Desperate by Winnie
Summary: When Chris and Vin are tortured for information, the others are caught in a race against time to save them before a violent criminal kills them.
Categories: Magnificent Seven > The Firm Characters: ALL SEVEN, Buck Wilmington, Chris Larabee, Ezra Standish, JD Dunne, Josiah Sanchez, Nathan Jackson, Vin Tanner
Genres: Angst/Drama, Hurt/Comfort
Warnings: Profanity, Violence
Challenges: None
Series: None
Chapters: 3 Completed: Yes Word count: 25200 Read: 15589 Published: 06 Apr 2009 Updated: 06 Apr 2009
Story Notes:
This fic is written for Jackie's birthday. She wanted Vin h/c but she knows Chris is always front and center in my fics so it is Chris and Vin hurt with Buck and Ezra in the comfort roles. Thanks to Marti and Antoinette for the wonderful beta job and thanks to Pamela for the pic to go with this fic

1. Chapter 1 by Winnie

2. Chapter 2 by Winnie

3. Chapter 3 by Winnie

Chapter 1 by Winnie

That was the only word to describe how he felt...what he was seeing...and he knew there was only one way to end it. There was no doubt now that he was dying. He could feel the desperation, could sense the impending doom and it burned his soul like nothing had ever done before.


That's exactly what this next act was; an act of desperation from a man who could not watch his best friend die. His heart ached and he pulled on the chains that held him fast to the wall, his eyes filling with the sorrow that raged through him. He tensed as several more fists landed against the lean body and knew what he had to do.


That was the only way to describe how hard he tried to get the attention of his captors off his best friend.

"Well, you going to stand there and let us kill him, or are you going to tell me where Teresa is?"

He looked into the face of hell...his own personal hell and laughed...a desperate sound from a desperate man. "Can't!"

"Can't or won't? Tell me which it is, because he will die if you don't answer my questions!"

"Then the answers dies with him," the captive ground out, but pulled his gaze away from the battered form until he met the hated blue-gray eyes set in the malicious face of the man standing before him.

"What the hell are you talking about?"

"I'm saying you're killing the only man who could give you the answers you need! He's the one who knows where Teresa's being held...not me!"

"Sonofabitch!" Carl Browner cursed and looked from one captive to the other before grinning at the man before him. "You're trying to get the heat off him! Desperate measures from a desperate man!"

"Am I? Do you really think I could stand here and watch you do that to him if I had the answers you need?"

"No, but I don't think you could stand there and let him take this kind of beating if you could have told me this long ago. Nice try...but it's not going to work. Continue, Charlie, but don't mark his face!"

"Browner, you're a stupid prick! If I'd told you this earlier you'd have already had the information you need. Maybe I was just biding my time until I was sure Teresa is safe! What better way to do that than make you think I had what you needed. He'd understand why I did what I did, and he wouldn't tell you the truth, because he'd know what you'd have to do. Desperate times...oh yes, that they are, but it's you that's getting desperate. I can't answer your questions."

"Damn it!"

"What do you want me to do, Carl?"

"Cut him down and give him some water!" Browner ordered angrily. How much time had he lost questioning the wrong man? Was there still time to find his ex-wife and son? Turning to the man standing behind him, Browner grabbed a fistful of hair and stood nose to nose with him. "If you're lying you're dead!"


Pain raged through his body, forcing his mind to concentrate on what didn't hurt because that was the lesser of the two tasks. There didn't seem to be a part of his body that didn't hurt and yet he was still alive and if that was true, what of his partner? What had happened to the other captive? Was he still alive? Were they still in the hands of a madman? Something was placed against his lips and he drank the water as if his life depended on it...and suddenly realized it did.

"That's enough you bastard!"


"No shit! I got some questions for you and you'd better give me the right answers. Where is Teresa Browner?"

"Who?" He gasped when hands clenched tightly in his hair and yanked his head up.

"Teresa Browner. You and that bastard over there know where she is and you're going to tell me!"

"Got the wrong man. I ain't the one...knows where she is. He does!"

"That's funny. Larabee just told us the same thing. Now the way I see it, is I believe in giving equal time. What do you say, Tanner? Are you ready to answer my questions?"

"Got nothin' ta say!"

"Too bad," Browner said and shoved the man back to the floor. He nodded to the big man standing in the shadows and watched him grab several items from the table before moving to stand in front of Chris Larabee. "Do it!" he ordered and heard the gasp from the Texan who tried desperately to climb to his feet.

Chris lifted his head defiantly and locked eyes with Vin as Browner's man pressed something against his chest that sent a shockwave of agony along his nerves. He jolted upright, standing on his toes as he fought to get away from the instrument the man used. It felt as if his insides were being fried, and he gasped for breath when the man took it away, only to place it elsewhere on his body. Again and again he felt the jolt of electricity flowing through him until darkness reached out to pull him under.

"Damn it I warned you not to let him lose consciousness," Browner snarled and reached for the bucket of ice water. He threw it in Larabee's face, smiling when the blond sputtered and stood on his toes once more. "Did you think I'd let you go away that easy, My Good Man?"

"Fuck you!" Larabee spat.

"No, I believe it's you and Tanner who are fucked...royally fucked," Browner told him and turned to the Texan. "Now, Tanner, are you ready to talk?"

"Fuck you...asshole!" Tanner said, meeting Larabee's gaze, amazed to see the cocky grin on the battered features. A silent signal passed between the two men, giving the strength of their bond credence even to those who did not understand it. Hang on, Larabee, ain't time ta check out jest yet, the Texan thought, wincing as blow after blow rained down on his best friend's body. God, Buck, where the hell are you guys?


Buck paced the small room and knew something had gone wrong. Larabee and Tanner had left him and Ezra to watch out for Teresa and Joey Browner, but no one had heard from either man since. Forty hours had passed since the duo had left the safe house in order to meet with an informant who had news of Carl Browner's whereabouts.

"Mr. Wilmington, is everything all right?" Teresa Browner, a pretty, dark haired, olive skinned woman asked.

"Everything's fine, Mrs. Browner. How is Joey doing?"

"He's scared. He wants to know why his father hurt him," Teresa explained. She'd endured years of abuse at the hands of her husband, but when he struck their son it was the final blow. She'd waited until he left on a business trip and contacted Rain Goines, a woman she'd met at one of the clinics she'd gone to whenever the pain became too much for her to handle. Rain had tried to convince her to leave Carl Browner after their first meeting, but she'd stayed by his side through countless beatings.

"He's a brave little boy," Wilmington told her. Joey Browner was a smart little boy who'd seen way too much in his four short years. When the call had come from Rain and Nathan asking for their assistance, Chris didn't think twice about the consequences. A boy's life was at stake and there was no way in hell any of them could turn their backs on him or his mother.

"Mrs. Browner, would you like a cup of coffee?" Standish asked from the kitchen.

"Yes, please, Mr. Standish," the woman answered and moved to the window overlooking the lake. She knew the glass was unbreakable and yearned for the day when she would not have to hide from her husband's employees. They were out there, searching for her and Joey, but these men were doing everything they could to protect her until Orrin Travis arranged to have her placed in the witness protection program. She knew it meant giving up all ties to her former life, but it would be a small sacrifice if it meant her son was safe.

"When do you expect Mr. Larabee and Mr. Tanner back?" Teresa asked as she accepted the cup from Standish.

"Not sure," Wilmington answered, hoping she couldn't sense the worry nagging at him.

"If Carl found out they were protecting me...he...he..."

"Mrs. Browner, Chris and Vin can take care of themselves," Wilmington assured her, but there was moisture evident in her eyes that spoke of unshed tears.

"You don't know Carl, Mr. Wilmington," Teresa whispered as she placed her cup on the end table. "He's an animal. I never should have stayed with him as long as I did, but I'm weak..."

"Mrs. Browner, it takes a lot of guts to leave a man like that," the rogue said and held her as soft sobs escaped. Buck looked at Standish and saw his own anger mirrored on the con man's face. "You and Joey are going to start a new life and Browner won't be able to touch you."

"How can you be so sure?" Teresa asked.

"Your testimony will put him away for the rest of his life, Teresa. Orrin's working with the FBI to make sure everything is in place for you as soon as you're done with the court. We'll make damn sure he doesn't get anywhere near you and Joey," Wilmington vowed.

"Thank you. I trust you, but until this is all over Joey and I aren't safe anywhere," the distraught woman told them.

"You're safe and Ezra will make sure of that!"

"Thank you. I'm going to check on Joey," Teresa said and left the two men standing near the window.

"She's a strong woman," Standish observed.

"Yeah, she is and she'll need to draw on that strength to get through this. Browner's a sadistic sonofabitch and he's not going to stop until he gets what he wants."

"Do you think he has Chris and Vin?"

"I don't know. God, I hope not, but it's not like them to stay out of touch this long."

"Perhaps it's time to get the others involved," Standish said.

"Might not be a bad idea, Ez."

"If he has them..."

"I don't even want to think about that," Wilmington said softly and turned his attention to the waves lapping at the shore outside the window.



That was the act Vin tried, but it fell flat as Browner's men continued to torment Chris Larabee. He'd fought the hands holding him, but several well-placed blows left him breathless and semi-conscious. He could hear Browner speaking to someone and forced his eyes open in an effort to clear his head, his gaze coming to rest on his friend hanging from chains embedded in the wall. A sharp kick to the ribs had him twisting on the floor in agony as Browner grabbed a fistful of hair and yanked his head back.

"You see, Tanner, Larabee's life is not worth a plug nickel right now and neither is yours. Tell me where that bitch took my son or I'll kill you both."

"Go a...head. Ain't tellin' ya sh...shit!" the Texan ground out and thought he heard a chuckle from Larabee. He couldn't help but smile when he saw the blond's swollen lips curl up in a slight smile.

See you in hell, Larabee shot across the strange connection as a quicksilver resonance bounced between them.

"Not until we send these bastards to the devil!" Tanner said aloud.

"Where the hell is she?" Browner snarled and slammed Vin's head against the floor.

"Ain't got a clue," the sharpshooter answered, and received another vicious blow to his right side.

"I just don't understand you or Larabee! Why do you continue to protect a worthless whore."

"She ain't t...the worth...less one...ya...sack a sh...shit!" the Texan snarled, tensing himself for a blow that never came, instead he heard a sharp cry from the blond. "Chris!"

"Is she worth his death, Mr. Tanner? Can you lie there while Hans carves him to pieces?" Browner asked, making sure his captive had a clear view of the man holding the bloody knife against Larabee's shoulder.

"D...don't te...tell h...him," Larabee managed, struggling against the bonds that held him against the wall. He didn't know how much more he could take, but as long as they were alive there was a chance Buck or Ezra or one of the others would find them. Teresa and Joey Browner's lives depended on how much they could take.

"Vin, my good man..."

"Ain't yer good," Tanner spat, spitting a wad of blood laced sputum on the man's white shirt.

"Kill him!" Browner ordered.

"No!" Vin shouted and tried to get past Browner, but the man just laughed as Chris Larabee cried out.

"Then tell me where the bitch is!"

"Go to h...hell."

Vin breathed a sigh of relief when he heard the barely audible reply from his friend. Even beaten and bleeding, Chris could make his presence known and Vin smiled as he watched Browner's face screw up in uncontrollable rage. Several blows landed against his already battered abdomen before Browner stood up and kicked him viciously in the right kneecap.

Carl Browner knew he had to stop before he killed the two men, but his anger festered and drove him insane. He knew his employers would be angry at him for taking Larabee and Tanner, but he needed to find his wife and son. He needed to prove to Teresa that she belonged to him and that she could not take his son away from him. He was going to show her exactly what happened when someone crossed him no matter what it took or who he pissed off in the process.

"Larabee's out," Peter Warlock said as he wiped the sharp blade across his forearm.

"Sonofabitch!" Browner cursed and looked down at the second man who had curled into a ball and seemed to be out cold.

"What do you want me to do?"

"Mr. Browner, there's a call for you."

"Tell them to call back!" Browner spat.

"I told them you were busy, but he insists on talking to you and says it's a matter of life and death...yours," Juan Gonzales told him.

"Jesus!" Browner spat and stalked across the floor to the door.

"What do you want us to do with them?" Warlock asked.

"Not a fucking thing! Just lock them in here and let them freeze for a while!"

"Yes, Sir," Warlock said as the man stormed out of the room.

"He's losing it," Gonzales said.

"I know, but I'm not gonna say anything to him," Warlock said, leaving the room and locking the door to the cold cellar behind him.

Vin lay still and listened while the others left before he moved. Forcing his body to obey the commands he put on it, Vin managed to get to his hands and knees. He was shocked to find that he hadn't been bound before Browner and his men exited the room. He felt the cold down to his bones, but ignored his discomfort as he fought to get to his friend.

"Chris," he managed, his voice ragged as he tried to draw air into his lungs. He knew from experience that he had a couple of broken ribs, and wondered what else was hidden below the bruises that were forming on his upper body. He reached the far wall and stumbled into the bound man, smiling in spite of the pain when he heard Larabee grumble.

"Jesus, Vin, do...don't you st...start work....working me o...over."

"Not my fault they moved ya," Tanner grumbled and reached for the chains, relieved to find they'd simply been looped over a set of steel hooks. "Think ya can stand up fer me?"

"No...but I'll do it any...way," Larabee said, moaning when his feet hit the floor and his legs gave out. He fell, hard, but something stopped him from hitting the cold floor.

"Jesus...yer puttin' on weight..."

"Must be the swelling," Larabee said as he rolled off the Texan. He moved to lean against the wall and gazed into the blue eyes set in the battered features he knew so well. "How bad?"

"Don't know. Feels like somethin's busted up inside," Tanner told him. "Yer bleedin' pretty bad..."

"Hell...just a scratch," the blond grumbled, cursing when Vin tore his shirt and pressed hard against the knife wound in his right shoulder.

"Think the boys know we're m...missin' yet?"

"Knowing Buck...yeah," Larabee said.

"We're fucked if they're not."

"Wouldn't be the first time. Hell, won't be the last time either."

"Think maybe we should check the door?"

"You first," the blond said with a lopsided grin.

Tanner shoved off the floor and managed to get to his feet, but his right leg refused to hold him and he dropped heavily down beside the blond. "Bastard kicked me," he answered Larabee's unspoken question.

"Hell," Larabee cursed and felt as if he was going to pass out.

"Chris, we gotta find a way outta here," Tanner said.

"I kn...know. Just need a few minutes," the blond told him and sagged against his friend as darkness closed in around him.

Vin eased Larabee off him and tried to stand, but again his leg would not hold him. He stood on one foot and hopped the distance to the door, cursing when he found it locked. He tried several times to force the door open, but it didn't move and he reluctantly admitted defeat. Vin rubbed his arms to ward off the chill, and made his way back to Larabee. He sat down, moaning softly when his abused body protested any movement. His eyes closed and he leaned against his friend as darkness reached out to claim him.


Buck stood at the window watching for Josiah, Nathan, and JD's arrival. Ezra's call had alerted the three men of Larabee and Tanner's disappearance. They now knew something must have happened to the two men because neither one had made the meeting set up with the informant. The man's body had been found in a culvert on the outskirts of the city, Chris' black Ford was found not far from the site.

The truck looked like it had been rear ended several times and the marks showed that they'd been forced off the road. Forensics discovered blood on the steering wheel and the passenger's side window. Buck didn't need to wait for confirmation; he knew Browner had taken Larabee and Tanner.

"Buck, I've been checking some of Browner's holdings and he has several warehouses in and around Billings," Standish told him. He'd been using his laptop since calling Nathan and hoped he could narrow down the holdings and give them an idea of where Browner might have taken the missing men.

"We should get Mrs. Browner to look at the ones you have...maybe she'll have an idea where he'd take them," Wilmington offered and returned his attention to the front of the safe house as Josiah's vehicle came into view. He made his way to the main door and peered through the one way glass in time to see JD, Josiah, and Nathan heading toward him. Buck opened the door and allowed the newcomers to enter.

"Travis said this case has priority and we're to keep Mrs. Browner and the boy safe while we search for Chris and Vin," Sanchez told them.

"He also said to remind you to keep an open mind just in case Chris and Vin's disappearance has nothing to do with Browner," Jackson said.

"Like hell. Everything points to Browner. They left to go with an informant who winds up dead," Wilmington spat.

"I agree, Buck, but it doesn't hurt to check other avenues," Sanchez told him as Dunne moved to sit at the table with Standish.

"I just hope they have the time it's going to take us to find them," the rogue said.

"How are Mrs. Browner and the boy?" Jackson asked.

"Mrs. Browner is a hell of a lot stronger than she looks and Joey's being brave in spite of everything that's happened to them," Wilmington answered.

"Have you asked about her husband's holdings?" Sanchez asked.

"No, we were waiting until you boys got here. I'll see if she's awake," Wilmington said and moved toward the bedroom door. He knocked lightly and wasn't surprised when the door opened to reveal a woman whose eyes were rimmed with red as tears slipped from her eyes. He reached for her and pulled her against him as he eased the door closed behind her.

"I'm sorry. I shouldn't fall apart like this. Joey needs me to be strong," Teresa told him.

"You can't be strong all the time, Mrs. Browner."

"Teresa. Please call me Teresa," She sniffed. "I never want to hear that name again."

"I understand. We'll get the bastard, Teresa," Wilmington vowed.

"How can I help?" she asked and allowed him to lead her to the table where the others were already seated.

"Teresa, I'd like you to meet the rest of Chris' team. That's JD Dunne working with Ezra...between them they've forgotten more about computers than Gates ever knew. The tall man there is Josiah Sanchez. He's a whiz at profiling and preaching and he can be really persuasive with perps by going old testament on their a...behinds. The man sitting next to him is Nathan Jackson. He's damn good with a gun and even better with a knife. He's also a fully trained paramedic who's save our butts on more than one occasion," Wilmington said as she shook hands with each man.

"Thank you all for helping us," Teresa told them.

"No one deserves what he did to you, Teresa," Sanchez said as the woman sat down next to him.

"I should have left him the first time he hit me."

"Did you love him?" Jackson asked.

" least I think I did. I was young and foolish and he swept me off my feet," Teresa explained.

"Teresa, we need your help," Wilmington said.

"What do you need me to do?" the woman asked.

"The police found Chris' truck just north of the city. It looks like it was run off the road," Jackson answered.

"Oh, God, are they...are they okay?"

"We don't know," Sanchez took up the story. "They weren't there, but there were signs of a struggle and they were injured. We need to find out where your husband might take them."

"Carl used to disappear sometimes and when he returned his hands were usually a mess as if he'd been in a fight. I learned real fast not to question him about what happened, but I heard him talking to his clients afterward and he'd be gloating about what he did to someone who crossed him."

"Do you have any idea where he would take his victims?" Standish asked.

"He has several warehouses and some of the unsavory clients allow him to use their properties," Teresa answered.

"Do you know where the properties are?" Dunne asked hopefully.

"No, but..."

"What is it, Teresa?" Wilmington asked when the woman paled noticeably.

"I remember walking in on him a few months ago when he didn't know I was home. He was working on the computer and there were several files open. He keeps a file on his clients and I heard him blackmailing two men when they came to the house."

"Is the file on his computer?" Standish asked.

"Yes, but he also keeps a hard copy in the safe at our house. It's in his office behind a painting of an old railroad car. The office is on the second floor off the master bedroom," Teresa explained.

"Do you still have your keys?" Wilmington asked.

"I think so. I left in such a hurry I didn't lock the door," the woman explained.

"What are you thinking, Buck?" Sanchez asked.

"I'm thinking it's time me and Ezra paid a visit to Teresa's house. Do you know the combination?" Wilmington asked.

"No, I'm sorry, but Carl never trusted me with it," she answered.

"That's okay. I think Ezra'll be able to figure out the combination."


"Come on, Ez, you've honed your skills since you went undercover with Terry Greer," Wilmington said. Terry Greer was one of the best safecrackers he'd ever met and although she'd spent time in prison she'd significantly changed her life once her daughter was born. She worked as a consultant for a security agency and sometimes worked with the FBI on cracking more than one un-crackable case.

"There isn't a safe built that I can't crack," Standish said. It wasn't a boast, it was the plain and simple truth and the rest of the team knew him well enough to see it for what it was.

"I'll get the keys," Teresa said and hurried toward the bedroom.

"I wish we could save her having to testify at Browner's trial," Wilmington said.

"It's a necessary evil, Buck, but she's stronger than you think," Sanchez offered.

"I know."

"I found them," Teresa said and handed Wilmington her keys. "The gatehouse is not used anymore, but the alarm system is probably activated. The security code is battered. He thought it was funny."

"Sick bastard," Wilmington said.

"The console is just to the right of the main door inside the walk in closet. You have one minute to punch in the code before the police are sent to check," Teresa explained.

"Will there be anyone in the house?" Standish asked.

"I don't think so. Carl never liked having anyone around who might interfere in his business. We hired an agency if we were having a party. They also came to clean twice a week. Our meals were planned in advance. God, I am so looking forward to cooking a meal for the first time since Carl and I were married."

"I bet you could cook up a storm too," Wilmington offered.

"I could handle a knife and some pots and pans, but that was a long time ago," Teresa said wistfully.

"It'll come back to you," Jackson told her.

"Teresa, could you help JD go through the information we have so far?" the rogue asked.

"Yes," she answered, but turned to find a sleepy, dark haired boy rubbing tiredly at his eyes. She quickly went to him and held him as he sobbed.


"I'm here, Joey," Teresa soothed. "I'll always be here."

"I dreamed daddy...daddy hurted you," the boy cried against her shoulder.

"Daddy can't hurt us anymore, Joey. These men are going to make sure of that," Teresa said.

"I miss Tico."

"Who's Tico?" Wilmington asked.

"Tico is a stuffed bunny his grandmother gave him when he was a baby. He sleeps with him every night and I...I forgot to bring him with us when we left."

"Tell me what it looks like and where I can find it and I'll make sure I bring it back to him," Standish vowed.

"It's on my bed," the boy told him.

"Joey's room is at the top of the stairs off the main foyer...second door on the left," Teresa answered. "Please, if you can get it and the little green blanket on his bed we'd both sleep a lot easier."

"We'll do our best, Teresa," Wilmington assured her. "You ready, Ez?"

"Let's go, Mr. Wilmington," Standish said and grabbed his jacket before heading for the door.

"Mommy, I'm hungry," Joey said softly.

"Would you like some toast or cereal?" Teresa asked.

"Can I have lucky charms?"

"I'll see if we have any." Teresa walked into the kitchen as the remaining men worked on finding out where her husband was hiding.



That was the only word that could describe how Carl Browner felt as he slammed down the phone. His clients trusted him, but they were hearing the rumors now, rumors that his wife was ready to testify against him. They understood how much information he had and would not take action against him until such time when there was no choice.

The only thing standing between him and his wife were the men he held prisoner. Larabee and Tanner knew where Teresa and Joey were and eventually he would beat it out of them, but he wasn't sure he had the time now. His clients wanted them dead, but he wouldn't allow that to happen until he had what he wanted.

Browner stood up and strode toward the door leading to the basement hidden beneath the restaurant's storage section. Larabee and Tanner were being held in an area that had once been used for cold storage and he knew they must be feeling uncomfortable now. He hurried down the stairs and waited for his man to unlock the door and push it open. He wasn't surprised to find the two men unconscious and huddled together as if seeking warmth from contact.

"Wake them!" Browner ordered and smiled at the man who filled a bucket from the sink and carried it inside the room. Carl nodded for him to continue and laughed when Larabee and Tanner choked and shook as the cold water hit their bodies.

Vin reacted on instincts and came to his feet with a cry of pain as something slammed into his lower back and he dropped on all fours. He fought to stay conscious even as Larabee tried to focus on their enemy.

Chris wiped the water from his face and groaned as he tried to sit up. He heard Vin cry out and reached for the Texan as he stumbled under the blow to his back.

"Welcome back!" Browner said with a grin.

"You bas...tard!" Larabee ground out as Vin landed against him.

"Your friend is in bad shape, Larabee, and it's going to get mighty uncomfortable down here when I leave. You can save yourself and your friend by telling me where that bitch is!" Browner told him.

"I don't have a clue," the blond lied.

"Perhaps you just enjoy pain, that it?" Browner asked, savagely kicking the man's left side.

"Fuck you!" Larabee spat, smiling when Tanner chuckled softly.

"Why are you protecting her? You don't even know the whore, yet you're willing to give up your life for that worthless piece of trash!"

"Worthless piece of sh...shit is!" the Texan managed, crying out when he was viciously dragged to his feet and held upright between two men.

"Tell me, Larabee, is she worth your friend's life?"

"It's w...what we the inn...ocent from ass...holes you," Larabee told him.

"Of all the stupid... Look, Larabee, I'm through playing around. You're both dead unless you tell me where she's hiding!" Browner spat.

"Ain't gonna matter...dead anyway," Tanner managed.

"Yes, but there are many ways to die, My Friend, you and Larabee will soon find that out!" Browner said and moved to stand in front of the Texan as another grabbed a struggling Larabee and forced him to his knees. He drew back his fist and drove it into the Texan's abdomen, smiling when he got the desired response from Larabee.

"You bas...tard!"

"No, you're the bastard for letting your friend suffer when you could easily stop his suffering."

"Don't tell him nothin'...cow...boy..."

Chris struggled with the arms that held him, but there was no escaping as something slammed into his hip. Pain exploded in fiery agony along nerves that had already bore the brunt of the beating. The air wheezed in and out of his lungs as he lifted his head and met the blue eyes of his best friend.

Vin looked around Browner and locked eyes on the man who knew him better than anyone. He saw the fire in the sea greens even as the man drove the butt of his rifle into Larabee's right hip. He cursed as Browner grabbed him by the chin and forced him to look into the hated eyes set in the face of his enemy.

"Tell me and I'll let you both go," Browner tried.

"Fuck you," the Texan said and heard Larabee chuckle, but it was cut short and replaced by a grunt that signaled the man was hurting. Vin cried out as Browner backhanded him and he felt blood in his mouth. He spit out the foul tasting stuff and smiled when it struck Browner's chin and he received a blow to the gut for his troubles.

"What about you, Larabee, are you really ready to die for my whore?"

"Go to hell!" Chris spat. He tensed his body for the expected attack and heard Vin cry out at the same time as he heard flesh hit flesh. He had no idea how long it lasted, but he was soon dumped on the floor beside the unconscious Texan as darkness reached for him and he embraced it with Browner's angry voice following him down.

Carl Browner leaned heavily on his knees as he tried to regain his composure. The fact that these two men ruffled his feathers pissed him off and he knew he'd come close to killing them without getting the information he needed. Perhaps it was time to call in an expert, one well-versed in getting information from men who otherwise refused to talk. He knew there was only one woman he trusted in this and he hurried up the stairs and toward his office without a backward glance. He knew the number by heart and hit the buttons as anger raged through him.

"Hello, Carl, it's been a long time."

"Too long, Natalia, I hope I haven't called at a bad time."

"Not at all. Is there something you need?"

"As a matter of fact there is. I have two men who are being rather close mouthed about the location of a certain piece of my property and I'd like to get the answers ASAP."

"Two men. Hmm, does that mean I get to use my special methods on them both?"

"Do whatever you need to, but do it quickly."

"Where are they?"

"At my restaurant..."

"I thought that was shut down?"

"It was, hence the reason I brought them here. You should be able to use your specialty and not worry about anyone hearing them," Browner told her.

"Very well. I shall be there in approximately one hour."

"Thank you, Natalia, I appreciate your help in this matter."

"Of course and I will expect my usual fee deposited into my account at the conclusion of the games."

"I will even add a bonus if you are successful."

"Do you really doubt me, Carl?"

"No, not for a minute."

"Break out a bottle of my favorite Sherry and perhaps you could order a couple of pizzas. I didn't eat today."

"Consider it done," Browner said and hung up, leaning back in his chair and lacing his fingers behind his head. Natalia Barshefsky was a long time associate he'd used quite often through the years. They'd also had a bit of an on again off again fling since the day he was married and neither one minded not having any strings. They were both married; Natalia's husband was meek and cowed before her in big decisions. It was something they both enjoyed and were not willing to give up. He sighed contentedly at the idea of what she would do to Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner.


The house on the east side of Billings was in an upscale neighborhood and was a million dollar home. It was set back from the main road with trees and flowers lining the cobblestone driveway leading from the security gate up to the main structure. A verandah ran the length of the second floor of the house with roses and bougainvillea growing in white trellises. A single car, silver BMW was parked in front of the three car garage, but there was no sign that anyone was home. The gatehouse was empty and Ezra pulled his car to a stop further up the street away from prying eyes, in case someone happened to be there.

Buck and Ezra quickly made their way along the street, keeping to the sculpted brush until they reached the ten foot fence. They found a tree with thick heavy branches that had yet to be trimmed back and easily scaled it until they were able to jump the fence. Both men remained where they were listening for the sound of movement or the barking of dogs that would signal their presence was known.

Buck signaled for Ezra to follow him and dashed across the well-manicured lawn. The air was fragranced with the sweet scent of flowers, but neither man took the time to admire the gardener's work. They were at the back of the house and circumvented the L-shaped pool and Jacuzzi. A fence surrounded the pool, but there was a path leading toward the side of the house. Buck put up his hand to stop his companion before chancing a glance around the corner. A dog barked in the distance, and they could hear someone swimming in a nearby pool, but there was still no movement from the house and gardens.

"Ezra, hang back and let me check the door," Wilmington said and moved around the corner of the house. He planned on ringing the doorbell and if someone answered he had a cover story about his car breaking down and that his cell phone battery was dead. If no one answered then Ezra would use the key to unlock the door and he would race to the console and key in the codeword. He made it to the door and knocked several times, relieved when there was no answer.

Ezra moved around the corner when Buck signaled the all clear. He inserted the key in the lock, pushed open the heavy mahogany door. He followed Buck inside and waited with baited breath as his partner keyed in the code and waited for the console to disengage. When there was no phone call and no sound of police cars they headed for the stairs. The sunlight shone through the windows, illuminating the interior of the house. The living room was set with a black Italian leather sectional, with smoky glass coffee and end tables topped with antique Tiffany lamps.

Ezra recognized several paintings by well known artists and reached out to touch one on the landing. "Van Gogh," he whispered.

"You say something, Ezra?"

"This is a Van Gogh. He may be an animal, but he has good taste in artists," Standish said as they separated with him going to the master bedroom and Wilmington heading for the smaller bedrooms in hopes of finding the boy's treasured Tico. Ezra checked two doors with no luck, but finally found the one leading to the master bedroom. Once inside he spotted two doors, the first leading to a bathroom that was bigger than his own penthouse living room. The second led to the office where a large dark oak desk took up half of the space while a shelving unit of the same make was lined with several volumes written by familiar authors from around the world.

Ezra knew he didn't have time to look at them and hurried to the painting over the desk. This time the artist was unmistakably Renoir and he ran his fingers along the outer edges of the frame until he found a small catch. He pulled the painting away from the wall and cracked his knuckles before touching his fingers against the combination lock. He listened carefully as he turned the dial, jumping when he heard a sound behind him.

"Do you think you could be a little noisier...maybe there are skeletons in the closet you didn't wake up?" Standish snapped when he spotted the ladies' man standing behind him.

"Hurry up, Ez," Wilmington ordered.

"This requires time and silence, Mr. Wilmington," the conman snapped and returned his attention to the task at hand.

"We don't have much time."

"Or silence," Standish snapped impatiently.

"Sorry...being quiet here," Wilmington said and watched as Ezra expertly worked the locking mechanism. He kept glancing at his watch, marking the time with each breath he took. It didn't surprise him when Ezra turned and smiled as he triumphantly opened the safe.

"The man may have great taste in art, but his choice of safes leaves a lot to be desired," Standish told him. He reached into the safe and found several disks and a few files that looked like they could be of value in the case against Carl Browner.

"Bingo," Buck grinned when he saw the items Standish held.

"Buck...there must be more than twenty thousand dollars here," the conman said.


"Not for me or you...but it would go quite far in helping Teresa Browner and her son get back on their feet," Standish observed and saw Wilmington's crestfallen face.

"I'm sorry, Ez. I didn't mean..."

"Yes, you did, but we both know I no longer put a monetary value on a person's life," Standish said, reaching for the stacks of fifties and tucking them into the pockets of his jacket.

"It can't even be called stealing since technically it belongs to Teresa Browner as much as Carl Browner."

"My thoughts exactly and I see you have the greatest treasure of them all," Standish said of the bunny tucked securely inside a small green blanket.

"Ain't that the truth," Wilmington said as Standish closed the safe and put the painting back in place. "Let's get the hell out of Dodge."

"Ready when you are, Mr. Wilmington," Standish said and hurriedly followed the other man. By the time they reached their car, both men let out a heavy sigh of relief before driving away from the house with the treasures securely tucked inside their jackets.


Nathan Jackson watched the pretty woman as she cared for her son. The boy had cried himself to sleep and Nate could see the lines of sorrow on his mother's face as she gently brushed the hair away from his face. It was such a wonderful moment and Nathan knew Rain would make a wonderful mother, and hoped he'd be the kind of father she would be proud of.

Teresa could feel someone watching her and lifted her head to see Nathan smile in her direction. She could easily read the worry in the soulful brown eyes and wished she could ease his torment. She eased her son down on the sofa and made her way to the window. The sun was starting the final part of its daily journey and she sighed tiredly as she watched a young couple walking along the edge of the water.

"Teresa, Josiah made sandwiches," Jackson offered.

"I'm not really hungry," the woman said.

"I understand, but you need to keep your strength up...especially for that little boy of yours," the medic explained and motioned toward the table.

"Has there been any word?" she asked once they were seated at the table.

"Nothing, but I'd expect Buck and Ezra are on their way back," Sanchez answered as JD left his laptop on the coffee table and joined them.

"Anything new, JD?" Jackson asked.

"Not much...the bastard...sorry, Ms. Browner..."

"Don't apologize for speaking the truth, JD," Teresa told him.

"Browner has covered his tracks and is cleaner than Nettie's kitchen," Dunne observed of the elderly woman's spotless kitchen.

"Hopefully Buck and Ezra were able to get the disks and you'll be able to get the answers we need," Sanchez said, watching as Teresa Browner ate the turkey sandwich disinterestedly.

"Someone's coming," Jackson said and moved to a position near the main door as Sanchez and Dunne readied themselves in case of trouble. The sound of a soft knock, followed by three sharp taps signalled that their visitors were friendly, but Nathan checked through the small window to be sure. He opened the door and allowed the two men to enter.

Teresa Browner felt the tears in her eyes when she spotted the two objects Wilmington held. She took them and made her way to the sofa where she placed the bunny in her son's arm and covered him with the soft blanket. The boy seemed to sense the change and snuggled his head beneath the soft material as he hugged Tico close to his small body.

"Thank you so much," Teresa said and hugged both men.

"JD, let's see if we can open these files," Standish suggested and handed the man several DVD style disks.

"Ez, me, Josiah, and Nathan can look over the paper trail and see if we can find out where Browner took Chris and Vin," Wilmington said and accepted the files from the conman's hands. He took them to the table, picked up a sandwich and cleared an area to spread out the files.

"It looks like a list of clients and bank accounts," Sanchez said of the names and numbers.

"These could be times and dates," Jackson said. "If they are then there's a meeting set up for tomorrow morning."

"Does it give a location?" Wilmington asked hopefully.

"No, just says Morgan and Freemont at 8:15 tomorrow morning," Jackson answered.

"That could be a street address," Sanchez offered.

"I know there's a Morgan Avenue, but the only Freemont I know is in Las Vegas," Wilmington said and turned to Standish and Dunne. "Check MapQuest and see if there's a Freemont any where in Billings."

"On it," Dunne said.

"If there is see if it connects with Morgan Avenue or street," Sanchez said.

"Running a search now," Standish assured them.

"Did you find something?" Teresa asked upon joining them at the table.

"Maybe," Wilmington answered. "Do you know if your husband had associates named Freemont or Morgan?"

"I don't know, Buck, Carl kept me out of his business," Teresa answered. "I'm sorry."

"Don't be," the rogue said and reached out to hold her. He knew this woman had been through hell and his heart ached for her and her son. He could easily fall for a woman like this, but right now she needed a friend more than she needed a lover. Maybe someday when she wasn't so vulnerable, but even that was a long shot considering she would be going into the witness protection program once she testified against Carl Browner.

"Let me see the files," Teresa said and pulled away from the strong arms that held her. She looked at the spread sheets and began studying the names and numbers in hopes of helping find Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner.


Carl Browner smiled at the woman as he opened the door and motioned for her to step inside. As soon as he closed the door he pulled her to him and sparks flew between them as their lips met. It did not matter that there were others around, because Carl knew they would leave and occupy themselves until he was ready to visit the prisoners again.

"I have missed you, Carl. Demetrius is so cold when it comes to making love," Natalia told him.

"Perhaps we should introduce him to Teresa when we find her," Carl said, pressing his lips against hers.

"It would be rather boring. Come, business before pleasure I'm afraid, Carl," Natalia told him with a grin as she pushed him away.

"Damn, woman, you make my blood boil."

"Keep it simmering, Carl, this shouldn't take long," Natalia told him. She reached for the briefcase she'd dropped on the floor when she entered the restaurant and looked around. "Have your men bring two chairs to the basement."

"And let the games begin," Browner said with a grin as he headed toward the door leading to the basement.


Consciousness was slow in returning, but when it did, Vin cursed the cold that seeped through his bones. He struggled to sit up, cursing as pain twisted through his upper body. He knew Browner had busted him up good and that he probably sported more than one broken rib. He heard harsh wheezing from his right and turned his head until he saw the man lying beside him.

Chris' face was a mass of discoloration and swelling and his shirt was covered in blood. Vin reached out and touched the blond's chest, relieved to feel the shallow rise and fall that signaled he was still breathing.

"I'm not ready to check out just yet," Larabee groaned and sat up, leaning heavily against the wall as he tried to control his ragged breathing. "I need a drink!"

"Where's Ezra and his trusty flask when ya need him?"

"Don't know, but I'm glad he's not here," the blond observed, shifting slightly and causing a big wave of nauseating pain to wash over him.

"Then again...he'd be able ta pick that damned l...lock," Tanner snarled in disgust as the door opened and Browner stepped through. "Hell..."

"Well, I'm pleased to see you're both awake," Browner said and motioned for the blonde woman to come inside. "There's someone I'd like you to meet."

"Ain't in the mood fer socializin'," the Texan quipped.

"Oh, my, what have you done, Carl?" Natalia asked.

"I do get a little overzealous when someone pisses me off, Natalia," Browner said.

"I'm guessing these two went way beyond pissing you off," Barshefsky observed and knelt in front of the two men. She reached out and cupped Vin's jaw, smiling when he tried unsuccessfully to pull away. "I bet you're a pretty one under all those bruises."

"Fuck you!" Tanner managed as she tightened her grip.

"If time wasn't of the essence I might just take you up on that offer, but alas, Carl wants answers and I believe he is getting a tad impatient with you and your blond friend."

"Leave him alone!" Larabee ground out and received a vicious backhand for his efforts as she released the Texan.

"One would think you either enjoy pain or you are a little jealous of the attention I'm giving your friend."

"Dream on!" the blond snapped.

"Perhaps I will dream, but I assure you yours will be nightmares...waking ones at that," Natalia vowed as Browner's men returned with two chairs and several lengths of rope. "Put them in the chairs and tie their hands behind their backs."

"Yes, Miss Barshefsky," Peter Warlock said and pulled Tanner to his feet. Gonzales grabbed the opposite hand and helped move the Texan to one of the chairs.

Vin struggled to escape their clutches, but was soon forced down on the chair. His arms were yanked roughly behind him and encircled with rope until it cut off the circulation. He cursed the two men and kicked out, smiling in spite of the pain when he heard a muffled curse from one of his captors.

"Now put Larabee's chair back to back with Tanner's once he's secured," Natalia ordered.

Chris fought as valiantly as Vin did, but was soon secured to the chair and sitting back to back with the Texan. Carl Browner moved to stand in front of him and he glared at the man so hard it made his own head hurt.

"Now, my good man, you have a choice here. Natalie Barshefsky and I are old friends and I must warn you that she knows how to get answers out of a man. I have explained to her my problem and that you two hold the solution to said problem and she is more than willing to work her special brand of magic on both of you. Now I will ask you once more... Where are Teresa and Joseph?"

"Go to hell," issued from both men as they garnered strength from the fact that they were together in this and neither man was willing to give up Teresa Browner or her son.

"Fine. Natalia, why don't you get started?"

"There's plenty of time, Carl, so why don't we start with a little something to make them both comfortable...or should I say uncomfortable," Barshefsky said with a smile as she took two loaded syringes from her briefcase.

"What is that?" Browner asked interestedly.

"It is a little cocktail I developed over the years and have nearly perfected it. I say nearly because I have lost a couple of clients because of overdose, but don't worry they'll stay alive until you have your answers."

"Natalia, I do love it when you talk like that," Browner said and kissed her before moving back to watch the show.

Vin could only watch as the woman reached for his arm and tapped until she found a suitable vein. He could see the tip of the needle disappear into his arm and swallowed several times as she slowly injected the amber colored liquid before removing the needle.

"Now you may feel like you've pissed yourself, but don't worry that feeling will go away once the medication disperses into your bloodstream. I'll leave you to enjoy the ride while I tend to your friend so you can make this trip together," Barshefsky explained and moved to the second bound man. She repeated the gesture with his arm and injected the medication, smiling as the eyes filled with green fire.


"Thank you," Natalia said softly and pressed her lips against his before removing the needle from his arm. "That won't take long to work and then Carl will ask you several questions. It will be up to you whether or not we take it to the next level. Be warned that each level will get worse and there will be pain and possibly convulsions and possibly even brain damage if I don't get the dosage right."

"Is there anything I can get you, Natalia?" Browner asked and watched as she flicked her blonde hair away from her eyes.

"This kind of work always makes me thirsty and gives me a ferocious appetite. How about that Sherry and perhaps you could send one of your men out for pizza or chicken wings or both?"

"That sounds good," Browner said and told Warlock what he wanted.

Vin felt as if his heart was racing as he struggled to breathe through the fire in his lungs. It hurt to breathe and his eyes began to water as the agony intensified and his body shook in the confines of the chair. He could hear Larabee cry out, but was past the point where he could control his body's movements.

"See how fast it works, Carl?" Natalia asked.

"Your prowess with drugs never fails to amaze me, Natalia," Browner declared as he watched the two men suffer through the effects of whatever was in the cocktail she'd given them.

"Why thank you, Carl, but this is only the beginning."

Chris heard her and hoped him and Vin could hold on to Teresa Browner's whereabouts. His body tingled as if the raw edge of a blade was being drawn along tight nerves. He shook in the confines of the chair, feeling helpless as his body tensed and his head snapped back, catching the bound Texan and causing him to cry out.

"Is it always this intense?" Browner asked.

"No, it gets worse," Natalia answered excitedly. "You know how this affects me, Carl."

"Oh, I remember," he said and began nuzzling her neck as the two men continued to suffer.

Chapter 2 by Winnie

That's how Larabee's team felt when several hours of searching through the files and trying to crack the coded disk left them frustrated and short-tempered. They'd drunk four pots of coffee, but hadn't eaten anything as Teresa watched over her son and answered the questions she could.

"My head's going to explode," Dunne complained softly, but refused to stop searching the files.

"JD, Carl had a sick sense of humor so try typing in words that deal with battered wives," Teresa told him.

"I've been doing that, but so far nothing," Dunne said.

"Try shelter," the woman said and realized it was just the type of thing her husband would do.

"There are several notations in these files about shelters for battered wives," Jackson said. "The sick sonofabitch thought it was funny to reveal the locations to anyone who might be searching for their spouse or kids."

"I believe the Lord would agree with going Old Testament on this bastard," Sanchez offered as he studied the list of names and locations. They'd been through them so many times that the names and numbers blurred into each other.

"Shelter...she's right! I'm in!" Dunne said as the files on the disk opened up and a series of folders were displayed on his laptop. "The mother load."

"Only everything Browner wanted kept hidden. There are names, dates, deposits..."

"Is there anything on Morgan and Freemont?" Wilmington asked.

"There's a restaurant there, but it was closed down by the board of health last month," Dunne answered and clicked on another folder. "I think there's enough information here to bring down several organizations and not just here in Billings. Carl Browner kept files on everyone he dealt with.

"Carl was very angry when they closed that place down. I know he entertained some of his most important clients there," Teresa explained, checking on her sleeping son before joining the men at the table.

"Does it have an area where he could hold Chris and Vin without worrying about being discovered?" Jackson asked.

"It has a large basement area that was used for cold storage, but there are several places big enough to hold them," she answered.

"Can you show us the mostly likely places?" Sanchez asked.

"I know he would never bring them to any of the establishments that are still in use because he wants to keep everything clean, but," she stopped and tried to think, but it was hard to think of anything, but Carl Browner's cruelty.

"There are a couple of warehouses he mentions in here," Dunne said and showed the files to the others.

"Anything else in there?" Wilmington asked.

"Lots. Browner was a fool and this is a record of everything he's done in the last ten years including a list of his clients and the money laundering operation he's got going," the Bostonian answered.

"Holy shit! He's naming some high ranked city officials from the mayor's office," Wilmington offered.

"This man works for the security service Orrin uses," Jackson said.

"Sonofabitch, I had dinner with him and his wife last week," the rogue said. "I never would have guessed he was anything but an honest businessman."

"Not every businessman is on the up and up," Standish told them. "I suggest we search the restaurant and the warehouse here and here."

"Someone has to stay with Mrs. Browner and her son," Dunne said.

"Well, JD, since you're working through that disk you might as well stay here with Mrs. Browner and her son while the rest of us check these places," Sanchez told him. He saw the disappointment in the younger man's eyes and patted his shoulder. "We need everything you can find on that disk, Son."

"Okay, Josiah," Dunne said and started tapping the keys.

"Josiah, Buck and I will take the restaurant and these two buildings while you and Nathan check out the warehouses here and here," Standish said pointing to the addresses he'd copied down.

"Works for me...just be damned careful," Sanchez ordered.

"Believe me we will...we know exactly what's hanging on this," Wilmington said and turned to the woman standing behind him. "JD'll watch out for you two...he knows what he's doing."

"Thank you, Buck, I'll pray that you find them safe."

"We appreciate that," Sanchez said as the four men hurried out of the house, but he stopped at the door and turned to JD. "You hit that panic button if you think you need to."

"I will, Josiah," Dunne assured him and continued drawing back each layer of the disk.


Vin looked into the cold eyes of the bitch who held his life in a syringe and tried to control his breathing as she injected something new into his veins. He could feel Chris' body being rocked by the force of a convulsion and knew that the same thing was in store for him. The woman was a cold-hearted bitch who enjoyed causing pain and right now she was smiling at him as she cupped his chin and squeezed brutally.

"Your friend is not looking very well right now, Mr. Tanner, but you could change that by answering Carl's question."

"Ain't no...nothin' ta say," the Texan managed as she forced his head back and placed her lips against his.

"You know it would be so much more fun to have sex."

"Fuck you!"

"That's exactly what I was thinking, but alas business before pleasure," Natalia told him. Two hours had passed since her arrival and although this was the third injection, neither man had shown any desire to answer Browner's questions regarding his wife. The drugs were taking their toll on both men, but they seemed to defy everything she tried. This new cocktail would cause hallucinations and she'd added a drug that was similar to a truth serum. She stood back and waited for the drugs to take affect and smiled when Vin Tanner became violently ill, while Chris Larabee was rocked by a convulsion that made his body twist in the limited confines of the chair.


Nathan pulled his car to a stop in front of the main gate and waited for the security guard to finish his phone call. They'd called Orrin Travis and updated him on what was happening and were assured that the police were also searching for the missing men. He glanced at the man seated next to him and knew Sanchez was trying to figure out the most likely place Browner was holding Larabee and Tanner.

"Can I help you?"

"We have a meeting with Carl Browner," Jackson lied.

"Mr. Browner hasn't been here in a week," the guard told them.

"That's strange. I called him earlier and he told me he'd meet us here at six," Jackson said. "Do you know where he is?"

"No, sorry, I don't and if I did I wouldn't be able to tell you without his permission," the man said.

"Are you sure he's not inside?" Sanchez asked.

"No, this place was closed down a month ago and he put it up for sale."

"That's why we're here," Jackson said. "He was supposed to show us around. Is there any way we can just take a quick look around?"

"I don't know..."

"Look we won't touch anything, but our boss wants answers by tomorrow or our butts are out the door," Sanchez told him.

"I...I guess I could show you around..."

"Thank you, Mr...?"

"Johnson, Paul Johnson," the security guard answered and reached for the keys on his belt as the two men exited the car. "If you tell anyone I let you in I'll deny it."

"We won't say anything. This is more for our benefit than yours and very much appreciated," Jackson told him and followed the man through the main gate.

"Do you have any idea how many square feet this place is?" Sanchez asked.

"No idea, but I'm pretty sure that information is on the spread sheets," Johnson answered.

"Is there a sub basement?" Jackson asked, feigning interest in the size of the building.

"No, but it does have several offices at the back leading into a second level. That area's been closed down for months," the guard explained and opened the door. He flicked on the lights and they entered to find a dusty floor that showed no sign that anyone had been there in months.

"Are there any other entrances?" Jackson asked.

"There's a loading dock at the rear of the building and an employee's entrance halfway down the right side. There are also two emergency doors that open automatically whenever the fire alarm is activated," Johnson answered.

Josiah and Nathan followed the man through the building, but it was obvious that no one had entered the building. There were no telltale footprints in the layer of dust that had accumulated on the floor, and the guard explained that he did a walk around, but only of the outer perimeter.

"The main storage area is back this way if you'd like to see it," the guard said and led the two men to an area near the emergency doors.

The two agents listened to the man's descriptions disinterestedly and finally made their excuses. They exited the building, thanked Johnson for his help and hurried to Jackson's car, disappointed that they hadn't found Larabee and Tanner.


"How long until the pizza gets here?" Natalia asked softly as she watched the two men bound to the chairs.

"It should be here in a few minutes or it's free," Browner answered with a grin.

Chris knew what it was like to breathe fire, because that was just how he was feeling right now as the woman knelt in front of him. He fought to get enough air to speak, but it was a struggle just to draw air into his lungs. A hand touched his cheek and he tried to pull away, but he didn't have the strength as the woman pressed her lips against his while speaking softly.

"It's time, Chris..."

"Time f...for what?"

"Time for you to tell me where Teresa is?"

"She's...she's safe," Larabee answered, wondering why his voice sounded like he'd swallowed crushed glass.

"How can you be sure, Chris? Don't you want me to check on her? Wouldn't that make you feel better...knowing she's safe..."

"She's safe. They won't...won't let th...that bas...tard any where ne...near her," the blond spat.

"You look terrible, Chris. Would you like something to drink? I know your friend needs something. Would you like me to give him some water?'

"Yes...he's thirsty," Larabee answered.

"I can't just give it to him without getting something in return. That would be improper maybe you could give me something and I'll give him a glass of water. Will you help your friend?"

"Help Vin..." the blond muttered.

"Tell me where Teresa is and I'll give you both some water..."

"'re ly...lying," Larabee managed, crying out when an open-handed blow landed across his right cheek.

"She's not worth your life, Chris. She's not worth Vin's life..."

"Won't let him hurt h...her..."

"He's not going to hurt her, Chris, he's going to show her how much he loves her. He does love her and he wants her to come home. He misses her and wants to show her he's changed..."

"Never change...bas...tard beats women and children...a...afraid to fight...a real man," Larabee managed as darkness reached out for him. He felt the body in the other chair and knew the woman had moved to question him. "Don't tell her any...thing..."

"Ai...ain't goin' ta," the Texan managed, breathing through clenched teeth as she knelt in front of him.

"Vin, I don't think Chris can take much more. He's lost a lot of blood and looks really pale. You can save him..."

"Both goin' ta hell no m...matter ya sl...slice it," Tanner told her and heard angry cursing from behind her. He looked up into the cold, hate-filled eyes and laughed as Browner struck him across the face. His head snapped back with the force of a blow, but he continued to laugh in spite of the nausea and pain running rampant through his body.


Buck pulled his car to a stop in front of the restaurant and watched for any sign of movement from inside. There were cars parked along the opposite side of the street, but they were unoccupied and could belong to anyone. He watched as Ezra pulled out his cell phone and called JD Dunne and knew what the conman was up to.

"Ezra, tell me you found them?"

"I'm afraid not, JD, but we are in front of the restaurant. There's no movement inside, but there are several vehicles parked nearby. Would you ask Mrs. Browner if she knows her husband's license plate number?" Standish said.

"Hold on a minute?"

Ezra listened as Dunne asked the woman for the requested information and heard her reply as the Bostonian came back to the phone.

"Browner owns a silver BMW. His license number is personalized..."

"Let me guess BMW4ME," Standish offered.

"That it."

"JD, contact Nathan and Josiah and tell them we're pretty sure Browner's here. We're going to check the area out and move in," Standish explained.

"Be careful."

"Careful is my middle name. We'll call as soon as we find anything," Standish said and placed his cell phone back in his pocket. "The silver BMW belongs to Carl Browner."

"So the bastard's here and that means Chris and Vin are here," Wilmington said.

"We don't know for sure, but it doesn't really matter because we need to check it out before barging in there. It wouldn't make any sense to get Chris and Vin killed now," the gambler explained as they exited the car.

"I hate it when you're right..."

"I'm always right," Standish offered with a grin as they moved toward the main door of the restaurant. The interior was dark, but they could make out shadows of tables and a small amount of light peeked out from beneath a door at the back of the facility.

"Somebody's in there," Wilmington observed and reached for the door handle

"If we go in there without a plan we'll get Chris and Vin killed," the conman explained.

"We can't just stay out here. God knows what that sonofabitch is doing to them," the rogue snapped.

"We need a plan," Standish said.

"Fine. Here's my plan. We go in there and get Chris and Vin out then we kill the bastard so he can't hurt Teresa and Joey anymore!"

"Buck, think...we have no idea where they are or how many men Browner has with him," Standish explained and smiled when he saw a car pull in behind them. "Pizza..."

"You can't be serious! How the hell can you think about pizza when..."

"I do believe pizza is the answer to our problem," Standish said and watched as the young man stepped from the vehicle carrying a familiar item.

"How?" Wilmington asked and turned when Standish tapped his arm.

"How would you feel about a new job position for your resume?"

"Pizza Delivery Man extraordinaire," the rogue said and hurried to meet the newcomer. "Wait up!"

"Hey, man, I don't have much money..."

"This isn't a a matter of fact how would you like to make 50 bucks?" Wilmington asked.

"What do I have to do?"

"Just let me make the delivery for you," the ladies' man explained.

"I don't know..."

"Ezra, show the man that nice crisp 50 dollar bill you got," Wilmington ordered.

"And what's wrong with the one in your wallet?"

"I don't have a 50," the rogue answered as Standish reluctantly reached into his wallet and produced a crisp, new 50 dollar bill.

"I could lose my job..."

"Not if no one knows," Wilmington assured him. "Look, the guy who ordered the pizza is a long time friend and one I haven't seen in two years. We heard he was in town and figured we'd surprise him..."

"But this place is closed down. How do you know he's here?"

"His wife told us," Standish explained. "You won't get in any trouble and we'll even pay for his order so you can go do more calls."

"I promise you won't take any flack for this," Wilmington offered and reached for the pizza boxes as the man stuffed the money into his pants pocket. "Thanks, Buddy, you won't regret this."

"Hope not. They said to bring it around back and ring the doorbell," the man said and hurried back to his car.

"All right, Buck, you look the part of a pizza delivery man..."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Blue jeans and t-shirt...that seems more fitting than a suit and..."

"Snob," the rogue said and made his way toward the corner of the building.

"Buck, I'm going to try and gain access from here..."

"Just be careful, Ezra...the bastard's already got two of my friends," Wilmington said.

Ezra acknowledged the comment with a salute and a smile, wondering how he'd ever be able to understand why these men had welcomed him into the fold. He moved to the door and reached into his pocket for the set of lock picking devices he kept there. He knew if Browner and his men were here then the alarm system would be turned off. While Buck was busy with the people at the back of the restaurant, he could slip inside and do some reconnaissance.

It didn't take him long to work his magic and he heard the lock disengage. He stepped inside and gently closed the door behind him. There was just enough light seeping through the partially open blinds to show him where the doors leading to the back of the restaurant were. He carefully made his way around the empty tables and stood listening at the door for any movement from inside what he guessed was the kitchen area.


Buck rang the doorbell and looked disinterestedly at the man who answered. "Pizza the food here must be shit if you have to order in?"

"I wouldn't much?" Peter Warlock asked.

"That will be $27.50," Wilmington answered and listened intently as the man pulled out his wallet. He could hear noises from inside, but they were muffled and unintelligible. He took a 20 and a ten from the man and handed over the pizza boxes.

"Keep the change..."

"Thanks. You need a receipt?"


Buck could only stand there as the man closed the door in his face and hoped Standish had better luck with the front door. He moved quickly toward the front of the establishment and pulled out his cell phone. He hit speed dial three and was relieved when Sanchez answered on the second ring.

"Did you find anything?"

"Ezra and I are at the restaurant and we're pretty sure Browner's here. His BMW is parked out front and there was a pizza delivery guy here. We paid him to let us make the delivery and there's something going on in there. The lights are off in the main part, but there's definitely something happening."

"Where are you and Ezra?"

"Ezra's probably already inside the main restaurant. I made the delivery and I'm heading for the front door...don't think the alarms are on or we would have already been discovered," Wilmington explained and was relieved when he pulled and the door opened easily.

"Nathan and I are on the way. Don't go in there all piss and vinegar, Buck!"

"I'm not planning on it...least not yet," the rogue answered and hung up, turning the cell to vibrate so that it wouldn't alert anyone to his presence. He moved deeper into the shadowy interior and jumped when a hand landed on his arm. "Jesus, Ezra, stop my heart why don't you?" he whispered.

"Sorry, just wanted to make sure you knew I was here. Were you able to get inside?"

"No, he opened the damn door and took the pizza. Remind me to give you the 30 bucks..."

"Seems to me you owe me 50, but we'll discuss that later. There a supply room on the right side of the bar that has a second door. I believe it opens into the kitchen area, but we need to be careful," Standish explained.

"We need to take whoever's behind that door by surprise," Wilmington said. "Josiah and Nathan are on the way."

"Do we have time to wait?"

"I don't think so, God only knows what Browner's doing to Chris and Vin."

"It might help if we knew how many we're dealing with," Standish said.

"If there's only one man we can drag him out here and make him tell us what we need to know."

"As long as you let me do the do tend to get physical."

"Hell, Ezra, they got Chris and Vin...physical is not such a bad thing."

"Perhaps not, but we need to keep the bastard quiet or the element of surprise is gone," Standish said and saw Wilmington nod as they moved toward the closed door.


Vin could feel Chris' body reacting to whatever new drug had entered his system and cursed the woman who now knelt in front of him. He'd lost track of how many injections they'd been given, but each one caused more violent convulsions than the one before. His body ached so badly, and it felt as if fire ran through his veins. Her hand touched against his cheek and he thought the touch was that of an ice cube being pressed against his fevered flesh.

"Come now, Vin, surely she's not worth your life..."

"Go...go t...ta hell..."

"I believe that's where you and Chris are headed. Is she worth that?"

"Damn st...straight!" Larabee vowed as he fought to stay conscious.

"Ya sound like shit, Cow...boy," Tanner managed.

"Smells like it...must be the com...pany we're keep...keeping," the blond stammered and got a weak chuckle from his bound partner.

"Gotta g...get outta the gut...ter," Tanner agreed and found his chin gripped tightly between her thumb and fingers.

"Oh, Vin, if you only knew," Natalia said and turned as someone entered the room.

"Pizza's here," Browner told her.

"About time. Torture has a way of waking up my appetite...and not just for food," the blonde woman said and ran her hands along Tanner's inner thighs before standing and walking away from the two men.

"I'm running out of time, Natalia," Browner said as she reached for a piece of BBQ chicken pizza.

"Carl, I can't do this too fast or we'll lose them before they give you what you want," Natalia explained.

"They're both going to die anyway."

"I know, but you have to give me the time I need. They're both weakening and the drugs are causing convulsions," Barshefsky told him. "Give me an hour and you'll have your answers.

"One hour...then I cut their balls off and feed it to them!" Browner snarled.


Peter Warlock leaned heavily against the wall and listened to the sounds from the basement. Whatever the woman was doing to Larabee and Tanner it sounded painful and he cringed at the thought of what was in the needles she brought with her. He reached for a piece of pizza, glad that Browner had saw fit to order one for him while he was on watch. God, he was bored though and wished he had something better to do than watch the spider spin its web in the far corner.

Warlock munched on the fully loaded slice of pizza disinterestedly and frowned when he heard a sound from the outer area of the restaurant. He placed the pizza back in the box and made his way to the door that separated the two sections. There was nothing new and he reluctantly turned away from the door, shocked when something struck him in the gut. The air escaped from his lungs as something was wrapped around his throat and he was dragged outside.

"One word and I'll cut off your balls and shove them down your throat! Understood?" Wilmington growled and heard the man grunt in surprise. "Understood?"

"Yes...yes..." Warlock managed and stared at the man standing in front of him, while a second attacker continued to hold him in a vice like grip. "What the fuck is this?"

"Is your boss in there?" Standish asked.

"What's it to you?" Warlock snapped.

"Just answer his fucking question!" Wilmington snarled.

"Browner's in there...he'll fuckin' kill you if he finds you here!"

"Then we'll make sure he doesn't find us. How many?"

"How many what?" Warlock asked, struggling against his assailant.

"How many are there besides Browner?" Standish asked.

"Go fuck yourself!" Warlock spat, muffling a curse as the arm around his neck tightened and cut off his air supply.

"You better answer my questions or I won't be responsible for what my friend does," Standish said. "Buck, ease off a little so he can talk."

"I'm not in the mood for this shit so you'd best be talking real fast. Understood?"

"Yeah...look Browner'll k...kill me if I..."

"I'll kill you if you don't and I'm the one whose got you in a choke hold right now, Asshole!" the angry rogue snapped.

"I would advise you to answer my colleague's questions because I can assure you he means what he says," Standish warned and moved closer to the man. "Isn't it better to tell us now and deal with Browner, if he survives, later?"

"How many?" the rogue snarled tightening his grip.

"I...I..." the man began to choke as Wilmington pressed against his throat.

"Buck, he can't answer you if he's unconscious...or dead," the gambler explained.

"How many?" the ladies' man repeated, easing off slightly as the man gasped for air.

"Brow...ner...Juan...and the woman," Warlock answered.

"Is that all?" Standish asked.

"Yeah. Browner didn't want too many people witnessing what he's doing," Warlock told them.

"Is there another way in besides the stairs?" Wilmington asked.

"No...the stairs lead to the basement. There's a door leading into a cold storage area...that's where Browner's holding Larabee and Tanner."

"How many guns?" Standish asked.

"Browner has one and so does Juan," Warlock answered.

"What about the woman?" Wilmington snapped.

"She's just got a case full of needles and shit..."

"Where are Larabee and Tanner?" Standish asked.

"In the basement..."

"Where in the basement and are they restrained?" the conman enquired.

"They are in the center of the room and tied back to back on chairs," Warlock answered.

"We need to get in there," Wilmington said.

"What do we do with him?" Standish asked.

"We could kill..."

"No, you can't! I told you everything you wanted to know!"

"He is correct...perhaps we could use him to negotiate Chris and Vin's release...then again..." Standish said and struck the man in the face, smiling when Wilmington staggered under the force of the blow.

"Sonofabitch!" the rogue spat as he released the unconscious man. "Warn a man the next time!"

"My apologies, but I had grown tired of his whining," Standish said and quickly produced a set of handcuffs. He waited for Wilmington to turn the man on his stomach and then snapped them in place.

"What do we do with him?"

"Put him in the trunk of the car," Standish answered simply.

"Works for me," the rogue said and lifted the man over his shoulder and followed Standish to the car.


JD paced in front of the window and wished he could do more than just check the computer. He realized protecting Teresa and Joey Browner was an important job, and that their lives depended on him being diligent in his duty. His thoughts wandered as he looked out over the darkened lake and thought about the missing men and what his job meant to them.

Chris and Vin had laid their lives on the line to protect virtual strangers and this wasn't the first time they'd done that. Carl Browner was a ruthless bastard who didn't give a damn who he hurt as long as he got what he wanted. He'd kill anyone who got in the way of what he wanted and JD knew Chris and Vin's lives depended on the others finding them in time.

Dunne hoped and prayed one of the locations they'd found would give some clue as to where Browner was holding the missing men. He strode back to the table and opened his laptop, glancing at the woman and child sleeping on the sofa. Were their lives worth the loss of Larabee and Tanner...Chris and Vin certainly thought so or they never would have taken this case and that was good enough for him.

"JD, has there been any word?" Teresa asked softly and eased away from her son.

"Not yet, but it could take some time for them to find Chris and Vin," Dunne answered. "Are you hungry?"

"Not really...but is there any coffee left?"

"I'll make a fresh pot..."

"No, let me," the woman said and moved past him into the kitchen. She busied herself with making the coffee and watched the man as he tapped at the keys on his laptop. He looked so much younger than the others, but she sensed a quiet strength behind his youthful veneer. How much had he seen in his short life and how had it shaped him into the man he'd become. She turned and glanced at her son and prayed he would find the same friendship and strength that JD Dunne possessed. A soft sob escaped as she thought about the things her son had already seen and she prayed he would never be like his father.

"Are you all right?"

"I'm...not really, JD, but I will be when this is all over and we have a new life," Teresa answered. "I just wish Chris and Vin didn't have to pay the price for our freedom."

"Chris and Vin knew what they were getting in to. We all did and it's worth it if we get people like Carl Browner off the streets for good," Dunne explained. "With your testimony that's going to happen."

"I hope so because I don't want Joey growing up in his father's shadow," Teresa said and reached for the box of tissues. "He's seen way too much."

"He's strong...because of you and he'll know that you did what needed to be done to protect him," Dunne assured her.

"Thank you, JD, you're a good man and someday you'll make an even better father so long as you listen to your heart," Teresa told him and sighed heavily. They grew quiet as the coffee brewed, thinking about the impact, both negative and positive, that people had on their lives.


Nathan drove away from the warehouse district, his foot pressed heavily on the gas, tires squealing as he took the turns sharply. He could feel the tension in every part of his body and prayed they'd arrive at the restaurant in time to help the others. He knew Buck and Ezra would not wait for their arrival...hell, he'd go in with guns blazing if the tables were turned.

"Easy, Brother, we won't do them any good if we don't get there in one piece," Sanchez advised.

"Shit. I just can't help thinking we're going to be too fucking late!" Jackson snapped.

"We'll get there...with the Grace of God and a good set of brakes," the ex-preacher quipped.

"Good thing I just had them replaced," the medic said with a hint of a smile as he took the corner sharply. He drove along the street, glad that the streets were practically deserted now that the rush hour was over.

"Take the next left," Sanchez ordered.


"It's a short cut, Nathan," the older man explained as Jackson braked long enough to make the turn and then sped up again. He made the sign of the cross on his chest and wondered where Jackson had learned to handle a vehicle like a race car driver with a death wish.


Chris could feel Vin's body shaking as whatever the woman injected into his blood stream caused his body to fight against the restraints holding him in place. He cursed as Browner moved to stand in front of him and slammed a fist into his gut. The fiery pain raced along nerve endings until he could hardly breathe and he knew neither he nor Vin could take much more.

"Where is she, Larabee?"

"Some...where you w...won't ever f...find her!" the blond managed as Tanner went still in his chair.

"See what your stubbornness got you, Larabee? Was it worth his life? Was that bitch worth more than Tanner?"

"Go hell!" the blond managed and prayed he'd heard the man wrong, but he knew it was only a matter of time before death came calling on a pale white horse.

"I don't think so, Larabee, but you'll be joining Tanner there shortly. Natalie, how much longer?" Browner asked.

"I've saved the best for last. Tanner has already been injected with it and now it's Larabee's turn," Barshefsky said and loaded a syringe with a clear colored liquid.

"Will it kill him?"

"Eventually," the woman answered.

"I need him lucid enough to answer my questions," Browner warned.

"He'll be able to answer your questions, but that's about it," Barshefsky warned and tapped at the veins in the lean forearm.

Chris glared at his tormentor and worked up enough saliva to spit in her face as she tapped at his arm. He heard her laughter as the tip of the needle entered his vein. He leaned his head back and wished he could change how this was playing out, but his heart told him it was already too late for both of them.

"Where is she, Larabee?" Browner asked.

"Safe from you, asshole," the blond managed and cried out as the drug spread through his system.

"Get the fuck away from them!"

Was that Buck or a voice brought on by the drugs? No, it couldn't be...not when it was too late to save Vin. God couldn't be that cruel...not again. Too many lives...too often...too late. God, he couldn't stand to face another loss..."

"Where is that bitch!" Browner spat and slammed Larabee's head back so that it connected solidly with Tanner's.

"She's safe from you!" Wilmington snarled and grabbed the man by the shoulder, spinning him around as Standish shot the second man when he reached for his gun.

Natalie Barshefsky felt it all slipping away from her as the newcomers attacked Browner and his man. She reached for a loaded syringe and uncapped it as Standish turned toward her. She drove the needle deep in his shoulder and managed to inject some of the drug before he struck her with the butt of his gun. She staggered backward several feet and tripped over Gonzales' body.

Ezra ignored the burning sensation where the needle had broken off in his shoulder and reached for the woman as his vision blurred. He could hear Wilmington fighting with Browner, but there seemed to be a locomotive racing across his senses as whatever she'd injected into him set his nerves on edge.

"You're going to die with Tanner and Larabee!" Barshefsky vowed as she watched the eyes dart left and right before meeting her own gaze.

"No one is going to die here today except you and your employer!" Standish vowed, holding her arm in a vicelike grip as he watched Wilmington and Browner. "Buck, are you all right?"

"I'm fine, but this bastard's going to need a mortician when I'm done with him!" Wilmington snarled.

"Looks like we're too late for the party," Sanchez said as he entered the room. "Need any help, Buck?"

"Not with this bastard!" Wilmington vowed, ducking below an outstretched fist and sending the man flying with a blow to the face. "See to Chris and Vin!"

Nathan moved to the injured men and checked the bindings, cursing when he saw how the ropes had cut into their wrists and were slick with blood. He pulled out a pocket knife and began cutting through the bonds as Sanchez called for the police and paramedics.

"Ezra, are you all right?" Sanchez asked upon noting the beads of sweat on the younger man's face.

"I...I assure you..."

"Better catch him, Josiah," Jackson warned as Standish's eyes closed and his knees gave out.

"Sit down over there!" Sanchez warned the woman who looked ready to bolt as he caught the semi-conscious gambler and lowered him to the floor. He kept his eyes on her as she sat down and knew she was behind Standish's collapse. "What did you do to him?"

"None of your business!" Barshefsky spat.

"She hit him with a needle," Wilmington answered, but kept his focus on the weakening Browner.

Carl Browner knew he was losing the battle with the newcomer. He was desperate to find an opening and knew there was no way he could defeat him in a fist fight. Blow after blow rained down on him as Wilmington fought to win and Browner staggered back, tripping over his own feet as he slid to the floor. His eyes caught sight of Gonzales' weapon and he latched onto it, turning and pointing it at his nemesis even as a bullet plowed through his chest.

Buck turned to see Josiah holding his gun aimed at Browner and nodded his thanks as he grabbed the man's gun and handed it to the ex-preacher before staggering to Jackson. "Are they...?"

"I don't know, Buck," Jackson answered honestly and took several seconds to look the rogue over. "You need to sit down and let the paramedics check you over when they get here."

"I'm okay," Wilmington said, although his body seemed to disagree with his mind. He knew Browner had landed several well placed blows, but right now that was the least of his worries as he helped Nathan ease Tanner from the chair and place him flat on the cold floor before moving to Larabee.

"I don't usually hit a woman, but you move again and I'll forget you're one," Sanchez warned the blonde sitting against the wall.

"Josiah, how's Ezra?"

"He's unconscious," Sanchez answered and found the puncture wound in the younger man's shoulder. "It looks like a needle broke off in his shoulder."

"Okay, Bitch, what did you give him?" Wilmington snarled.

"Wouldn't you like to know!" Barshefsky spat.

"Bitch!" the rogue snarled and cursed when Sanchez grabbed him and held him back.

"She's not worth it, Brother," the ex-preacher said and placed a restraining hand on the angry ladies' man.

"We need to find out what she's done to them," Wilmington said, gasping as a sharp pain stabbed at his right side.

"Easy, Buck, sit down," Sanchez ordered when the man showed signs of blacking out.

"I'm all right..."

"No, you're not," the older man said and eased his friend to the floor.

"It's damn cold here," the rogue whispered, trembling as he tried to breathe past the knifing pain in his side.

"Nathan, Buck's in trouble here," Sanchez said and eased the man up so he leaned against his chest.

"He might have a punctured lung so keep him leaning against you like that until the paramedics arrive," Jackson ordered and listened as the muffled sounds of sirens reached his ears. "Sounds like help's arrived."

"'Bout da...damn time," Wilmington mumbled.

"Josiah, where are you?"

"Sounds like the cavalry to me," Sanchez said of the familiar voice. "Down here, Bob!"

"What the hell happened?" Robert Miller asked as he and several officers entered the cold storage room.

"That bastard kidnapped Chris and Vin," Sanchez answered, motioning to the unmoving body nearby.

"Isn't that Carl Browner?" Miller asked.

"Yes, it is. We've had his wife and son under protection for nearly a week," Jackson explained. "Are the paramedics here?"

"Yes, I told them to wait until we secured the area," Miller said and motioned for an officer to let the paramedics know it was safe as he moved to check on the unmoving body of Carl Browner. There was no doubt the man was dead and he motioned toward the woman seated nearby. "Who's she?"

"One of Browner's cronies," Sanchez answered and watched as an officer cuffed her and led her out of the cold storage area.

"What's wrong with Standish?" Miller asked.

"Looks like she gave him something," the medic answered.

"Th...there's ano...ther one locked in the tr...trunk," Wilmington explained.

"Buck, just be quiet until the paramedics arrive," Jackson warned, worried that neither Chris nor Vin showed any sign of coming to. He glanced toward Standish and added his state to his own fears. Whatever was in the case of vials would have to be checked, but something told him the answer would not come easily.

"I've called for another ambulance," Miller told them as two paramedics hurried into the room.

"Thanks, Bob," Jackson said as he looked around the room at his injured friends. He recognized one of the paramedics and knew the man would gladly accept his help.

"What have we got, Nathan?" Frank Galloway asked as he set down a case between the injured men.

"Chris and Vin were beaten and given some kind of drugs. Chris has a knife wound in his right shoulder," Jackson said as Galloway's partner moved to check on Wilmington and Standish. "Buck could have a punctured lung and Ezra was injected with some kind of drug out of that case."

"Jesus, you boys don't do anything by halves do you?" Galloway said as he moved to work on Larabee. "Nathan, get an IV started on Vin...lactated ringers."

"Got it," Jackson said and heard the other man explaining to Wilmington what he was doing. He hated the sound of the harsh breathing and hoped the ladies' man was not as bad off as he sounded. By the time the second team of paramedics arrived all four men were hooked up to IVs and oxygen masks. The second team took over treatment of Standish and Wilmington while John Rideout moved to help Galloway with Larabee and Tanner.

Galloway, Rideout, and Jackson followed procedure and soon had the two men ready for transport. They'd already relayed what little information they had to the staff at Saint Vincents and medical teams were standing by for their arrival. The two men were placed in cervical collars and placed on backboards before being moved to stretchers and moved out of the room.

"Nathan, you go with Chris and Vin...I'll call JD and update him on the situation," Sanchez offered.

"Okay, Josiah," Jackson said and hurriedly followed the stretchers out the door.

Josiah watched as Buck was moved onto a stretcher and secured with the straps. The paramedics had done everything they could for him and would soon be transporting both men to the hospital for treatment. Standish had yet to show any signs of coming around and Sanchez wished the young man would open his eyes and put his fears to rest. He reached for the case of vials used by the woman and prayed there was nothing lethal in what she'd given the three men.

Josiah reached for his cell phone and called the youngest member of the team.


JD continued to work his way through the layers of mystery surrounding Carl Browner's business dealings, but found he lacked the concentration to give it his full attention. He kept glancing at his watch, irritated that he wasn't in the thick of things, yet understanding that the job he was doing was an important one. He needed to keep Teresa and her son safe or none of this was worth a lick of spit. He smiled as those words came to mind, followed quickly by the face of a grinning Texan with a poet's heart and a warrior's soul.

Vin's unique colloquialisms were sometimes hard to understand until you got to know him. It had taken him a long time to know and understand what Vin was saying, but he considered himself lucky and enjoyed spending time with the sharpshooter. Truth was he respected and admired every man he now considered a 'brother' and was glad Chris Larabee had given him a chance to be part of this team.

JD closed down the laptop and reached for his empty coffee cup. He made his way to the kitchen just as his cell phone vibrated against his leg. The Bostonian grabbed it and flipped it open before anxiously placing it to his ear. "Josiah, tell me you found them!"

"We found them, JD, but they're in bad shape. We're on the way to the hospital and I'll call you from there with an update as soon as I know anything."

"Damn. What about Browner?"

"The sonofabitch won't be hurting anyone anymore. God have mercy on his miserable excuse for a soul."

"He's dead?"

"Yes, but that doesn't mean our job's done, Son. Browner had a lot of friends who are going to be angry they lost him and that means we need to watch out for Teresa and her son. I'll go through proper channels and see that they are placed in the Witness Protection Program as soon as possible, but that means you need to stay with them, JD."

"I hear you, Josiah," Dunne reluctantly agreed and glanced toward the closed bedroom door. Teresa Browner had taken her son inside and both were sleeping when he'd checked on them 30 minutes ago. "Call me!"

"I will, Kid, try not to worry."

"Easier said than done," the Bostonian said before closing the phone and placing it back in his pocket. The coffee suddenly lost its temptation and Dunne glanced toward the bottle of whiskey set on the counter, but he knew he could not chance drinking when so much was riding on this. With a heavy heart he strode to the sofa and flicked on the television, keeping the volume low in hopes of not waking the Browners.


Stacey Midland looked around the ER and was glad things seemed to be running smoothly for once. That would all change with the arrival of the first ambulance carrying Vin Tanner. They were expecting four ambulances, each one carrying a member of Chris Larabee's elite team. How many times had one or more of them graced her ER with anything from a minor scratch to a life or death gaping chest wound that could be the difference between life and death.

The staff was ready for them, and had been informed that at least three of the victims were injected with unknown drugs, but there was only so much they could do until the injured men arrived. She heard footsteps striding toward her and looked up as a familiar figure reached her. Stacey knew, in spite of the man's gruff exterior that he cared deeply about his patients. She'd known him for several years and when he'd decided to move to Billings she'd offered him a partnership in her private practice and he'd jumped at the chance. Since then he'd been involved with Larabee's team and understood exactly why the seven men had such strong convictions about right and wrong.

"Anything new, Stacey?" Roy Simmons asked gruffly.

"The first ambulance should be here any minute," Midland answered as the flashing lights signaled the arrival. The two doctors hurried through the double doors as the first paramedic opened the back of the ambulance and helped pull out the stretcher carrying Vin Tanner.

"Looks like he's all yours, Stacey," Simmons said as he hurried toward the newly arrived second ambulance.

"Nathan, would you get their charts started," Midland ordered as the paramedic began rattling off the treatment Tanner had received and his vital signs. Stacey rushed them into Trauma One and helped transfer the Texan to the hospital bed and checked Tanner's pupils while the nurses quickly removed the mobile equipment before hooking the patient up to the hospital equipment.

Stacey moved to check the patient's pupil reactions while Sharon Newman expertly drew blood from the man's arm. "Sharon, I want Tox screens, CBC, and Chem 8," Midland ordered.

"Yes, Doctor," Newman said as she hooked up a second IV line.

Midland knew they'd need a full series of X-Rays and from the looks of the damage to the Texan's face they'd also need a CAT scan. She moved to the side as the staff cut the remainder of the clothing from Tanner's body and whistled softly at the colorful array of contusions covering his chest and abdomen. Knowing they could be dealing with any number of internal injuries, Stacey gently probed the area, worried when there was no response from the injured man.

"All right, Vin, it's time to show me just how tough that Texas hide of yours is," Midland said and reached for the phone. She knew it would take some time for the Tox screens, but she hoped they'd have some good news when it finally came back.


Roy Simmons looked at the monitors over Larabee's bed and silently cursed the damage done to him. He'd ordered the usual Tox screens, CBC, and Chem 8 tests, and was waiting for portable X-Ray to finish with Vin Tanner. The wound to the blond's right shoulder was deep and would require stitches...he just hoped there was no underlying damage they hadn't seen yet. He lifted the blood soaked gauze and heard a sharp gasp from his patient.

"All right, Larabee, your timing is crap, but at least you're alive!" Simmons said as the eyes fought to open.

"What t...the...sonofabitch!" the blond snapped as bile rose up in his throat. He felt strong hands lift him forward and hold him while his body shook with the force of his retching.

"Lucy, set up for an NG tube," Simmons ordered.

"Yes, Doctor," Lucy Sturgis answered.

" that..."

"Yeah, well right now you need it," Simmons told him and saw the panic born in the sea-green eyes.

"V...Vin.... Where...?"

"He's in the next room. Stacey's with him," the older man explained and waited for Larabee's eyes to focus on him. "You do trust her?"

"Yeah...f...feel like crap..."

"Well...let's just say you look like it too. Who'd you tangle with this time?" Simmons asked as he readied the equipment he'd need.

"Sick fuckin' bas...tard named Brown...Browner," Larabee answered, his stomach churning as Simmons readied the tube that would be fed into his stomach. "How...?"

"Time enough for questions once we get this done, Larabee, now relax so I don't have to miss my coffee break!"

"Your bedside man...manners are still c...crap!"

"I'll take that as a compliment. Now be quiet and we'll get this done as quickly and painlessly as possible..."


"Larabee, you're giving me a headache. Now pipe down and let me do my job," Simmons said and saw the hint of a smile being born as the eyes fluttered and closed. "'Bout damn time. All right people, let's get this done."

Chapter 3 by Winnie
Buck looked at the man standing beside his bed and tried to voice the questions running through his mind. He needed to know how the others were, but right now he knew he needed help just to keep breathing. He looked at the doctor who was speaking to him, but did not recognize her.

"Mr. Wilmington, you have a punctured lung and I'm going to need to put in a chest tube and give you something to help with the pain..."

"Been th...there...done th...that," the rogue answered and soon felt her freezing the area she'd be placing the tube. "Please... friends...o...okay?"

Joan Fremantle knew this man had been brought in with three others and that they were a close group. She'd been at Saint Vincents for less than a month, but had heard stories about Larabee and his team. They were legendary according to the doctors and nurses and even some of the cleaners knew about the seven men who seemed to grace the medical facility. "I don't know how they're doing, but as soon as we have you fixed up I'll check on them for you."

"O...okay...thanks, Doc," Wilmington managed and relaxed as the pain eased with the medication the nurse injected into his IV.


Stacey Midland knew there was nothing more she could do for Tanner until they had the test results back. Because of the unknown drugs in their system, Chris, Vin, and Ezra were all being given Narcan in an effort to negate the effects of any narcotics that had shown up in their blood tests. Chris and Vin were also being given Dilantin to stop the convulsions that seemed to plague them both. She hurried to the main desk to check on the conditions of the others and was not surprised to find Josiah and Nathan standing there.

"Doc, how are they?" Sanchez asked worriedly.

"Vin is still unconscious and portable X-Ray is in there with him right now. He's being treated for drug overdose and possible internal injuries. We'll know more once we have the test results," Midland answered as Roy Simmons joined them.

"How's Chris?" Jackson asked.

"Stubborn as ever and yes he was awake for a few minutes. There's evidence of deep bruising of his chest and right thigh as well as a deep knife wound in his right shoulder. He's had a couple of seizures since he was brought in, but we're treating him with Dilantin. It's going to be some time before we know anything definitive," Simmons explained.

"What about Buck and Ezra?" Sanchez asked.

"Dr. Fremantle is taking care of them, so give me a minute and I'll check with her," Midland explained and hurried to treatment room one. She opened the door slightly, but let it close when she noted that Wilmington seemed to be resting comfortably propped up in the bed.

Stacey moved to the adjoining room and found Fremantle checking the readouts above Ezra Standish's head. "Joan, how is he?"

"He's still unconscious, Dr. Midland, but his blood work looks good. I did remove a broken needle from his shoulder," Fremantle explained as she checked the IV line.

"Are you admitting him?"

"I already signed the admitting papers," Fremantle answered and knew she'd done the right thing as Midland nodded slowly. "I've also admitted Mr. Wilmington and asked that they be put in the same room if possible."

"You learn fast, Joan," Midland said.

"Thank you," Fremantle said as she returned her attention to her patient.

Midland returned to the desk as Orrin Travis joined Jackson and Sanchez. "Hello, Orrin."

"Stacey, how are they?" Travis asked.

"Battered and drugged, but that's nothing new with this bunch, Orrin. It's going to be harder on my staff than a disaster of the century," Midland teased.

"Dr. Midland, we need you!" Sharon Newman called from Trauma One.


"Not now, Josiah," Midland said and hurried toward the trauma room. She had no idea what had happened, but the nurse's call told her things had just gotten worse for Vin Tanner. "What's wrong, Sharon?"

"His blood pressure keeps dropping and his temperature is dangerously high," the nurse answered.

"Damn it, Vin, don't you do this now!" Midland said and was glad when Brandon Silverman stepped into the room. The duo went over the X-Rays and blood test results and both knew surgery was in the Texan's future.

"Could be his spleen," Midland suggested.

"Probably, but whatever it is he's bleeding into his abdominal cavity and we need to find out where it's coming from," Silverman told her.

"I'll call ahead and make sure they're ready for us," Midland said as Silverman double checked the test results.

"Doc, what's going on?" Sanchez asked and listened as the physician explained what was happening with the Texan.

"Damn it," Jackson cursed as Midland hurried away.

"Maybe we should go wait with Buck and Ezra," Sanchez offered.

"What about, Chris?" Jackson asked.

"You two go ahead. I'll wait here for word on Chris," Travis told them.

"Thanks, Orrin," Sanchez said and moved to follow Standish's stretcher as it was pushed toward the elevators. Wilmington was already in a semi-private room on the third floor and Ezra would be his roommate for the duration.

Orrin watched until they disappeared and strode toward Trauma Two. He knocked lightly and entered to find Roy Simmons checking the semi-conscious blond.

"Judge Travis," Simmons greeted as Larabee struggled to open his eyes.

"How is he?"

"In true Larabee fashion he's a mess," Simmons observed. "We'll be moving him to ICU in a few minutes."

"ICU?" Travis asked.

"Because of the drugs, convulsions, fever, blood loss, and head trauma just to name a I said, true Larabee fashion," the physician explained.

"Orrin," the voice was weak, but Travis was glad the man knew who he was.

"Easy, Chris," the former judge warned as the lean body shifted on the bed and a hiss of pain escaped.

"Where...? Vin okay?" Larabee asked as he finally found the strength to open his eyes.

"Vin's going to be fine, and so will you as long as you do as the doctors tell you."

"That'll be a first," Simmons said gruffly.


"Glad to have you back with us," Simmons quipped as he adjusted the flow of oxygen to his patient's lungs.

"Orrin...Teresa and her"

"Yes, they are, Chris. JD is staying with them until the proper authorities arrive. Now that Browner's dead she doesn't need to testify, but she will need to go into the program because of his partners," Travis explained.

"Poor kid's...been thr...through..."

"All right, Larabee, it's time to be quiet and breathe," Simmons ordered, not liking the low oxygen readings he was getting.

"I just..."

"Do as he tells you, Chris, I'll see you later once your settled in your room," Travis ordered and left the room.

Chris closed his eyes and realized whatever they were giving him was making him feel loopy. He hated the feeling, but he knew from experience that without it he'd be unable to stand the pain. Still, he needed to know how the others had found and rescued them. He forced his eyes open and watched the physician writing on his chart.

For all intents and purposes, Roy Simmons looked the part of an elderly curmudgeon right out of an old John Wayne western, yet the man knew what he was doing.

"All right, Larabee, we're going to move you upstairs and let you get some rest. The nurses will be watching you closely, but if you need anything just let them know," Simmons ordered as an orderly and a nurse stepped into the room.

Chris closed his eyes as the equipment was removed and placed on the gurney. He felt his body relax as the drugs and exhaustion pulled him under.

"Let's get this done while he's out," Simmons ordered and took control of the stretcher.


Buck turned his head and looked at the man in the next bed. Standish was still unconscious, but the doctor had assured him that he was going to be fine.

"Buck, you should be sleeping," Jackson advised.

"Hell, Nate, no one sleeps in here except when they wake you to ask you if you want a sleeping pill," Wilmington groused, trying unsuccessfully to find a comfortable spot. "Damn tubes!"

"Those damn tubes are there for a reason," Jackson mock scolded and plumped the pillows behind Wilmington's head.

"So they keep telling me," the irritated patient snapped and looked toward the door as Orrin Travis entered. "Orrin, how's Chris?"

"He's in rough shape and they're moving him to ICU," Travis explained and went on to tell them what Simmons had said.

"What about Vin?" Wilmington asked.

"He's in surgery and it could be several hours before we know anything so you might as well get some sleep," the former judge said.


He was sure those sounds were voices, but why did his head hurt so much? Was his mother in town again? Had she come to ask him about his 'God given talents'? Didn't she understand he'd already made his choice and would not run out on the team again? God, his head felt like it really was going to explode, but the voices wouldn't stop even as he managed to peel his eyes open. He heard someone moan and felt a hand on his shoulder as he realized the sound was coming from his throat.

"Easy, Ezra, you're in the hospital, but you're going to be fine," Jackson said once the gambler's eyes finally focused on him.

"What happened?" Standish managed.

"You and Buck managed to find Chris and Vin, but not without a few dents and bruises," Sanchez explained as the younger man turned toward the other bed.

"How do you feel?" Travis asked.

"Dreadful. I believe someone should decapitate me before my head explodes," the gambler answered.

"Hang on and I'll get the nurse," Sanchez offered.

"Jesus, Ezra, you look like I feel," Wilmington said with a slight grin.

"Then I must be dead because you look like a corpse," Standish sent back and got a smile from those present as a nurse entered the room.

"Mr. Standish, how do you feel?" Jenna Norman asked.

"My stomach is churning and my head feels ready to explode," the gambler answered.

"I have something here that will help with the pain and nausea," the nurse said and injected the prescribed medications into his IV. "That should help and it will make you sleepy so don't fight it."

"Thank you," Standish said and waited for her to leave before facing the others. "Are Chris and Vin...are they okay?"

"Chris is in ICU and Vin's in surgery," Jackson answered.

" bad?" the gambler asked and listened as Jackson explained the serious injuries to both men. He sighed tiredly and relaxed toward sleep as the medication eased the throbbing in his skull.

"I'm going up to check on Chris," Jackson told them.

"Tell him if he sees any pretty nurses to send them my way," Wilmington said.

"I don't think he knows you and Ezra were hurt," the medic said.

"Hold up, Nathan, I believe it's time I called JD and gave him an update." Sanchez followed the younger man out of the room knowing Orrin Travis would stay with them until they returned.


Stacey Midland took a deep breath before entering the ICU room where Chris Larabee was a patient. Nathan Jackson was also present and stood up as she moved to the bed.

"Has he been awake?"

"Not since he was brought up from the ER, Dr. Midland," the nurse answered as Midland checked Larabee's chart.

"Does Dr. Simmons know his fever is up?"

"Yes, he was in a little while ago and ordered new medication."

"Doc, how's Vin?" Jackson asked.

"He's being settled in SICU as we speak, Nathan. Dr. Silverman found a couple of problems, but they were fixable and we should be able to treat the infection with antibiotics. He'll probably spend the next 24 to 48 hours in the SICU," Midland answered.

"What about Chris? How long will he be here?" Jackson asked.

"That depends on how well he responds to treatment. Most of the drugs should be flushed from his body by his kidneys and liver and we should know more by then," Midland explained.

"Damn," the medic said tiredly.

"Damn is right, but they should both be fine, Nathan," the physician said. "As for you I'd say you're a candidate for a nice warm bed and..."

"Doc, I need to..."

"Nathan, I believe there's someone here to see that my orders are carried out. Go home with Rain and get at least eight hours sleep," Midland ordered. "They'll be well taken care of, know that."

"I know, Doc...thanks," Jackson said and stepped out of the room, smiling as he gave himself over to Rain's care.

"Come on, Nathan, let's go home and take a nice hot shower before we get you in bed," Rain ordered.

"Only if you join me," Jackson said and wrapped his arm around her waist as they walked toward the elevators.


JD didn't resent being stuck at the safe house with Teresa and Joey Browner, but he wanted to be with the others. Josiah's call had done little to reassure him that Buck, Ezra, Chris, and Vin were okay, because all four had been admitted to the hospital. There were several agents from the FBI on their way to take over the Browner's protection and although he knew they would be safe, he wanted to see things through for Chris and Vin's sake.

"JD, are you all right?"

"I'm fine, Mrs. Browner. Are you ready?"

"I've packed everything we brought with us, but I wanted to see Chris and thank them for everything they've done for us."

"I know, but with your husband dead his partners are going to try and make a move on his assets and that means they'll need to get you out of the way. The FBI has already arranged to have you and Joey disappear and you'll start a new life where these people can't find you. Chris and Vin will understand," Dunne explained.

"I know. I just...will you give them this from me?" Teresa asked and handed him an envelope with their names on it.

"Sure," the Bostonian said and smiled as Joey Browner came out of the room with his blanket and bunny clutched tightly to his chest.

"Mommy, when are we going on the plane?" the boy asked.

"As soon as JD's friends get here," Teresa answered and hugged her son. She'd explained to him that they were going on an adventure and that JD's friends would be there to pick them up and drive them to the airport where they would board a plane and start a new life in the country. She hadn't told him they'd be changing their names, but would explain all of that once they reached their destination.

"JD, will you and Chris and Vin come visit us?" Joey asked innocently.

"I wish we could, Kiddo, but sometimes it's best to just say goodbye and make new friends. We're all going to miss you, but I bet you won't have a chance to miss us because you'll meet new kids your age and go to a new school..."

"Like that boy in Kindergarten Cop?" the boy asked.

"Yes, like him, but you won't have to worry about anyone coming to take you from your mommy," Dunne explained. "You'll be the man of the family and your mommy will want your help."

"Is that true, Mommy?"

"Yes, Joey, it is," Teresa said as the sound of several cars reached their ears. She watched JD check through the doorway and saw him nod that it was okay.

JD opened the door and shook hands with the lead agent. He'd met the man on several occasions and owed the man for saving his life during a time when he'd been drugged and brainwashed into joining a cult.

"Hey, JD, how's it hanging?" Peter Wellington asked with a grin.

"Same as always...on the right," Dunne answered.

"Are they ready to go?" Wellington asked.

"As ready as anyone is in this situation," Dunne told him and made the introductions before taking the Browner's bags and escorting them to the waiting cars. He shook hands with Wellington and watched them drive away before locking the safe house and heading for his motorcycle parked inside the garage.


Chris opened his eyes and blinked several times as the bright light stabbed at his eyes. He saw a nurse standing at the foot of his bed and tried to make sense of his muddled thoughts. That he'd been hurt was a given, that he was in ICU told him it wasn't something he'd be walking away from any time soon. The fact that he was alone told him he wasn't the only one injured and his brow furrowed as he tried to remember exactly what had happened to land him in the hospital.

Chris shifted slightly and realized that was a mistake as pain slammed through his bruised and abused body. His eyes clenched tightly as he tried to ride out the waves of nausea churning through his gut. He had no idea how long it lasted, but when he managed to open his eyes again he was no longer alone with the nurse.

"Let that be a lesson to you, Larabee..."

"You should talk to Buck about getting up on the wrong side of someone else's bed," the blond groused as the pain finally eased with the medication that entered his blood stream.

"Glad to see those blows to the head didn't affect your sense of humor," Simmons said, chuckling softly at how easily he could goad this man and find out how he really felt. "All right, Larabee, let's get serious for a minute..."

"I thought I was..."

"I'll ignore that. How do you feel?"

"Not much of anything."

"Damn, guess we really are giving you the good shit."

"When can I get out of here?" the blond asked, sighing as sleep reached out for him.

"Not until we find out what's causing this fever," Simmons said seriously and reached for the bandage covering the shoulder wound as his patient lost consciousness.


JD knew it was late, but he needed to see the others and make sure they were okay. He trusted Josiah to tell him the truth, but he needed to see with his own eyes. Chris and Vin were in ICU, but Buck and Ezra were in a regular room and that meant visiting hours were over for them.

Dunne knew if he was quiet he could probably sneak past the nursing station and peek in on the two men. The room was at the end of the hall and JD was glad the lights were turned out as he made it to the door. He pushed it open and stepped inside, relieved to see there was no one there, except his injured teammates.

"Come in, Kid," Wilmington said when he turned to see the young man standing in the doorway.

"Hey, Buck, you look like hell," Dunne said softly.

"Now you know that's just not possible, Son," the rogue said. "I take it the FBI finally got there?"

"Yes, they did. The Browners should be on their way to a whole new life," Dunne answered, and winced at the sight of the tube leading into Wilmington's chest. "I should go."

"You okay, Kid?"

"I'm not the one with the accessories, Buck."

"Don't let these worry you. Don't you know the nurses just love to hover over me. Maybe even kiss it better."

"You're so full of it, Buck," Dunne said.

"Thanks for coming, JD, go home and get some rest," Wilmington ordered.

"You just get some sleep and don't go hitting on the nurses..."

"Don't go spoiling my fun, Kid," the rogue said and shook hands with the younger man before closing his eyes and allowing the medication to lull him to sleep.


Stacey Midland hurried into the SICU and smiled as she watched Vin Tanner slowly fighting to wake up. She knew how hard it was for him and was glad they'd already removed the ventilator. She heard a soft moan and reached for the basin as the nurse eased him onto his side. She rubbed circles on his shoulder as again and again his body shook with the force of the retching. The Texan had always had a bad reaction to the anaesthetic, and she knew the Zofran should help as they eased the injured man back on the pillow.

"Feel better?" she asked as he seemed to focus on her.

"Depends on what'cha mean...feel like shit," the Texan answered.

"I bet..."

"Chris okay?"

"He's a mess, but you both should be okay as long as you take things easy and sleep when you need to."

"So damn tired."

"I expect you are. That's probably because you've just had major surgery and are on some pretty heavy medications so stop fighting it and go to sleep."

"Sounds a plan," the Texan said and let his eyes close as the physician adjusted the oxygen mask over his mouth and nose.

"Sylvia, I'll be back to check on him before I leave, so have me paged if anything changes," Midland ordered before leaving the room.


Buck silently cursed the injuries that kept him confined to the bed. Since waking for the second time since being admitted, Ezra had been up and even managed to find some decent clothes to wear instead of the hospital garb. The gambler was sitting in the chair by the window silently shuffling a deck of cards while he waited for the nurse to remove his IV.


"Problems, Buck?"

"What the hell do you think? I'm stuck in this fucking bed and..."

"I'm sorry, Buck, I know you want to check on Chris and Vin, but right now there's nothing you can do for either of them," Standish offered. "If I could I'd change places with you, but..."

"Thanks, Ez," Wilmington said seriously. "Are you going to see them before you go home?"

"Yes, and I will come down to fill you in on their conditions," Standish vowed as a nurse entered the room and first checked the bedridden patient before moving to the second man.

"Dr. Midland signed your release papers and said to tell you she expects you to go home and rest..."

"I will..."

"As soon as you see Chris and Vin," the nurse finished with a smile. She knew these men and their reputation and understood it would be pointless to argue with them.

"Damn, I think she's got your number, Ez," Wilmington said as the nurse finished removing the IV and taped some gauze over the site.

"I believe you are right," Standish agreed and smiled at the pretty woman before heading for the door.

"Don't leave without your discharge instructions," the nurse ordered.

"I won't. I'll be back shortly, Buck," the conman said and hurried toward the elevators. His blood test results had shown whatever drug she'd used was out of his system, but the headache had yet to go away completely and he looked forward to getting home and getting into his own bed.

Ezra reached the ICU and was not surprised to find Josiah Sanchez standing at the desk speaking with one of the nurses.

"Are you AWOL, Ezra?" Sanchez asked.

"No, I've been officially released," Standish answered.

"How's the headache?"

"Tolerable. How is Chris?"

"Simmons is in there with him now."

"Is he all right?"

"He's still got a fever, but you know Chris, he's never been a man to make things easy on the medical staff," Sanchez said.

"He does tend to live on the edge..."

"And you don't?" the ex-preacher asked.

"I believe we all suffer from that malady. It's what gives us the edge when we need it most," Standish said as the door opened and Simmons walked toward them. "How is...?"

"Did Stacey sign your discharge papers?" Simmons interrupted.

"Indeed she did..."

"Then what are you doing here?"


"Hell, Standish, you boys are just so damn easy to read, but I will say this. As soon as you see Larabee have someone take you home and stay with you for the next day or two," Simmons ordered.

"I will."

"See that he does, Sanchez," the physician ordered. "Now, before you ask you can see Larabee, but keep the visits to a minimum for today. He's as grouchy as a pissed off grizzly and I'd hate to have to treat you boys because he decided to take a bite out of your hide."

"Thanks, Doc," Sanchez said and walked toward Larabee's room. He entered to find the nurse putting away some supplies and knew the blond was awake before he opened his eyes. "Good morning, Chris."

"Morning, Josiah," Larabee said, frowning when he took note of the man standing behind the ex-preacher. "What happened to you, Ezra?"


"Cut the crap and tell me," Larabee warned.

"Simmons was right," Sanchez said with a chuckle.

"About what?" the blond snapped.

"He said you were as grouchy as a pissed off grizzly," the older man answered.

"You try lying here and be poked and prodded and see how grouchy you get," Larabee said and turned back to the gambler and repeated his question. "What happened to you?"

"Ezra got in the way of one of her needles," Sanchez answered..

"Damn... Are you all right?"

"I assure you I'm fine. Dr. Midland released me this morning once she saw the drugs were out of my system," Standish explained.

"Glad you're okay, Ez, now who else was hurt?" Larabee asked, yawning tiredly.

"Buck tangled with Browner and wound up with broken ribs and a punctured lung, but he's going to be fine," Sanchez answered.

"That explains why he hasn't been here," the blond said. "Tell me Browner and that bitch were denied bail!"

"Browner is dead and Natalia Barshefsky is in jail, and she was denied bail," the ex-preacher explained.

"What about Teresa and Joey?" Larabee asked.

"The FBI picked them up last night and by now they've already been given new identities," the older man answered and watched as the blond's eyes closed. "They're safe, Chris, you and Vin saw to that."

"No, Josiah, the team saw to that. Vin and I getting caught was not part of the plan."

"How did you fall into Browner's hands?" Standish asked.

"We were headed out to Vin's place to pick up a few things before meeting with Vin's snitch," Larabee answered tiredly.

"That was just after you left Buck and I with the Browners?"

"That's right, Ez, but we never made it to the ranch. About a mile outside Billings a truck pulled up behind us and rear ended us several times before someone shot out the tire on my truck. Vin hit his head and was out cold by the time Browner's men got to us. The rest is history," the blond answered.

"We found the truck and Vin's informant. He's dead," Sanchez told him.


"Mr. Larabee, I believe it's time your friends left and you got some sleep," the nurse said.

"She's right, Son, you go ahead and rest. I'm going to take Ezra home and put him to bed," Sanchez said and ushered the younger man out of the room as Larabee's eyes closed and he relaxed into the pillows. M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

Vin heard soft whispers and opened his eyes to find Josiah and Ezra watching him. He knew they were worried about him, but right now he just wasn't in the mood for conversation. Truth was he felt like hell and was tired of feeling as if he was higher than a kite. The nausea had finally eased and Stacey Midland had already been in to see him and told him exactly what they'd done and how long he'd be in the SICU.

Josiah had been in earlier and told him Buck and Ezra had been injured and Vin studied the conman before speaking. "You gettin' outta here, Ez?"

"Indeed, I just wanted to stop by and see if they're treating you all right," Standish answered.

"Can't say fer sure...keep sleepin' most of the time," Tanner answered.

"Then I shall leave you to it," the gambler told him as the injured man yawned tiredly.

"Thanks...damn," the Texan said and sighed as the medication took affect and sleep beckoned to him.


Buck watched as they maneuvered the second bed into the room. He knew it was Chris and had been told Vin would be joining them the next morning. He'd been moved into this room the evening before and knew it was large enough to accommodate three beds and any equipment they'd need. He listened as the nurse took the patient's vitals and made sure he knew how to use the PCA before pushing back the curtain and leaving them alone.

Buck turned on his side, wincing as the movement tugged on the tubing and smiled as Larabee turned in his direction. "You look like I feel," Wilmington said.

"That bad," Larabee asked. "Thanks, Buck. I don't know how much more Vin and I could take."

"Anytime...besides I still owe you ten or twenty more," the rogue said with a grin. "But who's counting?"

"The Browners are safe..."

"I know. JD was here last night. He snuck in after visiting hours were over," Wilmington explained, frowning when Larabee pushed back the blankets and sat up. "Going somewhere?"

"SICU to check on Vin," Larabee answered.

"Hang on I'll go with you," the rogue offered.

"Just how do you propose to do that with those accessories?" the blond asked.

"Damn, I forgot I was chained to this damn bed. You know I don't mind when there's ladies involved and..."

"Buck, do me a favor," Larabee said seriously.

"Name it."

"Don't ever change."

"Now why would I do that when I've got such a great life...well except when this shit happens," Wilmington said and watched as Larabee stood on shaky legs. "Are you sure this is a good idea?"

"No, but I'll do it anyway," the blond said. "Anyone comes looking for me just tell them I needed some exercise."

"Yeah right...they'll know exactly where you are," the rogue said and sighed tiredly. He wished he could go with Larabee, but there was no point in even arguing until they got rid of the tube in his side.

"I won't be long, Buck, just hold down the fort," Larabee said.

"You got it," Wilmington said, relaxing as he pressed the button on the PCA pump and felt the medication enter his blood stream. He knew it wouldn't take long to work and watched through hooded eyes as his long time friend left the room. The man looked like hell, but Buck knew there was nothing short of restraints that would keep him from going to check on Tanner.


"Ya look like an old man, Larabee," Tanner said as he watched the blond make his way into the room.

"I could have stayed in my room and got this kind of abuse," Larabee spat.

"Still cantank'rous too...need ta invest in some prunes ta keep ya reg'lar," the Texan quipped.

"Is that your secret?" the blond asked, smiling at the nurse who pushed a chair close to the bed.

"Don't need that stuff...reg'lar as's why I always got a sunny dis...disposition," Tanner offered with a hint of a smile as his visitor reluctantly sat down.

"Seriously, Vin, how are you feeling?"

"Probably better than I should be...they still givin' ya the good stuff?"

"Think so...haven't had to use it yet," Larabee said.

"Yer not foolin' anyone, Chris," the Texan said.

"Wasn't trying to..."

"Then push the button and get some rest."

"Jesus, Vin, I just got here and you're tired of my company already?"

"You tell anyone ya were headin' this way?"

"No...well just Buck...why?"

"Looks like yer 'bout ta be busted," Tanner said as Simmons and Midland entered the room.

"Larabee, I'm sure I told you what I'd do if you..."

"Yeah...something about restraints," the blond said tiredly.

"Come on then. Tanner needs his rest too and he'll be joining you and Wilmington tomorrow morning as long as he doesn't try any foolhardy stunts like you just did," Simmons lightly scolded as Midland returned with a wheelchair.

"I can walk..."

"Sure you can. How far do you think you'll get before you fall flat on your face? Where's Standish when you need him?"

"Why do you want Ezra?" Larabee asked.

"Isn't he the one who sets up the wagers?"

"Hell, Simmons..."

"Not yet, Larabee, but it will be if I find you here again. Stacey, I'll see you this afternoon."

"Thanks, Roy," Midland said and turned to the Texan as Simmons wheeled his patient from the room. "I must say you look better than you did last time I was here, Vin."

"I feel better, Doc, when can I go home?"

"Don't you think we should get you out of SICU first?" Midland asked.

"Hell, Doc..."

"Hmm, didn't I just hear Chris say the same thing?" Midland asked softly as she checked the readings above his head. "Look, Vin, I know you guys hate the hospital, but there are times when you need to be here and let us do what we do best."

"I know, Doc," Tanner said with a weak smile. "Ya know I've never been a patient..."

"Patient," Midland finished for him and heard a soft chuckle. "You're doing very well, Vin, but you still have a ways to go so lie back and rest. Tell the nurse if you need anything."

"I will," the Texan said and surrendered to his body's need for sleep.


"All right, Larabee, into bed," Roy Simmons ordered and watched as his patient slowly stood up and sat on the edge of the bed. He could easily read the lines of pain on Larabee's face. "No one will think less of you if you push that damn's there to help you."

Larabee lay back on the bed and pressed the button before awkwardly pulling the blanket up over his body. He knew it wouldn't take long for the medication to take affect and he looked at Simmons. "Thanks, Simmons."

"Just doing my job, Larabee." Simmons looked at the second patient and smiled before leaving the room. These men were damn good at their jobs and he admired the way they stood up for each other no matter what anyone else thought. Larabee had handpicked his team and each man brought something unique to the 'brotherhood'. He briefly wondered where his own brother was and hoped someday they'd be able to get past their differences and mend fences. Without a word he turned and left the room.

"You all right, Chris?" Wilmington asked.

"Think so...drugs have kicked in," Larabee answered.

"Good stuff...but it makes my head spin," Wilmington offered.

"I know," the blond said.

"How was Vin?"

"He seemed okay," Larabee answered.

"I bet he's anxious to get out of there?"

"Wouldn't you be?"

"Hell, yes...well it would depend on the nurse," the rogue said, wagging his eyebrows.

"Jesus, Buck, do me a favor?"

"Name it."

"Don't ever change," Larabee sighed heavily and closed his eyes.

"I couldn't change, Chris, 'cause I'd be letting all those ladies down if I did," Wilmington said and smiled when he heard his friend's soft laughter. His job was done, he'd made Larabee laugh and that was the best medicine possible right now.


Vin lay back against the pillows as the orderly pushed his bed into the new room. He knew Larabee and Wilmington were already there and was surprised when his bed was moved to the spot by the window. It took some maneuvering, but when all was said and done the three beds were in place and they were alone.

"How are you doing, Vin?" Wilmington asked.

"Better...ya look like crap, Bucklin."

"How many times do I have to tell you guys that's just not possible," Wilmington said as the door opened and the remaining members of the team joined them. "Morning, Boys."

"Good morning," Sanchez said as he studied each man's face, relieved to find them pale, but not in pain.

"How'd ye manage ta get past the nurses?" Tanner asked.

"WE took a page out of Buck's book," Dunne answered.

"Charm and elegance," Wilmington said with a smile.

"More like crap and bull," Tanner said.

"Fuck you, Vin!"

"Sorry, Bucklin, but I don't swing that way," the Texan said.

"All right, Boys, let's have it," Larabee said.

"Have what, Boss?" Sanchez asked.

"I know you've probably already told us what happened, but I know I don't remember half the shit I was told because half the time I was out of it. What happened with Browner and that bitch he brought in?" the blond asked and raised the head of his bed.

"Wouldn't you rather wait until you're out of here?" Jackson asked.

"Not really," Larabee answered.

"JD found several of Browner's holdings and we split up to cover more ground while JD stayed with Teresa and Joey..."

"Are they okay?" Wilmington asked, silently cursing as he moved and was reminded of the tube still embedded in his chest.

"They were picked up by the FBI a couple of days ago and are already starting their new lives," Dunne answered.

"Browner's dead," Sanchez told them. "The woman is Natalia Barshefsky and it's safe to say you boys were lucky Buck and Ezra found you when they did."

"Would have been nice if ya'd found us a little earlier," Tanner said.

"We could have left you there a little longer," Wilmington quipped.

"No, thanks. I's jest sayin'..."

"I know, Vin, and you're welcome," the rogue said.

"What about Barshefsky?" Larabee asked.

"The woman is from Russia and she holds a Ph.D. in chemistry and physics," Jackson explained. "She has a reputation for getting what she wants and being well paid for getting the answers her clients want. There were several deaths associated with her, but no real evidence to convict her..."

"Until now," Wilmington offered.

"Until now," Standish said and sat in the chair next to Tanner's bed.

"You okay, Ezra?" Larabee asked.

"I'm fine, Chris, just relieved to see all of you out of ICU," the gambler explained.

"Thanks, Ez," Tanner said.

"Chris, Teresa Browner asked me to give this to you and Vin," Dunne said and handed Larabee the sealed envelope.

Chris took a deep breath and cursed his inability to open the envelope because of the wound to his shoulder. "JD, would you read it?"

"Sure," the young man said and opened it, pulling out the single sheet of paper and reading the neatly written words aloud. "Dear Chris and Vin, I feel that I can call you that now because you have both given so much to make sure Joey and I have a new life. I wish I could tell you in person how much I appreciate what you've done, but the FBI will be here shortly and we must leave. Words are not enough, but they are all I have right now and I just wanted you both to know that Joey and I will never forget you. Keep fighting the evil of this world and maybe someday it will be safe for us to thank you in person. Thank you....Teresa and Joey Browner."

"They did get away okay didn't they, JD?" Tanner asked.

"Yeah, Peter Wellington'll make sure they're safe," Dunne answered as the door opened and Stacey Midland and Roy Simmons entered the room.

"Stacey, when did they change visiting hours?" Simmons asked.

"I don't believe they did, but these guys seem unable to understand hospital policies," Midland observed.

"I don't think that's the problem, Doc," Larabee offered.

"Care to tell us what is?" Midland asked.

"We understand policies, Doc, we just don't agree with them," Dunne told her.

"Perhaps it's time we had security..."

"Don't think it would matter, Doc, they'd just find another way," Larabee told her.

"By any chance was that part of the requirements of their jobs, Larabee?" Simmons asked.

" stubbornness...bullheaded..."



"Sounds like something straight out of an old western," Simmons observed.

"He got that right, Cowboy," Tanner said with a grin.

"Did you just call me a cowboy?" Larabee asked.

"That he did, Mr. least once," Standish said and placed his feet on Tanner's bed.

"I believe you boys were born a hundred years too late," Simmons said.

"They're all a bunch of cowboys, Roy," Midland said with a grin.

"Ain't that the truth," Tanner said with a grin.

"All right, Gentlemen, you can stay for a while, but remember these three are patients and need to rest," Simmons said and followed Midland out the door.

"What's happening at the office?" Larabee asked.

"Orrin said to tell you not to worry about anything," Sanchez answered.

"He's got us working on updating the files," Dunne said in disgust.

"Chris, maybe we could talk to the doc," Tanner said.

"About what?" Larabee asked.

"Stayin' here until they finish up," the Texan answered.

"Hell, Vin, we'd be here for a year," the blond said. "I'd rather face the files."

"We could bring in a few...dozen," Sanchez offered.

"No, thanks, I already have a headache," Larabee said with a grin.

"All right, Boys, we'd best get to the office and get started," Sanchez said.

"Ezra, you should go home and rest," Jackson said.

"I'm fine, Nathan," Standish assured the medic.

"Files, Ez," Dunne said.

"Then again, perhaps I should stay and keep an eye on our injured comrades," the gambler explained.

"We'll be back later, Boys," Sanchez told them and held the door for the others. He knew Standish was still not one hundred percent and was glad the younger man was staying with Chris, Vin, and Buck. "See you boys later."

"We sure as hell ain't goin' anywhere," Tanner told him.


Chris had never been so glad to be home. Buck had been released after a week, while he and Vin had been forced to spend ten days in the hospital. They'd uncovered an infection in the wound to his shoulder and he'd be wearing a sling for at least another week, but at least he was healing.

Chris glanced sideways at the Texan and was glad the man would be spending the next week at his ranch. Nathan would be checking on them, but he knew the whole team would be joining them. That wasn't so bad when you considered they'd become more like family than co-workers. A unique team that meshed in every conceivable way, and Larabee knew without a doubt they were the best in the business.

"What're ya thinkin' 'bout?"

Chris shifted on the patio chair and reached for the glass of lemonade as he answered. "Just thinking about the team."

"Ya picked 'em, Cowboy, ain't none finer," Tanner told him.

"I know...that's why it's so damn hard to see any of you hurt by bastards like Browner."

"It's our job, Chris...ain't ever gonna be an easy one as long as there are bastards like Browner."

"Seems like we get rid of one and a dozen takes his place."

"Ya sorry ya ever got inta this?"

"No," Larabee said thoughtfully. "Not when what we do means people like Teresa and Joey Browner get a whole new start without having to worry about men like her husband. Don't get me wrong, Vin, I know damn well they had to give up everything and she'll probably always be looking over her shoulder, but at least now they have a chance."

Tanner nodded and lifted his glass before speaking. "Here's to new beginnings."

"New beginnings," Larabee agreed and turned to see the rest of the team walk around the side of the house. It never failed to amaze him that this bunch was family to him and he hoped and prayed he'd never have to face losing them because he wasn't sure he could say goodbye.

"You boys ready for chicken and ribs?" Wilmington asked as he made his way to an empty chair.

"I'm starved," Tanner said.

"There's a big fuckin' surprise," Larabee said and relaxed as the members of his team took seats around the table. They were home, and right now that's what counted...the assholes of the world could wait until they were whole again.

The End

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