Disclaimer: The Characters used are the property of MGM and Trilogy. No money was made, but a lot of fun was had. =) And, as I have no knowledge of police practices and very little medical knowledge, you'll have to take the story on those terms (or leave it! =) )
Rating: PG-13 - Gen
Characters: Mainly Vin, but the others are there, too
Notes: Ah, my first full-length story in a LONG time. Thanks to Brate and Heidi for all their beta work - I really appreciate your help and suggestions. And thanks to all of you who encourage (i.e. nag) me to write more. I appreciate that, too.
For those of you who may recognize this as very similar to an old "MacGyver" episode, let me say it was completely unintentional. I had this story over half done when I was watching reruns and a very similar storyline was used. I'm sure I'd seen it before, but I wasn't thinking of it when I began writing this story. I didn't intend for this to be a clone.
On the corner of a dark street, Vin Tanner sat shivering in his jeep.
"Can't believe y-y'all picked the coldest night o' the year fer this bust," he said, burrowing into his jacket. "'Sides, Ezra's the undercover, secret-agent man - why ain't he the one freezing his-"
"Now, Mr. Tanner," the conman's voice cut through the earpiece. "Surely you don't expect me to subject my delicate skin to such frigid temperatures."
"Delicate? Bet the hide on yer rear is tough enough - been sittin' on it so long!" Vin blew into his hands, thankful Miss Nettie had insisted on the gloves. Even with the fingers cut out for quick movement, it helped keep them from stiffening up. "An' why 'm I 'Mister Tanner' now, Ez? I's yer 'dear pal Vin' when ya's settin' me up fer this!"
"Ten o'clock, Vin!"
Chris's low voice jolted them all back to business. Vin scanned the sidewalk across the street for suspicious shadows. A tall man dressed in a long, dark coat smacked the brick wall of a building and turned into the dark alley, Vin's signal to follow.
A tap at the passenger side door startled him.
"Geez . . . "
"Vin? What is it?" Chris asked through the mic.
He calmed his breathing. "Hooker. I'll lose her and follow. Our dealer's already in the alley."
The tapping continued. "C'mon, Sugar, you look cold and so lonely in there by yourself. Let me warm you up, baby."
Vin got out of the vehicle, adjusting the hat on his head. "I ain't on the market fer . . ." He stopped short. Standing under the street lamp, he now could see the smooth features of her face, even under the heavy makeup. Her eyes were bright, but not strung-out. A thick, feathery collar framed her face, meeting long curls of hair almost as white as the coat, except for a bright splash of pink that traced her forehead down to her chin.
"Yer jest a kid!"
She stepped back, a pout on her burgundy lips. "I'm old enough to make you real happy," she insisted. If not for the spark of fear he saw in her eyes, he might have laughed.
"Vin!" Chris again. "What's going on? You gotta move."
"Uh, yeah - clear here. I'm goin' in."
"Got your back."
"Ya better." Vin glanced over to the girl and jerked his head. "Get in the jeep an' stay put 'til I get back, ya hear?"
He caught her rather tremulous smile as she scanned the buildings and crawled inside his jeep.
Vin jogged across the street and entered the alley slowly, allowing his eyes to adjust to the darkness. He felt the jump in adrenaline and worked to control his breathing as he slid behind a dumpster.
"Dealer's a-pacin'. Y'all ready? 'M goin' in fer contact."
"Nice and easy, Vin. You give the cue, we'll come in and bust it up. We'll arrest you, too. Make it look good, but try not to give Buck a black eye like last time," Chris said. His voice came in low from the tiny transmitter in Vin's ear.
"Ha - y'all don't like my style, let Ez handle the next buy." Vin nodded, though, as if they could see as well as hear him.
He stepped into the alleyway, seeing not only his contact, but two henchmen milling around the far end.
Quiet steps brought him behind the dealer before he spoke. "I'm here, Augusta. What'cha bring ta th' tea party?"
The man turned. Equal in height and similar in build to his contact, but he was definitely not Augusta. He knew this crook, too. Piggy Baines had been busted about a year ago in a huge sting. He'd turned state's evidence for a plea that had him out in six months served.
Vin pulled his hat low, hoping to avoid recognition. "Where's Augusta?" he asked.
A meaty fist flew at him, too fast to miss. He swerved, the heavy ring the man wore slicing across his temple and up into his hairline.
Vin swayed and threw himself forward, only to be caught by a hand at his collar, choking him. He threw his hands out as he was spun into the brick wall of the building, dropping to the ground at the contact.
Larabee's voice rang faintly in his ear. "They made Vin-"
"Podunk!" He called out, hoping the team could hear the code through the sounds echoing in the alley. He couldn't hear anything beyond the blood pounding in his own ears. "That where you learned ta fight? Or was yer mama born there an' taught ya?"
That earned him another swing. This time he expected it and was able to duck, coming in low to sneak in a few good jabs of his own.
Piggy's knee came up into Vin's ribs, knocking the air out of him. Vin rolled, feeling the cold cement beneath him. He swung his feet, bringing Baines down beside him and landing a few kidney blows. Baines' partners grabbed his arms and hauled him up, slamming his back against the brick.
Vin moved to swing again when Piggy stepped back and held up a hand. "Easy! You're clean. Now we can get down to business."
Tanner slumped back against the bricks, trying to catch his breath. He swiped the trickle of blood from his eye. "Hell of a pat-down," he said, glaring at his contact.
"Ah, and yet, effective. I can never be too sure, what with all the new technology out there. If you were a cop, your buddies would be all over me by now. Dark alley, bad neighborhood - hard to prove I wasn't reacting to a threat. You passed. You fight too dirty to be a cop."
"So, we're good for the buy?" Vin hoped the wires he wore hadn't come loose during the 'test'.
Piggy stood and walked over to pull a black trunk from a pile of garbage. He snapped it open.
"Ten fully-automatic beauties. Top quality, and more when you're ready. 'This could be the start of a beautiful relationship,'" he joked, throwing Vin off. What was with this guy?
"Payment should be deposited directly into this account," he said, handing Vin a card. "Augusta says you check out."
Lights blazed from both ends of the alley. "ATF - you're under arrest!" Chris's voice echoed from the walls.
Vin shoved Piggy. "Run!" he yelled. His voice needed to carry above the commotion to keep his cover intact.
Tanner dashed for the opposite end of the street at a believable pace until a force knocked him from behind. He felt himself go airborne for a moment, sliding with a crash into the dumpster. Turning his head in time to avoid the metal sides, he twisted on the shale and felt the solid mass of flesh crush his spine.
Streaks flared up into his head and his lungs refused to even attempt a breath for a moment. Vin lay frozen in pain even after JD rolled off with a grunt.
He saw JD wobble closer on his knees, pulling out handcuffs.
"No, JD!" he whispered.
"All right, punk," JD called loudly, throwing himself into the role. "We're hauling you in and shutting you down."
Vin couldn't hold back the growl as JD forced his hands back and into the cuffs. He felt a light smack on the back of his head as JD started to haul him up.
"Suck it up, pretty boy. They won't be treating you even this well where you're going."
That's when he heard it. The faint cracking sounds that left pins and needles tingling in his feet. His body became dead weight, jerking JD off balance and almost pulling him down again. Instead, he felt JD lower him to the gravel and release the cuffs.
"Vin!" JD's voice came low and panicked by his ear. "My God, Vin! What did I do?"
Vin coughed and drew in a slow, hitching breath. "Not . . .yer fault, JD. Jes' happens, now n' agin . . .. Be okay . . ."
"What should I do? Break your cover and - ?"
"No!" Vin breathed fast, short breaths, trying to ride the initial pain. "Tell . . .Lar'bee - perp two is down."
He soaked in what quietness he could while JD ran to tell Chris. The clatter faded as he focused on breathing in the cold air and not moving. Nice 'n slow now . . .
Firm, sure hands turned him over. Paramedics had a collar and backboard on him before he could protest.
He blinked at the bright light thrust into his eyes. Chris stood above, hands on his hips, his eyes boring into Vin's.
"Team 3 came through, Vin. They've loaded up Baines and the goons with him. What happened?"
"Turn down the glare, cowboy." He sucked in a breath as he felt the prick to his foot. "Yeah, I felt that," he told the paramedic, looking down at her without moving his head. She smiled at him and continued her examination.
He heard Chris's sigh of relief and saw him crouch close. "Relax, Lar'bee. Jes' wrenched m' back is all. I'll dig out m' crutch fer a few days 'til it rights itself . . . "
"This happened before?"
"Don't recall reading this in your file, Tanner."
"M' back's always been messed up. Couldn't hide it iffen I tried."
"And I'm sure you did." Chris smiled and ran a hand through his blond hair and down his neck, easing the tension.
Tanner caught his glare. The truth, Vin. He didn't need words to interpret the look.
"No big deal, Chris. Be fine in a day 'r so." He spotted two of his teammates coming up behind their leader. Buck was pale as paste and JD's eyes were big as silver dollars.
"Buck, you got any fine-looking masseuse in thet little black book o' yers?"
"None you could afford," Buck said. His mustache twitched as he smiled back at JD and clapped Chris on the shoulder.
"Iffen y'all'd let me up so's I could go home . . . "
The paramedic held her hand up to halt the protests of the agents above her. "Mr. Tanner, your previous history makes your condition more serious, not less. And, actually, you didn't react the first time I ran the test."
"Dear Lord," Ezra breathed, joining the group.
"Hold on, gentlemen. We've gotten positive reaction in each successive test, so it looks like we're in the clear."
"She means I hollered every time she jabbed me since thet first one."
She laughed and nodded to the medic who had shone the light, cuing him to jack up the stretcher. "Yes, that's exactly what I mean. I'd just like to run an MRI, be sure we're not looking at a spinal concussion here. But I can't force treatment on you."
"He's going." Chris folded his arms across his chest, and Vin knew he'd lost all leverage.
"Sure, go on 'n glare, Lar'bee. Easy when I'm all trussed up and knocked flat. What about m' jeep?"
Buck stepped forward, hands unusually still, as if he were afraid of doing further damage. JD was even worse, standing farther back in the shadows. "You'll take care of it, right, JD?" Vin barely saw JD's head bob and a flicker of a grin appear.
"We'll drive it over to your place, Junior. Don't worry about it," Buck said.
"Ain't worried," Vin said. "Just wonderin' if y'all can finish up this mess in time ta meet us over at Inez's?"
"And what makes you believe you'll be in any condition to imbibe later this evening, Mr. Tanner?"
"'Cause they're takin' me in with all the bells and whistles - ATF agent, possible spinal injury, with the famous Larabee Glare riding in behind. Instant service. An' it's nothin' ta bother with - instant out. Y'all kin trust me on that one. Even you, Nathan."
Josiah finally finished briefing Team 3 and joined the group. "Let me guess. They gave him a 'mild' sedative," he said.
The paramedic smiled again. "I take it you've been through this with him before," she said, locking the stretcher into the back of the ambulance.
"How serious is this?" Chris had to know.
"Really - he's probably right. It's, what, six o'clock now?" she asked, glancing at her watch. "If they can get him in for the scan without too long of a delay, he ought to be out by eight or nine. With his handy crutch," she added, pulling the doors closed. The sirens started blaring as the ambulance pulled away.
"Well, Mr. Larabee," Ezra said, "you had best follow along. Mr. Tanner is expecting that magical glare to get him to the Saloon on time."
Chris shot him a look.
"Commendable warm-up. Come now, you can practice on the way. I'll drive."
Chris turned toward Buck. "You'll take the jeep?"
"Me and the kid'll drop it off at his place."
"Josiah, you can wrap this up?"
"We're about done here. I'll tie it all up and file the report tomorrow."
"I appreciate that," Chris said.
Nathan waved. "I'll ride along with you, Chris. Make sure we get all the details of what he's supposed to do to take care o' hisself. Ya know he won't be tellin'. Dang fool."
"Okay, men - I guess we'll meet back at Inez's around nine. I'll phone if they decide to hang onto him longer."
"Hang onto a mangy Texan on pain-killers? Ain't hardly likely." Buck laughed.
Megan swore she heard her heartbeat echo against the metal of the jeep. She was really going to do this. So far she'd managed to pass them off, or get the johns more interested in booze than in her. Now Gino was getting more demanding. He needed the money. He loved her and wanted to take care of her, and he needed her to do this. For him. For them.
Gino had offered her a little something to "help" with the first time. She didn't want that. She'd only been out on the streets for three weeks, long enough to see firsthand where drugs would get her - nowhere fast.
She'd even asked Gino to be her first. Who better than someone who loved you? Gino had just smiled and laughed and said, "Oh, baby, that's too valuable to just give away."
At least the guy in the jeep seemed clean, and not so old as the usual men she'd run across. He wasn't bad looking, either. He looked like he'd be kind and gentle and there was something fine in his wide blue eyes that she hoped meant he'd have money.
"You can do this, Meggie," she whispered. Her breath hung in frozen puffs in front of her face. "Gino really wants you to do this. It's for us." That's why he had to string the other girls along, too. Megan felt sorry for them.
She watched and waited, even through the huge commotion from the alley where the man had disappeared.
Twenty minutes later, maybe thirty, two men walked out. Neither of them was the guy who'd told her to wait, yet she couldn't leave now. Besides, she wanted to wait for the other guy - although the closer these men got, she thought they might not be bad substitutes. She scrambled behind the seat and pulled an old army blanket over her. She'd check things out once they got wherever they were going.
Buck smacked JD in the chest. "You okay?"
"Listen, Kid, you heard the lady. He's gonna be okay. He'll be back in that little hole in Purgatorio he calls home by tonight." Buck glanced over at the kid, who still looked rather shell-shocked.
"I shoulda been more careful, Buck. Geez - he even tried to tell me. 'No, JD!' That's what he said, Buck. Did I listen? No, I was already into the part, playing up the tough cop role."
"It was an accident. Comes with the territory." Buck fumbled in his pockets for Vin's keys.
"Yeah, one that could have left Vin paralyzed!"
Buck stopped and moved in front of his friend, blocking him. The younger man looked up at him, dark eyes wary. "It didn't."
JD stepped back. It wasn't his fault, not really - he knew that. He just needed to clear his head.
Buck handed him the keys. "C'mon, let's get this little trip to Purgatorio over with. I'll follow you and pick you up at Vin's, then we'll head over to Inez's. Unwind a bit, get a good night's sleep. Everything'll look clearer in the morning. You'll see."
"I hope so, Buck." The young agent grinned and grabbed the key. "Meet you at Vin's."
Megan ducked further down behind the seat. She felt every rock and bump in the road and hoped it wasn't far to the guy's house. She'd heard enough of the conversation to know that the guy's name was Vin, that he was hurt somehow, and that he planned to be back home that night. Hopefully after a rough night, he'd be in the mood for someone to help him unwind.
She'd stopped breathing when the thought crossed her mind the man could be a cop. Surely no officer of the law would live in Purgatorio. She'd heard about that place. There wasn't much she could do about it now. If this Vin got back and was in any mood at all, she'd go through with it. She could have him bring her back after, or maybe she could call Gino to come and pick her up. After all, she was doing this for them.
True to his predictions, Vin strolled into the Saloon shortly after nine o'clock. Well, maybe not "strolled," Buck corrected himself. Chris opened the door hard, sending the doorknob back into the wall and clearing the way for Vin to hobble in, propped up by a crutch that seemed too small even for Vin's slight frame. Nathan did his best butterfly impression, fluttering behind. Ezra sauntered in last.
Chris jerked two chairs from the table. "Sit!" he commanded.
"I take it you didn't agree with the doctor's findings on Vin's case?" Josiah asked.
Vin eased into the seat Chris offered. "Nah, he agreed with them doctors, J'siah. I jes' vetoed 'm both."
"You didn't!" JD leaned forward with a disbelieving grin.
"He did. And ain't none of us too happy about it," Nathan said. "You try talking sense into that dang fool head of his!"
"Think overriding the doctor's orders is such a good idea, Junior?"
"Listen, y'all - this is jest a little thing, happened before." Vin's blue-eyed gaze made its way around the circle of teammates, hoping to reassure them all. "Couple o' days o' rest, I'll be fine. Y'all know I cain't rest in no hospital." His voice tapered off at that and he let his gaze wander in search of Inez, nodding her his way.
"Well, Mr. Tanner," Ezra said, "I should say you know your own mind in this matter. We shall support your decision."
"You are taking time off," Chris said.
"And you're taking that pain medicine and those anti-inflammatory drugs," Nathan added.
"And no women or drinking," Buck said, seeing the waitress approach. "So why don't you just sidle on over my way, Senorita Inez?"
"Because, of course, I must see to Senor Vin. I heard about his accident." She brushed a hand over his head and smoothed his hair behind his ear. Then, with a sidelong glance at Buck, she leaned forward and kissed his forehead. "Ah, so brave. You can still have a Coca-Cola, si?"
"Si, Miss Inez," Vin said. He smirked at Buck's astonished gasp, unable to hide the blush on his cheeks. It only grew as she walked away with a wink back at him. The others laughed.
"Hoo! Vin-me-boy, one o' these days, if you ever realize what you do to women, I may have to concede my title to you!" Buck laughed and patted him on the shoulder.
"You think so?" Vin asked with a sly grin.
Buck sobered. "Oh, not today, Junior." He stood, nodding toward a busty blonde trying to catch his eye. "And tomorrow ain't lookin' too good for ya, neither."
"'Preciate ya driving me, Buck," Vin said. "I know ya'd rather be with thet blonde. She's somethin' ta look at."
Buck laughed. "And here I didn't think you noticed such things, Junior!" he teased.
"Big difference in noticin' 'n gawkin'. Ya ever heard of 'subtlety'? Ya oughta try it sometimes. Ladies go fer that."
"Right. You got that 'blush and a yes ma'am' kind of charm down to a science. I see how Inez looks at you and fusses over you."
Vin shot him a grin. "Then ya ain't been payin' attention, Bucklin. She's just been playin' with ya. Her eyes were all over ya."
"You think so?"
They pulled into the tiny parking area in front of Vin's apartment. "Who's that, Vin?" Buck asked, nodding his head toward the young girl waiting at the entryway to the building.
"Aw! Fergot all about 'er. Man, I gotta git, Bucklin. Thanks agin fer the ride." Vin grabbed his jacket and opened the door.
Buck grabbed his sleeve, jerking him back. "Vin, is she . . . ?"
"She's an angel, Bucklin. She jest don't know it yet."
Buck nodded, remembering his own quick defense of his mama. This girl was so . . .young. "You need help?"
"Nah. 'M gonna try and help her out, iffen she'll let me. Get 'er a place fer the night, least. See if I kin talk 'er inta goin' ta a shelter, maybe callin' 'er folks."
He swallowed hard, blinking back a tear as the girl smiled tremulously and waved as she recognized Vin. "Good. You need anything, you know where ta find me."
Vin glanced around the dash. "Didja write thet little blonde's number down fer me?"
Buck laughed. "Get out! And take it easy. I'll run by in the morning, if you want a ride in to the office. Can't imagine you sticking it out here all day."
"Me, neither. Sounds good. I'll be ready." Vin waved goodnight and staggered to the apartment, largely supported by the crutch. Buck watched him say something to the young girl that brought a pout to her lips as he fumbled his way through the door. "Gal's lucky she met up with Tanner before some creep took her up on her offer."
Vin's fingers still tingled from the pinch in his back, making it difficult to manipulate his key in the door. If Buck had suspected anything, Vin knew he'd never have been allowed to stay at his own place. The twinge in his back was a full-blown throb, and he furiously jammed the key, knowing if he didn't get inside where he could lie down soon, he'd be lying in a heap on the floor. The dim light in the hallway seemed to fade.
A tiny pair of pale hands grabbed the key from him and opened the door. He felt a warm arm around his waist and leaned into it gratefully as it guided him into his sparsely-furnished apartment and onto his sofa. He closed his eyes to ease the swirling in his head that shot a spasm down his back and legs.
His eyes startled open when two warm hands caressed his chest under his shirt and he felt a gentle nip of his ear.
"Surely you're not so tired as all that, baby. I mean, we can still have a good time, right?"
He jerked back, pulling himself painfully to sit upright on the couch, inadvertently knocking the girl to the floor. "Get away from me! I told ya I weren't on the market fer such--"
She trailed a finger along his twitching stomach muscles, just above the waistband of his jeans. "Men are always in the market for something I can offer." She stopped abruptly, pulling her hand back. "Unless you're--"
"No! Not that--"
"Good, because I've never done this before, you know."
Vin snorted, trying to dislodge her hands.
She sat back, her mouth puckered into a frown. "I haven't."
He saw an honest clarity in her deep green eyes, and something else - fear. Yet it passed quickly and she leaned over him again, descending toward his mouth.
"I just need a good teacher," she whispered.
"NO!" Vin shoved her ungracefully to the floor again. "Ya cain't be doin' stuff like this. What would yer ma say?"
She sat back, tucking the long swatch of pink bangs behind her ear. "My mom's dead."
Vin forced himself to sit against the back of the sofa, legs splayed in front of him, and tugged his shirt down. "What about yer dad?"
"My dad doesn't care what I do."
"He'd care about this, darlin'. How long since ya run away?"
She blinked in surprise, looking up at him. He could see she was even younger than he'd first thought. She didn't speak.
"I'm guessin' by the look o' ya, ya ain't been out on the streets too long. Few weeks?"
"What's yer name?"
Vin rolled his eyes. "Yer real name."
Her shoulders slumped. "Megan."
"Hard livin' out there all on yer own, Megan," he said.
"I'm not alone. I have Gino. He loves me and takes care of me." She stood with a semblance of indignation.
"By sendin' ya out like this?" Vin countered.
She crossed her arms over the white fluffy coat she still wore. "He needs the money. For us. He loves me, you know. He said guys will pay big for a . . .to be with . . .for inexperience."
"'M sure thet's maybe so. No man thet loves ya'd ask ya ta squander yerself like thet."
His face puckered as his back spasmed again, reminding him how badly he needed to lie down. "Listen, ya need a place ta stay t'night?"
She studied her pink fingernails, glancing around nervously.
"How much do ya owe 'im? A hundred dollars?"
She paused, licking her lips. "Two hundred by tomorrow morning," she said softly.
An' thet's the love he shows ya? Vin wanted to scream. However, he knew she still didn't understand her value went far beyond what her body would get her on the streets.
"How 'bout this - ya stay here t'night. Ya kin rest some, make it easier to think come mornin'."
A look of panic flashed across her face, before she plastered on a smile and slipped forward with what she must have thought was a seductive walk. She knelt on the couch and ran a shaking hand over his hair. "See, I knew we could work something out."
"All we've worked out is that you're sleeping in the bed, I'm out here on the floor." Vin grabbed her hands and pulled them away. "Alone," he emphasized.
She sat back with a shy smile, relaxing with a deep sigh. "Why would you do this for me?"
"Because I can't sleep knowin' some little gal's out there tryin' ta git herself inta more trouble then she can handle." Vin nodded toward the bathroom. "Go on an' get yerself washed up. Towels are in the cupboard. Ya should be able ta find yerself somethin' comfortable ta put on from thet basket o' clean laundry there in the corner."
Megan looked at him, eyebrows twisted in question.
He winced again as his back made itself felt. "Go on now. An' don't use all the hot water, would ya? Kin use some o' that m'self."
She jumped up and scrambled to the clothesbasket, pulling some clothing from it. "Thank you, Vin. Really. I'll pay you back for this."
"Don't worry about it. Yer welcome. Now go on," he said, smiling tiredly. He closed his eyes to rest, and soon even the ache in his back couldn't keep him from a light doze.
Buck shook his head. Hard to imagine a girl as young as that one out trying to turn a trick to survive.
He thought about his own mother, and the choices that had taken her to that kind of life. Not that they'd all been her choice, exactly. Yet his mother had made no excuses for herself.
"I let myself believe there was no choice, Bucky," she'd say. "Living out on the streets for as long as I did, it was hard to think there'd ever be a chance at anything different. There's always a choice, Bucky. Always. I just made the wrong one." Then she'd ruffle his hair and say, "But it brought me you, so even bad choices can have good things come of them."
He smiled. He mama had truly been a saint, an angel. Prostitution had made her wise up quickly. She'd been a strong woman and a no-nonsense, loving mother. And she'd taught him to treat women with respect and tenderness. Always.
He thought of Betsy, the gal he'd met up with at the Saloon. Old friends they'd been, and perhaps more than friends a time or two. Sweet woman she was, and really a whole new woman since she'd left her abusive husband two years ago. That guy hadn't known what he'd had. Buck continued to smile as he recalled the light musky perfume she wore, the shirt that left just enough to the imagination to make a man think about dreams come true. He leaned over to grab his jacket, fumbling in the pocket without taking his eyes from the road. He pulled out a lone tube of Chapstick.
Dang! Vin had grabbed his jacket by mistake! His lucky jacket. He carried . . .well, he needed the things he kept in the pocket "just in case" he met up with old friends like Betsy. And Betsy was waiting for him in her little cabin, just outside of town. He had to go back. He needed that jacket.
Vin turned off the water and stood dripping in the steamy shower. Megan had left him more than his fair share of the hot water, and he and his aching body silently thanked her for it.
She'd looked like a new girl when she'd stepped out of the bathroom. Her face looked fresh and young, more vulnerable without all the gloppy makeup hiding it. She wore her hair loose in a low ponytail, with the bright pink stripe tucked in, looking more like a little girl's hair ribbon. His soft denim shirt fell just below her knees and she had rolled the sleeves up past her wrists. She looked tiny and fragile, so much more relaxed and natural. Like a kid should, Vin thought.
Now to step out of the tub. Lifting his feet over the edge turned out to be more manageable than it had been getting in, now that the heat had soaked and loosened his muscles. He dried quickly and reached for his crutch for support while he toweled his hair.
He ran a comb through the damp locks to untangle the curls, then turned to grab his sweatpants on the . . . Oh, man! He'd forgotten to bring in sweatpants! And he'd guess . . .Yep, no t-shirt, either! Stupid, Tanner. Real stupid.
He couldn't exactly run out there in his jockey briefs, either. Well, if he added the towel it wouldn't be so bad. At least that girl wouldn't be seeing anything a girl shouldn't. He didn't like the idea of being caught shirtless much, either, but there was little help for that. Besides, he reckoned she'd seen that much at least. Nothing improper about it really; it just didn't feel decent.
It's only five feet from the bathroom door to yer laundry basket, Tanner, he reprimanded himself. An' she's prob'ly already sleepin' in yer room, so get a grip and git ta sleep yerself.
He opened the door without a sound, peering around the edge into the tiny room. She wasn't on the couch, so he made his mad, hobbling dash to the basket sitting in the corner.
A soft squeal brought a tinge of red to his face, thinking he'd startled the girl. Before he could explain he heard the real cause of her alarm.
"What the hell is going on here?"
Megan stood at the open door as the dark-haired man pushed by her. He moved with large, sweeping steps, his hair almost standing on edge in his anger. She shouldn't have let him in! She recognized him through the peephole as the one who'd brought Vin home, so she thought it would be okay. She pushed herself against the doorframe as the man plowed into Vin.
"Buck, listen, it's not what you . . . "
A heavy fist to the face stopped his sentence. Vin felt himself slumping back, thankful the wall was there to catch him.
"Help her out, Tanner? That's all that's going on here, right?" Buck shouted. "Her wearing your shirt and you standing there in a towel, and you think . . . "
Vin's own anger rose in his chest, despite his throbbing head. He staggered upright, looking in Buck's furious face. "Ya know I ain't thet kinda man, Bucklin. Think first, would ya, fer jest a minute?" He doubled over as Buck's next shot landed in his unprotected stomach.
"I am thinking - my first idea was to shoot you, you sneaking piece of crap."
Vin felt Buck's hands shoving him over, and he crashed to the floor, trying to hold onto the towel at his waist. "I didn't - I wouldn't . . ." Black dots grew in his vision and his breath caught in his lungs. Fire shot down his legs again, making them tingle. "Jes' ask Megan yourself," he gasped.
He watched Buck stand back, breathing hard, and look around. He grabbed his jacket from the back of the sofa and flew out the door, leaving Vin in a tangled heap.
Megan was gone.
Vin breathed in shallow gasps, trying to find the air Buck had knocked out of him. Move, Tanner, he told himself. Get yer clothes on and get after them, see if ya kin find 'em.
His body wasn't eager to comply. Blackness fogged at the edge of his vision. He tried to get his feet under him, but they wouldn't cooperate, so he gave up, managing to crawl over to the laundry basket.
If he'd just been thinking straight in the first place and taken a decent set of clothes with him to shower, this wouldn't have happened. Given Buck's background, Vin could understand how he'd mistake the scene he walked into. Vin could see how it would look from his perspective. Still, Bucklin oughta know me better by now. The whole night had been crazy. Once Buck calmed down, he'd be back apologizing, realizing his mistake and feeling guilty.
Vin just hoped he found Megan first.
Where had she gone? Buck searched around the apartment building before he stormed down the walk. He used every cuss word he knew several times over, and all of them directed at his teammate. He might have even invented a few.
Stopping at the end of the block to catch his bearings, he scanned the area with his hands on his hips. What the hell were you doing, Tanner? She's just a kid. How could you . . .
He ran his hands through his hair in frustration. That was just it. Vin couldn't have . . .not with . . .Vin would never press his advantage that way. Ah, Vin . . .
Buck searched his pockets for his cell phone, coming up empty. He must've forgotten it back at his place. He'd gone in with the wrong ideas and made a huge mistake. After the bust tonight, Vin really shouldn't have had to take the pounding he'd delivered. At least he'd seen Tanner moving when he left. Struggling to stand, anyway.
Then he'd gone and lost the girl. Vin might forgive a mistake - even one as awful as he'd made. He'd never forgive Buck if the girl wasn't found.
Buck picked a street and continued his search.
Megan raced down the block and around the corner. What a mess she'd made of things, and no money to show for it. What would Gino say - or do? He'd been covering for her with the other girls for a week now. This was do or die time. He'd turn her out if she came back empty-handed.
She should've gotten out of Purgatorio as soon as Vin said he wasn't interested. Why had she let him talk her into staying? He couldn't protect her. He couldn't protect himself from his own friends. Maybe he wasn't the nice guy she thought. She slowed as she turned the corner into the alley, looking behind to be sure she wasn't being followed.
Gino. She caught her breath as she fell against him, feeling the comfort of his arms, strong but not warm.
"What's wrong?" he asked, smoothing a tear from her cheek. She hadn't realized she'd been crying. "I heard you were headed to Purgatorio and came down to get you. How'd it go? Sure looks like he went for that innocent look, huh?" He noted her lack of makeup and change of clothes.
"Gino, he . . . "
"He didn't hurt you, did he, baby? I mean, the first can be . . . "
"No, not that. He . . . "
"So did he pay big? I told you to get double for your first. Where's the money?"
She shook. "I didn't get the money. He wouldn't . . . "
She felt herself pushed away, Gino's fists grasping her arms. He shook her and she felt more tears join the first.
"What do you mean? He stiffed you? I told you to get the cash up front! You're worse than a whore. You do it for free!" He slapped her and she tasted the blood on her lip.
She drew back. How could he do that? Wasn't that the reason she'd left home in the first place? Suddenly she was drawn into Gino's embrace again.
"Baby, oh, Precious, I'm sorry." He stroked her hair. "You know we need that money. We want to get a nice little place together, right? I can't do that if you're not willing to do your part, too."
She felt his lips on her head.
"Tell you what. We'll go to the guy's apartment. When a man shows up, he'll realize he needs to pay."
"But . . . " She licked her lips. If Vin would just hand over some money . . .. He'd do that to keep her safe, right? The dark-haired guy had probably split by now. And Gino would be so happy. She wanted to help him. He didn't mean to hit her. He just needed the money to give them both a better life. "You won't hurt him, will you?"
"Nah, I won't need to, Precious. I know you don't like that. We'll just - scare him a little, okay?" He tilted her face upward to meet his gaze. "And baby, I'm so sorry I hurt you. You know I'm just doing that 'cause I love you so much? I get angry when I think someone's done you wrong, right? We're okay. We will be, soon as we talk to Mr. Purgatorio."
Vin managed to pull on a pair of nylon shorts while leaning against the wall. He stayed a moment, breathing shallowly, and rubbed his jaw. Never let it be said Bucklin couldn't pack a wallop.
He closed his eyes a moment to rest and get his bearings. Where had he left his crutch?
A knock sounded at the door. Probably Bucklin coming back, hopefully with Megan. He pushed off the wall and made his way over.
He opened the door. "Listen, Buck, I . . . "
"No, you listen, mister." A slimy looking man reminding him of Squiggy from "Laverne and Shirley" walked in. Megan cowered behind him, her eyes flitting from Vin to Squiggy and back. "My girl spent some good times with you, now you gotta pay. See that's how this works. You gotta pay for prime, you know what I'm saying?"
Vin narrowed his eyes and crossed his arms over his chest. "Oh, I know all about your type, and y'all say th' same thing." He paused, flicking his gaze to Megan, trying to decide how to play this out. "An' I ain't payin' a weasel like you."
Squiggy stepped through the doorway and Vin moved his arms down. His legs already starting to tingle from walking without the crutches, yet he stood his ground, ready to strike.
"I get it. Mr. Purgatorio wants her to himself. Dang, Precious, maybe I shoulda took you up on your first offer, if you're that good." He smiled back at her and ran a thumb down her cheek. Suddenly he pinched it tight and pulled her forward. "You wanta go with him, baby? Is that it? He gonna save you from the big, nasty pimp?"
"No, it's not like that, Gino!"
Gino released her, caressing her face again. "Good, Precious. You know it ain't like that. Not with us, right? We're for real. So we're gonna get the money Mr. Purgatorio owes for his pleasant evening, then we'll head on out to celebrate, okay?"
Vin's gut clenched when he saw Megan give a tentative smile and nod. That tore his attention the split second it took for Gino lunge and shove him. Tanner staggered back on shaky feet he could barely feel. Gino stepped closer.
Bracing his feet, the Texan held his arms loosely at his side, ready for Gino to make his next move. When he rested his weight on his tingling feet, they betrayed him. Spikes of pain tore through his calves before numbness took over. At this point, he would've welcomed the pain over the nothingness.
Gino swung high. Vin caught his fist and feinted right, managing to connect a solid jab to the guy's ribs. The man thrust a knee into Vin's abused gut, knocking the air from his lungs, and shoved him to the floor.
Rolling onto his back, he realized he only had minimal strength left in his arms to defend himself. If only he could reach the pistol he kept hidden under the couch . . .
Gino pulled him back, tugging his feet and flipping him over. Before Vin had time to react, the man grabbed his hair and bounced his face against the coffee table. Vin stifled a moan, tasting blood from his busted lip.
He seized Gino's foot and pulled, sending him crashing to the floor. It wasn't enough. Gino jerked away and brought his foot down in a crushing blow on the back of Vin's head. The other foot lashed out with fury, catching Vin's ribs, stomach, and tender back.
Vin gasped, finding it harder and harder to breathe. He heard the connection of the heavy boot against his bruised flesh, not feeling the flash of pain that should have followed.
He heard Megan's scream. Vin tried to yell, "Get outta here!" but couldn't force the words past his swollen lips. He had to help her - she had to get away. Run, Megan!
Then the black fog threatening him took victory.
"Gino! No!" Megan rushed to his side, hands at his shoulders to calm him. "Gino, stop! You'll kill him!"
"And that would matter to you?" Gino yelled, but stopped, seeming to realize his actions.
"No!" She held her hands out toward him, not touching. "Iif they find him dead, it'll make trouble for you. He's some kind of cop or something."
Gino stopped at that, pulling himself up and away, with a final solid kick to the lean man's side. "Cop, huh? Living in this dump? Don't be stupid, girl. If he told you that, it was just so he could get a discount."
Megan moved closer, pleading, "Oh, Gino, don't be mad."
He shoved her toward the prone figure on the floor. "Check his pockets. I'll raid his room, then we're out of here. We'll come back tomorrow and collect whatever we don't get." He looked down at the unconscious man and laughed. "I don't imagine he'll be so hard put to pay up next time. If he gets a next time."
Buck strode up the broken walk along the block to Vin's apartment building. How could he tell Vin he hadn't found that girl? It was late and getting later, and he had to get back and make sure Vin was all right - that everything was okay between the two of them. Too much adrenaline pumping this evening, his mind heading the wrong direction from the start . . .. He had lot of excuses, although stating the bare truth would be enough. He'd acted like the backside of a donkey. Vin would respect that most, anyway.
Besides, Vin might know where the girl would go, and they could all rest easy tonight. He picked up his step, anxious to clear up his blunder with his teammate and friend, and get the girl to a safe place.
Terse voices slowed his step as two shadowy figures walked out of Vin's building and behind to the alleyway. The girl! He recognized the bright swatch of pink hair as they walked under the dim light. The older man with her was familiar only in the type of scum he appeared to be, the type Wilmington despised.
Buck bypassed the building in favor of following, cursing his tendency to leave his cell phone behind at the worst times. He'd try to catch up with them, see what he could do to get the girl away from that guy. Even if he had to buy her time to do it.
JD steered his Tracker into the only remaining parking space on the side street closest to Vin's apartment. He shivered as he double-checked the locks on his doors and zipped his jacket up under his chin. Man, it was cold. He jogged toward the white stucco building, anxious to be in from the chilling winds that had picked up as the sun went down.
He couldn't get the image of Vin, lying unmoving on the damp pavement in the alleyway at the bust, out of his mind. Every time he closed his eyes, he heard Vin's soft rasp echoing, No, JD! So after about half an hour of pacing restlessly around the apartment he and Buck shared, he had decided to check on Vin himself, one more time.
There would be no sense in calling. He didn't want to disturb Vin if he happened to be sleeping; he would simply make sure Vin didn't need anything. And besides, if he called, JD knew Vin would only say he was "fine" and put him off.
JD scanned the area as he ducked into the apartment building. Crime had dropped steadily on this block and those surrounding it in the past year or so, ever since Vin had been making his positive presence known. Still, it never hurt to be cautious.
The dark stairway wasn't much warmer than outside, and JD took the steps two at a time. A faint light came from the crack below Vin's door, so JD gave a tentative knock.
The door opened slightly. Warning bells sounded along every nerve and muscle in JD's body and he pulled his pistol clear of his gun belt. "Vin? Vin, you home?"
Stepping into the soft yellow light of the sparsely-furnished living room, JD surveyed every nook and cranny from his position at the open door: hallway, empty; nothing behind the couch; kitchen dark, neat; magazines scattered in the middle of the floor. "Vin? Vin!"
The sharpshooter lay against the heavy coffee table. JD crashed at his side, cold fingers fumbling for a pulse, eyes continuing to search the room. He felt the thready beat and propelled himself up for a quick search of the apartment. In less than two minutes he returned to his friend's side, holstering his weapon.
"Vin, you with me?" JD squeezed his arm, gently easing his body into alignment on the floor. Vin stirred, head rolling to give JD a view of the bruise forming from temple to jawline. "My God, Vin, what happened to you?" he asked, not expecting a response.
The sharpshooter's eyes slit open, showing two narrow rays of blue. "Bu-Bu'k. Bu'k here . . ."
"Buck? Buck did this?" JD pulled back, grabbing his cell phone from his pocket. He punched 9-1-1 and quickly answered what questions he could.
Vin never made a sound as JD monitored his breathing and examined his legs for breaks, then moaned as JD's fingers ran over his ribs. "Geez, Vin, I gotta call Nathan." He spied Vin's cell phone on the counter by the kitchen and grabbed it so he could stay on the line with the emergency dispatch operator.
Vin's face grimaced with every shallow breath. JD wondered if his friend had even heard him as he flipped the phone open and speed-dialed Nathan's number.
"Nnno . . .Bu' . . .Bu' . . .st-aaw-p . . ."
JD bent closer to Vin, trying to catch his moans, and still hear Nathan's sleepy answer on the other end of the line.
"Mmm . . .h'lo?"
"Nate - I'm over at Vin's. He's all beat up, I came in to check on him and found him on the floor."
"Is he breathing?" Nathan instantly woke to full sharpness; JD could hear it in his voice.
"Yeah, kinda shallow, but steady."
"Seems in and out. Half his face is turning black and blue, and he has a goose egg on the side of his head."
Nathan huffed out a breath, and JD could tell he was getting ready to come over as they talked. "He able to tell you what happened?"
JD hedged, pulling a handkerchief from his back pocket to cover the cut just over Vin's temple. "Ah, well - that's why I called, Nate. He's not talking real clear, seems . . .confused. A medical team is on the way, can you come over?"
"I'm on my way. Call Chris."
JD sat back on his heels as Vin succumbed to complete unconsciousness. Vin hated causing a scene, and he'd already done his share earlier in the evening. "You think he'll be okay?"
"I can't know what kind of damage he might have added to his injuries from the bust. We can't take him ourselves." Nathan heaved a steady breath. "I know how he hates it, JD. We have to think of what's best for him. I'm on my way. With any luck, I'll beat the ambulance crew."
JD cut the connection, listened to a few instructions from the dispatcher, and hung up with her, assuring her that he and the rest of the team could handle the investigation. Then he called Chris, all the while praying Vin would stay unaware until he arrived at the hospital.
Chris raced up the broken walk and rickety stairway behind the EMS team, wondering how they would ever get his friend down the stairway in a stretcher. JD waved the medics into Vin's apartment at the top of the stairs.
"How is he? What happened?" Chris asked.
JD stopped him at the door, glancing into the room and back. "I - I stopped by to check on him, ya know? Make sure he's okay. The door was open and something didn't look right. I checked it out, but the place was empty."
JD nodded. "A few things out of place, couple drawers not shut quite right, stack of magazines in the living room scattered. Most of the mess is in his room."
Chris craned his head into the apartment, but couldn't see around the team moving Vin onto a stretcher. "That's not like Vin. How's he doing?"
"Nathan said he has a couple broken ribs. He has a cut over his eye, a busted lip, and he's bleeding all over." JD drew a shaky hand through his thick hair, the adrenaline rush obviously wearing off.
Chris tapped his foot, straining for a glimpse of Vin. "His back?"
JD shook his head. "Nathan doesn't know. They'll have to run tests at the hospital. He moaned a lot, but wasn't really with it enough to tell us what was going on."
Chris chuffed an exhausted breath. "He tell you anything?"
"No! Not - not really . . . He, ah, well, the thing is, Chris . . . " JD turned away, a sure sign there was something he wasn't telling.
Chris grabbed his youngest team member by the arms, swinging him around. "JD, just tell me what he said."
JD pulled away and lifted his chin. Chris admired his grit, though everything coming from his gaze screamed his reluctance.
"He said it was Buck."
Spoken softly, Chris was sure he'd not heard right. "What?"
JD cleared his throat and spoke a little louder. "Chris, he said it was Buck."
"That's crazy. He had to be out of his head," Chris insisted.
"He was," JD admitted. "I'm just telling you what he said . . . "
"Why would he say that? Buck wouldn't . . ." Chris let the thought go as the medical team carried his friend out, lying still and pale on the stretcher. Reaching a hand out to finger the bandage at Vin's temple, he watched them begin the long decent to the waiting ambulance.
Nathan followed them from Vin's apartment, standing aside to let the forensic team through. "What do you want to do here, Chris?"
"There's only one thing to do," he said. "We've got to find Buck."
There - coming out of the alley. Buck wasn't sure how they'd ended up off to his side, but he'd take luck over planning if he had to. He jogged ahead, rounding in front of the couple, hands out to get their attention and show he meant no harm.
"Hey, listen . . . "
A knife glittered inches from his nose and Buck backed up a step or two, forcing his breath to remain slow and deep. So, getting the attention of a pimp and his gal on the dark streets of Purgatorio late at night maybe wasn't his smartest move. Still, he was here now, and he needed to at least try, for the girl's sake. And for Vin's sake, to make up for the idiot he'd been.
"Just hold on, there, pal. I only want to talk to the girl."
The scruffy-looking man relaxed a bit. The fierce gleam showed he was anything but relaxed. "Well, she's with me, and time is money, Jack. She's a fresh one, you know what I'm saying? Prime rate."
"Gino, he's . . . "
Buck dug his wallet from his back pocket, counting out the few bills. He held out thirty dollars, holding back his last ten just in case he needed bargaining room. "How about five minutes? That's all I need."
The scum laughed harsh and loud, leering down at the girl. "Thought experience would count for something, old man. If that's all you can muster, you got bigger problems than hunting down young hooks for a thirty-buck job."
Buck ignored the taunt. "So, can I take her?"
Again the laugh. "How old are you, man?" He turned to the girl. "What do you say, baby? Maybe just some kissing, all right? Make him feel real good, nothing more, okay? You can do that, right?"
The girl looked from the pimp to Buck, brows drawn tight. Then she looked back at her man and gave a watery smile, kissed him on his greasy cheek, and nodded. "Sure, Gino. I - I can try." She turned to Buck then, not stepping any closer. "Where you wanna go, sugar? I - I'm not going far for thirty, got it?"
She glanced back to Gino, who winked and caressed her shoulder. "You tell him, baby. You set the rules unless he can shell out big. You're a fast learner, doll - I like that." He patted her behind and moved off to stand by a large old Cadillac, arms crossed to wait.
The girl blew a strand of pink hair from her eyes. "The alley work for you?" She didn't give Buck time to respond before tugging him by the arm into the darkness of the alley.
Buck felt his stomach roll. Another time, another life, and she could've been his daughter. Yet knowing it was his best shot at getting her away from the crud who owned her, he agreed and followed her into the shadows.
"What's your name?" he asked as she pulled him along the wall.
Her shaking hands moved to his belt. "Precious."
"No!" Buck held her off, big gentle hands at her wrists. "That's not what I paid for. I just want to talk - really," he said at her skeptical glare. "And I want your real name."
She stepped back and eyes him carefully. "Megan," she said, slumping away. "My name is Megan. What is that to you?"
Buck's heart tore, realizing the answer had been "nothing" to this girl for too long.
He let his gaze roam the cluttered alley and around the corner, where Gino waited impatiently, leaning against his pimp-mobile. God . . .
"It's a lot to me because a friend a' mine stuck his neck out and took my crap because he figured you were worth the hassle. So what I want to know," Buck said, moving between her and her view of her so-called boyfriend, "is why'd you leave someone like that who'd keep you safe or die trying, only to wind up with that crumb?"
"You don't know how it is with Gino . . . " she protested. Then the image of the man who'd given her a safe place to stay - one with no strings attached - lying on the floor at Gino's hand . . .. Megan shook her head, failing to move the picture from her mind. "He didn't mean . . .he just couldn't . . .."
Tears started to wash away the bravado and fresh mascara. "Your friend should've just paid and kept his nose out of my business!"
She made a dash for the end of the alley where Gino waited.
Buck caught her as she stumbled over some crumpled boxes. "What are you saying?"
Fire blazed now in her eyes. "After the way you treated your so-called friend? You-you didn't leave him in any too good of shape! Why would I stick around? How was I supposed to know he would help me? So don't try to help me now, all right? I - I got all I need with Gino."
Something hollow rang through her words and Buck couldn't make out what he'd missed. That hollowness filled the pit of his stomach and a sudden need to get back to Vin's apartment overwhelmed him. And she was right. She had no reason to trust him, especially after he'd lost control like he'd done.
He got in his wallet and took out the ten bucks again, plus the fifty he kept hidden in the back fold for emergencies. "Here. Just in case you ever realize there's a whole lot more out there than Gino can ever give you." He stretched out a tentative finger and poked her feathered coat. "And a whole lot more in there that he ain't worth having."
Her face melted. For the barest flicker of time, Buck thought she might reconsider. Then Gino caught her eye and called out to her, "You okay there, baby? He can't get it going, that's his problem. You need to rest, Precious, you had a big night. Let's go home."
The flush and look of longing passed as she pocketed the money. "See? Gino cares about me."
Buck slumped against the rough brick as the car peeled away from the sidewalk. Then, with a deep sigh and his coat tucked up around his neck, he headed back to Vin's apartment. He had a lot of apologizing to do.
Chris watched as Vin's eyes fluttered open, saw him flick a dry tongue over his busted lips . . . Tucking a straw into the other side of Vin's mouth, he said, "Try this."
Vin's opened one eye, a foggy blue gaze that searched around a bit before settling on him . . . His shoulders jerked, yet his legs remained strangely still . . . "Wh-where? Wha- hap-n?"
Chris furrowed his brow and leaned over his friend, looking closely and carefully into his swollen face, only one eye slightly visible. "We were hoping you could tell us. You don't remember?"
He watched Vin give his head a slight shake, followed by a sharp gasp, leading to a wince and a deep moan as the bruised and cracked ribs were jarred. The monitor spiked, the sharp beeps gaining pitch and intensity. A nurse popped in within moments.
"Mr. Tanner? Is there something I can get you?" She spoke gently, her motions speaking of sharp skills and care. She checked the temporary brace binding his ribs and smoothed his fine hair from the cut over his eye, all before tapping a button on the IV machine by Vin's side.
Vin's muscles melted as the painkiller flooded his system. "Tha-n-, maaa-m."
The nurse fixed Chris with a hard glance. Chris stood to attention, suddenly feeling like he had committed some crime. "He tried to shake his head."
The young woman rolled her eyes, smiling back to her patient. "You take it easy, there, sweetie. Just rest and concentrate on getting better. There'll be plenty of time to answer questions when you're feeling up to it." With a meaningful look at Chris, she made some notes on his chart and left the room.
"Wo - you're lucky she likes you." A slow smile started to grow on Vin's face. "And don't laugh! It'll make your ribs hurt worse and she'll be back in here glaring at me."
Vin kept his eyes closed, but continued to smile. "Taste-th yer o-oon med-ith-thun."
Chris grinned. At least Vin's sense of humor was intact. "Never mind that. She's right, you do need to rest. We can talk about this later . . . "
"Not anything?" Chris couldn't resist one last question.
Vin's eyes squinted and he chuffed out a shallow breath of air. His breathing hitched several times before he could get it out. "Juth . . . justh 'Buk . . . Buk, an' h-h-he . . . "
Chris patted Vin's shoulder as he stared from the wide window looking out against the parking lot. "Rest now, Vin. We'll sort this all out when Buck gets here." And that had best be soon!
JD set the last photo frame on Vin's coffee table and went to the kitchen to pour himself some juice. He'd volunteered to stay behind and clean up after the forensic team had finished examining the place. Not that they'd found much - a few smeary fingerprints and several blonde hairs, maybe something useful. JD's mind replayed Vin's accusing mumble "Buck - Buck, stop!" There had to be a perfectly logical explanation. JD just wasn't sure he wanted to know it.
A soft rap at the door drew him around. "Buck! Where have you been?"
The big man slid through the door, his head craning from one side to the other. "What are you doing here?" Buck turned to him, and the panic in his eyes flashed. "Where's Vin?"
JD narrowed his eyes, wishing he could figure out what had happed just by looking into his partner's head. He rubbed his face tiredly. How many hours were in a night? "You oughtta know," he said with an angry, careless tone.
He felt Buck's strong hand grab his arm and swing him around when he would have turned away. "I ain't got the patience for games tonight, JD! What's going on?"
"I felt guilty for hurting him, so I came back to see if I could do anything to help him." JD paused, looking at the spot where he'd discovered Vin before turning back to face Buck. "I found him all right, sprawled out on the floor, bleeding all over the place, half out of it and blabbering about you making him that way. There were no signs of forced entry, Buck. So you tell me!"
JD watched as Buck's face drained of all color, his lips twisting under the thick mustache. "I found him - he . . . God! JD, I didn't hit him that hard really, I . . . he had an underage hooker up here, came out all . . .. I lost it, we had it out . . . He was moving when I left here! I swear he was, JD. Where is he?"
"He was taken to Denver Memorial to get checked out."
"I gotta see him, JD. I . . . I'll straighten all this out, I swear it." Faint curses followed Buck's flight from the room, and JD could hear him pounding down the stairwell faster than any elevator would have gotten him.
JD collapsed on the run-down sofa with a deep sigh. He only hoped it wasn't too late.
Vin's shoulders twitched in his sleep. Much of what he said was garbled, but every so often Chris could make out things like, "Mae," or "Meg," or something like that and "Git'cher hands away." Chris allowed himself a small grin. Must be some dream.
Tanner woke with a violent toss of his head from one side to the other, followed by a deep, low groan.
"It's okay, Vin - you're here, at the hospital. Remember?"
It took a moment for the Texan to rouse fully; Chris waited until clarity shone from his friend's eyes. Vin nodded and his split lip curled in a grotesque formation of his usual grin. He closed his eyes and sighed, growing quiet and still again. Chris settled back into his chair, thinking Vin had settled back to sleep. The muffled words drew his attention again.
"Gi' me th' good stuff, huh?" Vin croaked out. "Wull, 'cep' m'head - feel lik t' splode."
Chris shifted closer to the bed, resting his hand on the thin blue blanket over Vin. The emergency room doctors had only given his friend acetaminophen for the pain because they needed to have him alert enough to run further tests. Dr. Harris, the doctor assigned to Vin's case, had said little, stating that until he had all the results and Vin had returned to full awareness, he couldn't make a complete diagnosis. In the meantime, Chris hid his worry. "Feeling fine, are ya?"
Vin's eyes remained closed. "Don' feel a thin', co-boy."
Chris pinched Vin's leg just above the knee, desperate to wipe the relaxed smile from his friend's face.
"Chris?" Vin said, and Chris sighed in relief. "Ask 'm ta eez up, pul-eez? Too-oo m'ch . . ."
"I'll talk to the doctor, Vin," Chris promised, a nervous clench in his gut. "Why don't you rest now? I'll be right back."
Buck jogged up to the hospital information desk, preparing his dazzling smile for the elderly volunteer. Before he could get the question out, a loud growl punctuated by several loud banging sounds answered his question.
Buck raced around the corner, where the vending machine faced the wrath of his oldest friend. "Chris! What is it? How's Vin?"
"HOW'S VIN? How the hell do you think he is?!" Chris grasped either side of the snack window. His white knuckles answered Buck's question, if his tone hadn't.
"JD said . . . "
"JD DOESN'T KNOW!"
Buck breathed deep, trying to catch up with all he'd apparently missed. "So tell me. I came as soon as I heard, Chris, you have to believe that."
"Come to see the damage? Is that it?" He shoved away from the machine to stand nose to nose with Buck.
"Chris!" Buck stepped back, glad to see Josiah come around the corner with a cup of coffee. Nathan followed with another and a handful of creamers.
"Calm down and tell us what's going on." Josiah turned Chris with a hand at his shoulder and handed him the cup.
Chris tilted his head slightly to glare at Buck. "The doctor's with him now." He chuffed a heavy breath. "Vin can't feel his legs."
Buck rubbed a hand over his mustache. "What happened?"
"You're what happened, Buck!" Chris gritted out through tight lips. "Vin told JD it was you."
"It couldn't be! Listen, he was moving when I left, just . . . "
"He told me the only thing he remembered was you being at his apartment," Chris said. "Tell me you weren't there."
Buck looked at his longtime friend. He could see he hadn't been tried and convicted already. He and Chris shared too much history for Chris to not give him the benefit of the doubt. Still, the question remained.
What if he was the reason Vin was lying in there, paralyzed? After all Vin had been through earlier that evening, what if his loss of control had been more than Vin's weakened body could handle? Hadn't Vin deserved the same benefit of the doubt?
Buck staggered, crashing against the wall and running a hand through his dark hair. Nathan flew to his side, but Buck waved him off, breathing in deep and steady. "I'm okay. I'm just - I mean, this is all wrong. I was there - I - I need to see him. Let me see him, talk to him, and I'll . . . I need to see him."
Chris drilled him with a stare, not speaking for a long moment. Then, stalking over and grasping Buck's arm, he thrust him down the hallway ahead of his own heavy tread. "Let's get this straightened out."
Buck paused at the open door, unusually hesitant. Chris nudged him. "Go on. You ought to see him, either way."
The vision of Vin scrambling up from the floor in his apartment was so far removed from the vision of the man lying in a sea of white pillows, blankets, and plaster casts, that Buck wouldn't have believed it was really Vin if he didn't see the tell-tale brown curls. Vin lay propped up, partially rolled toward the door, not entirely on his side. He slept with his head on the underside of his elbow, hand hidden behind his shoulder. Buck never understood how Vin could rest comfortably that way, though he had been on enough stakeouts with the Texan to know this was typical form.
One eye was a swelled mound of mottled purple. Vin's lips lay tight with pain, his jaw swollen and misshapen. His left arm cradled his side, wrapped in a soft cast. An IV ran from the bag hung on the post at the headboard to the back of his hand. The left leg rested, elevated on pillows, covered in a plaster cast from his knobby knee to his toes.
The doctor finished making notes on a clipboard and hung it at the foot of Vin's bed, then motioned Buck and the others to follow him out.
"How is he, Doctor?" Josiah asked.
"Finally resting," the doctor said. "He has a concussion. We'll be taking him for another scan in the morning, just to be sure the swelling is decreasing at a progressive rate. Severe contusions on his face - fortunately, nothing broken there. Still, it'll be awhile before he feels like eating a steak, I'll wager. Two cracked ribs, sprained arm, and of course, the broken leg."
"What about his back? He said he couldn't feel his legs." Chris stood with his arms folded over his chest, as if to block any bad news.
"I'm scheduling him for an MRI in the morning. I will tell you he hasn't responded to any of the initial tests. He does know this, and has shown a strong sense of denial. He said something like this has happened before due to a severe spinal injury during his childhood." The doctor grinned. "Although he did say, 'reckon ain't never had it hurt near this bad afore.' Between his stiff jaw and accent, I'm hoping you understand him better than I."
"That'd be Vin," Nathan agreed.
Chris, though, was not in the mood to be amused. "I 'reckon' we all understand him just fine. When will we know?"
"He could be right," the doctor continued. "His body's had a tremendous amount of stress placed on it in a short time. His records show he has been treated for this condition before - most recently earlier this evening. That combination is one to give us great caution, but the swelling could ease up and he'd make a complete recovery."
"Or?" Buck had to ask.
"That's what the tests are for. We'll know more tomorrow."
"Go ahead and say it now, Doc." Chris stood, hair on end, face to face with the doctor. "He's paralyzed!"
"Right now, sir . . . " Harris started, his own voice escalating. He caught himself, glanced around the empty hallway, and tried again. "Right now, sir, all we know is that Mr. Tanner is not the only one who's had a long, rough night. He is feeling very confident that his condition is temporary, and until we know otherwise, I suggest we do what we can to foster that hope. I'm a great believer in the power of positive thinking. I've seen it work miracles. So go home, rest, and don't come back here until you're ready to support him, whatever he needs."
Buck tensed, wondering how Chris would react. Surprisingly, Chris backed off. "You're right, Doctor, and I apologize. I - It - It has been a very long night. We'll be here for whatever happens." Chris paused to take a deep breath, looking from Nathan to Josiah to Buck. "You have to let me stay."
"I don't think . . . "
"An agent is down and we're without suspects at the moment," Chris reminded the doctor. "Either way, I'm staying."
The doctor loosened his tie and checked his watch. Then he scanned the little group with a begrudging smile. "Just don't disturb the medical team, okay? They have their job to do, too, you know."
Chris smiled back, and Buck was a little surprised at the relief he saw mixed in. "Appreciate it, Doc." Josiah and Nathan echoed his thanks as the doctor made his way down the hall.
Chris didn't miss a beat. "So Buck, since it wasn't you who left him like that, who did?"
Buck rubbed his tired eyes and felt relief flood him. Chris had said "since" and not "if." "He couldn't tell you anything?"
"He says he doesn't remember." Chris paced the hallway from side to side, arms folded over as he thought back over those moments with Vin. "The only names he's given that I can make out at all are yours and Mae or Meg . . . "
"Megan! That's it!" Buck stood quickly, fumbling for his keys. "She tried to tell me . . .she wanted to . . ." He turned to leave.
"Buck!" Chris growled.
"It's a long story, and I think I know who can tell us what happened." Buck started toward the door, only to be stopped by Chris's firm hand on his sleeve. "I gotta try and find her, Chris. If - if you talk to Vin before I get back, tell him I went to find Megan. Tell him I'll bring her in, if I have to fight her pimp to do it."
"Wait! What the . . . "
Buck raced out the door into the night, ignoring Chris's muffled yell.
JD parked his Tracker behind Buck's truck near the alley where the bust had gone down hours before. He couldn't imagine what Buck could want now - here. The computer expert found his friend searching in the grit and garbage littering the alleyway.
"Thanks for coming!"
The younger man shoved his hands in his jacket pockets to warm them. "So what do you need me for?"
Buck continued his search of the ground, the corners, and the walls of the dilapidated buildings on either side. "We need to find a hooker."
"What? Buck, this is no time for pulling crap . . . "
"No, listen - Vin was trying to help this girl. She has to be staying with her pimp near here, if he has her working this block. I could use your help searching. Nathan and Josiah are with Chris at the hospital, and I imagine they'll all stay tonight if they can keep from getting tossed out. Ezra's undercover with Team 8 starting tomorrow and I didn't think it was right to call him out here."
JD shook his head. "No problem. Where do we start?"
Buck smiled and slapped him on the back. "Knew I could count on you. We'll head north, search from opposite ends of the block and move on from there."
Vin roused slowly from a deep sleep. Damn drugs. He glanced around the room, relieved to find it empty for the moment. The fellas must've finally talked Larabee into getting some fresh air and a coffee.
A flash of white coat brushed through the dim room to the end of his bed, making some final notations on his clipboard for the night.
"What can I do for you, Mister Tanner? How are you holding up?"
"Juth fi-ine." He breathed deep with frustration, regretting it when his chest protested the moving ribs. His swollen jaw made it hard to make himself understood, and he wasn't sure how to ask what he wanted to know anyway. "Listh-an . . .m' legs . . .whe-nn . . .?"
Doctor Harris pinched the bridge of his nose and smiled thinly. "I don't believe in making false promises, and I don't think you're the type to want them. How about I say I'm 'cautiously hopeful' after reading your report and looking at your medical history?" He tapped the end of Vin's bed. "Now, is there anything else I can get you before I go home and see if my wife and kids still remember me?"
"Than-ns, Doc. Nigh'."
"Good night, Mister Tanner. Sleep well. I'll see you bright and early."
JD yawned and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. He and Buck must've walked every street and alleyway in Purgatorio - twice - following every bum lead and dead end they'd been handed. He checked his watch: three a.m. It felt later - or earlier. Whatever. Maybe the girl Vin picked up had gone partying with her pimp after they'd beaten and robbed Vin. At least, Buck swore that's what had happened. It would be hard to sort it all out, but it was too late for Buck to be out wandering alone in this neighborhood at night. JD ran a hand over his face, feeling the scratchy stubble on his chin and neck. Wonder what Casey would think of a goatee?
Oh, man - stay with it, JD!
"You want the front door or the back this time?" Buck asked. Even he sounded weary, desperate as he was to track this girl down. "I never should've let her stay with that guy . . . "
"I'll take back," JD said. "Now stop beating yourself up. We'll find her, Buck, we'll . . . "
A woman burst from the door at the top of the dilapidated fire escape and warbled down the stairs in way-too-high spiked heels, crashing between them. She would've fallen if not for Buck's steady hands.
"Let me go! Let me go, I can't watch anymore!" The struggling woman looked to be in her forties, with heavy blue eye make-up and long hair in a thin ponytail off the side of her head.
Buck grabbed her shoulders and shook her to attention with a firm yet gentle grip. "What? What's going on? We're looking for Megan - Precious. She here?"
The woman stopped struggling and looked first at Buck, then JD, trails of black mascara filling in the crow's feet around her reddened eyes. She gulped, chest heaving, her gaze twitching between them. "She's in there with Gino," she said, nodding back up to the building from which she'd just escaped. "Sweet kid. She don't deserve . . . "
"What? What don't she deserve?" Buck growled, grasping the woman tighter.
"He's getting ready to give her something . . .heroin or . . . "
Buck's eyes blazed with fury as he glanced at JD. He pushed the woman away and toward him, running to the rickety stairs and up them two and three at a time.
Megan couldn't remember when she'd been so tired. The night had been filled with too much confusion. She should never have listened to those guys, reminding her of home, of her dad.
Ha - some dad. It had all been good, really good, while her mom was still alive. Even through the long fight with cancer, they'd held on together. After she died, well . . . her dad worked longer, signed up for the most dangerous jobs at the precinct, and when he finally did come home, he'd crawl into a bottle. She'd find him in the morning draped over the table, sprawled on the floor, or propped against the fireplace - wherever he'd cried himself to sleep. Sometimes the bottle was tucked under his arm. Sometimes, she found the shattered remains against the opposite wall. When he started lashing out at her, she ran. At least Gino cared about her, listened to her.
Now she saw Gino in comparison to Vin, to his friends. It would've been better if they'd just paid her and she'd gone through with it. People did it all the time, right? It only meant something if it was someone you cared about. Otherwise, it was just taking care of someone and getting paid for it. Like a nurse, Gino said.
Her head hurt with all the thoughts running through it. When Gino had poured her a shot and handed it to her, stroking his fingers through her hair, everything started crashing in on her and she couldn't stop crying. The whole time, though, Gino was there - touching her, kissing her, promising to make it all better, to always take care of her. She didn't stop until she'd cried herself out.
Now, even as she felt Gino's lips harshly mark her neck, she couldn't muster the energy to fend him off.
What would yer ma say? Those words haunted her, bringing a fresh wave of tears.
Gino slid back, keeping his hands on her thighs. "C'mon, Precious. We don't need them, right? Listen, baby," he eased away and stroked her hair back from her shoulder. "I can make you feel so good in so many ways. Why don't you let me give you something to take that pain you got away? I have it right here."
She watched him ready a needle with some colorless liquid, too tired to think any more. He turned back to her and rubbed her limp arm. "Let me help you, Precious," he said, and she gave a weak nod.
What would yer ma say?
Gino leaned closer and kissed her hard. "Oh, baby, you're going to love this, I promise."
What would yer ma say?
The door burst open and a raging howl made her jump. Vin's friend! What was he doing here?
"Get away from her, you sonuva . . . "
Gino stood in surprise, catching the flying bulk of fury that toppled him to the battered coffee table and rolled them both to the floor.
Another man raced through the door, much younger and not so tall as the first. Megan forced her sluggish limbs to move, scrambling for the other end of the ratty couch. Her legs trembled as she stood at the end. "Stop it!" she yelled at the men rolling and swapping blows across the floor. "Listen to me! LISTEN . . .TO . . .ME!" she screamed. The other man grabbed her arms and pulled her away from the sprawling fighters. She began to kick. "Stop it! Stop it or I'll call the cops!"
The younger man instantly let her go and stepped back. She tensed, ready to dart, as he put his hand inside his coat.
While she expected the gun, she didn't expect the badge.
"You're in luck, ma'am, because we are the cops."
Megan slumped to the floor, exhausted relief winning out. Her tears started flowing again.
JD moved around the coffee table, keeping an eye on the girl as he tried to get between Buck and his opponent.
Suddenly, Buck rolled over the man, holding the pimp's arms down with his knees. Buck pounded the man's face twice, then shifted for another blow when JD grabbed his arm.
"Buck! Buck, we got him, now haul him up so we can take him in!" Adrenaline flooded his system, and JD felt the power of it coursing through his veins. "BUCK! Buck, it's over!"
With a growl that rattled the mirrors on the walls, Buck pushed the man against the floor. Buck stood, shaking with the momentary loss of control, running a swollen hand through his dark hair. He turned abruptly and stalked out.
JD barely caught his friend's low voice as he brushed by. "Thanks, JD. Now cuff 'im so we can get out of here."
Dunne nodded and holstered his weapon, reciting the Miranda as he placed the cuffs on the pimp. The girl followed Buck from the room. He found her crying in Buck's embrace as he guided the man outside.
Chris woke suddenly, sliding from the most uncomfortable hospital chair known to man.
"Mowr-nin, cowb'y." Vin's smiling face greeting him. He lay with his back propped up slightly so he could see more from his bed, the white sheet pulled over him lying perfectly. Very un-Vin-like. Even when they all went camping, Vin slept with his feet out of the confines of the covers. Chris looked away before Vin could track his thoughts.
Too late. "Don', Chri-th! 'M gonna be fine. 'Sth temp-ry. Trusth me."
Chris looked at Vin's relaxed face, his eyes bright, even this early in the morning. Full of hope and freshness to take him through another day of whatever might come. Chris shouldn't expect anything less from him, but then, he couldn't expect anything less from himself, either. Vin was the hopeful one, the one to look the world in the eye determined to spit in its face if he had to, ready to take all comers, knowing he'd prevail. It's what made him a good and dedicated agent. And probably the reason he'd been able to worm his way into this brotherhood they'd developed.
Chris was the one to see the darkness, to anticipate it and hate it before it even arrived. He supposed he hadn't always been that way, yet he couldn't remember how he'd been before Sarah and Adam. It had become part of his nature to fear the rising storm. Still, it never stopped him from racing to fight it.
"Sth-top thikin', Lar-bee. Yer foggin' up m' room."
Chris smiled. No wonder they'd found a fast and deep friendship. "How'd you sleep?"
Vin's answer came a little too fast; Chris let it slide. "Need anything?"
Chris helped him take a few sips, the grimace on Vin's face answering any questions about how the rest of him felt.
A soft knock at the door interrupted their silence. Buck slid in, looking older and more tired than Chris had seen him in a long time. Even though he knew his oldest friend hadn't been the cause of Vin's injuries, Buck's guilt was etched deep in every line of his face. "Ya decent in here, Tanner?" he asked softly.
A strange huff of air and a soft moan of pain answered for Vin.
"C'mon in, Buck, he just woke up," Chris said.
"Chri-th juth woke up," Vin corrected. "I's up awl-ready."
Buck walked in without a sound, as if the sound of his footsteps might cause Vin more pain. "Bet you were, pard. Ya ready for that test this morning?"
Vin didn't try to speak, just nodded, though his smile dimmed a little.
"They got one of those open-sided machines for you?" Buck looked uncomfortable.
"Naa. Isth juth a quick thing. Juth a lot of both'r. I juth need ta resth 'n 'll be fine." Vin's smile broadened. "Ya know how Lar'bee isth - want ta see th' proof 'n th' paperwork. D'rn bosth-y team leader . . . "
"Listen," Buck interrupted, shifting his feet. "I'm sorry. I misread the situation, and I did something stupid, even for me." He swallowed hard.
"Ya gonna think 'fore ya sthrike nexth time?"
"Without a doubt. I'll even let you take a free shot when you're up and about. Maybe." Buck looked Vin in the eye. "We good?"
Buck sighed in relief. "I got someone here to see you, Vin. I know you're not really feeling up to company right now, but I'm pretty sure you'll want to see this one . . ." Buck turned toward the door and nodded.
A young girl appeared, maybe fifteen or sixteen years old, stepping shyly through. Vin stretched a finger far enough to move his head up higher. "Meg-ghan?"
The girl nodded, her eyes filling quickly with tears as she rushed over to Vin and gently wrapped her arms around him. "I'm so sorry, Vin. I should never have gone with Gino after he-- I never meant to-- When your friend found me and told me . . . " There was nothing more as the tears overtook her voice.
Vin's stiff arms and fingers moved to cup the back of her head as she sobbed against his neck. "'S o-kay now. Don' crwy. Yer here now," he soothed. "'Yer here 'n we kin h'lp ya . . ."
Chris nodded a good morning to JD, standing at the door, looking almost as haggard as Buck. "You look like something the cat drug in, Buck."
Buck waved him off. "You know me, Chris - darn near impossible for me to look bad."
Chris smiled and looked his oldest friend in the eye. They'd been through a lot together - too much maybe - but Buck's never-say-die attitude applied to friendships, too. "You didn't have anything to prove, you know."
"Wasn't proving anything except that Vin there has a heart as big as Texas." Buck nodded at the bed, where the girl sat wiping her eyes and talking softly to Vin. "We got to her in time, Chris. She's agreed to at least call her dad, see if they can get things worked out. It was the guy trying to pimp her that did this to Vin. He's in downtown lock-up. Seems ours wasn't the only complaint against him. I'm hoping Megan will testify; we'll play it by ear."
"Looks like Tanner's not the only heart rivaling his home state," Chris said, his voice low. "Ya done good, Buck."
Buck smiled, rubbing his bleary eyes. "You know me, Chris - I always do!"
"Hey!" Vin called out, drawing everyone's attention. "I fel' that!"
"What? You hurting?" Chris moved closer.
"Nooo . . .fel' m' toe . . .twisch. I fel' it."
Chris felt the relief shining from Vin's eyes. Maybe he hadn't been as sure as he'd let on. Ornery Texan.
"Tol' ya'all," Vin said with satisfaction.
"Sure did, Tanner. And I'm sure Ezra will be especially glad to hear it," Chris smiled.
Chris smiled. "Seems he's assigned to assist Team 5 on a stakeout next week and was hoping to enlist your help as backup. They're calling for a snowstorm . . ."
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