but he knew he had no choice.
Chris found Simon dozing in the lookout point at the cave mouth. Irritated, he shook the boy. “Simon! Wake up!”
Simon started and his eyes darted around frantically before settling on Chris. Chris could almost hear his brain putting together what had happened. Then Simon hung his head. “I’m sorry, I screwed up. I was just so tired… I’m sure I was only asleep for a few minutes.”
Chris wasn’t so sure, but there was nothing he could do about it now. He sighed. This was a stressful situation for the boy and he knew he should cut him some slack, but once he left, not only Simon’s but Vin’s life might depend on the kid’s vigilance. He laid his hands on the boy’s shoulders. “Listen to me,” he said seriously. “I know you’re tired and scared and this is a tough situation for you. But I need to head out now and while I’m gone you have to step up to the plate. Vin’s in no condition to help, so it’s going to be up to you. Both of your lives are at risk, do you understand?”
Simon swallowed. “I know. I get it. I’m sorry, it won’t happen again. I’ll look after Vin, I promise.” He paused. “You two go way back, huh?”
Chris was surprised at the question. “No, we only met when I hired him to bring me up here. What made you think that?”
Simon shrugged. “Just that you seem real comfortable around each other, that’s all.”
Chris smiled. “Guess we do get on pretty well, huh? Anyway, Vin has his rifle, but I don’t know if he’ll be able to use it.”
“I’ve fired a rifle before,” Simon said eagerly. “I went shooting with my dad a couple of times. Maybe Vin can show me how to use it.” He paused. “You really think they’re still out there?”
“I don’t know,” Chris answered honestly. “But it’s best to be prepared for anything. Okay, I’m heading out. Vin says it’s about a five-hour walk, so it’ll be mid-afternoon before there’s any chance of help arriving and that will mostly likely be a rescue ‘copter. When you hear it, don’t get complacent - don’t expose yourself until you’re sure you know who it is. You understand?”
“I get it.”
“All right. I’ll see you soon, Kid.”
Chris cautiously made his way down the rabbit path to the main trail, gun in hand. Vin had showed him on the map how the trail continued straight for another hundred yards where it was met by another trail leading to the east and which would take him across the river. The trail then crisscrossed the river several times more before climbing to a pass leading down into the next valley. There he would find the ranger’s hut. He fervently hoped that the satellite phone was working.
He had barely walked a couple of yards when a bird flew up suddenly from a rocky outcrop about fifty yards ahead of him. Glancing in that direction he glimpsed the barrel of a gun poking out from behind a rock.
He dove flat as a bullet rang out and felt its breath as it passed less than an inch from his ear, hit a rock and ricocheted away. He rolled, finding meager cover behind some dense bushes at the side of the trail, shrugged off the backpack and cocked his gun.
Damn it. How had they been found? He’d have given money that neither of their pursuers was the outdoor types.
He cautiously raised his head a few inches and scanned the area. The shooter was still in position and Chris ducked back down quickly. Then he felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise to attention. Instinct saved him. He flung himself to the side and a bullet hit the ground where he’d lying only a moment before.
Risking a quick glance, he realized that the bullet had come from a stand of trees about fifty yards back. Sweat began to trickle down his back as he realized that he was a sitting duck, caught in inadequate cover between the two shooters.
He couldn’t stay where he was. He had to take a risk – it might cost him his life, but staying here would make him a dead man for sure.
He took stock of his surroundings and figured that if he headed toward the meadow the man in front would have to break cover to get an angle to fire a shot. There was no time to think about it. He sprang to his feet, fired off a shot and ran, keeping low, ducking and weaving. A bullet whizzed past his ear and he fired again. Another shot from behind missed him by inches. He skidded to the ground behind the next available cover, a fallen tree, rolled and fired a third shot at the first shooter. This time the shooter dropped and lay still.
The log had sheltered him from the first shooter, but the second was still behind him. He heard a shot ring out and tensed, expecting to feel the burn of a bullet in his back. Instead, he heard a grunt of pain.
He twisted around. The second shooter was lying motionless on the ground. On the trail Vin Tanner stood, swaying slightly, smoking rifle in hand. As Chris watched, his legs buckled and he sank to his knees.
Chris pushed back an instinctive desire to run and check on Vin and instead cautiously approached the first shooter. It was the Mexican, unconscious but alive, head bleeding where Chris’ bullet had grazed him. Satisfied that he wouldn’t be waking up any time soon, Chris approached the second fallen man. It was no surprise to find that it was Martin Vesper. He was dead – Vin’s bullet had hit him in the heart and would have killed him instantly. Chris felt a moment of regret, knowing that Vin would take this hard.
Chris stood and walked quickly to the man who’d saved his life. Simon, thankfully unhurt, had already reached him and was standing beside him uncertainly. Then overhead the unmistakable sound of a helicopter’s whirring could be heard. As it came closer, Chris made out a distinctive green and yellow logo on the side. He had no idea why Travis Inc., would have a helicopter in this neck of the woods, but it was going to be their salvation.
“Simon, try to get their attention,” he barked. The boy obeyed, running out into the open and windmilling his arms as Chris sank to his knees beside Vin. The ranger was lying on his side, curled into himself. He was breathing hard, face chalk-white, eyes screwed shut and jaw tightly clenched. Chris winced in sympathy. The rifle must have kicked back right into the bullet wound. Vin was clearly in agony and the wound was bleeding again.
He laid a comforting hand on Vin’s back and wrapped the other around one tightly balled fist. “Easy, Vin. Easy. Ride it out.”
After a few moments Vin’s breathing evened out a little. His fist relaxed and Chris let go, helping him roll over onto his back.
Vin’s eyes opened and focused on him. “You okay, Larabee?”
“I’m fine. What the hell were you thinking?”
“That all the thanks I get for saving your sorry hide?”
“I had everything under control.”
Vin snorted a laugh, then groaned. “That’s your idea of control? I reckon workin… for you… mus’ be a barrel of laughs.”
Chris smiled. “Shut up and take it easy, Vin.”
After a few moments Vin’s eyes started roving around the field. “What… Is Martin…”
“I’m sorry, Vin,” Chris said quietly. “He’s dead.”
Vin closed his eyes and turned his head away, jaw working. Chris laid a hand on his shoulder. “You had no choice,” he said softly. “You saved my life.”
“I know,” Vin breathed. “Just… wish it coulda been different.”
A hundred yards away, the helicopter set down in the meadow. As the blades began to slow, the front door opened and a man jumped out. A man who looked suspiciously like…
“Hey Vin? I reckon you're going to meet your new partner sooner than I thought,” Chris said with a grin.
“Partner? I ain’t… said yes… yet.”
“You will,” Chris said confidently.
As Buck headed in their direction, two more men left the helicopter, one wearing a sheriff’s badge. Guns drawn, each ran quickly to one of the downed men.
Buck knelt down beside Chris and Vin.
“You okay, partner?”
“I'm good, but Vin took a bullet last night and he’s just made things worse by saving my life.”
He grinned at the snort from the injured man. “Some people just ain’t got no sense of gratitude.”
Chris saw Buck chewing his lip thoughtfully as he listened to the exchange, but he didn’t comment. Instead, he said, “The kid?”
Chris had forgotten about Simon and looked around, quickly spotting him standing a short distance away, looking awkward.
“Simon,” he called. “Are you all right?”
“Yeah. Is Vin okay?”
“He’ll be fine.” Chris saw the sheriff making his way in Simon’s direction. “Talk to the sheriff and tell him what happened.”
“He kept his head,” Vin murmured. “Didn’t panic when he heard the gunshots.”
“How did you get out here so fast anyway?” Chris asked, frowning as he began to piece things together. “Darn it, Vin I told you—”
“To stay in the cave, I know. I just… something didn’t feel right.”
“So as soon as my back was turned, you followed me out?”
Buck had been following the exchange with a slight grin on his face. “Leave him alone, Chris, it’s a good job he did.”
Vin rolled his eyes. “Finally, someone who appreciates my efforts.”
“Will you stop talking? Just close your eyes and try to rest. We’ll get you out of here soon.”
Vin complied, a little more willingly than Chris would have liked.
After a few moments, Buck got to his feet and gestured to Chris to follow. Chris hesitated, then stood up and Buck drew him to one side.
“You seem to be pretty thick with this guy. You know who he is, don't you?”
“Yes, I do.” Chris said evenly.
“Spit it out, Bucklin,” Chris said dryly, “before you drown in it.”
Buck rolled his eyes. “Look, I’m just trying to be objective. I know he saved your life, but don’t you think it’s a bit of a coincidence that he just happened to show up in a case with drugs involved?”
Chris shook his head. He couldn't blame Buck for being cautious. “I know how it looks, Buck, but you’re wrong. Vin's not involved in this, I’d stake my life on it. And I’m not just saying that because he just saved my life by shooting his best friend.”
“Who… what, you mean Vesper? Martin Vesper is his best friend?”
“Was once, when they were cops together. Vin turned him in and Vesper put a bullet in his shoulder.”
Buck huffed a breath. “Well, the sheriff has nothing but good to say about him, so if you’re sure about him—”
“I’m sure,” Chris said firmly. “You need to trust me on this, Buck. Vin's okay.”
Buck looked at him long and hard and then grinned. “Well, that’s good. Because I kinda like him myself.”
Chris hid his relief and smiled. “You two will get along just fine. “What are you doing here, anyway?”
Buck quickly explained about the phone call from Simon’s mother. “The sheriff was skeptical at first, so I figured it was best to come on up and convince him myself.”
“In a Travis Inc. ‘copter?”
Buck grinned. “Quickest way. Saving Travis’s daughter from those kidnappers was one of your better moves, Chris. He can’t do enough for you.”
Chris grimaced. He was grateful that on this occasion Travis had been able to help, but he wasn’t sure how comfortable he was having such a close association with the multi-millionaire businessman. Orin Travis had hired Chris to find his kidnapped daughter and he’d succeeded where the FBI had failed. Both Travis and his daughter, Mary, were suitably grateful. Too grateful, in Mary’s case. Not that she wasn’t a fine looking woman…
The sheriff strode across to them. “Air ambulance should be here soon. You Larabee?”
“Sheriff Counter. Buck filled me in on the background on the way up here. Looks like a real hornet’s nest you’ve stirred up.”
“Looks that way,” Chris agreed.
“How’s Vin doing?” Counter asked, crouching down beside the ranger.
“Vin’s fine,” the man in question said, opening his eyes. “Hey, Brad.”
“Not how you’d have chosen to spend your day off, eh Son?”
Vin snorted a laugh. “Reckon it’s the new company I’m keepin’.”
Chris raised an eyebrow. “I seem to remember you volunteering for the job.”
“Is it too late to raise my fee?”
Chris grinned. “I think we can work something out.”
Vin closed his eyes again and Chris drew Counter aside. “Will there be any trouble over the shooting?”
Counter shook his head. “We’ll need to do the paperwork, but Simon says he saw everything and we have enough evidence to back you up. There won’t be a problem.”
Chris heard a whirring as a second helicopter came into range. “I'll go with Vin in the 'copter, if they have room.”
Counter nodded. “That’s fine, but I’ll need you to come in and give your statement as soon as possible.”
Buck gave him a quizzical look. “They’ll take good care of him, Chris. Why don’t you ride back with us?”
Chris shook his head. “Buck, last time he was shot, he woke up in a hospital bed alone. That isn’t going to happen again.”
Buck stared at him for a moment, then nodded. “You do what you need to do. I’ll go back with the sheriff, get the paperwork started.”
As Buck started to walk off, Chris remembered something. “Hey, Buck.”
Buck turned, one eyebrow raised.
“There’s one more thing I need to tell you about Vin.”
“I offered him a job.”
Chris stretched in the uncomfortable plastic hospital chair, rolling stiff shoulders and wincing as his neck protested and his bad knee cracked.
Vin had been taken straight to surgery on their arrival at the hospital. After several hours, during which Chris paced the corridors and generally made the nurses’ lives hell, the surgeon emerged to report that he had successfully removed the bullet. With some physiotherapy, Vin would regain full use of the shoulder, although he’d be out of action for a few weeks.
Vin was moved to a private room where, despite assurances that the patient was unlikely to wake up any time soon, Chris had sat vigil for several long hours in the cramped plastic chair. He had reluctantly left his position only for a short time to get something to eat in the canteen when Buck came by to fill him in on what was happening outside. To his credit, Buck hadn’t questioned Chris’ need to remain at the bedside of a man he’d only known for a couple of days and for that, Chris was grateful. He was a little puzzled himself at the bond he felt with this almost stranger.
Now, Buck was back at the sheriff’s office and Chris had returned to Vin’s bedside. The nurse had reported that Vin was showing signs of returning to consciousness and Chris cursed himself for allowing Buck to persuade him to leave. He’d never have forgiven himself had Vin woken up in that hospital room and found himself alone.
Sure enough, after a few moments the Texan stirred. His eyes opened, half-mast at first as if the light was bothering him, and then fully, widening in anxiety as he became aware of his surroundings.
Vin made a move to sit up and Chris leaned forward, hastily placing a restraining hand on his chest. He could feel Vin’s heart beating wildly beneath his hand. “Easy Vin,” he said softly. “You're all right. Everything’s fine. You're in the hospital.”
Vin's eyes darted wildly around the room, finally coming to rest on Chris' face. Chris smiled encouragingly. “It’s okay.” After a moment, Vin’s heartbeat slowed a little. Expressions of recognition followed by confusion replaced the initial anxiety.
“You remember me, then? That’s a good sign,” Chris said with a grin, sensing that that Vin needed a few minutes to process where he was and how he’d got there. “Would you like some water?”
Chris poured a few inches of water from a jug into a glass and helped Vin sit forward a little to drink it. Vin nodded his thanks and lay back.
Chris sat back down, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees. “Do you remember what happened?” he asked.
Vin looked at him for a long moment, then said, his voice raspy, “Sure, I remember what happened, but… what are you doing here?”
Chris was stunned that Vin would even ask that question, but he could see that Vin was genuinely puzzled. It filled him with sadness to think that his new friend would be surprised that there was someone concerned enough to be there for him. Yet the last time he’d been shot he'd been left alone, so the reaction was natural.
“Someone had to make sure you’re not giving the staff here any trouble,” he said lightly.
Vin just stared at him, his jaw working.
Chris patted Vin’s good shoulder and stood up. “I know you’d rather see a pretty nurse than my ugly mug, so I’ll just go tell them you’re awake.”
Vin cleared his throat. “Are you…leaving?”
His voice was thick with emotion, but Chris pretended not to notice. “Nope. I’m not going anywhere, I’ll be right back.”
He made it to the door before one softly spoken word stopped him in his tracks. “Thanks.”
Chris turned around and said seriously, “You know, if you’re going to work with me, you’ll just have to learn to accept your partners caring whether you live or die, okay?”
Vin flushed and turned his eyes away.
After a moment, Vin looked back at him and said with a slight smile, “Even if it’s their fault you almost got killed in the first place?”
Chris grinned. “Comes with the territory.”
He fetched a nurse and waited patiently while she checked Vin’s vitals and gave him a shot for the pain, smiling to himself as she totally disregarded Vin’s vehement protests that he was fine and barely hurting at all.
Then he sat back down in the back breaker.
“So, what’s happened while I’ve been out?” Vin asked.
“Buck came by. The Denver Drug Squad is taking over the investigation. Apparently, they’ve been tracking a nationwide operation on college campuses, and this is a big break for them. The guy Buck spoke to said he was sure they’d go easy on Simon if he cooperates fully.”
“So Martin and the Mexican, they’re part of that operation?”
“The Mexican’s name is Enrique Sanchos – nasty piece of work, but not too high on the food chain. He’s been singing like the proverbial canary.” He hesitated, not sure Vin was ready to hear what he’d found out about Vesper.
Seeing his reluctance, Vin prompted, “Go on, Chris. I need to hear it.”
“Seems like Vesper was in this up to his neck. Sanchos says he was responsible for the operation in Denver. Sanchos reported to Vesper.”
Vin was silent for a moment, as if digesting the implications of the information, then he sighed softly. “Who did Martin report to?”
Chris shrugged. “Sanchos says he doesn’t know.”
Vin sighed again. “I kind of hoped Martin would clean up his act when he came out, but when he jumped bail…”
“He had his chance, Vin.”
“Yeah. I know.” Vin picked absently at some loose stitching along the seam of the sheet.
Chris cleared his throat. “Anyway, we’ll both have to give them detailed statements, but there shouldn’t be any trouble over the shootings. Simon saw everything and he has no reason to lie.”
“How’s Simon’s father?”
“Better. Looks like he’s going to make it.”
“That’s good.” Vin’s voice faded a little with the words and he sank back a little further into the pillows.
“You need to get some sleep,” Chris said, noting that the conversation had tired his companion, “if you want to get out of here in a few days.”
Vin looked horrified. “A few days? I’ll be ready to leave tomorrow.”
Chris rolled his eyes. “We’ll see. They won’t let you leave unless they’re sure you have someone to look out for you.”
Vin rolled his head to look at him. “Don’t need a nursemaid. I live on my own, and I can manage just fine.”
“I know you can, but I thought you might like to come and crash with me for a few weeks,” Chris said mildly, “until you can find a place of your own.”
Vin’s eyes widened. “Crash with you? In Denver?”
“Sure. You’ll have to move anyway, you know, if you’re coming to work with me.”
Vin stared at him silently and for a moment, Chris was afraid he’d pushed too hard. Then Vin’s lips quirked in a smile. “You’re mighty sure of yourself, aren’t you?”
“Nope. I’m mighty sure of you, though. And I want you to be my partner.”
“What’s Wilmington got to say about that?”
“Buck’s fine with it. He likes you.”
Vin snorted. “Likes me? So far he’s only seen me flat on my back with a bullet in my shoulder.”
Chris grinned. “Well, you obviously made an impression. Stop deflecting. What’s it going to be?”
Vin licked his lips. “Remember what you said about hiding?”
Chris nodded. “I remember.”
“Well… I guess you were right. I do love working in the Park, but I ain’t doin’ what I’m best at. Maybe it’s time to face the world again.” He took a long, shuddering breath, then smiled shyly and held out a hand. “All right. I’m in.”
Chris felt his smile threatening to split his face as he leaned in and took the Texan’s offered hand in a firm grip. “You made the right decision, Vin, and you’ve made me a happy man, which Buck will tell you isn’t easy. Now, get some sleep. I’m going to go clean up and I’ll be back to check on you in the morning.”
“You don’t have to…” Vin began and closed his mouth with a snap when Chris held up a hand and said sternly, “I don’t have to, but I want to, so shut up.”
“You’re gonna be a real ornery boss, ain’t ya?” Vin muttered, but there was a smile on his face as he settled down in the bed and closed his eyes.
Chris lingered for a moment until he thought Vin had dropped off to sleep, then stood up and made for the door. He was almost through it when a voice called, "Chris?"
He turned back. "Yeah?"
Vin was looking at him with narrowed eyes. "For my first case, d'ya think you could find something that don't get me shot?"
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