Black Widow

by Deirdre

Part 21

"Damn," Buck swore, slapping the desk in the retail store manager's office, "I knew it...Vin was right."

Chris stared mutely at the vision of Cambria raising a chrome-plated gun at Ezra's head. Then a muzzle flash from the dark interior and she fell. Ezra disappeared from view and J.D. and Buck entered the picture. J.D. off the screen, seeking Ezra, while Buck knelt by would be assassin's side.

"Where's the gun?" Chris scowled, sitting forward. "What the hell happened to it?"

"Rewind it," Buck advised.

They watched again as she entered, drew a weapon out and aimed. It was only seconds and easy to miss. As she fell, her hand shifted in a propelling motion. Her head lifted and her lips moved. A blur on the side appeared and disappeared.

"She tossed it to him," Buck astonished, "How the hell did we miss him?"

"What's back there?" Chris pointed to the side where the gun disappeared.

"The kitchen, but J.D. checked it as soon as he got Ezra on his feet."

Chris flipped his phone open and called J.D. in the van. There was no answer. He tried the young agent's cell phone and J.D. answered on the third ring.

"Hey, Chris, I was just going to call you. I talked to some of the neighbors near this apartment. They identified Cambria and Carlino and said some priest has been by alot. The manager let me in, but the place has been cleaned out, they're gone." J.D. paused and his voice dropped, "What am I gonna say to Vin?"

"We have to find him first." Chris answered, "We got video footage from a surveillance camera. I need you to make a copy and zoom on some stuff that we can't make out. Meet us at the shoot."

+ + + + + + +

Ezra tried to concentrate on the lavish meal in front of him. The large buffet table groaned with every known delicacy. Fine wine and champagne flowed freely. In addition to the Carlino's and their associates, several 'local girls' had been provided for the evening. They were all stunning and several made offers, but Ezra's heart wasn't in the festivities.

He took a deep breath and got his game face on. Time to stop wallowed in self-pity. Ezra disappeared and Etienne reappeared. He selected some shrimp, lobster salad, escargot and caviar. He grabbed a glass of champagne and settled between two of the lovely dalliances. One took the plate and fed him by hand, the other began whispering suggestively in his ear and caressing him. He smiled, watching as the plate disappeared, along one of the girls. The other settled on his lap, displaying a grape between her even white teeth. Ezra smiled and pulled her close, taking the bait.

It after ten p.m. and much too much champagne when Ezra pried himself free of the supple body pressed against him. He stumbled to his room, took a shower and slipped into bed. The cool breeze sent the curtains billowing. He fell asleep almost immediately.

+ + + + + + +

Buck watched J.D.'s eyes burning as he watched the video. He placed a hand of support on the youth's shoulder.

"We all missed it, J.D." He spoke softly, gently squeezing the youth's shoulder. "You didn't do anything wrong."

"Vin didn't miss it...why didn't I trust him, Buck?" The hazel eyes implored, "You did. You never doubted him for a minute. Christ, I stabbed him in the back. If it weren’t for me, he wouldn't be missing. God, what have I done?" He choked, face coloring in shame.

"Stop it." Chris turned and addressed him sharply, eyes hot; "Buck didn't see him shoot. That makes a big difference. Vin didn't blame you, J.D., he told me that. You only told what you saw. Let's walk it through. Where did you start your search?"

"Kitchen." J.D. replied, moving forward. He swung the door open and peered inside, then retreated.

"You didn't go in and check the room or the exit?" Chris's voice rose in anger. Twin cubes of green ice nearly melted J.D.

" was empty, I didn't see anybody. I went to Vin." The youth stammered.

"J.D. you've done this before. You're good at this. There's no excuse for not following through." Chris raged, "You're no damn rookie. Go on, check out the kitchen."

J.D. face flushed scarlet as he stepped past the angry leader and walked through the kitchen.

Buck appeared from behind the long steam table.

"How'd you do that?" J.D. demanded.

"I went through the terrace and around the side, slipped in here," Buck pointed to an exit into the alley, "Which is how Carlino got away with the gun."

"...and Vin's life." J.D. slumped. "I fucked up good this time, Buck."

"J.D. pick your head up and quit moping. Vin and Erza need us. You want to help Vin? You use that magic of yours and clean up that tape. Get that guy who does the sign language at the division meetings to have a look. Maybe he can read her lips. Come on, let's get back to the office." He slapped J.D.'s back.

Chris was in the truck when Buck slid in. He watched J.D. walk slowly to the van, glancing twice at the alley and shaking his head. The berated youth kicked the tires of the van and smacked the side of it. Chris turned the engine on and headed for the office.

"He's taking it hard." Buck commented, watching J.D.'s motions.

"Damn well he should," Chris growled, "He screwed up Buck and Vin's gonna pay the price, Ezra too, most likely."

While J.D. disappeared into the video editing room down the hall, Buck grabbed a sandwich from the fridge and flipped his computer on. He saw the emails from Vin and forgot about his appetite. He read each one, printing them out. His dark blue eyes narrowed and he picked up his phone.

Chris got the same surprise when he opened his email. He printed out Vin's messages and noted the reference to the Italian Private Eye. What the hell did Vin uncover? He walked to the printer and saw double copies. He looked up and saw Buck waving to him.

"What do you make of this?" He asked, handing Chris the phone.

"Hey Pard, I got a big favor. I’m worried about m'Uncle Jack. Can y'all check on him fer me?" Vin's voice died and Chris punched the number five to get the time of the call. It was after the cell phone died.

"He must have called from the hospital." Chris replayed the message and hung the phone up. "He email you too?"

"Yeah, looks like he didn't waste his days off." Buck replied, taking his copies. "Where to now?"

"To check on Uncle Jack." Chris said walking toward the doors. "Update J.D. and meet me downstairs."

Twenty-five minutes later, they were standing at Jack Kelly's grave. Chris knelt and felt around the dirt. Buck checked the headstone. Chris turned the flowers over and a candy bar slipped out, Vin's favorite. He picked it up and felt the lump inside. Ripping open the wrapper, a key and note slid out. He handed the key to Buck, who was reading the note over Chris's shoulder."

"If y'all get this, most likely I'm dead," Buck spoke, pausing as Chris flinched, "Bus station locker F25. Farelli, P.I., can nail her...two murders...warn Ezra...they know about him."

"Shit..." Chris smacked the stone, Buck took the note and read the rest silently. "Buck, you know what to do..."

Buck read the last line and wondered how Vin had the guts to write it. He took a deep breath, trying to pull himself together. Vin was entrusting Chris's soul to him. He knew the blond well enough to understand the horrific effect his own death would have on his best friend. He folded the note and gave it to Chris

"Come on, Chris, let's get to that locker."

"What for?" Chris said, kicking a large rock. "They probably already had their fun with him and he's..." Chris couldn't finish, and clenched his jaw.

"I tell you what for." Buck angered, cutting him off, "For every damn minute you've known him. So, God forbid if he is dead, this evidence buries that bitch and that pack of dogs she runs with. Don't you dare disgrace him and talk about quitting. I know how much you care about him. How about showing it?"

Buck walked back to the truck and waited until Chris joined him. He held out his hand and Buck gave him the note. He read the last line and flinched.

"Damn nosy Texan," Chris rasped, "Don't need no goddamn babysitter."

Buck grinned painfully as the engine roared and they headed to the bus station. An hour later they were back in the office, Ted Dempsey was in the conference room with them. Matt Krieger and Carl Gordon joined them. Dempsey was astounded as Vin's efforts and told Chris so. They watched the videotape and J.D. via the translator, filled in the words she spoke.

"Go, Roberto, hurry..."

"I've always trusted your judgement, Chris." He eyed the material, "and you're right again. That boy is one hell of an agent."

"I don't hear you saying anything." Buck growled at Gordon, stomach turning at the look of disappointment on the cretin's face. "How come you didn't look at the video tape? You were so quick to screw Vin; you botched this investigation but good. You damn well better have a reversal done today."

"I'll take care of that Buck," Krieger said, trying to quell the other man's fury, "Gordon's my responsibility. It will be on Orin's desk within the hour."

"You can put a copy on Vin's tombstone..." Buck said, storming out of the office.

Chris kept one folder of evidence locked in his safe. Ted Dempsey took the other one. When they'd gone and he was alone, he made his way to the pay phone down the street. He dialed the Italian P.I.. Farelli answered.

"My names Larabee, I'm Vin's partner."

"Is this line safe?"

"Yes, Vin told me to use a pay phone."

"What was the song his mother sang to him as a child?"

"What?" Chris's voice rose in confusion.

"For security..."

"Damn..." Chris rubbed his eyes. The he remembered one dark night in the mountains, after the others were asleep, talking to Vin outside. Under the cloak of darkness and feeling safe within the velvet blackness, he spoke to Chris. Chris had mentioned Sarah singing Adam to sleep, with Irish lullaby music. A few minutes later, as Chris turned to leave, the voice softly floated over the dark porch. Vin confessed he could only remember part of the song, called "Smile" and how sad it was. "Smile," Chris replied, waiting as the detective acknowledged him. "He's disappeared. Carlino's got him."

"God have mercy on him."

Chris spent ten minutes exchanging information. He agreed to FedEx copies of the information. Farelli told him that he heard of the Carlino's purchasing a large estate in northern Mexico, outside Nogales. Chris headed back to the office. Buck and J.D. were recording the evidence.

"Where you're finished, get packed. Ted wants us in Tucson by tomorrow morning. We'll update Josiah and Nathan."

"Why can't we go to Mexico and get Vin and Erza?"

"We'd never get near them. This place they own is on the top of a hill. One road leading in and heavily guarded, by Carlino's men and the Mexican cops he owns."

"But they're gonna kill Vin and Ezra." J.D. protested.

"Ezra's safe until the buy." Chris said, "Buck get us a flight and get packed. We'll meet at the airport." Chris ordered as he left.

"What about Vin?" J.D. asked Buck.

"Once they get what they need from him..." Buck paused, seeing J.D.'s face pale. "You get home and get packed. I'll call you when I get a flight."

+ + + + + + +

Vin lifted his head and looked around the stone room. He shivered, curling up as he tried to dull the ache the cold stones left in his unmoving legs. He had no idea how long he'd been there. His arms were numb and bound above him. The band on his throat was choking him and he felt rivulets of blood running from where the teeth cut into his neck. His tongue felt swollen, crowding his mouth. He heard footsteps and his heart began beating faster.

The manacles were unlocked and his arms dropped. He slid to the floor and curled up, trying to make his brainwork. Hands seized him and propelled him forward. A light came on and blinded him. He covered his face, until his hands were tied together painfully over his head, supporting the weight of his body. His feet were swayed above the floor.

"Time to party, friend." Roberto sneered from a chair in the corner. "Let's get started. Who's your contact down here?"

Vin tried to talk, but his dry mouth wouldn't cooperate. Dom nodded to Tony who stood on a stool and gave the thirsty man a small amount of water. Vin licked a stray drop as it escaped, giving them a laugh.

"I can't hear you." Roberto nodded as Vin shook his head.

"Ain't" Vin croaked, then screamed as the currency from the cattle prod applied to his neck surged through him.

"We know you and Mr. Standish are Federal Agents. I can assume you're working with other agencies. What I need are details, Mr. Tanner. I love details. Where are they setting up? What is the border point?"

Vin remained mute, but paled when his shorts were pulled off and the shocking device was thrust between his legs.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra jumped out of bed and ran outside staring into the inky darkness. He listened to the nightsounds and heard someone scream. He saw an outside staircase and headed downward. He was on the ground at the side of the house, when another scream filled the air. It chilled him to the bone. Someone was in agony. He couldn't place where the sound came from. Twice more the screams came and Ezra listened intently. They're must be a cave nearby, the muffled screams were coming from under the earth.

"Where do you think you're going?" A voice asked gruffly.

"Someone is hurt. I heard several agonizing wails."

"You were dreaming. Go back to bed," The guard suggested menacingly.

"A capital suggestion," Ezra agreed, retreating to his room. Once the guard left, he sat on his patio. The screams started again and chilled him to the bone.

+ + + + + + +

Vin's head was running with sweat and hung on his chest. Every inch of him screamed in pain. The voltage from the electrical cattle prod left his tender flesh singing in agony. The rope was lowered and he was on his knees. One eye was swollen shut, thanks to Roberto's fist. The other peeled open as he head was forced back. One of the guards forced his mouth open and the other poured salt inside. They clamped his jaw shut, forcing him to swallow. His mouth and throat were on fire. His twitched and pulled against the ropes. His burning throat was constricting.

"The date and location, Mr. Tanner. Then you will be rewarded with a nice cold drink." Roberto stood and placed the chilled bottle of water in front on the prisoner. He ran the cold glass against Vin's cheek and the desperate man's tongue came out, seeking moisture. The glass was pulled away. "That felt good, didn't it. A nice, cold drink...' He brushed the cold glass against Vin's cracked lips. " easy..."

"..on'" Vin pleaded. " done..yet..."

"No Mr. Tanner you don't expect me to believe that this major operation has no date set?"

" date...til...late...waiting..." Vin tried, hoping his lie was convincing.

"Waiting for what?" Roberto scowled at Vin's blank stare. His slight nod brought a rubber hose solidly against Vin's lower back.

"...peese..." Vin begged, his mouth was on fire and his eyes were tearing. "...wadder..."

"That's not the right answer." Roberto nodded the rope was raised and Vin's arms were painfully pulled upwards. He couldn't scream as the rubber hose smacked against the soles of his feet. No sounds would come forth. His face contorted and the tears ran down his cheeks. His body stained against their bindings.

"Lower him." Roberto ordered, seeing the clarity slipping away. "Give him just a mouthful."

Vin sucked greedily, like a deprived infant at a selfish mother's breast. He was gasping when he was finished. He blinked as his vision clouded. He saw Roberto's lips moving but couldn't hear him.

"He's had it," Marty decided. "He'll be more cooperative tomorrow. They usually are."

"We'll give him something to think about." Tony said, picking up a pair of pliers and lifting the victim's toe.

Part 22

Saturday Morning, seven a.m

Buck eyed J.D. in the seat next to him with a guarded eye. The youth hadn't said two words since their flight to Tucson took off. But by the dark circles under his eyes and the unusual paleness to his features, Buck knew he'd hadn't slept either. He sighed and eyed Chris, sitting alone by choice, several rows ahead of them. Buck recalled the green-eyed hunter's haunted face when he arrived at the airport. Chris hadn't said anything, nor moved his pained gaze from the early morning sky outside. Buck knew what was going through the expert ATF agent's head. If Vin was still alive, what condition would he be in? The lanky Texan was as tough as they came, but Buck had seen the gruesome aftermath of men just as tough. The flight attendant offered coffee, which Buck accepted.

"J.D., you want some coffee?" Buck asked quietly.

"No, thanks." J.D. rasped.

"Look J.D., you mopin' around like this isn't gonna get Vin or Ezra home. We're already behind the eight ball and we need you to have a clear head. I know you feel bad..."

"Do you Buck?" J.D. turned sharply, "I don't think didn't put Vin before that firing squad. He's my friend and I turned on him."

"J.D. we've been over this. I talked to Vin, he didn't blame you and that thinkin' doesn't help one damn bit. We need to think of a way to get Vin out of there."

"If Vin doesn't...I mean what's gonna happen to Chris." J.D. asked, eyeing the leader's taut face.

Buck sighed and pushed the paper coffee cup across the tray in front of him. How could he tell J.D. the barbaric sights he'd seen? He'd pushed the thought of Vin bound and helpless in the back of his mind. The idea of his friend enduring such brutality was too painful to comprehend. He'd survived the Larabee descent into the bowels of Hell once and didn't know he either of them could survive another trip.

"I don't know J.D.," Buck voiced, "I'm guessing' God's the only one who can mend a broken soul."

Chris was clenching his jaw so hard, it ached. The harsh sunlight was ramming into his already throbbing head. Despite his best efforts, he couldn't seem to get the vision of Vin's battered body, lying in a ditch in the Mexican desert out of his head. He could almost hear Vin getting into his face. His lips turned up a bit, as he realized that was one of the things that bound him to Vin. Vin wasn't afraid to bust his balls. He remembered the first of many times when Vin's angry growl disrupted a meeting. The others stood stunned; nobody talked to Larabee that way, except one drawling blue-eyed sharpshooter.

"You're right Vin," He thought to himself, "I'll find you, Cowboy, hang on..." He sent a heartfelt silent vow.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra finally abandoned the idea of sleep just before dawn. He sat on the patio and watched the sun rise. He shifted in the deck chair, unable to shake the uneasy feeling that had plagued him since the unearthly scream woke him up. Something was very wrong. His troubling state of mind only intensified during his shower and while he dressed. Breakfast was quiet. Ezra ate alone on the deck outside the large living room. He wandered around the first floor, wary of the roving guards hooded glances.

"Restless Mr. Auberge?" Roberto inquired, slipping behind Erza.

"Suffering the ills of the morning after," Ezra crowed, eyeing the other man, who was dressed in a very expensive suit, which seemed out of place in the hacienda. "Dining formal, I'd admire that." He mused.

"I have an appointment to keep," Roberto replied, "The girls are out at the pool. I'm sure that they could cure your ills."

"Quite." Ezra nodded, heading for the pool.

+ + + + + + +

Far below in a dark, stony tomb, the weakened prisoner struggled. The pitch blackness surrounding him only added to his misery. The pain of isolation gripped his soul. His body screamed for rest, his eyes burned and his throat was hoarse from screaming. He shifted, but nothing would give him relief. The manacles cut into his swelling, tender flesh like the jaws of a shark. Deprived of sleep, food and water, his mind was numb. The nightmare world he was lost in had no dimension or time. He couldn't remember where he was or how long he'd been here.

The murky atmosphere swallowed him whole, spitting out cognizance, reasoning, perception and reality. He couldn't feel the pain or the cold; exhaustion pushed him beyond the realms of endurance. He gave in again and tried to slip away. His knees sagged, causing the razors on the choker to slash his throat. He jerked, forcing his weak legs to snap back up. Sweat poured down his face, running into every cut that scored his flesh. Tears ran down his cheeks, joining the river of sweat. It felt like thousands of fire ants were biting him. His fevered eye searched the inky wall in front of him and again the plea found it's way once more to his cracked, bleeding lips.

"Chris..." he croaked painfully, "Where are you? Chris..."

+ + + + + + +

"You okay?" Buck asked.

He'd seen all the color drain out of the blond's face and the coffee cup he held, drop to the floor of the coffee shop and shatter. The trio were waiting in the airport for Nathan to pick them up. He'd take them directly to Ray Mendenhall's office. J.D. and Buck each ate a breakfast sandwich without tasting it. Chris refused, but decided to get a cup of coffee. He was halfway back to the table, when he stopped and flinched. The ensuing actions sent Buck to his side.

"Chris? Hey Chris?" Buck waved a hand in front of the unseeing green eyes.

"Vin..." Chris whispered, then blinked, looking around the cafe confused. Rubbing a weary hand over his face, he continued to the table and sat down. He slumped in the chair, with the shadows of hopelessness threatening to take over.

"Nate should be pulling up, best we go topside and out front." Buck suggested, rising. He leaned over to give Chris a hand and noticed the other man's hands trembling.

Chris never moved, or even blinked. He was rocked to the core by the overwhelming sense of loss. He felt a pain so deep and cold it left him paralyzed. For a split second, he was transported to a cold, dark place and was drowning in depravity. The anguished cry and tormented eyes that sought his left a scar burned into his soul. "He's gone, Buck...Christ, I felt him. He's ice cold."

"If you felt him, he ain't dead. As long as he's drawing a breath, we got hope. Come on, Nate’s waiting."

Chris paused, then looked at Buck with such sadness, it made him wince. "He's dying Buck and he thinks I deserted him. He's looking for me. I can't let him die thinking..."

"We ain't gonna let him die." Buck shook the slumped leader's shoulder hard, "Get your ass in gear, Chris."

Chris took a breath and managed to push the image away. His pace picked up and he took the escalator steps two at a time. Nathan saw the hunter approach; his eye's hungry and mean. He saw J.D. and Buck coming up behind, and climbed back behind the wheel. He flipped the blinkers off and waited until the team was buckled in.

"Let's go," the mobile hurricane directed his green eyes icy, “We’ll coordinate with Mendenhall and pull the net in tighter Dempsey heard from his man, the buy is being moved up. Most likely tomorrow." He paused, slipping black glasses over his pained eyes, "We'll try to take Carlino alive. I've got a nice chat planned." Chris gritted flexing his tense hands.

"You'll have to get in line," Buck replied, catching Chris's reflection in the window.

+ + + + + + +

"Good Morning, little pig," Tony turned the light on, a single bulb suspended from the ceiling. He turned the light directing it at the victim's eyes. "What? You're not happy to see me?" He jeered, watching Vin cry and turn as the light blinded him. "Let's get reacquainted..." He nodded to Marty, his partner, who unlocked the chains.

Vin sank to the ground, swallowing painfully as the binding choker was lifted. His swollen throat sought air and his raspy, uneven gulps gave his tormentors a laugh. He curled up, seeking the sleep he'd been deprived of. He'd gone beyond the point of feeling pain; his body was blissfully numb. He felt his head pulled up, a beefy hand tugged hard on the dirty, mangled locks. He hands were locked in the manacles suspended from the ceiling. His legs were pulled apart and secured to brackets in the floor. The rivulets of sweat ran freely, stinging his eyes open.

The two guards grinned and sat down to eat, just inches from him. His mouth would have watered, but there was no saliva left. The hunger pains lashed out, sensing food so near. Eggs, toast, sausage, bacon and a glistening container of orange juice tempted him. Tony eyed the bedraggled man and smiled.

"Hey, pig? You want some coffee?" He leered; reaching down between Vin's drawn out legs.

Marty snickered, as the steam from the pot placed strategically rose in a fury. Tony sat back and they watched Vin's puppeted appendages begin to dance.

Vin felt the rush of steam as the scalding mist assaulted him. His limbs jumped, trying to escape the burning vapors. His good eye widened as the agonizing cry left his lips. His body shook once and then collasped.

"Want me to wake him up?" Tony said, reaching for the pliers.

"No," Mary answered, pulling the pot away and placing it on the table. "Let him have a little rest. He'll need it, Gia's on her way."

Ezra watched the car pull away and did a silent inventory. Roberto and Dom left together. The girls were at the pool, entertaining most of the hired help. Three guards were out back and three more out front. That left two unaccounted for. He was exiting the kitchen, crossing through to the dining area, when an unholy wail pierced the air. The intensity so grave it stopped the undercover agent in his tracks. He suddenly realized his suspicions were correct. Someone was being tortured in the bowels of this house. It wouldn't be the Colombians, and the DEA agent was with them. Ezra was the only man undercover, or was he? He felt the comforting presence of his derringer, tucked carefully up his sleeve. He made his way back through the kitchen and down a narrow hallway. The dark passage was stone, and the air grew cooler. This was the spot where the old residence was located. The resort was built over top of a centuries old ruin. He was a few feet from the door, when he heard a female voice.

"Senor...Where to hide? Senor Pretty Eyes...Where are you?"

Ezra swore under his breath and retraced his steps. He couldn't afford to be caught now. He certainly didn't need the nubile escort to talk. He just made to the outskirts of the kitchen when she stumbled into him. He felt the soft flesh against his shirt as the topless sunbather smiled up at him.

"I missed you..." She slurred, playing with the buttons on his shirt. "Come out and play..."

Ezra steadied the wobbling legs and got her into the kitchen. He saw two of Carlino's hired men approaching.

"It is a beautiful day, Senor, You should be outdoors." The burly brute nearest him suggested.

"I just had the same thought myself." Ezra replied, "Lead on, my good man."

+ + + + + + +

"What went wrong?" Ray Mendenhall demanded. "We've been planning this for months. What the hell was that hippie cop thinking?" He smacked his palm against the table.

"His name is Agent Tanner to you." Chris gritted, standing and leaning into the large operation leader's face. "and he's a damn sight better cop than you could ever produce. In two days he managed to uncover evidence none of your so called 'specialists' could find."

"On his own time after, with no badge," J.D. added, "Seems your high-paid help can't cut the mustard."

"He's a fool...maybe a dead fool. There's no place for a goddamn Hot Dog on this operation."

Ted Dempsey clamped a restraining hand on Buck Wilmington who was about to tear Ray Mendenhall limb from limb. Josiah eased himself over to Mendenhall, whom he'd gotten to know these last few weeks while he and Nate were undercover.

"Ray, I know you're upset," Josiah cautioned, "But your wrong about Vin. I've worked on all kinds of operations for over thirty years, since Saigon. I've been on over a dozen different special op's teams. This team is the best I've ever worked with, and Vin Tanner's star shines bright. You don't know him, and don't have the right to place judgement."

For several tense moments, nobody spoke. Ted Dempsey stood and walked over to where Chris stood still glaring at Mendenhall. He gave the young man and tug on the shoulder and indicated for him to sit down.

"We have a job to do gentlemen, and not much time. Let's go over the red zone again." He suggested, eyeing the border points on the map.

"This stretch of the border," Dempsey said, using a laser pointer and a large screen on the wall, "From Tucson eastward. There are five sectors within this thirty-mile radius. We know the warehouse is somewhere in the desert between Tucson and the Texas border. The trucks will be crossing over through one of those five sectors."

"Why are they escalating the time table?" J.D. asked.

"I'll tell you why..." Ray Mendenhall seethed, but Dempsey cut off the large senior official

"Ray..." He warned, "It could be because of Mr. Tanner's presence. The Colombian’s won't be compromised."

"But they know, that we know that they have Vin," Buck theorized, "So they should figure we'll be lookin' for them to make a change."

"Buck's right," Chris added, "I don't think Vin is the problem. He was right all along. That bitch who used Ezra, set this up. You saw the film, Ezra's only alive because Vin saved him. No, they're too smart to screw this up. Something's not right."

"Our information says is going down tomorrow night." Mendenhall stated distastefully at Chris, "You're men will be split along the sectors. You have your orders, report to your duty stations."

The rest of the meeting broke up. Chris saw his group start to file away.

"Okay if we get lunch first?" He asked, Ted nodded. "Report back at 1400 hours. I'm sorry, Chris."

"Nothing for you to apologize for Ted," Chris replied.

Part 23

The five remaining team members filed out into the harsh sunlight of the Tucson desert. Mendenhall had created an outpost for Operation Blue Cobra and it was a good ride back to the city.

"There's a bar called the Snake Pit about ten minutes from here." Nathan suggested, "Stuck out in the middle of nowhere, but its got decent food and cold beer."

"Fine," Chris replied, "You lead the way. Buck and and I will follow," Chris directed watching J.D. climb into the patrol vehicle behind Nate and Josiah.

Buck slid into the passenger seat of the rental Nate got for them. He fidgeted in the hot box, wishing Chris would hurry. His finger was poised on the air conditioner button when Chris turned the engine on. He flipped the switch to high and glanced at the date on the paper Nate left in the front seat. .

"Shit!" Buck swore, "Tomorrow's Sunday, ain't it?"

"Yeah, so?"

"Sierra's supposed to fly in for the day to see Vin. She's going on that two-week shoot in Mexico. She has to fly to Mazalatan on Monday."

"Damn," Chris sighed, "I'll bet she's been trying to call him. She's probably worried. You got a number for her?"

"No," Buck answered, "But I think I know the hotel in Beverly Hills. I'll try to call from the restaurant." Buck frowned, casting his dark blue eyes at Chris, "What the hell am I gonna tell her?"

"The truth." Chris said, "All we know for sure is that Vin is missing. That's all she needs to know for now. We'll get her number and keep her posted."

The five gathered around the table in the back of the desert bar. They ordered sandwiches and chili and a pitcher of beer. Sipping their ale, they eyed Chris as if waiting for a plan.

"Well?" Nathan asked, "What's the plan, Chris?"

"I don't know, Nate," Chris replied, "But I got a bad feeling about this bust tomorrow."

"What about Ez and Vin?" J.D. asked, "When can we go get Vin out?"

"Ezra will be with them tomorrow, if they come," Josiah suggested, "Brother Vin is another story, I'm afraid. If Carlino is questioning him, whether Vin talks or not, he won't be coming north with them."

"So we gotta find him tonight, right?" J.D. inquired.

"J.D., you saw the outlines and photo's Ted had of that place. It's got more guards that Fort Knox. Plus it's on the top of a hill, with only one way in and out. Armed guards all along the road." Josiah replied. "And we've got no proof that's where he is."

"If Vin is still alive, he'd be dead before we got anywhere near there." Nathan lamented, "Plus he's got the local authorities on his payroll. What we need is a miracle."

The waitress deposited the sandwiches and the group ate in an unnaturally silent atmosphere. Josiah and Nate told them a few stories about their arrests while on border patrol.

"I can't believe we're giving up on Vin. If it were one of us, he'd come. You know he'd would...he'd find a way. God, I bet he's looking for us." J.D. pained.

Chris shoved his plate, with the hamburger almost untouched, across the table. He threw back the chair and stalked out of the bar. J.D. sank back and scowled, then attempted to follow him. Josiah's large hand clamping on his shoulder stopped any further motion.

"Leave it, J.D."

"I didn't mean to upset him, but I gotta do something. Vin's hurt and alone and it ain't right."

"You leave Chris alone," Nathan supported the preacher, "He ain't gonna be right until Vin's back. He's got his own demons to slay. Finish that bowl of Chili, J.D., you might not eat again for a spell." Nathan ordered.

Chris stared at the arid terrain and watched the heat waves rippling across the horizon. The dark glasses hid his eyes from those who observed him. Outwardly he was under control, cool and lean in black, despite the heat. But his insides felt like shards of glass were assaulting every limb and organ. With every passing hour, his sense of Vin got weaker.

Buck hung the phone up a few minutes after Chris flew by. The tall, handsome agent joined his oldest friend by the side of the road. His shirt was sticking to his back and he wiped the sweat from his face. He stared at the man next to him in amazement, wondering how and why Chris didn't sweat.

"Did you get her?" Chris asked without turning.

"Yeah, I had to call a few hotels, but I got her." Buck sighed, leaning against a stone wall, "One of the worst calls I ever had to make. If it was in person, we could at least comfort her. That soft crying of hers just about did me in."

"Gimme her number," Chris held his hand out and Buck slid the paper in it. The hand slid into his shirt pocket and Chris began to walk away.

"You want company?" Buck asked, knowing what the reply would be.

"NO!" Chris said sharply, then paused and caught the rogue's eye, "But thanks Buck."

+ + + + + + +

"Really Darling," the sultry voice purred, "You could relocate this medieval chamber of horrors to a better location," She complained, carefully descending the stairs.

After a rather pleasant rendezvous on the way back to the well guarded estate, Roberto called ahead, making sure his guards had Standish well under wraps. He snuck Gia in the back door and followed her down the stairs. Tony was alone in the outer part of the dungeon, sitting next to the table of 'toys' under a single light bulb.

"Where is he?" she peered into the narrow box, off to the side, "In there?"

"I'll get him." Tony got up and walked over to narrowed cell where the prisoner was housed.

Vin hung like a worn our marionette, limbs straining from their bindings. His mangled body was covered in cuts, welts and bruises. His hair was matted and filthy and hung in his eyes. The unrelenting pain between his legs had dulled what was left of his senses. One eye was swollen shut and the other a blue slit. He heard movement and looked up as the hand reached out. He flinched, cringing and heard the cruel laugh.

"You ain't lookin' so fine now, pretty boy," He unlocked the manacles and Vin dropped to the floor. He kicked the ragged form's midsection and ordered him to move. "Go on, piggy, crawl or I'll get you movin'"

Vin rolled over, gasping for breath as the white-hot pain seared through his chest. He managed to get on all fours and make a little progress before flopping. Two arms pulled him up onto his knees. His hands were once again suspended over his head from chains and his head flopped forward. A hand caressed him; he flinched and pulled back. The fingers groped him and a cold, cruel laugh danced on his shoulder. He shuddered when he recognized the hauty voice. She knelt in front of him, brushing an ice-cold glass of water against his parched lips. His head jerked, trying to find the moisture. She pulled his hair back and forced him to watch her drink it, slowly and savoring every bit. She brushed the tip of the glass against his lips again and like a fish, he opened his mouth.

"This is all so very simple, Vin," Gia cooed, running a manicured finger across his cracked lips. Leaning her face in just inches from his, "If you tell me where the border points are, I'll give you something nice," She murmured, forcing her lips onto his and assaulting his mouth.

He raised his head painfully and curled his lips in disgust. "...fuck you...bitch..." He croaked, wishing he could produce enough saliva to spit on her.

"That's not the right answer, I'm afraid."

She rose and went behind him. His heart beat wildly and his body tensed, waiting for the unseen punishment. He jerked and gasped as something hard and cold ran up the back of his thighs and across his backside. He braced himself, recognizing the instrument of pain. He screamed and buckled as the electrical charge brutalized him. His head dropped to his chest, he was heaving and panting, sweat ran in his eyes. The agonizing flare in his back left his eyes tearing.

"Does Ezra know about me?"

He remained silent and felt her body press against him. He tried to turn away, but she forced his head up. His eye caught a glint of metal and she unsheathed a slim razor. His breath caught in his swollen throat as he watched her hand disappear. He felt the cold, side of the instrument against his inner thigh. He jerked back and his eye widened.

"I'm not very patient, Vin," She hissed in his ear, biting his neck hard while the razor flicked.

"Damn..." he pulled back, feeling the sharp cut on his upper thigh and feeling the blood trickle.

She poised the blade further up, making no secret of her intent. She raised an eyebrow and watched the eye that was open dart frantically. She loved the power that surged through her with every frantic glance he cast. The razor lay sideways, one flick would be all it would take.

"...tried to warn..he don't believe..." Vin gasped, hanging his head in shame.

"Now that wasn't hard, was it?" She patted his cheek and gave him a small sip of water. "Let's try again, shall we?

His head was swimming, and the voices and figures were getting harder to understand. The grueling duration of the torturous trial left his mind numb. He had a hard time remembering anything. His eyes slid shut and his head dropped. The face appeared in the angry red swirls of his subconscious. It came closer, the green eyes and features he knew as well as his own. So close... could reach out and touch..."Chris...I need ya...Chris...please...Chris..." His hoarse voice sought.

"How touching..." A cold voice cut in and the image dissolved.

"No...Chris...come back..." He croaked, eyes sliding shut.

"Now Vin, you mustn't go to sleep," Gia ordered. Vin frowned and struggled to open his eyes, but they were just too heavy. He hissed as the small tendrils of the edges of the small whip slapped against his lower back. His good eye forced itself open, blinking up at her through the hisses of pain as his sweat ran into the raw welts.

"Does Ezra know his situation has been compromised?"

Vin scowled, and tried to follow her lips but the words came out in slow motion. His mouth tried to form a word, but his tongue was clumsy and felt thick. He dragged his head up, trying to concentrate over the pounding between his temples. When did it get so warm? Wasn't he cold before? He felt his head pulled back and her face swam into view again. The razor glistened in front of his eye. He gasped and felt her hand slide below his waist. The slice was thin and quick, high on the inside of his leg. He studied the lips moving and tried to concentrate.


"Ez...Ez..." He called out, "...told ya...dammit...Ez?" He looked around, fearing the gambler was also being held.

"What are the border points?"

"Huh..." Vin blinked, trying to remember, "That you Ez?" Vin's head lifted, searching for his teammate, just as the rubber hose smacked against his lower back."

Roberto lifted the hose again, but Gia stopped him.

"No. wait a minute." She smiled, eyeing Vin's almost unrecognizable form, "I have an idea. Tony, cut about an inch of his hair off and roll him in the dirt."

"Gia?" Roberto puzzled, what's going on in that devious mind?

"Tony, put him back in that hole and tighten the choker, just enough to make him hoarse. Roberto darling, let's retire to your room. Then after dinner, we'll invite Mr. Standish down to visit with Mr. Tanner." She laughed at the look on his face, "Darling don't frown, you'll get lines in that handsome face. I'll explain..."


Comments to: