Blinded By The Light (cont.)
Disclaimers: See page 1.
"It's time," Julie said softly.
Chris knew he wasn't doing well, because there was very little moisture in his system, and the repeated pain sessions sapped his strength. He always believed he was tough, that could withstand a lot, but she was starting to break through his defenses.
He didn't know how much longer he could take this, especially the torment of not knowing how this Julie knew his Sarah. Julie obviously blamed him for Sarah's death, but what disturbed him was Julie said nothing about Adam. His son, the sweet child that, like his mother, was innocent and not deserving of the fiery death they endured.
Worse then was the torment of seeing the burned hulk of their car, and claiming the badly charred bodies of his family, identified only through dental records and jewelry. Everyone was sympathetic, but nothing could take away that awful reality, and no one could help him when his shattered.
It took so long to put the pieces back together, and hell, he admitted to himself, some were not there. A large part of him was missing, and he probably never would be whole again. And the damnable clock only served to tick back the years, taking his memory back to those horrible days.
One thing that came from his trip through memory hell was that he didn't remember Julie at the dual funerals. But he didn't remember a whole heck of a lot during the services for his family. Then, grieving tears blurred his vision constantly, and Buck had held him up, gotten him through the awful part of putting his family into the ground, never to be held in his arms again.
Nothing could take away the guilt of not being there, not being able to save them, or to have tried. And that guilt overrode his physical pain, making what he felt here in Julie's torture room secondary to the mental anguish.
"Did you hear me? It's time," Julie said again.
"He's ignoring you," she said to herself.
"Not for long," Julie replied.
Chris felt a warm liquid rush in his system, and then the light came on in his face. He turned his head away, trying his best to ignore the feeling of insects crawling all over him, and in him. Whatever she gave him caused his body to itch from the inside out, and the image of burrowing, digging, clawing multi-legged bugs trying to burst out from inside his body soured his already empty stomach.
"Look at the light, Chris," Julie ordered.
He declined her offer. Nothing she could do to him could ever compare to the pain of losing his family, and constantly reliving that excruciating loss over and over again throughout the long periods of solitary darkness.
He was wrong.
"Ya ever reach Chris last night, Buck?" Vin stood beside the surveillance expert's desk.
"No," Buck replied, a grin lifting his features.
The sharpshooter shot him a quizzical glance, and then continued to stare in silence at his friend.
"What?" Wilmington tried to give an innocent look, failing miserably.
Vin raised a single eyebrow in question, his arms loosely crossing on his chest.
Buck looked around, checked that no one else was listening, and motioned Vin to lean down.
Rolling his eyes, Tanner did.
"He was a little...otherwise occupied last night." Buck bobbed his eyebrows and winked.
"Chris? Yeah, right." Vin snorted and shook his head.
"When I called, a lovely lady answered his phone and told me he was warming up the shower."
The sharpshooter tilted his head to one side, and then grinned. "'bout time he met someone."
"He gonna call back?"
"Hasn't yet," Buck answered. "I'm getting worried."
Vin nodded. "Ya ain't alone. The cowboy would have called at least once by now, just ta check up on us."
The telephone rang on Buck's desk, and he gave it a low growl.
"Don't like bein' the boss?" Vin smirked.
It rang again.
"Everyone wants something. Why Chris hasn't shot anyone is beyond me." Buck picked up the receiver. "Agent Wilmington."
"Buck, you big bag of worthless wind. How the hell are you?"
Wilmington chuckled. "Babbling Brook Brad. It's been what, five years?"
"Give or take. You still blowing more hot air than a dryer?"
"You still as ugly as the days are long?" Buck leaned back in his chair, propped his boots on the desk, and watched Vin walk away rolling his eyes.
"Not as ugly as Chris."
"Hell, we could never be that ugly. Sorry, but he's not here. He's at a leadership conference."
"Yeah. I'm here, too. We met up on the plane. He boarded at my halfway point. We made plans for dinner, but I haven't seen him. One of my girlfriends met me at the airport, and I lost track of Chris."
"You were probably too busy trying to sweep her off her feet and failing miserably," Buck teased.
"Yeah, well, when I looked for him, he was gone. So I figured I'd catch up with him at the hotel, and then he didn't call. Left a few messages for him. The front desk told me he picked them up, but I haven't seen him. It's not like Chris to blow me off."
"He wouldn't." Wilmington took his feet off his desk and sat straight up in his chair. "You last saw him at the airport?"
"Yeah. I'm calling because I thought you might know something; he said he left you in charge. Figured you might be able to reach him. He's not answering the cell number he gave me."
"Have you checked with the conference organizers? Have they seen him?"
"Yes, and no, they haven't. It's like he disappeared. The front desk swears he checked in, and he gets his messages every day, but not one person from the conference has seen him. Buck, you know Chris; he doesn't like to be a big deal at these things. But even if he keeps a low profile people see him they still talk about him. Nobody is talking about him."
That more than anything made Buck's stomach clench in fear. "Brad, what's your room number? Cell? All right. I'll call you when I get there. Keep looking for him." Buck hung up. "EZRA!"
Ezra exited the cantina. "Must you bellow so loudly?"
"Get me on a plane to that conference, and I want to leave yesterday."
"What's up?" Vin walked over.
"No one's seen Chris since the airport. I'm going."
"Not alone," Vin promised.
Buck nodded once. "Ez, you're in charge. Get us on a plane, and do it now. Fill the others in when they get back from their depositions." Buck flipped through his stack of papers until he found what he was looking for, and then grabbed the telephone. "Jenny Blackwell, please. Jenny, this is Agent Buck Wilmington. Hi. Yes, well, I'm going to need a car there today."
He listened for a minute. "He what?" Buck stood, the receiver firmly mashed to his ear. "When? What time?"
Vin mouthed, "What?"
Buck waved him off. "Are you sure it was him? All right, Jenny, just keep that car for me. I'll be there in a couple hours." He disconnected. "She said Chris canceled the car reservation. Apparently Jenny called the conference on the off chance he might be there and left a message. Somehow he got that message - wasn't from me - and canceled the reservation. Left a message on her voice mail."
"That ain't right." Vin shook his head. "This whole thing stinks."
"Worse than the aftereffects of Josiah's chili," Buck added. "We're not waiting. Ez?"
"You'll be on a flight by the time you get there. Go." The Southerner made a shooing motion, the receiver firmly pressed against his ear.
Vin picked up his shoulder holster, adding it to the collection of guns he already wore on his ankle and back. "Time ta hunt."
The ride was a hair-raising experience for those on the road between the two ATF Agents and the airport. First, Buck drove without giving any quarter, and not expecting any. The saner drivers opted to get out of the way of the speeding vehicle with the flashing lights. His truck was left in long-term parking, with both men practically sprinting to the terminal carrying the overnight bags they kept packed for emergencies.
Ezra managed to get them on a flight that left twenty minutes after they arrived, and their Identifications went a long way in getting them through the security checkpoints, especially heavily armed. Before too long, they were on their way there, flying first class, but too distracted with the welfare of their friend to notice the
He heard his name, and it was the sweetest sound. "Sarah."
"I've missed you both." Chris opened his eyes, seeing her appear before him. She wore all white, the gown filmy and flowing around her. Her smile was exactly like he remembered, and her face filled his vision.
"Have you?" the vision asked. "Missed us?"
"Yes," his voice broke. "So much."
"Then why did you let us die?"
"What?" He stared at her, seeing her smile fall away. "I couldn't stop it."
"You weren't there. If you were there, you could have stopped it. You let it happen."
"NO!" Chris yelled. "I love you! I love Adam!"
"But we died, and you live."
"NOOO!" The tears started. "I wanted to die."
"You didn't. You lived."
"I tried," he whispered between his tears. "Just couldn't do it."
"It's your fault, Chris." Sarah's image started to fade.
"Come back!" he yelled, desperate to keep her there.
"You want me to come back?"
Through his pain, he heard the voice change. It was no longer Sarah standing there, but Julie. Or was it Sarah? He was so confused, so hurt. All he kept asking was why?
The plane landed, with Buck and Vin being first off and plowing their way to the car rental counter. Buck didn't waste any time, asking for Jenny, and getting their vehicle. They drove to the hotel hosting the conference, Vin using his cellphone the entire time.
Sarah said, brushing a soft kiss against his
"Sarah?" he asked, not sure what was going on. It looked like he was in the house they lived in. A fire crackled merrily, casting a soft light around the living room.
"Yes, darling. Where you expecting someone else?" Sarah chuckled lightly. "Another girlfriend?"
"Never!" He shook his head. "I…I just want to hold you," he said. Sarah stepped to him. She felt so real, so alive, and he squeezed her tightly.
"Easy, tiger," she said. "We have the rest of our lives."
Memory returned, and he realized he was reliving one of the many nights after they were first married. The knowledge of what was to come weighed down on him, crushing him, preventing his enjoyment of the moment. Chris only held onto her.
He held nothing. His eyes opened right into the light, but it was blurred from the tears in his eyes.
sorry, Agent, but he's not answering our pages, or
in his room."
Vin stood at the registration area for the conference. "He ain't been ta any classes?"
"We didn't find his name on any of the sign in sheets in any of the seminars, but if he wasn't interested in the credit he may not have signed in."
"Have ya seen him since he registered?"
"What about the rest of y'all?" Vin looked at the other workers.
They shook their heads or shrugged.
"Who else mighta seen him?"
"Check the exhibit hall. The door checkers won't let anyone in without a pass," the woman told him.
"Can I have one ta check inside?"
"I'm sorry, I can't do that. You haven't paid to attend."
Tanner took a deep breath to keep his patience, and then smiled his most disarming smile. The one that usually got him extra helpings at Nettie's, or made women melt. "Reckon that's true, but my friend's
missin', and I really wanna find him. Could ya find it in yer heart ta find some way fer me ta check?"
She nearly simpered. "I'll go with you." Within seconds, she appeared beside him. "This way."
"Much obliged, ma'am." He continued to give her that smile.
"Terry. Call me Terry."
"That's a right nice name. Ya can call me Vin." Tanner offered her an elbow, not surprised when she took it. Right now, he wanted to check with the conference attendees to find Chris, and if flirting got things done quicker, that was just fine with him.
my fault." Chris wept.
"What's your fault?" Sarah asked him.
"That you and Adam..." he cut off, unable to say the words.
"How could you let it happen, Chris? We loved you," she said.
"I didn't know it was going to happen!" he yelled out. "I want to kill the bastards that did this!"
"Did you look at yourself? Are you going to kill yourself for letting us die?"
"Is that what you want?"
"Anything?" Buck asked a short time later, meeting
up with Vin in the
"Nope. Ya got somethin'?"
"Yeah. They swear Chris Larabee picks up his messages around seven every night." Wilmington saw someone motioning to them. "Loss Prevention's letting us in the room. Come on."
Vin walked with Buck toward the bank of elevators, their boots echoing on the highly polished ornate floor. "How'd ya manage that? They think he's here. They've been treatin' us like we're tryin' ta invade his privacy or somethin'."
Buck stopped several feet away from the elevators, holding up an index finger in a gesture to wait at the Loss Prevention Officer.
"What?" Vin knew he wasn't going to like this, especially if Buck didn't want to talk in front of anyone.
The taller man looked side to side, and then lowered his voice, leaning closer to his friend. "The person picking up the messages isn't Chris."
"Close, but not him. Their description nearly matched, but too short. By half a foot. Then I showed them a picture of us seven. No match. The person they saw they described as 'feminine'."
"Aw, hell. There ain't a feminine bone in the cowboy's body."
"Already called the local ATF, and they're sending someone over. We're securing his room – a crime scene – until they arrive. They'll meet us up there."
"Getting a free look at what's inside first."
"Ya gonna tell them about the person impersonatin' Chris?"
"Eventually. Unless you feel so motivated to hand over our friend's safety to people we don't know."
"That's what I thought. Let's go."
Chris," Sarah encouraged. "Come to me so we can be together
In his mind, he reached out for her, pulling her body to his. "Yes." His whole being wanted her and his son back.
"Yes? Are you sure?"
"All I ever needed was you and Adam."
"I love you, Chris."
"I love you, Sarah. Come here."
cocktail of hallucinogens worked perfectly, giving
her a level of
satisfaction. He no longer realized he was
stretched and strapped to a table
naked, dehydrated, unfed, and in pain. All he saw
was the computer
generated Sarah on the projection screen above
He interacted with it, and Julie used her computer setup to simulated Sarah's voice responses to him. Now she had him. He agreed to die. From his ravings, she let him believe he held his Sarah. She prepared the syringe in the mean time, letting him live that final sweet fantasy in his mind.
Her experiments as an amateur chemist, along with her nursing skills, gave her confidence when she injected the mixture of drugs and poisons into his system. It was done. In forty-eight agonizing hours, he would die. Sarah would be avenged, and Julian would have his revenge, too.
"We did it," Julie said with a giggle.
"Yesss," she replied, almost hissing in satisfaction.
"Sarah?" Chris asked.
Startled, Julie rushed back into the other room, leaning down to the microphone. "Yes, tiger?" She knew Sarah called him that not too long after the light met Chris. They had shared so much in their many long-distance marathon telephone calls.
"Napping." Julie heard Sarah's voice through the speakers, and the old hurt came back at losing her friend. "Like you should be."
Anger flashed through her body. Just the thought of this man knowing Sarah so intimately was repulsive. Spitefully, she shut down the image on the projector, and flicked on the light right in his eyes. The light that served to distract him from seeing the equipment installed after he arrived, during one of his many bouts of
"In a little while," Julie said as Sarah. "Rest, my love. You'll need your strength."
been here," Vin said, looking around the hotel
to his friend.
"Nope," Buck concurred. "His clothes are missing."
"With respect, sirs, how do you know? You haven't opened any of the drawers, and Housekeeping said this room has been used over the past few days." The Loss Prevention Officer looked from one man to the
Vin pointed to the haphazardly hung garment in the open closet. "That ain't how he hangs his coat. Man's fussy about his stuff."
"I roomed with him," Buck added. "Some habits we share from the military, and he wouldn't just toss his shoes pell-mell into the closet." His head tipped at the dress shoes pointing in different directions and laying in a pile.
Vin stepped over to the nightstand, seeing a drawer halfway open. "Aw, hell."
"What?" Wilmington asked.
"Gun." Tanner didn't touch the weapon.
Buck punched his hand in frustration.
"Who are you, and what are you doing in my crime scene?" A strident male voice broke the tense moment of realization between friends.
"Buck Wilmington, Denver Team Seven. You?"
"James Kleese, head investigator. How about you, cowboy?" The man gave a once-over to the long-haired man, stopping and staring at the scuffed cowboy boots.
Vin shot him an annoyed look, and then said, "Vin Tanner, Denver Team Seven. Ya got an abduction several days old."
"Tell me how you know that, and do it out of my crime scene." Kleese motioned them out.
Vin and Buck left the room, letting technicians past them to start collecting evidence. They filled in Agent Kleese with the basics after a mutual round of identification checks, and then went down to the lobby to wait. Supposedly, they were to meet up with other Agents to give statements.
In reality, they waited and watched for the imposter, because it was after six, concealing themselves in the lobby sitting rooms, their car right outside the doors. A hefty tip kept it at the front of the line. With their luck and history, a high-speed pursuit was inevitable.
You're fading behind the light."
Julie injected a light sedative. Chris would wake up alone in a few hours, and possibly be coherent, but her poisons still floated around his system, taking positions, lying dormant for now. If she dosed him right, in six hours the excruciating pain would start because one drug stimulated the nervous system and pain receptors to high levels.
"Sarah?" Chris wailed, and then subsided unconscious.
"No. I'll be Chris now." Julie laughed.
"I don't like being Chris," she said. "But we'll do it."
"Yes." Julie cleared her throat. "One last time." Her voice deepened and sharpened to mimic Chris Larabee's tone.
The Texan's eyes never stopped moving, searching the cavernous area constantly.
For once, no lady caught the eye of the rogue, his focus so great on finding his friend.
walked into the hotel in disguise, aiming straight
for the front desk
to pick up Chris's messages, and to confirm Chris
would give his
speech tomorrow. He wouldn't, but the charade
continued to give Julie
Something was wrong. The employees looked nervous, and kept checking behind and around her. The Larabee swagger she perfected from watching videotapes slowed, and her head swung side-to-side. That
pesky sensation of being watched settled heavily on her. Trusting the feeling that something was wrong, Julie turned around, walking away.
She saw someone, a man with long hair and a dangerous expression looking right at her, and then Julie broke into a run for the front doors. Calculating the distance, she had a very short head start, so she pushed herself hard to get to her waiting car.
"BUCK!" The yell echoed behind her in the lobby, and the sounds of booted feet reached her ears just as she hit the first door hard, pushing her way out. Leaping into her car, she locked the doors first, and then turned the keys in the ignition. Hands hit the window beside her hard, so her foot trounced the accelerator and she peeled away, taking the road to the Interstate.
cursed, then dove into his own rental. There were
too many civilians
around to start shooting. He started the car,
throwing it in Drive
when he heard Buck land in the seat beside him.
"Go, Junior!" Buck yelled.
In his periphery vision, Buck was jostled when the Texan punched the gas pedal, his eyes never leaving the other car merging into Interstate traffic. "Hang on." Squealing wheels and a few plumes of smoke came up from under the wheels, but they were moving, and moving fast.
"Don't worry on me. Get him!"
Tanner gained ground, using all the skills he'd acquired over the years. The training by law enforcement agencies only supplemented the survival instincts honed on Texas freeways and feeder roads. Again, his peripheries showed Buck playing untangle the pretzel in his seat, the fast dive into the vehicle resulting in a tangle of limbs and a boot near the ceiling. "Ya must play twister ta get that messed up."
"Co-ed naked, Junior. We're gaining on him. Good. You must have been in demolition derbies the way you're driving."
"Freeways, ya Yankee."
"I ain't a Yankee, I just don't come from the Republic of Texas. So keep your foot on that accelerator and don't lose that car, or my boot will be planted in your backside."
"We're takin' that exit."
"That's four lanes over!" Buck grabbed the 'oh, no' bar above his door, and braced his feet on the floorboard.
"Yup." In the darkness, Vin cut over the requisite lanes, barely missing two vehicles, and starting a discordant cacophony of horns behind him. "Left at the end of the ramp."
"Light's red, you're clear my side."
"Like I'm stoppin'." Vin snorted. "Okay. Right at the next light."
Buck looked. "Clear."
Vin whipped the car into the turn, and then saw they were heading out into a residential area. "Ya wanna call Kleese?"
"No. Will I? Yes." Buck used his left hand to pull out his cellular, calling the hotel and having Kleese paged. "We didn't have time to wait. We're pursuing the imposter, and what the hell road are we on?"
"On Peachtree road, passing Applewood. What's with these road names?"
"We're slowing down, I'm killin' our lights. Give him a little distance."
"We're backing off," Buck reported.
"What?" Buck stared at Vin.
"Left on BananaPeel Drive."
"We're sliding left on the banana peel."
"He's stopped, goin' in a garage. Looks like the sixteen hundred block."
"Sixteen hundred block of BananaPeel Drive. We're checking it out." Buck disconnected.
"Thought I heard yellin' in the background."
"Wouldn't know. I lost the connection," Buck replied with a wry smile.
"Ya wanna go, or me?"
"Watch and wait, Bucklin. I'll be back in a few."
"I'll be here." Buck slid over into the vacated driver's seat, ready to drive in case it was needed.
no!" Julie yelled. "They followed me here! It's
"No, it's not. We planned for this," she calmed her other self.
"You know what to do."
Julie nodded, heading into Chris's room. She unlocked the other room, removed the supplies, and started spreading the gasoline around. One look told her Chris was still unconscious. She hadn't wanted it to end this way, with him burning to death, because she liked the idea of his slow, agonizing pain with the poison. Not knowing what was killing him, but feeling every bit of pain, like her light must have. But those men interfered. So she came home, leading them here. Maybe she could take them out too. Part of her knew that if she had stayed running, the odds of her getting caught rose. It was okay though, she had this backup plan. All because she had to see Larabee die. To watch as the life left his eyes.
Now that the gasoline was poured around the table, she then led it in a line to the room she occupied. Inside, along with her computer equipment, sat a chemical laboratory she created. Once the flames
reached this room, the place would explode. Hopefully those men would have made entry by then. To encourage that, she turned on Chris's light, giving them something to look through the glass and see.
Taking a match, she tossed it at the gasoline on the floor, aiming for the furthest part. Quickly, she ducked back into her room, closing the door, and prepared. It wouldn't take long.
stalked around the house, finding the small window
in the back of the room
that was barred. Inside, a light shined brightly,
and he looked. He
saw the flick of the match, followed by the man
another room, and then the flames. Flames slowly
rising around the naked,
unconscious, strapped down body of Chris Larabee.
"NO!" Grabbing his cell, he keyed it for Buck and yelled, "FIRE! Get here now!" Tossing the cellphone onto the ground, the Texan ran and leapt onto the deck. He shoved the picnic table under one of the
second floor windows, climbed up, braced himself, and then leapt, using the butt of his gun to shatter the window. Jumping again, he grabbed onto the windowsill, cutting his hand on the glass, as he pulled himself up. He didn't care about the lacerations from the broken window, his entire goal on getting to Chris.
Hitting the floor, he tried to get his bearings. His gun stayed in his hand. Only hoping that person would have heard him break the window and come looking for him. He rapidly exited the room, knowing time was of the essence. Orienting himself in the dark, he ran down the hallway, leapt down the stairs, and quickly found the door to the basement. Yanking it open, he kept his body clear, and the smoke rolled out over him.
Coughing, he dove down the stairs, heedless of his own safety, until he reached the bottom. Surrounded in flame, Chris Larabee looked like a sacrifice. The multiple injuries were very apparent to Vin, and seeing the raw feet, he knew his friend wouldn't be able to walk. Taking a deep breath, he dove across the ring of flames.
His deft fingers undid the straps holding his friend down, and without time for gentleness, removed all the needles sticking out of his friend. The catheter was the one he took an extra second on, but those seconds they had left were ticking away.
Vin's yell echoed in the car, but only for a second because Buck peeled wheels to get the rental right in front of the house. In fact, he blocked the driveway intentionally to prevent anyone from leaving. With the car running, Buck barreled to the front door, seeing the smoke coming from the back, and the basement windows glowing with flame. He couldn't see a thing other than the fiery orange through the smoke, so he kicked the front door down.
Chris came to, feeling hands on him. He could move, and swung his fist at the hands.
"Easy, cowboy. Tryin' ta get ya outta here."
He recognized that voice. "Vin?"
His body was pulled to a sitting position. His voice though weak, still revealed his irritation. "Ow, damn it. Can't you see I'm hurt, Florence Nightinghell?" He coughed, his eyes finally spot-free enough to see the smoke and flames. "Hell."
"Yeah. Shut up so I can carry ya." Vin shifted him again, and then pulled his friend into a modified fireman's carry.
From his upside down perspective, Chris saw his Identification lying beside the table, and picked it up. Holding onto that, he saw the stairs, and then the damnable clock. "WAIT!"
"We ain't got time, cowboy," Vin kept going, pulling them abreast of the clock.
"What?" Vin yelled back, as Chris shifting in his arms almost unbalanced them.
"This." His fist buried in the clock. "Die, you damn thing!"
"Ya done? 'Cuz we're gonna die too if ya keep stoppin' me." Vin moved forward up the stairs with his burden.
Chris saw the flames moving under another door. Something told him that room was bad news. "Move faster."
"Yes, sir!" Vin whipped off in a sarcastic tone of voice.
Chris?" Buck yelled into the house. He took one
his gun in his hand, blue eyes sweeping the smoky
A second step, and then hell came to meet him.
The responding Agents hit BananaPeel at a high rate, sliding to squealing stops when they saw the fire and cockeyed vehicle blocking the driveway.
"Get the Fire Department," Kleese yelled, approaching the house with his men, all having their guns drawn.
His eyes picked out a tall form in the smoke rolling out of the front door, and he could tell the man had a gun. "ATF! Drop the gun, and come out with your hands showing!"
The others behind him, made a cautious circle around the house, more Agents arriving every second.
Julie took a deep breath and sighed heavily, uttering one word. "BOOM!"
"Bye-bye," she replied to herself.
The flames reached Julie's lab, and the more unstable mixtures stored there. Chemical reactions could not be denied, and the laws governing them kicked in.
Lighting up the entire block, and probably half the rest of the neighborhood, the little house in the middle of the quiet street exploded up and out. Siding became long flying missiles, and the glass turned into shrapnel. Furniture launched from the reactions below to rain down on the Agents surrounding the house. Bodies flew
in different directions.
In the flash of a few seconds, the first explosion was done. Burning on its foundation, the remains of destroyed house waited for the Fire Department, not able to tell if anyone was still alive and trapped
Quiet reigned, and then the shouting began as Agents checked on each other.
A second explosion rocked the night, sending more debris airborne, followed by a third, and a fourth, but stopping after the fifth. The house was reduced to rubble. At least what hadn't been blown apart. Only a small portion stood, but with the briefest breath of a wind blowing through the area, it finally collapsed in on itself.
"What the hell just happened?" Kleese yelled. "More important, get the fire department and fire marshal out here. If you're hurt, stay down until we can check you over. Those of you uninjured, find those Denver yahoos, and secure the perimeter."
Agents scattered in every direction, making a perimeter for the new crime scenes, and banging on the neighbor's houses to check on the occupants. By the time the fire department arrived, the perimeter was secured. There were no more explosions from the little house, but it continued to burn smolder in places. It seemed as if the explosions blew the larger flames out. Quickly, water landed and hissed on the flaming materials left, and the smoke thickened.
The Scene Commander found Agent Kleese, and asked if anyone was inside. His response was chilling, "God help us, I hope not, but I think there might be."
That set off a chain reaction within the firefighters - they split into teams, starting to drown the hot spots in the front, while fully geared personnel - complete with air tanks - began a search. They were mindful, though, of the unstable structure, so the teams moved slowly.
None of the shocky neighbors saw anyone go in, and their dogs didn't bark, but all of them wore the same stunned expression. Some of the houses had been damaged from the explosions, causing more commotion.
The scene resembled nothing short of controlled chaos.
"Sherry!" Kleese yelled into his cellphone, speaking with one of the twenty-four hour Agents manning the office. "Call Denver, find out how many of Team Seven I'm dealing with . . . Yes, I mean the same Team Seven they call 'The Magnificent Seven'. I've got one confirmed missing, and two possibles. I need an answer now. Call me back." He put his telephone back in his pocket, surveying the damage. His hands were more than full with the entire situation, and they still hadn't found the Denver Agents yet. He watched the firefighters carefully, hoping that there was still a good outcome to be had in this miserable situation.
From the looks of the house, chances of survival seemed slim to none, and slim caught a ride out of town. They wouldn't let him too close to the fire or the collapsed house, but Kleese stayed close to the Scene Commander. His attention caught when he saw two men running with a backboard to the front of the house, and he started that way. The Scene Commander, Joe Blake, took pity on him and turned up his
radio so Kleese could listen to the transmissions. The first one gave him a little hope.
"He's half buried; we're gonna have to dig him out."
"Let me get this collar on first." There was a pause. "Done, we need to get him out and get him on 02."
"On three...one, two, three...pull...wait, he's caught!"
"What's he holding onto?"
"Let me look. Lord have mercy, his hand's gripping another one, and they're fused."
"Shit!" The Scene Commander softly swore.
"What's that mean?" Kleese asked not liking the look on the Fire Commander's face.
Blake shook his head, not knowing how familiar the ATF agent was with fire scenes; surely he had to have had some training dealing with bombs and would know the effect they had. "If they were caught in a
flashover . . . well, first I'm surprised they're alive. If they're burned . . ." His explanation trailed off when he saw understanding dawn on the agent's face.
"Shit!" Kleese hissed.
The Commander nodded. "Yep, that's what I said."
Kleese swallowed. "What about the other man?" he asked the Commander. "He alive?"
Joe Blake activated his mike. "Talk to me - what about the other one?"
"One things for sure this guy doesn't want to let go of whoever he's got a hold of," the distant voice commented, sounding alien anyway while he breathed through his air mask. "He's pinned beneath what's
left of the house. Can't see crap in here - too much damn smoke. Give us a minute."
That minute passed in agonizing slowness, broken by the ring of a cellphone.
"Kleese. Just three - got it. No, I don't want the other four out here. I've got enough problems. Tell them I'll call them from the hospital. If they don't like it, tough, it's the best I can do right now. We've got one alive so far, and I'm still playing catch-up to find out what happened. Thanks, Sherry. I'll call you for the number in a little while." Putting his phone away, he checked with Joe Blake. "Anything?"
The Scene Commander shook his head.
Activity continued around them, but the focus was on the rescue in progress.
"We got two pulses, hands are separated. Get that other board in here. He needs to be on O2."
"On three," a different voice commanded. "One, two, three…oh, hell! There's a third one down here. And my wife's roasts look better than him."
"What does that mean?" Kleese was afraid to, but asked anyway.
"His wife burns everything."
"Alive?" The ATF Agent sounded hopeful. They'd already pulled two miracles out of the fire; he could only be so lucky to get a third. Of course, he was dealing with The Magnificent Seven, and if anyone could laugh in death's face, it was those boys…but they couldn't keep doing it, could they? He silently prayed and listened.
"Talk to me, Stevens," Blake commanded.
"Hell, he's one big wound, sir, but he's breathing. Where's my boards?"
Kleese watched as they pulled the first man out. When the backboard passed him, he recognized Buck Wilmington. Strapped to the backboard and covered in soot, with an oxygen mask now covering half his face, it was hard to tell how badly the man was injured. Both arms were bandaged and one had been secured to the man's chest, which led Kleese to believe that it might be broken.
The body shuddered, and then the eyes snapped open. "VIN!" He yelled through the mask, and then started struggling. "CHRIS!" His second bellow came when tried to sit up, nearly knocking all of them -
his handlers and him - over with his thrashing.
Dressed in the blue jumpsuit with reflective stripes, the medic leaned down, getting inches from his face. "Pupils are good. Sir, I need you to listen. We're getting them out, but we need to get you treated."
"Alive?" The voice sounded raspy. "Tell truth," he wheezed around the mask.
"Yes, alive. But we need you to cooperate so we can get them out of here. Easier you go, the sooner they can," replied the paramedic. "Deal?"
Buck managed a small nod. The group continued to the first ambulance, pulling away as a third came to stop nearby.
Kleese blew out a breath. Alive, all three of them, for now he had his miracle. 'The Magnificent Seven' of the ATF were ranked among the living legends, and if someone died while on his watch, during his investigation, he didn't know what he would do, or how he would live with his failure to get here sooner.
"Wait...I hate head wounds. They bleed too much."
"We're clear - let's go."
"Let's move, people. Longer he stays in this crap, the more likely we're going to lose him."
A second backboard went by, and it was the longhaired, cowboy booted man. Crimson covered almost all of his head, even under where the oxygen mask rested, and his clothes looked charred.
The third backboard passed the ATF Agent, and this one had the smoky, naked body of an unconscious man. From the amount of soot, dirt, blood, and gore, he didn't look too healthy, but he was breathing.
For now. Since there weren't any clothes, and he didn't recognize the form, it was probably Chris Larabee. The rumor was his men would go through hell for each other, and this qualified. More than qualified.
"Anyone else?" asked the Scene Commander.
"I don't know," Kleese replied honestly. "Those were the three I wanted. The third one there had just been reported by his men as possibly abducted; I was just starting an investigation. He could have had someone with him."
"We'll assume there's someone else still inside then." Lifting his radio, the Scene Commander said, "Keep searching, possibly one maybe more victims inside."
Kleese stayed for another half hour, until the search teams were called off and it appeared no one was left alive in the building. It would take a few hours for the fire to cool enough to do a body recovery, but Kleese had what he needed. The Fire Marshall assured the scene would stay secure until the investigation was complete. Driving to the hospital, he found the ER in its normal state of controlled confusion, with one exception. One of the new arrivals was being more than difficult.
Allowed back to 'talk some sense into him', Kleese found Buck Wilmington involved in a glare and stare contest with a male nurse. Neither appeared to be giving any ground, but the IV tubes, nasal canula, and white bandaging on his hand spoke of some treatment, and it was keeping him from leaping off the gurney for the moment. "What's the problem?" he asked.
"They ain't telling me anything about Vin and Chris."
"He won't let us take him to x-ray for his arm and leg. Not counting the fight I had to get the IV in him," the nurse added.
"If I get you some information, will you let them treat you?"
"I want the truth," Buck said stubbornly.
"You'll get it," Kleese promised.
"When I know, I'll cooperate."
"Fair enough." Kleese walked out, talking to the charge nurse and explaining he was the investigating Agent regarding the kidnapping of one Chris Larabee, and subsequent injuries to Vin Tanner and Buck Wilmington. She explained to him that obviously they were all suffering from burns and smoke inhalation. Vin Tanner was on the surgical ward, getting a CAT scan for possibly head trauma, and he was still unconscious. A burn and a hand specialist were en route to the hospital for both Vin and Buck, but they needed to get Buck into x-ray to see how severe the injuries were to his arm and leg before turning him over to the specialists. When she reached the evaluation on Chris, she sighed. "He's got some problems."
The nurse looked sadly up at the investigator. "Perhaps you should talk to the doctor."
Kleese blew out a frustrated breath, knowing the news wouldn't be good. "Please just a brief summary to give me some idea."
She shook her head, "I've been nursing for fifteen years and seen a lot of things, but never someone so abused. The main problem is he has a multitude of open wounds from one end to the other, many of
which the size of a pin. The bottoms of his feet are highly infected. He's running a fever and we haven't finished the internal evaluation yet, but he has some severe bruising . . .the list keeps growing. What that poor man must have been through."
Kleese sighed. He was right; he didn't like what he heard. "So two out of three stable, one critical?"
He thanked her for her time, and then calling his office from the nurse's phone, Kleese got the number for Denver, and then stepped to his car to use his cellphone. This was not a call he wanted to make. Flipping the phone to speaker, he searched the car for the proper forms he needed to complete for all these injuries to fellow Agents.
"Agent Standish, this is Agent Kleese."
"Well thank you for your prompt response, Agent Kleese, however you might speak up I fear I've aged a bit in waiting."
Kleese let the sarcasm go, knowing the wounded agents' teammates were worried. "I wanted hard facts, Agent, and not suppositions so the rest of you don't fly out here half-cocked."
"Fair enough," Standish agreed. "Tell me what you have found out."
Kleese briefly went over what little he knew of what had occurred since getting the information of a possible kidnapped ATF agent and starting his investigation. During the discourse he let his displeasure show at Wilmington and Tanner leaving him behind to chase after the suspect on their own. Then he finally got to the
information they really wanted to know, and how the three agents where doing now.
"Right now, Agents Wilmington and Tanner are in stable condition, and Agent Larabee is in critical condition. It's too early to say more than that." Finding his last form, he figured to end the call finally and get back inside.
"What aren't you saying, Agent?" Standish asked.
Kleese sighed. "Wilmington and Tanner have injuries from the explosion; Larabee's been tortured." He didn't mean to sound so uncaring and abrupt but he wanted to get back to what he needed to be doing. This was his territory anyway, and these guys were the ones disrupting his life. "I don't have information on the suspect; whoever it was is believed to have died on scene. Please do me a favor, I know you are worried, but don't descend on me. Give me a chance to find out what happened. I know your reputation, and that will hurt more than help right now. Don't worry; your men are in good hands and being taking care of, I'll make sure of it."
"I should be offended, sir, but I see your point. We will give you four hours to call us back. Take down my cell number, and reach us there. After four hours, I promise I will be most irritating in trying to reach you," Ezra stated.
"I can appreciate that. Give me the number." Kleese scribbled, and then disconnected.
next four hours, Kleese paced holes in the waiting
rooms, before he
could find out the extent of injuries. He walked
going from the first to the second where the
Agents were, harassing
the staff for continual updates, and still
information from his own people on what was found
at the house and the hotel.
He happened to have just hung up the telephone
when a sound
reached his ears. It was a cross between a scream,
a moan, and an
animal's death throes. And it came from Larabee's
Kleese hit the door at a run, but was immediately shoved out of the way by arriving staff. He stood in the doorway, watching the strapped down form of Chris Larabee twitch spasmodically, screaming and howling.
"What's wrong with him?" he asked the closest person.
"Get back," she snarled, as she tried to retrieve a flailing arm that escaped its restraint.
"His tox screen back yet?" yelled the doctor.
"On it's way, Doctor."
The screams ceased. After a few moments of tense silence studying the monitors, the puzzled medical team breathed a sigh of relief that he was still with them. Even though unconscious, the body still twitched and trembled at some unknown stimulus.
"How is he?" Kleese asked.
"Unconscious," the doctor replied. He took the report from the technician that delivered it, reading it quickly. "And dying."
"What?" Kleese took a step toward the doctor. "He can't die."
The man looked up. "I didn't say we couldn't fix it, Agent," he chided softly. "Someone didn't like your boy very much. Torture wasn't good enough; looks like he's got a pretty lethal cocktail of narcotics and poisons running through his system. It's going to take awhile to flush this stuff out of his system and keep him stable.
I'm afraid he's in for a pretty uncomfortable time of it."
"You'll have detailed lab and progress reports?"
"Yes. We're going to move him to a semi-private room at the end of the hall. We'll do what we can to keep him comfortable. I don't want to add more drugs until we get some of these flushed out. We might be in for some more episodes like this."
The doctor pulled him into a quiet corner. "This combination of drugs and poison designed to kill in forty-eight hours. Only reason I know what to do is because of the heightened chemical weapons' training that's been offered. Do you know if he's tough?"
"Tough as they come, ex-SEAL, I believe," Kleese said, thinking back on the reputation of Chris Larabee.
"Any way to get his men close to him? I've heard rumors they drive hospital staffs nuts if they're not near each other."
"Hmm." The doctor considered. "I'll get them on the floor. Once we have Larabee's system flushed out, I'll move someone in with him."
"If you'll excuse me, I have to write some orders for what to give him."
Kleese nodded, and then went to the telephone. He called his office, having them transfer him to Standish's cellphone. Giving an update, he had the feeling that a representative would visit him shortly, perhaps more than one.
"Sir?" Standish walked over to the Assistant Director, currently sitting in their offices waiting for news.
"Yes, Ezra?" Travis replied.
"It has been determined that Mr. Larabee has been poisoned, and the doctor has started treatment. He also suffered significant injuries to his feet, along with multiple wounds on various parts of his body. He will be in considerable pain until they can get the drugs flushed from his system. He is still considered in critical
"Is there any good news?"
"Mr. Wilmington suffered burn damage to his hand, along with a broken clavicle and a sprained knee. He also bruised his ribs, and smoke inhalation."
"Not good, but not too bad."
"Mr. Tanner has a major concussion, thankfully no skull fractures, but they are monitoring him closely for any additional cerebral swelling. He also broke two ribs, his ankle, suffered a serious burn to his hand, along with other minor burns and smoke inhalation."
The remaining members of Team Seven leaned back in their chairs, swallowing hard. This was the first chance they had been able to get together and hear the full report on their missing teammates.
"What happened to them?" Josiah asked.
"Agent Kleese was able to inform me that Buck and Vin followed a lead - without informing him - and chased the suspect to his house. Apparently, the suspect was dressed as Mr. Larabee, and had been
impersonating him for some time."
"Let me guess: the house fell in on the fools?" Nathan queried.
Ezra rubbed a thumb down his cheek. "I'm told it burst into flame, and then exploded multiple times." He paused. "With them in it."
Travis groaned. "Can any of you do anything without massive destruction of property or bodily injury?"
Josiah, Nathan, JD, and Ezra exchanged glances. "No," they replied.
The Assistant Director shook his head in disgust. "Nathan, I'd like to send you out there to watch over them until they're ready to come home." He tossed up his hands. "Quit glaring, boys. I'm sending all of you. If those three are hurt, they're going to turn the hospital upside down, and I'll need all four of you there to keep them under control." He glanced around at the others and felt like rolling his eyes. "Like that'll happen."
Pushing himself to his feet, Travis continued to talk, half to himself, and half to them. "Why do I even bother? This was not what I intended when I sent Chris out there for a break. What happens? He gets abducted and tortured. When will I ever learn?" He headed for the door, stopping to glare at the four remaining members of his most productive team. "I realize nothing will get done around here while you are worried about them, so I'm not going to try to keep you from joining them. Use tomorrow to tie up loose ends here, get all of your cases in order and anything that needs to be transferred to another team. You can book a flight out the day after. Just make damn sure no one else ends up in the hospital as a patient, or
else." Travis walked out.
"I wonder what he meant by or else," JD said.
"Mr. Dunne, I don't believe I want to find out." Ezra picked up the telephone, calling the airline to make reservations, and then the car rental to arrange for three vehicles at the other end, specifically SUV's.
Ezra for once overlooked the early hour and booked them on the first available flight the day after tomorrow. It was at four-thirty, but he could tolerate it. It was bad enough Travis was holding them back
a day from rushing to their friend's sides. How they managed to concentrate the next day at work, no one knew. But they completed all the tasks Travis required of them. The following day, even Ezra had no problems making the early morning flight.
Of course, nothing ever went easily for Team Seven, and the four men were beginning to wonder if they could keep their own promise they made to Travis to stay out of the hospital. The flight went horribly. They should have heeded the omen when their departure was first delayed due to a malfunctioning heating unit in the galley. Finally in the air two hours later, their relief was short lived. Ending most unsatisfactorily with a harrowing forced landing halfway to their destination with engine trouble. Thankful to be on the ground safely, they nevertheless harassed airport reservation clerks to get them on the next available flight. Flustered by the four determined males in front her, the clerk could offer no available flights until the next day, but she registered them as standbys. Of course, there were no guarantees they would all get a flight
After about two hours of waiting they announced they had one seat on the next flight available. The four agreed Nathan should go; with his medical knowledge he be in the best position to help their friends. Reluctant to leave the others, but anxious to get to his injured friends, Nathan bid his three traveling companions goodbye. He got as far as the plane. As the medic fumed on the plane, the others watched perplexed as they saw the line of planes waiting for take off but nothing moving. Until finally the line did break into movement . . . back to the terminal.
In a sicky-sweet voice, the announcement blared over the terminal speakers that all flights were being cancelled due to severe weather moving in.
Everyone moved out of the way as the three aggravated men stalked to wait at the gate for the deplaning passengers. Quickly gathering Nathan and his luggage they decided to try the ground route. Moving
immediately to the car rental counter, they managed to rent the last car available. The clerk was hesitant to release the vehicle, explaining the car was just returned and had not been cleaned. Startled by the angry blast of polite and not so polite words from the well-dressed gentleman of the group, she quickly changed her mind and turned the keys to the small subcompact over to them. Recovering from their shock at hearing such strong verbiage from the southerner, Josiah slapped Ezra on the back and they moved quickly to claim their transportation. Thankfully, hard experience taught them to travel light, so they each had one small piece of luggage. Thankfully because it was a tight enough fit in the small car already, with the trunk barely holding their bags. Ezra and JD found themselves admiring their knees near their noses while Josiah and Nathan hunched in the front seat of the car, their heads continually brushing against the ceiling. They would put up with the discomfort though; they were finally on their way.
That satisfaction was short lived as they ran into the weather that grounded the flights. Now they could see why. The three men in the passenger seats continually said their prayers. They had to, because their spiritual member was busy blasting his own form of prayer to the heavens as he was forced to creep along, with near zero visibility at times through the driving rain.
It was as if the entire car heaved its own sigh of relief after over an hour of travel in this manner, and they left the storm behind. However, the others continued to pray as the slow, easy going team member they knew and loved turned into Speed Racer as he tried to make up lost time. Becoming use to flying over the ground and confident in their friend's driving skills, the other three finally relaxed. Once again, they turned their thoughts to the three they were rushing to see. That is until the sirens sounded behind them.
For a while, Josiah ignored the siren, not use to being on the receiving end of such an encounter. His slow and easy style was well known and teased about by the other six. Finally it sank into his mental state that his foot was further down on the foot pedal than normal. Easing off the accelerator, he finally backed off of warp speed and began to slow and pull to the side of the road. As he sat waiting for the officer to make an appearance at his window he turned an apologetic visage to his passengers. He rolled down his window
but there was still no sign of the officer.
Curious that contact had not been made Josiah glanced in the rearview mirror and frowned as he noticed the officer standing behind the door of his vehicle and talking into the mike on his car radio. The others turned to look out the back window at what had put the frown lines in the preacher's forehead.
"Good lord, what now," Standish sounded aggrieved.
He didn't have long to find out as more sirens were heard and they soon found four more police cars, bearing the marking of at least three other agencies slide into place. One beside them but across the roadway, one in front and another at an angle behind them and to the side of the original patrol car.
Ordered from the car at gunpoint, it took almost over another hour explain why four ATF agents were setting speed records in a stolen rental car. Yes the clerk advised them the car was just returned, but she neglected to mention it was from a police impound lot. Just like the police record's clerk neglected to remove the recovered vehicle from their stolen files.
Finally released, but with a stern warning that further travel as such speeds as they were clocked would not garner further professional courtesy, the four were on their way once more. This time Nathan took the wheel. From then on they drove straight through to their destination. The only stopped twice more for gas and to change drivers. Then once more when JD found his own foot a little close to floor. This time the traffic stop did not include multiple units and fire power.
When the travel weary quartet finally reached their final destination, it was not pleasant; hell, it wasn't even pretty. Josiah's hair stood straight up from the constant static electricity of it rubbing against the ceiling, Nathan's knees cramped from his forced time in the back seat, Ezra's eyes burned from taking the
longest stretch of driving, and JD's energy had been contained in the small vehicle too long, making him extremely edgy and restless.
Nathan talked sense into the other three, convincing them that it would not do the others any good to show up looking as bad and as mean as they were right then. It was agreed to check into their hotel first and make themselves presentable. After calling Kleese and the hospital, it was further determined that due to the late hour, they would not be allowed to see their friends until morning anyway. They argued with each other that they could find a way, but common sense reigned for once, deciding it would not be good to start off on the wrong side of the hospital staff. Finding a late night diner, they settled for getting a good meal and going back to the hotel for a good night sleep. The latter did not come for any of them.
Arriving en masse first thing the next morning at the hospital, and having used most of their considerable patience during the ride there, none of the four seemed agreeable to 'sit and wait for information', causing a disturbance at the admittance desk.
Having been prepared for this onslaught, Agent Kleese was notified, and went downstairs to greet them. "Gentlemen," he said. "This way, please. Sorry I couldn't have been of more help last night, but we were expecting you sooner."
"Unavoidable, unacceptable, frustrating delays," Ezra groused.
"Where and how are they now?" Nathan asked.
"Come with me." He led them up five floors, and then down a long hallway to the very end. "We managed to find a room that used to hold four patients, and put them all in together. Larabee handled the treatment well, and the doctors said his latest tox screens look good, he's still running a low-grade fever, in a lot of pain and weak. Wilmington's pretty much on the mend, he's already hitting on the nursing staff. Tanner's keeping to himself; I think he's still feeling the effects of the head injury, but he doesn't let on. I'll warn you, though, they're being a little difficult at times."
"They wouldn't be them if they weren't," Josiah said. "Will you stick around? I want to ask you about the case."
JD opened the door, staring in, three faces pressed behind him. The room was dark, the rising sun only beginning to make a muted entrance through the curtains across the window at the far end of the room.
As their eyes adjusted to the dim light, the four men could make out the three mummies on the beds within.
"Shit?" JD made the first comment, felt by all of them as he took the first few tentative steps in, closely followed by his friends. The size of the room was enormous, and the beds organized with two on one wall, the third opposing the bed closest to the door. All three were occupied, and the occupants honestly looked like they belonged under doctor's care.
Kleese spoke softly in the gloom. "They like to keep it dark in here; both Larabee and Tanner are sensitive to the light, it seems."
"Head injury," Nathan nodded.
"In Tanner's case yeah," Kleese nodded. "Larabee, they aren't sure. Got real nasty and fought when they shined a light in his eyes to check for concussion, and tried to leave one of the lights on for the rest of them. Might be an after effect of the drugs he was on."
Silently, the four men studied their friends, checking out each of their injuries.
Buck's face was missing his mustache, and a slight redness lingered on his skin. His hair seemed to be a little shorter, especially in the front, and he almost looked younger. A sling immobilized his arm and shoulder, a brace covered most of his left leg and knee and it was resting raised on a pillow. The other arm was covered in a burn wrap and rested up on another pillow. His head was back, mouth open and slightly snoring, held further immobile by the canula feeding him oxygen, and the IV tree to one side of his bed. The less than flattering hospital gown gave him a wan appearance.
"Now ain't that a pretty picture," JD smiled, the other three chuckled softly as they moved to check on their other two friends.
Josiah and Nathan had moved to the bed across the room that held their missing leader. Both exchanged worried glances at each other over the bed. Like Wilmington, the blond was lying on his back, the head only slightly raised. Both legs were raised on pillows; his feet were not covered by the blankets, but swathed by heavy white bandages. The nasal canula fed oxygen, while the IV tree behind his head held quite a few bags, running lines to both arms. Large sections of his arms and torso sported gauze of their own, and what was exposed between the bandages and hospital gown looked liked one giant scab, mixing with a multicolored palette of bruising.
"What's this he's laying on," JD asked softly fingering the fuzzy material Larabee was laying on.
Nathan reached down and felt the soft material, "Sheepskin."
"He's pretty touch sensitive right now," Kleese explained moving up to join the others, speaking softly to keep from disturbing the resting patients. "They found he rested easier if they used that."
Nathan nodded; wincing, knowing the multitude of minor injuries they'd been advised of would make the blond extremely uncomfortable. He turned, hearing a familiar sound from the third bed. Moving quickly, he reached the bedside just in time to get the chrome basin in place.
As the bandaged swathed head was laid gently back onto the pillows, pain filled glazed blue eyes looked up at the dark face above him. "N – Nathan?"
There was a cough from the other bed and a groan as the ladies man woke up and tried to sit up. "Easy Buck," JD rushed to his side and tried to help him.
The strangely smooth, shaved face smiled broadly as he recognized his roommate, "Hey, Kid."
"Hey, Buck," JD smiled seeing his best friend awake. "You look like shit."
"Never happen." Wilmington went to shake his head, and then stopped.
"Hey guys," Wilmington noticed the others in the room. "I see y'all met Frankenstein. He's uglier than I am right now, and not pleasant company."
The subject in question had curled back into his bed on his side. The arm bandaged in burn dressing was resting on a pillow, and he ducked his head behind it to shield his eyes. The uncovered fingers sent their own quiet message to the ladies man. There was also the lightly mumbled phrase, barely distinguished, of, "Bride," aimed back at Buck.
Buck laughed. "See."
Nathan smiled; pleased to see their friends remained in good humor. He frowned, though, as he glanced down at the back exposed by the hospital gown on the sharpshooter. It was covered in a number of
colors showing several levels of bruising.
"How many stitches?" Nathan asked.
"Seventy-five," Buck supplied.
Ezra stared at the sharpshooter. "Mr. Tanner, I do believe Mr. Wilmington has a point." His eyes took in the white bandages swathing Vin's head. "Of course, such a visible wound will surely make the ladies at the office swoon, and offer comfort." He smiled when he saw Buck frown and moved closer to the bed to continue teasing the two. "Add to that the soreness of his ribs, and his inability to run away from their ardent pursuit, and I would be persuaded to believe he is a bit… irritable."
Standish received his own silent salute, as there was another cough from the third bed. Josiah quickly moved to Chris's side as Larabee began to move restlessly on the bed. He placed a gently hand on one
shoulder to reassure Chris, and keep him from making too many jarring moves. "Easy, brother."
Green eyes blinked up and stared disbelievingly for a moment. "J-Jos," the attempt to talk setting off a harsh round of coughing.
"Careful, Chris," Nathan also rushed to his side. He reached for water pitcher beside the bed and poured a glass, helping the blond drink through the straw. "Better?"
Chris gave a brief nod and relaxed back against the pillows. He glanced around the room and saw the rest of his friends standing anxiously by. A weak smile lifted the corners of his mouth, "Much."
"He's been out of it for awhile, he's only been conscious a little while. Still getting his bearings." Wilmington shook his head. "Might take a bit for him to get sociable again."
"That's all right," Nathan said. "We're just glad to see y'all."
"Care to explain how you found yourselves in these unfortunate circumstances?" Ezra sat in the chair beside Vin's bed.
"Don't know the whole of the Stud's story," Buck winked as he caught the glare from across the way. He was just happy to see his old friend awake and starting to get better. "When we got to the hotel, we found out someone was pretendin' ta be Chris. We set up a sting, and chased the guy down."
There was a low growl coming from Larabee's bed.
Buck rolled his eyes. "Pard, he was dressed like you. We didn't know he was a she, okay? Quit growling at us."
"Chris was kidnapped by a girl?" JD exclaimed.
One hand weakly raised and threw a cup at the youngest, actually hitting him.
"Hey!" JD turned to look at Chris, and then picked up the cup.
Vin chuckled weakly, then groaned as pain sliced through his head.
"Stubborn Texan cuss has probably been passing on the pain meds," Nathan grumbled and frowned, noticing Vin ducked his head guiltily. Chris groaned as he shifted in the bed, and Nathan wished there was
more he could do for him.
"Kleese, have they found her body, yet?" Buck asked the silent form that had moved to a corner of the room to allow the friends their quiet reunion.
"Haven't gotten an update yet," he admitted. "But they haven't stopped looking."
Buck's red faced deepened to a dark crimson. "I want proof she's dead."
"I'll go call my office and see if there has been any thing new."
Josiah rose to shake Kleese's hand. "I'd like to thank you for your help. Before we leave, we'd like to go over what you've found in your investigation and compare notes."
Kleese nodded, "That can be arranged. I'll leave you to your reunion now and get back to you later. Take care of them."
Josiah nodded, "We will."
Kleese moved to the door but hesitated a moment and looked back over the room. The three bedridden agents were quietly grousing over the hovering the other four were giving them. He always admired the
close-knit community that was a part of law enforcement. The never-ending source of support that community provided was often amazing. Looking at these seven men, though, he could see their closeness went beyond that. It was like invading on a small family moment. In some way, he envied them what they had. Smiling sadly, he left them to see if he could get them some closure on this case.
It took almost two full days for the house to be completely searched, to the investigators' satisfaction. It was sadly concluded that there still was no body among the ruins. Kleese still had a bunch of unanswered questions, and his background checks on the name Julie provided Chris was not turning anything up. Nor was the research into the ownership of the house.
After over a week of one dead end after another, the case was still nowhere near solved, and the three injured agents were finally given the okay to travel back to their home. Frustrated, he decided to accompany the team back to Denver, getting approval from his superiors, to help in the search for clues there. When he reached the airport, the Magnificent Seven were in rare form. Three of them were confined to wheelchairs, unable to walk unassisted. Well, Wilmington thought he could walk, but each step made him look 'worse than a one-legged man in a butt-kicking contest', in his own words. Nathan's voice was fading fast from the continual yelling.
Fortunately, after hearing about the 'road trip from perdition' from Ezra, Travis sent a charter jet for them. Three wheelchairs, rolled by three Agents, loaded onto the plane, and the last two men – Josiah and Kleese – took deep breaths before boarding.
In Denver, Travis paced, waiting for the charter to land. When it did, he watched three of his 'boys' unloaded in wheelchairs. That made his heart slow, but then he saw the smiles on Tanner and Wilmington's faces. Adopting his sternest visage, he waited for them.
They reached him soon enough, and sure enough, they were arguing amongst themselves.
Nathan's voice reached him first, "Chris, if you don't stop wiggling in the chair, I'm gonna restrict your diet even more."
"I ain't helpless," Chris grumbled. "I don't need help going to the bathroom, and I don't want the company." He pushed away from the paramedic, making it to the restroom.
"I'll be right here if you need me."
Chris let the door shut.
They hadn't noticed him yet, so he continued to watch silently.
"Buck, quit bitching about your hair. It will grow back," JD said.
"Better than that peach fuzz on your face."
"You know I've heard sometimes after burns and major trauma, like you've had, hair tends to grow back white." Dunne delivered that line with an earnest, straight face.
Buck blanched and reached a hand up to cover his singed locks, not catching the newly arrived shit eating grin on his roommate's face.
JD was pleased he could say he learned from the best.
"Mr. Tanner, perhaps you should refrain from leaning forward so far, and straining your already battered ribcage."
"Maybe ya should mind yer own business," Vin bit back, just wanting to lie down and forget the pain in his head.
Chris rolled out of the bathroom. "Look, Ma, I went by myself," he said to Nathan.
"Boys," Travis said, putting himself in their line of sight.
All chatter stopped, and the wheelchairs lined up in a row, the handlers behind them.
"Welcome home," he said. "Good to see all of you alive and breathing."
"For now," Josiah added.
"For now," Travis repeated smiling. "Agent Kleese."
"Sir." Kleese stepped around the wheelchair brigade to shake hands with the Assistant Director. "Thank you for greasing the wheels to let me come."
"You still have an open investigation, correct?"
Travis turned to JD. "Agent Dunne, I am requesting you use the resources at your disposal in assisting Agent Kleese in finding out the identity and connection of the suspect."
JD straightened. "Yes, sir."
"Sir, with respect, my people couldn't come up with much."
"You'll find Agent Dunne has the uncanny ability to find out information. Now, let's get this rag-tag group home. Where are you staying?"
"Larabee's ranch," Vin answered.
Everyone was asleep in the Larabee household, except the master. He needed some water, and he wanted another painkiller. Nathan gave him the minimal dose, knowing the man had enough drugs in his system
lately. Normally he'd agree and deal with it, but his feet throbbed and all he could visualize between his closed eyelids was that damn clock. It had been this way since he woke up, and the waking nightmares, combined with the night terrors, kept him from getting any rest. He craved the blessed release of unconsciousness.
Wheeling himself carefully through the house, he tried not to make any noise and wake anyone else up. He didn't want to hear from Nathan, or see Josiah's silent offer of support, deal with JD's energy, or figure out a ten-dollar sentence from Ezra's mouth. The rest of them needed their rest too, but he should have known better.
"Need some help there, Stud?"
Chris eyed Buck skeptically over his shoulder. "Were you thinking about growing another arm?"
Wilmington chuckled, "Some company then."
"Would it do any good to refuse," Chris softened the remark with a grin for his oldest friend as they both moved slowly toward the kitchen.
Reaching the kitchen, they realized that someone else was in there.
"Quit gawkin' and get in here, Larabee. I can't do this alone."
Chris rolled in, with Buck right behind him, finding Vin sitting at the table in his chair, staring in frustration at the pitcher of orange juice and the spilled liquid around it. Larabee looked up at Buck, who raised his bandaged arms in response. Rolling his eyes, Chris wheeled to the counter, grabbed a dishtowel and mopped up the excess, and then filled his friend's cup, grumbling the entire time. "Like taking care of a bunch of babies."
Rolling backward, he grabbed a plastic cup for himself, getting himself some ice water. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out his painkiller, setting it on the table. He chuckled finally when Vin brought out one of his own pills, and Buck tenderly reached into his sling adding his own to tabletop display.
The three friends shared a gentle laugh, not wanting to agitate the pain demons already chanting war cries in their bodies.
"Thanks." Vin finally sighed.
Larabee nodded. "How's the head?"
"Hurts like hell. How's yer feet?"
"Hurts like hell," Chris replied.
They sipped their drinks for a minute.
There in the dim lighting of the stove, the three friends sat in their chairs in companionable silence.
Vin and Buck shared a look across the table then looked at Chris. Both spoke up together, "Sorry."
"Shoulda known ya were in trouble." Vin spoke up first.
"How?" Chris asked.
"Had a feelin', and then Buck said ya had a lady, but it felt off."
"Yeah, sorry Chris," Buck sighed sadly. "I wasn't thinkin' on that one. I was just so pleased to think you might really be enjoying yourself, I didn't let it sink in how wrong it was along with everything else. Should have made her put you on the phone, instead of just accepting the bull she gave us."
"You guys couldn't have known." Chris gave each of them a hard look.
"Sure we should have, right from the start," Buck disagreed. "It wasn't like you not to return messages."
"That's right," Vin agreed. "And you didn't call to call to check on us every thirty minutes. That sure weren't like you."
"I don't do that," Chris glared at the sharpshooter.
Vin just leaned back in his chair and gave him a mischievous grin.
"Well maybe at least once or twice a day," Buck amended, drawing the glare to himself.
"Just plain stupid," Vin sighed.
Buck nodded, "Irresponsible."
"Sure, you were both so stupid and irresponsible enough to fly across the country, on very little information, rent a car, search my room, chase her down, and then break into a burning house. Followed by searching through, and braving a rapidly spreading fire to free me. Got yourselves burned and blown up in the process."
Chris paused, and then reached out and placed a hand on each of his friend's shoulders, "Yeah, that's real stupid and irresponsible, and for that, I'll be forever grateful." He squeezed. "A man's lucky if he has friends, and luckier if those friends are like brothers. You two saved my life and there's nothing I can say or do to say thanks enough."
"I don't remember much 'bout it," Vin frowned not wanting Chris to see the mistiness he felt in eyes.
"Then I'll remind you about it every day," Chris smiled and turned to Buck. "And you, Buck you've always been there when I've needed you most."
"I know when I saw you two stumbling up those stairs there was no why in hell I was going to lose you again." Buck swallowed hard. "But you've got to quit doin' stuff like this pard, I'm getting too old for this shit."
Chris smiled and patted Buck's shoulder. "I can never repay you two."
"Ya don't have to," Vin replied. "Ya would do it for us."
Chris nodded, and a wealth of emotion passed between them in one shared look. The three men finally dropped the gazes and coughed around the lumps in their throats, looking away to wipe their eyes,
and then steadfastly downed their pills.
Nathan nudged Josiah and cocked his head towards the hallway behind them. Josiah nodded. They tapped the two kneeling in front of them on the shoulder and silently motioned them back. The four quietly bade their way back from the kitchen doorway where they'd been silently eavesdropping on their wounded companions. Before they parted ways to their own rooms, the four shared a smile. The trio wasn't quite there yet, but they were well on the way to healing all their wounds.
Using the little information Kleese's team had dug up, JD's skill with the computer and ferreting information paid off; he found out Julie was Juliet Koons, a registered nurse. Before he was finished, JD discovered the twelve hospitals across the country where she worked, all of which she left for "personal reasons". Using some questionable methods, he discovered that she was fired or forced to resign several times, changing her name after each one. She had some computer skills in modifying some of her information and creating
false identities for herself. It was taking some time though, and all Kleese could do was wait. But he couldn't afford any more time away from his own territory; it was time for him to leave.
Travis saw him to the airport, promising to give him information when it became available.
Night had fallen at the Larabee ranch, and only four were present. Chris, Buck, Vin, and JD, the appointed caretaker for the night. JD had his headphones on, continually tapping on the keyboard. He blocked the other three out.
"Buck," Chris said softly.
"Hand me that pillow, will you?" He pointed to the one beside the rogue.
"Sure." Buck passed it over to his friend.
"Thanks." Chris paused. "For everything," he added.
Dark blue eyes met green. "Pard, you don't need to keep saying it. I know it." He stretched a hand out, and they clasped forearms.
"Whoa!" JD exclaimed, knocking the headphones off his head.
"What?" Buck asked, winking once at Chris before leaning back.
"Chris, do you remember Sarah talking about a Julie or Julian Boyd?"
Larabee thought for a minute, and then shook his head. "Nope. I'm still having a hard time believing that psychopath even knew Sarah. Maybe it was wishful thinking on her part."
"Maybe," JD hesitated now. "High school, maybe?"
"I took a chance, went through that classmates website, figuring that if the person knew your wife, it would either be through college or high school. None of the Julies in college matched, so I went to high school."
"Whatcha got?" Vin asked.
"Well, there was a pair of twins in high school with Sarah, and apparently they were best friends."
"Julie became a nurse, right?"
"According to the hospital records, yes," JD said, his tone guarded. "But I don't think that was possible."
"Wait a minute. I remember Sarah telling me about one of her high school friends that was a twin, but she deliberately lost touch. Said the friend went crazy, got insanely jealous of any of Sarah's other friends or boyfriends."
"Sounds like your Julie," Buck suggested, ignoring the glare Chris shot his way.
"The nurse was terminated for psychological problems," JD carefully replied.
"Wonder why." Vin snorted. "Didn't have a gentle touch."
"Tell me about it," Chris replied.
"What's bugging you, JD?" Buck asked. "Sounds like you found our suspect, so what's the problem?"
"I don't know how to say this."
"Spit it out," Buck told him. "We're getting older by the second."
JD walked over to Chris. "Is this Julie?" He held out a printed page, showing a very young Sarah and a young woman.
"Close, but not quite." Chris shook his head.
"How about this one?" He passed a second page to his friend.
"Yeah. On the right. That's her." The shot showed three women dressed outrageously for Halloween as saloon girls.
"Are you sure?" JD asked.
"What's the problem?" Chris frowned.
JD passed another paper to Chris, who read it. As he read over the passage all he could think of was being in that room with that woman and what she did to him. Briefly his mind touched on the kiss that he thought came from Sarah. Suddenly, he dropped the paper and reached for the nearby trash can. While he was throwing up, Buck picked up the paper it and read aloud:
"In memory of Juliet 'Julie' Michelle Boyd, beloved twin of Julian 'Jules' Michael Boyd, killed in a tragic traffic accident. She will be missed by all of us, but especially by her twin, 'Jules' and best friend Sarah Connolly. Rest in peace, Julie!"
"Julian survived," Vin whispered. "Turned himself inta Julie."
Buck shuddered, and then winced in pain. Lord what thoughts raced through his mind when he heard her . . .his voice on the phone. He glanced over at Chris and despite the pain, shivered again.
Chris held his head in his hands, nausea rolling through his system. Damn, they'd all been had, especially him. He'd been blinded by the superb acting job perpetrated by a mental unbalanced person with too
many skills to inflict pain. Yes, he'd been blinded by more than the light.
At least Julie/Julian was dead. He hoped.
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