Old Debts by The Neon Gang

by The Neon Gang


Editors' Note: The original version of this story first appeared in the Mag 7 zine, Let's Ride #14, published by Neon RainBow Press, Cinda Gillilan and Jody Norman, editors. When we all decided to post the stories that have appeared in the issues of Seven Card Stud that are more than two years old, we opted to use a generic pen name because, while Sierra Chaves and Erica Michaels were the primary authors of this story, they had so much help from the other folks writing for the press that it just made sense to consider the story to be written by the Neon RainBow Press Collective! Resistance was futile. So, thanks to the whole Neon Gang – Dori Adams, Sierra Chaves, Dana Ely, Michelle Fortado, Patricia Grace, Dani Martin, Erica Michaels, Nina Talbot, Kasey Tucker, Rebecca Wright, and Lorin and Mary Fallon Zane. Story lasted edited 7-12-2010. Art by Shiloh.

Houston, Texas
Monday, 9:00 a.m.
"Sir, I have the information you requested," a young, dark-haired man said, handing over a thick manila folder. He looked like he still belonged in college, but the man's youthful looks were deceiving, hiding nearly forty-five years. However, the cold, dispassionate expression in his eyes hinted that those years had been spent in less than compassionate endeavors.
The man who accepted the proffered file nodded silently, watching as his employee waited a moment, then turned on his heel to leave. "I'll buzz you when I'm finished," he called after him. "Be available."
The man nodded and left his employer alone in the sparse, if aesthetically decorated, office.
Oliver Wendell Corrigan carefully removed each of the files already sitting on his leather ink-blotter, returning them to their places among the fastidious filing system occupying one drawer of his overly large desk. When he finished, he set the newest addition to his collection before him.
Opening the cover, he stared at the small color picture of a man stapled to the first page of the file – Chris Larabee. Larabee's eyes did not reflect the smile on his face, and the older man studied Larabee's face – handsome features, dark blond hair – for several minutes. But primarily Corrigan studied Larabee's eyes – eyes that held a hint of pain in their depths which the camera had captured that day. It was something the older man recognized.
Once Corrigan had memorized the Larabee's face, he began to read.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Bradley Tipton sat down at his own desk in an outer office, leaning back in his leather chair, his eyes closed, as he waited for his employer to finish with the ATF agent's file. Why the old man was obsessed with these particular federal agents was a mystery to him. However, if it provided him with a fresh test subject – or subjects – what business was it of his to question his employer's motives?
Previously, Tipton had delivered files on each of the ATF Team Seven members, as well as one on Orin Travis, ATF Assistant Director and Team Seven's direct supervisor, and several family members and friends of the team. The old man would make his decision concerning the agents' vulnerabilities, and then it would be time for Tipton to take over.
Bradley pondered what Special Agent Vin Tanner might have done to focus the wrath of one of the richest men in Texas on him. Whatever it was, it must have touched Corrigan deeply, Tipton decided, because Oliver Corrigan wasn't moved by anything but the intensely personal. And he was reasonably sure now that it was Tanner the old man was really after.
The buzzer sounded softly, calling Tipton away from his musings. The old man was through with the file. Bradley checked his platinum Rolex – only two hours.
"Must have been an interesting read," he said, then chuckled as he stood.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Denver, Colorado
Monday 8:32 a.m.
"Ezra, ya goin' t' buy that thing, or d'ya just plan on standin' there all day, admirin' it? We're already late."
Standish sighed and scowled at his friend's mocking expression, hanging just over his left shoulder in the full-length mirror.
"Mr. Tanner, a good suit adds to a man's character. You don't just buy one without checking how it sits on you."
"It sits like a dandy's Saturday night."
"And what, exactly, is that supposed to mean?"
"Means it looks fine, Ez. Can we get out 'a here?"
Ezra carefully shrugged out of the expensive Italian linen and handed it to the waiting sales clerk with a smile. "I'll take it."
"That's what I's afraid of," the Texan said under his breath.
"Excuse me, what was that? You wouldn't, by chance, have been insulting my impressive taste in clothes, would you?"
"Might be impressive somewhere, but it sticks out like a goat in the hen house 'round here."
"A goat in the hen house? Really, Mr. Tanner, where do you get these?"
"From m' grandpa, mostly, why?"
Ezra studied the sniper's serious expression, trying to decide if Tanner was pulling his leg or not. But, as he'd discovered, it was very difficult to tell when it came to Vin Tanner. Of all the men Standish found himself working with now, Vin was the only one who gave him a run for his money when it came to a poker face.
"I see," the undercover man replied. "Well, I suppose I'll let it pass."
"Generous of y', Ez."
"Ez-ra," he annunciated carefully, but Tanner just grinned at him.
"Hell," the Texan said, "if I'd known you were goin' t' come in an parade 'round in front of that mirror for nearly an hour, I would've asked J'siah t' pick me up."
"I had hoped you might learn something from the experience."
"Learned why you're always late," Tanner replied. "Whoever heard of a store opening this early?"
"One who caters to the god-awful schedules men like I am forced to endure…"
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Houston, Texas
Monday 11:12 a.m.
"I want you to work on this one," Corrigan said, sliding the color snapshot of Larabee across the leather ink-blotter to Tipton.
The younger man nodded, running his hand over his thick, black hair. Houston BioTechnixs was a large international corporation with unusual resources and connections – one lowly federal agent in Denver, Colorado shouldn't be any trouble at all.
Tipton raised an eyebrow. That was only four days away. "Monday?"
"If you can't—"
"Oh, I can do it, Mr. Corrigan. I just don't want any evidence left behind that can be traced back to either of us, or to Technixs. Haste leads to careless mistakes."
"Very well… Tuesday," the older man said, "Wednesday at the latest."
The pale gray eyes that stared out at Tipton were the same color as the man's hair, and as cold as space metal. "Thank you, sir," he agreed.
"Larabee's weakest point is his deceased wife and son."
"Why Larabee, if I may ask. I had thought you were after Tanner."
The older man glared cold fire and Tipton fell silent. "I am. But you will concentrate on Larabee. Make him believe that Tanner was responsible for the death of his wife and son. It should create the utmost emotional agony for Tanner when he's forced to kill Larabee as a result."
"Yes, sir," Tipton said nodding. "It would be an interesting case to work on."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Denver, Colorado
Monday 9:30 a.m.
"You're late," Larabee snapped when his two agents finally stepped into the office.
"Sorry, Chris, we—" Tanner began, but Larabee cut him off with a jab of his finger, pointing toward his office and the two empty chairs that waited in front of his desk.
"What's up?" Vin asked as he sat down.
"This," he said, handing Tanner a copy of a single page letter.
Vin read it in silence, then he looked up, his eyes flashing with anger. "This some kind 'a joke?"
"You don't see me laughing, do you?" Chris asked.
Vin handed the letter back, unsure what to say. If Larabee believed what was written there, then his days with Team Seven were over.
"Well?" Chris asked.
"Ain't true," Vin replied. He glanced out at the others. "They know about that?"
"No, I wanted you to see it first," Chris replied. "And for the record, I didn't believe it either." He stood. "C'mon, we better get this over with," he added.
Vin nodded and stood as well, following Chris out to the bullpen. He hadn't known these men all that long, just about a year and a half, and he hoped that they wouldn't believe the allegations that were in that anonymous letter…
Larabee cleared his throat and the others all looked up. "There was a registered letter waiting for me this morning," Chris told them, then handed the letter to Ezra, who read it and handed it to Josiah.
"Mr. Tanner—" Ezra began.
"If you're goin' t' ask me if any 'a this is true—"
"I was not," the undercover man interrupted hastily. "I would not. I was simply going to ask if there was someone out there who would wants to discredit you."
"Sorry," was the Texan's quiet reply. He was glad that Ezra obviously didn't believe it any more than Chris had.
Josiah nodded. "I'd say you've definitely made yourself an enemy. Any ideas?"
"Yeah, probably are a lot 'a folks who'd like t' see me brought down," Vin admitted. "Been a sniper, a bounty hunter, a federal marshal, and an ATF agent… I've made a few enemies along the way." He looked over at Nathan and Buck, hoping they hadn't thought anything in that letter was true, either.
"Bunch 'a bullshit if ya ask me," the ladies' man said, handing it to JD, who was almost bouncing with curiosity.
"I agree," Nathan was quick to add.
"Look," Larabee said, "I don't buy any of this for a minute, but I had to tell Travis." He paused, shooting Vin an apologetic look. "I'm sorry, but it looks like it'll probably be turned over to OPR. There's nothing I can do about that, but we're going to do everything we can to find out who's behind it."
"Am I under suspension?" Vin asked, a cold fear griping his heart. He'd thought he'd finally found a home with these men, but an accusation like this could kill a career.
"No. Not yet," Chris said, adding quickly, "and we're going to make sure that doesn't happen."
"No one who knows you will believe this," Ezra said quietly. "I mean, how could they? As for me… Well, you were all fully aware of my less-than-sterling reputation when I joined you."
The others chuckled at that.
"Hell, Junior, we all have scumbags in our pasts who would like nothing better than to make us crash and burn; doesn't mean we're going to let it happen."
"We sure a hell won't," JD added.
"Maybe, maybe not," Vin said, "but I want t' know who the hell's accusin' me 'a bein' dirty."
"We all want to know who sent this," Larabee assured him.
"Well, I plan t' find out," Vin said, his voice cold. "Soon as I can."
"I don't believe it would be wise to stir up the waters any more than absolutely necessary," Ezra cautioned the younger man. "Perhaps we should take on that task."
"He's right," Chris added. "Travis can pull some strings, see if we can find out where this came from."
Vin didn't look inclined to go along, but he knew he had little choice. If the OPR wanted to, they could put him on suspension until the situation was resolved. He nodded, adding, "As long as none 'a y' think it's true."
Chris shot him a look that made is abundantly clear what he thought of that idea.
"Hell, Vin," Josiah said, "if this was about anybody else but you, I'll admit, I'd wonder, but you?"
"Not a chance," Nathan finished for him. "Sounds more like what we'd expect from Ezra."
Standish's eyes rounded. "Does that mean you think that I—"
"No, you either," Chris said, cutting him off. "Like you said, we knew what we were getting."
The last was an obvious tease and it helped break the tension in the room. Vin smiled, looking from Chris to the other. "Y' sure?"
"We're sure," Buck summed up for the rest of them.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Denver, Colorado
Tuesday, 12:10 a.m.
The phone rang several times before Ezra finally heard it. Reaching through the darkness, he fumbled for the receiver, tangling his hand in the cord.
Four days of working on their regular cases, as well as checking into the letter accusing Tanner of being on the take – primarily on their own time – had left all the members of Team Seven exhausted. So the last thing he wanted was a midnight call interrupting his sleep.
By the time he got the instrument to his ear he was already mad, and wide awake.
"This had better be good," he snapped.
"I want to see you in my office A-S-A-P."
"AD Travis?"
"Yes. Did you hear me?"
"Yes, sir, but it's ten minutes after midnight."
"Don't you think I know that?" Travis asked him. "I want you to get here as quickly as you can, understand?"
"Yes, sir." He hung up, then immediately picked up the receiver again and hit the speed dial to reach Larabee. As soon as Chris picked up, he explained what had happened.
"We all got the same call," the blond explained. "It's an old OPR trick. Get your ass over there. We'll see you when we get there."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Tuesday, 12:42 a.m.
Ezra walked into Travis' office, glancing at the man seated across from the AD. "You wanted to see me, sir?" he asked, sounding as solicitous as he could, given the hour.
"Ezra, this is Walter Cromwell, OPR."
"OPR?" He looked innocent as he turned to the man. "Well, then I assume that this must have something to do with that ridiculous letter that came concerning Mr. Tanner."
"Agent, if you'd have a seat; I have a few questions for you," Cromwell said.
"Questions? Why, certainly, I'd be happy to tell you why I think this whole thing is a farce."
"Ezra," Travis said sternly, "sit down and answer the man's questions to the best of your ability. Do you understand?"
"Yes, perfectly," he said, reluctantly easing himself into the second chair.
"Now, Agent Standish, how well do you know Vin Tanner?"
"How well?" Ezra echoed. "As well as a man can when another has saved his life more than a dozen times. I know Mr. Tanner very well."
Cromwell frowned. "You saw the letter—"
"You mean that travesty?"
"The letter accusing Agent Tanner of ties to Mexican drug lords," Cromwell plowed on.
"Pure fabrication."
"Agent Tanner has chosen to live in Purgatory…" Cromwell stated.
"Because that is the community he found himself in when he first arrived here. He has roots in that community, friends. He lives in the same apartment he has lived in for years."
Cromwell leaned back in his chair. "Some might see that as proof Agent Tanner has a network there."
"A network of friends, yes," Ezra snapped. "A network of old ladies and children who know they can turn to him for help, yes. A network of community activists and clergy and business owners who know if they need help with a project, Mr. Tanner will find time to pitch in and do his part, yes."
Cromwell took in Standish's flashing green eyes and knew he wasn't going to get anything out of the man. So, he shifted gears. "All right, let's talk about you, Agent Standish. You left the FBI under a cloud of suspicion…"
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Wednesday, 4:50 a.m.
A squeal from his barn brought Larabee wide awake. Rolling out of bed, he grabbed his pants, shirt and revolver, pulling on the jeans and blue flannel as he walked through the living room. Looking out the window he scanned the darkness, seeing nothing out of place.
A second squeal punctuated the early morning silence. Something was definitely upsetting the horses – maybe another stray dog, rummaging in the barn.
Chris released the safety on his Colt and stepped quietly outside, heading for the barn. He could hear the horses moving restlessly in their stalls, snorting and stamping a hoof in irritation.
Entering the structure, Larabee eased along the wall until he reached the agitated animals. Carefully searching the gray shadows, the blond still couldn't identify what was upsetting the horse.
"Shh, easy boy. What's wrong, huh?"
"Not a thing, Agent Larabee," a voice replied.
The blond turned to face the intruder, thumbing the hammer back on his Colt. The sight of a Glock pointed at his chest drew a soft curse from his lips. The young-looking, black-haired man holding the weapon smiled in reply.
"If you would be so kind as to set the safety back on your Colt and lay it down?" He waited as Larabee assessed the situation. "I assure you, Agent Larabee, there's nothing you can do."
"Do as he says," stated another voice from behind the blond.
"Now," added a third.
Larabee tensed, but he didn't turn around. Outnumbered and outgunned, he had not choice, he did as he was told.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Wednesday, 7:12 a.m.
"If you honestly believe Vin's is dirty, then why the hell isn't he sitting here, or in a cell?" the ladies' man exploded after three hours of trying to answer one leading question after another.
"Buck!" Travis said, raising his voice just enough to get the undercover man's attention.
"I'm sorry, sir, but if you honestly think I'm goin' to sit here and listen to this crap—"
"Agent Wilmington," Cromwell interrupted evenly. "I'm here with you and AD Travis right now because I've read Agent Tanner's record, I've heard about his reputation, and I just don't find this allegation as hard to believe as you do. Granted, we need evidence in order to move forward. But, we cannot just walk away from these charges. They are… disturbing, to say the least. It's my job to investigate, and if they happen to be true, then it will be my job to arrest Agent Tanner."
"If you believe any of this, you don't know Vin Tanner at all," Buck snapped, then shifted his attention to Travis. "I don't understand how you can go along with this."
"I don't have any other option," Travis replied, pain clear in his voice. "And I don't like it anymore than you do, but it is necessary. Now, let's just get through this, shall we?"
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Wednesday, 6:24 a.m.
Larabee watched while the two nondescript backup men entered Vin's apartment building carrying briefcases. He knew the sniper would be out running. "What're they doing?" he asked the man holding the Glock. The small, comfortable smile on the dark-haired man's face was more disconcerting than the weapon he held.
"Oh, just a little interior decorating," he replied.
Chris frowned, but he didn't question the man any further. He flexed his fingers, trying to force the blood back into them, his own handcuffs cutting off his circulation.
Several minutes passed before the two men exited the building, their briefcases swinging in larger arcs, their contents having been left behind in Vin's apartment, he was sure. The men walked over to the car and climbed in.
"Time to go, Agent Larabee," the dark-haired man said, motioning to the driver.
Larabee waited until they were on the freeway, heading out of town, before he asked, "Just what in the hell is all this about?"
"All in good time, Agent Larabee," the man replied. "Right now, we have a plane to catch."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Wednesday 10:10 a.m.
"I don't believe this," Buck said when the police lab technicians exited Tanner's apartment with several plastic bags full of pure cocaine. Cromwell followed them out, carrying a thin metal file box.
"We found all this hidden in a closet," the OPR man said. "There's enough in here to put Tanner in prison for twenty-five to fifty."
"I do not believe this! Can't you see that he's being set up?" Ezra stormed, glancing around for Tanner, but Vin was no where to be seen. Team Seven had arrived about twenty minutes behind Cromwell, coming because Vin had called them, saying Cromwell had showed up with DPD officers and a warrant in tow.
"Where the hell is Tanner?" Cromwell demanded, searching for the man as well. He'd been there less than an hour ago when he and Travis had appeared, the ORP man announcing that Tanner's apartment was being searched after the ATF had received another letter detailing more of Tanner's supposed drug ties.
"Have you already lost him?" Standish asked.
"Probably gone into hiding," Cromwell muttered. "Given what we have now, I'm going to have a warrant for his arrest issued," he added, looking at Travis.
"Damn it, Cromwell, are you really as stupid as you look?" Buck demanded.
"Agent Wilmington, that will be enough!" Travis bellowed.
Cromwell shook his head and stalked off, barking order to the DPD officers to put out a bolo on Tanner.
"Don't antagonize him, Buck," Josiah said. "It'll only make it harder on Vin in the long run."
"Antagonize him? He's already got Vin convicted and sentenced!" the ladies' man argued.
"Well, the evidence is kind of overwhelming," Nathan said, looking decidedly uncomfortable about that fact.
"It's a frame, a very good one," Ezra stated. "We all know what kind of man Mr. Tanner is."
"Yes, I know that as well as you do," Josiah told the undercover man, "but there's not a damn thing we can do about it unless we can prove it, and that's going to be rather difficult without Vin." He glanced around, hoping to see the man.
Travis sighed heavily and rubbed at his temple. "Please, don't tell me I'm going to have to put out an all-points on him…"
Ezra muttered something hotly about "trust" and walked away.
"Might want to put out a missing agent report on Chris while you're at it," Buck said, blue eyes still stormy. "We can't get hold of him."
"I know. I tried calling him myself when Cromwell brought me the second letter. And I tried to convince Cromwell not to jump to conclusions, but he wasn't hearing any of it," Travis told them. "Do any of you know where I can find Chris or Vin?"
They all shook their heads.
That prompted another sign form Travis. "All right, I'm prepared to believe that – for the moment."
"It's the truth," Josiah told the man. "Vin was here when we got here."
"He probably saw how this was going and…" JD trailed off, realizing what he was saying didn't look good for Vin.
"No, that isn't going to help how this looks," Travis said, looking from Dunne to the others.
"We know that, sir," Josiah replied. "We'll see if we can't find him."
"See that you do," Travis said. "And when you do, put him someplace safe where you can find him."
Josiah nodded.
"What did it look like in his apartment?" Ezra asked.
"There were no signs of a struggle, if that's that you're asking," Travis replied.
"Nothing on his computer or his answering machine, either?" JD asked.
Travis frowned. "Vin has a computer at home?"
JD nodded.
"I didn't see one," Travis said.
"He keeps it in the living room, on the desk in the corner," Buck said.
Travis shook his head. "Nothing, and it looked like there was normally nothing there."
"Whoever we're up against is very good," Ezra said worriedly.
"Damn it, where is Vin?" Buck asked, glancing around, wishing the man would appear and assure them he wasn't dirty.
"Running, maybe?" JD asked half-seriously.
Buck's eyes flashed dangerously at his roommate. "You, too, JD?"
The younger man raised his hands in a gesture of surrender. "Hey, I don't believe it, either, but someone's gone to a lot of trouble to make sure everyone else does. Maybe Vin didn't think we'd believe him, so, he ran."
"Vin knows we trust him," Josiah stated matter-of-factly.
"I want all of you on this, full-time, starting now," Travis said. "Find Chris, and Vin."
The five men nodded, but each of them was wondering just how they were supposed to do that.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Wednesday 1:53 p.m.
Larabee wasn't sure what they had done to him, but he was reasonably sure he wasn't in Colorado anymore. Shrugging off the offered help, he struggled out of the car on his own, his mind feeling fuzzy, his body sluggish. Once outside the sedan he found himself facing an older, distinguished-looking man that he guessed he was in his mid-sixties.
"Welcome, to Houston, Agent Larabee."
"Houston? Do I know you?" Chris asked, trying to remember if he'd ever seen the man before, and coming up blank.
"No, but I know you better than you know yourself, Agent."
The blond snorted. "Who the hell are you?"
"Oliver Wendell Corrigan."
The name made an impression on the detective. Corrigan was reported to be the richest man in the Southwest, with businesses in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado. Chris thought he might have read that Corrigan owned as casino in Las Vegas, too. The papers also described him as a recluse, an eccentric in the same tradition as Howard Hughes. No one had seen the man in public in years, but he was thought to be living in a small castle somewhere in the Scottish lowlands. His companies ranged from cattle to oil to publishing to a very successful pharmaceutical company headquartered in Houston.
"Why am I here?" the blond demanded.
"You're here to learn a new truth, Agent Larabee. You're here to learn to kill. You're here to die, and be reborn. You're here to be an avenging angel, righting the scales for my son's death."
"Your son?" the blond asked, utterly confused. The man sounded as mad as a sun-stroked coyote, and twice as dangerous.
"David Waycross Douglas, Agent Larabee, my son – my only child. You, of all people, ought to appreciate the pain I have felt, losing my only child."
Chris' eyes flashed, but he said nothing.
"A man, your coworker, Vin Tanner, shot and killed David. Agent Tanner hounded David until he had nowhere left to run. He—"
"Wait a minute, David Waycross Douglas," Larabee interrupted, remembering Vin talking about the man. "David Douglas was a mid-level cocaine dealer who spent the money he made selling drug on kiddy-porn," he said. "Snuff kiddy-porn. Do you know what that means?" he asked, going on before the older man could say anything. "It means your son watched children being sexually violated and killed, Mr. Corrigan, while the camera's running. Kids are raped and murdered so perverts like your son can get off while they watch. Sounds to me like David Douglas deserved what he got."
"He deserved respect! He was my son. He was the living memory of his mother!"
Larabee pressed his lips together. It was useless. The man wasn't sane. "If Vin was the one who killed him, why am I here?"
"To help me with my revenge, Agent Larabee, I cannot do this without you."
"I'm not going to help you hurt Vin," Chris growled, glaring at the man.
"I'm afraid you won't have any choice in the matter," Corrigan told him. Then he nodded to the man with the Glock. "Mr. Tipton will see to that."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Monday, 8:21 a.m.
"Gentlemen," Travis said, walking into Team Seven's bullpen. "We need to talk."
"Here or the conference room?" Josiah asked.
"Here," he said, adding, "JD, please, go close the door."
JD rose stiffly from where he was hunched over his computer and walked to the door, pulling it closed.
Chris and Vin had been missing for six days now. And the longer the investigation dragged on, the more convinced they were that the two men had been kidnapped. The ATF, however, had decided to launch a full-fledged manhunt for Tanner after Vin's apartment had been searched a second time on Friday, turning up further evidence that the Texan was involved with several known drug dealers there in Purgatory, as well as one in Texas.
The more time that passed, the more worried their friends became that the two men were already be dead, but something deep inside them made them cling to the truth: that wasn't true. Chris and Vin were alive, somewhere, and they were in trouble.
When JD returned and sat back down at his desk, Ezra asked, "You have something?"
Travis paused, studying the detective's face. "Are any of you getting any sleep at all?"
Josiah smiled. "Sure, a couple of hours a night… on a good night."
"Well, you should get more tonight. You're now officially off the case."
"Off the case?" Buck echoed disbelievingly. "Sir, you know as well as I do, we're the only ones who are on the case!"
"I'm sorry, Buck, but this comes straight from the Director." Travis sat down, rubbing at his own puffy, sleep-deprived eyes. "Cromwell has found additional evidence. Denver PD busted a mid-level dealer, and he was willing to talk…" He sighed. "It's starting to look like Vin might've been involved with Sarah's death…"
"What? That's insane!" Ezra argued. "We both know—"
"Yes, I know we do, but this is bad, boys, terribly bad."
"We've got to find them," Buck said, his agitation a physical presence in the room.
"No," Travis said bluntly. "All of you need to go home, and stay there." He looked over at Ezra. "There are already some suggestions surfacing that you might have been involved in some of these deals with Vin."
"Oh, this is great, just great. So now we're getting setup, too?" Buck fumed.
"No, not we," Ezra countered, his gaze locked on Travis', "me."
Travis nodded. "So far. There were documents that suggested your mother—"
"I have never worked for my mother since—"
"Ezra, I'm not accusing you of anything!" Travis shouted, slamming his open palm down on the desktop. Standish fell silent and the older man lowered his voice, saying, "It's clear to me that someone is trying, very hard, to destroy Vin Tanner's reputation and his career. I would anticipate that innuendo and rumor will begin to circulate, questioning each of your loyalties…"
"You think we're all targets?" Josiah replied.
"I don't know. I think Vin is the primary target, but whoever this is, they're not too concerned about the collateral damage," he said, glancing at Ezra. "The Director is trying to avoid the publicity, so you and I are safe – for the time being. And he agrees with me that this thing with Vin is a frame, but we can't prove it, not yet – not without Vin, and Chris."
Ezra nodded, his anger dissipating. "Whoever is behind this is good, very, very good, and unless we can find Mr. Tanner and Mr. Larabee, we are all going down…" He trailed off.
"But?" Buck asked, having clearly heard the unspoken word.
Ezra's gaze swept over each of the men. "You know as well as I do that they might both already be dead."
"I won't believe that," Buck said, shaking his head.
"I don't want to either," Nathan said, "but—"
"We can resign. Then we can keep looking for them," JD cut in.
"No," Travis responded immediately. "That is not the answer. And it wouldn't look good right now."
"You can't honestly expect us to just sit at home and do nothing," Josiah challenged. "Chris and Vin are our friends. We owe it to them."
"I know that," Travis admitted. "Just, please, be careful. Be discreet. We're walking on eggshells here, gentlemen."
Ezra nodded. He understood discreet. "Then we will be as prudent as we must, but we cannot let this go."
"I would never ask you to," Travis told him. "They're my friends as well." He looked at each of the five men in turn. "If you find you can't get anywhere… well, resignation remains an option, but I sincerely hope it won't come to that. We do have allies, gentlemen."
"Good thing, too," Buck said, "'cause it's startin' to look like we might need a whole lot of help."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Wednesday, 7:02 p.m.
Chris tested the restraints holding him to the cold examination table. How he had gotten there was a mystery, but he suspected some there had been sort of drug in the food or the water they had given him at dinner.
They had stripped him, too, redressing him in thin, white cotton drawstring pants, but no shirt or underwear.
Lying there, he thought about Vin and the others, knowing that they would be looking for him. Given the professionalism Corrigan's men had demonstrated so far, he wasn't sure he wanted them to find him. It was too dangerous. Corrigan might be a billionaire, but he was completely obsessed with his son's death. Other marshals had been in that warehouse that day, according to Vin, but it was Tanner's bullet that had killed David Douglas when the man had tried to escape, taking one of the children slated to be used in an upcoming film with him as a shield.
Douglas had already violated the boy, and there was no way Vin was going to allow him to harm the seven-year-old further. He'd pulled the trigger, dropping Douglas before he'd made it to the door.
He would have done the same thing.
Chris tested the padded leather straps holding his wrists and biceps a second time. Matching restraints bound him at ankles, calves, and mid-thigh. They were all as secure as the last time he'd tested them.
The door opened with a hiss and the resulting cold draft sent a chill racing through the blond. The man who had captured him entered and Larabee studied his captor as he moved around the room, laying out various pieces of equipment.
Chris took the opportunity to study the man, Tipton, Corrigan had called him.
Tiptop was five-foot-eight, and no more than 140 pounds. Thin, but the tailored shirt he wore, rolled up so it was above his elbows, revealed wiry muscles. His hair was black, and he had dark brown eyes. No distinguishing marks. The man's hands were long-fingered and moved with practiced precision as he quickly organized a collection of instruments on a metal tray, then carried it to the rolling stand next to the examination table.
"Agent," Tipton greeted him cordially.
"What the hell are you planning to do to me?"
Tipton pursed his lips and folded his arms across his chest. "I suppose it won't hurt to tell you," he said. "You see, Agent Larabee, for the past several years I've been involved in researching certain mind-altering drugs – synthetics, really. It's all perfectly legal, government and private sector sponsored pharmaceutical research.
"You'd be surprised how easy it is to eliminate a man's memory with drugs. However, accurately recreating a memory, or altering a memory in certain specific, permanent ways, has proven to be much more difficult. However, I have had very good teachers.
"Unfortunately, many organizations have been unwilling to carry the research forward in a more… progressive manner, shall we say?"
"And you are," Larabee added. "Using unwilling patients, too, I'll bet."
The man shrugged, but his expression was one of amused disinterest. "Mr. Corrigan saw the potential of my work and has given me the resources I need to continue my work…"
"And now you're gonna try to recreate a memory for me, huh?"
"Something like that, yes. But first we must break down the more… primitive boundaries of resistance."
"What the hell are you talking about?"
"Pain, Agent Larabee – pure, simple pain."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Monday, 12:13 p.m.
Ezra scowled down at the unmarked car that was now parked across the street from his condo. So, Cromwell had finally decided to put him under surveillance, had he?
Stepping over to the phone, he picked it up and dialed a number he wished he could forget.
"Hello?" greeted a soft baritone.
"Buona sera, zio."
"Ezra…? Ezra, is that you?"
"Yes, Uncle Aldo, listen, la gente potrebbe ascoltare."
"Ezra, what the hell's going on?"
"I don't know yet, but I wanted to let you know that they might drag mother into it, and you know that never ends well for me."
"Explain it to me, nipote," the older man directed.
Ezra complied, laying out the events of the last week in as much detail as he could. "…now my home is being watched. I have to know, è ci qualcosa che accende con la madre che dovrei conoscere circa?"
"No. No, it's not that. And there's nothing happening with your mother that would bring this kind of misery down on you, Ezra. I give you my word."
"That's good enough for me. But I do want to ask a favor… If you could ask Mother to lie low for a while – until this is over…"
"Of course."
"And… se poteste esaminare la scomparsa dei miei amici Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner…"
"Yes, I will do this. And, Ezra…?"
"Sì, zio?"
"I hope your friends are all right."
"Thank you. Li denominerò, you understand?"
"Capisco. Grazie."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Saturday, 1:14 p.m.
Chris stared at the bright light that was swinging slowly from side to side above him. The glowing sphere was his only link to the world around him, everything else had fallen away, stripped off by intense pain, drugs, and unending discomfort.
Tipton stood outside the small cell and watched Larabee as his eyes tracked the bare light bulb. Three days and Agent Larabee was finally ready for him to begin a memory alteration. It was taking longer than Tipton had expected, the man holding out against the first levels of the process much better than his earlier test subjects had ever managed. Tipton had planned for two days to break the agent down, but the weaknesses he had tried to exploit were also among the man's strengths, and Larabee had clung to them tenaciously throughout the nearly ceaseless ordeal.
Now, however, drugs and the lack of sleep were doing what the beatings and the pain had not – wearing down the walls of reality. Tipton knew Larabee would soon slip into the void where he could take over and recreate a new reality for the blond – a reality where Vin Tanner was dirty, and had been for a long, long time – long enough to have been responsible for the death of Sarah and Adam Larabee.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Monday, 11:47 a.m.
Chris shivered, drawing his knees up to his bruised chest and wrapping his arms around them. Lowering his forehead to his skinned knees, he tried to sort through the confusion that clamored in his mind. It was the first time they had left him alone for more than a few minutes, and he was certain it was another trick of some kind.
Carefully, he checked his memories. He could remember who he was, but he could no longer remember who was treating him like this, or why, or if anyone would be looking for him.
He felt himself slipping into an exhausted sleep, but the stream from a fire hose hit him, sweeping him back against the cold stone wall of his cell.
Fighting to stand against the harsh rush of water, Chris coughed and choked, his feet slipping out from under him and submerging him in the flow.
Finally, on his hands and knees, he retreated to the corner of the small room and hunched into the space, his back turned to the powerful spray, silently begging for it to end.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Monday, 6:15 p.m.
Ezra let the phone ring while he quickly toweled off after his shower, snatching it up on the sixth ring. "Yes?"
"Ezra, it's Nathan. Josiah called. He told me you weren't eating like you should these days, so Raine and I cooked ribs tonight. We've saved some for you."
The undercover agent paused, almost asking Nathan what the hell he was talking about.
"Did you hear me?" the former medic asked. "You wouldn't want us to have wasted all that effort, right?"
"Uh, no, of course not. Thank you. That was most generous of you, but you caught me in the shower; I'm still drying off. Sorry. It sounds… wonderful, though. Josiah's right, I haven't been eating like I should."
"Well, why don't you stop by and pick 'em up before they get cold?"
"Yes, well, I'll be over as soon as I get dressed. And thank you again."
The Black man chuckled on the other end of the line. "Well, you're more than welcome. I'll be here. I'll even have Raine toss in one of her special baked potatoes."
"Delightful," Ezra replied, hanging up and shaking his head. He really was going to have to talk to Nathan about how this kind of thing ought to be done.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Monday, 9:40 p.m.
"No!" Chris screamed. "Sarah!"
"Back off on the drugs," Tipton instructed his assistant. The slightly overweight, middle-aged man hastily stepped over and reduced the rate of flow on the IV drip.
The blond relaxed on the examination table, his fight removed by the narcotics.
Tipton nodded and smiled as only Larabee's head continued to roll from side to side. Sweat ran off the man's face and chest, slicking the vinyl tabletop.
"His vitals are becoming unstable, sir," a third technician said.
"Put in the tape we prepared."
"But, sir, his vital signs—"
"Do it!" Tipton snapped. "He's on the edge and I have to push him over – now."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Monday, 7:09 p.m.
"Nathan, what's going on?" Ezra asked when he arrived at the man's home, which, he had noticed, was also being watched.
"Travis had this delivered," Nathan replied, handing over a folded piece of paper.
Ezra opened it, reading the contents quickly. "Wonderful," he breathed. They were going to pull them in for questioning again. "So, they've uncovered new evidence against Mr. Tanner…"
Nathan nodded. He had already read the note. "Wish he had a suggestion about what we could do."
"Yes, I do as well," was the honest reply. "This is getting out of hand… Why can't they see it's a frame? It's so obvious a blind man could see it."
"Care for a suggestion?" Josiah asked, stepping in from the kitchen.
"At this point? Yes."
"Drop out of sight for a while," the profiler suggested.
"Oh, Josiah, surely you're joking. That's all I'd have to do to prove to them that they're right."
The big man glanced around the room before he said quietly, "It seems that Travis has a possible lead, but we can't follow it up. I think you can."
Ezra sat down at the counter. "Do tell, Mr. Sanchez, I assure you, I am all ears… "
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Monday 11:43 p.m.
Chris didn't feel the impact when Tipton's men tossed him back into his cell. Sights, sounds, and feeling tumbled through him, disconnected, confused, and painful. Raising his hands to his ears, he tried to silence the voices that bombarded him, but they continued to taunt him.
"Stop!" he yelled.
Rising, the blond swung drunkenly from side to side, flailing at the tormenting demons that refused to leave him alone.
"Stop!" he cried again, then charged the wall, colliding with enough force to send him rebounding off the hard surface, sprawling into the middle of his cell. He stayed on the cold stone floor, curled in a fetal position while the bedlam ripped though his mind.
Gripping his knees tightly to his chest, Chris let his tears fall, as silent as the sound of his sanity, slipping away.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Tuesday, 7:03 a.m.
"He's ready," Tipton said matter-of-factly as he watched Larabee, who was sitting passively in a chair.
"You're certain?" Corrigan questioned, leaning forward in his plush leather chair.
"Yes, sir."
"You do realize that your life is at stake here, don't you, Bradley."
Tipton nodded. "He's ready."
"Very well, then. Take him back to Denver."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Monday, 11:24 p.m.
Ezra slipped out the backdoor of Nathan's home, making his way across the darkened yard. Opening the rear gate, he crossed behind the Jacksons' garage, then used the three open backyards behind the rest of the houses to reach the corner unseen by the men who were watching Nathan's home.
Just around the corner, on the next block, he found the car Josiah had arranged for him to borrow. On the seat was a gym bag with a change of clothes and a note from Orin Travis.
Ezra, the address here should be a safe place for you to stay while we work this mess out. If anything happens to me, consider asking your Uncle Aldo for plane fare out of the country.
This is much bigger than we thought. Oliver Wendell Corrigan might be involved. His file is in the bag.
Good luck.
(123 September Chase)
Ezra turned the key that was waiting in the ignition and eased the nondescript Saturn sedan into the street. He drove for several minutes, then pulled over in a dark neighborhood and pushed the cigarette lighter in, waiting for it to heat up. When the lighter was hot he removed it, touching it to the end of Travis' note and watching as the paper curled it into a black ribbon. He crumbled that into powder, then opened the door scattered the ashes in the street.
He knew who Corrigan was, and if he had set his sights on Vin, then the sniper was in greater danger than any of them had imagined. He needed to make another call to his Uncle Aldo.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Tuesday, 2:41 p.m.
Larabee sat rigidly in the back seat of Tipton's private limousine as they drove through Denver. Sunken, vacant eyes watched the world passing outside the heavily tinted windows with impartiality. Larabee pressed his hand against his side, the fleeting notion he might have a cracked or broken rib was ignored.
"Well, Agent Larabee, it's time that you dealt with the man responsible for your wife and son's murder. When you meet him, what will you do?"
"I'll kill him," Chris replied, his voice cold and deadly.
"Very good, Agent Larabee, you will kill him. Who are you going to kill?"
"Vin Tanner," Chris replied, green eyes narrowing dangerously. Vin Tanner had pretended to be his friend, but now he knew the truth. Tanner had just been using him. Tanner had been the one who had killed Sarah and Adam. He couldn't comprehend how Vin could have done that and then acted like he was his friend. But it really didn't matter. All that did was killing Tanner for what he'd done – what he'd taken from Chris.
"And after you kill Vin Tanner, what are you going to do then?"
"I'll go to the ranch and wait for you."
Tipton smiled. "That's right," he said. "You'll kill Vin Tanner and then you'll go to your ranch and wait for me."
But Tipton knew he wouldn't be picking the man up. Larabee would find and confront Tanner, and Tanner would have no choice but to kill his friend, which was what Corrigan wanted.
Then the police and the other ATF agents would come for Tanner. Denver will have a tragic story of a federal agent gone bad, a dirty agent who dealt in drugs, killed his boss, and, ultimately, had to be killed himself.
All in all, Tipton was pleased with how well this trial had gone, and, with luck, he would soon have another subject – Ezra Standish.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Tuesday, 9:02 p.m.
Ezra reached for his Walther P99 when he heard the light tap on the safe house door. It was not repeated.
Easing off the sofa, he moved to the door. "Yes?"
"It's me. Let me in."
Standish opened the door a crack to find Travis staring at him, concern etched deeply into his expression. "Come in."
Travis stepped inside and walked straight to the sofa and sat down. "It's Chris."
Ezra froze. "Is he—?"
"He was at J. Watson's about two hours ago. Walked right in and cased the place, like he was looking for someone. Inez told Josiah he looked terrible, like he hadn't slept in days and someone had worked him over. She tried to stop him, but he pulled a gun on her."
Ezra shook his head. "Whoever that was, it was not the Chris Larabee we know. He would never draw a weapon on Inez. What the devil is going on?"
"You tell me," Travis sighed. "First Chris gets a letter detailing Vin's supposed involvement with a Mexican drug lord, then they both disappear for nearly a week. They find drugs in Vin's apartment, then evidence in a separate bust that ties him to dealers and a Mexican mob figure…"
He shook his head and looked at Standish. "Here's the latest wrinkle: they have found evidence that Sarah Larabee had acquired some bad gambling debts, and Tanner might have been the one who killed her, on the orders of his mob bosses. Cromwell has suggested Chris might have known, and went along with the hit."
"That's preposterous!" Ezra cut in.
"Now evidence is beginning to surface to tie you and your mother into this spreading conspiracy."
Travis shook his head, too tired to play twenty questions.
"For some unknown reason, we are all being set up," Ezra said softly. "That much is obvious."
"The Director is probably issuing a warrant for me as well."
"Do you really believe that Oliver Wendell Corrigan is involved? I cannot fathom why he would be interested in Mr. Tanner, or Mr. Larabee, or you for that matter."
"I don't know," Travis admitted. "But I trust my sources." He paused, then asked. "And is there some reason he might be interested in you?"
"I wouldn't have thought so, but…" He paused, then added, "…he and Mother spent a few months together. I was away, in college."
Travis nodded. "The others have found another safe house. I came to get you. We're meeting them there. We need to find Chris, see what he can tell us; see if he knows where Vin is."
Ezra nodded.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Tuesday, 7:13 p.m.
The blond staggered down the alley behind J. Watson's. Where was he? Where was the man who was responsible for Sarah's death?
He had failed.
Where was Tanner? It was supposed to go as planned. No slip-ups, no changes…
He had failed.
Voices rose from somewhere inside his head, condemning him.
Pausing in the end of the alley, he leaned heavily against the graffiti-stained brick wall, panting for breath. His strength was failing and he knew it wouldn't be long before he collapsed.
I have to find him, he growled silently. I have to find Tanner. Tanner must die.
He had arrived just in time to see a young Hispanic woman slip something to Vin in the alley behind the bar. By the time he had gotten there, Tanner was gone
He'd tried to find him, checking inside the bar, in the parking lot, but there were no signs of Tanner. Where would he go?
Josiah would know, he realized. If anyone would know where Tanner was, it would be Josiah, he was sure of that.
All he had to do was find Josiah, let the big man lead him to Vin…
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Tuesday, 10:01 p.m.
A knock sounded at the door and Buck and Josiah both reached for their weapons, moving to either side of the door.
"Yeah?" Nathan called.
"It's us."
Nathan moved up and unlocked the door, admitting Ezra and Travis. He had just locked it again when JD burst into the living room of the safe house.
"I found it!" he announced. "I found the connection between Corrigan and Vin." And when the younger man finished speaking, the others were looking pale.
"I had no idea Corrigan had a son," Josiah said. It was never in any of the articles or news reports.
"Guess it just wasn't common knowledge, since he was illegitimate," Buck replied.
"I've heard Corrigan's an eccentric, but kidnapping federal agents?" Nathan questioned.
"Why not?" Buck asked. "He's got enough money and lawyers to keep him out of prison. Man with that much money and power, he probably thinks he can get away with anything."
"But why go to all the trouble to discredit Vin when he could've just had him killed?" Nathan asked. "And what does Chris have to do with it?"
"Maybe killing Vin isn't enough," Josiah replied thoughtfully. "Maybe he wants to destroy Vin's reputation, and his career first."
"But that still doesn't explain Chris," Buck argued.
"I know," Josiah replied quietly, in full profiler mode now.
"We should go find Corrigan," Nathan said.
"There's no way in hell we're going to get a search warrant for Corrigan's estate in Houston, or anywhere else," Buck replied.
"The hell with a warrant," JD responded. "We need to get down there. If there's a chance—"
"We're all worried about Chris and Vin," Ezra cut in. "But we can't afford to go up against someone with the resources Corrigan has without a well thought out plan."
"We're talking about their lives, Ezra!" Buck argued. "If there's any evidence that might—"
"Chris is here in Denver," Josiah snapped. "And if he is, then so is Vin – somewhere. He probably never left."
Buck glared at the profiler. "So, what're we supposed to do? And why the hell would Corrigan care about Chris? It's Vin who killed his bastard son, before he ever joined up with us."
"I have an idea, but I pray to God I'm wrong," was Josiah's reply.
"Care to share?" Nathan asked the big man.
Josiah hesitated for a moment, then said, "If you were to look at Vin's life with the objective of causing him the most mental anguish, what would you do? Who would you target?"
"Chris," Ezra replied immediately, a cold lump of dread suddenly sitting in the pit of his stomach.
Josiah nodded.
"You mean you think Chris is dead?" Buck asked, his face going slightly green. "But if he was—"
The profiler shook his head. "No, we know Chris is alive. Inez saw him a few hours ago. But if I wanted to really hurt Vin, I'd find a way to send Chris after him, force Vin have to kill him…"
"Christ," Buck breathed, looking at Sanchez. "It makes a sick kind of sense, doesn't it."
"And if anyone had the resources to pull something like that off, it would be one of the richest men in the country," Ezra added.
JD swallowed hard. "You ever heard of BioTechnixs?"
"Go on," Travis prompted.
"It one of Corrigan's biggest companies. They do pharmaceutical research; they even have some Department of Defense contracts for mind altering drugs that can be used on enemy combatants…"
"Chris might have become one of the guinea pigs," Nathan said, shaking his head.
Josiah nodded. "Preparing Chris for something like that might take a week."
"Okay, so we assume Corrigan messed with Chris' head," Buck said. "What good does it do us? It doesn't tell us how to find them now."
"We have to go look for them," Ezra said. "If Mr. Sanchez is right, then once Chris was prepared he was turned loose. He's looking for Vin. We have to find him before he finds Vin, or we have to find Vin first, and warn him."
"Gentlemen, if we go out there, it's just a matter of time before the police spot one or more of us," Travis told them.
"We can't just stay here and let this happen," Buck argued.
"I realize that," Travis replied. "But we have to go about this carefully."
"We have to split up," Josiah said. "We're going to have to watch the ranch and Vin's apartment—"
"Both are still under surveillance," Travis interrupted.
"Then we can watch the watchers," Ezra said.
Josiah shook his head. "No. Wait a minute… We're not thinking this through. If you're Chris and you want to find Vin—"
"And he's not at any of the places you'd expect," JD cut in.
Josiah nodded. "How would you find him?"
"Follow us," Buck replied.
"Exactly," Josiah replied. "I think Brother Vin caught on to the game long before we did."
"He dropped out of sight so we couldn't lead Chris to him?" JD asked, confused.
"No," Ezra said, "he dropped out of sight so we couldn't tip off where he was to the bad guys, whoever they turned out to be. He has no idea Chris is coming for him."
"But how can we find either one of them if we don't know where they are?" JD asked.
"We go Vin's apartment," Josiah replied. "Chris started at J. Watson's, so my bet is he tried work first. The next logical place would be Vin's apartment."
"It's worth a try," Travis said. "But what would be his next stop?"
"The ranch," Buck concluded and Josiah nodded his agreement.
"All right we'll split up," Travis said, "half to Purgatory, half to the ranch."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Tuesday, 11:23 p.m.
Chris watched the three men leave a run-down apartment building in the middle of Purgatory. There was something vaguely familiar about the location, and it gnawed at him, but he shrugged it off.
The truck Larabee sat in, an old Ford he had hot-wired in a grocery store parking lot, fit in well with the mostly rundown neighborhood.
He waited and watched as Josiah, Nathan, and Ezra left the building in an old hatchback. He followed them.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
As the old hatchback drew closer and closer to the ranch, Chris grew increasingly agitated. Something was wrong, but he didn't know what.
The voices returned, crowding into his mind, screaming at him, but he couldn't hear what they were saying.
But the men who were in that car knew where Tanner was, they had to. Larabee pressed the accelerator pedal to the floor of the already rattling truck, his bumper colliding with the back of the small hatchback.
Josiah glanced in his rearview mirror to find the menacing front end of a pickup truck obscuring everything else. He pressed more speed out of the hatchback, but the truck stuck with him, slamming into the smaller car a second time. He tried swerving, but the truck seemed to anticipate his move and they were hit again.
"My God, that's Chris!" Ezra said.
"What?" Nathan asked as Josiah fought the car back onto the road.
The truck caught the bumper of the hatchback for a third time, forcing them off the highway. The tires, catching in the gravel, ground the car to a stop. Half the automobile lifted off the ground, but not far enough to turn over. It dropped back with a hard thud.
"Get out!" they heard Larabee yell.
"Chris, is that you?" Nathan asked, shoving the car door open and lunging out. The others did the same. None of them were prepared for the sight that greeted them.
Larabee's face filled with hatred that was directed right at the three men.
"Chris—" Josiah started.
"Get off the road!" the blond snapped, motioning to the open, landscape behind them with his Colt.
"Chris, what's going on?" Nathan asked.
"Move!" the man growled, aiming the Colt at Nathan's head.
"Chris!" Josiah bellowed.
"I said, move! Now!"
The three men complied, albeit reluctantly, moving off slowly while the blond followed, the Colt held on them. When they were about fifty yards away from the road and hidden from any passing traffic, Larabee called a halt.
"Chris, you need to listen to me," Josiah said. "What's going on isn't real."
"You have do idea what's going on," Chris snapped, the Colt now trained on the profiler.
"For God's sake—" Ezra started.
"Shut up!" Chris nearly screamed. "You don't know! You don't know what he did. He has to die."
"Vin's your friend," Nathan stated. It was clear Larabee wasn't operating on all cylinders, but his seriousness of purpose could not be mistaken.
"My friend?" Chris repeated, his gaze flicking from Josiah to Nathan and back again. "A friend doesn't murder your wife and child!" he bellowed. Then his eyes narrowed. "Why are you helping him? Did you know?"
"Chris, there's more going on here than you realize," Josiah said, trying to break though to the man.
"He ruined my life," Chris screamed Vin. "I loved her, Josiah. I loved her and he killed her, and Adam! He took everything I loved away!" His voice caught with emotion, the last line coming out as a half-cry. "He killed Sarah!"
Nathan and Ezra glanced nervously at Josiah. It was worse than they had imagined. Whatever Corrigan had done to Chris, it certainly had the man confused on his facts.
"And you helped him, didn't you," Larabee concluded, lifting the Colt and lining the sights up with Josiah's face.
Ezra felt a rush of adrenaline hit his system. He had to act, or Chris would execute them all right where they stood. He had just started to move when he heard a new voice.
"Last time I saw y' lookin' like this, I said it was pretty ugly, but this takes the prize."
The blond's eyebrows pinched together above his nose. He was listening.
"Yer a whole lot uglier now, Cowboy. Y' remember the last time, don't ya? We broke the case, Cowboy. We got the one who killed your wife. We got Ella Gaines."
Chris heard the words, but they collided against the repeating track Tipton had implanted in his mind. Vin's words and phrases tumbled through the wall, but in a random pattern. He shook his head, trying to clear away the confusion, but it only echoed louder, more painfully.
"Last time y' were drunk. Y' remember that? Inez called me."
"No… have t' kill you and go back to the ranch."
"That's suicide," Ezra whispered.
"When did Sarah die, Chris?" Josiah barked out, his tone demanding he be answered.
"February twenty-fourth, 1996," was Larabee's immediate reply.
"Chris, think, when did Vin join the team?"
Sweat broke out on the blond's face, and he raised his free hand to wipe away the drops that ran into his eyebrows. His hands were beginning to tremble.
"I joined the team almost two years after Sarah died, Chris," Vin said.
Chris bent forward slightly, like his stomach was cramping and he blinked several times to clear the sweat away from his already stinging eyes. The Colt dropped several inches.
"Keep talking, Vin," Josiah urged quietly.
"I didn't have nothin' t' do with her death. Y' know I'd never hurt a woman like that. Y' remember how we met? I tried t' keep that girl from gettin' caught in a crossfire…"
Chris heard the words, each of them a knife slicing through his mind, searing him with an intense pain that threatened to turn his stomach, but he couldn't stop. He didn't want to stop. But somewhere there was a resonance of truth that rang with each comment, too strong to ignore. He reached out, clinging to the pain. It was his only reality, the only thing he really remembered. It was safe, simple. The voices were too confusing.
Dropping the Colt lower, he looked away from Josiah and focused on Tanner, feeling an immediate flash of recognition. "Vin?"
"Yeah, Cowboy, it's me. Put the gun down, huh? Y' don't want t' hurt us. I know y' don't. We're family, Cowboy, all 'a us."
A deep, aching emptiness opened up around the blond's heart and he nearly collapsed. His mother, father, Sarah, Adam… all gone. He was alone, wasn't he? Taking an unstable step back, a soft moan escaped the blond's throat. He was slipping, falling closer to the cacophony of voices shredding his mind.
"We've always been there for each other," Vin continued. "Remember last week? Y' were givin' me and Ezra grief 'bout being late. Never told y', but it was 'cause the walkin' fashion plate over there had t' buy a new suit. I told him it made 'im look like a damn goat in the hen house."
Confusion and agony swelled, overwhelming Larabee. He let the Colt drop to the ground. Turning, he managed three lunging, awkward steps before he fell, unconscious, his muscles twitching.
Vin and Nathan sprinted to the fallen man, kneeling down on either side of him, then carefully turned him over.
"Damn, Nate, he feels like ice," Vin said, unconsciously drawing his hand back from Larabee's face.
Nathan checked for a pulse and found it rapid and a little weak. "He's in shock," he concluded.
Looking over his shoulder, Vin weighed the options they had and made a decision. "Look, we have t' get him some help, but if I go t' a hospital I'm gonna end up in lockup. I've got an idea. Y' with me?"
Josiah nodded. "Like always," he said.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Josiah drove toward the location Vin had given him. Both Vin and Nathan sat in the back of the pickup truck – the hatchback has refused to start – watching Chris, who lay rigid, his body alternating between chills and fever sweats.
Larabee's skin was cold and clammy, but it was the darkening gray cast to it that frightened Nathan more than he wanted to admit.
Reaching out, Vin pulled the grease-stained blanket he'd found in the bed of the truck up around Chris' shoulders again.
A half-caught groan stalled in the blond's throat and he choked, coughing – the action immediately drawing him into a ball. Nathan moved closer, uncurling Chris as best he could. Reaching for the man's thigh, Nathan missed, his hand colliding softly with Chris' abdomen.
Larabee screamed.
"Jesus," Nathan whispered, pulling down the blanket. The blond went utterly stiff after the cry, and it was an easy matter for Nathan to carefully unbutton the man's blue flannel shirt.
Pulling the material open, Nathan cursed softly. The man's chest was one large bruise, faded to an ugly black and green color. Over the color were scars of various sorts, many of which the former medic hoped he never identified. The abuse extended beneath the level of the man's jeans, and Nathan wondered if Chris' back and legs looked the same.
Closing the man's shirt, he pulled the blanket back into place.
"What happened?" Vin demanded, but his voice remained quiet and low so he didn't agitate Chris.
Nathan gave him a rundown of what they knew, and suspected.
A few minutes later, Chris finally relaxed slightly, shifting so his arm moved out from under the blanket.
Vin reached out and took his friend's hand in his own. "Chris, if y' can hear me, y' have t' hang in there 'til we can get ya t' a doctor, okay? Just hang in there, Cowboy." He squeezed the man's fingers and prayed that the slight pressure that echoed his own wasn't a figment of his imagination.
Looking across at Nathan he said, "Never knew Douglas' daddy was somebody like Corrigan. All I knew was he's a pedophile who was usin' a kid as a shield. The same kid he'd raped. I just couldn't let 'im keep touchin' that kid, Nathan. I couldn't."
"You did what you had to do," Nathan told him. "Everybody says Corrigan isn't really sane. Guess they were right."
"He should've come after me," Vin growled. "I'm the one that put a bullet 'tween that bastard's eyes, not Chris."
"He wanted to hurt you, Vin," Nathan said. "Somehow he knew the best way to do that was to go after Chris."
Vin thought for a moment, the whole situation he'd walked up on finally making sense. "He made Chris believe I'd killed Sarah 'n; Adam," he said, feeling his stomach start to flip. "He's gonna make me have t' kill Chris," he whispered fiercely, then lunged for the side of the truck, getting his head over it just in time to throw up.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Wednesday, 12:35 a.m.
Nathan watched as Josiah carried Chris into a small house in Purgatory. He worried that the risk Vin was taking might be for nothing. Larabee already looked like a corpse.
He followed Josiah and Ezra into the house and to the tiny bedroom that had been set up for the injured man. A doctor took over immediately, shooing the three agents out of the room as soon as Larabee was on the bed. Vin stood, pressed up against the wall, watching, refusing to leave Chris.
The others wandered into the small living room and took seats. Josiah pulled out the cell phone he'd picked up at a local Radio Shack and called Buck.
"What's happening?" the ladies' man asked.
"We have Chris and Vin," the profiler said, giving Wilmington the location.
"How?" Buck asked.
"I'll explain when you get here."
"Okay, we're on our way."
Buck, JD and Travis arrived at the house a little over an hour later, Josiah and Nathan filling them in on what had happened.
"How did Vin find you?" JD asked.
"We have no earthly idea," Ezra responded. "You'll have to ask him."
The men fell into silence, waiting for the doctor to finish.
When the doctor exited the bedroom, they all stood.
The doctor stopped and pulled the door shut behind him, then turned. Their hope was immediately tempered by the concerned expression on the man's face.
"What is it, Doctor?" Nathan asked.
The older man looked up at anxious faces. "I'm afraid I won't be much use to your friend," he said in lightly accented English.
"Is there someone else who could look at him?" Nathan asked.
"I am afraid not," the man replied. "Don't worry, I might not be an American, but I trained at Harvard Medical School."
Nathan looked away, a blush making his cheeks burn. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean any disrespect. I'm just worried about Chris."
"And you have every right to worry," the physician replied. "I believe he will heal, physically, but I have no way to determine what kinds of drugs were used on him here. Even the hospital down the street does not have the necessary machinery for that kind of a test. I would recommend that you take him to Summit."
"We would if we could, Doc," Buck replied.
"Your friend tells me you think he was brainwashed."
Josiah nodded. "That's as good a description as any. We think someone might have experimented on him, to make him believe that someone he knows, a friend, killed his wife."
"Depending on the drugs that were used, the psychological damage might be irreversible,' the doctor warned. "He will have to remain here for a few days if I am going to treat his physical injuries. Once he is conscious, I can make a better diagnosis of his mental condition."
"Thank you, Doctor," Travis said, extending his hand.
The man took it in a firm, friendly clasp. "Will you all be staying as well?"
"Is that's possible?" JD asked.
"Yes, there is room. Not much, but enough," the physician replied.
Nathan took the man's hand next and shook it. "Thank you."
"He is your friend?" the doctor asked.
They all nodded.
"And you are Vin's friends as well?"
A second round of nods was his answer.
"I will do my best," he promised them.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Saturday, 8:15 a.m.
For three days Chris remained unconscious, Dr. Guerrero staying with him nearly twenty-four hours a day. Vin and Nathan also took turns sitting with the blond, trying to pass the rest of their free time sorting through the materials Travis and Ezra continued to contribute concerning Corrigan.
Vin was sitting with him when the blond shifted slightly and finally opened his eyes. It took a moment for the blur of pain and sleep to clear, but then he focused on the sniper.
"Hey, Cowboy," Vin said softly, "how're y' doin'?" The long pause that followed was nearly unbearable as Tanner waited to see if Chris had left the lies Corrigan had forced on him behind.
"Yeah, it's me. Listen, don't try t' talk too much, okay? You're still real weak."
"Where am I?" Chris asked, trying to glance around.
"Purgatory. A friend of Estaban's is a Harvard-trained doctor; d' ya believe it? He retired here. He's been taking care 'a ya."
"How long?"
"Three days."
"What happened?"
"What—?" Vin stopped. "T' be honest, I don't know, exactly. You were kidnapped – gone for a week. We found you real early Wednesday mornin'… it's Saturday now."
The blond's forehead wrinkled. "I… Did I try to kill you?"
"Not exactly, no."
An accusing green gaze locked on Tanner's blue.
"All right, it looked like that's what y' had in mind. But, I know y' wouldn't have followed through."
"How do you know?"
"You, Cowboy, you're a straight arrow all the way."
"I don't remember," Chris said, frustration flattening the comment to a growl.
"Don't worry 'bout it now, y' hear me? Just rest. Travis 'n' the rest are diggin' 'round in Corrigan 's past—"
"The man who kidnapped ya."
"I— I remember… Old man, with gray hair."
"I told y', don't worry 'bout it. We're hittin' this from all sides. Somethin' will crack soon enough."
Chris glanced suspiciously at his friend, wondering what the man wasn't telling him. Searching back in his thoughts, he was frustrated at not finding any clear memories beyond a trip out to his barn… When was that?
"What?" Vin asked, noting the confused frown on Larabee's face.
"How long was I gone?"
"A week," he repeated.
"I can't remember, just going out to the barn… the old man… and another man – young-looking…"
"The doc said y' were drugged up pretty bad. Nathan ran a blood sample over to Summit, got Raine t' run it. The report read like an inventory 'a designer drugs."
The blond blinked as Vin undulated out of focus at the same time as the words were twisted into a painful blare of noise. He flinched away.
"Chris? Hey, y' all right?" Vin asked, moving closer.
Chris retreated with surprising quickness, knocking over the I.V. stand as he tumbled out of the twin bed.
"Chris?" Vin repeated, taking a step toward the blond.
Larabee scrambled the best he could for the far side of the room. "Get away!" he yelled.
Vin stopped in the middle of the room, unsure what he should do.
Then the doctor's voice sounded softly from the bedroom doorway. "Go very slowly, Vin. The drugs are still in his system. He's still capable of hurting you, or himself, right now."
Chris pressed balled fists against his temples, trying to force the swelling pain away, but it continued to grow, exploding agony and colors in front of his eyes. His ears roared, the voices returning in a screeching opera of pain. The tapes that Tipton had prepared began to replay in his mind and the agent repeated the words aloud, echoing the programming.
"My God," Travis breathed when Chris finally finished and collapsed against the far wall, sliding down until he sat on the floor.
Vin and the doctor quickly moved to the injured man and hefted him back into the bed.
"Vin, if you would bring me a damp washcloth, please," the doctor said as he checked Larabee's vital signs.
Tanner nodded and left the room.
Nathan slipped in past Travis, watching as the doctor worked over Chris. The blond's face was a chalky gray again, but, as he watched, Larabee's color slowly returned.
Vin returned and handed the doctor the washcloth. Guerrero accepted it, using it to wipe Chris' face and chest, cooling the man's hot, dry skin. "I believe this might be the end of the drugs' influence, a type of withdrawal period."
"That's good, right?" Vin asked.
"In this case, yes. I saw the report Dr. Jackson was able to get from Summit. They used a synthetic drug that is modeled on LSD, but I do not believe this drug will act like LSD and remain locked in Agent Larabee's system."
"Thank God for that," Nathan said. "That would mean the end of his career."
Travis nodded and swallowed hard.
The sniper looked down at the bed and found Chris staring up at him. "Yeah? Y' okay?"
"What happened? I was talking to you, then everything faded out."
"Little drug flashback," Nathan informed the man.
Chris nodded, sleep drawing his eyes closed before he could ask another question.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Saturday, 2:22 p.m.
Six hours later, Vin came awake to the sounds of struggle echoing out of Chris' room, followed by a loud, "Vin!"
He lurched to his feet and staggered into the small bedroom. Nathan and the doctor were both working to keep Larabee on the bed.
"Grab his feet!" Nathan called.
Vin stepped in to relieve the doctor, who wasn't strong enough to fight Chris for long.
Chris struggled with all the strength he had, which, given his appearance, amazed Nathan and Vin. With the two men to hold the blond down, the doctor was able to fashion some soft restraints out of several washcloths and a role of packing tape. When he finished immobilizing Larabee, the blond was sweat-drenched and exhausted.
Panting, Chris growled low in his throat and threw himself into trying to escape the restraints.
"He is going to hurt himself if he keeps this up," the doctor said.
"Can't you give him something?" Nathan asked, the sight of the struggling man twisting in his guts like a hot knife.
"No, I cannot. We do not know the exact proportions in the dosages he received."
Each time it looked like Chris had run out of strength, he found more and made another attempt against the restraints. Then he would lie still for a moment, breathing heavily, and then begin fighting all over again.
Vin finally stepped up to the side of the bed and reached out, grabbing the man's shoulders and shaking him sharply.
Chris froze.
"Chris, y' gotta stop!" Vin commanded. "You're safe now. Y' hear me? You're safe."
The blond trembled from muscle exhaustion, but he didn't relax in the man's grip.
Vin looked over his shoulder at the doctor, his expression pleading for the man to tell him what to do next. Guerrero stepped forward and quickly checked Larabee's vital signs. "He is verging on doing himself serious harm," the man said quietly. "Could you simply hold him for a while if I can arrange it?"
Vin nodded.
It took them several minutes, but the doctor, Nathan, and Vin were able to maneuver Chris up and forward far enough for Vin to ease in behind him and lean back against the wall. Then Nathan and the doctor leaned Chris back against the sniper. At first the blond fought them weakly, confused as to who was trying to control him, but as the flashbacks subsided, he slowly relaxed against Vin, who rubbed the knotted muscles along the top of his friend's shoulders.
"Chris?" Vin asked after the blond had lain quietly for several minutes.
"Y' hangin' in there?"
Chris nodded. "Sorry," he rasped out.
"'Bout what?"
Tanner grinned. He knew he'd have a great weapon to use to tease his friend with, but only once the man was back to normal. "What're friend for? 'Sides, y' helped me out enough times."
A chill passed through the blond and he quivered against Tanner.
"Easy," Vin said softly. "Y' got t' hang on, Cowboy."
"Can't get rid of me this easy," Chris replied. "Isn't another team leader crazy enough to put up with you…" He trailed off as another chill passed over him and he groaned.
"Chris?" Vin asked, his fear and concern unmasked.
"I'm here," he replied, wrapping his arms around the blond and holding him as he shook.
"I'm sorry," Chris said.
"I told ya—"
"I thought you… I thought—"
"—that I killed Sarah." Vin finished for him.
Chris nodded.
"It was the drugs. You didn't think that, they made y' think that."
"So damn weak. I should've—"
"No!" Vin snapped, tightening his grip. "Don't y' take the blame for what they did t' ya, y' hear me? You're no superman, 'n' I won't stand for y' takin' the blame. Y' hear me?"
"I hear you," Chris whispered, then, a few moments later, he asked, "Vin?"
"I'm scared," he admitted, his voice so soft the sniper had to strain to hear it.
Vin hugged the man closer. The admission frightened him more than the trembling or the cramps. "I know. Me, too." Vin shifted slightly, to relieve the pain in his back, and Chris stiffened.
"Vin, don't go," he said so quietly Tanner wasn't exactly sure what the man had said, but his tone was clear. He was scared, really scared.
"I'm not goin' nowhere, Cowboy, just gettin' a little more comfortable. You rest," he said, unconsciously rocking his friend slightly from side to side.
Chris relaxed into the feeling of strong arms holding him, finally dropping off to sleep.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Sunday, 5:03 a.m.
Corrigan stared down at the open file folder on his desk. Inside, a photo of Vin Tanner stared up at the old man.
Tipton had been wrong. Chris Larabee had not ready. Vin Tanner had not killed Larabee. And, somehow, his frame had started to unravel as well. It was only a matter of days and Team Seven would be welcomed back with open arms.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Monday, 10:00 a.m.
In his office, Agent Cromwell looked through his report one last time. He knew Corrigan had been behind Tanner's frame, and Larabee's abduction. He even knew why now, thanks to Travis' call, but there wasn't a shred of proof to be found.
The day before yesterday, what was left of the body of Bradley Tipton was found alongside I76, near Julesburg. The scientist had been taken out somewhere and nailed to a tree. He had died from exposure and blood loss. According to the forensics's report, Tipton died the same day Larabee had surfaced at J. Watson's – when Corrigan's plan had failed.
Like Larabee's abduction, there was no evidence to connect Tipton's murder to Corrigan, but Cromwell was sure the billionaire was responsible.
"It's a damn shame we don't have frontier justice," he muttered to himself.
"And why is that?" Travis asked from the man's doorway.
Looking up, Cromwell said, "Because I know Corrigan's guilty, and there isn't a damn thing we can do about it."
"At least it's over," Travis said.
"For now," Cromwell returned. "He can come back and try again whenever he wants."
"Maybe," Travis replied. "But I have a feeling Mr. Oliver Wendell Corrigan might just get what he deserves." The former judge smiled, the deadly expression sending a chill racing down Cromwell's back.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Travis relayed the news of the team's exoneration with little emotion.
"Hey, why aren't you happier about this?" Buck asked him, pleased by the news the warrants for their arrest had been lifted, and enough evidence concerning the frame had been found to clear Vin and the rest of them of any wrong doing.
"I really didn't think Cromwell had it in him," Ezra admitted. "It seems I owe the man an apology."
"He was very thorough," Travis replied. "He even went back to trial transcripts to prove Vin couldn't have been at some of the meets the evidence suggested since he was in court, providing testimony."
"What if Corrigan decides to try again?" JD asked.
"I doubt that will happen," Travis told him. "I've heard Corrigan met with an accident in his Scottish castle."
"He's dead?" Buck asked.
Travis nodded. "And don't ask, because even I don't have a clue."
"As long as he's dead," Chris said.
The others turned to find their friend and boss standing in the doorway to the living room, leaning on the frame for support.
"What the hell are you doing out of bed?" Nathan demanded.
"I heard you talking and decided it beat laying there, staring at the ceiling," Chris replied, shuffling out to the closest chair and sitting down with a sigh of relief; he might want the time out of bed, but he was still weak and unsteady on his feet.
Vin stood and walked over to stand next to Chris, in case he took a header off the chair.
"Don't think the doctor is going to be too happy seeing you up when he gets back," Nathan told the blond.
"You still look terrible, stud," Buck added.
"Thanks for those encouraging words of support, Buck," Larabee grumbled.
The men grinned. It was good to hear the old Larabee falling back into place.
"Well, you know me," Buck replied. "I like to be honest."
"When it suits your purpose," Larabee finished with a small smile for his longtime friend, then glanced at of the men, his expression serious. "I appreciate all you did for me."
"Anytime," Josiah replied.
Ezra, looking puzzled, said, "While I'm thinking about it… Mr. tanner however did you find us the other night?"
Vin smiled thinly. "Well, when Cromwell showed up with that warrant, I figured somethin' had gone t' hell, so I slipped the DPD uni they put on me and went t' ground."
"Where?" Buck asked.
Vin's smile was bigger this time. "If I told y' that, Bucklin, I'd have t' kill ya."
"Yes, but how did you find us out there that night?" Ezra asked again.
"Started shadowin' y' so I could keep up with what was goin' on."
"And we never noticed?" JD asked.
"Guess not," Vin replied, looking more than a little smug.
"And you're not going to tell us how, are you?" Josiah asked the sniper.
"So, what now?" Chris asked, looking at Travis.
"They take you to a real hospital, and I go have a talk with the Director."
"Hospital?" Chris echoed. "Think I'd rather go home, thanks."
"Hospital," Nathan seconded.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Tuesday, 1:10 p.m.
Chris lay in his hospital bed, wishing he was home. He stretched.
Two more days, then they would send him home. Larabee calculated that his release date would correspond to the last measure of his patience.
He hated being cooped up like this. Still, it had been a needed rest.
Physical therapy would restore his body in a couple of months. And the doctors had assured him that all traces of the drugs that had been used on him were gone. Sessions with one of the staff psychologists would, Josiah promised him, help him to deal with and feelings or confusions resulting from the attempted memory reconstruction.
And, although he had been forced to relive the grief of his wife's death once more, he knew he remembered the exact sequence of events surrounding the tragic accident, as well as his meeting and hiring of one Vin Tanner.
Yes, it finally felt like his life was returning to normal.
All charges against Vin – and the rest of them – had been dropped, and, after three interviews with Cromwell, Larabee had decided that the OPR man was, indeed, on their side – a welcome reversal of expectations.
And, with Corrigan dead, he reckoned the whole ugly ordeal was over.
The door whooshed open to admit Buck, who was carrying a large arrangement of flowers. "Hey, stud, how are you feeling?" he asked, deciding the flowers fit best on a small table near the window.
"Fine. Ready to go home. Whose idea was that?" he asked, nodding at the strained floral arrangement.
"Oh, everybody at work chipped in," Buck explained. "I told 'em to find an arrangement of alfalfa and thistle, but I guess they were all out."
Chris grinned. He wasn't the flowers kind of guy, but it was a nice thought. "The rest of tem stopping by, too?" he asked.
"They dropped me off so I wouldn't have to hike across the parking lot with that monstrosity; should be up in a couple of minutes. How're you and Vin doing?"
"Fine. Why?"
Buck glanced away, looking slightly embarrassed.
"Buck?" he asked.
The ladies' man walked over to stand near the foot of Larabee's bed. "He's just been acting a little funny."
"He's always acts a mite funny. It's that Texas blood."
Wilmington smiled. "He was really worried about you, Chris. We all were. I don't think I've ever seen him so… scared."
He scowled, then saw the glint of mischief in the blond's eyes. "Yes," he snapped, but there was no sting to the word.
Chris nodded. "Guess I was a little skittish there myself."
He patted the peak of Larabee's foot. "We all were."
Chris nodded. "I know."
A light rap on the closed door signaled the arrival of the others.
"Come in," Chris called.
"Hi, Chris," JD greeted as he entered the room. "Did Buck spill the flowers?"
"No, I did not 'spill the flowers.'"
"Hey, Chris," Nathan said as he came in. "How was the first round of physical therapy?"
"Sucked," Larabee replied.
"Ah, then it was a good session," Nathan concluded, smiling contentedly.
"Talk to the psychologist yet?" Josiah asked, coming in right on Nathan's heels.
"Tomorrow," Chris told him.
"Good heavens, that mass of vegetation looks more ghastly sitting in here than it did in the office," Ezra stated, starting in only to come to an abrupt halt in the doorway when he saw the arrangement.
"I don't know, I kind of like it," Chris replied.
"You don't say," Ezra returned. "Mr. Jackson, perhaps you ought to call for the doctor. Clearly those drugs haven't completely cleared Mr. Larabee's system."
"Touch that buzzer and die," Chris growled at Nathan.
"I don't know, that sounded pretty normal to me," Buck said.
"Where's Vin?" Chris asked.
"Right here, Cowboy," Tanner replied, elbowing his way past Ezra.
Their eyes met and Chris smiled. "So, who brought me some real food?" he asked.
"What, they aren't feeding you three meals of real food a day?" Nathan asked.
"Real food," Chris repeated.
"Anyone bring anything?" Buck asked, glancing around at the others.
JD shook his head.
"I didn't think it would be necessary," Ezra stated.
"You should be eating what they give you," Nathan scolded.
"Forgot," Josiah admitted.
Chris looked to Vin, his expression pleading.
Vin grinned and held up a plastic bag from a local grocery store. "Gotcha covered, Cowboy."
"Thank God!" Chris replied with a relieved sigh.
"Always," Vin added.