Ezra Standish peered hard through the windshield, trying his best to make out details of the landscape beyond. Sighing when he could see very little, he turned to the man driving the vehicle. "Chris, can you even see the road?"
"More or less," The blond admitted. "Good thing we're not back home... we'd have gone into a ravine a long time ago."
"That's reassuring," The southerner muttered. He turned his attention to the third member of their little expedition. "How're you holding up, Vin?"
Vin Tanner peered into the gloom, finding the other man due largely to the dash lights. He blinked gritty eyes, and attempted to clear his sandpaper covered throat. "'M fine."
Rolling his eyes, Standish said, "So it would seem."
Conversation ended as Larabee suddenly jerked the wheel hard, cursing as he slammed on the brakes. He and Ezra were held in their seats by their shoulder and lap belts; however, Vin wasn't so lucky. The two front seat passengers heard a distinct 'thud', followed by a raspy monologue of colorful words.
"What th' hell, Lar'bee... I ain't suffered enuff, y' gotta throw m' ass in th' floor?"
Stifling a chuckle, the blond said, "I'm sorry, Vin. Something ran across the road, I didn't see it until the last minute. You okay?"
"Yeah," he grunted as he pushed himself back up onto the wide bench seat, pulling his jacket tighter around him. He found and retrieved Chris' duster, as well, draping it back across his legs. After the others had complained of roasting with the heater up full blast, they had compromised; the blond giving him his coat. Vin couldn't understand why the other two men weren't shivering, but they both seemed to actually think it was comfortable now. He could barely keep his teeth from chattering.
Larabee shifted the car into drive once more, letting his foot off the brake. He sighed heavily when he heard a strange 'thump-thump' over the sound of the rain. "Great."
"What is it?"
"Think we blew a tire. Hang tight, I'll check."
"Take yer coat," Vin offered up the warm wrap.
"I'm fine, you cover back up. I'll be back in, in thirty seconds."
Tanner shook his head and lay back down on the back seat. He closed his eyes, wrapping his arms tight around his chest beneath the black coat. He hadn't even begun to count off the seconds when Chris all but dived into the car.
"Damn! That rain is fucking cold!"
"Told y' t' take yer coat," Tanner rasped.
"Nobody likes a smug sharpshooter," the blond quipped over his shoulder. He was busy wiping the water off his face, scrubbing his arm beneath his nose as well.
Handing over a linen handkerchief, Standish groused, "how charming."
"Ezra, there's no one here to put on airs for, "Larabee growled, shooting the smaller man an amused glare.
"It is precisely during those times that prove one to truly be well mannered," the Southerner shot back."
"Y' all gonna sit there playin' 'Miz Manners', 'r c'n we go now?" It was a true sign of the slender Texan's exhaustion that his accent was growing deeper by the second.
"We're not going very far," the blond reported. "We didn't blow one tire... we blew two."
"Ah, hell," Ezra huffed.
"Exactly," Chris agreed. "Look, we'll keep going, slow, and see if we can find shelter up ahead. Hell, if we're real lucky, maybe we'll find an all-night mechanic."
With a chuff of laughter, Vin croaked, "hell, 's sparse as th' population's been th' last hour 'r two, we'll be doin' good t' find so much 's a house any time soon."
"Ye of little faith," Larabee chided.
"Wouldn't it be more prudent to wait out the storm?" Ezra asked. "Surely things will look better in the morning."
Throwing a pointed look toward the backseat, where their ill friend lay huddled beneath his coat, the blond said, "Just as soon not sit out here in the rain. We'll just go a little farther... if we don't find shelter, we'll look for a place to pull off and wait.
Looking through the rain at the heavy woods that ran right up to the edge of the road, the Southerner nodded. Although he couldn't see anyone else braving this horrendous weather, they could find themselves run into by any other car coming along the little country road.
"Hang on boys," the blond said with a bravado he didn't feel, "it's going to be a rough ride."
As they limped along the muddy, rain soaked road, the men passed the time in silence. Standish had grown accustomed to the lack of conversation when in the company of his two companions. They had just spent four days attending a conference, and he had found himself searching out strangers to engage in a full-fledged conversation with.
Things had gone from bad to worse when, during the last day of the conference, Vin had succumbed to the virus he had adamantly denied during the previous three days. He and Chris had left the miserable Texan huddled in one of the room's beds, hidden beneath not only that bed's comforter, but those from the other beds as well. The two men left the sweltering suite, having turned the room's heater up full blast in and effort to aid the younger man in becoming comfortable.
They had tried unsuccessfully to get Vin to go to the doctor, finally plying him with ever over the counter medication they could force on him. At the end of the conference they had guided the semiconscious man to their rental car and into the backseat. He had slept most of the time since, only waking long enough to shuffle behind the others into a little roadside diner, managing to down a bowl of chicken noodle soup and a glass of orange juice before shuffling back out to crawl once more into the car.
Ezra understood Chris' reluctance to keep Vin outside during the current storm. With Tanner's penchant for developing any number of respiratory ailments. He did hope, however, that the man would temper his concern for Vin's health with a similar concern for the health of them all. Standish did not want to end up in a twisted pile of metal that had once been their rental car.
They had traveled less than a mile when Chris growled out, "well, I'll be damned," and slowed the limping car.
Ezra followed his gaze, his own mouth opening at the sight he beheld. There, several yards off the road, sat a large house. Lightening flashed on a discreet little sign that proclaimed they were looking at the 'Lullaby Inn - Bed and Breakfast'. Shaking his head at their luck, the Southerner said nothing.
Chris coaxed the rocking vehicle up the leaf choked drive, parking as close to the door as possible. Turning to the man in the passenger seat he said, "You go see if you can raise someone." Canting his head toward the huddled figure behind them he finished, "I'll see if I can raise the dead."
With a smile, Standish climbed from the car, sprinting quickly up the stairs and under the broad canopy that sheltered the front door. Behind him, Chris pulled himself from behind the wheel and moved to the rear door. Opening it, he reached down and gently shook one booted leg that peeked from beneath his black coat.
"Go 'way," Vin muttered.
"Come on, pard. We've got a place to wait out the storm. Come on, now, I'm not gonna carry your sorry ass."
Pulling himself awake, the slender man blinked up at his friend, blue eyes peering owlishly into the darkness. "M' ass ain't sorry," he muttered as he climbed out of the backseat. He pulled Larabee's long coat close around him and, with the older man steadying him, hurried as quickly as he could to where Ezra waited for them.
Huddled beneath the canopy, the three men waited for the B&B's proprietor to answer their summons. Ezra had progressed from knocking politely with the ornate gold door knocker, to pounding a closed fist on the wood. Finally the door cracked open and the men found themselves being regarded by a single, ice blue, eye.
"We're closed for the season," came a muffled voice.
"Our pardon, but we've had something of an automotive mishap," Ezra began.
"We blew two tires, it's storming, and our friend is sick," Larabee interrupted. "Now, I'll be glad to pay whatever price you ask, but we really need to get out of this weather."
The door opened a little wider, and a young woman stared at them, appraisingly. Her gaze fell on Tanner; the ill man huddled miserably in the heavy coat as he leaned tiredly against the canopy's upright. He looked up; red rimmed blue eyes staring at her with an open gaze.
Pulling the door open wide, the woman said, "very well, come on in."
Chris guided Vin inside, leaving him in Ezra's care while he sprinted out to retrieve their bags. Coming back in, he found the two men settled on the couch in the parlor, enjoying the warmth of a fire burning in the fireplace there. Vin was wrapped in an thick afghan, and their hostess was just re-entering the room with a tray.
Setting th china laden carrier on the coffee table, she looked up at the rain-soaked blond. "I thought you might like to warm up a little while I ready your rooms."
Taking the steaming cup she offered him, Larabee nodded. "Thank you... miss..."
"Emily... Emily Wilson," she smiled shyly at the tall, handsome blond.
Smiling back at their hostess, Chris said, "Miss Wilson, don't go to any trouble. All we need is a hot shower and somewhere to stretch out."
"No trouble at all. Please, call me Emily. I'll go get things ready, you finish your coffee. And if you're interested, I'll warm up some homemade vegetable soup and fix you some sandwiches for after you've changed."
Looking over at the slender young sharpshooter and taking in the slightly glazed look in his blue eyes, he knew the younger man could use something hot. Looking back at the woman, Chris said, "Well, I guess we could use something to eat."
"Great, I make a mean pot of soup." She smiled, her gaze taking in all three men before she left the room.
With a hoarse chuckle, Vin shook his head. "Damned if ol' Chris don't take th' cake."
"Yes," Ezra said, green eyes fixed on the tall blond like a hawk staring at a mouse. "He isn't without his charm, is he?"
"Nope... but damned if I c'n see what th' female a th' species sees in 'im."
Huffing a breath and glaring at his two subordinates, the senior agent said, "You're just jealous because I don't have to work at it with that 'ah shucks' act or put on 'playboy' manners. All I have to do... is be myself."
The other two men looked at one another, then to the blond, and then all three men burst out laughing. Tanner chuckled until his breath caught and he began coughing. Chris was quickly at one side, Ezra at the other. The Southerner took the coffee cup from one shaking hand, and the blond gently gripped the jerking shoulders.
"Take it easy, pard, just breathe," Larabee said gently, moving a hand to rub circles across the tense back as Tanner continued to cough in a harsh bark. "Come on, cowboy, you'll be fine in a minute."
Finally the slender man relaxed the coughing subsiding. He found himself leaning back against his friend and boss, while the third member of their party was carefully wiping his face with a napkin. Managing a breath, the ill man muttered, "ah, hell."
Rubbing a hand over the well honed arm, Chris said, "Soon as this storm passes and we can get hold of a garage, we'll get back on the road. And you're going to the doctor as soon as we get home. And no arguments, Tanner... you're sick."
Vin closed his mouth without comment, but slanted a watery glare at the other men. Then his attention was drawn to the door, as was that of the other men. Emily Wilson stood, regarding them with a frown.
"Is something wrong?"
"He just really needs to get to bed," Chris explained.
"Oh... well, I was just coming to let you know I've fixed up the beds, if you want to come with me."
Ezra and Larabee rose, guiding the still trembling Tanner to his feet. They escorted him from the room, neither man leaving his side even as they moved up the stairs behind the lady of the house. By the time they reached the top of the stairs, Vin was wheezing, his face having lost it's color. He staggered, relieved when Chris caught him.
"Tanner, I swear, sometimes you're more trouble than your worth," the blond teased gently. He slipped one arm around the narrow waist and the other under the blue eyed man's own arm. "Come on, let's get you into the shower and then into bed."
"Don't need... a nurse... maid," Tanner growled, his words punctuated by wet coughs.
"Well, too bad," Larabee said softly, "you've got one."
Vin reluctantly pulled himself out of the steamy shower, frowning when he found Chris waiting outside the stall, towel in hand. He took the soft, thick cloth from the other man and toweled himself off. By the time he finished, he was trembling from the exertion and barely noticed when Larabee led him over and sat him down on the closed toilet. Slowly, his actions stiff and fumbling, he pulled a pair of sweatpants and long sleeved tee-shirt on, his friend handing him one piece at a time. Following that with his socks, he looked up to find the other man handing him a second towel. Using it to dry his long hair, he dropped it to the floor and climbed laboriously to his feet.
Chris caught the slender body before it pitched forward, steadying his friend and then guiding him from the bathroom into the bedroom. The bed had been turned back, and he watched as the ill man crawled onto the mattress. Covering Tanner with the heavy coverings, he touched the flushed face with the back of his hand.
"Gotta fever," Vin muttered, his eyes already beginning to droop.
"Yeah. You rest; I'll bring you something to eat in a little while. First thing in the morning, we'll get out of here and you're going to the doctor as soon as we get home."
"Jist need some sleep," Tanner muttered. "Don't go on th' worry."
"Hell, with you and the others around, sometimes I don't think I get anything accomplished but to worry about one or the other of you."
With a wan smile, Vin rasped, "y' know y' love it... keeps y' young."
"Yeah, right. You're delirious. Get some sleep; I'll bring you up something to eat in a little while." The younger man just nodded in reply. Squeezing one wide shoulder, he stood and padded quietly from the room.
Vin woke, frowning as he tried to figure out where he was. Blinking his eyes opened, he stared around the dark room, taking in the shadowy shapes of the furnishings. A sudden clap of thunder and a sharp spike of lightening offered him a better view and he slowly recalled arriving at the little bed and breakfast with Chris and Ezra. Rubbing a weary hand over his face, he pushed himself up to rest against the headboard.
He didn't have any idea as to how long it had been since Larabee had put him to bed and offered to bring him some soup. He couldn't say he was particularly hungry, but common sense... or maybe he really did listen to Nathan after all... told him he should eat a little something.
Climbing out of the big bed, he padded across the room, weaving slightly. Reaching the door, he pulled it opened and shuffled out into the hall. Staring from one end to the other, he tried to decide which end the staircase was on. Suddenly he felt someone watch him. Turning, he gasped to find a young woman standing close beside him, dressed for bed in a long nightgown.
"Shit! I.. um, sorry, miss. Didn't mean t' cuss, it's jist that y' startled me."
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to. I just... you looked as if you might be lost; I just thought I'd see if I could help you."
"I... well, y' see... I wasn't quite m'self when I come up here earlier. Ain't quite certain a where th' stairway is."
She smiled, deep green eyes twinkling. Pointing, she said, "Sure, it's right down there."
Managing a faint smile, Tanner said, "Thank y' miss. Are y'... are y' one a th' other guests here?"
Giggling, she responded, "Oh my, no. My family owns this house."
Nodding, Vin said, "oh... sorry, miss."
"No need to apologize. My name's Rachel... Rachel Quince."
"Nice meetin' y'... Miss Quince." Nodding once more, the slender agent walked toward the end of the hallway. There he found the stairway and, holding tight to the rail, he made his way down the stairs. Already lightheaded, he stopped at the bottom, dropping to the stair as he caught his breath.
"You that hungry you can't wait for me to bring something up?"
Tanner looked up to see his friend standing before him. Grinning sheepishly he said, "didn't see no sense a y' makin' th' trip, when I c'n come down here. Never did much care fer eatin' in bed."
Shaking his head, the blond said, "you don't behave and take care of yourself now, you'll be taking all your meals in bed... a hospital bed."
"Ah, hell, 's jist a cold, Chris. Think y've been hangin' 'round Nate too much lately." He pushed himself up, frowning when Larabee took his arm.
"Stop your frowning. You're as white as a ghost, Tanner. Not to mention the fact that you're sweating, shivering - "
"Y' gonna jist stand there 'n gripe, 'r y' gonna point me in th' direction a th' grub?"
Rolling his eyes, Larabee slipped behind his friend, gripped his shoulders, and gently propelled the wobbly man toward the kitchen. Out of his friend's sight he frowned at the heat he felt coming through the heavy shirt, strengthening his resolve to get the sharpshooter to a doctor first thing in the morning.
Vin sat hunched over on one of the kitchen chairs, picking at the soup their hostess had set out for him. While his right hand fiddled with the spoon, his left arm was tucked around his belly as if he was cold, despite the warmth of the room. Outside his line of vision, his two friends exchanged worried glances.
"If the soup isn't to your liking, Mr. Tanner, I could fix you something else," the young woman said softly.
"It's Vin, Miss, an' no thanks. This 's mighty fine food.... I jist ain't real hungry right now." He rasped in reply.
Turning a gold-toothed grin on Emily, Team Seven's undercover operative said, "believe me Miss Wilson, if he weren't feeling so under the weather, our intrepid Texan would be... for lack of a more dignified description... sopping up the last drop from the pot with a slice of bread."
"Ain't nothin' wrong with showin' 'preciation fer a good meal," Vin argued. He punctuated his words with a series of harsh coughs.
Ezra slanted a pointed look at the bits of food that littered the table in the aftermath of Tanner's coughing fit. Moving his gaze toward the blue-eyed man, he muttered, "charming."
With a faint smirk, the Texan grated out, "sorry, Ezra."
Handing his friends several paper napkins, Chris said, "at least clean up after yourself. We don't wanna offend Standish's refined sensibilities."
Just then a sharp whistle cut the air. Emily stood, going to the old-fashioned stove. Picking up an equally old-fashioned tea kettle. "I thought some tea with honey and lemon might help your throat, Mr... Vin."
His smile widening, the young agent said, "that's might kind a y', Miss."
Larabee hid a smirk as the 'blue-eyed-good-ol'-boy' came through despite the younger man's fever. Vin Tanner would be charming women until the day he died.
"Y' must be related t' that young lady that helped me out upstairs earlier. She yer sister?"
Vin didn't notice the way Emily's posture changed, her body language clearly saying that his words frightened her, but Chris did. In a meticulously level voice she said, "you must be mistaken, there's no one else here."
Frowning, the slender man said, "real sweet young lady... said her family owns th' place."
Emily shook her head. "You're mistaken. There's nobody else here, it's just the four of us. The house has been closed for weeks."
Chris watched their hostess, seeing the play of emotions on her face. Something terrified her. Having learned over the years that walking headlong into a blind alley rarely had a positive outcome, he decided that it would be better to tread cautiously. "Tanner, I think you must be sicker than we thought. You're hallucinating."
Vin stared at his friend, catching the look in the hazel eyes. "Reckon I must 'a been dreamin'," he agreed.
Ezra, ever the student of the human race, caught the interplay, and the woman's obvious relief as they appeared to drop the issue. Something was definitely amiss.
A short time later, Chris escorted the team's sharpshooter upstairs. By the time they made it to the second story, Vin was once again wheezing, leaning against the banister. He began to wonder if perhaps he wasn't so far off about Tanner being ill enough to hallucinate. The Texan didn't seem to be far from falling on his face. Just as he was entertaining the idea of calling an ambulance, Tanner spoke up.
"I ain't that far gone... git that worrywart look off yer face." As if to disprove his words, he staggered as another wave of lightheadedness struck.
Grabbing hold of the stumbling man, Larabee said, "Yeah, I can see that. Wanna go for a run? Maybe spar a few rounds?"
"Ssss... smug bastard," Vin growled. Then, sobering once more, he said, "y' know... she's lyin'."
"Yeah, I know," the blond agreed as he took more of the younger man's weight, guiding him down the hallway. "You got your piece with you?"
Nodding, Tanner frowned. "Y' think it might be that bad?"
Shrugging, the older man said, "probably not... but better safe than sorry."
The house was completely dark, the only sound the continued crash and rumble of the violent storm outside. Vin woke from a restless sleep, shivering so hard that his teeth were chattering. He tried huddling farther beneath the pile of blankets Chris had tucked around him earlier, to no avail. Every inch of his body ached, and he just knew that the soup he had managed to eat earlier was going to make a return appearance.
Suddenly he felt someone staring at him. Peering over the top of the coverings, he saw someone sitting on the chair nearby. Brow furrowing, he whispered, "ah hell, Lar'bee... thought we agreed I didn't need no nursemaid." When there was no answer he continued, "Chris? You asleep?"
"Leave this place."
His blood ran cold. The voice was deep; dripping with malevolence. He pulled himself up, pressing his body back against the headboard. He half expected the stranger to be gone, proving itself to be a figment of his imagination. Instead, the evil visitor had come closer, standing near the end of the bed.
"Leave... now. You have no business here."
"Look, mister... ain't fer certain a what th' problem is here. Me an' m' friends - "
"You have no business here. She won't leave here with you. Not alive."
"What th' hell 're y' talkin' about?" As he spoke, his hand was sliding toward his gun, lying on the bedside table. He watched as the figure, an older man with graying hair and a heavily wrinkled face, moved even closer. Snatching up his handgun, he said as loudly as he could manage, "stay where y' are!"
"You cannot take her... I will not allow you to take her..." he continued moving forward.
"I said, stay where y' are! I'll shoot!"
"She will not go with you. She has promised... she will stay here with me forever."
"Last warnin'!" When the man continued moving slowly toward him, Vin fired, aiming to wing the obviously crazed man. He saw the bullet hit his would be attacker in the shoulder.
The man didn't even flinch.
He continued walking toward Vin Tanner.
Chris was out of bed before he was even completely awake. Fully dressed, he grabbed his sidearm and sprinted across the room. Pausing at the door only long enough to check for trouble, he eased out into the hallway. Ezra met him there, also carrying his gun. Larabee couldn't help but note that the Southerner was completely clothed as well.
"Did you hear a shot?" Standish whispered.
Just barely stopping himself from making a remark about the other man's penchant for pointing out the obvious, and simply nodded. Canting his head toward the room Vin was in, he stepped forward, grabbing hold of the doorknob.
Vin gasped, struggling against the man's hold. His attacker held him down easily with one hand, while the long fingers of the other wrapped around his neck. Tanner found himself unable to even raise a hand, his vision graying as the man's grip cut off his oxygen supply. His gun lay forgotten on the bed, seemingly useless against this man.
With a final gasp, the Texan went limp on the bed.
Larabee and Standish pushed their way into Vin's room, guns leading the way. They cut to either side of the opening, scanning the dark room for signs of trouble. The blond frowned when they found nothing amiss in the quaintly decorated room. Switching on the light, he and Ezra moved toward the bed. They found Tanner sprawled out in a snarl of coverings, his face half covered with a tangle of sweat soaked chestnut hair.
Reaching out, Chris gently touched the long neck, shaking his head. "He's burning up with fever. I should have stayed in here with him."
Leaning over the unconscious form, Standish retrieved the other man's gun. "It would seem that our friend felt he needed defense against whatever demons his fevered nightmares brought forth."
Gently tapping one warm cheek, Chris bent low over his friend, calling softly, "Vin? C'mon buddy, you need to wake up. Vin?"
Tanner moaned, but remained unconscious.
Heaving a sigh, Larabee said, "I think it's time to get him to the hospital. Ezra, get the address from Emily and call for an ambulance."
"Right away." The undercover agent turned, starting when he found the young woman standing in the doorway. "Miss Wilson, I was just coming to find you. I need information on the location of your little bed and breakfast so that I can call for medical assistance."
"The phone won't work," she said softly, a tone of remorse in her voice.
"The storm?" Even as he asked, Standish was moving to retrieve his cell phone. While landlines might have been knocked out by the storm that continued to rage outside, but he had faith that his cell phone would work.
"No." Emily said simply. "You need to get him out of here, quickly."
"Our car has two flat tires. There's no way we can get anywhere with it in the shape it's in." Ezra argued. He continued on toward his room, found his cell phone, and activated it. He stared angrily at the little device when it failed to power on. Refusing to be thwarted, he moved into Chris' room, finding his supervisor's cell phone on the bedside table. Activating it, he cursed under his breath as the blonde's phone registered no activity, either. Next he jogged downstairs, locating the main phone in the little office just off the side of the foyer. He slammed the receiver back to the cradle when it, too, offered no access to the outside world.
Returning to Tanner's room, the Southerner reported, "I can't get a dial tone or signal on anything, Chris."
"Damn it," Larabee growled. He had tried several times to rouse Tanner, to no avail. Turning toward the other man, he said, "Where's Emily?"
Shaking his head, Standish said, "I have no idea. She was here when I left."
"Go find her. See if she's got a car or truck... anything we can borrow. We've got to get him to the nearest hospital."
Leaning over Larabee's shoulder, Standish saw that Tanner was still unconscious. He also noted that there were darkening pink streaks along the man's throat. Tracing the trail of one, he said, "What's that?"
Shrugging, the older man said, "not certain. Looks as if he may have been scratching at his neck or something. All I know is that he's getting worse."
Squeezing the blonde's shoulder, Ezra said, "we'll get him to the hospital, Chris. He'll be fine."
Standish found the young woman sitting in the B & B's little parlor, stirring the ashes as she sought to bring the fire back to life in the hearth. Coming to stand before her, he said, "Emily, do you have a vehicle we might borrow? Vin's quite ill, and we need to get him to a hospital as soon as possible."
"There's no way out of here... he'll see to that." The woman stared up at the handsome Southerner.
Ezra frowned, realizing that he wasn't speaking to their hostess. "I'm sorry, Miss... I was looking for Miss Wilson. I... I thought she said there was no one else here."
"He won't let you leave now. He'll see to it that you stay here forever."
Frowning, the agent said bluntly, "Look, I don't know who you are... who 'he' is, or what is going on. I do know that I have a good friend upstairs who is extremely ill and in need of medical attention. All that I need to know is whether there's a vehicle we can use. And I need to know it now."
She shook her head. "You don't understand. He won't - "
"Let us leave. Yes, so you've said." He reached out to grasp the woman by the arm, only to have his hand close on the air. Jumping back, he watched the woman fade into nothingness. "What the hell!?"
Larabee was settled in at the edge of the bed, gently stroking a cool cloth over the Texan's flushed face. He looked up as Standish bolted through the door. "What the hell?"
"Chris," the younger agent said breathlessly. "We need to get out of here... now!"
"Ezra, calm down - "
"There's no time to calm down. Get Vin, we need to get him out of here... need to get out of here ourselves!" The usually unflappable agent was ashen, eyes wide enough that the white shown all around. He reached down, grasping Tanner's arm, preparing to drag him off the bed.
"God damn it, Ezra, what the hell's wrong with you?" The blond leapt up, grabbing the man and shoving him back from the bed. "He's ill... we need an ambulance, now!"
"You don't understand!" The undercover agent fairly screamed as he struggled in the larger man's grip. "We have to get out of here!"
"What in the hell is wrong with you?"
"He's right," came a soft voice from the doorway. The two men turned to find Emily Wilson standing there. Looking from one man to the other, she said, "You need to get Vin and leave. Otherwise, you're going to loose him... and perhaps even your own lives as well."
"Look, I don't know what the hell's going on here," Larabee started. Before he continued, the woman cut him off.
"What's going on here is that something has called Rachel and Austin Quince back."
"Back? From where?" Larabee was looking from his agent to the woman and back again as if they had both lost their minds.
"She... she disappeared," Standish said in a voice that was filled with filled with a terrible awe.
"Would someone tell me just what the fuck is going on?!" The blond had lost what little patience he could muster. He gripped Ezra, staring into the wide green eyes. He had never seen his agent and friend in such a state. He had seen Ezra Standish calmly talk his way out of some of the worst situations he had ever seen, bluffing his way into - and out of - places where some of the deadliest men and women could have easily killed him a thousand times.
He never expected to see the Southerner so openly terrified.
The smaller man blinked, seeming to suddenly realize where he was. "Chris..."
Releasing his grip, Larabee said, "You okay now?"
"Yes... yes. I am sorry... I... it's just that... " he slumped, nearly falling to the ground. He felt his boss take hold of him and lead him to the foot of the bed, settling him on the mattress. Taking a shaking breath, he said, "Chris there's something strange... bizarre... going on here. We... we have to get out... of here.... get Vin out. Please."
Looking once more into the man's ashen face, Larabee found himself believing that there was something going on that he wasn't aware of. Nodding, he turned to the young woman. "Look, I don't know what the hell's going on here, Emily, but we are getting out of here, and we're getting out of here now."
"You can't... he won't - "
"I don't give a damn what you think is going to happen. We're leaving. I don't care if I have to drive me and my friends out of here on two blown tires, we're leaving." With that he stepped back to where Vin lay. His friend was still unconscious, lying as still as death on the bed. Leaning down, he shook the man's shoulder. "Come on, pard, I need you to wake up."
Slowly the ill man's eyes fluttered open, not quite focusing on the face that hovered above him. Suddenly the memory of being attacked returned, and he weakly struck out at the figure standing over him. "Gi' th' fu... fuck... 'way f-from me."
Easily deflecting the flailing fists, Larabee said sternly, "damn it Tanner, knock it off. It's me."
Slumping back, Vin managed to mutter, "Ch... Chris?"
"Yeah. We're gonna leave here, okay?"
Nodding, the Texan reached up a hand as he muttered, "le's go."
Smiling, Larabee gently lifted the slender body, helping Tanner sit up. He felt someone come near, and turned to find Standish beside him. The man still looked shaken and pale, but simply nodded and helped lift Vin to his feet. Together the trio started toward the door.
Emily stood in the doorway, simply staring at them. Slowly she shook her head. "You can't leave."
"Watch us," the blond growled. Tightening his hold on his trembling friend, he pushed past her, walking into the hall. With his friends beside him, he moved toward the staircase. They found themselves slowed only by Vin's weakness. Turning toward the Texan, he saw determination in the flushed features. Softly he said, "hang in there, cowboy. We'll get out of here soon."
They reached the top of the stairs, looking down the long staircase to the open room below. Together they began their decent. As they moved toward the bottom of the staircase, each of them felt a growing sense of unease and growing dread.
"Chris..." Vin rasped, his hold on the man's broad shoulder tightening.
"It's okay, pard. We're getting out of the house. Just hold on to me and Ezra and we'll do the work." He only wished he felt as confident as he sounded.
"'Kay," Tanner managed, growing silent as he found himself needing more and more strength to simply keep walking,
Only a few steps more. Larabee and Standish could see the front door. Then they felt Vin tense even more, pulling away from them.
"Take it easy," the blond whispered. "We're almost there."
"Git... git 'im a... away from m-me," the feverish man stammered. "Don't... don't let 'im... t-touch me."
"There's no - " the senior agent broke off, staring in disbelief at what was happening in front of him. Then, "oh... my... God."
"I don't believe that any known deities are involved," Ezra said, shock creeping into his tone.
Hazel eyes plainly saying, 'shut up', the older man stopped, bringing all three of them to a halt. He strengthened his hold on Vin as he felt the man's legs give out.
They watched as light flared and grew at the bottom of the stairs. Then it began to coalesce, taking on the shape of a very large man.
"This can't be real... can't be happening," Chris muttered softly.
"He will not leave," the specter of Austin Quince ordered, cold, dead eyes staring at Vin. "He will stay here and pay for what he has done."
Finding his voice, Standish said, "Look here, sir. I'm not certain as to who you think this is, but our friend is innocent."
"Innocent!" The phenomenon screamed, his voice causing the very walls to shake. "My Rachel is innocent... the only innocent here. That bastard defiled her... killed her!"
"He didn't hurt anyone!" Shifting the growing weight of the faltering Texan over to their boss, Ezra stepped forward. Staring boldly into the lifeless eyes, he said, "you are mistaken, you pathetic, lost soul. Vin Tanner is a good, decent man. He has brought no harm to anyone in this place. Now... be gone and allow us to take him out of here."
"Never!" The evil presence bellowed. Before anyone could react, Vin was torn from Chris grasp and tossed over the railing. He landed in a boneless sprawl below with a sickening thud. The others started down the stairs after him, only to be violently repelled.
Chris was the first to recover, pulling himself painfully up from where he had crashed into the wall. He slowly gained his feet, groaning as bruised muscles protested the movement. He looked to see their attacker drifting toward his insensate friend. Fear spurring him on, he bellowed, "No!"
Unheeding, the specter continued toward the fallen Texan. He hovered over Tanner, a look of pure rage on his face. Large hands reached out, grabbing the slender man by the throat.
Chris bolted down the stairs, growling as he launched himself at the big man, only to find himself flying backward. He heard someone grunt behind him, and realized that he had fallen into Ezra. The two men landed in a tangled heap several feet from where Vin now dangled helplessly from Quince's grip. They watched in horror as he was thrown, head over heels, landing against the far wall. He hung there for a full second before sliding down to crumple on the floor.
Disentangling themselves, the other two agents staggered to their feet, going to their fallen friend. Chris carefully lifted the other man's head and shoulders, settling him against his chest, while Ezra carefully straightened out Tanner's lower body. The Texan lay limply in the blonde's protective embrace. He moaned softly, but didn't awaken.
Larabee glared toward the specter from where he sat, holding the limp sharpshooter. "You're not getting him... back off."
Ezra added his voice, placing himself between the violent ghost and his friends. "You'll have to go through me to take him."
Quince roared in anger, and moved toward them. "You'll not stop me - "
All eyes turned toward the voice, finding a second specter, this one of the young woman both Vin and Ezra had met, floating down the staircase. Behind her, they could see Emily Wilson, standing at the top of the stairs, hands clasped before her as if in prayer.
"Father, you must not. Have there not been enough kind souls tortured for your vile vengeance?"
Austin glared at his daughter. "This has nothing to do with you, girl!"
"It has everything to do with me! This must stop, Father... now! I won't watch you destroy another life!"
"Get upstairs!" Quince screamed at his ethereal daughter.
She had reached the halfway point of the staircase. Stopping, she pointed a colorless finger at her ghostly father. "I will not take your orders, Austin Quince. You may have doomed us to this place, but I will not see you doom these men as well."
The two spirits continued to argue, their attention drawn from the living beings in the room. Austin advanced on his daughter, Rachel standing her ground as her father loomed over her, rage contorting his large features. He reached out, wrapping his fingers around her delicate neck.
Chris started to call out, to distract the phantom father's anger from his ghostly child. Then he realized that there was nothing he could do to aid the young woman. The blond suddenly heard a voice, this one in his head. Blinking, he turned to find that Ezra, too, seemed to hear the voice as well. As one the men looked up, finding Emily Wilson staring down at them.
"Run... run! Save him... you must go now!"
The blond agent, used to being able to understand and explain anything he encountered, found himself at a loss. Beyond that, he found himself nearly overwhelmed with blind terror. Then a single thought pushed itself through the fear, directed at the young woman. "What about you?"
Emily smiled, having heard the silent communication. "He can't hurt me... he never could. Now... go!"
"Chris," Standish's voice was soft, barely heard above the din of the Quinces' argument.
Nodding, Larabee lifted Vin into his arms and, with Ezra's help, he carried the unconscious man toward the door. He found that he felt no shock as the doors flew open. Instead, they rushed outside, darting for their disabled vehicle through the pelting rain. They eased Tanner into the backseat, the Southerner climbing in with him. Chris got behind the wheel, starting the car with trembling fingers. Easing the vehicle back onto the little lane, he pushed it as fast as possible, given the fact that they rode on two rims.
Reaching the main road, they crept along amazed when, less than a mile away, the sun peered down on them through a hazy autumn sky. The blond guided the car to the shoulder, putting it into park and turning off the engine.
Turning to Standish, he said, only, "Try your cell now."
Larabee looked up at the sound of someone entering the room. He nodded as Ezra quietly moved into the room, green eyes on the figure in the bed. Turning toward the still form, he nodded. "He just went to sleep a few minutes ago. He's been giving the medical staff hell all morning."
"He's improving I take it?" Standish watched the blips crossing the monitor near the head of the hospital bed, plotting the young Texan's recovery.
"Doc says things look good. His lungs are clear, the bruises on his throat aren't causing him trouble now, and the other injuries from the fall are relatively minor."
"Will he be released soon?"
"End of the week as long as things keep improving." Eyeing the tired Southerner, he smiled compassionately. "Doesn't look like you've been sleeping any better than I have the past couple of nights."
Shaking his head and giving a rueful smile, the smaller man said, "I doubt that either of us will know a full night of slumber any time soon."
Larabee noticed the piece of paper clutched in the manicured hand. "What's that?"
Looking down at his hand as if he'd forgotten that he carried anything, Standish said, vaguely, "it was sitting with our bags."
Frowning as he met the other man's gaze, the undercover agent said, "yes. I... I went back there... this morning."
"Alone!?" Chris yelled as he sprang from the chair. A startled sound from the bed stopped him. looking down at his injured and ill friend, he placed a hand on one shoulder. "Sh... go on back to sleep."
Only after Tanner quieted did Larabee turn back to the third man. Motioning to Ezra, they both moved to the far side of the room. In a hushed voice, he said, "Are you crazy? Going back there alone?"
"I wasn't alone. I took Josiah with me."
Nodding, the Southerner said, "I felt that his background would allow him to grasp what we couldn't... what happened back there."
"And? Did he?"
Shaking his head, Ezra said, "There was nothing to grasp. Nothing tangible at any rate."
Scrubbing a hand over his face, the blond said, "I'm too tired to play games. What the hell went on out there?"
Dropping to one of the uncomfortable hospital chairs with an air of exhaustion, the Southerner said, "There was nothing out there, Chris. Overgrown rubble, a broken down fence, and our luggage."
"Didn't you hear what I just said?" He snapped impatiently, drawing a deep breath just as quickly in an effort to calm down. Apologizing with a sheepish expression, he said, "the house was gone... destroyed. As to where we stayed... I don't know. But it wasn't the Lullaby Inn. "
Raising the piece of paper so that Chris could see it was a yellowed newspaper clipping, he continued. "The Lullaby Inn was destroyed by a fire over a decade ago. Prior to that it had been a rather famous underground gathering place for those seeking contact with the spirit world."
Nodding, he continued in soft, Southern tones. "It seems that the Lullaby Inn would have gone under years before, were it not for their... ghosts."
"Rachel and Austin Quince."
"Among others, yes. It would see that there were any number of spirits who called the place home."
Eyes widening as realization set in, the blond said, "Emily."
"Yes, she was another ethereal patron. She was the great, great granddaughter of Austin, and Rachel's distant niece. Emily, in fact, was the one to turn it into a Bed and Breakfast after inheriting the old estate."
"She died in the fire?"
"No. According to the article... which it turns out to be an article published in a local paper at Halloween the year after the fire... recounts two theories concerning her death. Most skeptics were certain that she had simply lost her balance, fell down the stairs, and died of a broken neck.
"Those who consider themselves believers, however, offer another explanation."
Nodding, Standish said, "They were convinced that he was reenacting the murder of his daughter, Rachel. According to friends of Emily's at the time, she had only begun seeing a young man, a local teacher. This teacher disappeared that very night."
Clutching at a thread of reality, the older man said, "So maybe he and Emily fought, he pushed her down the stairs and then lit out when he realized what he'd done."
"Excellent theory," Standish said with a smile.
"However... the man's body was uncovered after the fire, the remains found behind a boarded up cellar door."
Larabee pinched the bridge of his nose, slumping down into the other seat. Shaking his head in disbelief, he said, "so what's the story on Rachel and Austin?"
"Quite intriguing, actually," Standish baited. Then, seeing the hazel eyes flare, he hurried on.
"Rachel Quince was the youngest child of Austin and Elizabeth Quince, born several years after their other children. Elizabeth was never well after Rachel's birth, and died when the child was twelve.
"Rachel became... well, for all intents and purposes she became the lady of the house. And some intimate that Austin wished that to become a permanent arrangement."
"He wanted... his daughter..." The father in Larabee refused to even consider what the Southerner seemed to be suggesting.
"Yes, well... be that as it may. Rachel took care of the house for several years. She was a quiet, shy young woman, but very giving and friendly. I don't mean that in a derogative manner - "
Raising a hand, Chris said, "I got the picture. Go on."
"As I was saying, she stayed there for several years, seemingly content to be the mistress of the house. Until Joshua McKenna came along.
"Joshua was a gentle, friendly young man who came to their door one morning, looking for work. As Austin was getting on in years and had shown little interest in maintaining the property for several years, Joshua was hired on as a handyman."
Seeing that he was losing his audience, Standish abbreviated the rest of the story. "A few months after his arrival, he and Rachel came to Austin, asking his blessing so that they might marry. When he refused, his daughter admitted that she was with child.
"Enraged, Austin attacked the young man who had... defiled... his daughter, killing him. He buried the body and locked his grieving daughter away in her room.
"The legend continues that Rachel, herself gone mad from grief and isolation, gave birth prematurely to a daughter, who died after only a few hours. The baby, too, was buried on the property.
"After losing her child and, indeed, her mind, Rachel lived out a sadly short life in the house. The story goes that Austin attempted to force himself on her several times while - as they say - in his cups. During one of those times, he went too far, strangling the poor unfortunate woman.
"Austin, in turn, lost his mind after Rachel's untimely death. As he had in madness, he followed her in death less than a year later"
"But neither of them actually left," Larabee finished, disbelief in his voice despite what he and the other two men had lived through.
"So it would seem," Standish agreed.
"Evidently something about our intrepid Texan reminded the vengeful poltergeist of Joshua. The article recounts several strange disappearances... young men never seen again after spending the night at the Lullaby."
"Several young women met a similar fate there over the hundred years that transpired between Austin's death and the fire that destroyed the Inn."
"And... since then?"
Shrugging, the suave agent said, "I haven't had time to ascertain that information."
"Mebbe it'd be... better if we didn't... know," came a halting, breathless voice from the hospital bed.
The other two men moved to stand on either side of the recovering man. He looked up at them through wide blue eyes, still glassy from the long days of illness. "Why don't we jist let it drop?"
Frowning, Ezra said, "are you certain?"
Nodding, Vin said, "ain't so sure I wanna know jist... how close I come t' bein'... another ghost at th' Lullaby Inn."
The gathering grew quiet, looking up at the speaker. Then the leader asked, "Were they ever able to lay those souls to rest?"
Shaking his head, the storyteller said, "no. They continue to draw in the unsuspecting from time to time, even though those who have been touched by the evil of Austin Quince have tried to give out warnings."
Nodding, the leader said, "a fine tale, brother." Then he, like the others, heard a soft sound. Turning, they saw that their youngest member was huddled at his place by the fire, eyes large and tear-filled.
Kneeling in front of their distraught companion, the largest of them said, "what causes you to be so fearful, little one? These are only stories."
Sniffing loudly and scrubbing his hand over his face, the youngest said, "but they are sad tales and filled with pain."
Nodding sagely, the bigger man said, "I understand that it would be hard for one so young as you to listen to them without being moved. Perhaps you would like to take your turn now? That way you will control the situation."
Frightened, the little one looked from one to the other, expecting them to show dislike at the thought of listening to a child's tale. Instead, he found them all looking at him in expectation. His eyes finally settling on the kind ones of the man before him, he smiled. Emboldened by their silent encouragement, he stood, squared his narrow shoulders, and began.
"My tale is one of a child, told by a child and as a child would tell it. It takes place at a time when children were both held in high regard while at the same time lost and forgotten in a busy world.
"In this world there were caring men who attempted to right wrongs made by others among them who cared little.
"This is a tale of both men and children, all brought together by the bond of love."