Chapter 8 - Checking In
Spring's chill faded to an early summer and Chris Larabee started to consider that he just might have to live with the empty spot in his mind. Vin's vacancy balanced on the edge of where Sarah and Adam's dark vacuum existed. A handful of times in the past three months, the voids, like black holes in space, sucked Chris toward their darkness where he circled and threatened to disappear. It was Buck that usually dragged him back to life and both men had bruises to show for it.
Tonight, Chris felt a call very different from the power of said hole in his mind. Compelled by some inner force to search for his lost friend, Larabee found himself walking the streets surrounding Purgatorio, seeking the shadows.
Cheery banter and drunken laughter from a seedy bar faded into the street sounds as Chris Larabee strode briskly down the damp sidewalk. The day’s unusual heat hadn’t abated but simply changed into a heavier form. The mugginess was out of character for Denver; the late evening thunderstorm rolled east leaving behind hot, steamy roadways that smelled of baked asphalt and stung the agent’s nose.
Chris’ booted feet thumped heavily as he walked. The black t-shirt he wore was thick with dampness and he hoped to feel a breeze along his arms and neck if he walked rapidly enough. But that wasn’t the reason he’d escaped the rowdy bar; he knew he wouldn’t find what he sought there. Vin would be out here, somewhere in the easily escaped, open darkness because Vin wouldn't be caged again.
Purgatorio streets weren’t safe in the light of day and here he was prowling around on a suffocating night when every kind of element would try to escape the heat. In Purgatorio, the typical household didn’t have air conditioning because it was simply too expensive. Therefore, escape was in the streets and in all kinds of forms.
Chris turned down a narrow alley and headed toward his truck parked behind a row of boarded up buildings. He vaguely wondered if the vehicle was still in one piece. When he reached the corner, he saw that it had survived and painted a sickly yellow by the only surviving streetlight in the immediate area.
Issuing a grunt of surprise, he arched an eyebrow and stepped clear of the corner. Three strides later, a pair of shadows detached from a building to his left and materialized into solid forms that blocked his path.
“Gimme your wallet,” the bigger of the two men growled.
Chris stopped, his arms to dangling at his sides as he glared at them. In their early twenties, they both had the sharp, hungry look of addicts and wielded knives in a low, threatening manner. Before Chris could open his mouth, the scuff of feet behind made him glance over his shoulder where three more scraggly shadows solidified. One held a baseball bat, one a knife, and the third man’s hands clenched into fists the size of sledge hammers.
Chris slowly turned back to the pair before him. “You don’t want to do this,” he said calmly, his order of attack already planned in his mind. The physical pain of a fight just might be what he needed right now; his mouth slanted to a thoughtful tilt when he thought how that might piss off Nathan.
“Don’t fuckin’ tell me what I want, fuckhead. Wallet. And keys.” The speaker sniffed, his nerves edgy with the need for a fix. “Those faggot boots must mean the truck’s yours.”
Chris’ lips pressed into a hard line. “I won’t let you take my truck,” he said with enough projected anger to make the perpetrator blink and shift his feet. “Back off, and we’ll pretend this never happened.”
Saving face, the speaker stabbed the air between them and took a step forward. “Shut the fuck up, cowboy, and hand ‘em over or we’ll cut ya.”
“Oh, now you’ve done it.”
A deceptively soft voice carried from the deepest dark off to Chris’ right. He turned his head slightly to find the speaker as the corners of his mouth pulled into a grin.
“He hates bein’ called a cowboy,” the familiar voice said. “Now you’re just gonna hafta deal with the consequences.”
Vin Tanner crossed the line between embracing darkness and pitiful light. The pair in front of Chris turned slightly in his direction, trying to hold ground. The one closest to Vin faced him fully and raised a shaky blade. “Back off, asshole!” he warned. Uncertainty made his voice as unsteady as his hand.
The half-lit apparition shook his head and chuckled. “Cain’t. Sorry.” Pulling his hands from his jean pockets he added, "Just remember that you were warned, 'k?"
“Hey,” Chris greeted lightly as if surrounded by five puppies instead of five armed and nervous tweakers. “Good to see ya, Pard.”
“Chris.” Vin took another step and stopped, hooking his thumbs in the loops of his jeans. He planted his feet at shoulder width, keeping his knees slightly flexed. His white tank top hugged a hard, lean torso and a well-defined six-pack. The thin material as damp as the night and his skin shined with fine layer of sweat. His worn jeans hung on hipbones rounded with muscle. And was that a tattoo on his bicep?
The strange interaction and lack of fear made the attackers nervous.
“Shut up and give up your wallets or you’re both dead!” The bigger one barked, waving his knife in figure 8 pattern. Behind him, Chris heard the baseball bat slap against a hand and the shuffling of feet as they repositioned.
Vin’s eyebrows rose. “You know you’re threatenin’ a Federal agent?”
“F . . . fed . . . what?” The moment of hesitation passed when the thug realized his cronies were looking to him for an indication of what to do. He managed to regroup and look threatening again. “Shut the fuck up! Get ‘em!”
Chris had time to note Vin’s eye roll before spinning and concentrating on the three behind him. He quickly disarmed one and threw the second into the third, and was stepping up to finish them when bravado deserted the crew like fleas from a drowning cat. The muggers scrambled off into the night, snarling curses and vowing revenge.
Chris turned around, shaking his bruised fist and pleased that the fist's recipient was in much worse shape. Vin studied a long bladed knife with admiration, tilting it from side to side in the meager light. Not wanting to scare him off, Chris stood where he was and appraised his friend.
The last time he’d seen him, Vin had been thin and pale from weeks of constant physical and mental stress that successfully crushed the spirit that defined Team 7’s sharpshooter. The day he’d been arrested and subsequently fired was forever etched in Chris’ brain. On that horrible day, Vin Tanner wasn’t anything near the proud, self-confident man Chris had come to know over the years.
It had been ninety days since he’d put up the bail for his best friend. Twelve weeks since he’d last seen him at the ranch. Three months of worry, sleepless nights and fruitless searching. In that time, Team 7 managed to chug along, but without its heart, it didn’t feel the same. When Vin jumped bail all those months ago, Chris knew it was the final act of a sick and desperate man.
Now here Vin was, looking much better than Chris remembered. He’d been too thin before; now he was athletically lean and ready to rumble. Long lines of toned muscles defined his arms and torso. With his hair tight against his head in a ponytail, his solid, thicker neck was exposed. His face was smooth and evenly toned, the dark hollows that had pocked his cheeks and hung under his eyes faded away, as were the bruises. He looked great – and dangerous.
The biggest shock, though, was the goatee. Vin must have felt the stare because he grinned and reached up, stroking the circle of hair that framed his mouth and covered his chin.
“Somthin’ different,” he said in a way of explanation.
Chris chuckled and shook his head, dropping his eyes for a moment. When he looked up again and took a step, Vin moved in the same motion and extended his arm. They joined in the familiar forearm grip that defined their brotherhood.
“Damn, Vin, where you been? I’ve looked everywhere.”
“Yeah, I know,” Vin sighed. “Sorry ‘bout runnin’ out. I have to finish this.”
“I know. I still want to help you.”
“Don’t think you can without bringin’ yourself down. I can’t have that, Chris. This is my fight now.”
Chris didn’t know how to reply. The team had been at a dead end for eight weeks. “Still, we want to help.”
“Thanks.” Vin paused and tucked his newly acquired knife away along the small of his back. Then he shifted nervously and ducked his head. “I didn't want to lose my land, you know. My jumpin’ bail – " He sighed and shook his head, not able to find the words.
Chris gripped Vin’s shoulder, the skin under his hand slick with sweat. He gave his friend a shake. “We bought it back, Vin. It's waiting for you."
"You shouldn't a done that. Puttin' yourself out like that . . ." Again, words failed him. He lifted his chin and met Chris' eyes. "I can't guarantee I'll be back."
"No guarantee's needed, Pard. Let us help get you back on the team. Please."
Vin worked his lips a moment, then nodded shortly. “If I need ya, I’ll holler. I’m checkin’ something’ out right now. I know you’ve been comin’ ‘round and I was lookin’ for you. To warn ya off.”
“Warn me off?”
Vin nodded and tilted his head, catching Chris’ confused gaze with narrowed eyes. “Yeah. I’ve found a thread and I’m goin’ under. Deep under. You lookin’ for me will scare ‘em off.”
“Who?” Chris demanded, his heart shocked into a staccato rhythm. “Scare who off, Vin?”
Vin shook his head and clamped his jaws shut. Chris could see the muscles in his cheeks working under the skin. He spoke between gritted teeth. “No. It’s better this way.” Vin took a step back and out from under Chris’ hand, again meeting Chris' eyes as he slowly backed away into the shadows. “Don’t come back to Purgatorio, Chris. I’m leavin’ Denver. Headin’ south.”
Chris caught his breath and took a step to follow. “Vin! Don’t do anything . . .”
“Stupid?” his friend finished with a smile. Vin paused, half black and half highlighted in sickly yellow.
“Couldn’t even hope for that,” Chris desperately teased, trying to keep the terror from his voice. “I was going to say, don’t do anything you’ll regret.”
“Oh,” Vin said, his smile fading away. He took another step back and became engulfed in darkness, his words a haint in his wake. “I think it’s too late for that. Just don't believe everything you hear, okay?”
“Vin . . .” Chris found he was speaking to empty shadows.
Buck knew immediately that Chris found something. He’d known his boss for a dozen years now and could read every nuance in his expression. Buck also knew that Chris had been patrolling Purgatorio regularly. There had to be a connection to Chris’ distracted demeanor.
He slouched against the doorway of Chris’ office. “You found him, didn’t ya?” It was a rhetorical question, really.
Chris glanced up briefly before dropping his gaze to the well-worn file in front of him. The air hung heavy between them for a long handful of seconds. “Yeah,” he finally confirmed.
Buck glanced over his shoulder to the rest of the team. Confident that each was otherwise occupied, he slipped into the office and quietly closed the door.
“Well?” Buck demanded. “What did he say?”
Chris leaned back and ran his hand through his hair. “Nothin’. He didn’t tell me a damn thing.”
Buck went for another tack. “What did he say, exactly?”
Leaning back in his chair a blowing a frustrated breath of air, Chris scowled. “Said he was going’ under.”
“South. That’s all he said.”
“How south? Where south? What the hell did he say, Chris? We can’t help him if we don’t know anything!”
Suddenly, Chris surged forward and slammed his palm on his desk. “Damn it, Buck, you don’t think I know that?” He pushed to his feet. “You don’t think I’m worried that he’ll go off like he’s bulletproof or something? He scared me, Buck. You shoulda seen him. He was -” he circled a finger in the air as his thoughts formed. “- haunted. He like a dead man walking’ and he knew it.”
Buck regarded his friend. “What do you mean, exactly?”
“Vin said he had a lead and he was following’ it. He said to ignore anything we heard. Buck, he meant business. God, he had a tattoo!”
That caused Buck to blink as if he doubted what he heard. “A what? A tattoo? Vin?”
‘Yeah, and he had one of those beards – you know, a goatee?” He circled around his mouth with a finger. “And he’s been working’ out. Solid as oak. He’s going’ in for a kill and I really believe that he’s not planning’ on comin’ out.”
Buck digested that information with a ripple of various expressions – shock, humor, wonder and then finally, concern. “You think he’s gonna get himself killed?”
Chris could only nod. Then he stepped away from his desk and began to pace the small office. “He had this look in his eye that scared the shit outta me. He looked like some kind of predatory animal. There was no peace. The Vin we know wasn’t there. This one was hard.”
He paused in his actions and the two longtime friends held gazes for a moment, trying to find some firm ground in this information. Chris’ gut instincts were nothing to ignore and they both knew it.
“Well,” Buck finally drawled as he smoothed down his moustache and squared his shoulders. “We’re gonna have to work just a little bit harder to make sure he comes out standing’ in the end, then, won’t we?”
Chris managed a half grin. “Damn straight,” he hoarsely acknowledged with a sharp nod. “Any ideas where to start?”
Chris rolled his eyes, his attention separated from Buck with the swish of the office door opening. Ezra entered the room as if it was a gentlemen’s salon and shut the door with a soft snick. Just inside, he paused to study the men. Something about Larabee’s expression made his eyes narrow and his head tip to one side questioningly. “What news?” He asked without preamble.
“How . . .” Buck started, perplexed as he looked Ezra over.
Ezra’s condescending sigh applied to either the exam or the question, but probably both. “It is obvious from Mr. Larabee’s expression that there is news. His general appearance is less . . . black.”
Buck's mouth quirked and Chris snorted. When Buck shrugged at Chris’ questioning look, he said, “I saw Vin.”
Ezra’s eyebrows rose in tandem. “Really? Our Mr. Tanner must have had some information, then.”
“What makes you say that?”
Ezra sighed again as if saddled with half-wits. “Because our sniper is as skilled at hiding from the public eye as I am. He found you, Mr. Larabee, not the other way ‘round. So, what did he impart?”
Chris pursed his lips, turning Vin's explanation over in his mind. “All he said was he found something and is going under somewhere south.”
“South, you say?”
Suspicious, Buck said lowly, “You don’t sound surprised.”
“No. Not really, but before I propose my theory, I must do a little more research.”
“Ezra,” Chris warned.
“It will not take long, I promise, Mr. Larabee.” Ezra was already turned and heading back out the door. “I will contact you post haste.” He slipped out before Chris demanded an explanation.
Chris circled back to his chair and dropped down. Buck wandered to the office window and looked out over the street below. Both men turned over all the information - it wasn’t much.
“I guess all we can do is wait,” Buck finally summed up.
“I hate waiting.”
“No shit, Sherlock. Well, at least Orin’s been keepin’ us busy. I also heard from Debbie in Personnel that he’s going’ through some replacement sniper files.”
“No one can replace him.”
“Sheeeit, Chris, we know that.” Then he turned from the window with a predatory smile. “But at least we’ll have some entertainment to fend off the boredom.”
Chris chuffed, shook his head and held up his hand in a “stop” motion. “I do not want to hear another word. Just remember the term ‘plausible deniability’, okay? Now get out.”
“Yes sir, Boss man!”