This story was formerly hosted at another website, and was moved to blackraptor in May 2016.
The mingling crowd was oblivious to the storm outside. The high winds and freezing rain didn't deter the nearly two dozen guests who now milled around a large ballroom. The men, young and old, were all spit-and-polish handsome in tuxedo's. The ladies wore gowns and classical music floated through the air, courtesy of the ultra sound system. Two hostesses circulated with trays of hot appetizers, a champagne fountain and a small bar in the corner supplied the liquid refreshments. Dinner would be in one hour, at eight p.m.
"You haven't heard a word I've said," the pretty blond complained. Her hair was pulled back in a chignon and the indigo satin gown gave her eyes an iridescent quality. She moved to follow her handsome blond escort's bemused gaze. "I didn't think it was possible..."
"He sure does clean up pretty," her date replied, giving a slight grin. He raised his champagne glass to his best friend, whose long, brown curly home seemed right at home on the shoulders of the expensive formal attire he wore. Vin not only raised his own glass but gave a saucy wink as well, nodding to the pretty brunette who seemed attached to his hip.
"Prettier than me?" Mary Travis raised an eyebrow and turned his face.
"No way..." Chris Larabee murmured, kissing her.
His fingers teased the nape of her neck, giving her a shiver. She pulled back as a booming voice cascaded over her neck.
"Hey now, you two younguns best get a room before things get out of hand."
"Hey Buck," Chris greeted, "You and the Kid get here okay?"
"Yeah, I picked up Nate and Rain too, they had car trouble. It was a little crowded, but we're all here."
"You clean up pretty too," Mary teased, fixing the handsome, mustached agent's bowtie. If there was even someone born to wear a tuxedo, it was Buck Wilmington. Chris Larabee's oldest friend was practically glowing.
"Fair Maiden, my heart doth crumble at the heavenly sight before me..." Buck pronounced, kissing her hand and getting a loud groan from his boss.
"You know, Chris," Mary turned, snagging Buck's arm, "It wouldn't hurt you to be more poetic. I think Buck's rather dashing."
"I think Buck's gonna dash after the first tail that catches his eye," Chris teased, watching the handsome dark head making a scan of the room.
"Just because you gave up the hunt, Old Timer..." Buck teased, then saw team seven's sharpshooter entertaining two young lovelies. "Well, isn't that just like that boy to be neighborly, warming them up for the Buckmeister."
"Mr. Tanner is decidedly exuberant this evening," a new voice joined the group.
"Hey, Ace," Buck slapped Ezra Standish's back and whistled, "Damn, you're prettier than most of the women here."
"Regrettably, my dance card is already full," he teased, getting a chuckle from his affable friend.
"Where's Josiah?" Buck asked, not seeing the graying agent's head.
"He's talking to Orrin," Chris said the Federal Judge, who was his fiancé's father. "Wow..." He admired of the couple who waved to them from across the room.
"You can say that again," Buck smiled, his eyes taking in the stunning form of Nate Jackson's wife, Rain. "'scuse me, Gents," he nodded, "Somebody's gotta save them innocent, young ladies from that scruffy Texan."
"...and who's gonna save them from you?" Chris slapped his back as the tall, dark agent left.
"It's this still used by the family?" Ezra asked Chris of the opulent mansion.
"Yeah, Derek Hawke went to law school with Orrin. They're pretty tight. He's the last male of the line."
In it's heyday, Hawke Manor was the very picture of the modern era. Constructed in 1890, under the direction of it's owner, Mannington Hawke, the 10,000 square foot mansion was stunning. It sat on a huge piece of private property, hovering high above Denver in the mountains. Manny and Charise Dubonet Hawke raised their family in the lavish home and entertained frequently. The first floor boasted a kitchen, pantry, library, billiard room, the large ballroom in which the party was being held and a large dining room. The second floor had ten bedrooms, eight bathrooms and a gym. The third floor was mostly closed off, but had several vacant rooms. Also on the property was a greenhouse, an icehouse, a smoke house, a wine cellar and a carriage house.
"Evein' Vin," Buck boomed, eyeing the unusual sight of Tanner in a tuxedo. "Looks like all that good behavior paid off. Sure is good to see you out of the hospital."
"Hospital?" the buxom blonde asked, eyeing both men, then turning to Vin, "Where you in the hospital?" She leaned in to hear him over the music, nearly spilling her 'wares' out of the low cut dress.
"Buck..." Vin warned, eyes narrowing as the womanizer's eyes danced.
"Aw, hell, Son," Buck draped a 'fatherly' arm over the smaller man's shoulders and let his tone grow somber "It ain't nothing to be ashamed of. I bet there's lots of folks who've lived in a psychiatric ward. It's not your fault you keep hearing dead rock stars talking to you."
"What!" the striking brunette pulled away, eyeing the blushing blue-eyed man. "You're a nut? That's just my luck!"
"I ain't no Goddamn nut!" Vin hissed, squirming loose from the grinning Wilmington. "Buck, that ain't funny. Ya tell 'em the truth or I'll get Rain t'add a plumbin' trip t'yer next team physical."
"Damn, Vin!" Buck winced and laughed as the irate Texan watched the two women head for the champagne fountain.
"Dead rock stars?" Vin couldn't help but chuckle. "That's the best ya could do?"
"Hey, I'm runnin' on empty, Slick," Buck's growling stomach reminded him as he eyed the once full platters next to Vin. "Don't fill up on this junk, Vin, you won't eat your dinner." He moved a few feet away, trying to keep the two women in his sight. "I feel lucky tonight..."
Suddenly, all the lights went out and the room was plunged into complete darkness. The classical music that had been playing, stopped. A deep, eerie voice filled the room.
"Though blue skies like your eyes and sunlight were your home while alive, Of Mist and Moonlight shall you die and I shall dine on your heart tonight, with a fine wine."
The cryptic riddle was followed by a deep, evil laughter. The crowd murmured and a crash sounded, followed by a thump. Several anxious seconds went by, before the lights came on. A woman screamed and all eyes were riveted to center of the ballroom floor, where a body lie unmoving. Buck dropped down and turned the man over, his heart hammering. Chris's face paled when he saw the knife protruding from the stricken victim's chest. He moved back as a pool of blood began to spread out, turning the pristine white shirt a deep crimson.
"Take it easy," Buck said, as the frantic blue eyes grew like saucers and a hand grabbed out to him. The lips opened, spewing blood all over Buck's hand and the young man's already bloodied shirt. "Nate?" Buck asked, cradling the man's head.
The team EMT left his dark hand on the pale throat for a moment, before shaking his head. His hands hovered for a moment, before closing the lifeless sky blue eyes. The crowd was silenced as they eyed the gory sight. Nate Jackson raised his head to meet the leader's gaze. The green eyes were shocked, as he knew they would be. He stood up and spoke, as the stunned team leader moved forward.
Larabee's face was drained of color, his eyes riveted to the body before him. Buck brushed Vin Tanner's long hair from his still face and left the dead man's head resting in his lap. He felt Ezra next to him and took the cloth he offered. He hesitated a moment, before wiping Vin's blood from his hands. The classical music that had been piped over the expensive sound system resumed, but not one soul moved.
+ + + + + + +
Buck was still cradling Vin, when the well-endowed blonde woman returned and knelt down. She stared at the corpse for a moment and then turned to the handsome, mustached man.
"Maybe's he's not dead. Maybe I should give him mouth to mouth?" She asked, bending over close to Tanner's face.
It was a question that caused the lips of the 'dead man' to curve up into a smile and one eyebrow arch. Buck snickered and buried his face, as if mourning, in order to hide his grin. If didn't take long for a strong hand to clamp down on the 'corpse's' shoulder.
"No, Ma'am," Chris gritted, fingers digging into the smirking Texan's shoulder. "He's dead." He eyed the group carefully and made a somber announcement. "I'm Inspector James Franklin and this is now the scene of a homicide. I'll need to interview all of you, so nobody goes home tonight." He turned to Buck and narrowed his eyes. "Did you know the deceased?" He waited patiently for a reply, but none was forthcoming, until a well placed elbow prompted the agent struggling hard not to laugh.
"Huh?" Buck coughed as Ezra's elbow hit his side. "Oh, uh...yes Sir, Mr. Inspector," Buck bit his lip, trying desperately to ignore Vin's shaking shoulders. The Texan was fighting hard not to laugh and Buck couldn't blame him. This Murder Mystery Weekend was a fund raiser for the Widows and Orphans Fund for Deceased Agents. They had four annually and the teams were divided up. Team seven had picked Halloween weekend for their 'donation' and all jumped into their roles with enthusiasm. Upon sending in their donation, they'd been each mailed a 'identity' for the masquerade, but sworn to secrecy. Each participant was given explicit instructions on their role for the weekend. How to act, what to say, where to go and so forth. No one knew who the victim was and Buck was truly shocked when Vin fell at his feet.
"I can see you're overcome, Mr...." Chris grilled, watching Buck trying not to laugh.
"Huh? Oh, Graham, Nick Graham," Buck oozed, "You know, the famous rock star."
"Good Lord!" Ezra muttered, causing Buck to elbow him in the knee. The ensuing yelp by the southerner was followed by him whacking Buck's head.
"You were saying?" Chris arched an eyebrow at Buck.
"Oh, yeah, I know this piece of shit...uh...Rick Morgan. He was supposed to be investing my money, making it grow. Instead the fuckin' weasel stole every cent." He dropped Vin's head and stood.
"Did you all know the deceased?" Chris asked and noticed the heads nodding and the murmurs. "You a doctor?" he asked Nate, who nodded.
"Yeah, I'm Doctor John Robinson. I'd like to examine the body at more length. I could pinpoint some more details for you. Maybe we should move him upstairs to one of the bedrooms?"
"Hold on..." Chris dropped down and pulled out a piece of chalk. He touched the 'body' and began to make an outline. As he concluded his drawing, he smacked the back of the 'corpse's' head, after one bold eye opened and winked at him.
"Graham," he nodded to Buck, "You help the Doc get the body upstairs. The rest of you stay right where you are." He flipped out a notepad and began his investigation.
Buck and Nathan picked Vin up, carefully making their way through the crowd. They ambled through the large foyer and headed for the marble staircase. Buck paused and shifted Vin, he was carrying the upper half, holding the 'body' under the arms. Nate had the legs and chuckled as Vin kept smirking.
"Jesus, he's heavy for a runt..." the rogue complained.
"Ya watch yer mouth...Dammit Buck," Vin griped trying to wiggle from the larger man's arms. "Put me the hell down. I can walk."
"You hush up, Morgan," Nate scolded, "Dead men can't talk. I already got that prize money spent, so I need to solve this case," the dark-skinned agent puffed, sighing in relief when they reached the floor above.
"Third one on the left, Doc," Buck grunted and paused, while Nate dropped Vin's legs and he maintained his hold. He was glad he took the time to read through his packet of information carefully, including the map of the house. Although he didn't know who the 'corpse' would be, the information did what room the 'body' would be deposited in.
"Aw, hell," Vin complained as they laid him on the busy floral bedspread in a large room, covered in varying shades of pink and rose. The lacey curtains and several vases of roses gave the room a decidedly feminine touch. "This is a girl's room."
"Bedroom's don't have genders," Nate shot back, easing Vin's arms from the expensive tuxedo jacket, before pushing the uncomplying body back down. "Now lay still so I can do your autopsy," he ordered, unbuttoning the bloody shirt and cutting it off the slim torso. He eyed the realistic looking blood all over the shivering man's chest and shook his head.
"What the hell for?" Vin complained, wiggling until Buck held his shoulders down. "Ain't ya got notes or somethin'?"
"Hey Vin?" Buck leaned over and waited until the pale blue eyes met his upside down. "How 'bout tossin' old Buck a bone? Who stabbed you?"
"Ya got brass balls," Vin snapped, "I almost had them pretty gal's phone numbers and ya come bustin' in and tellin' 'em that I'm a nut who talks to dead rock stars."
"Dead rock stars?" Nate laughed, opening his medical bag. He pulled out a tape recorder and winked at Buck, before taking a scalpel out.
"What the hell are ya doin'?" Vin screamed, trying to roll away.
"Establishing the cause of death," Nate deadpanned, "Mr. Graham, can you keep the body from sitting up?"
"Oh, sorry Doc." Buck apologized and thwacked Vin in the head. "Quit moving' around."
Nate took out the realistic knife which had a retractable blade, and was embedded in the case Vin had strapped to his chest. It spilled the blood upon impact, giving a very realistic show.
"Single, upward thrust to the aorta." Nate mused, "The murderer was right handed and slightly to the left of the victim."
"Shit, Nate! Ya damn near did stop m'heart." Vin complained. "Christ that thing's cold," he hissed as the surgical kit was laid on his belly. His eyes narrowed when Jackson pulled out a rubber hose and a large syringe. "What the hell is that?"
"It's for the blood samples..."
"Ya ain't stickin' me with that thing!" Vin struggled against Buck's hands pinning him down. "Nate cut that out...that ain't funny..." he protested as the nimble fingers tied the rubber around his arm. Nathan even swabbed him with alcohol, before giving up the ruse.
"Hey Nate...uh...Dr. Robinson," Buck corrected with a wink to the grinning Jackson, "Don't you have to get some kind of internal body temperature."
"Yeah...roll him over, I'll get his pants."
"Ye'll get first row as a soprano if ya come near my ass with anything." Vin warned, jerking as Buck's fingers grabbed at him.
"You're gettin' fat Vin," Wilmington teased and pinched a miniscule piece of skin at the lean tracker's waist.
"Hey, did ya like me spittin' up blood?" Vin's eyebrows wiggled at the mustached agent bending over him. "That was m'own idea. Caro syrup and food colorin'...pretty cool , huh?"
"Not from where I was sittin'" Buck retorted, still seeing the realistic blood spewing from Vin's mouth.
"Aw, hell, Bucklin," Vin grinned, eyes dancing. "Ya worried about me."
"Well," Nate said, finishing his notes, "That wraps up my report. We better go fill in the Inspector" he advised, hauling the corpse upright.
"If I didn't know better," Vin said, anxious to rid himself of the offensive black pants. "I'd swear he rigged it , so's he got the role of the Inspector."
"Well, I guess it pays to be engaged to the daughter of the co-sponsor." Buck chimed. "Is that why you scarfed down all them fancy appetizers?"
"Yeah," Vin grunted, pulling his jeans on. "It said I'd get done in before dinner. Ain't no sense gettin' offed empty."
"Vin, that stuff is a bitch to get off your skin, you better take a hot shower before it sets in..." Jackson advised.
"Yeah, it's stinks..." the younger man decided, wrinkling his nose. "it's itchin' like hell too...I'll just head back up the hall..." he noted of his room, only to have the two grinning men step in front on him. "What?"
"Dead men can't walk the halls..." Nate smirked. "You gotta stay put. I'll get your bag. Where you at?"
"Huh?" Vin scowled, "Second door on the other side...left..." he rummaged in the black pants and produced a key. "Don't be long...I'm starved...what now?"
"Uh-uh" Nate denied, turning him back to the bathroom. "Dead men don't eat filet mignon wrapped in bacon and drizzled in béarnaise sauce."
"Yer shittin' me!" Vin balked, "I gotta stay in here? Fer how long?"
"Until the murder's solved." Buck said with a straight face. "Sometime on Sunday afternoon, I think. Ain't that right Doc?"
"Sunday!" Vin shoved past them. "I ain't stayin in this fucked-up floral fantasy room fer two days. Ya will find a corpse. I'm gettin' the hell outta here. I brung m'bike up, I can..."
"No, Vin, you can't." Nate laughed. "You're job ain't done yet."
"I'm dead, Nate, it don't get no more permanent than that."
"You're hiding something." Buck slapped Jackson's arm.
"I'm just saying...you make a reappearance later...so stay put!" The dark-skinned agent called out as he jogged down to Vin's room, returning a few minutes later with Vin's gym bag and a small toiletry sack.
"Aw, hell." Vin kicked over the trash can. "What about dinner?" he called after the pair as they exited. "Dammit!" he frowned, and eyed the television. He flipped it on and nothing happened. Great!" he chucked his clothes off and stormed into the bathroom. He took out his frustrations on his lean body, scrubbing it well. He stepped out into the large bathroom, which was now filled with steam. He toweled off quickly and tucked another thick towel around his narrow waist. He dried his hair a little, before combing it and reached for the blow dryer. He flipped the 'on' switch and all the lights went out. "What the hell is goin' on?"
"Hell...yes that can be arranged."
Vin's hand froze on the appliance cord as the eerie voice entered the room. The hot breath that came with it made his hair stand on end. He wasn't alone...and in total darkness. He tried to get a mental picture of the room, but hadn't noticed it before jumping in the shower. He braced his legs against the sink and curled his fist around the blow dryer. He heard shuffling sounds and then something sharp pierced his back. He turned to strike the attacker with the blow-dryer, but his legs turned into rubber. He felt his strength ebbing fast and struck out, shoving a large body aside. He stumbled badly, hitting the side of the sink with his face. He felt blood spurt from the smashed mouth, where his tooth cut into the lip. Something coursed through his veins, leaving a deep burning. He tried to scream, but no words would come. Hands...lots of them...pulled at him sending him to the floor. A light from the outer room gave his foggy brain a distorted view of his ghoulish attackers.
"Hail Jonathan..." a deep voice saluted, caused several more to join in.
The paralyzing drug left the vulnerable man totally helpless. The only thing he could do was see, his eyes remained wide open. He wished they hadn't, for the sight that met them, chilled him to the core.
"You should rejoice, you are the chosen one." A female voice uttered, bending over him with a candle. One hand boldly stroked his face, cupping his chin. "A delicious specimen as well...Jonathan chose well."
"Yes," another female bent near, her fingers teasing the wet skin on the stricken man's inner thigh. "we will celebrate the New Age together, My Pet...Hail Jonathan!"
"Hail Jonathan...Hail Jonathan..." the voice repeated, turning Vin's blood to ice water. He was turned on his side and then back again, his body was eased into a large cloth bag. They zipped it up, letting only his face unshielded. He saw the ceiling panels passing quickly as they went to the other end of the long hall. Then he was placed inside what should be the wall. His arms and legs were compressed, leaving him folded up. The first female reappeared, he black eyes shining in triumph.
"Not to worry, tempting Tanner...the pain is brief. We part ways now," she bent forward and forced her lips on his, pushing his pliant lips apart. "but I will see you before the call of the dead. Now your journey begins...Farewell for now...I'll see you in Hell..."
Hell? Vin's heart hammered in his chest as the wall slid shut and he was entombed in darkness. Then he was moving, down...down...the air grew bitter cold and his dead limbs jerked. Finally the motion stopped and the panel slid opening, revealing total darkness. Two hands pulled him out and put him on a gurney. They moved fast, almost at a dizzying pace, turning and twisting through cold, damp tunnels. Finally, they entered a large medieval room. He was placed on a concrete slab. The bag was removed and his towel as well. He shivered and his eyes roamed around the identical bodies, draped in black shrouds. They moved in, surrounding the table. A sinister figure appeared next to, several inches taller than the rest. Vin's heart began to hammer in earnest...he recognized the evil face looming above him. It was one he'd never forget.
"Welcome to Hell, old friend..."
The evil laughter from the large man was accented by the others droning "Hail Jonathan' over and over. Then the table began to spin around and around, causing his stomach to churn as the garish faces spun by wildly. His last thought before he lost consciousness, was that he had descended into Lucifer's kitchen.
+ + + + + + +
Inwardly, Vin moaned, rousing himself from an awful dream. Then he heard the evil laughter and realized he was living in a real nightmare. His blue eyes jerked as the voices, dull and emotionless, continued to 'Hail Jonathan..Keeper of the Gate'.
"Take him to the purification chamber and ready him...we have but four hours before the Rebirth..." The leader ordered, "Do not damage him...I warn you...his flesh must remain unbroken until the ceremony."
Ceremony...purification...rebirth...Vin's mind swam and he felt a rage born of frustration. He was moved back onto the gurney. Whatever drug they'd used on him, rendered his body powerless. His eyes roamed over the stones...they were old...the mortar between them might date back to the eighteenth century. Lord but it was cold. Then they wheeled him into a dimly lit room, the only source of light was many black candles, of all shapes and sizes, all over the room. He was lifted by the same large brute who'd taken him from the wall. Upside down, slung over the man's back, he saw naked legs, shapely and in several shades. He was lowered into a steaming shallow pool of water.
"Maidens, you have your orders...Jonathan will not be disappointed. Purify the Lamb...inside and out...then ready the sacred oils for the ceremony."
They moved around him, kneeling in the water, chanting in a language he didn't understand. The thick mud in his head and the total paralysis of his body made it difficult to concentrate. Short dark cloaks barely covered their bodies. His eyes tried to find someone to plead to, but the gazes were fixed and glazed...almost as if drugged. They descending on him, their mindless voices dulling his senses.
Two carried special crystal dishes with an strong herbal scented soap. Along with the others, they wore special gloves, with a slightly rough texture. One slipped behind him, cradling his head in her lap. She began to massage his head, stroking every fine lock of hair through the steamy water. A large male stood with his arms crossed at the foot of the tub. Only his ebony skin near his white teeth was visible. He began to chant in the dialect as well, before barking out orders. Five sets of hands overtook his numb and helpless torso. They scrubbed every inch of him, from head to toe. His heart was hammering and it was then he began to feel tingling in his arms and legs. It was the sensation that occurred just prior to when the circulation to the limbs is restored. He continued to play 'dead', realizing he must wait for the right moment to break free. Then the male moved and Vin's eyes followed him, to where he mixed up more herbs in a container of liquid.
"Turn the Lamb," he ordered. "Once we cleanse him inside, he will be dressed for the Ceremony of the Sacred Oils..."
"Hail Jonathan! Hail his power!" They chanted, "Deliverer of Hekate, Queen of the Dark..."
+ + + + + + +
While Vin was being purified, his friends were enjoying a gourmet feast. Relishing their roles, they each began to quiz the other, gathering clues to solve the murder. The winner would get a $2500 cash reward. The meal and wine went down easily, now they were in the large ballroom.
"Do my eyes deceive me, or is there a reptile among our intimate group?" Ezra loathed, his eyes lingering on a tall, olive-skinned man across the room.
"Who let that animal in?" Buck growled in a low voice and saw Chris tense up. "I better stick close to Vin," he said and got a nod from the blond leader.
"Buck, if that maggot as much as breathes on him..."
Buck let his oldest friends menacing tone conclude his own homicidal thoughts. He shared an intense stare from the green molten lava in the other's eyes and nodded, to enraged to trust his voice.
"I'll get the Judge," Mary said, excusing herself.
The three stood eyeing the South American politician, who was suspected of being a top gunrunner and cocaine broker. The team worked for over four months trying to catch Carlos Nardone, but he eluded them, leaving Vin's mangled body on the tarmac of a private airfield as the plane took off for Columbia. Vin nearly died in Buck's arms on the fast flight from the remote area to Denver. Fortune smiled on them that night, as the third member of the undercover trio, Josiah Sanchez, was an army pilot during the Viet Nam war. They managed to get a chopper from the private airfield fueled up and to a trauma center in Denver just in time. The three had gotten to close and tangled with Nardone's men. Vin had been in the deepest and for three month's worked as one of Nardone's drivers. Buck and Josiah were beaten and tied up, then forced to watch as Vin was tortured by Nardone's gang. The beating left him near death for ten days and unable to remember much of what occurred. The memory of Vin's body being dumped from the plane prior to takeoff, was one Buck wished he could purge from his mind.
"I fuckin' can't believe this..." Chris seethed, muscles rippling through his elegant jacket. His green eyes were blazing. "How the hell did he sneak back into the country? This party is by invite only? Who the hell invited him?"
"Good Lord!" Ezra gasped, eyeing another guest across the room.
"Ez?" Buck turned from the base of the stairs. Standish was coming with him to check on Vin. He paused, seeing the handsome conman's face pale. "What's wrong?" His dark blue eyes went across the foyer into the large, formal ballroom. "Aw, shit..." he hissed, "What kind of fucked up reunion is this?"
"I don't know," Chris Larabee growled joining the pair. He eyed Mitchell Sandhurst, an elusive arsonist who flaunted his fame and ability to escape the law. He was a successful novelist who used his sick fascination with fire to sell books. "But I'm sure as hell going to find out." He slammed the champagne flute on the marble and crystal table next to him, shattering it and stalked off. "You two stick to Vin like glue..."
"What's that all about?" J.D. asked Nathan as they watched the menacing, tuxedoed cloud whirl by.
"I don't know," his friend replied, his dark eyes glued to the irate green eyes of their leader, "But I think we should find out..." he called and nodded his head to Josiah. With a assuring squeeze to his pretty wife's hand, Jackson departed. The three made their way through the crowded room towards the side doors off the elegant room.
"Goddammit that's not good enough, Orrin!" Chris bellowed, barely noticing half of his team joining him.
"Well, that's the only answer I have, Chris. " The judge remained calm, moving towards another door, "Let's take this to the study..."
"What's wrong, Chris?" Josiah grabbed the furious blond's forearm.
"We got uninvited company..." he spat back, "Carlos Nardone and Mitchell Sandhurst...Jesus Fuckin' Christ!" He still felt the fear of those long days where Vin clung to life. He still felt that limp hand in his, still remembering Vin flat lining and the crash cart flying through the room...Vin's body jerking as the paddles hit it...and that bastard Nardone laughing somewhere. Sandhurst conveniently turning up after two grisly arson fires that took the lives of several agents. He claimed he was doing research for a book. Vin went ballistic and attacked him, screaming insults at him. The news team caught the whole scene, and by morning, everybody in the country was aware of Sandhurst's potentially murderous rampage. He made no secret he held Vin responsible for his downfall. "They're both on the guest list..." Mary entered the room, clutching a gold and black folder. "Who made the list up?"
"How?" J.D. demanded. "Why wasn't Vin warned. Jesus..."
"Who fucked up?" Chris roared, glaring openly at Orrin Travis. "Did you know?"
"Do you think I would do anything to jeopardize Vin Tanner's life?" The Judge replied in an even but deadly tone. For a split second, Chris Larabee disappeared and the cold blooded stranger who's deadly eyes were inches from his own, gave him a chill. Finally, the blond accepted his reply and pushed himself away.
"Where's Hawke!" Chris slammed his fist on the desk, sending two paperweights and a letter opener into a mad dance. "I want him...now!"
+ + + + + + +
"Vin!" Buck knocked on the door, which opened slowly under his touch. Icy fingers of trepidation caressed his back. The hair stood up on his neck and he heard Ezra inhale sharply. "I don't like this..."
"I was just thinking the same thing," the jade-eyed agent replied, pushing the door open. "Vin...are you in here?" He flicked the light on, but nothing happened. The only light was that from the hallway.
The bed was made and Vin's duffle bag was still un top of it, unzipped and packed. The pants to the tuxedo were thrown on the floor. The pair made their way to the bathroom, pausing just inside the large room. Ezra turned the light on and both men eyed the room carefully. A shaving kit was open on the sink and two damp towels were on the floor. Other than that, the room seemed fine.
"Perhaps he's exploring the house?" Ezra thought aloud, "There is a room down the hall with armory from the Middle Ages," he noted of Derek Hawke's vast collection of weapons. "He does love firearms."
"Yeah, maybe, I'll..." Buck's voice died in this throat ."Shit..." He moved past Ezra and knelt down by the toilet. It was just past where the large marble sink ended. "That look like Caro syrup and food coloring to you?"
"No, that's real," the other noted in worry of the spattering of crimson staining the floor tiles and side of the sink. "We better get Chris..."
As they left the room, Buck jerked Ezra's arm and pointed to something on the bed. They'd missed it at first, because of the busy floral bedspread and the large bag obscuring the pillow. Both moved quickly, eyeing the chilling figure but not touching it.
"What the hell?" Buck whispered, seeing the single black rose on the pillow. Next to it was a harlequin clown figure with a single red tear on it's cheek. The tiny doll had long brown hair and blue eyes. The tiny image held a note card in one hand, Ezra leaned over Buck's shoulder and read the words.
"Of Mist and Moonlight shall you die and I shall dine on your heart tonight, with a fine wine. You'll feel the pain as life ebbs away...but your essence will live on in a much better way."
"I'm gonna fuckin' kill him!" Buck vented, still seeing Vin dying in his arms on the plane. "Goddammit!" He punched his hand against the wall, sending a picture onto the floor.
"You get Chris and the others, I'll stay with the evidence." Ezra suggested, resting a hand on the heaving man's shoulders. "As much as I'd like to entertain that thought as well, we need to concentrate on a more important matter."
"Okay," Buck sighed, eyeing the creepy hallway. The lights were flickering and he didn't like the thought of the slim southerner left alone.
"I'll be fine," the other reassured, reading the cautious eyes, "I have Minerva to keep me company."
"You dog you..." Buck grinned as the derringer slid easily from the elegant tuxedoed sleeve. The gold tooth glistened, giving him a sigh of relief. "I'll be back..."
+ + + + + + +
"Calm down!" Orrin ordered.
"The hell I will, " Chris barked, "that fuckin' bastard damn near tortured Vin to death...hell he almost died in my arms...You think he still don't want Vin iced...I want Hawke's explanation. Nardone's ass should have been fried..."
"Orrin?" Nathan saw the blanched look on the Judge's face and walked over. "What was that?"
"Nardone gave the DEA a ton of evidence against Manual Ortiz. They've been after him for over fifteen years. He's responsible for several murders and..."
"You're fuckin' kidding me!." Chris screamed, "He gets off? Just like that...after what he did? Dammit to hell, Orrin!"
"I don't make the law," the judge returned, recognizing all to well the danger zone that Larabee just crossed into. When it came to his team, he was a warrior, when it came to Vin Tanner, he wore blind rage. "and it wasn't my decision. He's claiming to have 'found' religion. He's been clean for almost a year, lives in a secluded area near the border. He's broken no law..."
"That's Bullshit!" the blond slammed both hands on top of the desk, his eyes on fire and his face enraged.
"How's he tie into Hawke?" Nate asked.
"Derek's daughter...disappeared several months ago. She was studying ancient rituals and doing research in South America. He thought she was dead, but a few weeks ago, he got a letter from her. She claimed to be happy and 'fulfilled' for the first time in her life." Orrin recounted, "there was no post mark and very little clues. She mentioned being part of a 'family' and the name Jonathan. It was a cold trail to start with...but a dead man turned up in Arizona last week. He was...uh...nearly drained of his blood. The border patrol said he uttered one word before he died, it was 'Jonathan'."
"What's that have to do with Nardone and Sandhurst?" J.D. asked, hearing the door open.
"One of them has my daughter." Derek Hawke entered the room. "I hired a private detective to investigate the letter I received from her. He called last week, claimed he had proof that one of them was responsible."
"The dead guy on the border?" Nate guessed and saw the silver head nodding. "If that's true...why would whoever 'Jonathan' is come this far north? Why take a chance?"
"Ego," Chris spat, his gut instinct screaming Nardone.
They all turned, as a new voice added from the doorway. All the color drained from Chris Larabee's face, when he saw Buck's tall frame fill the door. The dark blue eyes were full of fire and the tight fist told the blond that it was bad news. Those heated orbs sought his green eyes out and the voice was directed at him.
"The bastard's got Vin..."
+ + + + + + +
It took all of Vin's will and grit to keep his face void of sensation. His arms and legs were now screaming in pain, as the circulation came back in bursts of heat. He was clothed in a white tunic, it's soft cotton folds did little to ward off the cold air in this nether land. He'd been placed back on the gurney, which was now draped in a blood red cloth. His hands were folded over each other , loosely bound by a tiny, thin gold cord. Skilled fingers interwove a olive wreath into the herbed scented damp locks on his head. His head was lifted and then nestled into the soft nest of flesh on the maid behind him. A slim, cloaked figure approached bearing a marble chalice. Her face was nearly hidden beneath the dark hood of her robe, but a slight tilt and he recognized her as one of the kidnappers from his room.
"Drink tempting Tanner..." she whispered, holding the cup to his lips. "Let the nectar of the fields of Elysium caress your sweet lips..."
Drink. He was beyond thirsty and the heavy scent of grapes rose from the mug. His battle was too great...fighting the pain of his limbs returning and the musky scent of the bodies pressed against him from behind..now this vixen bent low, tracing his lips with a shiny, black fingernail. Her eyes were like ebony mirrors and her hot breath caressed his ear.
"Do not fear me, my pretty Lamb, I am Sheena, chosen to shield you until the Gate is opened...relax sweet Vin and nourish your flesh before you are delivered..."
Vin's knowledge of the occult and satanic practices was as limited as the next guy. But the clues he'd strung together told him his time was near. He tried to pull away from the cup, but the chanting of the maidens, the pungent scent of the incense, combined with the pain in his arms and legs could not overcome the heady scent of the beautiful girl who caressed his face. His lips parted and he swallowed the sweet grape juice, moaning softly as his great thirst was conquered. It was taken from him too soon, causing some to spill onto his lips and chin.
"There, there, my pet," she cooed, flicking her tongue over the errant liquid on his tanned skin, "not to worry, there will be more nectar during the Ceremony of the Sacred Oils. You will be anointed as the Chosen One." she pressed her lips to his and drank in the terror in the wide blue eyes. "Your name we be invoked eternally for delivering Hekate back to us." With a final deep kiss and lingering stare, she was gone. The large male guard entered, eyeing the six servers who stood around him.
"The time has come, bring the Lamb, the sacred oils are ready..." He turned to two lingering figures on the side of the chamber, whose air was thick with incense. "Send for Jonathan...our deliverance is at hand." He ordered, before disappearing into the inky tunnel.
The air got cooler as the gurney was swiftly wheeled down a narrow subterranean tunnel. The ground beneath went on an incline and they were moving downhill, further beneath the earth. He was freezing, the numbing air clashed with his restoring limbs. Ahead, he could make out hundreds of flickering candles and he could hear the chanting of strange prayers. But the sight that nearly caused his heart to stop completely, was a large marble altar, with his likeness on the wall behind it. There were several images, one was painting of him, wearing the robes and wreath that now adorned him. Next to it, a similar one, but with two disembodied hands holding his heart...dripping with blood over the empty cavity of his dead body.
The scream silenced the chanting followers gathered in the large room. It came so fast, Vin nearly didn't recognize it as his voice. He jumped from the gurney, hissing in pain as his tingling limbs refused to totally support him. Hands grabbed at him, but his dispelled them, running up the tunnel. Groping in the darkness, he took several twisted turns, before encountering a dead end.
"Fuck..." He turned back, but saw the dozens of bodies moving towards him, bearing torches. He eyed the narrow one-way corridor and saw an old hinged door. He grasped the rusted out ring in the center and pulled, then pushed. Heaving his body hard against the rotted wood, he heard it splinter as his body was hurled forward, down a flight of stairs. He landed heavily, hearing the snap of his leg before the eruption of fire from the damaged limb. He was still twisted in the corner, his face locked in a grimace of agony, when the devil appeared.
"Foolish Tanner!" the tall man grabbed his face and slapped him hard enough to rattle his teeth. "You will pay dearly for your actions." He pressed one large hand against Vin's chest, pinning him to the ground. He turned back to where the others lingered and singled one out specifically. "Get the surgeon..." he waited until the body turned and ran up the passageway. "Return to the chamber, the ceremony will not be delayed!" he barked out, nodding to his guards to come forward.
"But what of the leg...what if there is broken skin?"
He bent down, studying the pale face, lined in sweat and dirt. A trickle of blood ran from a cut on his head. He drew out a large dagger teasing the prey by resting it over his heart. He saw the eyes glare at him through a haze of pain and laughed.
"You have too much fire, Tanner, but I will have your heart...after the deliverance, I will consume that courage you possess." With one might thrust, he ripped the damaged fabric of the white tunic, then tore it off. He eyed the body, turning it roughly, enjoying the muffled cries of pain.
"The skin has been broken!" one of the guards noted, of the blood on the prisoner's head and body.
"They're minor," the leader noted, examining the jagged cuts to the head, arms and one knee. "Still, the skin must be sealed, the life-force must be protected. Take him to the Tomb...I will send the surgeon there. We will use fire to seal the skin...get a new cloak and cleanse and redress him after the surgeon is finished."
"What of the leg?" a voice asked, eyeing the crooked right appendage.
"I'll take care of that now..." he ruthlessly gripped it and snapped the bone back in place, smiling at the air shattering scream that erupted from Vin Tanner's bloody lips.
From where he was lying in tangled heap, Vin was only dimly aware of what was going on around him. He hit every stone step and rough, jagged rocks in the walls on the way down. His head ached, his chest hurt and his leg throbbed without abandon. He was dizzy and fading away, the faces above him were blurry and distorted. His eyes were closing when it hit him; a pain so horrific in his leg, he swore it was cut off. The head-splitting scream that pierced his brain was his own, a brief glimpse of green eyes on a fair-haired face shot before him, the agony on the blond's features sent Vin Tanner blissfully into a black void.
+ + + + + + +
"Chris!" Josiah and Nate moved forward and the blond leader's face suddenly drained of color and his eyes rolled back. Josiah caught him as he fell, but by the time he settled him in a large wingchair, he was blinking again.
"What's wrong?" Nate demanded, taking Larabee's pulse.
"I don't..." Chris whispered, feeling strangely disembodied, "I can't..." he sighed and shook his head, trying to push the flashing image away. "I saw...him..." He took the brandy offered by Orrin and tried to control the slight tremor. He took a sip of the burning, amber fluid and then a deep breath. He licked his lips, pushing a hand over his heart and grimacing. The pain the slammed him was real.
"I don't like that," Jackson said, eyeing the tense features. "How's your arm? You got any numbness? Your back hurt?"
"No...it's not that..." Chris said with conviction. "He's in agony...broken...bloody...God..."
"Who?" Derek Hawke demanded, not understanding the painful faces of Larabee's men.
"Vin," Chris said, eyeing his team slowly. "He's dying..."
For a few pregnant seconds, the room remained locked in silence. The owner of the estate looked from one face to the other, then turned over the puzzling words in his head.
"That's absurd!" Derek Hawke commented of Larabee's 'vision'.
"Absurd!" Chris steeled, baring his teeth ferally, "I'll tell you what's absurd...you inviting two fuckin' homicidal maniacs to a party and havin' the balls to send them Vin Tanner on a platter. You son-of-a-bitch!" Chris dove at the tall man, shoving him against the wall. His eyes were burning like green fire.
"Chris!" Josiah and J.D. shouted at the same time, trying to pull their irate boss off the host.
"Chris, let 'im go!" the large, ex-minister commanded, effectively using his brute strength to contain the simmering tornado. "Enough!" He roared, shoving the squirming blond at Buck Wilmington.
"Come on Chris, that ain't gonna help," Buck tried, not understanding what Chris meant.
"It'll make me feel better," the tense leader hissed, using his body language to tell Buck he was okay.
"What was all that about?" Wilmington asked, staring hard at the others, before turning to Hawke, "Is that right? You asked those scum to this party?"
"Of course not!" he spat back. "My secretary took care of sending the invites out. I gave her a list of two dozen..."
"There's thirty people on this list..." Mary noted, handing it to Derek Hawke, before standing before Chris. She rested one hand on his forearm and felt the anger coursing through him. "We'll find him..." she whispered, but Chris shut her out. She sighed in frustration, knowing until he had Vin back, whole and safe, there would be no reasoning with him.
"Did everybody show up?" J.D. asked, scanning the list. "I mean...Nardone and Sandhurst weren't at dinner...they arrived afterwards..."
"Let's get organized," Nathan decided, "J.D. find out who all is here and who isn't...quietly. Mr. Hawke, do have blueprints or maps of the house? The state police were right behind us coming up here, they closed the roads and left police cars manning the danger spots. I don't think these bastards left here...they got Vin hid somewhere."
"Yeah, I'm with Nate..." Josiah agreed, "Besides, other than Vin's bike and Buck's car, the rest of us were brought up in limo's. The surveillance cameras would have records of anyone else coming on the property. I'll check with security, go over the tapes..."
"So, we team up and search the house for Vin..." Nate guessed.
"Buck, what happened?" Chris finally spoke, seeking out his oldest friend.
"We got to the room and it was empty. The shower was wet...steam on the mirror. His shaving kit was out, his bags weren't opened yet. We found some blood on the floor and a...a....some...things on the bed."
"Things?" Orrin frowned, coming around the desk. "What things?"
"A black rose...a note...and a doll that looks like Vin, but it's crying blood..."
"Jesus!" Chris hissed, still feeling Vin's pain. "What did the note say?"
"The same line about the 'Of Mist and Moonlight' but then it mentioned Vin's life ebbing away..." Buck flinched as Chris's eyes lost all feeling. "I left Ezra up there guarding it..."
"Let's go...Buck you're with me" Chris ordered. "Nate, you stick with him..." he glared at the host, "and go over the plans for the house. I'm gonna have a word with Carlos Nardone..."
"No you're not!" Orrin denied, seeing both Larabee hands folded into fists. "You tip your hand and you'll never find Vin. We don't know how many people are involved. You haul Nardone or Sandhurst away and whoever is holding Vin will kill him."
"Orrin's right, Chris," Buck said, "Both of them have more money than God, if they wanted him dead, they would have put a hit on him...hired a pro..."
"They want to hurt him first..." J.D.'s voice died away.
"Which buys us some time..." Nathan sighed, "Let's move."
"Mary, talk to the staff and see if they remember when Nardone and Sandhurst arrived. I'll go over the guest list with Derek and see if anyone sticks out...We'll meet back here in a half hour." Orrin suggested, "Oh and not a word to anyone, gentlemen. The schedule for the murder mystery doesn't resume until tomorrow morning."
The ghosts of soiree's past glided among the glitzy guests, waltzing in a time of their own. There were politicians, athletes and other wealthy Denver denizens chattering loudly in the formal ballroom. J.D.'s eagle eyes scanned the rainbow-attired guests discreetly from the bar. He sipped on his beer and began the mental elimination process. Mary said there were thirty on the list, so six were invited by Hawke. He ambled to the security base, off the kitchen, and reported in to Josiah.
"I got twenty-six in the ballroom, nobody's in the guestrooms yet. The bathrooms were all empty." he updated the graying agent. "You get anything?" He eyed the three men eyeing a half dozen television screens.
"Nothing unusual," Sanchez noted, "The limo drivers logs recorded twenty-five guests arriving. There is only one long drive to the main gate, to pick up the road to the interstate. There are three guards manning it, nobody's left. They've been with the Hawke's for over ten years. Plus the camera's are time and date recorded."
"...and you add Vin on his bike and me with Buck, Nate and Rain...that's five too many..."
"I'm going to review some tapes from the last few days, see if anybody sticks out..." the eldest said, "You find Mary and compare notes, find out who are three mystery crashers are, besides Sandhurst and Nardone."
"Roger!" J.D. bobbed his head and departed.
+ + + + + + +
The relentless throbbing in his right leg, a firewall of agonizing ripples of pain, caused him to rouse. His teeth chattered, jumping together and sending pain through his head. God, it was cold..his body was frozen. Fleeting images of his body tumbling down the rocky stairs and the evil one's face looming over his gave him his answer.
"I'm...dead..." he whispered, sure the icy cold gripping his body was due to his corpse-like state.
"Not yet, Tanner, the stroke of twelve has yet to commence, that is the hour where you will delivery Hekate to us..."
Hekate? Vin's mind was fuzzy and he pushed his eyes open. His numb fingers touched concrete and he turned his head a little, eyeing the concrete room. The iciness that invaded him was due to him lying the smooth marble of a tomb...the faded letters on the wall were former members of the Hawke family. He was in a crypt. Two dimly lit torches were above a sealed doorway. Two guards stood on either side, arms crossed, muscles bulging beneath the black sleeve of the long cloak. Two stood on either side of his 'table' and one by his feet. The thin black sheet of cotton that covered him did little to ward off the cold. The agony in his leg brought tears down his cheeks. One name...one face...one set of green eyes....one hope...his last thought as the fire in the leg overcame him.
+ + + + + + +
"Chris..." Buck warned, grabbing the tense man's bicep, "I know how bad you want him...but Vin needs you more." He warned of the green eyes that rifled the ballroom, seeking blood. Both Nardone and Sandhurst were absent...which only caused the fire to intensify in glare. "Come on..."
"Badge or no badge, Buck," Chris gritted as they took the main stairs two at a time. "Vin doesn't come outta this, I'm gonna mail a piece of that bastard to every continent. His head on a spike with his balls in his mouth...Fuck..."
"You think it's Nardone?"
"It reeks of him..." Chris said, "Ezra..."
"Here," the southerner relaxed his stance and backpedaled, seeking the storm cloud arrive. He watched Chris move to the bathroom first, then the bed, studying the clues.
"We don't have much time," Ezra supplied, reading the question in Chris's eyes. "You sense it too?"
"Yeah," Chris said distractedly, his eyes lingering on Vin's fake blood on the shirt. The irony gave him a chill and he shivered. "Hawke said Nardone claimed he found religion...lives in a small border town. Looks like he's gone to the dark side..."
"Satanic cult?" Buck frowned and paled. "You don't think...he's gonna offer Vin up...a live sacrifice?"
"Well it is the Eve of Halloween..." Ezra remarked, "and we have less than three hours, I suggest we began our search. They didn't return downstairs, therefore, they made their escape within these walls."
"Secret passage," Chris nodded, "Yeah...this house is the right age for that. Okay, Buck you get J.D. and sweep the south side of the stairs. Ezra and me will take this side. Update the others..."
The first three rooms had been renovated, so it was unlikely that any secret passages could be hidden. They reached the end of the hall, where it turned. Chris had his hand on the first doorknob, when he saw Ezra cock his head and frown. He watched the southerner squat down and run his fingers on the wall.
"You got something?" the blond bent down next to the other.
"Perhaps," he pointed to a piece of black cotton, which was sticking out of the paneling. "I'm sure it wasn't designed that way."
Chris began tapping the wall and nodded, "It's hollow...it's here somewhere..." Just as the word left his mouth, Ezra gave the portrait on the wall, across from where they found the patch of fabric, a good tug. Chris had been leaning on the panel and tumbled into darkness, crying out as his head made contact with the concrete wall.
"Are you alright?"
He was waiting for the stars to stop dancing in front of him, when he felt a hand on his shoulder. His instincts kicked in and his hand shot up, gripping the throat of the invader.
"It's me..." Ezra gurgled over the vise-like grip.
"You got a lighter?" Chris sat up in the narrow dark chamber. Then a flick led to the tiny light from Ezra's hand. "Dammit!" He hissed, seeing the solid wall behind Ezra.
"It began to close, I had no choice..." the other defended.
"Which way?" Chris rose, rubbed the lump on the back of his head and eyed the tunnel which went in both directions.
"We need to split up..." Ezra said, taking his bowtie off and tucking it into a hole in the wall. "Ten minutes, then we return here..." he warned, turning left.
Chris had no lighter, so he walked slowly, feeling his way along the wall, he was about to turn back, when he felt air brush his face. He turned right, into a tunnel and followed the path of the air. He saw a light in the distance and turned back to get Standish. He never made it...he was slammed hard into the wall, grunting as pain exploded into this face.
"Find Jonathan...we have an invader..." the large man ordered, draping the unconscious blond over his shoulder.
"Take him to the Tomb...Jonathan is expected any minute," his cloaked partner replied.
A flurry of movement behind him, and the sound of concrete sliding brought a rush of cold air. Despite the bone-chilling numbness, he continued to shiver. His keen nose wrinkled as the scent of the newcomer was detected.
"I'll need some light," a new voice startled him, "You said he was unconscious..."
"He was..." The evil leader moved in, leaning over Vin Tanner's tortured body.
"...yer...dead...I'll...I'll...Noooo!" Vin screamed as the brute tugged on his broken leg.
"Silence!" the guard ordered, "Jonathan speaks...you reply only when addressed."
"Fuck...off..." the agonized sharpshooter replied, earning a deep laugh from this captor.
"You amuse me, Tanner, I shall miss your sharp tongue. Physician, see to his wounds...his skin must be sealed...not sewn..."
"But..." the doctor faltered..."You know what you're asking?"
"I believe I was quite clear." He leaned over and studied the pale prisoner's face, the blue eyes were dull with pain, matching his cold lips. "Mr. Tanner will cooperate...such is his fate...he is the Chosen One...Proceed!" He held a hand up as footsteps drew near. "You fool!" He roared, seeing the body thrown to the floor.
"We had no choice, he was nearly in the Tomb...who is he?"
"Perhaps I was too rash..." he mused, kneeling over the bruised and bleeding face. He slapped the blond's cheek hard, causing both eyes to shoot open. "Welcome to Hell, Larabee...we are honored to have the Head Swine as our guest. You're just in time, Mr. Tanner is about to have some minor surgery."
"You son-of-a-bitch," Chris growled, launching himself at the tall man, only to be restrained by two guards.
"Give our guest a front row seat," the leader ordered, nodding to the new shackles that were suspended from the wall. He waited until the irate ATF agent was secured and walked next to him, gripping the short blond hair and shoving it hard against the concrete. He smiled as the hiss of pain pressed through the tight lips.
"Vin!" Chris screamed, watching two cloaked figures pull a black blanket from Vin's body. The swollen, discolored right leg caused him to flinch. A large jagged chunk of flesh was missing from the left knee; there were several cuts on the elbow and chest, along with a small cut at the hairline. But the sight of the smoldering metal object approaching the bloody knee, made the lava flow inside of him explode.
"You fuckin' touch him and I'll cut your heart out..." his words were cut off as the skin was sealed. His own scream of horror was drowned out by his best friend's, who body buckled, despite the four sets of strong hand holding him. His blue eyes shot wide open and the damp, matted head rolled from side to side in agony.
Through a red veil of unimaginable pain, Vin saw the cloaked figures around him. The burns were bad enough, but the pain in his leg was unbearable. His mind drifted, he felt hand on him, heard words about 'setting the leg'. His eyes slid shut...a hospital...it was so cold.
"Please..." he rasped, grabbing the wrist of someone who was near, "...m'legs killin' me...ain't ya got somethin'...fer...pain...s'cold...please..."
"Vin! Vin!" Chris screamed, before a rough rag was shoved hard in his mouth. He struggled against the iron manacles, every muscle in his body rippling in agony. His eyes grew wide when the figure who the bastard identified only as 'physician', moved towards the broken leg. Strips of wood appeared and were placed around it, then the 'doctor' jerked it once. It was the single most agonizing sound he'd ever heard and it ripped his heart apart. Vin cried out once, before slumping back onto the concrete slab. The doctor finished tying off the splint with bandages, securing the leg.
"My debt is paid...don't ask me to be a part of your barbarism again." The physician disappeared through the door.
"My Lord?" a guard moved to follow.
"See that the physician is silenced..." he nodded, then moved over towards the unconscious man, inhaling the pungent scent of burning flesh. "Rest now Lamb, for soon the Ceremony of the Sacred Oils begins, then the Deliverance of Hekate..." he soothed, stroking the sweat-slicked young man's face. He chuckled at the feral growl of the blond man, who was trying his hardest to rip the chains from the walls. "You appear disturbed, Larabee..." he moved his hands over the stilled prisoner, pressing on the burns and smiling as the body moaned in pain. "You should be proud...Tanner is the Chosen One...he alone can deliver Hekate...but you'll be dead by then...pity, it will be a memorable rebirth. Then after my maidens are through with the Lamb, I shall cut his heart out and digest it..." He caressed the area above the sacrificial heart, enjoying all the pain radiating from Chris Larabee's irate eyes. "I'd stay to talk about old time, Larabee, but I need to mingle at the party. It's a pity, I'm sure you're lovely fiancé will miss you on the dance floor. Perhaps I'll partake of a sample...such a lovely woman." He laughed as the blond attempted to leap at him again. "Farewell for now, Lamb, I'll see you for your consecration." With a final tap to the stilled man's cheek, he departed.
Chris screamed, choking on the offensive gag in his mouth. Vin was manhandled, as the three guards put a white tunic on him. He cried out in pain, every time the leg was jostled. His head lolled drunkenly and his blue eyes were wide and glazed. He was transferred to a gurney covered in a red cloth, before being taken away. The torches were put out, leaving him in utter blackness. The tomb was dark and silent, the cold scent of death filled him. He slumped against the wall, his body and soul shattered. Vin was being led to the slaughter and he was helpless to stop the massacre.
Nathan and Mary stood in the foyer, eyeing the well-attired crowd in the ballroom beyond. They left Derek with Josiah in the study. They were waiting for the others to reappear from the hallway above. J.D.'s dark head arrived over the banister. He shook his head, his face creased in anger and concern.
"Shit!" the dark-skinned man hissed, "Maybe Ez and Chris got a lead..."
"Do you think it's safe for these people to go to their rooms?" Mary shivered, eyeing the dark hall above.
"No...but how do we 'suggest' they camp out in the ballroom," he noted of the large room. "...without causing a panic..."
"Diplomatically," Mary's face puzzled when Buck and J.D. moved twice down the other end of the hall and returned.
"That's why God sent us Ezra," Jackson replied, then jogged up the stairs halfway. "What's wrong?"
"We can't seem to find Ezra or Chris..."
"What!" Mary lifted her skirt over the ankles and moved up the stairs.
"Hold it," Buck halted her, "Nobody else is going to disappear. Let's update Orrin and get a plan. Come on..."
The quartet moved around the elegant stairway towards the corridor leading up to the study, when Rain approached from the pantry.
"There you are!" she moved to embrace her anxious husband. "The phone lines are down...one of the crew from the catering company has a transistor radio. The storm hit the city hard...accidents all over...power failures...it's a mess."
"No phone..." J.D. hissed, "Oh that's just great...we got three men missing and no way to get help."
"Who's missing?" Rain demanded.
"Shhh!" Nate shushed her, propelling her towards the study. "I'll fill you in..."
+ + + + + + +
Frigid air caused his limbs to twitch, rousing the body from his stuporous state. The cold, damp atmosphere in the tomb causing his teeth to chatter. The inky curtain that had become his world was deep and blacker than black. Time became meaningless. How long had it been? Ten minutes...an hour...he couldn't tell. Vin. Chris grunted in frustration against the dirty rag in his mouth. He'd rubbed his wrists raw tugging on the chains that bound him. Vin. No matter how hard he tried, the image of his best friend's body being abused...the eyes wide in shock...that scream...He howled with all his might against the choking, restrictive cotton and pulled his body again from the wall, only to slump down in defeat. For a fleeting second, his heart nearly stopped. What if he was too late? Was Vin already dead? Tortured and abused...his body buried in unknown grave or worse? Had those blue eyes been looking for him...reaching out for help. Just as the fingers of pain closed around his throat, the distinct sound of concrete sliding over concrete filled the room. A steady footfall...harsh breathing sending hot air over his face..then a hand on his throat...
+ + + + + + +
Josiah frowned when the door shut. He was standing with Orrin and Derek, looking over old documents about the house. His eyes went from J.D.'s arresting eyes to Buck's haunted features.
"Tell me I'm wrong..." he stated, only to have Nate sigh and shake his head.
"They disappeared too..." J.D. replied, "We searched every room up there...they're gone..."
"Maybe they doubled back downstairs..." Derek suggested, but Mary shook her head.
"No, I was in the foyer most of the time, I would have seen them..."
"Alright," Josiah said. "Unfortunately, the original blueprints to the house are in a safety deposit box in town. However, Derek's grandfather kept some sketches...must have been the architect's first draft. Two of the security guys are checking out the basement and the other rooms on this floor. What's up on the top level?"
"An old studio...my grandmother was an artist...servant's quarters...storage," he mused, "Nobody's been up there for years..."
"Me and the Kid will check it out..." Buck slumped into a wing chair, his voice toneless. "How the hell could this happen? You never answered me..." He accused the owner of the estate with his voice and penetrating stare.
"I believe I made myself quite clear..." Hawke shot back at the angry younger man.
"Not good enough for me!" Buck roared, shrugging off Nate's arm "I got three damn good friends missing and one of them ticketed to get butchered maybe...So you better come up with a Goddamn good reason!"
"Buck," Mary moved forward, placing both her hands on his tense shoulders. "Derek didn't know about Nardone or Sandhurst. He's been away for several months, until his lawyer told him about the letter from Gabrielle," she pointed to the large painting of a pretty, young girl with auburn curls and large blue eyes sitting on a pony.
"That was painted about twelve years ago...she's about ten there..." Hawke moved over to stare at his only child. "We tried for so long to have a child...we'd given up when we found out...My wife died when Brielle was four. She's my world..."
"He's been haunting the border towns in Arizona and Texas trying to find her...then the private eye turned up dead..."
"The guest list was made up six months ago..." He turned back to the still furious Wilmington. "I submitted it to Claudette, she runs the estate,"
"Claudette?" J.D. asked.
"My personal secretary, she's been with our family for over thirty years. She's not here..."
"Well isn't that convenient..." Buck spat.
"Enough!" Orrin pursed his lips and moved around the desk. "Aside from Nardone and Sandhurst, who else was not on the list? Can you remember?" He handed the document to Hawke.
"Dr. Borico, Edward Dugan and ..." he skimmed the list. Christina Gates."
"Do you know them?" Mary asked.
"Dugan's a stock broker, we're on the Denver Historical Board. I don't know any Dr. Borico. Christina Gates is an old schoolmate of Brielle's. The last I heard she was living in Japan, working for a large electronics corporation."
"I want to talk to them..." Orrin nodded to Josiah, "What about the hired help?"
"They all checked out," the graying ATF'er noted of the security check. "How about the other buildings on the property?"
"Uh...there's a greenhouse, an icehouse, a smokehouse, a wine cellar and a carriage house. Other than the greenhouse and the wine cellar, the others are closed up."
"They're scattered all over..." Nate looked at the crude drawing. "We're on our own, with the phones out...we'll need to check 'em out..."
"J.D., you think you can handle the surveillance gear?" Josiah asked of the security headquarters.
"Sure, piece of cake, why?" the youth answered.
"These guards have worked here for years, they know the grounds and those buildings inside and out. They can move faster. Two should be enough...they have walkie talkies that link to the security office."
"I'll speak with them," Derek said. "I can't believe Claudette would do something like this. She went to college with my wife...she's like family."
"Are you sure nobody else could have tampered with them?" Nate asked.
"No, I gave the list to her. She had the details of the murder already and coordinated the invites with the guest list accordingly. She's done it for years, nobody else would have access to it. She's been acting rather odd the last few months. Distant...moody...depressed...I gave her some time off, told her to take a few months to rest. She was dreadfully upset about Brielle...they were very close..."
"Josiah, see if you can persuade our uninvited guests to join us. J.D., you go with Derek to the Security Office. Mary, you and Rain see if you can find someone with a laptop computer. We can notify the authorities, or at least try before the power dies...Buck you and Nate go over the upstairs again, where Ezra and Chris were last seen."
"I wanna have a word with that scumbag first," Buck gritted of Nardone.
"Well...it seems I've stumbled in the wrong room..." a chilling voice said, causing them all to spin around. Mary and Rain were nearly to the door and both backed up a bit. J.D. immediately moved in front of them. "Ah...the Widow Travis...you icy beauty is enchanting..."
"Don't..." Mary warned, of the hand approaching her.
"Sit down in that chair before I permanently separate your pinhead from your body," Buck seethed at the arrogant smile on Mitchell Sandhurst's face. Tall and lanky, his thinning blond hair and spectacles did little to hide the reptilian appearance.
"You're appear to be two short," the novelist threw off J.D. Dunne's grip and settled easily into a large chair. He grinned at the large mustached man, whose eyes were murdering him silently. "Now who is missing...let's see...Larabee the cowardly lion and Tanner his cowering cohort...pity...it would be an awful loss if something foul were to happen to them."
"You bastard!" Buck raged, leaping for the laughing arsonist, while Josiah held him back.
"He said two..." Nate whispered to Orrin. "He didn't mention Ezra...why?"
"I'm not sure..." the judge replied, "But knowing his penchant for lying...I suggest if we give him enough rope...he'll hang himself."
"I assure you, other than trips to the bathroom, I have been engaged in conversation with every one of those charming individuals."
"Well now I looked at the security tapes and I don't recall seeing your pretty face, Sandhurst." Josiah noted dryly, "So I know you won't mind waiting while they get reviewed again?"
He said rising, "I am well aware of my rights under the law...and as much as I'd like to stay and chat..."
"Sit your ass down before I nail it to that chair..." Buck roared.
"Buck, settle down!" Josiah warned. "Where's your invite?" He moved his large hand, wiggling the fingers at the loathsome writer.
"I didn't bring it..."
"When did it arrive?" Nate asked.
"About a month ago...to my residence in Los Angeles. I was rather amused... "
"Sandhurst, since you made public threats to the life of Vin Tanner, you're a suspect in his disappearance. Take him to the security room, they have a lock down back there..."
"This is preposterous!" he puffed, trying to escape Josiah's grip.
"So is somebody giving birth to you," Buck spat back, "Now you can go easy, or in pieces..."
+ + + + + + +
Ezra got turned around in the long tunnel, several twisting passages spread out in all directions. It was a large maze and the dropping temperature told the sly agent that he'd gone too far. He retraced his steps, using the lighter every so often to illuminate the trail. He saw the bow tie in the wall and frowned. No Larabee. He took the trail Chris had, stopping to flick the lighter. His keen eyes spotted moist dark spots on the wall. His fingers confirmed blood, almost dry. He eyed the passage ahead and the one to his right. Which way? Where had the blond gone? Or more aptly, been taken by force? His decision was answered when a muffled cry caught his keen ears. It was faint, but enough to give him a sense of direction. He trod carefully and quietly, feeling the walls until a round ring was in his grasp. He gave it a tug and moved inside. He heard the rattling of chains and a stifled groan. He moved forward, following the sound and feeling the wall, until his warm fingers hit cold flesh. He felt the body pull back and hiss. He lit the tiny butane geared flame, and saw the battered face of his boss. Blood caked over and under the swollen right eye and from a large scrape on his cheek. His lip was mashed and bleeding and his eyes filled with dull pain.
"You'd make a rather dashing James Bond..." The irate eyes and muffled sounds didn't fool the rescuer. "Sorry..." he moved the flame upwards and saw the chains. Standing, he examined them closely, as the body jerked and more muffled cries shot out, along with two fists, which hit him hard in the lower back. "I'm not MacGyver...I cannot pick a lock with a toothpick or make an explosive from chewing gum. More to the point, killing me will not get you out of this confinement. Perhaps Minerva can help..."
Chris's eyes lit up at the moniker Standish gave his tiny , concealed gun. His murderous intentions temporarily evaporated. He stood up and turned around, letting the other man take his gag off.
"Hurry up," Chris choked, coughing and gagging as the obstruction was removed. "Bastards got Vin...they're gonna...do 'im...something about a ceremony of Sacred Oils and deliverance of Hermata...Heldata..."
"Hekate?" Ezra froze.
"Yeah..." Chris grunted, "Jesus, Ez...move your ass..."
"You realize the sound of the gun will bring company."
"Chance we gotta take..." Chris answered, taking the lighter and holding it to give the other visibility. It was over in a few seconds, four shots and the locks broke freeing the panther.
As Ezra turned, he saw blood on the slab behind him. His eyes went to Larabee's and he saw the rabid revulsion and terror in them.
"They tortured him..." Chris swallowed, picking up a discarded piece of wood, from Vin's splint. "...I couldn't do a fuckin' thing...until now!" He bared his teeth, raising the club, his face painted in bloody mask of war. "Let's go..."
"Go?" Ezra followed him towards the door. "It's pitch black out there and riddled with tunnels. How could you possibly know...Chris? Chris?" He stepped tentatively into the cold corridor, eyeing the bobbing light ahead. "Sometimes I wonder if Mother was right...maybe I should have been a doctor." He sighed and jogged to catch up.
+ + + + + + +
"Dugan hasn't left the ballroom all night," Mary updated Orrin, "So far, no luck with the laptops...Rain is still checking. Doesn't Derek have a computer?"
"He did...it's missing...the one in security was infected with a virus yesterday..." the judge sighed, "What about Dugan's invite?"
"He didn't get one...he came as a guest of Lynn Anderson, the councilwoman. She said she called Derek and left a voicemail...I guess he never got it."
"Nardone, Gates and Borico?" He asked, as two of his agents approached.
"No trace of Gates," Buck ambled into the room. "Nardone's been in and out...he slipped out again just a few minutes ago. Several folks saw the good doctor disappear a little while ago...upstairs..."
"What room was Dr. Borico in?" Travis asked, moving towards the door.
"The green room...it was clear on our original sweep," Buck advised, "Let's go Sundance..." he tapped Nate and they headed upstairs, with the judge behind them. Buck used the keys from security to open the door. "Jesus..." He moved back, face grimaced. He saw Nate brush past him and followed slowly. "Christ, that's a helluva way to go..."
"Mr. Jackson?" Travis asked, seeing the medic's frown.
"She's not dead that long...skin's still pliable..." His dark eyes clouded with rage at the senseless brutalization of the woman. Both of her eyes were missing...as well as her hands..."
"Nathan...what's wrong with her...she looks ...dried up...or something..."
"Her blood's missing...most of it anyhow..." He lifted her long dark hair, checking for fractures, or other signs of head trauma.
"Aw, hell..." Buck jerked back, seeing two oozing red marks on her neck. "Someone sucked the blood out of her..."
"I told you to quit watchin' that horror movie marathon," the other shook his head. "A pump did that...right out of her jugular. One small bullet in the back of her head..."
"What to you make of this?" Buck handed the Judge a large white envelope, containing the doctor's invite. "It says there she was supposed to be the murdered victim..."
"She was..." Nate sighed, "The party's over..."
"So they used Vin...set him up to get him alone upstairs..." Buck frowned, "She wasn't just murdered, they took her eyes and hands for a reason. She saw...something she shouldn't have...stole something..."
"I think it's time we addressed the guests. We can't risk them staying in these rooms. Not with a barbaric criminal on the loose. The ballroom is large enough. With blankets and pillows, we can keep them in there for the night." He glanced at his watch, which read nine-thirty. "Let's move, Gentlemen..."
"Bingo!" Nate called out, sliding a laptop computer from the top of the doctor's closet.
"Excellent!" The judge nodded. "Cover her over and lock the door, nobody gets in...let's update the others and contact the city."
The smell was pungent and invaded his darkness. The pain followed, pounding into his leg without mercy. Voices...close by and distant...murmuring words he did not know...chanting in a rhythmic cadence that invited a hypnotic state. Despite the his heavy eyes, he was able to peel them open, fighting through an invisible wall of weight. He managed to get his thick tongue unstuck from his mouth and lick his dry lips. It was a cavern-like room, large enough to accommodate the family of cloaked figures who stood around him, each holding a black candle. His eyes roamed the room, more candles on the walls and suspended from he rocky ceiling gave the room an eerie atmosphere. His hands were crossed at the wrists, lying on his abdomen, tied with a gold cord. The sleeveless white tunic did nothing to prevent the dampness and cold air from settling on his shivering body.
A small gong was sounded, and the followers dropped to the their knees, folding their bodies to the floor. Vin tried to sit up, but a pair of slim hands held him in place. A hot tongue licked his ear and the warm breath danced on his moist neck as teeth nibbled there.
"Soon, Tempting Tanner...we'll have Nirvana...then you will cross the river..."
River? Vin pulled away and fought against the strong small arms pinning his shoulders down. He knew the voice...his foggy brain drew a name...He had to try...his friends wouldn't find him in time. Chris...his mouth fell open slightly his tongue darting across his lips. Chris was here...there...he saw the blond chained to a wall...maybe...or was it a dream?
"Sheena...help me...get free..." He pleaded, his large eyes moving upwards and catching only a dark hood where her face was hidden. The small hand caressed his cheek and the head shook negatively.
"You cannot leave, you are the Chosen One..." she purred, her fingers massaging his temples, then raking through the brown curls on his head. "Do not fear...Sweet Lamb, there will be no pain...you will have a glorious death."
"No...still time...Sheena..." His pleas fell on deaf ears as the ceremony continued, just as the tall robed man turned, holding the large vessel of steaming liquid in the air, shots rang out nearby. Vin felt a euphoric rush of hope burst through his body. Chris...it wasn't a dream. Chris would come. He managed to get his upper body, propelled by one elbow, off the cold slab, before being forced back down.
"Seek out that which attempts to intrude upon the Ceremony...find them!" Jonathan ordered, nodding to two male guards at the entrance to the chamber. "Prepare the Lamb!"
"Gather my children the time has come, the gates to the river have opened. Soon the dark queen, my beloved Hekate, will be reborn and lead us into the Orchards of Elysium."
"Hail Jonathan...show us the way...Hail Jonathan ..."
Dulled by pain, Vin's mind fought hard to wade through the cryptic message. His eyes shifted around the circling bodies, chanting and walking in a circle around the altar on which he was lying. That much he knew...and as the flickering candles, thick incense and droning voices forewarned of his execution. The tall man with an evil smile, wearing the devil's eyes didn't fool him. Neither did the elaborate stage he'd set up...complete with mindless fools. He didn't flinch when the hawkish features hovered into his blurring field of vision.
"...fraud..." he rasped, causing the smile on the face to grow wider.
"Only to non-believers...my children give me power and after tonight, immortality."
"That vile tongue of yours will be taken while your heart still beats...then I shall that out and devour it..."
"Silence Lamb...the ceremony is about to commence." He clapped his hands and the ocean of black cloaks parted, splitting into even groups. They lined each side of the altar, leaving a space of about three feet.
Vin lifted his head a few inches, as chimes began to play and the leader moved to a smaller altar in the corner. He watched as herbs and liquids were poured into a bowl, crushed and then heated over a small fire. The steam rose from the bowl, as two smaller figures moved in, kneeling next to the deranged man. Then he saw the cave painting again...the one with the severed hands holding his heart. He saw the tall man's arms reach up and the deep voice echo through the chamber.
"I call upon the powers of the four elements Fire, Water, Air and Earth..."
One slim hand held Vin's forehead, forcing his head flat. Other hands appeared, two on shoulders, hips and one on his undamaged ankle. Then a large gold knife made it's way in front of his eyes. The tip caressed his collarbone, lingering briefly by his jugular, before cutting the tunic away. The steaming stone bowl was placed by his right shoulder.
"The Divine Manifest begins. Hear us Hekate and know soon you will be reborn. The path to immortality is at hand. Our children will join us in the Orchards of Elysium. Bring the Elixir..."
Vin's head and upper body were raised, and he fought weakly, grimacing as his leg was in agony. He strained against the hands holding him, turning his face away from the golden chalice that was pressed to his lips.
"No..." he clenched, trying to move his head. He was forced back against someone's chest, his head nestling between two soft breasts. One hand clamped his nose shut, cutting off his air. He tried hard, fought, struggled, but the roar in his ears and the pain in his lungs drew his mouth open. The golden liquid spilled down his throat, it was sickening and sweet, causing his stomach to turn. His body jerked for a few seconds, at last it was down and he coughed and sputtered. The hand moved, releasing his lung path. He inhaled and felt a warm flush invade him, every tense muscle went slack. His senses were keener, sharper, heightened, his eyes large and full of wonder. Not one other muscle was able to move.
"The Spirit of Purpose is with us," the leader commanded, standing over the victim. "Clear your minds...create a sacred space...open your hearts...praise the Chosen One...he gives us Hekate..."
"Praise the Lamb...giver of life...Hail Chosen One..."
He was flat on his back again, staring mystified at the stars over his head. They glittered and twinkled, they were beautiful. He saw the angels again, shifting around him. His brows drew together...they were dark...they had no silver wings. He sighed and watched the stars again, waiting for the angels to take him. Funny, he didn't feel dead.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra halted as Chris Larabee's hand flew up. He made his way behind the ATF leader and cocked his head. Voices...close by...murmuring...He tapped the shoulder in front of him and pointed ahead. Light was filtering from under a door. They moved cautiously, flattening their bodies into the folds of the wall, as two figures approached. The pounced silently; efficiently eliminating the opposition. With a nod of mutual consent, they donned the robes, retracing the steps to the light.
Ezra saw the horror crash into Larabee's features as they peered in the doorway. The others had their backs turned. About a dozen figures in dark cloaks were circling an altar draped in blood red cloth. He saw Chris's lips forming Vin's name and clamped a hand over his mouth, dragging the warrior behind a side wall. He continued to move, until they were on the other side of the event, able to look down upon the group from a crevice in the rocky theater.
It took all of Chris Larabee's strength, every ounce of courage and more willpower than he thought he possessed. He wanted to rip that bastard's heart out...cut off his arms and beat him to death with them. He couldn't bear to look at Vin, but got some satisfaction when the Texan fought back, until they chanting began and they forced a drug into him. They were in a overhang, just a few feet above the area where the altar was. Every breath needed to be silent, if they were discovered. Vin would pay the price. The large knife was never far from Vin's throat. He turned to Ezra and eyed the gun. The other man shook his head...indicating it was empty. Chris slumped, his fingers gripping the club tighter. His eyes crossed in confusion, when he saw Ezra looking behind them, then slowly moving past him. A familiar voice brought his attention back to the altar below.
"The time has come to sanctify the Lamb. I awaken the power within me..." he issued, tipping the stone contain over Vin Tanner's chest, spilling a warm flow of oils enhanced with herbs onto the slack jawed victim. "Hear us Beloved Hekate...as you continue on the river...soon you will be with your children. We anoint the Chosen One...the Sacred Lamb will be purified...then delivered." He splashed more of the oil on Tanner's limbs, nodding for the group to christen the stuporous victim. The continued to chant as their fingers went to work.
Warm...wonderful...sweet...Vin smiled and sighed in contentment as hands began to massage him. The scent of sandalwood, cinnamon and earth filled him. He licked his lips and blinked at the stars over his head. The voice the whispered to him was soft and feminine, filling his lungs with an intoxicating aroma. Her words brought a flush and soft smile...her fingers massaged the warmth into his cheeks and forehead, then over his lips, before slipping inside his mouth. Like a greedy child, he suckled, the contentment chasing the pain away and sending him into a peaceful sleep.
+ + + + + + +
"How'd it go?" J.D. asked, as Nathan appeared, bearing the laptop. "Not bad...Orrin's talking to 'em. He's got a couple of security guards escortin' them in fours upstairs to get changed, grab blankets and pillows. They'll stay in the ballroom...with the guards on duty. Anything from the grounds search?"
"No..." J.D. sighed, watching the monitors. "Where'd you get that?"
"From the late Dr. Borico...Orrin wants us in the study..." Nate tapped his shoulder as a security guard moved in to slide into the vacant seat. "Without the phone lines, we can't access the internet to call for help...but there was a message inside," he popped open the lid, revealing another cryptic message.
"Of Mist and Moonlight the Lamb will reside...for a few short hours until the time of deliverance, he will then abide. Cast your eyes...if you dare...to the message and what lies there..." He paused, casting his hazel eyes to the dark ones. "What message?"
"We found a tape under her body...that's why Orrin needs us...now!" Nate said, holding the door for Dunne.
J.D. sat on the sofa. Buck, Josiah and Orrin were on his right. Nathan was behind his left shoulder, sitting on the arm. Derek and Mary were with Rain, keeping the guests calm. The judge picked up the remove turning the television on. The blue light appeared, giving the screen life.
"What the hell?" Buck appraised, seeing blood red lettering with the subject line 'Enter if you dare...the Lamb awaits his fate...'
"Vin!" J.D. hollered, seeing the silent moving picture of the agonized face of his friend. Then Vin's body arched, his fine features locked in a scream of agony. Someone was burning him.
"Goddammit!" Buck slammed the table in front of him, Josiah's large hand clamped on his shoulder. "Christ, his leg..."
"It's broken...bad..." Nate observed. "No...they can't..."
"Aw, God..." J.D.'s stomach turned as the leg was unmercifully snapped in place and Vin buckled again. Then another tortured soul appeared, his green eyes screaming in anguish.
"Fuck!" Buck raged, tossing a discarded wine goblet against the wall, shattering it, "The bastards got Chris..."
"Not Ezra though..." Nate observed. "Could be he got away..."
"Or he's dead," J.D. noted quietly as the image changed again.
"Nardone, you sick, fuckin' son-of-a-bitch!" Wilmington screamed as the evil drug lord's face appeared, laughing and tapping Vin Tanner's pale, sweat-lined face. Then the screen went black.
+ + + + + + +
Although reluctant to leave Vin, Chris didn't see Ezra come back. He crept slowly along the dark wall, using his fingers to guide him. He ducked inside a small chamber, his eyes narrowing at strange sight. A hand pulled him out of harm's way, as the guard's head came up. It lingered for a few seconds, before turning away.
"What?" Chris mouthed, watching the southerner study the glass case, illuminated by a tiny light. The humming of a motor caught his attention and he nodded his head. They followed the sound and came closer to the glass coffin. While Chris studied the strange sight, Ezra saw two guards appear, confer briefly with the one on duty.
"Two more hours until the deliverance...the Lamb must die..."
Ezra clamped both hands on Chris's shoulders, trying to contain the vortex in black. He caught the glint of helpless rage in the dim light on the green eyes and sent a silent signal. The tense body relaxed and then Ezra's mind snapped in place. His eyes went from the glass coffin, to the generator, to a strange collection of objects on the table near the guard on duty. Suddenly, he knew what Vin's fate was and it was the most horrific thing he'd ever encountered.
Chris saw all the color leave Ezra's face. He pulled the shaken man back into the dark corridor. He'd known Ezra a long time and had seen him in all situations. Facing down killers, undercover in a ring of gun runners, standing over a corpse...but he'd never seen the look of pure horror now residing on the handsome southerner's features. Ezra looked disemboweled.
"Oh God...Oh God..."
The whisper was so small and painful, yet stabbed Chris hard. He gripped the trembling man by the shoulders and pressed him to the wall.
"What?" he hissed, and saw the dazed head rise.
"I'm afraid...that is...I know what fate has in store...for...Vin..." he sighed deeply and opened his lips again to spill the awful secret.
Chris waited for Ezra to speak again, but the eyes shot open and suddenly he was shoved aside.
"Look out!" the conman shouted, grimacing as a blade narrowly missed his heart, slashing his side instead. He kicked out, taking the man's feet down. More footsteps...brought more company. He felt Chris grab him and propel him the other way...through a small crevice and into...into...pitch darkness. He was shoved forward, then heard Chris's strangulated cry. The last thing he heard was "Get help..." before two guards began attacking the blond.
Chris had just shoved the bleeding gambler through a hole in the wall, when he felt a club slam into his side, breaking ribs and sending a firewall of pain into his body. He hissed at Ezra to get help and then began to battle his enemies. Two more sets of hands appeared, fists in the dark connected to his jaw and body. He saw a brief explosion of light, intense and painful, then nothing.
Ezra stumbled, fell and crawled when the tunnel got too narrow to stand in. What seemed like an eternity, soon found him inching along painfully, his face covered in mud. Mud...water...terra firma...He pushed onward, despite the paranoia at not having any more air to breath. The walls were crushing him...then air kissed his face and he continued to fight...blood drenching his side. Freedom...freedom...he collapsed on his back, gasping and heaving as he felt drizzling rain pelt him. He got to his knees and clawed desperately at the stones, using them to stand. Chest heaving, he coughed and cradled his injured side. He looked around and his face blanched.
"Good Lord...a Garden of Stone..." he murmured, eyeing the ancient headstones. More alarming, was that he couldn't see the mansion. He looked for the north star, adjusted him bearings and set out to get help. Stumbling and dazed from blood loss, he plodded onward, following the dark path. It twisted and turned, went up and down...and he stumbled through a thick overgrowth of brush.
"Hey...hold it right there!"
A voice halted his progress. He eyed the murky road. He was shivering terrifically, cold and wet. He saw a gun and two large bodies...in uniforms.
"Sanctuary!" he cried dropping to his knees.
Someone grabbed him, he stared at them in confusion. The gun was still trained on him..."Standish ATF....Orrin Travis...need...hurry..." his mind whirled, full of confused images.."Hekate...midnight...no time..hurry..."
"What the hell?"
"Let's get him to base," the second guard replied, heading to the jeep. While his large partner carried the unconscious man, he radioed ahead. "Get me Travis...we found one of his men...somebody named Standish. He's hurt."
Wildflowers burning his eyes, their rainbow hues accenting the brilliant summer sky. Their sweet perfume invaded his senses, making him dizzy with passion. She was so soft...so warm...her blond hair tickled his chest. The laughing blue eyes met his again, as she moved her supple body across his chest and kissed him long and deep. Birds flew overheard, giving the two young bronzed lovers the bliss they sought. Seventeen was a heady age; bodies bursting with lust, hearts soaring with vitality. He rolled over pinning her deep within the bed of flowers. That heavenly smile beamed up at him, the deft fingers pressed into his back and across his lower hips.
"Come to me, Sweet Vin..."
"Melissa..." the stuporous man murmured, love in the rapture of a past spring morning. He remained in a state of unawares, as the nimble fingers and lips took advantage.
"Save your wiles, Sheena, it is time..."
"No..." she pouted, fingers toying with the sleeping prisoner. "You promised..." She felt jealous..her time with Tanner was taken. The others had been sent to the vacant chamber next store, to ready Hekate and pray. That left her alone to guard the Chosen One.
"You dare defy me!"
"No, Jonathan," She slipped off the slab and dropped to the floor, folding her body and dropping her head. "Please forgive me...I was overcome with temptation."
"That seems to be a problem with you Sheena..." he gripper her hair and pulled her head up, eyes raking the lush body peeking beneath the dark robe, "I shall have to punish you later..."
"Yes, Jonathan," she whispered huskily, licking her lips and dropping her eyes.
He clapped his hands and three guards appeared, dragging a semi-conscious cloaked figure. They brought the newcomer to the leader's feet, shoving him to his knees. He tugged the hood back, revealing a set of dazed green eyes. Blood ran from a cut over his eye and from a split lip as well. The ragged breathing and angle of the body, bespoke injured ribs.
"Well...well...we meet again, Larabee. I thought the rats would be feasting on your flesh by now. No matter, you shall witness the resurrection of my beloved," he paused, running a dagger down the side of the sweating pale face. The blade slipped below the frock, the sudden, swift jerk of his hand, severed the garment and shirt below as well. The blade then traced a lazy line around the heart. "...then you shall be my guest at a late supper...I believe you are acquainted with the main course..."
Chris snarled as the tip of the blade drew a bead of blood. His intense gaze bore into the large man's dark eyes. He felt the cloak and his shirt torn off, leaving him bare-chested. His hands were tied behind his back and he was shoved onto a crude bench. He immediately stood up, seeing Vin's body lying on a high altar, only his arms and head visible beneath a white garment.
"Silence, Infidel!" Nardone roared, waving his hand as the guards shoved the squirming ATF man back onto his perch. A cuff to the ribs, took his breath away, filling his lungs with fire. He coughed and choked, his eyes tearing in pain. He saw Chris's eyes wander to the passage above the. He smiled evilly. "He won't be back," he noted of the one who escaped, "he entered the Tunnel of Lost Souls...it's one way. The passage gets smaller and smaller, until you are forced to crawl, then on your belly, inch along like a worm...until you reach dead end and turning around is impossible..."
Chris blanched when he thought of Ezra's fate...suffocated in a tight, underground passage. Then he saw a slim young girl in white appear, carrying a red velvet bag. She placed it one Vin's chest, bowed before him and moved to one side. The green's eye remained clouded in pain, until he saw Nardone step up to the altar and open the bag. It only took a few minutes and the arrival of a second server in white, bearing a golden staff. She planted it in a socket next to Vin, waiting for her master to begin. Then, as Nardone began to recite a prayer in Latin, Chris Larabee saw what Ezra had. His head shook in denial, pained eyes widened in stunned horror.
"No..." he choked, as Nardone pressed a needle into Vin's soft inner arm. As the clear plastic tubing filled with rich Tanner blood, spinning like a roller coaster through a curve and into large, Plexiglas container. Chris doubled over, swallowing down the bile that rose in this throat.
"Praise...Hekate...soon she will be among us...the life-force is true...the Chosen One will deliver us into Elysium..." he noted of the mythical land of wonder and bliss. "Pay homage to the Lamb..." he commanded, and the servers all around the altar dropped, bowing before the stilled sacrifice.
"Hail to the Chosen One...he leads the way..." they murmured.
Chris struggled again, through the burning in his lungs and side, against the four strong hands that held him. He was transfixed, unable to tear his eyes away from the horror before them. Worst of all, was Vin's half-lidded, contented dream state. The body was completely at ease, a half smile on the pale lips. The slip of blue eyes were lost in a faraway place; the Texan was completely unaware that he was being drained of life's most precious commodity.
"Vin..." Chris's lips mouthed silently, the dagger of the blade pressed to his tense throat.
"He's freezing..." Nate barked as Ezra was laid on the sofa in the study. "Get them wet clothes off of him..."
"Jesus, his hands are like ice," J.D. rubbed the slack hand, hoping to restore circulation.
"Buck, head back upstairs to that doctor's room, I saw a bag in the top of her closet. Josiah, go with him...get some warm clothes for Ezra," he asked of the southerner's roommate for the weekend.
"Is he okay, Nate?" Buck paused over the pale, shivering unconscious body. He frowned at the wet, bloody shirt and winced as he felt the icy flesh.
"He will be, once I warm him..and stitch that side," the healer noted, "Blankets...too..."
"Did he say where Chris and Vin were?" J.D. asked the security guard retreating.
"No...mumbled something about Orrin Travis and the ATF and his girlfriend..."
"Girlfriend?" Nate tossed the sopping shirt away, from where he knelt next to Ezra by the fire. Soon as the rest of the icy clothes were removed and the body bundled in a large afghan from the sofa.
":Yeah...Tanya or Tatanya...or something odd...You got this...we want to go back to the area where we found him...look for the other two..."
"Stay in touch!" Orrin commanded, frowning down at Ezra Standish's body.
Twenty minutes went by, warm clothes were put on the shivering body, after the stitches in his side were bandaged. J.D. went with Derek and Josiah to the desk, looking at the old drawings from the original architect. Nate and Orrin remained by Ezra. Mary appeared, having changed into jeans and a sweater. She made her way to Ezra's side.
"What happened?" She asked, watching Nate tap the pale face and Ezra furrow his unopened lids.
"We're not sure," her father-in-law replied, rising and nodding to the desk. "Josiah?"
"Can't find anyplace that explains it...he and Chris were upstairs...they didn't leave from the house, the camera's would have picked them up. That tunnel...or tunnels...could go in any direction."
"Ezra...Ezra..." Nate lightly tapped the stilled cheek, until a green eye opened and inspected him oddly. "Welcome back..."
"It was a journey I would have gladly skipped." Ezra groaned, holding his side and trying to sit up.
"Nuh-uh," the dark-skinned EMT denied, "You stay put...you got chills and lost some blood."
"Nonsense," Ezra scoffed, sitting up and fingering the dark green sweatshirt he now wore. He took a brandy from Buck, who winked at him and gave him a small nod. "Thank you...what happened?"
"We were hoping you could tell us, Ace," the anxious mustached agent asked.
"A couple of the guards found you staggering around in the storm way on the outskirts of the property." Jackson supplied, then grabbed the body as the jade eyes widened and the whole frame swayed.
"What about Vin?" Buck demanded, "and Chris...where's he? Ezra? Ezra?" He shook the stuporous man.
"Buck!" Nate warned, moving his body between them. "Ez...what's going on?"
"Hekate...I saw...poor Mr. Tanner..."
"Carlos Nardone's wife..."
"She died, didn't she?" J.D. recalled of a news brief after he fled the country.
"No...she was in a coma..." Orrin replied, pursing his lips in thought. "She had an accident...in Mexico, going to the airstrip to meet his plane. The flight was late, he was held up while he tortured Vin. I thought I read where Nardone spared no expense. She had round the clock nurses at their estate..."
"Start talking Ezra, we're losing time." Buck pressed.
"Upstairs in the hallway, not far from the room where you left Vin, there is a secret passage. They've taken him below the bowels of this estate. They have a coven of sorts there...black cloaks and candles...chanting...paying homage...he calls himself 'Jonathan." Ezra paused and sipped the brandy, savoring the warmth that flooded him. "He has about a dozen young people with him, mostly male but six or seven females."
"Brielle..." Derek gasped, his voice an odd blend of horror and hope.
"What about Chris and Vin?" Buck demanded.
"There were several tunnels, we split up. They caught Chris...I found him in a ...a..."
"Tomb..." Nate replied, shivering at the video that they saw.
"..yes..." Ezra shivered, annoyed that he couldn't chase the chills away. "We found the area where Vin was being held...he's been badly injured...his leg..."
"We saw..." Josiah angered, "the bastard sent us a video..."
"Before we could devise a plan to rescue him, we discovered the real motive. Nardone is leading those fools by their noses. They believe him to be a Satanic cult leader named Jonathan. They think he's delivering them into an Eden of sorts, through a resurrection of a mythical goddess named Hekate. It's a macabre ruse..."
"The real motive?" J.D. cocked his head, tearing away from the map he studied.
"Mr. Tanner is AB negative, is he not?" The determined southerner rose, letting Buck held him stand. He remained in the other's supportive stance and saw Nate's worried face rise up.
"What about Vin's blood type?"
"It was Maria Nardone's as well, I'd wager..."
"Jesus!" Buck reeled back, dropping Ezra's arm and causing the smaller man to stagger. Only Nate's quick move saved him from toppling.
"What?" J.D. frowned, eyeing the twin looks of sickness riding Buck and Ezra.. "What?" He repeated, seeing Nate close his eyes and run a dark hand over his ashen face. "She's in Mexico...what's she got to do with Vin?" The youth inquired.
"She's in a glass coffin in the subterranean maze beneath this property." Ezra moved dazedly towards the map."...and that loathsome lunatic has a depraved notion that Vin's blood will restore her."
"You...can't....he wouldn't...you...don't...." J.D. denied, swallowing hard as the color left his face. "Oh God..."
"We have lots of work to do and little time to waste," Ezra's mind snapped back, he eyed the map for a few seconds, then stared hard at Derek Hawke. "A chapel...a family burial plot...where is it?"
"In Denver...my parents, grandparents...wife..." he paused, "Why?"
"I was there...that's where the tunnel led. When we were jumped, Chris shoved me into a tunnel, it got smaller and smaller until I was forced to crawl out. I came out in a cemetery..."
"That's impossible!" the owner denied, "I have no cemetery on the grounds."
"What was here before this?" Josiah asked, watching the older man trying to remember.
"My grandfather built this house...the land...the land was empty for over a hundred years."
"No...something was here..." the preacher eyed the ceiling, "How do you explain the tunnel in the wall?"
"I can't..." he shook his head."Well..no...that was just a myth..."
"What?" Nate asked, cocking his head.
"Well," Hawke sighed, "When I was little, there was an elderly man who used to work for my grandfather. When he was too feeble to continue working, my grandfather built him a cottage on the outskirts of the property. He used to tell me ghost stories...warned me if I didn't behave I'd get buried alive too."
"Buried alive?" Buck frowned.
"Some nonsense about a bunch of Spanish soldiers...got smallpox and were quarantined...the others grew fearful and sealed them in a vault...used stones...later...much later...another band of Spanish explorers found them...and buried them."
"That explains the tunnels..." Nate wondered, imaging the entombed prisoners trying to dig their way out. "But how could you not know about the ones in the walls?"
"My parents lived in Europe. We visited twice yearly...I married and split my time between London and New York. I only vacationed here. It's been kept up, of course, but...the servants ran the estate."
"Enough!" Buck moved to the map, "Ezra, can you find this place...where you got loose? We can split up. Half take the tunnel in the wall, the other half the cemetery." He glanced at his watch."It's almost eleven o'clock, we're losing time."
"Very well...I can show you the area in the wall upstairs. You'll need flashlights...and weapons." He glanced at the map and then closed his eyes, replacing the image. "It's southeast...on the far far edge of the property, beneath a large overgrowth of bushes, down a steep hill. Here..." he pointed. "I can find it..."
"Let's move!" Buck roared. "I'm gonna skin that son-of-a-bitch alive...."
+ + + + + + +
If there was a place that was close to heaven, it was the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. Vin Tanner raised his head, as the wind kissed his face. He inhaled the sweet scent and took an air bath in the glorious sunshine. He turned around in the raft, giving his best friend a beaming, life-drunk smile. It came right back at him, giving him a warm, self-satisfied feeling he'd missed most of his life. With Chris by his side, he felt nearly invincible. It was hard to put into words, the feeling of wholeness...like two halves of a coin. Each separate in their own right , but forged together by fate and bound for eternity. He heard the blond curse softly as a the churning river picked up as they approached a turn. His own war whoop of enthusiasm was met by another string of curses. Some of the words died in the rush of river, but the '...damn sorry-assed Texan...' stayed with him, giving him another smile. He heard Chris calling his name as the raft jumped and rode the current. Life just didn't get any better.
With every precious second that passed, Chris watched Vin's contented face get paler. He eyed the room, occupants, doorways, paths and weapons, gauging his move. The knife to his throat didn't leave much room for mistakes. He figured, with the right timing, he could take the two beefy men guarding him. He knew he couldn't wait too much longer, Vin was losing too much blood. He lip curled up in disgust when Nardone 'anointed' Vin's head and heart with an oil of some kind.
"Don't you fuckin' touch him..." he growled, his eyes glowering.
"You are either very brave or very foolish," the deluded leader replied, eyeing the knife tip that left yet another scarlet nick in the snarling enemies skin. "It was clearly spelled out in the vision I had in Mexico. He was the one to deliver my Hekate back to me. He carried the sacred blood and must pay for his sins. It is his..."
"Sins!" Chris roared, fighting against the arms that held him, ignoring the pain in his chest and the knife that bit into his collarbone.
"Yes! The mortal kind," the deranged South American replied. "If it not for having to be punished that day...She would still be with me."
"You damn near beat him to death...that was your choice. It's your fault she died..."
"She is not dead!" He roared, gripping Vin's throat tightly, enough to make the dazed blues widen in shock as the air was cut off. "She is waiting on the other side of the river...the path to Elysium is becoming clearer..."
Chris stared at the glazed black eyes of the tall, olive-skinned man. The hood slipped off, revealing a newly shorn head and goatee. He looked like evil incarnate...right down to the maniacal laugh.
"You're outta of your fuckin mind..." Chris spat, then saw his chance. He drew back and laughed, "You killed your wife...she died because of you, Nardone..." he saw several of the followers heads turn, first to him, then to Nardone.
"He is Jonathan..." a young woman near him informed. "He is our divine leader...he..."
"He is a fuckin' drug lord in South America. The only thing he's 'leading' is a body count. His name is Carlos Nardone. He's a drug dealer, gun runner and murdering bastard..."
"No...no...." murmurs rippled among the group.
"Silence Infidel!" Nardone roared at Larabee, backhanding Vin so hard, blood spurted from his mouth and nose. "See what you have done!"
Chris saw his opening. Nardone hands were trembling in rage and his eyes darted, searching for something lost long ago. He left Vin and made his way to the glass coffin. It was connected to a battery powered generator, which kept the body inside supplied with oxygen and life-sustaining fluids. Nardone had already prepared her, in order to divert Vin's blood into her. He saw the madman lift the lid covering her and place his hand on the side of her face. His own green eyes slid sideways. The gathering began murmur...eyes looking at the tall dark man in confusion. Chris took a deep breath, waiting for the blade near his throat to tremble and flex, then he made his move.
+ + + + + + +
"J.D....." Buck called into the radio, waiting for the static to leave. He was in a car with Ezra and Nathan. Two of Hawke's security team had left prior and were attempting to reach the ranger's station a few miles away. Although is was deserted, there would be a radio inside. They were prepared to leave the vehicle if the road was too icy and walk the rest of the way. Josiah , J.D. and two more of Hawke's men were in the tunnel that began at the end of the hallway of the second floor. Somewhere in this puzzle, the architect's original blueprints would answer the question. The builder must have found the lost tunnels and perhaps buried rooms of a settlement from the seventeen hundreds. As they left, Josiah remarked that he wouldn't be surprised if the returning soldiers had settled for awhile, enlarged the tunnels, maybe leaving treasure secured there. "Kid?"
"Yeah...we're in..." Dunne replied, gripping his gun and following Josiah's large frame. The lead figure held a large flashlight. "You guys ready?"
"We're just reaching the cemetery, can't see any buildings...a few tombstones..." Buck craned his neck, peering through the glass into the dark night. The headlights caught a pile of leaves and forest debris, raised off the ground. It had an odd, rectangular shape. "...we're gonna get out now and search around...I'll check back."
"Okay, Buck..." J.D. signed off. He stopped short when Josiah tapped the man in front on him on the shoulder.
"You hear something?" The ex-minister asked the burly guard in front of him. They all stood stock-still and listened. Faint voices and murmurs were heard. Following the sounds, they crept silently, deeper into the maze.
+ + + + + + +
"Ugh..." Chris grunted and shoved his elbow into the guards soft spot, just under his ribcage. With one deft move, he snapped his leg out, kicking the groin of the other guard hard, sending him to the ground. While he'd been sitting, forced to watch the blood being stolen from Vin, he'd worked the ropes loose. Now, as he rolled on the floor, bearing the weight and fists of several of the gathering, he jerked his hands free. A glint of silver in his side vision, caused him to turn, hissing as a blade brushed across his bare ribcage. He grabbed the brute's wrist and snapped it; the knife slid from his hands. The large forearm of the guard made and unwelcomed appearance against his throat. The pressure was unbearable, cutting off his air until he saw black spots. Without hesitation, he grabbed the knife and sent the blade sideways and behind him, twisting it as it entered the belly of the brute. He fell back, the arm disappeared and Chris sucked in air. Then he kicked the face of the guard, rendering him unconscious. The others crawled away and quaked, not sure of what to do. They were young...very young and by the glazed eyes, the leader suspected whatever they'd been drinking during the ceremony was drugged. He dashed through them, ignoring the blood running down his chest, neck and side. Vin...his leaden legs lumbered for the dazed sharpshooter. But before he could get near the IV line which was draining the blood away, Nardone appeared.
"Drop it or I'll kill him..." he threatened, holding a syringe against Vin's throat. "...air embolism..." He answered the green eyes of the injection of air into the blood stream.
Chris gasped for breath, swiped the blood running from a cut over his eye and eyed the body of the woman next to him. His fingers moved to the switch of the generator. "You kill him...I'll kill her..." He saw Nardone's eyes flick towards his wife, his head moving slightly. A standoff...green eyes locked onto black ones.
The crowd grew silent, eyes darting to the two angry figures. Jonathan, their leader, who'd provided for them, taught them and was going to guide them to the Garden of Elysium. The blond infidel, blood running down his sweat-slick chest and adorning his warrior's face. The whispered among each other, then the crowd began to chant.
"Hail Jonathan...he is all powerful. Hail Jonathan...Hail Jonathan..."
Chris backed up slightly, fingers caressing the button on the generator. They rose and began to move, like lambs to the slaughter. He saw Nardone's lips curl up into an evil smile, as the army of hooded figures began to close in on him. The murmuring grew louder...his vision began to cloud, as he had no free hand to swipe the blood running in his eyes. His heart was hammering...time had just run out.
"Vin!" he screamed as they surged forward.
+ + + + + + +
"Easy does it, Ace," Buck warned, helping the injured man from the car. He got Ezra to his feet and helped him maneuver through the dark cemetery. Nathan was already squatting over the odd, bulky shape, brushing leaves and debris aside. The headlights from the jeep, gave bright illumination. "Anything, Nate?"
"Yeah...wood...old wood...real old..." the dark head cocked, "Sit him down on that stone bench and help me here, Buck..."
"Down you go," the taller man eased his ailing friend onto an raised slab on concrete. Within minutes, the two pairs of hands had taken all the muck away, revealing an old set of double doors, just raised inches off the ground. "Boy, that's weird..."
"No, that's smart," Nate corrected, recalling his history lessons in school. "Whoever built this, had a reason. The Spanish came through these parts in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Could be they had treasure hidden...they put the doors here, covered 'em over...Indians or anybody else chasin' 'em go right by..." He grunted, tugging on an old brass ring.
"You two are fortunate that Mr. Larabee had sense enough to acquire me for this elite group," Ezra gasped, raising his weapon and firing.
"Jesus!" Buck barked, "You could have warned me..." He kicked the lock free and pulled the door open, revealing a cold burst of air and a set of crumbling concrete steps. He backed up and made his way to the grinning southerner, as Nate cut the engine off. The EMT grabbed a large flashlight, threw on his backpack and lead the way.
"I should leave you out here..." Buck threatened, lifting Ezra's hand over his shoulder. "What if I moved...you could have killed me."
"Dreadful thought..." Ezra panted, digging his fingers into Buck's strong shoulder. "Women...women...ever...everywhere...would...throw...them...selves...off...build..ings..."
"Be a helluva funeral..." Buck grinned, taking on more of the smaller man's weight. "I'd leave you Pearl."
"Do I appear to be that desperate?" Ezra hissed of Buck's infamous black book, as pain ripped through his side.
"Have I ever steered you wrong?" Buck defended of his list of female names and numbers. "Remember Anya?"
"Hah!" Ezra choked, then grinned as the image of the six-foot Russian tennis player came into view. "I was nearly...forced into...early retirement..." The limber blond athlete met Buck on a flight from London. Buck was more interested in the pretty French writer covering the upcoming match. He'd set up Ezra on a double date, which led to a night neither would ever forget.
"You loved it," Buck tossed back, recalling the wine, lusty women and Ezra disappearing into the world class player's large suite at the hotel. He didn't come in to work for two days and limped for a week. He heard Ezra chuckle, as they entered a crypt and Nathan's light caught the shackles on the wall. "This is where them bastards tortured Vin..." He seethed, watching Nate's dark eyes following the wall.
Nate moved towards the opening, forcing it wider. "This way..."
"You okay, Ez...maybe you should wait here?" Buck didn't hide the worry in his voice.
"...and...miss...all...all...the ...fun..." Standish panted, seeing Vin's pale sacrificial body in his mind's eye. He took a deep breath and straightened his body up a bit. "Lead...on...Romeo..."
+ + + + + + +
The calm trip on the river turned violent. The skies darkened, the winds kicked up, the raft twisted and turned in the current. They were tossed from the vessel, thrown like rag dolls against the violent water. Vin felt his breath leave him as the strong tide took him under. Black...blackness so dark and cold...the house of the devil. He stopped fighting, letting the icy grips of death embrace him. Then, he heard a voice, from far away. Chris...Chris was calling him...help? Chris needed him...he was in trouble. He kicked the teeth of the devils nipping at his heels. He pushed through the black water...harder...harder...until he broke the surface, spitting and choking. He turned his head in the storm, eyes frantically searching. He saw sharks circling Chris...the blond was bleeding. He was hurt..they would kill him. He saw a large monster with blood dripping from his teeth. The monster was blocking his path to Chris.
"No..." he screamed and with his last bit of strength, he dove forward, into the beast's belly . "Chris!"
+ + + + + + +
The move came so fast and so unexpected, it stilled the activity in the room. Suddenly, Nardone shot forward, going to his knees. The syringe flew through the air and out of harm's way. Chris shoved a hole through the would-be-zombies and went at the large, lunatic with his knife. Nardone moved, so the blade was buried above his hip, rather then in his chest. Chris made a club from his locked hands and belted the dazed man, sending him sideways in a heap.
"Vin!" He screamed, dropping to the figure now lying on the floor. His trembling fingers eased the needle from Vin's vein and he doubled the arm over, applying pressure. Then his shaking hand found the pale throat...and a pulse. "You're gonna scare me to death yet, Cowboy..." he whispered, lifting the prone body against him. "God..." he sighed, as Vin's head flopped against his neck. The reunion was brief, as a gunshot split the air.
"No!" Chris screamed, covering Vin's body with his own.
+ + + + + + +
"Gunfire!" J.D. yelled. "Move...move...." He ordered, sending the bodies in front of him into a fast run.
"Shit!" Buck screamed, as the nearby shot split their silent journey. "Sorry Ace..." He lowered Ezra to the ground, patted his shoulder once, leveled his weapon and followed Nathan up the dark passage, into the opening where low lights flickered.
+ + + + + + +
"What the hell?" Buck hollered, nearly skidding into Nathan, who'd stopped in front of him.
"I don't think you're so far off," Nate answered, ducking for cover as a bullet sailed past. "Get down!"
So they split, Buck dove to the right, behind a wooden bench. He flipped it over, it's narrow length barely covered his long torso. From his vantage point, the dimly lit room revealed several hooded figures. He raised his head slightly, when he saw Josiah's close cropped gray hair sail by on a passage overhead. A cave...large and rough hewn, but with candle lamps, wooden benches, and some kind of satanic-like coven. He squinted while looking at a painting on the wall just to his right. It was an eerily realistic image of disembodied hands holding a dripping heart...then he saw whose it was. He swallowed hard as the pastel Tanner features hit his eyes.
"Vin?" He whispered, raising his head again. Nate was nowhere to be seen and Josiah disappeared too. He moved again, crawling on the damp, musty earth until his hand his something smooth. Glass...he lifted his head and just inches away on the other side was...
"Shit!" He hissed backing up and banging his forehead on the edge of the coffin. "Christ Almighty..."
Nate following the uneven, narrow passage, crawling around the upwards, winding path, until he saw a familiar face.
"Next year, let's just give out candy at the Children's Hospital..." Josiah hissed, as Nate joined him and J.D.
"Where's the other two?" Nate asked of the security men who'd been with Sanchez and Dunne.
"They found a bunch of those...those..." J.D. nodded his head to the cloaked figures below. "One of them is taking them back to the mansion to the detention area. The other is guarding that path, Nardone can't get out that way. Can you see Chris and Vin? Who's the shooter?"
"Dunno," Nathan coughed, the dank air was close.
"I'm gonna over there for a better look," the youth bolted off, before the others could stop him.
"J.D....J.D...." Nate hissed, shaking his head as the nimble body disappeared around the perimeter. A few seconds later they saw his dark head bob over the edge of a cave wall, just above them. They watched as his keen eyes did a slow sweep of the area below, now silent and dark. The candles were all but extinguished, the few remaining not providing much light. Then his head disappeared again. The footsteps told them he was on his way back.
"Well?" Josiah asked, peering into the dim light at Dunne's sweat-streaked face.
"It's a girl...with curly hair...I'm not sure, but I think it's Gabrielle Hawke. There's something wrong with her eyes...she looks high. Vin's body is on the..."
"Body?" Nate's eyes widened.
"Well...he's on the ground, it looks like Chris dragged him behind an altar. Nardone was just starting to move, but he's bleeding bad from his side. She's in between them, keeps changing where the gun gets pointed."
"Chris or Vin hit?" Josiah queried, only to have the youth shrug.
"I can't see them. Just Vin's legs and the top of Chris's head...but..." J.D.'s thought was interrupted by the deep voice of Carlos Nardone.
"Come to me, my pet, have I not shown you the Gate of Eternity?" He oozed, watching the young woman's large, limpid eyes. His own beady dark ones fitted to the pistol in her hand. "I am Jonathan, I am you master. Your body is mine...your will is mine..."
"Hail...Jon...nath...an...." she stammered, transfixed by the dark eyes and mesmerizing voice.
"Yes..." he oozed, his hand itching for the gun. It was trained on the back of a blond head. He smiled as she raised the weapon higher. "He is the intruder...he took the Lamb from us..he hurt Hekate..."
"He...kate...hurt..." She cocked her head, blinking at the blurry body on the floor. "...kill the...in...tru..der...kill...kill..."
Buck inched his way around the coffin, frowning as a mass of lines and a humming generator got in his way. The unit was battery powered and large..so much so he couldn't get by. He dropped flat on his back and rolled again, away from the coffin. He saw an opening in the wall and crawled inside, worming his way behind the bodies on the floor. Finally the narrow passage ended, and he turned left, peering around the bend into near darkness. A surge of relief coursed through him, as a familiar face scowled at him from a few feet away.
"Where the hell have you been?" Chris whispered, gritting his teeth against the burning pain in his ribcage.
"You're welcome," Buck muttered, wiping the trickle of blood from the cut on his forehead. "You hit?"
"No...Vin..." Chris panted, every word like a knife piercing his broken ribs. "...bastard drained his blood, Buck..."
"What?" Buck's eyes narrowed in horror. His gaze then went to the silvery shadows of Vin Tanner's face. "Chris?" he jerked his head up, eyes denying what his heart felt.
"No...he's alive...barely..." Chris coughed, his eyes lingering on the Tunnel of Lost Souls. His mind filled with a picture of Ezra slowly suffocating to death. "Ezra's gone...I think...he..."
"He's fine..." Buck sent back, "Shit, he'll bury all of us..."
"But...the tunnel...Nardone said..."
"Ez told us it collapsed on him, he dug his way out on his belly. He's just outside, he's the one who got us here."
Chris shut his eyes and took a small breath, relieve that the southerner was still among the living. "You got a clean shot?"
Buck moved up further, lifting his head enough to see the gun being raised at the back of Chris's unprotected head. The way his body was pinned down, tangled with Vin's and some debris, he couldn't move...or see the deadly threat.
"No!" Buck sprang as the gun fired.
"Buck?" Chris yelled, slumping back a bit as the pain slammed into his chest. He saw Buck stagger and drop to his knees. Several shots rang out from above, the girl dropped and the dozen hooded figures began to chant in disarray. He eased his aching, battered body, slick with blood, from beneath Vin's cold frame. He stood and staggered over to Buck, who was now on his feet.
"Where is he?" Chris gasped, eyes wide and feral. "That fuckin' lunatic is mine! Gimme your gun, Buck...I want his head on a fuckin' plate...Goddammit, give me your gun. I'm going after him. I'm gonna...I'm...I'm...shit!"
"You're gonna sit your ass down, before you keel over!"
"Get off of me, Nate...let me go...that's an...order..." Chris protested as two strong arms, lifted him from where he fell on his knees. The room darkened and when he opened his eyes again, he was seated against the broad side of the massive altar. He blinked as two concerned brown eyes looked back at him.
"No!" the dark-skinned agent growled, when the determined body tried to move past him. "You're bleeding, your ribs are busted..." he shook his head, pressing a cloth to the dodging face, "I'm hoping you still got an eye under all the blood on your face." He put pressure on the wound on the side of the damaged ribcage "...this cut on your side is bad..."
"So slap a fuckin' Band-Aid on it..." Chris snarled, his damp head bobbing to see past Nathan's chest. "I'm going after him. Where the fuck is he?"
"Disappeared...Buck went after him," Nate answered, securing a butterfly bandage on the wound over the eye. "You ain't fit to chase your shadow...you hear?"
"J.D. followed him..." Josiah announced, squatting by the bloody warrior named Larabee. "I herded the others over to the guard in the passage. He's taking them back to the mansion. They'll update Orrin."
"Vin?" Chris shoved Nate's hand from his side and tried to crawl to where he left his best friend.
"He's topside," Josiah answered the concerned face, "Come on, let's get you off the floor, Boss." He easily lifted the smaller man, steadying him, before helping him to sit on the altar.
"He's lost a lot of blood," Jackson answered Larabee. Josiah placed Vin on the edge of the wide stone tableau. The skilled hands quickly examined the injured man and his heart sank. "The leg needs surgery...he's got a bullet in his arm..."
"That sick fuckin' dog took his blood..." Chris panted, wincing as his sticky fingers held a rough bandage against the deep wound in his side. "Is he going to die?"
"I don't know, Chris." Nate's fingers rested against Vin's throat, timing the weak pulse. "He's really weak...I can barely get anything...he needs blood."
"So take it," Chris offered, eyes meeting Nathan's.
"He's AB negative," Josiah recalled, as the organizer of Team's Seven blood donor drives, he knew all their blood types. "I can check with the guests..."
"The hell you will!" Chris roared, grimacing as his inflection forced too much breath through his injured ribs. Without realizing it, his free arm shot out, moving across Vin's chest and resting there. "Politicians...athletes...rich bitches...Who the fuck knows what they're carrying. Hepatitis, HIV...No way, I don't know they're clean. I won't take that chance, not with Vin. I'm O negative, I'm clean, you take all you need." He offered and saw Nate's stone face freeze for a moment, before the soulful brown eyes softened and a small smile played on the dark man's features.
"You'd do it too," the EMT admired, easily seeing the open display of emotion in the green eyes. Chris didn't say a word, he didn't have to, his eyes spoke volumes. "Okay...let's get you stitched up first. Josiah, see if you can find any medical gear back there," he jerked his head to the small area behind the coffin. "He must have a stash of stuff..."
"You're gonna do it here?" Sanchez asked.
"I got no choice," Jackson responded, tying off a bandage on Vin's arm. His hand rummaged in his backpack, drawing out a needle and some thread. He then took out antiseptic wound cleaner. "He's too weak to be moved. Come on, Chris, let's get you on your side, so I can get you sewn up."
"Ez...ra?" the blond grimaced, glaring at Josiah. "Get his ass in here...damn stubborn son-of-a-bitch took a blade for me..."
"Roger, Boss..." Sanchez winked, "I'll get the gear first."
Ten minutes later, Chris was lying next to Vin on the wide stone surface. Josiah found a pile of extra robes and slit the sides, making several small blankets. After Nathan used Nardone's spare equipment to set up the transfusion, he covered the injured men with the newly shorn blankets.
"From the container we found, he took about three pints from Vin."
"So take it back," Chris grunted, trying to keep his eyes open. He didn't see the wide smile on Nate Jackson's face. "What?" he asked of the soft laugh.
"Nothing," Jackson chuckled, still amazed at the ease of which Chris Larabee would sacrifice for Vin Tanner. "Two will get him stable. That will hold him until we fly him to a hospital. I hope those guards made it to the ranger's station. If these winds die down, they ought to be able to get a chopper in here."
The gunshots stopped, but the silence alarmed him more. He tried twice to stand, but ended up on his face both times. Now he was too exhausted to move, content to shiver in the cold air in the dark passage. He drifted, resting his eyes and then heard footsteps. He fumbled with his arm, cursing softly when he realized he had no weapon.
"Looking for your peashooter, Ez?" Josiah laughed, kneeling next to the harsh breathing body.
"Vin damn near got drained of his blood. Nardone had some sick idea that he could bring her back to life. He had that glass coffin rigged up...but he took her blood out, thinking Vin's would bring her back. From what one of those kids we took into custody said, she's been in a coma for months. A couple weeks ago, she went brain dead and disappeared." He lifted Ezra up and steadied him.
"How did they get here? How is it no one saw them...or all that equipment?"
"I don't know...but these tunnels go everywhere." Josiah led the dizzy southerner back towards the large room. "Orrin said Hawke was in Europe most of the year. I heard one of the catering staff mention renovations. It's possible that's how they got in...and set this up. There was nobody here to supervise, except Hawke's secretary and I don't think she'd notice. It turns out Christina Gates took a job for the summer as Claudette's assistant," he noted of Hawke's secretary. "Then the old lady took sick, had to go back east and Gates took over. She was the shooter...she's dead. I'll bet we find some answers in the original blueprints too..." He felt Ezra stiffen as they entered the room . The pale green eyes flinched in concern at the pale body on the altar.
"Vin..." Ezra said so softly, it was nearly indiscernible. He took a deep breath as Josiah's account his home. He shook off the large arm and walked forward, over to where Nathan was checking the sniper's vital signs. His gaze fluttered to the line of life, fittingly enough connecting the two 'blood' brothers.
"May I offer..." he started, and Nathan turned, "That is to say, if you require more..."
"Thanks, Ezra," the dark eyes smiled, "But you ain't got the right type. Now that would be something, Standish blood running in that skinny Tanner body."
"It's never too late to improve one's station in life," the sly conman noted, his features softening when he looked at the pale Texan. "Will he survive?"
"I hope so," Jackson rubbed the back of his neck, "Josiah...I'm gonna need blankets, pillows, orange juice, cake or something sweet for Chris...water...Oh and let me show you where we came in, it's not far and it will be easier to get Vin to the chopper this way..." his voice trailed off as he exited the room.
The distinct snapping of fingers took Standish's gaze from Tanner's face. His eyes narrowed as his team leader's finger's wiggled. He cocked his head and saw the blood-caked Larabee features screw up. A large bandage nearly covered one eye, which now popped open to glare at him.
"What could I possibly have done?" he stammered at the penetrating gaze.
Chris lifted his head enough to see the empty room, he scowled again and wiggled his fingers impatiently. "Give it over..."
"What makes you think I'm 'packing'?" Ezra grinned wearily at the request. His own wound was throbbing in time with his head.
"You'll be packing your belongings, when I transfer your smug ass to Burnett's team," he warned of the strict, overly arrogant, highly disliked leader of Team Four. "Give it up..." he commanded, hitching himself up on his only free elbow.
"You understand I'm doing this strictly out of self-preservation." Ezra moved closer to the table, frowning slightly when he saw the bandaged chest. He gazed at the doorway, while sliding the silver flask to his boss. He felt the metal touch his fingers at the same time a gasp of pleasure sounded behind him. "You're welcome."
"You're a handy guy to have in a pinch..." Chris returned, keeping his hand extended after the small flask disappeared. He waited until Ezra gripped the hand, "...thanks..." he eyed the spot where the knife slashed the slim body. "You play your cards right, I'll approve a couple sick days."
"You're all heart." Ezra grinned, returning the shake and easing the blond back down. "and since I have no desire to reside anywhere near that loathsome creatures office," he noted of the nefarious ATF leader, "You will lie still and not lose any unnecessary body fluids or incur Mr. Jackson's wrath."
"Don't get cocky, Ezra..." Chris grunted, letting his eyes slide shut. His mind reeled with several thoughts. Would Vin survive? How would he overcome the horror of this night? Where were Buck and J.D.? He stifled a yawn and bit his lip as the burning ribs protested the slight movement. Did Nardone get away again?
"Did you say something?" Ezra moved back to the altar, but Chris was resting. Nathan returned and resumed his protective stance, checking the vitals of all his patients. After warning Ezra several times sit down, stop talking and rest, he allowed himself a few minutes to take a breather. Josiah returned, bringing a small army bearing supplies. Mary and Rain appeared, each pitching in to tend to the wounded men.
"Buck?" Chris gasped, as Nate drew the needle out, having taken two units of blood from him.
"Nothing yet..." Josiah stated, pulling a blanket over the disgruntled Standish. "Nate, you need me? If not, I'm gonna take a couple men and head out to look for them."
"Go on," Nate nodded, shoving Chris back down. With two thick blankets under him and two more over him, he was in a warm cocoon. He drained a quart of orange juice, unable to quench his thirst. He managed to eat the small cakes that Nate gave him. He groaned as the dizziness and weakness that the EMT warned him of, overcame him. His damp head rested on a pillow. He felt a warm cloth wiping the blood from his face. He heard Mary talking softly to him, but didn't have the energy to reply. He drifted into a sea of fuzzy black and gray waves, until noise, lights and activity roused him. Unable to open his eyes, he heard strange voices and in his disorientation, became alarmed. Nardone...had he returned? Vin..was Vin safe? A hand on his shoulder brought his own arm up, weakly gripping a throat.
"Cut that out!" Nate warned, swatting the weak limb, "I'm on your side. The chopper's here, Vin's already inside. We're taking you and Ezra now. You just rest..."
Rest. How could he rest? How was Vin? Where were Buck and J.D? Was Nardone dead yet? Too many questions...too many hands poking at him. Too many voices whispering anxiously...the prick of an IV line going in his arm. Somebody placing oxygen on him...Vin...Vin...he drew his heavy eyes open long enough to first gaze at the slitted green eyes of Standish, who managed a rakish wink. Then he turned to the still, pale body next to him. The fine features relaxed in slumber made him look much younger. He kept that image, even after his eyes slid shut again, as the motion of the air vehicle sent him under the black tide.
The underground labyrinth seemed to stretch on for miles, or so it seemed to the pursuers. The dark tunnel's damp, chilling air caused his breath to come in short pants. He gripped his weapon tighter, keeping his eyes on the shadowy specter ahead of him. Grit kept him going, long after the pain in his shoulder turned into a throbbing dull ache. The burning desire pushed him; a quest to end the nightmares he'd suffered since Vin Tanner's body landed on the tarmac on a dusty airstrip. Once and for all to take the pain away that he'd carried since the day he had to answer the bandaged, battered body lying so still in a hospital bed. The raspy question, 'Did we get 'im?' still rang in his ears. But the worst pain, the one that ate at him still, was the agonizing disappointment in the penetrating blue eyes when he had to say 'no'. The soft call of 's'okay Bucklin...' wounded him deeply. Carlos Nardone had made him watch while Vin Tanner was nearly beaten to death, then laughed at him from the air when the Texan's body landed on the earth. So fueled by his quest, he ignored the blood running down his back and the numbness in his arm and drove on...for Vin and for himself.
"Where are you Buck?" J.D. thought aloud, scrambling to catch up to the older man's long strides. He'd seen his best friend take off like a shot of greased lightning after the dark devil. He jumped over the cave wall and followed, immediately immersed in a sea of darkness. Only the labored breathing and an occasional cough kept him on the right track. The twisting maze seemed endless, but at last he found fresh, cold air hitting his face. Then, just as suddenly, he was exiting the mouth of a cave. The large silver moon bathed the area in an eerie silver light. His hazel eyes adjusted and as he knelt inside the cave mouth, he gazed carefully around the perimeter. Keeping the gun trained ahead of him, he saw Nardone first in the distance. He was limping towards a dirt path. The clearing was between a thick overgrowth of foliage. Then he saw Buck follow, an action that propelled him to move.
"Shit!" Buck hissed as the spiky thorns of the bushes bit his face. The driving icy shards of the freezing rain that pelted him had no effect. He was already numb and running on empty. His leaden legs were moving on will alone. His drunken gait sent him to the ground twice, the slippery ice cutting his palms each time he tried to rise again. Then a clearing appeared and a large van. He saw Nardone clearly now, the cloak was long gone, the large body was in black jeans and a thick sweater. He'd opened the driver's side door and the dim light bulb gave light...just enough for the mustached agent to act.
"You sick son-of-a-bitch!" Buck growled, "Get your fuckin' arms up...ATF!"
"Go to hell," Nardone spat back, amazed that the injured man could walk, let alone stand. Without even flinching, he jerked the knife Larabee stabbed him with, from the fleshy area above his hip and waited. His teeth bared and he turned, launching himself at the tall agent.
All the air left Buck when the heavy wall of muscle hit him. They rolled on the icy ground, each bleeding and winded. Buck felt the knife slice him first in the thigh and then in the side. He fired his last bullet, the gasp and shudder told him Nardone was hit. He turned the gun around, clubbing the side of the evil man's face. The knife rose again, above his throat and Buck dropped the gun, using his hands to snap the other's wrist. The knife fell and the two bloody warriors each rolled away, recovering sacred breath. Wearily, they got to their knees, then staggered to their feet, circling each other like panthers.
"He is not so pretty now..." Nardone sneered, swiping blood from his lip, "The bastardo will suffer...and I will cut his heart out while he watches..."
"Not this time," Buck's voice was low and lethal.
They exchanged a series of punches, some finding flesh, some air. Each weakening with every moment from blood loss and shock. Buck's eye was swelling, his left arm long useless, blood poured from his leg and side, but he never felt stronger.
"Oh...yes...I remember now..you had a front row seat..." Nardone grunted as a fist hit his wounded side. "...such a pretty puta...my men told me...his ass...was...tight..." he baited, needing to enrage his opponent into losing the upper hand.
"...lyin' sack of shit..." Buck panted, easily hearing the falsehood. "Yeah, I remember...he never...said a word..." he laughed then, seeing the rage in the dark eyes. "...made a fool of you...pissed you off...you lost all...that...money...millions...and your whore..."
"Ahhhhh!" Nardone screamed.
"Buck!" J.D. stumbled into the clearing and was horrified at the sight of his partner.
"Stay out of it, J.D.," Buck called back, eyes never leaving the evil one's. "He's mine!"
"Not to worry..." Nardone panted, swinging a fist and making contact with the side of the already battered face. "I will...take...good...care...of the boy...after...you...are...dead..." He used a left, then a right, taking the tall gringo down.
Buck took a deep breath and willed up all his strength. He fingers roamed the dirt, until they felt the hilt of the knife. Nardone's hands were around his throat, choking the life out of him. Gritting his teeth he brought the knife up, thrusting once into the soft belly and ripping it upwards.
"Go to hell you fuckin' lunatic!" Buck gasped, watching as the life left the black eyes. It took a few more seconds before the dead weight was lifted and someone was tapping his face. His hand flew up defensively.
"I'm on your side," J.D. grabbed the errant fist. "Take it easy, you're bleeding like a stuck pig. Jesus Buck...stay down!"
"Get...off...me..." He shoved the youth aside and crawled on his belly, hauling himself up over the body. He grabbed the drug lord's throat and lifted the head, slamming it into the ground. "You son-of-a-bitch...you sick, fuckin' son-of-a-bitch..."
"Buck, he's dead," J.D. grabbed the larger body from behind, pinning his arms to his sides. "He's gone...he can't Vin anymore. He's dead." Only when the body he held lost all tension, did he move around to the front, gripping the stuporous man's shoulders. "Do you understand me? He's dead...he's gone..." The youth paused, his handsome face creasing in alarm when Buck laughed, just before going limp in his arms.
Halloween morning, eight a.m. , St. Joseph's Hospital in Denver
Light filtered through his slit lids, awakening his headache. The slamming pain only increased when his eyes opened. He groaned and fumbled, trying to free his hand from under the mummy-like blanket wrappings.
Josiah. He relaxed as his hand found the button and he pushed. That action brought his aching body forward, until he was upright. Then he summed up his courage and opened his eyes slowly. The large graying head appeared through a blurry veil, the smoky eyes were regarding him cautiously. He turned his head, widening and narrowing his eyes until the room became clear. He took a long gaze around, cringing as Ezra waved to him from the next bed.
"Who the hell left him in?" he croaked, turning back to where Sanchez's deep laugh rumbled.
"Be nice to Ezra," Josiah warned, leaning over the bedrail, "He's keepin' that bed warm until Vin's fit enough to get here."
"Vin!" Chris croaked, wincing over a dry throat. His eyes drilled in to the older man's, prompting him to speak.
"He's out of recovery, they just took him to ICU. His leg was a mess, he's gonna be in a cast for six weeks or so and need rehab. They're giving him blood, they need to keep him in ICU for about twelve hours, but he'll be right next to you by nightfall. He's weak and he's got some congestion in his lungs, but he'll be limping around the office, driving us crazy in no time." He smiled at the deep sigh that left Larabee's bruised lungs. The painful injury would hamper their leader, but he news of his best friend's recovery was the best medicine.
"We get that bastard?" Larabee inquired and saw Josiah nodding.
"Good..." Chris groaned, sinking back into the pillow. "The bar open?" he croaked, desperately needing a drink.
"Hold on, Boss..." Josiah replied, filling a cup with ice water. Chris downed two before he was sated.
"Nectar of the Gods..." the blond sighed, lifting the cup to be filled again. He noticed how large the cup was and frowned. "What's with the big cup?"
"You need to drink allot of water, on account of the blood you gave Vin. They're gonna give you some iron pills and that IV for volume," Josiah nodded to the line running in Larabee's arm. "You're gonna be weak for awhile, you'll need to rest. You need to eat..." he waited and saw the matted head nod once. "Good....I'll tell the nurse."
"Wait!" Chris called out as Josiah reached the door. Something was wrong, he rummaged through the foggy, cobwebs in the pounding head on his shoulders and grimaced. Then his green eyes grew wide and sought the preachers. "Buck! J.D.!"
Josiah started to answer, but the toilet flushing interrupted him.
"That would be the younger half of the dynamic duo...his nervous energy is testing the water line." Ezra imparted as J.D.'s dark head appeared.
"Chris!" He bounded over to the bed, "Hey you're awake. Can I get you something? You want some more water? You need a pillow? They brought your breakfast but you weren't up, so I told them to take it away. But they said you could get another one..."
"Put a sock in it!" Chris hissed, putting both hands to silence the verbal parade. "Christ, Kid my head's fallen' off now!"
"Sorry!" J.D. winced.
"Buck?" Larabee's eyes lifted to Josiah's again.
"He's keepin' Vin company," Sanchez edged, "He'll be up here later." He paused and saw the curious light in the green eyes bearing down on him. "He needs this, Chris. He's been haunted since Nardone got away last time. He wants to tell Vin...finally give him the right answer. Nathan's with him. He should be in bed resting but, he's posted himself by Vin's bed...he won't budge."
"He took the mother fucker out?" Chris rasped, reaching for the water J.D. offered.
"He beat the snot out of him!" the youth enthused, spilling some ice water on Chris and wincing as the green eyes nearly burned a hole in him. "Sorry! I'll wipe it up..."
"Don't touch me!" Chris snarled, "Calm down will you? Jesus, you're jumpier than a frog in mating season."
"Good Lord!" Ezra groaned, hearing Vin's words from his boss's mouth. "You've been hanging around our illustrious sharpshooter too long..."
"It was like a movie..." J.D. gushed of Buck's heroic actions, "Dark, stormy, icy pelting down on the two of them. Both of them bleeding and wounded, trading punches. Nardone started talking nasty about Vin, but Buck didn't let it get to him. He turned the tables, made Nardone lose his cool. Then Nardone jumped him...Buck got that knife and split him up the middle, like gutting a fish."
"Thanks for the visual," Ezra grimaced as his breakfast threatened to reappear.
"He was awesome!" Dunne continued, eyes shining, "Every time he got stabbed, he kept coming back..."
"Every time?" Chris interrupted, turning back to the voice of reason, still holding the door open. "How bad?"
"Oh, he's looking real pretty," Sanchez grinned, then reassured the concern looking at him. "He's okay, Chris. Nothing a little R and R won't cure. Busted his collarbone, got slashed in the leg and side, his face...well...he'd scare the reflection right out of the mirror. But he's proud as hell..." He saw the blond head nod and a small smile play on the handsome face. He ducked out to get the nurse and order Chris's breakfast.
"Hey, wait until I tell you about how I got Buck and the body down the mountain in an ice storm!" J.D. gushed, drawing a chair up.
"Tempted as I might be," Ezra winced, grabbed the rail for support and gingerly eased his tender, stitched body into a flannel robe. He was already in slippers and stood on unsteady legs. "I feel the desire to walk off my breakfast..."
"Get your yellow ass back here, Standish!" Chris growled as the smirking southerner, tipped two fingers along the side of his head, grinned like a Cheshire cat and headed for the door. "Coward..." Chris called after the disappearing body. He rested his head again, covering his eyes with his hand as J.D.'s burst of jangled phrases and descriptive sentences hit him like bullets.
+ + + + + + +
"It could be hours, Buck," Nathan tried again, standing behind the injured agent. It hurt to look at Wilmington. His left arm was in a sling, fresh stitches were holding the wounds in his thigh and side together. His face...he winced at the swollen, hamburger like flesh. One eye was swollen shut, the cheekbone, cheek and jaw were purple and swollen. The lip was stitched too, puffy and insolent. Yes, it hurt to look at Buck, until you saw the pride in the eye that was visible. Pride and a lot more. His good hand held Vin's limp, cold one. His marred face never left the pale one of the unconscious body in the bed. He didn't notice the many IV lines feeding into Tanner, or the apparatus holding his leg in place. He never gave an indication that he even heard his words. He just stared, held that hand and waited for those blue eyes to open. Nathan sighed, gave Buck's shoulder a squeeze and turned as the door curtain parted in the ICU cubicle and Orrin appeared.
"Good Morning, Orrin," he said, standing by the entry to the well staffed area.
"I spoke with the head nurse," The judge replied, "She told me Vin's doing well and they don't expect any complications. Why isn't Buck in his own bed?"
"'cause he's Buck..." Nathan chuckled, "He won't leave until he talks to Vin...it's been coming a long time. He needs closure."
"To put away the demons once and for all?" The older man guessed.
"You know?" Jackson saw the wise eyes trained on the hero by the bed.
"I do," he nodded, "I've been there...many times. I'm going up to see Chris, then I'm meeting Derek. He's devastated by finding Brielle..."
"She's alive..." Nate said of the zombie-like young woman they found among those gathered up.
"She's non-responsive...they're not sure what drugs Nardone used on her. She might never leave that catatonic state." He appraised, "The others are being detained by the F.B.I., some of them have criminal records, some are runaways. Josiah's guess was correct. When Derek's secretary handed over the running of the estate to Christina Gates, she drew up the contract for the renovations. That gave Nardone's crew months to set up that...that...hell hole. It turns out that the original architect, a man named Carson, was brilliant but tortured. He discovered the caves and tunnels when Mannington Hawke hired him to survey the land. He built that elaborate underground cavern and used it for human sacrifices. He got away with it for years...he lived in a cottage on Hawke's property. After his death, his followers went to Mexico, where Nardone heard about him."
"...and when his wife was in that coma, he connected Vin...through vengeance and his rare blood type..."
"Yes," Orrin nodded, "..and he came damn close to killing him...too close..." He gave the other man a nod and headed for the bed. "Buck...Buck..." he tapped the shoulder and the face moved a little. "You should be resting, Son."
"Plenty of time for that later." Buck whispered, "He needs..." he faltered, eyes going back to the slack Tanner features, the youth shining through in the relaxed stance. "...I don't want him waking up here...alone..."
"I heard what you did," the older man gave a small tug on the blue sweatshirt Wilmington wore, "You wear that badge well..."
"Thanks," Buck sighed, his eyes glued to Vin's face, "must be the company I keep..."
"I'm going up to see Chris," the other advised, "You get some rest..."
"Yeah..." Buck's voice was distracted. Finally they were alone. At intervals, he closed his eyes, the headache would flare up and his arm hurt like a bitch. If one more well intended nurse asked him why he wasn't in his room...if Nathan started picking on him again...if...
The soft voice caused his heart to clench. The light tap on his hand brought his eyes open. Two pain-clouded blue eyes looked at him with concern and emotion. He found a smile, a genuine, life-loving grin. The first he'd enjoyed in some time. He took the limp hand and held on tight.
"Aw, hell, Slick," his voice wavered and he swallowed hard, "You know the ladies love battle scars..."
"Yer hurt..." Vin repeated, worried about the paleness he saw despite the savage bruised face. His eyes flitted to the sling and then back to the concern face hovering over him.
"I'm okay, Vin," he reassured, "Hell, I got at least a month's worth of paperwork backed up...desk duty ain't so bad." The eyes closed for a minute and a slip of pink tongue emerged, lingering on dry lips. "Aw, hell...I'm sorry. You want some ice chips...here...easy now...I gotcha..." He pushed the button, bringing the bed up until Vin could swallow the offering on the spoon. It was three doses later, when the eyes opened again.
"Thanks..." Vin nodded, eyes roaming over the familiar room. His mind drifted back in time, to another morning when he woke up. After lingering in a coma for how long? It was a blond head and green concerned eyes then that welcomed him back. He sighed and tried to remember what happened. As his eyes caught the broken leg, fresh from surgery, his foggy brain brought up images of a slick road and a motorcycle.
"...bike okay?" he whispered, confused at why he felt so very weak. He saw Buck's face fill with alarm. Buck was hurt too...Buck wasn't near the bike. What happened?
"Your bike's fine." Buck answered, giving Vin more ice. "What do you remember, Vin?"
"Uh...bike slidin' on the road...uh...uh.." Vin frowned and closed his eyes, then darker images appeared. Cloaked figures, chanting, candles, hands on his body, then the face of the devil himself...a dripping heart..."Shit!" his eyes flew open and his IV'd hand moved under the baggy gown. "...he was gonna...he said he was gonna eat...he wanted my heart...shit...he was gonna...God..."
"Take it easy," Buck stood up, hissing as his injured leg protested. He grabbed the errant hand and soothed the fright right out of the frantic eyes. "He's dead, Vin."
"Ya sure?" Vin wavered, ears still ringing with Nardone's threat.
"I was there...I took care of it..." he vowed. "He's downstairs in the morgue...he can't hurt you again." His voice broke then, as the words finally were able to spring forth. The many months of nightmares ended in the bloody confrontation on the mountain. But the emotive sky eyes trained on him and the soft voice that emerged through the parted parched lips, filled him with a warmth he'd been missing for some time.
"...ya kept yer word...ya promised...the last time I was here..." Vin swallowed hard and saw a winning Wilmington smile. "...that means something t'me..." he paused and took a healing breath, his heavy eyes began to close. He reached a wavering hand up, glad for the strength sent back in the one that grabbed it. "Thanks...Bucklin..."
"Your welcome, Vin..." Buck managed, his voice tight. "Get them baby blues closed now...I'll be here if you need me."
"...what else...is..new..." Vin sighed as he snuggled back and relaxed, easing into a deep sleep.
"Damn..." Chris wrinkled his nose and pushed his body back against the pillows in the semi-upright bed. "You mind moving back? That face of yours is painin' my eyes."
"How far?" the tall man inquired, keeping at the foot of the bed. It was almost midnight and the hospital was quiet. Not able to sleep, he'd eased his aching body from his own bed across the hall and limped over to join his oldest friend.
"Salt Lake City ought to do it..." the blond returned, watching the swollen lip turn up in a grin. "The Kid said you kicked ass..."
"The Kid talks too much..." Buck sighed, walking over to where Vin Tanner slept on the other bed in the room. "He wake up at all?"
"Not for long...drifts in and out...just coughs a lot...his lungs are a mess. The nurse said he'll be sleeping most of the next couple days." He paused as the other man adjusted the Texan's blankets and then crossed over to the window. The silver beam of moonlight showed an unusually forlorn Wilmington face.
"I lost it Chris," Buck finally said, in a small, quiet voice. His face remained trained on the street for awhile.
"His head still attached?" Larabee asked of Nardone. He saw the dark head bob once and snorted. "You're a better man than me..." Still the question mark remained on the handsome man's face. "He had a choice Buck. He could have surrendered when you warned him."
"You weren't there," Buck wheeled around, limping over to the bed. "How do you know I gave him that chance?"
"Twelve years..." Chris replied, then patted his gut, "a feeling in here and knowing that the J in your middle name stands for Justice, not James. I know you Buck, you'd never go dirty..."
"I couldn't hear...see...anything but red...I wanted to rip him apart...If J.D. wasn't there..."
"You'd have done the same thing...He made the choice, Buck, not you. He could have thrown down...he didn't. He attacked you. Hell, it's not like anybody's losin' salt over him." Larabee grumbled. It took several more minutes and a long sigh from the other man. He finally looked up and smiled a little. "You look like shit, Buck."
"Fuck you, Larabee!" the injured man laughed, gripping the hand offered, "Thanks..."
"It's why I get the big money," Chris smirked. "You getting out tomorrow?"
"Yeah, I'm taking a couple days...I'll head back to the office on Monday."
"...head back t'yer own room...some of us is really ailin'..."
Chris and Buck exchanged a warm grin and both turned towards the other bed, where the weak, raspy voice rose in the dim night. A series of wet coughs erupted, ending with a tissue being tossed towards a trashcan, it didn't make it.
"Dammit Vin..." Chris hitched himself up painfully, leaning over the bedrail. "Keep them snot rags on your own side of the room. Some sharpshooter...you haven't hit the trashcan once." He eyed the dozen or so crumpled tissues on the floor.
"...old Goddamn...ornery-assed...grump..." Vin whispered, clutching the railing as his chest throbbed. The coughing fit left him teary-eyed and weak.
"I heard that..." the blond retorted, snapping the side of the bedrail down and inching his way upright. After taking two shallow breaths and getting his balance, he walked through the phlegm-ridden minefield and poured some water into the basin near the bed stand. He ran the washcloth around it and then handed it to Vin. He watched carefully as the shaky hand wiped the wheezing face, before dissolving into coughs again. "Shit..."
"...Go t'Hell....didn't ask...ragged ass...come over..." Vin wheezed, crumpling up another tissue and tossing it. His coughing changed to weak laughter, when the airborne wad landed in the middle of this best friend's forehead. "...s'an accident..." he protested lamely, watching as the nightlight over his bed displayed the Larabee lips fighting not to turn upwards.
"Accident my ass!" Chris retorted, lifting the mug of ice water so Vin could drink. He noticed that when Vin laid back, he was shivering. "Buck, see if there's another blanket in that closet..."
"...m'okay...Chris..." Vin chattered, but sighed when the additional warmth was provided.
"Yeah...I can see that," the sarcastic replay came. He spotted Vin's cannula lying around his neck and fixed it. "Keep this damn thing in...it can't help you if you don't breathe through it..."
"...don't like it..." Vin yawned, eyes already shut.
"Too damn bad, I can't keep coming over here. My ass is freezing and I got your snot rags sticking to my heel." Chris eyed the slumbering body and shook his head. "Thanks Buck..." he nodded, watching the one-armed man picking up the loose tissues. He was nearly back to his own bed, when the soft drawl floated over.
"...s'too damn tight..."
"You better be talking about the blankets, Tanner." The green eyes narrowed, one hand pulled at the short hospital gown and his smile was born as the shaggy head rose briefly, eyes half-mast, before wiggling in the bed and falling to sleep.
+ + + + + + +
Two weeks later, Larabee ranch
It was a splendid autumn afternoon, the crisp air and glorious colors of the fauna made for a wonderful backdrop to football and camaraderie. The eldest was in the kitchen stirring a pot of chili. The host was in a recliner, resting his healing ribs, while his team was lounging around the room, watching the Bronco's play on Chris's sixty-two inch television.
"Now that's a damn shame..." Buck took a beer from Ezra and nodded at Vin, who was lying on the couch, covered in a blanket, wheezing heavily through his mouth. The painkillers he took for the leg, left him lethargic and the chest congestion lingered. "I haven't seen them blue eyes open for hours. He's missing the game."
"He's made remarkable progress..." Ezra noted, "He seems to have rebounded quite well. Under the circumstances, I would have thought he'd be plagued by nightmares."
"He's had a few," Chris quipped, shifting painfully. Vin was staying with him, until the cumbersome cast and infected lungs healed a little more. "But not bad...Jesus, I'm starving...Josiah, what the hell is taking you so long."
"Genius can't be rushed..." the boomed voice answered.
"In that case, we should have eaten hours ago," Nate replied, tapping Vin on the forehead. The face scowled and the nose wrinkled, before one eye lifted. "Come on now...you won't sleep tonight and you haven't eaten all day. You know you won't feel stronger until you eat some more..."
"Game on yet?" Vin rasped, rubbing his tired eyes and letting Nate haul him to a sitting position.
"It's almost over," J.D. replied, bounding over to the couch. "Hey Vin...you got a present..."
"Yeah?" Vin perked up, eyeing the brown bag, with his name on it. "From who?"
"Ezra." Buck answered, "I saw him bring that in..."
"Aw, hell..." Vin's eyes lit up as he drew the canister out."Chocolate whipped cream...hey, hey, that's great. Thanks Ez..."
"You're cheap, you know that?" Nate shook his head. "One damn can...could you spare the three bucks?"
"It's the thought that counts," Ezra defended, watching Vin twist the cap off.
"You could have gotten the boy some cake to go with it..." Buck sided with Jackson. "What's he gonna do with just the can?"
"Cool!' J.D. slid next to Vin and eyed the picture on the can. "Hey Vin...gimme a hit..." he held his fingers out and the other shook the can and sprayed a large dollop on them. He then tossed his head back and filled his mouth with chocolate cream.
"Nice Vin..." Chris shook his head.
"You know," Josiah stood in the doorway, "That's a damn shame. I remember a time when two friends could pass something that made you feel good...and it sure didn't come in a can..."
"Wouldn't know about that," Vin chirped, squirting more chocolate at J.D. "Reckon I wasn't born yet..."
"Shut up Vin!" Josiah called out, before returning to the kitchen.
So the afternoon passed and the dinner was done, dishes put away and cars left to journey back to the city.
"Ya know Chris...some toasted pound cake would be real nice with this chocolate whipped cream." Vin noted, casting a hopeful glance to the blond head immersed in the newspaper.
"It that a fact?"
"Any particular kind?" the blond tossed the paper and rose, heading for the back door. He let his hands linger on his leather jacket, feeling the blue eyes on his back.
"Nah..." Vin kept his eyes glued to the door. "Well...reckon chocolate chip would go down real easy."
"Well I 'reckon' if you drag that gimp leg of yours behind you, you can get to the store before it closes." Chris quipped, yawned, dropped Vin's pills and a large glass mug of water in front of the sleepy face and smiled evilly.
"Aw, hell..." Vin groused, slumping back on the couch, hearing J.D. laughing at him. Dunne lingered, helping Vin into his flannel pajamas and getting him settled in Chris's guest room. Chris had gone to bed already and the youngest was taking Vin to the movies the next day.
"I'll call you when I get home, give you a time," he noted, pulling his black leather jacket on and taking his keys out. "Then we'll hit that new burger place, I hear they got awesome food."
"Sounds good..." Vin yawned, "better give me that phone...I'll never get to the kitchen to get the wall phone."
"Here," J.D. handed Vin the cordless and waved goodbye.
Vin watched the fire dancing in the fireplace and shifted on the couch. His leg was throbbing and he rubbed it absentmindedly. The flickering flames had a hypnotic effect and he found his heavy eyes sliding shut.
It was dark and cold and he was unable to move. Pain slashed at him, as rats scurried across his bare chest. Hooded figures appeared, circling the table upon which he was bound. He fought against the bindings, his body buckling in vain. Then the tall man appeared, the dark eyes glittering in the moonlight. They were outside and the thunder rolled, sending rumbling through his head. The wind took his hair, whipping the strands around his face. The knife arched so fast, he didn't feel it at first. Then he saw the bloody fingers over his face and his heart dangling above his head.
"Of Mist and Moonlight shall you die...and I'll leave his blond head on ice so you can say goodbye."
Wool. His fingers moved over the surface. Wool rugs. The scent of burning logs and the warmth of the room caused him to breathe again. He was on the floor in front of the fire. It was late, very late. His heart was hammering so hard it hurt his chest. He rubbed the soft flannel and sighed, raking a shaking hand through his hair. It was so real...he felt his chest, needing reassurance. Then he saw the phone in his other hand and his fuzzy head wouldn't work. Try as he might, he couldn't move the mud from inside his brain. The words came back and his heart began to pound. One word formed inside the evil one's threat. One face caused him to move, crawling painfully towards the kitchen. His hand flipped the light on, his mind still thick with narcotics caused his heavy eyes to fight hard. His mouth was dry and his tongue was thick, stuck to the roof of his mouth. Then he saw it...blood stains on the floor in front of the refrigerator. He pulled himself upright and hopped over to the kitchen. He supported himself with his right hand, while the left one trembled violently as the fingers gripped the handle. Sweat rolled down his face and stuck to his body, leaving him feeling claustrophobic. Panting harshly, he slowly opened the door...just as a hand touched his back.
"Fuck!" Vin jumped, falling backward. Only the strong arms supporting him helped break his fall. Still he ended up on the floor, glaring up at his best friend's angry face. "Shit...ya damn near...scared me t'death...damn...shit...Jesus..." His whole body was trembling terrifically and his stomach was burning.
"Vin? What the hell are you doing in here? Do you know it's three a.m.? I bet they heard you screaming all the way in Denver." Chris waited and saw the eyes wide in fright. The hands were wrapped around the slight frame and the body began to rock. He bent over to assist the younger man off the floor, only to be repelled.
"Get away from me!" Vin rasped, face flushed with embarrassment. "I'm fine...I...I...I'm sorry I woke ya...helluva a way t'say thanks. Somebody put ya up whilst yer healin'...ya wake 'im up every night screamin' like a kid...shit..."
"You done?" He saw the shaggy head nod once and brought a chair over. He waited while Vin used his upper body to haul himself up and not put pressure on his injured leg. He got a bottle of mineral water from the refrigerator and handed it to the shaken man.
"It was so real..." Vin finally said, taking a long swig and handing it to Chris. "His voice...blood dripping on m'face...m'heart hanging over m'head. Hell, the phone was still in m'hand. I thought..." Vin shook his head, taking another long drink. "Ya know them painkillers got me all fucked up, Chris...I'm sorry...I don't never mean t' get t'screamin'...maybe I should go...ye'll never get better if ya don't get some rest at night. It was so real," he repeated, eyes lingering on the blood stains.
"You want to talk about it?" Chris asked quietly, not pushing the envelope. Every night was the same, terrifying nightmares and cold sweats. Neither man got much sleep, and both looked it. But talking about it seemed to help the younger man.
"He...he...said...he left yer head on ice...so's I could say goodbye...I...couldn't tell...I seen the phone in m'hand...Jesus, Chris it was so real...I got out here and seen the blood..." He bit his lip and dropped his head. He felt a hand on his neck and a good squeeze.
"You can't lose me that easy, Cowboy," Chris added gently, leaving his hand on the tense neck for several minutes. "He's dead Vin, for good. I'm sorry about the blood. I put hamburger away after the others left. I never saw it..."
"S'okay..." Vin swallowed the last of his water.
"You ready to head back?" He asked, eyeing the clock on the wall.
"Yeah..." Vin stood up, then frowned, "I ain't got m'crutches..."
"You don't need them," Chris said, placing one Tanner arm over his shoulders, "You got me..."
Grunting and groaning he finally got the injured man and the heavy cast, settled into the guest room. He waited until Vin was settled in, but noticed the fear lingering.
"It's gonna take some time, Vin."
"Maybe I outta go, Chris," the other returned, without meeting the intense stare. "I mean...it ain't right. Yer not gettin' any rest..."
"You let me worry about that...and you're stayin' until that cast comes off."
He was at the door when the tired voice chased him.
"Ya best sleep light...all that water ya plied me with's gotta come out...some...time..."
"You hold your water like you hold your liquor?"
"Damn..." Chris hissed, shuffling to his room.
+ + + + + + +
Four weeks later
"You know the damn shame about that," Buck nodded to the group of pretty nurses surrounding Vin Tanner, "He don't even try..."
"You're jealous!" J.D. smacked Wilmington's good arm.
"Of him?" Buck's voice rose in incredulation. "When pigs fly." He paused, eyeing the sly Texan across the lobby of the Rehabilitation Unit. "Okay, I'll give him the eyes and he's passable in a good light."
"You're all heart," Ezra quipped.
"The rest is all Hollywood," the rogue sent back, "That shit-eatin' Huckleberry Finn grin, all them 'yes Ma'ams' and that fuckin' blush..then there's the damn raspy drawl..."
"Jealous!" Nate and J.D. said at the same time, giving Buck cause to make a face at the smirking pair. "You two behave...we'll be back later." Buck came daily for rehabilitation on his shoulder. Vin's leg was worse and required him staying.
Buck sat down and waited for his therapist to appear. An hour went by, Vin had been taken back, but Buck remained alone. Frowning, he ambled towards the doors where the Texan was led to. He cocked his well-tuned ears, when a group of feminine giggling caught his attention. He pushed the door open and his mouth dropped. There was the scrawny Tanner body, clad only a towel lying on a matted table surrounded by therapists.
"Bucklin?" Vin rasped weakly, rolling his head to the side. "Is that you? I can barely smell ya."
"Most likely 'cause your blood pressure is about to shoot through the top of your head, you emancipated Buddha!"
"The girls is givin' me a workout," Vin beamed.
"All five!" Buck roared, eyeing the pretty, scantily clad vixens pawning the sated sniper, "You couldn't spare one. I got to do rehab on my shoulder..."
"Sorry, Bucklin..." Vin sighed "I'm feelin' awful weak...somebody best check m'pulse..."
"I'd be faint too if I was naked with five pretty girls all over me." Buck retorted, eyes wide in stunned amazement.
"I ain't nekid..." Vin protested through a bevy of shapely arms tending to him.
"Oh, excuse my ignorance," the rogue commented, "How could I miss that two foot scrap of towel coverin' your lack of assets..."
"That's the thanks I get fer thinkin' o'yer feelin's..." Vin pouted, as two shapely hands groomed his hair.
"My feelings!" Buck growled.
"Didn't want ya gettin' jealous..." Vin wagged his brows suggestively.
"Oh...oh..." Buck razzed sarcastically, "It would take plastic surgery...lots of plastic surgery to qualify you as a 'Wilmington wannabe."
"Size ain't everythin'..." Vin chirped, "It's what ya do with what ya got that matters..."
"You keep this up and them southern boys of yours will be fried, died and set to the side," Wilmington rebuffed. He watched as a pretty brunette popped a grape in Vin's mouth, he licked her fingers and winked up at her. "She's makin' sure I ain't dehydratin'...keepin' track o' m'blood sugar..."
A full-figured blond moved in, her deft fingers massaging the shoulders and gently rolling him to the side to massage his back.
"...seein' t' my physical needs..." Vin groaned. "...loosenin' up m'stiff muscles and such..."
"I'll bet!" Buck snorted, face flushing.
A beautiful, tall redhead moved in, turning the gasping Texan on his back and rubbing his chest. Vin's head popped up, meeting Buck's gapped mouth face through the amble wares of the therapist.
"...She's in charge o' chest capacity...keepin' me limber and such..."
"I can see that!" Buck growled as a pretty Asian girl bent over him, using her lips to hum against his forehead, cheeks and neck. The humming sound and vibration gave the sharpshooter a deep groan and his friend a louder one.
"...somethin' new from the Orient...causes a deep penetratin' technique...ain't...that...right...Angel..." Vin groaned and the pretty girl nodded, humming against the offered neck.
"Vin Tanner, you got no shame!" Buck challenged, then noticed a beautiful cocoa-skinned woman in the corner, smiling coyly at him. "Well, now, you look lonely Darlin'..." he cooed, moving to join her.
"Sorry...Bucklin..." Vin managed to move his head through the many arms near him. "She's on duty..."
"Duty!" Buck vented, sputtering in frustration as the tall, woman glided past him toward the weak body on the mat.
"Yeah..." Vin grinned, cocking a single eyebrow boldly.
"Oh, I know I'm gonna be sorry I asked..." He commiserated, "What's her specialty?"
"CPR!" Vin proclaimed, settling back under the army of hands
"Come again?" Buck cocked his head.
"'case I pass out or such...ya know...I could stop breathin'"
"Now that would be a real tragedy," the dark-headed agent muttered.
"She's a Lip Studies Technical Specialist...." Vin quipped proudly as the pretty woman demonstrated her technique.
"Jesus!" Buck stammered, eyeing the long, lingering kiss. Just then, bells went off, causing a flurry of activity. The bodies swarmed protectively around the small man, who was groggy and weak from his 'lip study'
"What the hell is that!" Buck asked over the noise.
"Best ya get outta the way, Bucklin," Vin advised, "I need plenty of swing room..."
"I gotta go...it's time fer m' Intramuscular hydrotherapy treatment."
"Huh?" Buck blinked, mouth agape, eyes drooling.
"Ya okay?" Vin fought hard not to laugh, "Yer gonna catch a fly, shut yer trap. It's m'bathtime..." he proclaimed, lifting his arms. "Okay Girls, everybody grab a wing..." he sighed as they hauled him up and lifted him towards the wheelchair. "Somebody get m'caboose...I'm feelin' awful woozy..."
"Wh...wh..." Buck stammered as the beauties moved past him, each taking a Tanner limb.
"I got your caboose, Vin..." one purred, hand sliding across the lean backside under the towel.
"I got your towels..." another said, lifting a pile of soft, fluffy towels.
"Best ya heat up Sugar," Vin advised, "I don't want t'catch a chill whilst yer dryin' me off..."
"Drying you off!" Buck roared, as the back door to the room opened and the giggling group disappeared. "Goddammit Vin, get back here! Vin!" He waited a few moments, sputtering, cursing and kicking the trashcan in the training room. Then his curiosity got the better of him and he followed. He crept up to the door, his eyes wide as the sounds emerged. Sighing, moaning, groaning and grunting, then a familiar Texan's twang gave him a blush.
"Ugh...ugh...that's good...Jesus...higher...up m'thigh...I got...yeah...that's it...Damn ya got great hands...ya outta register them fingers...with... the...F.B.I..."
Buck paused, ears flaming red as Vin's panting increased.
"Whose teeth is that? God...I can't hold...back...I'm...I'm..."
Buck leaned in closer to hear and the door fell open, sending him into the room on his knees.
"What the hell?" he stammered, hearing the side-splitting, belly laughter of his teammates. They were sprawled around a large conference table, laden with pizza, sandwiches and sodas. Nate helped him up, wiping tears from his eyes. J.D. appeared, waving to a monitor on the wall.
"Aw shit!" Buck lamented, recognizing the room he just left.
"Smile!" the youth chortled, slapping Buck's back, "You're on Tanner Camera!"
"Let's rewind and revisit the finest moments, shall we?" Ezra suggested, holding up the remote.
"No, let's not!" Buck made a grab for it.
"Stop..." Chris hollered, grinning like a fool, "That's our Buck...all Wilmington!" he nodded to the screen, toasting the image with a coke. Buck was stammering a nonsensical string of vowels, drooling as the five women sated the smug Texan.
"I agree," Ezra smiled at Buck's garbled grunts on the television. "Well spoken...eloquence personified."
They replayed the tape as they ate, teasing the blushing agent mercilessly. "Hold it there..." the blond dictated as Vin's smug face appeared, one eyebrow arched boldly.
""Size ain't everythin'..." Vin chirped, "It's what ya do with what ya got that matters..."
"That's my boy!" Larabee boasted, slapping his best friend's back. "Spoken like a true Tanner!"
"Just you wait, Tanner," Buck warned, "I ain't gonna forget this..."
+ + + + + + +
Later That Night, in Vin's Room in the Rehab Center
"Visiting hours are over," Chris yawned, taking his long frame from the chair next to Vin's bed. The younger man would need extensive rehabilitation and would remain in the center for three weeks. "Let's head out...pizza okay?"
"Yeah..." Buck's voice was distracted. "I'll be right there. You go on to the elevator."
"What are you doing?" the blond frowned, watching Buck disappear into the bathroom. Vin was sound asleep and never stirred. A few minutes later, the tall man reappeared, bearing a pan of warm water. He slid it onto the bed, gingerly placing the left hand of the sleeping patient inside."
"Buck, that's mean!" Chris grinned, waiting for the instant response. Sure enough, as the relaxed face smiled in his sleep, the distinct scent of urine tinged the air. "I can't believe you did that!"
Buck waited until Vin was finished and took the pan away, throwing out the warm water. The two men grinned evilly at the silent peace on the face of the relaxed sharpshooter.
"Let him explain that to his flock of Nightingales!" He winked at Chris, clapped a hand on the smirking blond's back and headed for the door. "I'm starving. Hell, let's go to that new steakhouse, I'm buying."
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