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."
"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 here...me 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 m...man," 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.
"Yes...at 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.
"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 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, Larabee...is 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 y...you!" 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 do...pro...tect the inn...ocent from ass...holes l...like 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.
"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.