by Tonny


Edited by Tannertexaslady, thanks Sherry!!!!

Characters: Chris and OFC, Vin and OFC, all the others of the seven, Orrin Travis, OC's

Disclaimer: I don't own the characters of Magnificent seven and never will, sigh... I also don't own a lot of the OC's in this story, they are owned by Tannertexaslady. I do own some of the OC's, amongst which, again, someone I wouldn't want to own at all and that's the villain. Oh, and all mistakes are mine as well, sigh. I want to state for the record that I've tried my best, but I have no medical knowledge whatsoever. The story is written purely for entertainment and no money has been made.

Warnings: In this story the boys are involved in heterosexual relationships. It also contains violence, some of which might upset sensitive readers.

Acknowledgements: To Sherry who created this universe and her enormous enthusiasm during this whole process, to Wendy who gave her great advice and to my truly wonderful beta, Tracey, who once again made this story readable!!!


This story is part of the MCAT series and plays in the wonderful new AU created by Tannertexaslady. She put down the ground lines in the first story written for this AU, Transitions.

For those who would like to have some information about this new AU at hand, here is a brief description:

MCAT is set after the wonderful ATF AU that Mog created. Team seven is disbanded and Chris Larabee is asked to lead a whole new type of law enforcement unit, MCAT (Major Crimes and Acts of Terrorism), a totally independent unit that has the authority to act outside all the existing boundaries within law enforcement and politics and also overrules these other agencies. He accepts and along with him the others of team seven decide to become a part of this unit as well. Chris, as the unit commander, only has to answer to Orrin Travis and has Vin as his squad captain and Buck as his number three man.

In the first story, Transitions, new agents become a part of this team as well:

Characters from the first six parts of this series:

MCAT Agents

Samuel Reed, Caucasian, ex-military, ex-navy SEALs and ex-CIA, sharpshooter, 34 years old
Pamela Walton, Native American, computer genius who worked for the Justice Department, 30 years old
Katrina Santos, Latina, certified medic, coming from the Taos Police Department and the DEA, 31 years old
Kelli Coulter, Caucasian, from Texas, degree in criminology/criminal justice, worked with New Orleans PD, the Texas State Task Force and the DEA, sharpshooter, 27 years old
Justin Michaels, Caucasian, homicide detective with Denver PD and after that with the State Police investigations in Colorado, 43 years old
Mark Westin, Caucasian, excelled at the Police Academy, worked LAPD and California Highway Patrols, 26 years old
Paul Roberts, African American, Atlanta Metro police departments with excellent records, 31 years old
Ross Anderson, African American, Detroit Metro police departments, career until then focused on inner city crime, 34 years old.

Family life has changed as well for the seven, as they have moved on. Josiah has married Mallory, 43 years old, once leader of ATF team six. When most of the ATF was disbanded and MCAT formed, she was pregnant of their second child and decided to quit working. They have a two year old, Joanne and at the end of Transitions, just before this story starts, she gave birth to a healthy baby boy named Adam.

Buck and Inez are married and have two lovely daughters, Sarah (2) and Maria (1). Nathan and Rain are married as well, with Rain pregnant and the same is true for JD and Casey. They are married, with Casey pregnant and they live with Nettie Wells on her farm. The seven and their spouses have formed a real family now and have pooled their resources in the horse ranch Larabee 7, hoping that one day, when law enforcement becomes too much, this ranch will provide their income.

Chris still lives in the ranch house, the gathering point of the whole family, while Vin lives on the property as well in a smaller house built nearby. Ezra still lives in his townhouse in the city, owns the Standish Tavern where Inez works and in his spare time has become a lawyer as well, something the whole family gratefully uses.

In Transitions Ezra, Chris and Vin are still single and alone, but both Chris and Vin fall in love. Chris has fallen in love with a new neighbor, Linda Dubois, who has bought the land bordering on Larabee 7 for her Southern Breeze Horse Ranch. She comes from a family well known for the race horses they breed. Vin now is married with their new MCAT colleague Kelli Coulter and the two Texans live in his house on the Larabee 7 property. The Wilmingtons have built their home there too and The Jackson are building one there as well. Josiah and Mallory live in their home on adjoining property.

He stood leaning against the building, looking at all the shops and outdoor cafes around him in the Street Mall. His lips curled when he took in all the fine displays and fancy buildings. All the people walking around as if they were safe, completely safe. It made him smile. He could pick out any one of them, any one....

Looking down the street he saw the mountains that surrounded this city on one side and could be seen from almost everywhere, from almost any street.


Denver, the mile high city....

He took a deep breath and nodded to himself. Yes, he had been right to come here; this was a good place, a very good place to hunt.

He had a really good feeling about it.

Fingering the bowie knife in the large pocket of his overcoat, he smiled again, looking at all those insignificant people passing him by. Should he start the hunt? Should he start the hunt right here? Or should he wait and roam the streets a little longer, go to the more seedy parts of the city first and see what he could find there?

No, not the seedy parts, he never found what he wanted in the seedy parts of a town. He liked his prey strong and used to a good life. The battered ones, they gave a good fight, but they always had a look that said, I know that this is how life is, life's a bitch and actually I don't really mind leaving it. He wanted his victims to mind, to mind a lot when he carved their precious life away from them. He wanted to see the surprise of his victims, when suddenly they realized that life wasn't easy and clean cut anymore. He wanted to see the hopelessness in their eyes when they finally understood he wasn't going to let them live.

A shock of blond hair caught his attention. That hair.... The body wasn't right though, fat, too fat.

He pushed himself away from the wall and with his hand still on the knife in his pocket he started walking. And looking.

Yes, it was time, time to start the hunt!



Linda rolled over and stretched herself luxuriously. She reveled in the feel of the sun on her naked body, but she didn't open her eyes, not yet. She wanted to enjoy the memories of last night for a little while longer.

A smile played around her lips when she remembered how it was to be with Chris again, finally, after that long week in which they hadn't seen each other at all. They had made slow, lingering love, despite the fact that Chris was bushed after a grueling case, the first case of his new unit, MCAT.

The memory that made her smile the most though was seeing Chris in the hospital hall with Adam, the newborn son of Mallory and Josiah, in his arms. He had looked so right with that small baby in his arms, a look of pure wonder on his face. It had made her heart constrict seeing him like that and it had been all she could do to keep her tears at bay.

God, she loved that man to pieces. She had never felt like this about anyone before in her life and last week had made her realize just how much she loved him. How much she missed him if he wasn't there.

Suddenly she realized she didn't feel his presence beside her. Hastily she opened her eyes and looked at Chris' side of the bed.

No one was there.

Didn't that man know how to sleep in? That was one thing she was going to teach him! She loved long hours in bed in the morning. One of the first things she had established with Rob, her ranch foreman, was that he took the early morning chores. Even then sleeping in wasn't something she could do too often, so when the chance was there, she took it.

"And so will you, Larabee," she grinned, grabbing a shirt of Chris' that she saw laying around and slipping it over her head. "Starting right now! I'm going to drag you back to bed and show you how good sleeping in can be, especially when you're not sleeping!"

She hurried to the kitchen, the place she expected to find her lover. Yes, she was right, she already smelled the coffee. Mmm, maybe it wasn't such a bad idea to wait until she'd had a cup before she dragged Chris back with her.

When she reached the kitchen Linda stopped and just looked.

Chris was standing at the kitchen sink, dressed in a pair of those tight black jeans that showed off his body so well and an old grey t-shirt. He was putting something in the cupboard and Linda admired the view of that lean, muscled body stretched out to reach one of the higher boards. Two mugs of coffee were standing on the table, one half empty and obviously Chris' and one full and steaming. Linda smiled. Somehow Chris had known she was coming. Grabbing the mug on her way over to her lover she took a sip of the hot liquid.

"Ehw!" With a grimace of distaste she spat it right back in the mug again.

Chris had whirled around with the first sound. "Linda, what...?" When he saw the disgusted look on her face and the mug she held in her hand he started to laugh.

"Don't tell me you just took a sip of that? Do you have any idea how much sugar Vin wants in his coffee?"

"Its horrible," Linda gasped, spitting the last of what was in her mouth in the mug as well. Then the words registered. "Vin?"

"Yeah, he's on his way over to discuss what we need to change in our supply orders with all the new foals around, before we go and take care of the horses." Chris took the mug out of her hand, put it behind him in the kitchen sink and took Linda in his arms. He kissed her tenderly. "We both wanted to have that out of the way. We wanted to have the rest of the day off to do... other... things." Soft and lingering kisses made it clear what some of those other things would be if Chris had any say in it.

"So you had coffee ready for him."


Another kiss, this one trailing her earlobe. Linda shivered.

"And if you don't want him to see you like this," a hand sneaked up her bare ass under the shirt, "you better leave, because he's coming right about now."

"What?" Anxiously Linda looked at the door that led to the deck and the yard beyond. She saw no one. "Don't frighten me," she huffed, slapping Chris lightly on the chest.

"No, seriously!"

At that moment the doorknob moved. "Oh no!" Linda moaned and bolted to the hallway. No way was she going to be on display like this for anyone else but Chris! She heard Vin's laughter coming from the kitchen. Curiously she stopped. She would have sworn he hadn't seen her.

"She did? And then spit it out? No, don't start Lar'bee, I drink my coffee just fine!"

No, it was about his coffee. Strange, Linda was sure that Chris hadn't said anything to Vin. She would have heard it if he had. Suddenly a lot less happy she walked back towards the bedroom. There it had been again, the way Chris was in tune with Vin Tanner. Having coffee ready for him, knowing exactly when Vin would arrive. Things he didn't know or feel from her.

Vin answering something Chris hadn't said.

She had felt so good last night. But this strange... connection... between her lover and his best friend, where did that leave her in Chris' life?

+ + + + + + +

"Here, Tanner."

Chris handed Vin another mug of coffee. "You can add the sugar yourself now, I had just put the stuff back in the cupboard. I'm gonna take Linda another mug, black, the only way to drink coffee."

"It is when you make dishwater instead of coffee," Vin grinned.

"You always add that much sugar, Tanner, no matter how weak or strong the coffee is." Chris hurried out of the kitchen with the coffee and a bowl of whole wheat cereal with some yogurt. He didn't know what had happened, but he was fairly certain that Linda had been upset when she left. He wanted to make sure that she would stay at least until after the horses had been fed. He had hoped they would spend the day together after having been separated for almost a week.

When he entered the bedroom he saw that he was right. Linda was upset. He could see it in the way she was gathering her clothes and kept pushing her blond hair behind her ears angrily.

Damn, what was going on? He didn't understand!

"I hoped you would stay in bed," Chris said softly, looking at the beautiful, slim woman before him, who was almost jumping through his bedroom. One of the things he liked about Linda was the spirited way with which she tackled everything. She was one hell of an energetic lady!

Especially when she was upset, he was beginning to find out.

"I hoped that I could take care of business real fast and dive right back into bed again where you would be waiting for me. Here, I brought you some good coffee and some breakfast." He held the mug and bowl out to her, not really sure what she would do.

Linda looked at the offerings and shrugged. "Why did you get up in the first place? Because of Tanner?"

"Tanner? I don't understand. We have some business to attend to and the horses to feed, so yeah, I got out to do that. You were sleeping and frankly, I had expected that you'd still be asleep when I came back. It had gotten pretty late last night." She didn't answer his grin. He looked at her wistfully. "Had already planned how I was going to wake you up," he added softly.

That made her sigh for some reason. Then she smiled, bringing a sparkle to her green eyes and Chris knew things were back to being all right.

+ + + + + + +

First that grin, then that soft, wistful voice.... Linda knew she was lost again. How could she ever resist that?

She sighed, suddenly feeling like a complete idiot. What was she thinking? Chris and Vin had just made an appointment about the ranch work, no more. So of course Chris had expected Vin. Maybe Vin had called, or Chris had called Vin. In the mean time she had been asleep, fast asleep. No wonder that Chris hadn't expected her.

As for Vin answering Chris while Chris hadn't said anything, she probably just hadn't heard her lover because she had been too busy making an ass of herself. All because Kelli had told her that there was some strange telepathic connection between Chris and Vin.

Yeah, right, telepathic, sure!

"Alright," she smiled mischievously. "I'll dive right back into bed! It's the best place to be when you're expecting a lover." She pouted her lips enticingly.

Chris immediately got the hint and leaned in. The kiss they shared was soft. It sent goose bumps all over her body.

Finally Chris let go and stepped back. His eyes were bright. "Gotta go, Vin is getting impatient. He's got someone of his own waiting for him as you know. I'll be back real soon!" He stroked her cheek one last time, softly, and ran off.

There it had been again, Linda thought, shivering a little. Vin is getting impatient. Not Vin might be getting impatient or I think Vin is getting impatient, no, it had been a statement: Vin is getting impatient.

As if he knew it, like Vin was in the room with them.

Chris didn't even seem to be aware of what he was doing.

It was... creepy....

All thoughts about creepy were forgotten though, when Chris came back almost before she had finished her coffee and cereal. When he came bouncing through the door, tearing off his t-shirt and announcing with a huge grin that Vin had offered to feed the horses alone, Linda could only stare at him, mesmerized.

Oh, she was going to enjoy this morning!!!

+ + + + + + +

He was going to enjoy this morning! She was perfect, just perfect. The golden blond hair cascading down her back, her body lithe and supple and very enticing in that tight t-shirt and short skirt and her eyes...her eyes were green. Not blue as he had to settle for some of the times in the past, but green, really green!

Yes, she was perfect and all he now had to do was get to know her. A hunter should always get to know his prey.

Fingering the bowie knife in his pocket he started to follow her, determined not to lose her.

He licked his lips. Oh yes, he was going to enjoy this morning and the rest of the day!


A last, lingering kiss and Chris got out of bed. Linda pouted prettily, but this time he wasn't going to budge and he shook his head with determination. She pouted even more, looked at him from under her lashes in a very appealing way and asked in her most winsome voice, "Please?"

"Damn, Linda, it's almost noon! I'm gonna take a shower."

"Shower!" Linda was out of bed in no time. "That's a great idea, Chris! Let's take a long, HOT shower!"


"Come on, Chris!" She looked back at him from the door, licking her lips. "I want to soap you up completely!"

Chris groaned. "Miss Dubois, you are insatiable!" he called after her.

"Your own fault for looking way too good!" her voice floated back to him from the bathroom. When he entered she had already turned on the tap and was standing bent over to check the water temperature.

The sight made Chris stop right in his tracks. God, she was so beautiful... and she was with him. He still couldn't quite believe it. This blond goddess with the most beautifully sparkling green eyes, a warm and caring heart hidden behind the wildest ideas and with a delicious sense of humor had decided she wanted to share her life with him.

With him and all his demons.

The object of his undivided attention looked at him over her shoulder and smiled. That did it. Chris hurried towards her and pulled her up, so he could hold her tight in his arms and start kissing her all over again.

The kiss left them both breathless.

"Water... is... running," Linda managed to get out.

All Chris could reply was a worthless growl. He just grabbed her and lifted her into the bathtub, following her immediately. Impatiently he shut the shower door and switched the tap knob. While the water cascaded over their bodies he started to kiss her again.

The shower took a long time and in the end they had to hurry rinsing off all the soap and shampoo, because the water was getting decidedly colder. After having dried each other and finally having put on some clothes, they made their way to the kitchen.

There Chris again took his lover in his arms. He stared into those mesmerizing green eyes, filled with little brown and yellow specks and tenderly he kissed them again, first one, then the other.

"Linda, let's go riding," he asked her softly. "We both love horses, but we hardly seem to find a moment to go riding together. And this time I want us to go for a really long ride, not those short ones we sometimes manage to sneak in between things. I want to show you the back parts of the ranch, where it's all mountains, valleys and hidden springs."

"I don't have my horse here, Chris. Actually, I don't have any transportation. Inez and Buck picked me up at my ranch on their way to the hospital. I'm still stunned that they thought about including me. They didn't even ask, they just showed up like it was the most natural thing that I would come as well, to be there for Adam's birth."

"It is the most natural thing. You're with me and that makes you part of the family for them."

"Well, I like it. And I like your family, Chris. I guess there is something to be said for a family of your own choosing."

"Oh yes, there is! But Linda, you don't say that because you have problems with your own family, do you? When you talk about them they sound alright, you sound alright. Well, except of course for the fact you lost your dad so recently."

He smoothed her hair back from her face, tucking it behind her ear. "I wish I could have known him, to thank him for raising such a great daughter."

"Oh Chris, I wish he could have known you. And no, there is nothing wrong, I have a great family. I love all my brothers. We're not as close as your ragtag bunch, but we keep in touch and if I really needed them, they would be here for me! No, I was thinking about Kelli. About how her parents abandoned her just like that when she was a little kid! She doesn't remember, but it's obvious she was hurt bad as a child. Some family that turned out to be!"

Chris nodded, his good mood gone for the moment. He knew how badly Kelli had been hurt as a little girl. He had seen the doctors reports Vin had managed to get his hands on. He had also been the one Vin had talked to when he needed to get the anger and frustration off his chest about what had been done to his wife.

What he heard had made Chris feel sick to the stomach. How could people treat children like that?

What if it had been Adam? What if he and Sarah hadn't been there to protect Adam? Not that he'd really protected his son or his wife, not by a long shot.

"Even if she's been hurt by someone else, I still blame her parents," Linda was saying. "How could they leave her to get hurt when they should have loved her, protected her! Chris? Chris, are you alright?"

leave her to get hurt... left them and they got hurt, killed....

He closed his eyes.

"Chris? What?" Suddenly she realized what she'd said. "Chris, don't! You didn't abandon your family. You were working, that's not the same!"

"No, I just didn't protect them, left them to die," he spat. He turned around to leave, needing to be alone for a moment like always when the grief of losing his family overtook him. Linda wouldn't let him though, suddenly she was all over him, hugging him, kissing him, murmuring sweet meaningless words.

Chris just clung to Linda, to this new woman in his life who made him feel so much again, who was awakening so many emotions that he had thought were lost forever from inside him.

Like love, deep and real.

God, it felt so good to be held again.

He hugged her right back, with all the love he was feeling inside.

Some time later they were tucked together in one of the lounge chairs. Linda was sitting between Chris' legs, resting against his chest and both held a cup of coffee.

"You're really protective of Kelli, aren't you?" Chris said softly. He put his coffee down and rested his chin on the blond hair before him. "How did you two ever meet up anyway? I know you go back a long way together and met at the police academy. But you are about six years older then Kelli."

Linda grinned. "That's because Kelli went to the academy as soon as she was eighteen, while she was at Louisiana State University. Me, I had already been in college, law, can you believe it? I thought it would be a great career, I got these dreams about courtroom drama's like in the movies. Turned out things were quite boring and finally I didn't even finish. I hung around at the ranch after that, but there is nothing like a father and four brothers trying to protect you as their little one, to get your hair standing up! At least, for me there isn't. I felt smothered and the police academy, well, I guess a lot of my desire to go there was rebellion against all those protective men. Choosing a dangerous job was just the thing to do!"

"Yeah?" Chris smiled, tightening his grip around the lithe body before him. "And now you're right back in the arms of an older man who wants to do just the same! Protect you in every way." He started to nibble her neck.

"Chris, that tickles! You know, I think I can bear your protectiveness a lot better than my brother's. But if you get too bad, I'm old enough now to take revenge, Larabee!" Her hand sneaked behind her and started to tickle Chris in the side. He yelped and Linda grinned with satisfaction.

"Anyway, Kelli and I hit it off immediately. She wasn't as fickle as the other younger girls. Later I found out she had had such a hard life that she was a lot more mature than other girls her age. Actually, she's a lot more mature then I am as well." Linda smiled, thinking back. "She hated it in the students' dorm and we decided to become roommates." Her eyes clouded for a moment. "I love her Chris, she's my best friend and yes, after the life she's had you bet I'm very protective of her."

Chris kissed her softly. "Good for you," he told her. Linda tilted her head and their kiss became really serious when a booming voice and running feet disturbed them. Buck came around the corner of the house, preceded by Sarah and Maria. Maria stopped when she saw the blond woman in her uncle's arms, stepping back towards her father. She didn't know Linda very well yet and that made her shy. Sarah didn't let anything come between her and her favorite uncle though. Squealing and trusting implicitly that strong arms would catch her she threw herself at Chris.

Linda barely managed to duck away in time to miss waving arms and feet. Chris grunted, but he had to laugh as well.

"Sarah! Hey, munchkin, look out! You almost kicked Linda!"

"Not a munchkin!" Sarah yelled happily, giving Chris a wet, sloppy kiss. Then she turned around and wormed herself between Chris and Linda, to settle herself firmly in Chris' lap. "Sorry," she mumbled at Linda, not looking contrite at all.

"Sarah!" Buck said, scandalized. "I'm sorry Linda, she hasn't got any manners at all. I blame Chris, he's always spoiling her!"

Linda laughed while she stood up from the chair, rooted out by the two year old. Sarah only settled herself even more on her uncle's lap. Maria now came over as well, happily clambering on Chris' legs. More voices could be heard and Chris heaved a deep sigh.

"Is there a reason why we're all suddenly having lunch together, Buck?" he asked, resigned.

Buck smiled. "You didn't really expect that the birth of a new baby would go unnoticed, Chris? Nope, the ladies decided that it would be good to have lunch together and celebrate a bit. Besides, Mallory has to stay in the hospital 'til Monday, to her great anger and we wanted to work out a schedule for the visits, so there will always be someone as the hospital with her and Adam. Well, as much as the hospital will allow of course."

Before Chris could answer Inez and Rain came around the house, arms filled with food. They were talking animatedly.

"Nate and Rain arrived at the same time as we did," Buck smiled. "The rest will be here soon. Josiah too, he's spent the morning with Joanne and he'll bring her so she can spend the rest of the day with her favorite uncle. It will be her first night sleeping over and for Ezra too. I can't wait to hear how that will go!"

"Good. I thought for a moment that you all had decided she would stay here."

Buck's eyes twinkled. "Would you want that, stud? We thought that maybe you wanted to spend your time with Linda, but plans can be changed."

"Don't you dare!" Chris groused, trying to save his coffee from Maria, who had decided she wanted to try the dark brown drink all the adults always wanted. Maria didn't agree with her uncle's attempt to take the cup from her and Buck was only just in time to save them all from a douse of coffee.

Chris looked over at Linda, trying to let her know that he was sorry. She was leaning on the porch rail, laughter in her eyes. Before long though, Rain and Inez had discovered her and soon blocked Chris' view of his lady. He sighed and then he thought about Vin, hard, sending a warning.

Vin felt disgruntled, to put it mildly. He seemed occupied with something else. Chris smirked. If he had to take it, so had Vin. The rest of the family would just barge into his house, dragging him and Kelli out. There was a distinct sense of resignation from Vin, but he couldn't be entirely sure, because Maria had decided to start dancing on his legs.

"OUCH! Maria, stop!" The little girl didn't seem to hear him, she was laughing too hard. Grabbing her proved impossible with Sarah leaning against him.


Buck grinned and came to get his wayward youngest. "Come here, spitfire! How 'bout we go and get yer uncle Vin?"

"NO!" Chris said hastily, pretty sure what had Vin occupied. "No, don't Buck. They're on their way! Don't think you want to barge in right now with a little kid."

Buck laughed and threw Maria in the air, to the squealing delight of his youngest. "Nope, guess she's too young for that picture."

"You know Buck, you should've called. It's the kind of picture you can get here now as well."

Buck managed to look contrite. "Sorry, stud. I guess we have to get used to that." He threw Maria in the air again. "Still, it would be worth it just to see you blush!"


Chris didn't have much chance to berate his long time friend any further. Sarah was clambering all over him, crying out "Me too, me too!" With a grin Chris stood up and threw her in the air as well. Soon he was flying her around.

"Are you two being careful?" Inez called out to them worriedly. Squeals of delight from four kids were her only answer. Shaking her head she went into the kitchen with Rain.

No one saw the strained look on Linda's face. She had been observing Chris with the two little girls. There was something about seeing Chris with children that she just loved. Then suddenly he had seemed a bit less focused, followed by a huge grin that she saw no reason for. But the worst was when he'd warned Buck that he'd better not go to Vin. Buck hadn't questioned it, he had just taken Chris' word for it that Vin and Kelli were coming and better not be disturbed right now.

Only... Chris had no way of knowing. She had been with him all the time and he had had no contact with Vin at all.

+ + + + + + +

As usual the gathering with the Larabee 7 clique had been a rowdy affair. Josiah had been beaming and hadn't stayed long. He was anxious to get back to the hospital to see Mallory and little Adam.

"She's furious that the doctors want to keep her for the weekend, just to be sure that everything really is alright," he told them all. "You know what she told them? 'As if you can't walk away healthy from having a baby at my age! You all seem to think something has to be wrong with me or Adam, just because I'm 43. Idiots!'"

"Idiots? She called the doctors idiots?" Casey gasped.

"She sure did," Josiah said proudly. "What a woman. Besides, she's right. She and Adam are in perfect health. I want them home."

Soon after that, he left with Ezra and Joanne. Once Joanne had seen her mother and little brother again, she would go with her favorite uncle and spend the night. Ezra looked a bit haggard when he left with them, to the delight of everyone else.

Visiting schedules were worked out and Chris was adamant that he and Linda would go this afternoon. Some of the ladies protested that they wanted to go first, but Chris just raised his eyebrow and said, "He's my son's namesake."

Discussion closed.

When the rest of the schedule was to everyone's satisfaction and nobody could eat another bite, Vin and Chris exchanged a long, serious look. Then Vin grinned and gave a piercing whistle.

"All of ya, go home or get to my place! Let's give these love birds some space!" He ignored Kelli's suffering look and shepherded everyone over to his place. Well, to his deck, the group was too big to fit comfortably inside.

Finally alone again, Chris took Linda in his arms and kissed her soundly. She was a bit withdrawn, but he put that up to the sudden invasion. "Sorry 'bout that," he whispered in her ear. "I promise it won't be the same every weekend. They'll learn that we want some privacy as well."

"But it's inevitable that they'll be here a lot."

Chris pulled back a little. "Linda, this is the place where we all gather. Plus they all put money in Larabee 7, so I feel they have a right to be here when they need to. My team has always been welcome here when any of them needed to be. But if you have a problem with all the visits, we'll work something out."

"Oh Chris!" She kissed him soundly. "Thank you for wanting to do that for me, it means a lot. But don't. I love having lots of people around me, the festivity of it. Haven't you guessed yet that I'm a regular party animal? It's just a good thing Kelli didn't end up with you, she would've hated it!"

Chris grinned. "Vin will protect her! He wants his cabin up in the mountains ready to live in as soon as possible. That way they have all the privacy they want. But this place, I'm afraid it will be swamped lots of the time."

"Don't worry, I love playing hostess!"

"Uh oh, now I AM worried!"

"Oh you!" She jumped up and Chris caught her deftly, swirling her around. Still holding her up he kissed her for the hundredth time this day alone and he still couldn't get enough of kissing her.

"Do you mind that I wanted to visit Adam again? I know I should have asked you first, but sometimes, with this bunch, you just have to push things through with force immediately."

"No, I'd love to see him and to speak with Mallory. I like her a lot, you know."

"Good, let's go! And Linda, let's get out of here afterwards. Not just for a ride like we first planned, but let's get the horses and go camping!"

"Oh Chris, I would love that!"

"Good, let's arrange that! Vin won't mind taking care of business here. He thinks Kelli won't mind either, says since they were able to see each other last week, they think we deserve the break more. After we come back from the hospital I'll leave you at your place and you can get your horse. Let's meet at the gate and leave this afternoon, alright? I want to be out there as long as possible, but I do want to be back for the family lunch at Sunday. We can go visit Mallory and Adam afterwards."

"Chris, how can you say that Vin won't mind? When did you talk about this?"

"Oh I just did. It really is okay, Linda. You did arrange for the weekend to be here, didn't you? And Vin and Kelli won't mind going to your place when it's necessary. Please, let's just get away from it all."

Linda hadn't seen or heard Chris and Vin talk it over, but that didn't mean they hadn't. Chris would have talked it over with Vin first, making sure that the ranch would be looked after. The people who worked at Larabee 7 were free on the weekends, except when Chris and Vin were away on a case, so it would have to be alright with Vin first for Chris to go.

Damn it, Linda thought dismayed, she was getting paranoid about this!

"Let's do it!" Suddenly she couldn't wait for them to go. "Let's go out there, just the two of us!"

Chris looked in her eyes and she saw the happiness in his. "Good! I promise it will be great, Linda!"

"I don't doubt it, loverboy. I don't doubt it for a minute. Come here! I want one last kiss before we get busy!"

With a warm, soft smile that sent goose bumps all over her body, he complied.

+ + + + + + +

He had been able to follow his prey all the way to her den and had enjoyed observing her this whole day. What he had seen had confirmed it for him. Yes, she was indeed perfect!

He curled his lips in disdain. Oh, she certainly was the type of girl who had every need taken care of. Pampered, spoiled. It would be a pleasure showing her the futility of her life.

She also seemed spirited, head strung, the type that would fight. That brought a grin of anticipation to his face. He loved it when they fought, when they squirmed and tried to get him off them. Just thinking about it excited him.

The door opened and there she came, dressed in a robe that clung to her beautiful body in all the right places. It was time, he decided. Time to go in for the kill and make sure he would have her for the weekend. The whole weekend, with just the two of them!

Oh yes, definitely time to go in for the kill.


The weekend had been great, Chris decided. He put his feet on the deck rail and balanced his chair precariously on two wobbly legs. The sun was rising in front of him and the morning was beautiful. It was made even more beautiful because he had woken up with a woman beside him, a woman he wanted to share his life with. That was something he'd thought would never happen again.

Yes, he reflected, sipping from his coffee, it had been a really amazing weekend. Two days and two nights out there in the mountains he loved, with the woman he loved and with nights warm enough that they hadn't needed a tent. Riding and talking during the day, drinking in the scenery, making love under the stars at night.... Life couldn't get much better.

Footsteps from around the corner of the house made him let the chair fall back on all four legs. Who would that be? He knew it wasn't Vin. They would meet soon to feed the horses, but right now the Texan was at his own place.

It was Kelli. She smiled hesitantly.

"Kel? Something wrong?"


All he got from Tanner was peace and happiness, so there couldn't be something wrong, could there? Damn, he worried too much, too soon.

"No, no, nothing wrong. I... eh... Chris? I wanted to ask you something." The normally so straightforward young woman suddenly seemed a bit shy. Chris frowned.

"Just spit it out, Kel, what is it?"

"Its... I wanted to ask you something, but I don't know if I should."

"Just ask and we'll see. If there is anything I can do to help, you know I will do it, don't you? You're family."

That brought a small smile on the redhead's pretty face.

"I know Chris and thank you for that. It's just... Chris, I would like to write to Walter Andrews, the cop who has stayed on my case. I want to thank him for doing that, for not forgetting me.... But his address is private, so I couldn't ask you to give it to me, I guess."

"No, no that's alright, Kelli. I'll e-mail him and ask him if I can give it to you, is that okay?"

A smile lit up her face. "Yeah, thanks Chris!"

"You want some coffee?"

"Some real coffee you mean, not that bitter tar Vin makes? Great! Don't get up, I know where to find it!"

Soon she made herself comfortable in one of the lounge chairs and Chris went back to putting his feet on the rail and balancing. A comfortable silence set in, almost as comfortable as Chris knew with Vin. Chris looked at the small woman beside him. Something about her appealed to him, something that made her feel familiar somehow. He knew one thing, he liked her, a lot. And he was glad that Vin had found her, had found a woman that made him happy. The laconic sharpshooter deserved it.

He smiled, thinking back at the meal they had shared Sunday evening, just the four of them, Vin, Kelli, Linda and him. It had been the perfect ending of the weekend.

Yes, it had been the best weekend in ages.

+ + + + + + +

The weekend had been great, he thought with satisfaction, leaning against the wall and looking at the knife in his hand. He wiped some of the blood off the blade with his finger, put the finger in his mouth and sucked it off. A moan from the corner of the cellar he was in brought his attention back to her, to his prey.

Not so pretty now, he thought with satisfaction.

She begged real sweet though.

He stood up and walked to the corner. The bloody form didn't even try to shy away from him anymore. She had been very satisfying, but now the fight was gone and the fun was over. He kneeled down beside her and stroked her face, the only part of her that was still as beautiful and unblemished as it had been before. Not even her beautifully long golden hair had escaped what they had done this weekend. It had become filthy and matted. A real shame, but unavoidable he had learned over the years.

Brandishing the knife against the soft, vulnerable throat he bent down and kissed those beautiful lips.

"Please...," she whispered.

He smiled. "And thus a great weekend ends," he told her, pushing the knife against her throat. Her eyes widened and in them he read the knowledge that she would die after all, even after having done what he asked her in the end.

"N... no...," she whispered.

Yes, there was the look, the look he needed, that utter moment of fear and defeat. She was giving it to him as a last gift.

"Thank you," he whispered and slit her throat.

He rose up. Morning was already there and he still had to get rid of the body. Fast.

+ + + + + + +

Damn, he was late, really late! Chris looked at his watch in dismay and hurried out of the elevator. If only Linda hadn't been awake when he came back from taking care of the horses! No, he wasn't going to regret that, he decided, smiling when he thought back to what had happened to make him late.

He wasn't going to regret that at all.

"First he lets Standish be late all the time and now he starts as well! I thought we were supposed to be evaluating our first case right about now?"

Chris stopped before entering the central office, his good mood going down a few notches. Sam Reed again. He was getting very tired of that man.

"I still don't get it that we cracked the first case. That was one piece of luck, that Larabee thought about it being a woman. Probably all the man thinks about and then he's right as well. One hell of a lucky shot."

"You call what we did a lucky shot? You got some nerve!" JD answered Reed angrily.

"What would you call it? Nothing pointed at a woman, nothing at all! Shit, he's still not here. Some way to run an outfit, being late. You should never be late when you're the boss! It's that kind of sloppiness I'm beginning to resent."

Kelli had had enough. She walked over and leaned on Reed's desk. "What the hell do you know!" she grated. "While you were tucked away nicely at home, Larabee has been here from morning 'til night running this case and you are whining that he's a little late this morning?"

"Yeah, you would defend him, wouldn't you, Coulter? The truth is that there is hardly any discipline in this outfit and you're one of the proofs of that! You managed to marry the captain and Larabee still let you stay. He even partnered with you on this case! It's disgusting, all of it!"

Now JD and Buck were storming to Reed's desk as well. Chris smiled a thin smile while he leaned comfortably against the doorpost, taking it all in. Suddenly a harsh voice called out.

"What the hell y'all think you're doin'? Do I look like I'm running a tea party here for nagging old ladies? You got nothing better ta do, I'll get y'all some work! Hi Chris."


All eyes turned to the door.

"Oh eh, hi Chris," JD said lamely. "You standing there long?"

"Long enough."

"Sh... oot!"

Even Reed blanched.

Chris stood up straight from his slouch against the doorpost. "Before we go to the conference room and evaluate our first case, I think I'll have a word with Reed. Reed, my office."

"Yes Chris," the man said, standing up slowly, with an air of defiance.

"Did I give you permission to call me by my first name?"

Reed looked at Chris with an incredulous look on his face. "What is this? The others call you that!"

"Only those who've deserved it. You aren't one of them, Reed. My office, now." Chris' eyes had gone cold and all defiance suddenly left the man. He hurried off.

"Vin, can you get everything ready for the evaluation?"


Chris went to his office, trying to keep his anger in check. Sam Reed had been a nuisance almost from the first week, trying to undermine Vin's and his authority and Chris was getting tired of it. Most of the time it was Vin or Buck who reined the man in, but he knew what was going on and he didn't like it. Frankly, he had his suspicions about the man and when he had his own evaluation meeting with Orrin Travis this afternoon, he was going to try and see if he could get some answers.

He closed the door to his private office behind him and walked around Reed to get behind his desk. Once there he didn't sit down, just stared at the man until Reed started to fidget.

"Well?" he finally asked.

Reed looked confused. "I'm sorry Chri... eh, Commander, what is the question?"

Chris raised his eyebrow.

"I didn't do anything wrong," Reed blurted out. "I just wondered why you were late."



"Wondered why you were late, sir."

"I didn't know this unit had turned into an army..., sir." The last word was said with definite disdain.

"You wanted more discipline and I agree, Reed. From now on you will follow protocol to the letter, or I'll slap you down so hard you won't know what hit you. I'm also going to put a bad mark on your record for the less than satisfactory way in which you have conducted yourself during our first case. Getting in a bar fight on the first day was not what I would call good and DISCIPLINED police work. Dismissed."

"Wh... what?" Reed gaped at him.

"You really want a reprimand as well, Reed? Because you are that close to getting one."

"You... you can't do this. You can't treat me different than the others."

"Oh, the way I see it you asked for it. You wanted discipline and now you got it. I guess you want a disciplinary mark on your record as well?"

Reed blanched and stalked out of the office.

Before he could get through the door, Chris called after him. "Oh, and Reed? I'm under obligation to keep you for your full first six months on this team before I can request a transfer, but I'm not obliged in those six months to send you out on a case and have you goof up again. There is plenty of work to be done behind a desk."

Reed had been too frightened to slam the door, but his anger was radiating from the stiff way he held himself. Tanner almost immediately entered after he had left.

"Reed seems to have been taken down a couple of pegs," he smiled with satisfaction.

"Yeah, well, he's getting on my nerves."

"So, what did ya do?"

"Blot his record with bad marks and confine him to his desk. You just make sure that he gets the worst of the paper work."

"God, Chris, you're really mad, ain't ya?"

"Yeah, Vin, I am. You didn't hear what he said to Kelli, that was way below the mark. No, don't, I've already disciplined him and I've let him know he'll be out of here after his six months. Oh, and Vin? Make sure that he doesn't see any sensitive material."

"Why? You afraid he'll take advantage?"

"No, it's a hunch I have. A hunch I don't like at all. I want to ask Travis some things first to see if I'm thinking in the right direction. If I am, we better discuss it."

Vin nodded. Then he made a move with his head to the door. "Guess we just go on with the evaluation then?"

"Yeah, guess we do. Damn it, Vin, I wish I was back in the mountains with Linda!"

Vin smiled mischievously.

That good, Cowboy?

Yes, THAT good!

I'm glad! It's about time!

Damn you Vin, you keep yourself occupied with your own lady!

"Sensitive chap, ain't ya?" Vin grinned. "Come on, we got us some evaluatin' ta do!"

+ + + + + + +

"Chris, come in."

"Hi Orrin." Chris put the papers he'd brought on the desk and sat down. "You wanted an evaluation?"

"I think the unit did a great job and I'm not the only one, Chris. The Attorney General already wanted me to let you know he's more than happy with this first case. It proves that MCAT will be the solution they were looking for higher up. Still, I would like to evaluate how every agent was doing on this new team."

Chris' eyes narrowed. "I don't mind doing an evaluation with you Orrin, but you do know that my agents are my business, don't you? I'm not going to change that one bit. Everything concerning them goes through me."

Orrin sighed. "Chris, I know you have always acted as a buffer between your men and the ones higher up, but you must see that it's different with this new unit. All eyes are on it and the people who started it want to know what's going on." He shook his head ruefully. "I have to tell you Chris, not everyone was pleased with the idea to give this new unit to you and your men. But they couldn't get past the results you and your team were getting, so the ones in favor won. And it's this kind of attitude and the rogue way some say Team Seven always operated that accounted for those negative voices. There are still a lot of people up there who want you out of the picture. They see the value of your team, but they don't like how you ignored every rule possible as a Senior Agent."

Now Orrin had to smile. "Of course that was one of the main reasons that the ones in favor of you wanted you brought in and believe me, that was the majority. Because in essence that independent way of acting is exactly what this unit is all about. Still, it won't hurt to be a bit more tactful in the future Chris, at least to those in favor of MCAT."

Chris looked at Travis and took it all in, but he didn't answer. Travis frowned. "Will you at least think about what I said?"

Now Chris smirked. "Sure Orrin, I'll think about it. Just as long as I can do what I need to do. It's still true that I only answer to you, isn't it?"

"Yes, it is. But this is the starting stage and this it the point where we need to make changes if necessary, like in your team. So it's not that strange that we should evaluate them. Are they right for this unit? Do they function?"

"Most do," Chris said cautiously.


"I don't see Samuel Reed making it until the end."

"Samuel Reed? That surprises me. He came with the highest recommendations!"

"From where, Orrin? Who recommended him? And why is most of his record classified?"

Orrin Travis' eyes narrowed. He was a shrewd man who knew his way around not only in the world of crime fighting and the legal system, but also in the political arena, an arena where MCAT had first been thought out to try and appease the critics after 9/11. A unit that should be able to work through all the red tape and get results where other crime fighters got bogged down.

"He came recommended from fairly high up, Chris. I can assure you he has a very expressive record. All of us who were part of founding this unit as an answer to the threat of terrorism and the extraordinary crimes we see happening more and more nowadays had agents we recommended."

"Can you give me the information who exactly got Reed on the team?"

"I don't know if I should do that Chris. Why do you want to know this? I don't like what you are implying here. Are you saying Reed is sent as some kind of spy?"

"Orrin, I'm not saying anything, it's just something I don't feel good about and I would really like to know."

"I'll think about it. Now, I know you are very protective of your men, but I think you would want to evaluate the responses of the FBI, police force and other units you had to work with on this case. How did things go with them? Did they listen?

Chris' eyes grew cold. "Oh, they listened," he informed Travis.

It made Orrin Travis hide a smile. That was one of the reasons he had fought to get Larabee for this job, the man wasn't intimidated by anyone or anything, in fact, he was intimidating as hell himself. It was exactly what this first MCAT unit needed to keep others from killing it before it had really started.

"Do tell me more, Chris," he asked mildly.

The next half hour was used to talk about the various responses and help MCAT had received from the sources they needed.

"So far, so good," Travis agreed afterwards. "And equipment?"

"We got what we needed. Speaking of which...," Chris hesitated. He collected his papers and kept staring pensively at his Deputy Director.

"What?" Travis finally asked.


"Cassie? Who's that? She isn't one of your agents, is she? I don't recognize the name."

"Not who, what! CASSIE is some damn computer information system." Chris looked at some note. "Collaborative Analysis System for Sensitive Information Engineering. That's what JD calls her. Anyway, he showed me some of what it can do before I came here. Orrin, he and Pam can get virtually any information pulled up from any agency they want with that system. More, it practically pulls all that information up independently, on its own. That's the latest state of the art!"

"It is, Chris. It was felt that this task force should have the latest available."

"I know. The latest in weapons, in other equipment, hell, we can order a private jet if we think we need to. But this system, it's something else, Orrin. As I said, it can get into anything."

"Chris, is there a problem?"

"Problem? Hell no, not with us. I just think it had better never get into the wrong hands. You know we can even access the witness protection program if JD sets his mind to it? Don't worry, I've had some words to say about that to him when he told me and he's changing some... eh... whatever, he's changing that right now, make that stuff damn hard to get to. Anyway, are we done?" Chris started putting his files back in his briefcase.

"Just one more thing. Some of the FBI higher ups are coming here tomorrow to talk to you about the case, about Lady Ice."

Chris sighed, thinking back on the lady sniper who had tried to kill Orrin and the Governor of Colorado last week. It had been the first assignment of his new team and they had apprehended her before she could finish her objective.

"She's gonna walk, isn't she? She's gonna buy herself out with all she knows about her employers."

"I'm afraid so."


"Chris, you and your team did good. You saved two lives. And if those explosives hadn't been found...."

Chris nodded. He stood up abruptly. "What time tomorrow?"

"Just like that?" Travis raised an eyebrow. "I thought you'd be protesting this."

"Some things need to be done."

"Yes, that's true. Chris, you are telling me everything I need to know, aren't you?"

"Yeah, everything you need to know, Orrin." If the Deputy Director heard the slight emphasis on the word need, he didn't let on.

Chris gave Travis a tight smile and left. Orrin sighed. He rubbed his fingers over his temples. Why couldn't things ever be easy with Chris Larabee? With his whole damn team for that matter?

He briefly wondered if the new agents would get just as bad as the original seven and he had the sneaking suspicion that they would. More independently acting, obnoxious agents, it gave him a headache just thinking about it.

+ + + + + + +

The meal was good, very good. The meat was rare and very bloody, just the way he liked it and it was a joy to use his own sharp bowie knife to cut it. Blood red wine was standing before him.

Yes, a very fine meal, one he deserved after all the hunting and the killing.

He took his glass of wine and held it against the light. Sparkles of light could be seen inside the dark red color.

"And a river runs through it," he whispered softly. Oh yes, a river. Most towns and cities didn't disappoint him and Denver, the mile high city, had been no exception. Many of those rivers went at least partially through the underbelly of a city. The Platte River running through Denver did as well, even though the City Council tried to make it all look nice at the moment.

Not long probably before she would be found, not long at all. In fact, the police might already be swarming all over her body, taking pictures, investigating the scene, whatever policemen did. He curled his lips in disdain. Police... what was the police worth at all? They didn't have what it takes to catch him anyway.

It didn't matter. Tomorrow he would hunt for number two and by the time she was found, he would already have spotted number three.

Never more then three, ever. And never quite the same MO, ever.

He smiled and took a long draught of the excellent wine. This time it wouldn't be any different from all the other times, all the other towns. He would leave, never to return and no one would ever know what he had done, again.

They were just too plain stupid....


A long, lingering kiss woke Kelli up. When she opened her eyes she looked in the bright blue ones of her husband. Vin Tanner, her husband.... Sometimes it still was too much to take in. Without saying a word she pulled him down in her arms and started kissing him back.

"Time ta go to work, Texas," Vin finally sighed, letting go of her reluctantly.

"Let's call in sick," Kelli said mischievously, brushing her red hair out of her eyes. "Morning sickness. Can't be cured, can only be endured by stayin' in bed together, for a long time, a very long time!" She pulled him down to kiss him again.

"To sleep?" Vin asked, his eyes twinkling mischievously. "Perhaps I'd better just close my eyes and go back to sleep, see 's I got this mornin' sickness? They say lots of sleep is important for the healin' process."

"Nope, sleep ain't what's gonna cure you!" Her hand started down his beautifully sculpted body, lower and lower... and lower. Vin yelped and jumped out of bed.

"Sorry Kel, but we really gotta go. If I let ya go on with that cure, we'll never get there!"

"Oh well," she sighed, knowing he was right. She jumped out and immediately raced for the bathroom. "Last one there makes breakfast!"

"Damn it Texas, ya don't play fair!"

"And I want decent coffee!"

"That's the only one I make, real coffee, not that dishwater swill!"

"Oh you!" Truth was Kelli didn't mind so much anymore. She was starting to get used to the very strong brew Vin made and even felt a bit groggy if she had to start the morning with a normal cup of coffee.

Soon both were tending the horses and then left for the office. Chris was already gone, Vin told her. Some meeting with the brass. When she asked Vin about it, he just shrugged.

"They wanna hear 'bout our first case. Go figure, the brass always wanna talk, talk, talk! I'm just glad that Chris handles that part of the job." That last statement was said with some force.

"I don't know Tanner," she couldn't help teasing him. "I think you'd look real good, sitting before a committee in a smart suit, that unruly hair of yours in a neat pony tail for a change, smiling up at them." Teasingly she grabbed his long brown curls and pulled them back. Nibbling the part of his neck that came visible by her action, she whispered. "And what a great smile it is too!"

"Kelli! I'll get ya for that!"

They almost ended up in the hay, but as captain of the task force, Vin might still come in wearing jeans, being all covered in hay would be stretching it. So in the end they behaved, barely.

The drive to Denver was done in companionable gossip about the family and speculations about Chris' en Linda's weekend. When asked at the Sunday dinner, Chris had only smiled and had stopped Linda talking about it with a kiss every time. It didn't phase Kelli. "She'll tell me," she grinned at Vin.

"Texas, you're bad! You know he don't want others goin' on 'bout his business!"

"It'll just be girl talk," she declared innocently.

"Yep, you're bad!"

Once they had reached the office they went their separate ways and Kelli found herself doing what the rest did, trying to get through heaps of paper. Their task force was still too fresh to have other cases going already. At this time they were reviewing the files of the cases that had come their way and were starting to put things in motion. There was a huge difference between the new agents and the old Team Seven members, Kelli noted. Where she and the other new members were working themselves through files and trying to find clues on how to proceed, those of the old Larabee gang were hanging on the phone or typing away furiously on their computers. Ezra was just putting his receiver down after his third animated phone call, when Reed suddenly exploded.

"This isn't why I signed on! What the hell is this cra


"Let me see...." Ezra rolled his chair backwards until he was close to Reed's desk and tilted his head. He looked at the pile in front of Reed and smiled his enigmatically smile. "I would gather that you are looking through all the old cases the Denver PD has thrown on our desk. Cases that have to do with.... Ah, I see. It is not strictly from the Denver PD at all, it has to do with traffic in our surrounding areas?"

"Why the hell would I have to look through this?"

"Because it's too old to be in the digital files," JD noted distracted. He was working at the computer set up that was his and Pam's baby. "Pam and me are going to use it to try and set up a program to predict flight routes from every major city."

"Then you and Pam can work through this!"

"You wanna refuse work, Reed? I can give you a leave of absence without pay until you decide to do your job." There was nothing friendly in Vin's voice or in his stance. He was looking at Reed from his office door.

"You need a secretary to do this job, not someone like me! I'm a policeman, damn it, not a god damn clerk!"

"You are under orders," Vin said coolly. "Now get to it or leave." With that he dismissed Reed and went to the corner where Paul and Justin were sitting, sweating over their own assignment. Soon he was helping them.

Kelli didn't like the look Reed was sending Vin's way at all, or the muttered "damn Larabee lackey!" She saw that Ezra had heard it too in the rigid stance he suddenly had. Like her he chose to ignore the remark and went back to his own work.

Both knew it wouldn't end with this.

+ + + + + + +

It was late morning when Chris finally made it back to the office. He looked worn out and his face became like stone when the members of his chosen family called out to him, asking how things had gone at the meeting. All except JD, who was hunched over his new toy with Pam. The two didn't look up or react to anything.

Chris just waved them all off, not commenting and came to Kelli's desk, offering her a small piece of paper. When she looked at it, she saw that it had an e-mail address on it.

"Walter would love to hear from you, Kel. Just email him and take it from there," Chris smiled.

"Oh Chris, thanks! I will, as soon as I get back from lunch!"

"Good. Say hello to Linda for me, will you? Have fun." He walked to his office, completely ignoring the fuming Reed who had been throwing murderous looks his way.

He looked really tired, Kelli noticed. She was going to warn Linda that Chris had had a rough morning and might want some fun company tonight.

"Back from lunch? I didn't know we were gonna go out to eat somthin'?" Vin asked teasingly behind her. "We better get goin' then. I'd like a pizza."

"Oh Vin, you know very well that Tuesday is the day I lunch with Linda! And nope, you and Chris still ain't invited, we decided even before you and me got married that we better keep at least one appointment a week without you guys, so we can keep our friendship intact. Without you two meddling!"

Vin laughed. "You just wanna talk 'bout us, admit it!"

"Yep, compare kissing techniques, and places where you guys are ticklish. And talk 'bout sizes of course!" To her immense delight that made Vin blush furiously. Laughing she took her coat and was gone out of the door, completely ignoring the dark look Reed was sending her. Just before she left she looked once more at her husband. He was being ganged upon by Buck and Ezra, who had immediately seen that their friend had been blushing, an advantage they were not going to lose. She grinned back at his pleading eyes and blew him a kiss. The look in those blue eyes went immediately from pleading to promising dire retribution.

Oh, she was already looking forward to that!

Linda wasn't looking very happy when she finally made it to the Street Mall and the small outdoor bistro they had picked for their lunches. The enormous heap of shopping bags wasn't a very good sign either. It seemed that Linda had been doing some serious shopping and most of the time that spelled trouble.

When Kelli walked over to her best friend, she noticed a man sitting at one of the small round tables. He was eyeing Linda in a way Kelli definitely didn't like. Shooting him a dark look she hastily went to sit with her friend.

"Hey girl, what's up? That guy botherin' you?"

"Guy? What guy?"

"The one over there who was staring at you. Oh, he just left."

"Didn't notice him," Linda dismissed the man. It didn't bother her in the least if someone had been staring, she was used to it. The two ordered lunch and soon Kelli was eating her chicken filled wraps with extra melted cheese and sour cream with relish, while Linda was picking at her tuna fish salad. Between her bites Kelli told her friend about the way Chris and Vin were handling Sam Reed, the ass of the office. It hardly coaxed a reaction out of her friend. Finally she shoved her plate away in exasperation.

"What's wrong with you Linda? You hardly said two words! This way I'd been better off eatin' with some of the guys and girls from the office!"

Linda gazed up from her salad, looking a bit confused. "Eh... what? Oh Kelli, I'm sorry! I was just thinking. When you started to talk about Chris and Vin, I...., my mind wandered." Her eyes returned to observing her plate.

"Just tell me, Linda. What's buggin' ya? Don't forget, I've seen that look before. Something is runnin' circles in your mind and that means you're gonna worry at it until you bleed from it. Now, what's wrong?"

"Not... wrong, exactly." Linda got a haunted look in her eyes. "Kelli, things between me and Chris, they are great, they really are! He makes me feel.... I've never met anyone like him before and no one has ever made me feel this way. We had such a great weekend, the best! But...."


"You're going to think I'm silly. We talked about it before and I could see that you didn't find it a big deal at all."

"Didn't find what a big deal? Linda, don't make me drag every word out of you, ya won't like the result and you know it! Wait, talked 'bout it before.... Is this about that connection those two have again?"

"It's just.... Kelli, doesn't it bother you that they are so close that they practically seem to feel where the other is and what he does? I mean, I thought I was close to Chris, but he seems so much closer to Vin. He knows when Vin is coming over for coffee, but not that I've woken up! He just looks at Tanner and they grin like mad about some joke and I practically have to spell out what I mean sometimes! I mean, where does that leave us, you and me?"

"I don't know 'bout you Linda, I ain't you, but it leaves me right where I wanna be, at the side of the most wonderful man I've ever known, someone who manages to make me feel good 'bout myself and my life for once! And I'm not gonna begrudge that special man the most wonderful friendship in his life. It's their friendship and it doesn't diminish what Vin and I have in any way. Why can't ya just be glad for Chris that he has such a friend? I don't know all of it, Vin won't tell 'cause Chris really doesn't like other people talking 'bout his life, but I do know he's had it rough and somehow it was Vin who pulled him through. And I do know for a fact that Vin feels his life wasn't right until he met Chris, Chris turned his life around. The others of the team, the family, they're part of that as well."

"I... I don't know.... It's just so strange, not what I would have expected when I finally found someone I can really love and really want to spend my life with. I had expected that I would be the one closest to him."

"Linda, I think you are, together with Vin. You two are the closest people to him in his life. Like I know that I'm the closest person to Vin, together with Chris. Don't matter to me that Chris is there as well. People can love more than one person you know."

"I don't know if I can see it that way. And I have ghosts to battle as well here, Kelli."

Kelli sucked in her breath. "You mean Sarah and Adam? Don't tell me you're jealous of them too!"

That brought a spark of anger to Linda's eyes. "Jealous? Who's talking about jealous? I think it's wonderful that a man can love so deep, so totally. It's one of the things I love so much about Chris, that once he has given his heart he won't take it back! Ever! No, the battle is not in his love for them, but in the fact that he feels so guilty about their deaths!"

"He does? But why? What I know is that they were killed in a car bomb. There was nothin' he or anyone else could 've done."

"A car bomb meant for him, Kelli. He feels that they are dead because of him and that he has failed them, failed to protect them."

Kelli shook her head. She thought about Chris and how he was the quietest man she had ever known, Vin included. Was this the reason for his quietness, some inner pain he was carrying? She'd always felt that Vin was quiet as a part of his nature, his soul and that it was somehow different for Chris. Linda had said once that Chris wasn't quiet with her and that they talked a lot.

"All I know is that you got through his defenses Linda, that he has let you into his heart. I only have to see the look in his eyes when he watches you and I know that that is true. So why do you mind his friendship with Vin? Why?"

"I... I don't know Kelli. I just don't know. Maybe because he won't ask me to marry him, only to spend the weekends. He feels he doesn't have more to give."

Kelli smiled. "Not everyone goes at it within a few days, Linda, you know that. Like Vin, knowin' within a few days that he wanted to marry me and sweepin' me off my feet. If the love is there, why does it matter that it takes Chris a bit longer?"

"Yes, yes I guess you're right." Linda smiled and the far away look in her eyes made Kelli realize that she was elsewhere with her thoughts.

"Goin' to share?" she asked teasingly.

Now Linda blushed. "Just something that happened during the weekend."

"Ah, the camping trip! You know, you haven't told me anything 'bout that yet, 'bout what you two 've been doing! Come on, I'll walk ya to your car and I want all the juicy details!"

"Oh you! Alright, I'll give you juicy details! Enough to make your ears burn!"

Laughing together the two friends left the Street Mall.

+ + + + + + +

She had been perfect, really perfect! But he wasn't going to follow her now that the other one, the redhead, had seen him stare. Too dangerous!

Too bad though. That swirling hair... not as long as his latest prey, but cut really nice and dancing around her. That lithe body, so full of grace! Clothes that screamed wealth and sophistication! And green eyes, he had seen it, she had green eyes as well, just like his first kill!

Oh, she would have made a second perfect prey. He just knew she would have. Waiting in the shadows hadn't helped though. She didn't leave alone, she left with the redhead. He hated that redhead!

It didn't matter. He would see her again around here, she looked like the shopping type. He would keep his eyes open for her. Maybe she wouldn't be his second prey, but she could still be his third. She looked wealthy enough to have some residence outside the city.

He licked his lips in anticipation and then he walked off. He might go to the campus, look at the young students there. Or he could stroll down Civic Center Park. Yes, he would start there, at the park. Maybe see the dome of the Colorado State Capitol City inside.

He liked this city, he really did. Perfect hunting grounds....


Damn that Buck, Vin thought annoyed while he made his way to Chris' office. Trust that idiot to catch him blushing and directly jump all over him about it. And damn Ezra for jumping right in with Buck and start teasing him about his nights with his wife.

It wasn't that he minded some rowdy talk, hell, he could go at it as bad or even worse as the next guy. But that was just it, that was with the guys! To hear a teasing remark like that come out of Kelli's mouth when they weren't alone but surrounded by lots of other people, that was different!

He was going to make her pay for that tonight, he decided with a feeling of satisfaction.

Without knocking he barged right into Larabee's office. He didn't need to knock, Chris already knew he was coming. Well hell, with his best friend radiating that much tension, of course he was coming! It was surprising that no one else picked up on it!

"What is it, Chris?" he asked without delay. "What's eatin' you? Is it the meet from this morning? Was it bad?" He sprawled himself in the chair before Larabee's desk, showing his friend that he wasn't leaving without some answers.

Chris sighed. "One of the big shots of the CIA was there, Vin and someone from the Army as well."

Vin felt Chris hesitate and he knew immediately that it meant something to the blond that there had been high brass from the Army in the room.

"Those two weren't really that interested in the fact we cracked the case, they kept asking about discipline. Kept hammering on the fact that a new task force like this, with so many jurisdictions had to be led with enough discipline, or it could become a time bomb, an accident waiting to happen."

"Ouch! Reed? Is that what you're afraid of? That Reed isn't just after one of our jobs, he's also acting as some kind of spy for some of them higher ups?"

Chris sighed and rubbed his forehead. "Politics, Vin, those damn politics. MCAT can be a good thing, but the fight over it has already started."

"Yeah, was to be expected. It's one of the reasons I don't wanna sit where you're sittin', ever. Don't know how you put up with it."

Who says I put up with it?

Vin smirked. You didn't?

Oh yes, I did! Shoot, Travis will be pissed. In fact, I'd already expected his call.

At that moment the phone rang and Vin started to laugh. "That him, you think? Do you want me to take it and tell him you're out for lunch?"

"No, better get it over with." Chris picked up the phone and swiveled his chair away from Tanner.

The sharpshooter grinned. Yes, it was Travis alright.

"Yes Orrin, I know. I can understand they weren't too happy about it, but neither was I. Hey, I didn't call him that. Well, not exactly. Maybe I shouldn't really tell you what I said, I... What? Yeah, alright, I did say righteous pompous ass. That's because he didn't know what he was talking about, nothing wrong with pointing that out in my book! What? Nope, didn't say that either! If you must know, he started to bitch about how I'd better be scared of him and what he could do to my career... Yes Orrin, he said that! Anyway, that's when I told him there's a couple of ladies I'm scared of and he ain't one of them. So I guess I did call him a lady after all. I do have some agents here who would get real mad that he thinks it's an insult to be called a lady...."

Chris held the receiver further from his ear. Vin saw him wince and he couldn't blame his friend. Even he could hear Orrin Travis' voice make some choice remarks. Chris mumbled some yeses and nos after that and the call was over.

Very pissed? Vin thought, balancing his chair comfortably backwards on its two hind legs, propping his feet up on Chris' desk and completely ignoring Chris' glare at his cowboy boots resting where they shouldn't.

I've had worse.

It made Vin smile. He didn't doubt that for one minute. Chris smiled back, both of them enjoying their friendship for a moment.

"So, you gonna tell me what else is botherin' you about this meeting? What's got ya so troubled, Cowboy?"

"It's nothing but hunches right now, Vin. I don't want to go and spread hunches around."


Chris looked stubbornly back and didn't give an inch. Before Vin could think up his next tactic to make Chris speak, a tentative knock sounded on Chris' office door.

"Come in!"

It was JD and the young man saw positively white.

"What is it, JD?" Chris asked, instantly worried. "Is something wrong with Casey? Didn't she have a physical this morning?"

"What? Oh, no, that's tomorrow. I eh... I think CASSIE found something Chris."

Chris sighed and rubbed a hand over his face. "Great," he grumbled. "CASSIE, that's all I need. Well, spill it kid! What did she find? And don't give me a lot of humbug I can't make heads or tails of. Just plain and simple English, that'll do."

JD didn't even huff about the fact that after all these years and now with him being married and about to become a father, he was still called kid.

"Eh... I showed you yesterday how CASSIE can get into virtually any databank? What eh... what I didn't tell you is, that she's constantly comparing the data she finds with each other, showing us similarities and such, matches between cases or if specific dates keep popping up in regard to something suspicious. And... and... something came up out of that...."

"JD! Bottom line!"

JD licked his lips nervously. "Yeah, yeah alright. Bottom line.... I... I think we have a serial killer in town Chris. One who Pam and me think has been active for a lot of years now, all over the country."

Vin's chair crashed.

+ + + + + + +

Chris rubbed his face with both hands and again looked at the data CASSIE had collected. What a mess, what a fucking mess! The Denver police had pulled a body out of the water of the Platte yesterday, Monday, somewhere in the afternoon and later this morning all the details of the body had been filed in the databanks of the Denver PD. Where CASSIE had found it and immediately correlated it with all the other cases in all the other files all over America.

She had found countless matches and it made Chris feel sick.

"Why isn't this booked in VICAP, the FBI system for related crimes?" he asked angrily.

"It's just one murder of this type at every city, Chris," JD answered softly. "So every PD would think they only had one unrelated murder and those go in crimes unsolved. CASSIE looks at everything she can find. Actually, a few of them did end up in VICAP as well, so they are aware of him. It's just always one murder in a city though and so far they couldn't pin someone down on them."

"This is highly unusual," Josiah said softly, looking at the data. "Look at the pattern over these maps. One year here, next year miles and miles away here. Most serial killers roam a specific territory. This guy just... roams."

"Hell, maybe he takes vacations and that's his idea of fun," Buck said disgusted.

"Maybe." Josiah shook his head. "Only if that was the case, I would expect more killings at his chosen vacation spot."

"Ewh, that's gross!" JD looked away. The kid was proud of what CASSIE had managed to do, but it was clear that the idea of a serial killer on the loose in the well known streets of his own home town gave him the chills.

"So... what do we know?" Vin spoke softly from the spot by the window where he was standing, watching the streets below. He turned around and walked towards the white board. "Time to put it all down. JD?"


"Kind a victims, weapons he uses, that stuff."

"OH! I can do that! We can, can't we, Pam?"

"He uses a knife on his victims," Pam said softly. "And he cuts them, a lot. Forensic evidence indicates a big knife, like a big bowie knife. All his victims are female, slim, not too big, with long blond hair. Most of them have green eyes, but some have other eye colors. Seems like he prefers green, but sometimes it doesn't work that way. It's always beautiful young women with long blond hair. Although it's not always their natural hair color."

"So... slim, blond, green eyes," Vin was saying while he wrote it down on the white board.

"Like Linda...," Chris breathed. He felt even sicker when he suddenly had a vision of Linda being cut into, for days.... Two to three days that madman cut his victims, all of the forensic reports said the same. He looked up at the white board, where Vin was busy writing it all down. Then he ended with the last thing all the victims had in common as well, sexual assault.

"I want him!" Chris rasped. "I really want him. If we have to go nationwide, we will. We have the jurisdiction with MCAT to do that! I'll clear it with Travis. Alright, these charts you printed out, they are accurate? He's been in these cities and towns at the dates printed on them, right?"

JD and Pam nodded.

Chris stared morosely at the prints. "Set up a large map and show it the old fashioned way, with pins. I want to have a large, and I mean large, overall view. Helps seeing what's going on, how he maybe travels. Get different colors of pins for different years if that's doable."

While Pam was busy writing his wishes down, Chris was staring at the printed out maps. So many places, all with a young woman butchered to death. Young women like Linda.... He thought back on what Josiah had said, that it was an unusual pattern. Maybe they could read something from it. In that case they wanted it to be as thorough as they could.

"JD, have CASSIE get every other assault on women who fit this victim profile. Keep it to blond and green eyed for now, they seem to be his main target. Maybe there are victims out there who escaped and they can give us some information on this guy. And even if that's not the case, I want as thorough a picture as possible. Since he only kills once in a place, we need every bit of info we can get to find this guy's trail. When we have all we can get, Vin will take it from there. He's the best tracker we have."

"Tracker?" Pam asked confused. "Isn't that in the woods or something?"

"Naw, it's also piecing together what you can find 'bout a person, so you find out where you can get him. I done it for years as a bounty hunter. 'Course the big difference is that then I knew who I was huntin'. I wanna have Ezra on it too Chris, he's pretty good with this kind of stuff. While JD and Pam get more info, I think him and me should hit the streets, discreetly like."

"Good, fill him in. I'll talk with Travis first, then when JD and Pam have more information and the map set up, we'll notify the others. Josiah, you stay with them and look at what they find. You're going to be important in this." He looked at the five people in the room with him. "Let's make this unit worth the money people! MOVE!"

+ + + + + + +

After Chris had talked it over with Travis and had gotten the green light to pursue the killer, Buck and Vin had forced him to come with them for a very late lunch. There they had started about his weekend with Linda. It was the only topic that could distract Chris from his worries and from talking about the serial killer that had visited their town. Even if the only comments they got were angry glares and a blush from time to time.

All in all Vin and Buck at least had a great time and came back in high spirits, trying to trip each other through the whole office. By the time they got to the conference room set aside for this case, Chris was already sitting.

The conference room looked very different now. One wall was taken over by a huge chart of America, filled in with pins and even some little flags. In a corner JD and Pam had set up a terminal, so they could access CASSIE from here and the white board now held a lot more information than what Vin had written down on it. JD and Pam were fidgeting nervously at the terminal, while Josiah stood leaned against the big round conference table, arms crossed before him, staring at the white board.

"Howdie!" Buck boomed his greeting, pulling up a chair. "Who came in and killed your smiles?"

Vin took the chair beside Chris. Soon he was leaning on only two chair legs, feet on the table, crossed at the ankles.

"Comfortable, Vin?" Chris sighed.


You're just looking to fall on your ass again, pard.

Hey, I'm warned now!

Both looked at JD and Pam, and at Josiah's back. "Come on, spit it out! Did you guys find anything more?" Buck asked impatiently.

"Yeah, we did." JD looked at Pam and then he told them, "The killer is still here. If he sticks to his MO he'll kill two more women within the next two weeks before he leaves."

Only Chris' hand shooting out kept Vin from falling a second time that day.

+ + + + + + +

While Buck went to get the rest of the unit, Chris was making a phone call in the corner of the room. He didn't look too good and JD felt bad about that.

"Just do it Linda, please!" Chris' voice rose. "No, just stay on the ranch, can you do that for me? Yes, I'll explain everything tonight, I promise. I'll come over to you, alright, if I can. Yes, a new case. Linda, please stay out of Denver, for me!"

Chris' voice went back to a soft murmur and JD looked away from the tense back of his boss and friend. Thank God Casey didn't have blond hair and green eyes! It didn't keep him from being scared though. He wished this meeting was over and he could call her. He needed to talk to her, hear her cheerful voice. He hoped that he could go home tonight, that they weren't obliged to stay here on instant stand by like they had during their first case. He needed to be with her, hold her, feel her against him. He needed to hear her laugh.

One by one the other members of their task force entered the conference room, laughing and excited that they could stop with all the paper work, that they had another case already. Mark Westin's eyes became big and round when he took in the altered room, with its huge map full of pins and flags.

"Wow," he breathed. "Just like a war room!"

"A war room!" Buck grinned immediately. "You said it, partner! 'Cause it's a real war we're fighting here!"

Some ten minutes later all faces were looking grim.

"A serial killer, right here in Denver," Mark said softly.

JD smiled indulgently at the one year younger agent. Westin was the youngest member on the team now, the kid of the new bunch. JD was glad that he wasn't it any longer and he was confident that soon he wouldn't be called kid anymore.

"Yes, Mark," he decided to reassure the younger agent, "but don't worry, we're going to catch him and put a stop to those murders, starting right here in Denver. We'll catch him." He missed the amusement of the other former team seven members and Buck's guffaw.

"How did you find this out?" That was Justin.

"CASSIE found it out," JD told him proudly. Justin knew more than most of the team about CASSIE, since he and JD had been partnered during the case they had worked on last week. That maybe now he knew more about CASSIE than he had ever wanted to know never occurred to the proud JD, who had had a hard time talking about anything else in the weeks that he'd been working on the system. He looked back now at the terminal with a beaming face. Then he remembered the pictures he'd seen of the victims in the files CASSIE had accessed and nothing was funny anymore.

"She came up with a match between the body of a young woman who was found dead in the Platte yesterday and a whole lot of other young women murdered in the same way," Pam took over. "They were tortured with a knife for two to three days and then their throats were cut. They were also sexually abused. We found a lot of cities where a young woman was killed in exactly that way. Most forensic reports state that they think a Bowie knife was used, the one with a sawed edged part."

"We thought that was it, one kill in every city," JD cut in. "But eh... Well, Josiah said it didn't fit and then Chris asked us to match the type of girl that was killed to all cases CASSIE could access, to see if we could maybe find if there were a few who survived an attack and might be able to help us identify this killer. And we... we found something else completely."

JD fell silent. He didn't want to tell what they had found at all. Pam was staring at the table, also not liking what they had found. He looked at Josiah who looked gravely back. The profiler nodded and rose from his chair to stand beside the white board.

"What we found is, that in each city where one of the victims was killed the same way as the victim in Denver, within two weeks two more killings followed. They all fit the profile of very good looking, slim girls with long blond hair and most of the time green eyes. By the way, the victim found in the Platte has a name, Elena Whitaker."

JD saw Kelli start and look at Chris. "Like Linda?" she asked.

"Yes," Josiah confirmed. "We've been looking at the pictures in the case files and Linda fits the victim's profile."

"I've already called her and asked her to stay out of Denver," Chris told her.

"Good!" Kelli still seemed worried though.

"Josiah...." Chris nodded to the profiler. "Tell us why all those cases weren't linked until now."

"Because they all have a very different MO. The other two victims weren't killed the same way. The only thing in common is the type of victim. The trouble is that there are many young blond females in a city and having two killed in very different circumstances doesn't make you think that they are related. You look for similarities, but in these cases you don't find them. The third, well the third would have alarmed the authorities anyway, but that one is always done some miles outside the city, in the country side."

Chris blanched. Everyone knew he was thinking about the ranches that were miles out of the city. Vin shifted and Chris looked his way. The two stared at each other and then Chris seemed to relax some.

That's what Josiah had been waiting for to continue. "Whoever is doing this, he is clever and he makes sure that the third murder falls just in another jurisdiction, but is still close enough so he could use the city he started in as a home base for his hunt."

"Hunt," Reed said with disgust in his voice. "How can you call this a hunt? That's disgusting in my opinion! Besides, if these killings are so different, how can you connect them?"

"Every city that has been hit by the first murder, has had the second and the third follow within two weeks," Josiah said patiently. "The victims all fit the same profile. And the MO's fit."

"You said those MO's were all different!"

"I did, Sam," Josiah said calmly. "But they still fit. I didn't call this a hunt for nothing. To the killer this is a hunt, he is hunting and these women, all these young women are his prey."

"Tell us about the MO's," Chris said softly.

Josiah sighed and suddenly looked much older then his mid fifties. "They all relate to hunting. The first victim is butchered by a big hunting knife. It can be a bowie knife, but fact is, big chunks are cut out of her, the meat cut from her bones as it were. You have to understand, this is the first killing for him in some months, so he is frantic. He butchers his prey and makes sure there is a lot of blood."

Some of the agents had turned white.

"With the second murder, it's different," the profiler continued. "He is calm, tranquil even. The desperate frenzy for the kill is appeased and he goes for this prey with some kind of peacefulness, acquired thanks to the first kill. That's when he uses the second form of getting a carcass ready to eat. You can just slaughter the prey you killed, but you can also prepare it first by letting the blood drain out."

"What?" Paul Roberts asked. He wasn't the only one looking confused.

"In some cultures they let all the blood drain from a carcass before they consider it fit to eat. That is what he does with the second victim. It makes me believe that the blood of his victims is the most important for the killer, more than the sexual assault, although it's still there. He drains the blood from his second victim and we can only guess what he does with it."

Mark and Katrina were now swallowing hard.

"He does hurt this victim as well, but now more through fists. In the end she just dies of all the blood loss. The third victim is the worst," Josiah said softly. "She is the one that must give him the most satisfaction, the one he enjoys the most and the longest, because she is the last and has to last him quite some time. He skins her. Also something a hunter does with his prey. As I said, this third kill would have triggered suspicions, but was always done inside another jurisdiction, some distance away. The dates triggered the correlation for us."

"And the fact you saw the hunting connection," Chris told the older man.

"FUCK!" Buck suddenly stood up and started to pace. "That one has some nerve! Killing those women and then treating them like they are some animal for the slaughter! God, if he has to kill, why does he have to mutilate them like that afterwards? What's the thrill in that?"

"Buck, it ain't like that," Vin said softly.

"What? Then how is it, Vin?"

"Didn't you hear what they said 'bout the first victims? He keeps them alive while he butchers them with a knife. And the second one dies 'cause of all the blood she's lost."

Buck blanched. "No! Don't tell me about the third. She's not... not alive! JD?"

JD looked away. He still couldn't quite grasp it himself, but there it had been in all the files. Alive... skinned alive. The pictures had made him feel really sick.

"Jeeezus! What a mess, what a fucking mess! We need to find that miserable s.o.b. before he grabs another woman!"

The agents all gazed at one another. "But how?" Justin wanted to know. "How do we get him? We don't know anything about him."

"We go looking," Chris said softly. "Looking everywhere. Vin, Ezra, hit the streets and try and see what you can find. Vin, take Roberts. Ezra, you take Anderson. Nathan, CASSIE found three cases that almost matched, only the medical examiner had found a small mark on his victims and that made him decide to examine their blood and tissues. He found faint traces of a narcotic in them. Go and call this guy, talk with him. Then you go to the morgue and talk with forensics, look at the body yourself if you have to. Katrina will go with you."

The two medics looked gravely at each other.

"Michaels, you've been with State Police Investigations for years, I want you to see what you can dig up, which relations you can call upon if we need to." Justin nodded.

"Buck, you and Westin go talk with the PD, tell them what's going on." Chris pushed a hand through his unruly blond hair. "Make sure they understand this mess!"

"And where does that leave me?" Reed asked, peeved.

"That leaves you doing whatever JD and Pam need you to do."

"WHAT?" Reed almost seemed to explode. "With my experience you want me to follow orders from some kid?" The look he shot JD was murderous. Pamela he ignored completely. JD cringed. He didn't like being put in the middle of this feud Chris and Vin seemed to have with Reed.

"Since most of your file was classified, I don't know the hell what you're experienced in. Could be babysitting for all I know. Are you going to do your job?"

Fuming Reed stalked away.


"Yes, Kelli?"

"Can I talk with you for a minute?"

Chris smiled at the young woman and nodded. "Sure, lets go to my office. All of you, you know what to do. Move!"

JD looked after them and then at Josiah. He sighed. "Chris had to go and assign Reed to us," he said with disgust. "Come on Pam, let's just try and make sure we don't need him." He turned back to the terminal and started calling up files. Behind him everyone was leaving for their own assignments, except for Josiah, who would stay with him and Pam. Within seconds he was engrossed in the data CASSIE was sending them.

He almost jumped out of his skin when Vin suddenly started talking right behind him.

"Geeez, Vin! Don't do that!"

"JD, Pam, make very sure that Reed don't see anything sensitive, alright?"

"Vin, what's going on with you and Chris and Reed?"

"Don't know exactly, JD. All I know is that Chris don't want him seeing anything sensitive or classified, so just go with that for now, alright?"

"Right Vin." JD and Pam looked at each other and rolled their eyes. Bosses... they always thought they had to keep things to themselves, it seemed.

At that moment the door opened and Chris and Kelli came back in, both not looking happy at all. "JD, we still have that program to composite photos, don't we?"

"Eh... the digital sketch artist? Yeah, we do. Why?"

"Might be a long shot, but I'm not going to take any chances. Kelli caught a guy watching Linda when they met at lunch. She doesn't remember much of him, but at least it's something."

"He had rather long black hair and his face was hidden a bit behind it. Frankly, that's all I remember, that black hair. Shit! I wish I had paid more attention to him, but Linda was upset, so...."

"She was? 'Bout what?" Chris immediately wanted to know.

JD had to grin when he saw the suffering look in Kelli's eyes.

"How long was the hair?" Vin asked.

"Not too long, Vin. Not like yours, you know, noticeable. Just long enough to have it obscuring his face."

"Just try Kelli, please. Vin, I know I should stay here, but things are up and running and I really would like to go and talk with Linda. Convince her to keep out of Denver at the moment."

"I understand Cowboy. Me, Kelli and JD will watch the fort."

"Me too," Pam said indignantly.

"No, you go home and rest. There has to be one of you two here at all times now, to keep an eye on CASSIE and JD needs some time off tomorrow for Casey's physical."

JD sighed and bowed his head in resignation. He had really wanted to be with Casey after all the horrible things CASSIE had found. It would be hectic enough in the coming days when they would try and save other young women's lives.

"Nah," Chris suddenly said. "It's alright for tonight Vin. If Casey is in any way like Sarah about those physicals, she will want JD with her tonight. Everyone has their assignments and we'll examine all the results first thing tomorrow. Have everyone in here at seven for that. I gotta go and make sure a certain lady will listen to me, see you all tomorrow."

They all waved. Then Vin walked over to Kelli and gave her a soft kiss. "You go home after you and JD finish that sketch, Texas. Me and Roberts will be on the streets for a long time, so I'll crash here afterwards."


"Nope, ain't no use. 'Sides, I know you wanna check your new foals and their mothers. See you tomorrow Texas, and that 's an order." Another fast kiss on the red curls and Vin was gone, bellowing for Roberts.

"Let's get on with it then," Kelli told JD.

"Yeah, but I'd rather we do it at my workspace, Kel. Come on!"

JD hurried ahead. He felt a lot better knowing he could go home after all. He was going to hold Casey all night, he vowed.

+ + + + + + +

From Civic Center Park he'd gone to Sunken Garden Park right alongside Cherry Creek and found a nice spot to lounge at its banks and eat the sandwiches he'd bought at a deli. The weather was just too good to eat somewhere inside and here, at the creek bank, it was ideal.

A blond woman walked past him and immediately he smiled at her. Hesitantly she smiled back and then looked away fast. That was alright, he was used to that. She wasn't worth his time and efforts anyway, her eyes had been blue. He wasn't in such a hurry yet that he needed to settle for less. This was his day of rest. He would start looking again tomorrow, but even then there was no hurry. After this week he would be here another full week as well.

He would go back to the Street Mall tomorrow. Maybe the vision he had seen at lunch time, the one with all those shopping bags and that redheaded friend, would be there as well. He licked his lips remembering her.

Looking at the water in front of him he decided that he liked Cherry Creek a lot better than the Platte River. It would be a much more fitting resting place for his next prey.


"Hey Cowboy, you seem beat!"

Chris grumbled and gazed at Vin with some resentment. The younger man looked as if he'd just come from a long and restful vacation. Then he saw the mug in Vin's hand and the way the Texan relished what was in it.


"Hey! It's Tanner original! The only way to start the day!"

Chris gave him a disgusted look and stomped off to his office. "I'm gonna make it a standing order to have decent coffee ready here in the morning!" He yelled and then he slammed the door.

"What's eating him?" Buck asked. He had just entered the office and the first thing he was confronted with was Chris' door closing with such a bang, that some plaster threatened to come lose. Then he looked at the mug in Vin's hand. "Don't tell me you made the coffee?"

"Ain't nothing wrong with my coffee! Ya'll are just weaklings with no stomach lining whatsoever!"

"Yeah, sure! I'm gonna make some decent brew, get Chris a bit more civilized before the meeting. You can take it to him."

"Coward," Vin grinned.

"Whatever Vin, whatever. Hey kiddo!" The last was said to Mark Westin, who came out of the small kitchen looking as if he was still asleep.

"Hi Buck," the young man answered, brightening when he saw his partner. "It's some case, isn't it?" He took a sip of his coffee, blanched, turned around and hurried back into the kitchen.

Buck smirked at Vin and followed the young man inside. He found Mark pouring out half of his mug's contents in the sink and then adding a huge dollop of milk and lots of sugar.

"What's the matter, kiddo? Too strong for you?"

"This is the most horrible coffee I ever tasted! Who made it?"

"You mean you never tasted the captain's coffee before?"

"The captain made this?" The young man's eyes grew wide. "Oh Buck, do you think he saw how I almost spit it out?"

"Don't know, but I do know he's mighty proud of that swill!" Buck grinned. He enjoyed needling the young man. In his opinion Mark was way too much in awe of both Chris and Vin and needed to get some backbone when it came to the two task force leaders. Damn, but he had grown fond of this young man. He was bright, eager and fun to be with, with a great sense of humor. He especially liked the optimistic look his partner had on life and the wonder he still felt over things.

It was refreshing.

"How ya like my coffee, Mark?" he heard Tanner ask when Mark had stepped into the office again.

"Eh... I eh, I like it just fine, Vin."

"Good! I knew you weren't one of them sissy's that all tell me it's too strong. From now on you and me, we'll drink some true coffee every morning. I'll make sure you got some!"

Buck smirked. Yep, you could trust Tanner to rub it in to the hilt!

"Vin, stop pestering the boy! Why isn't anyone else here yet? We have a meeting in fifteen minutes!"

Chris really was in a foul mood! Buck looked at the coffee maker and tried with his glare alone to get it to work faster. He felt someone enter behind him.

"Decent coffee?" Chris asked.

"Yep, the way coffee was meant to be. Chris, you look like shit. What happened?"

"Had a rough night with Linda. Damn, but she's stubborn! Don't smirk at me like that, I can see reason! But Linda.... She didn't like it when I told her to stay the hell out of Denver."

Buck now had to laugh out loud. "And you would've reacted differently about that... how?"


"Here, real coffee." Buck was still grinning. "So, did you two lovebirds come to an agreement after all?"

Chris sighed. "I eh... I asked her how she would feel hanging upside down for two or three days, being used as a punching bag and being molested, while slowly bleeding to death."

"Chris, you didn't!"

"Yeah Buck, I did! Then I asked her if she remembered the man Kelli saw observing her. That got the point home alright. Damn, I love that woman a lot Buck, more than I thought I would ever be able to do again after... after Sarah. But you sure need to hit her over the head with a brick sometimes to get a point home."

"She's good for you, Stud."

Chris smiled and looked at his longtime friend. "She is, isn't she? Now, if I could only get a handle on her mood swings."

That made Buck laugh out loud again. "Did anyone ever tell you that you're a damn optimist in disguise, pard? Get a handle on the mood swings of women! That's a good one, that's a real good one!"

"On the mood swings of who, Buck?" Kelli asked icily from the doorpost. "Is there something I should talk with Inez about?"

Buck choked on his coffee. "Yeah, well, gotta go, we seem to have a meeting in eh... ten." The rogue made a hasty retreat, smiling amiably at Kelli.

Kelli sauntered inside and took some coffee.

"That's Vin's."

"Yeah? Don't matter, I'm getting' used to it. Did you manage to convince Linda to stay put?"

Chris heaved a deep sigh. "Sort of."

"She give you a hard time 'bout it? Thought so. You were hardly civilized when we were takin' care of the horses."

"Sorry 'bout that." Chris meant it, but Kelli only grinned.

"Hey, I know that lady! I've been roommates with her! So you were forgiven from the start."

The two smiled at each other and Chris was glad that he felt so at ease with this young woman. She was after all a very important part of Vin's life now. He was thankful that she was someone he liked a lot and could also respect.

"But you did manage to convince her to stay away from the streets of Denver, right?"


"Good!" The relief was clear on Kelli's face. "It'll be hard on her though. She needs to shop when she's upset."

"I'm beginning to find that out," Chris said with some resignation. "Kelli, did she tell you what's bothering her? She wouldn't talk about it with me, said there was nothing and you were seeing tigers and bears that weren't there."

"Don't worry about it Chris. It's some stupid notion she got in her head. It'll pass. Nope, I ain't gonna tell ya, she would be embarrassed as hell if you knew and I ain't gonna do that to her! You just make sure she knows that you love her, that's what she really needs right now."

"Shit! She's having second thoughts about us."

"No Chris, she isn't! She loves you to pieces, but she isn't as sure of herself as she wants everyone to believe. She still can't believe you want her, that a man like you would actually go and pick her out. You'll just have to convince her that you really do love her." Her eyes narrowed. "You do, don't you? Really want her and love her?" Her voice sounded definitely threatening.

"I do Kelli," he told her softly.

She nodded and abruptly left. Somehow Chris felt there was more to it all. Women and their secrets.... He'd sort it out in the long run; he always managed to sort it out with Sarah as well. Right now he had a serial killer to catch first.

When he entered the bull pen, Vin just turned off his phone. He didn't look happy. "That was Nate. He and Santos are in the morgue right now. He called yesterday evening that forensics wasn't gonna cooperate that late in the evening so he had to go back this morning, but it seems the medical examiner is still giving them hell. Bastard refuses to acknowledge their jurisdiction."

"Really?" Chris' eyes narrowed.

"I was gonna phone Strickland, head of homicide. Buck said they were more than willin' to cooperate and try and catch this guy."

"No need." Chris had already taken out his own cell phone. "Nate? Give me that bastard!"

While Chris waited his face clouded more and more. Finally he seemed to get someone on the other side.

"Mister, you keep me waiting one more time and I'll have your ass fired so fast you won't know what hit you for a week to come! Who I am? I'm Unit Commander Chris Larabee and you're willingly obstructing an important investigation."

Whatever answer Chris received, he clearly didn't like it. Suddenly he barked into the receiver in such a hard voice it made Mark jump off his chair. "Right, that does it, I'm gonna have you arrested. Give me my man back. NOW!"

A moment of silence, then, "Nate? That you? Arrest the son of a bitch for willingly obstructing the course of justice. Yeah, just put the cuffs on him! No, I'll wait, keep the line open."

The resulting wait had the irritated unit commander tapping one foot and looking at his watch. "Hey," he yelled after a few moments. "Tell Santos she needs to read him his rights! Yeah, I can hear her, she's got a penetrating voice when she wants to. Oh, NOW he wants to talk! Alright, put him back on."

Chris took a deep breath and seemed to listen to the other side. Finally he said icily "I don't give a damn what you think procedures and proper protocol should be or who you think you have to answer to! You're under my jurisdiction now and you're gonna do what my agents tell you to the letter, understood? Oh, and you will hear more about this!"

Another moment of silence, then "Give them hell, Nate." When he had put the phone away and looked up, everyone in the office was silently staring at him.


"Nothin'," Vin smirked. "Didn't we have a meeting?"

"Yeah, but later. Nate and Katrina are delayed." Looking at his agents, Chris shrugged. "Guess you already know that. Alright, everyone look over what you've got and if there is anything to add, do it now. We'll start as soon as Nate and Kat are in."

An hour later they were all in the conference room. When the unit agents entered, they found Josiah already there in the same pose as the day before, resting against the edge of the table, his arms crossed. Only now he was studying the large map instead of the white board. Chris was standing beside him, while JD and Pam were trying to be very silent where they were working at the terminal. When everyone was sitting around the table, Chris took his eyes of the map and looked at his agents. Lastly he looked towards the corner where Pam and JD sat.

"You two ready with compiling all those dates?"

"Yes Chris."

"Good, give it to Josiah. JD, how late is Casey's physical?"

"She's scheduled for 11.00 a.m. Chris. But she says she understands if I have to work."

Chris' eyebrows rose and JD fell silent. "Don't think you'll need to skip it, kid. Pam is here as well."

"Thanks! She really is nervous," JD confessed with a relieved smile. "I know Nettie will be there too, but it's just not the same!"

"It ain't," Buck agreed. "To see that small person inside you're wife's womb, see the little heart beat, it's awesome!"

Josiah nodded. "It is," he said.

"Yeah," Nathan agreed from his side of the table and Justin and Ross nodded vigorously. JD's smile became even wider.

Chris stared at the table, not trusting himself to speak while he remembered the first time he had seen Adam's very small heart beat. It had been overwhelming. He felt Vin's concern envelope him like a safety blanket and was glad when the younger man took over the meeting.

"Right, heads up! The killer's first victim was found in the Platte Monday afternoon, time of death estimated somewhere between midnight and early Monday morning. We found out about it yesterday thanks to CASSIE. It's Wednesday now and that means he's probably ready to go and start searchin' for his next victim. So let's see what we got!"

Soon it was clear that Vin's and Ezra's connections hadn't known anything. Justin Michaels had more to tell. He'd been in conclave with Pam and JD and they had researched all the data on the third murders. They had taken the distances from the cities that these murders took place and the surroundings where these victims were found. Using that and his own knowledge of the area Justin then had extrapolated the most likely places around Denver where the killer might strike.

"That's a good job, Justin," Chris said, looking the data over. "Let's hope we don't need this, but truth is that it will be very hard to keep him from killing again."

"Shouldn't we warn the people in Denver?" Buck asked.

Chris sighed. "It's a dilemma, Buck. I wouldn't want to alert this guy too fast. At the moment we know where he is and if we scare him off, who knows how long it will take to find him again and how many other deaths." He rubbed his face. "Damn! I don't want someone else to fall prey to him as well, Buck, just knowing that he's probably stalking another potential victim turns my stomach. But I don't wanna loose him and have to chase him years to come while he keeps on murdering all through the country either."

"Tough," Buck mumbled, nodding that he understood. Glad probably that the decision wasn't his.

Chris felt Vin's eyes on him and let him know it was alright to go on. He could still wait with this decision.

"Nate? Kat?" Vin asked.

"We do have somethin'," Nathan said gravely. "I phoned the medical examiner from Amarillo like y' asked, Chris and he was very willin' to help. That one is good, really good. He don't take things on face value, says that's a pitfall he wasn't goin' to fall for ever again. So he examined the first body real good and found this puncture mark, like a dart would make. That's what made him wonder and made him examine the body for toxins. He didn't find any in the blood, but he found somethin' in the liver and kidneys. He found Rompun or Xylazine, a sedative that's used to bring down animals with tranquilizer guns and such. He found the same drug in the second victim, but he never got his hands on the third. By the time he found out 'bout her, the body was already released and cremated. He's still pissed 'bout that."

"A tranq gun?" Ross Anderson asked. "Is that how he gets them?"

Nathan nodded. "Looks like it. After ya got through to that dickhead of a medical examiner Chris, we told him to look for a puncture mark and they found one, in the right shoulder. Now they're testing the body for toxins. Robert Metfield, the chief examiner from Amarillo, he's very willin' to step in and help. So I've been so free to have them take tissue examples and send them to him."

"Good," Chris nodded. "That does make me feel better. I don't know how motivated forensics here is to find anything. They were certainly not motivated this morning. Pam, JD, did you come across this drug in the cases you called up?"

Pam and JD looked at each other, then they both turned as one to Sam Reed. "What?" the agent asked.

"You have gone through all the cases with blond victims CASSIE found and divided them into categories," Pam said. "The cases in Amarillo included the use of a sedative, but they also had the MO's of our killer. So, were there any others where sedatives were used on young, blond green eyed women?"

Reed frowned. He didn't like that he had to address Pam, whom he would have preferred to ignore. He rankled him even more to have to listen to a woman than it had to listen to a younger agent, Chris knew. It was in his whole demeanor.

"Can't remember them," he said surly.

"They sure didn't show up in a separate folder," JD said. He and Pam were looking at each other. "Oh well, it's easiest to just ask CASSIE and see what she comes up with!" Both turned eagerly to the terminal behind them and happily started typing away.

The other agents were all looking at the sketch made of the man Kelli had seen and shaking their heads as to how little they could do with the vague image, when JD suddenly whooped in joy and Pam called out "Got it!"

"Got what?" Chris shot out of his chair and hurried to the two younger agents. Vin had had the same idea unfortunately. Both were rubbing their head while they were leaning over the computer experts.

"We found a girl, blond, green eyed, killed by an overdose of Rompun in Dillard, Oregon in May 1996. Definitely tranq gun, the darts were still laying beside her. There were also two girls killed the same way not long after that in Eugene. One died instantly, the other they found alive and at first they thought that she might survive, but she died anyway later in the hospital. Two nights later another girl was found and she did survive, although she was in a bad shape and was in the hospital for two weeks. In December a girl was found heavily sedated, molested and with lots of knife cuts in Carson City, Nevada. Rompun or Xylazine as well."

"About a year later the murders started," Chris said softly. "Isn't that right, Josiah?"

"Yes Chris, it is." Josiah stood up and moved a little flag towards Dillard, Oregon. "At least the ones that have the MO of this killer."

"There were some blond, green eyed girls molested and cut between the December murder in Carson City and the first one like what we now face, weren't there Pam, JD?"

"Yeah, there were. These are the ones, Chris."

"Alright, 1996. A girl in May in Red Bluff, California. Three in Los Angeles after that, June and July. God, he really started to butcher them more and more then."

"That was in all the papers, Chris. We saw the articles through internet. After the third killing in LA there was a frenzy about a serial killer on the loose. But it stopped after that."

"He left."

"If it was him, Chris."

Chris looked at Josiah. "These murders form a trail right to what we figured was his first territory, Josiah."

"Right to Litchfield Park?"

"Yeah. The next one is in Palm Springs and then it seems to stop until the first murder we deduced had to be him." Chris looked at the list Pam had given him. "Not that there weren't more blond girls killed, but they weren't sedated with this same stuff. They could still find it in the blood of these victims, because they weren't held for days first. They were all actually found real quick. He didn't throw them in a river yet."

While he was talking Chris had walked up to the map and the two men stood staring at it again.

"Seems it didn't start in Litchfield Park after all," Chris murmured.

"No. But that is the place where the killings became a hunt for him."

"The first ones, killed only with the drug, were probably try outs to find the right amount of the stuff to use. Coward wants to make them helpless without having to come too close."

"Then he couldn't control himself in LA. and the authorities, no, the whole media suddenly was on the look out for him."

"So he moved on."

"Settled here, in Litchfield and started to really roam his new territory."

"First only one at a time, but from that moment on he keeps them alive for a while."

"The gun became his hunting weapon and he started to see them as his prey more and more. After two years of this he moved on to Dallas. Didn't leave a trail though, just started working his new territory."

"And something changed. He didn't go out on a killing spree more than two times a year after that, sometimes three."

"I still think that's job related, Chris. A killer needs a living too."

"Other vacation arrangements?"

The beginning of a smirk could be heard from somewhere in the room, but pretty soon it was clear that Josiah and Chris were deadly serious.

"He did seem to have more time though, when he could go hunting," Josiah added. "Two to three weeks every time. And he fulfilled his needs by going from one to three killings a time."

"And now he's here."

The whole room was silent, watching. The two men took their eyes from the map and looked at each other.

"Seems your first stop isn't Litchfield Park after all, Josiah. Better start where he started, in Dillard, Oregon. Get the stuff you need. Kelli, you too! You still may have seen the guy so I want you along. Paul, you go along as additional back up. Move! I'm going to contact Travis for transportation. No line plane, we gotta be fast, time is ticking for some woman out there!"

Before leaving the room Chris briefly put his hand on Vin's shoulder. Vin smiled at him, waving him along.

It's her job, Cowboy. Glad our involvement won't stop you from using her as you should on a case.


When Chris had left the room in a hurry everyone stared at Josiah, who was busy picking up notes.

"What just happened?" Mark asked, totally perplexed.

"Josiah and Chris figured out what the pattern in the murders was," JD told them proudly. "They asked all sorts of data and then they just stared at that map and at the dates. It's because Josiah knew there had to be a pattern, didn't you, Josiah?"

"Yes, the way this man works, very methodically, there just had to be a logical system in how he decided where to go for his killings as well. And then we noticed how the murders of two or three years were grouped around a region, after which they would form a cluster around another region for the next few years. And the murder scenes were never further away from the heart of that region than what you can drive in reasonable comfort in one day."

"Plus then they saw that the last hunt always seemed to be in one of the cities in the middle and they figured that would have been the city where he lived, until he decided to move on."

"And you found out the city where it all started," Buck said, impressed. "Didn't you?"

"Only it started elsewhere after all." Josiah smiled at Nathan and Katrina. "You two found the information that will lead us to the real start of all this." He lo

ked at the map again, at the small flag in Oregon. "That first girl, slim, blond, green eyed, with the darts still beside her.... Something tells me it started there. Only, killing her wasn't enough. He is torturing and killing her over and over again I think."

"Yeah, well, I don't give a fuck why he does it, I just want him." Chris' voice coming from the doorway was ice cold when he made his statement. "Travis is arranging a private jet for you three that will take you to the airport in Roseburg. Pam, JD, find out through that...," he waved his hand at the terminal, "where they can get a rental car, they'll need one. Now leave for the airport, the jet will be ready before you get there! Oh, and it will be at your disposal, so you can move on to Litchfield Park afterwards. JD, belay! Let Pam do that stuff, you gotta run and get to the hospital to be with your wife! Ezra, hit the street again with Ross! Buck, you and Mark too. Move all of you! SHIT!"

He walked out and they all heard the door of his office close with a loud bang.

While everyone was suddenly very busy and saying goodbye to the three departing agents, Vin took a quiet moment in the second, smaller conference room with his wife. They didn't have a long time together before Buck started banging on the door to warn them that Kelli needed to leave.

"Hey, we see each other tomorrow again probably," Kelli whispered, making the last kiss linger for a little while longer.

"Yeah," Vin sighed. "Damn, how did Chris and Linda do it during our previous case, not seeing each other for a whole week! That they didn't just hop into a car and the hell with the rest!"

Kelli laughed. "We might have seen each other, but that was all Vin, we only saw each other on the job or we slept!"

"But at least we did see each other and I could drag you in the kitchen and steel a kiss from time to time. Heck, Kelli, I miss y' already!"

Someone was pounding on the door again. Reluctantly Vin let Kelli go. "You don't seem to mind as much as I do!"

"Nope! But that's because I get to do some real work, while you might try some things, what ya'll really will be doin' here is the waiting game!"

"You got a mean streak, Texas!"

"Oh yes! You ain't seen nothing yet," she whispered in his ear and then she was out of the door.

Well, better go and see Larabee, before he explodes, Vin decided. He really needs some support on the decision he has to make!

+ + + + + + +

Yes, he liked her, he liked her a lot! He'd seen her when he visited the Denver Zoo, he couldn't be in a city and not visit the zoo of course. She had been with a bunch of friends, but when he left, he saw her walking away through the park on her own. On a hunch he had decided to follow her. When she was at her house, fumbling with her keys he casually walked past her and called a cheerful greeting. She hadn't said anything back of course, but it had startled her enough to turn around for a moment.

Oh yes, his hunches were still working. Green! The most vibrant green!

So he had observed her and now he was back in his hotel room, looking at his tranquilizer gun and checking his darts. This afternoon he would be back at the den of his new prey and patiently wait her out. Like a good hunter would.

He was in no hurry, but he wasn't going to waste an opportunity either.

Time... it was time to become better acquainted with his new prey.



Chris sighed and hung back in his chair, looking at Vin with tired eyes.

"Maybe you should talk this through with Travis...."

Chris' shoulders slumped. He stood up and walked to the window, to stare at the mountains in the distance. The ranch was there. Linda was there. God, he wished he was there as well. He needed to be with her, so he could hold her and protect her. He felt Vin come closer and lend his silent support.

Don't go there, Cowboy!


Don't Chris! She's safe, we'll keep her safe! You won't lose her!

Chris looked at his friend and saw the determination in those blue eyes. Eyes that tried to make him believe it wouldn't happen to him a second time. He wouldn't lose someone he loved again.

He thought he'd gotten over this fear, that he'd moved on, only to find that after all was said and done he hadn't. Right now all he wanted to do was leave everything and go to Linda, so this time he would be with the one he loved if anything threatened to happen.

Then he thought of all the pictures he'd seen of this man's, no, this monster's victims and he knew he couldn't do it. He couldn't let another husband lose his wife, or other parents lose their child. Or have some small kids lose their mother.

"I'm gonna ask her to leave Denver for a while."

That made Vin grin and Chris shook his head ruefully when he saw the man's mirth. Vin was right, she wouldn't budge. She was as stubborn as Sarah used to be.... Nope, she was even more stubborn.

He looked at the clock on the wall and suddenly became all business again. "Half past ten. Josiah, Kelli and Paul should be at the airport right now. Flight should take an hour or two, then the drive... luckily it's mostly interstate. So they'll be in Dillard when it's still early afternoon. Good. I better go get in contact with the authorities over there to warn them our team's coming."

And Travis?


So, y' already know what you're gonna do.

Chris sighed. "I can't let him take someone else, Vin," he said softly. "I just can't. My head tells me we shouldn't alarm him, but...." He again saw Linda before him, her laughing eyes and the way she moved when she walked away from him. What if that bastard really had gotten her?

Vin grinned. "You'll look real purty on the telli, Cowboy." He ducked just in time to avoid getting hit solidly by a pencil case and got out fast, his laughter trailing after him.

Damn, but Chris hoped he could get Travis to do the honors and warn the Denver people about the serial killer on their streets.

+ + + + + + +

Travis didn't budge, telling Chris handling the media would be his solid job. He did call them and set things up for a press conference in time to make it on the six o'clock news. Chris had opted for late afternoon in the hope that Josiah would have something by then. Later was out of the question though. The victims as a rule had disappeared in the evening and night and he wanted his warning out no later than at the beginning of the evening, regardless if Josiah had found anything.

Luckily Travis had agreed. "I've asked Mary not to come this weekend like she and Billy had planned," he'd confided in Chris. "She fits this killer's victim profile too well, blond, slim, very handsome." The old man had looked at Chris shrewdly. At one time everyone had thought Chris and Mary would make a couple. This was after Chris had saved Mary's son Billy and they had become friends. Although Chris had felt some attraction to Mary, it never had been very deep, certainly not enough to let go of the memory of Sarah for her.

"I've also told Billy that you're probably too busy to see him with a case, so Billy decided to come later as well. He likes seeing me and Evy, but visiting you on the ranch still is the biggest attraction for him to come back to Denver. He really resented having to move when Mary remarried, because he wanted to keep seeing you."

"Travis, I...." Chris felt uncomfortable. He knew Orrin had been very in favor of him and Mary marrying. And Billy, well.... That had been tough, he loved that boy.

"No, no, don't look like that! You did great with Billy, allowing him to come over at holidays and weekends too. Didn't you have a weekend planned soon anyway? He was really exited about that when we talked on the phone."

"Eh, yeah, we have," Chris mumbled. Oh God, he'd almost forgotten that. He'd better straighten it out with Linda soon! She didn't even know about Billy yet. And Billy didn't know about Linda.... What a mess! Murmuring something about 'still having a lot of work to do', Chris practically fled Orrin's office.

Finally he'd done all the things and made all the arrangements on the case he could think of. It gave him a moment he needed frantically to check on the new love in his life. After having made sure everyone knew that to disturb him in the next hour or so without a very good reason was courting death he confiscated Vin's cell phone and shut the door to his office to call Linda on it.

He didn't want to use his own cell phone, which was the one Josiah would call the moment he knew something. Cell phones were more difficult to bug than land lines, so they had decided to use those. He still had had JD check the cell phones of Josiah, Kelli and Paul before they left and afterwards also his, Vin's, Buck's and Ezra's. He was fairly certain that by now JD's and Pam's phones would be checked as well. Since they all were clear of any tampering he hadn't bothered with the rest, trying to keep the checking as low profile as possible.

"Dubois, not interested in any crap!" Linda answered.

Chris grinned, feeling instantly better. Linda occasionally liked to rattle people who called and this seemed like one of those occasions. He swiveled his chair so no one who tried to peek into his office would see him and put on his most seductive voice.

"Would you be interested in the better quality phone sex, Mademoiselle Dubois? You ask, you get."

"What? Who do you think you are?"

"My name is Chris and I can give you endless satisfaction."

"CHRIS! You dolt! Where are you? You're not calling from the office with an offer like that, are you? Trying to make some side money in the boss's time?"

Chris couldn't help laughing. "Yeah Linda, I'm at the office right now. Nothing much is happening at the moment and I really needed to hear your voice. What've you been up to?"

"I should have been up to my neck in some shopping," Linda told him. "You do know Inez's birthday is coming up in less than a week, don't you? She's been so kind to me and has really done everything to make me feel welcome, so I'd wanted to do something special."

Oh hell! Chris quickly looked at the small calendar on his desk. Tuesday, Inez's birthday was next Tuesday. He'd forgotten with all that was going on and now he couldn't ask Linda to make something of it. She would have loved to organize a party for Inez. Somehow the two had hit it off right away. Maybe because they were both women with fire in them.

"Chris? Are you still there?"

"Yeah, sorry. Just thinking about Inez's birthday. I'm afraid we'll still be in the middle of this case."

"That's alright. I'd love to organize the party for her. What do you think, would she want it at the Standish Tavern, or would she prefer it somewhere else? I could go look at places...."

"Linda, no! You can't go look at places! Damn it, I told you what's going on, as much of it as I can! And what's wrong with the ranch anyway?"

"Chris, I'll be careful, I will. I won't go anywhere dangerous, just the main streets. And while the ranch is fine, you people always do your celebrations there, there is nothing wrong with some change of scenery now and then."

"Sarah was careful too! Linda, please...."

"Oh Chris...."

"I just can't lose you Linda, I can't! I hate it that I'm stuck here instead of being with you. Damn...."

"Chris, I'm perfectly safe. I have Ben and Rob here and the other help, you know that.

"You'd be even safer if you'd leave Den...."

"Oh no, you don't! I'm not leaving, no way. I do have a ranch to run in case you forgot! Besides, we just saw each other again after a week of nothing and I'm not going to take another week without you!"

"It might come to that anyway, there is a good chance that I'll be stuck here until we have this guy."

"I know. But at least I'm close in case you do have a moment to pop over, since I'm not allowed to pop over to you."

"God, I love you Linda."

"I love you too, even when you're overprotective, Christopher Adam Larabee."

Chris laughed softly when he heard the determination in her voice. He could just see how she would look, with that small frown between her eyes and that slight pout she could get. If he'd been with her he wouldn't have been able to resist kissing that frown and that pout away. He would have taken her in his arms and wouldn't have stopped kissing her until she would laugh that delightful laugh of hers.

"Chris, this IS a phone call, remember? That means talking...."

"Sorry Linda, I was just picturing you, how you would look right now and how I would take you in my arms...."

"And how would you know what I look like right now?" she asked teasingly. "It's not like I always wear the same color, the way you do!" A bit hoarsely she added, "Not that I'm complaining, black really... suits... you."

"Oh, but I think I can guess. You're on your ranch, have probably been between the horses all morning. So you'd be wearing jeans and one of those soft flannel shirts that are too good and too expensive for ranch work."

She laughed, finally she laughed. He let that beloved sound flow all over him. "Hey, they're comfortable!"

"Am I right?"

A deep sigh answered him. "Yes, you're right and I can just see the smug smile you're wearing right now! Not fair when I can't wipe it off your face with a deep kiss that will have you go all weak in the knees."

"Guess you'll have to do that at a later time," Chris teased.


"Tell me about your morning," he asked wistfully. The next half hour he listened to her lovely voice talking about the new foals, their mothers, the mares that still had to foal and the antics of some of the young stallions. They ended discussing which should be gelded and which had breeding qualities.

"I think at least those five should be gelded and then sold to someone who could train them," Linda finally thought.

"You sell them untrained? Linda, they'd be worth much more if they would be saddle ready!"

"I know, but it's expensive to have them trained somewhere first and a lot of trouble. It's just not our main trade, so I never bothered with it."

"I could train them."

"You could? Chris, you train horses? I never realized...."

"Yep, always try to train as many as I can myself. It's difficult sometimes when work is too busy. George does his share now as well, but I still try and take them on myself. Those are really fine horses you have Linda, it's a joy just to watch them and I would love to do it for you."

They talked some more until his eyes fell on the clock. "Shit, Linda, I have to stop! It's been over an hour!"

"Oh hell! Guess I'll have to go and do some work as well."

"You don't sound enthusiastic."

"Administration." The suffering in her voice was undisputable and made Chris laugh.

"Better not keep you then," he teased.

"Larabee, you can be mean!"

"I try, I try! Please Linda, take care! I don't wanna lose you, ever."

"I'm too stubborn to lose, Larabee!" Then, softly, "I'll be careful Chris, for you! Promise. Just get back here soon."

"I'll try."

The moment Chris had laid down Vin's cell phone, Vin stalked in with some sandwiches and a huge grin on his face.

"For someone with your rep of silence you sure can talk a blue streak, Larabee!"

"Stuff it Tanner." Chris flipped the phone over to him, which caused Vin to drop one of the sandwiches.

"Cranky, cranky. Just so's you know, that was your own late lunch! Here." Vin tossed the sandwich he was still holding and after having picked it up the other followed as well. Then he settled in the chair before Chris' desk. Soon his feet were up again. Chris arched an eyebrow, but this time refrained from commenting.

"That lady sure can make you talk!"

"We only talked horses, Tanner!"


"We did," Chris told his friend defensively. "We talked about her young stallions."

"Ya offered to train them!"

"Yeah. We don't have that many horses to train at the moment."

"And you're almost done with the quarterhorses you were working with. George was working with Blue Moon last Sunday, while you were dallying in the fields and creeks with your woman and he thinks she's good enough for trail competitions. It was damn fine to see her perform, Cowboy, you came real far with that wild lady."

"She's a joy to work with." Chris couldn't repress a smile thinking about the beautiful bay quarterhorse mare. "I love training all horses, Vin. But finding one I can train for real ranch work or Western competition like trail, that's still the best. The subtleties of the moves like making them go backwards, or sideways through the fence, I love it. I like that even more than the roping and cutting I've done."

"George thinks she'd be great at that as well."

"Yeah? He wants to start that kind of training, he can go find some cows for it all by himself!"

"You sure you've no regrets that we're trying for the best blood line for race horses now? I mean, you really love working them quarterhorses. Seeing you work with them, it's clear where your heart lays, Cowboy."

"Damn it Vin, I enjoy working at that blood line too, trying to find the best mare for Bounty Hunter and see what kind of foal we'll get, you know that. We have enough quarterhorses each year for me to train myself and that's just the way I like it! And they're a good extra source of income. Speaking of that perfect race horse blood line.... Vin, I've seen a mare at Linda's, a real beauty. She has something that makes me think she and Hunter would be perfect together."

Vin's eyes started to glitter. "Let's go and see her as soon as this mess is fixed! If you say that, she must be great. Eh... you think Linda's willing to sell her?"

"If she ain't, we could maybe make a deal. First foal for her, second for us."

While Chris finished eating they talked some more about the horses, but pretty soon Chris fell quiet. Apprehension came back and he started to look at the clock every few minutes, waiting for a call from Josiah.

He had done everything he could do at his end. He had alerted the authorities on their findings and made sure they would be ready to go help with the hunt for the killer as soon as they knew more. He had placed Buck with Mark, and Justin with Ross in strategic positions so he would know instantly if some bureau somewhere would not fully cooperate. The media was arranged. Now that call from Josiah was what could make all the difference. He really hoped Josiah would have some information to find the killer before he would be alerted by the six o'clock news.

He fervently hoped that he wouldn't be too late in alerting the people of Denver, that the killer wouldn't change his MO and would again wait until dark before snatching his next victim.

God, let this waiting be the right thing to do and not mean another victim!

He looked at the clock again.

+ + + + + + +

His head rested against the wall behind him. He knew he was concealed in the shadows here and no one would notice him watching the apartment building. The building where she lived. His hand caressed the gun in his pocket where it had joined his knife. He hoped that she would come out soon, so the hunt could begin. He was ready, ready to take her at a moment's notice.

Maybe this time he should act the moment she came out and not wait for the dark.

He licked his lips in anticipation when the door of the building opened, revealing a slender, jeans clad body and long, flowing golden blond tresses.

Oh God, he wanted her! His hand closed around the gun....


Chris was getting nervous and the whole office started to suffer with him. It was almost a quarter to four now and the moment he'd have to leave for the press conference came closer and closer.

Right now he was pacing his office, glaring at the clock, at his cell phone, at the clock again and at anyone who dared to open his door. Just when he was ready to snag his cell phone and call Josiah himself the damn thing started to ring.

After all the waiting it caught him by surprise after all and made him almost jump. Cursing he hit the green button and barked, "This better be Josiah Sanchez!"

"Eh, yes Chris, it's me. Are you alright?"

"Josiah, just tell me," he grated.

"It seems like you need the bottom line on this. Well, that bottom line is: we found him."

"Good!" Chris immediately stalked out of his office, gesturing Pam and JD to the conference room. He didn't have to let Vin know anything, his friend was already hurrying over.

"Tell me, Josiah," Chris said, tense. "All you've got. I'm setting the phone on speaker."

Soon Josiah's rumbling voice filled the conference room. "I'm at the sheriff's office. We're just back from interviewing the parents of the suspect. They had a good picture of him and Kelli says she recognizes him as the man who was watching Linda. She is with their digital sketch artist now, having the picture changed to ten years older and with longer, black hair instead of blond. The two pictures will be coming to you as soon as she's ready."

"How long?" Chris barked.

"Eh... Kelli? How long?" They heard some voices on the background. "About fifteen minutes."

"Make them hurry," Chris told him. "Name?"

"What? Chris, are you alright?"

"Josiah, I'm on a timeline. Name?"

"Brad Cleaver."

Chris furiously penned it down.

"And except for Kelli recognizing him, he's the one why?"

"The girl killed with the tranquilizer gun? She wasn't the only one murdered. A young man was as well. The two had obviously been having some fun together and because Dillard is really small they had these murders booked separately to cover that fact up."

"Damn!" Vin said, showing the disgust they all felt.

"They thought it wouldn't matter, because to them it was a clear cut robbery murder. Everything the two victims had on them, wallets, id's, a big bowie knife from the boy, everything was taken."

"Bowie knife...," JD breathed.

"Yes, and also the tranquilizer gun," Josiah told them. "The victim, Josh LaPlant, worked at the Wildlife Safari Game Park in Winston, not that far from here. He was a hospital keeper and was training to be a Veterinary Technician. That's how he had access to the gun and the darts. The people at the Game Park didn't know that much anymore after nine years, but the Vet did remember that they had had to tranquilize a young lion with an infected paw. He trusted Josh to do that. The young man was very bright and very eager to learn. He would have gone far, is everyone's opinion. The young woman was Stacey Lincoln. She ran off when Josh was clubbed to death, only to have the murderer pursue her and shoot her with the gun. As far as forensics here could deduce, the sheriff told me, he then went back to Josh to finish the job, took all of his possessions and also went through the clothes of the girl to take what she had. They think he went back to the girl by then, but she was probably already dead or at least in a deep coma. It turns out that he shot her more than once, at least four darts were found around her."

"Brad Cleaver?" Chris asked apprehensively.

"At first they didn't think of him at all, Chris. The authorities here regarded this as a mugging, pure and simple and warned all the authorities that a dangerous mugger was running around lose, armed with a knife and a tranq gun, although they suspected it would be out of darts. What they failed to see was the enormous anger behind the attack. The way the boy was clubbed to death, the way the gun was shot at the girl repeatedly should have told them that it could very well be personal, but it didn't. As for Brad Cleaver, he was a year younger than Josh and not very popular. Josh was about the only real friend he had and like him, Brad worked at the Game Park. He couldn't learn well though, problems with calculating mostly, so he was no more than a handy man, doing all sorts of odd jobs like mending the fences. Josh let him in the hospital often though and he was very good at helping out, the vet told me."

"But? How did you get the name of this boy when he wasn't even a suspect?" Chris was getting impatient.

Right then JD whooped and took something off the printer.

"Chris, they sent the pictures! One of the suspect nine years ago and one of the manipulated picture!"

Without losing his beat in the conversation with Josiah, Chris held out his hand imperiously. He looked at both pictures and then passed them on to Vin. "JD, Pam, get me lots of copies! Josiah, don't stop!"

"Brad was in a daze after the death of Josh. He still went to work at the Game Park everyday, but after a while he wasn't allowed in the animal hospital anymore. A few weeks later he disappeared. Then the dead girls in Eugene came up and it was also discovered that a large bottle of Rompun had been stolen at the Game Park animal hospital, along with a box of darts. Chris, I talked with his parents and they said that Stacey was Brad's girl, while everyone else I've spoken said she wasn't, not really."

"And he found her with his best friend," Chris said softly.

"Yes. That started a rage that still hasn't stopped."

"Why was he never arrested?"

"By the time things were added up over here, he had left Eugene. They never knew about the girl in Carson City or any of the others. They just tried to find Brad Cleaver. Chris, I need to go to Litchfield Park."


"To find something out for sure. JD, what is the nearest zoo to Litchfield Park?"

"On it," JD called back. After a few minutes he smiled. "They actually have a zoo in Litchfield Park itself, the Wildlife World Zoo."

"Can you send the information on it, address, how to get there? Nearest airport?"

"That would be Phoenix," Pam stated. She had just put a stack of copies from the pictures near Chris on the conference table. "It's coming, Josiah."

Chris was absently picking up one of the pictures, the one that had added ten years and black hair to the original.

"Why?" he asked his profiler.

"Josh LaPlant had black hair, about the length Kelli has seen the suspect wear. Actually, they used the haircut we have from a picture of Josh on Brad's photo."


At that moment Nathan entered. "Chris, sorry to disturb, but we got the test results from Amarillo, from chief medical examiner Robert Metfield. It's positive, Rompun."

Chris sighed and finally set down in a chair. "I guess we'll find a zoo in every place he's been living, Josiah?"

"Yes Chris, that is what I expect. Everyone was very clear about one thing, Brad Cleaver loved animals, a lot. It is what he and Josh had in common, where the two had found each other. Only, Josh was the golden boy, popular, handsome, good with learning and training for a job that would have him help sick animals for real."

Chris looked again at the picture he'd kept holding and at the original. Not what you would call a handsome boy, he wasn't really ugly either, more... funny looking somehow.


"And very classic as well, Chris."

"Not to mention that he'd had to have access to the drug all these years," Vin added.

"So there's a big chance he's taken on the identity of Josh LaPlant," Chris sighed.

"That is what I want to verify in Litchfield Park, Chris. See if a Josh LaPlant worked there in 1997."

"You go, Josiah. Good job."

Soft laugher answered that statement and the line went dead. Chris looked at Vin. "Time for you to start the hunt, pard," he said softly. "Warn Buck and Ezra and inform the rest of the unit. I've got a press conference to get to. Damn! JD, Pam, make a sheet with facts and I need some of those pictures as well."

You'll do good, Chris!

Chris just snorted and stalked out. "A real friend would offer to trade places!" he called back. "Nathan, I wanna talk with you for a sec, while Vin gets the rest of the team."

"What's up, Chris?"

Chris sighed. "You said those test results came from Amarillo, from the chief medical examiner there. How about forensics here in Denver?"

"Didn't hear anythin' from them yet, Chris. When I called, they said it was still bein' worked on. I asked why the hell Amarillo could get me results and they couldn't and all I got was answers that didn't say anythin'. You know the kind."

"Yeah, I do. I better talk this over with Travis. Nate, what's your feel on the medical examiner in Amarillo, what was his name again, Metfield?"

"Robert Metfield? I didn't really meet him, Chris, only on the phone. But what I got I liked, a lot. He don't take crap and he's very, very thorough. Doesn't mind bending some protocols to get done what needs to be done."

"Sounds like he'd fit right into this team."

"Eh... Chris? I think he's over sixty."

"So? Do you think he'd be interested in a new position?"

"You know, I actually think he might be, he did grouse a lot 'bout how certain things go. Why? You want this team to have its own medical examiner now? Man, you don't think small, do you?"

"After the experiences with forensics in this case, I think we should have our own forensic team, with lab." Chris grinned at Nathan. "Hell yeah, I think great! I better, they are going to expect a lot from this team, Nate. I'll set up a meeting with Travis about this and I want you there as well. Now, get back in, Vin'll give you what we found. I need to leave for the press conference. JD, PAM!" he hollered. "One of you assists Vin with the hunt, the other is with me and takes his lap top and those damn pictures! Move!"

A few minutes later he was hurrying out of the building, Pam trailing behind him, burdened with her lap top and a bag full of papers.

+ + + + + + +

He hadn't done it after all, taken her right after she left her apartment building. Traffic had been too intense. Now he was sitting in a booth in the diner she worked in. A waitress, he hadn't expected her to be a waitress! Maybe she wasn't that good a prey after all, maybe he should first see if he could find the blond vision he had seen at the Street Mall yesterday. She had looked sophisticated, rich.

She came over to his table just then and with a smile he ordered a coffee and a sandwich. She smiled back, friendly as you please.

"Why does a nice young lady like you work in a diner?" he asked softly, as friendly as he could manage when she came with his order.

"Oh, but this is only to help me get through college," she beamed. "I only work the busy hours through diner time. After that I go to the library to study."

"Good for you. I hope you will make it through college," he told her. Oh yes, college girls were great prey! Their happy life on campus with all the student's fun, their enormous optimism about their future.... Yes, she would do perfectly!

"Why, thank you mister!" She looked so pleased at what he'd said and had practically danced away. Finally he had left, leaving her a generous tip and now he was waiting on a side street. It didn't matter, waiting was an important part of the hunt. Waiting and becoming inconspicuous to the prey.

He looked at his wrist watch. It was nearing five thirty. She would be busy at least two more hours, he knew after his little chat with her. He decided to wait inside the little pub that was right across the street from the diner.

There was nothing wrong in having some luxury during the waiting game....


Reporters, if he never saw one again in his entire life he would die a happy man, Chris vowed. My God, the things they could ask! No way did he see the relevance of him posing with the murderer's picture, sorry, alleged murderer. And what the hell was with the personal questions they tried to ask after everything had been covered about the killings, the type of victims and the suspect? As if his marital status had anything to do with this!

They even had asked him if, with this new unit having its base camp in Denver, he also lived here and if so, where exactly. Like he would ever tell them that! To have it splashed all over the television so every bad guy would know where to find him? Please!

Still fuming he marched out of the elevator and onto the twelfth floor of the unassuming federal building where they were housed. They had this whole floor at their disposal, but not everything was in use yet. Chris looked off to the left, where they had some empty offices and another big room, like the main office where his agents were housed. The bull pen as JD and Buck had immediately dubbed it. Made them feel more at home, they had stated when they decided to use the same nick name for this office as the office they'd had as an ATF team.

Instead of turning right, he turned left to those empty offices, completely surprising Pam who could barely jump out of his way in time. Oblivious to her, Chris walked on, throwing the door open to the empty space of the big one. He walked towards the middle of the room and looked around slowly.

It was big enough for a lab, he decided. Their own forensics lab. No more fights and hassles with DPD forensics or wherever they would find their new case. They could bring in their own team and have things done the way it should. With care and every eye for detail it needed.

Tomorrow he would take the idea to Travis. Nathan could support him with the story of their problems with forensics on this case. He'd better make Travis understand that he wanted the best for this, the very best! Cases could blow up in your face or be solved just depending on how good your forensic team was.

He had the feeling that the chief medical examiner from Amarillo, Metfield, would be just the one to head this part of MCAT. He liked what he'd heard about the man from Nathan and the way he'd immediately offered his help. Still, that was not a decision he was willing to make without meeting Metfield himself. Not where this was concerned and he was going to make it very clear to Travis that he wanted the last say on who would become their chief ME.

He was not going to sit back and have an unknown shoved into his face on this position, it was too important.

Anyway, all he could do was start this and put in his requests with Travis. He had a serial killer to catch first.

When he turned around he saw Pam standing in the doorway, looking at him with concern in her eyes. It immediately irritated him and without saying a word he brushed past her and went back to the more lively part of their floor.

Laughter emanated from behind the main office door. When Chris opened it, he instantly saw why. JD was simpering up to Nathan and asking him in a high pitched voice, "Mister Larabee, are you married?"

Nathan seemed to give himself extra height and put a furious scowl on his face before he answered, "What the hell has that to do with anything?"

"Yeah, JD, what the hell?" Chris asked in a lethal voice and the whole office fell silent.

JD turned a bright red and Nathan suddenly had a coughing fit.

"N... nothing Chris. We thought you handled that press conference really well," JD stammered. That for some reason made Nathan cough even harder and now Katrina suddenly seemed to be developing some kind of cold as well.

Before Chris could say something scathing to his unruly agents, Pam called out, "Oh look, a rerun! Now we can see it too, Chris." She hurried over to the television hanging from the ceiling in a corner and turned on the volume.

"Eh... Pam...," JD said lamely, but it was too late. There the press conference was, with Chris prominently in view. Even from where he stood, Chris could see his face was set in an angry scowl.

Damn, he hadn't been that bad, had he? He winced when he heard himself wipe the floor with a reporter who'd asked a particularly stupid question. Why wasn't that cut out? It had nothing to do with the real issue here! Just when the story ended with a prominent look at the pictures of their suspect and a very stringent warning for all blond haired women not to roam around without an escort the coming days, the phone in his office rang. Glad to escape the soft snickers of his team he hurried off.

He should have guessed it was Travis. "Have you seen the rerun of the six o' clock news, Chris?"


"Does the word 'tact' mean anything, anything at all to you?" Travis sounded annoyed, to put it mildly.

"I don't see why I should answer a bunch of dumb questions that don't have anything to do with the case."

"Yes, well, they loved it, they ate it up! Instead of cutting it out, they sure left in all your comments, didn't they?"

Chris sighed and fell into his chair. "Sorry, Orrin. They were really annoying. I needed to tell them about a serial killer, for Christ sake! That's a lot in my book, so why wasn't that enough for them? Why all those stupid questions about my private life? Anyway, I guess someone else better do it next time."

"I don't think so Chris. Apparently the public loved it and that means the networks love it to. I've been forwarded three requests for local talk shows already."

Oh my God! He really hated reporters!

"NO WAY!" he yelled and he'd almost slammed down the phone, before he realized he would be slamming it down on his boss. Travis' voice sounded very cool at the other end of the line.

"For a moment I thought you were going to hang up on me, Chris. I hope not even you would be that dumb. Anyway, I want you to think about it."

"Orrin, don't make me hang up for real. Entertaining wasn't part of the job description last time I looked."

"Chris, this could be a good thing."

"I'll send Josiah, that should be fun! He can give them lots of philosophical riffraff and one hour answers to their questions."

"It's you they want, Chris. You better think it over real hard. It's good to have a lot of exposure for this case, now that your team has found out who this killer is. You all did one hell of a job, again! But there is very little chance we will catch him here, in Denver, so this should go nation wide. I'm even thinking America's Most Wanted."

"I think we just better try and get him,'' Chris said belligerently. This conversation was really starting to piss him off all over again. "Since the moment we found out who he is, Vin has been out there doing his thing Orrin, so there is every chance we'll find him. You know he was one of the best bounty hunters around. I don't think he ever let anyone slip through."

"Chris, if you play it right, especially with the media interest, this could be good exposure for you! Strengthen your position as the commander of the MCAT unit."

There it was, politics. He knew it! Damn, he should've read the fine print on this job description. "Is my position in question, Orrin?" he asked, looking through the glass compartment between his office and the bull pen to where Reed was sitting.

"I already told you that not everyone was in favor of you leading this unit, Chris. And right now there are some questions raised about discipline in the team."

"Is that a fact?"

"Chris, aren't you taking this a bit lightly?"

"Oh, I'm not taking this lightly at all Orrin, you can count on that! I'm sorry, but I really have to go."

"I understand. Just catch this guy and Chris? The media might like the novelty of the way you handled this press conference for now, but I think a little tact would be a lot better in the long run. Will you please bear that in mind next time?"

Shit, now Orrin was talking about a next time as if it was a fact! He was sooo gonna set Josiah on them if there really came a 'next time'!

He had hardly slammed the receiver down when his cell phone rang.

"Larabee and this better be good, Buck!"

"Eh, how did you know it was me, sport?"

"Number display, Buck. You did hear of it? Just tell me something good!"

"Something good? Sorry, still hunting and driving all the cops crazy with sending them to every hotel, motel or whatever place we can think of that rents out rooms. I'm not that popular with the DPD anymore, stud. Anyway, just calling to congratulate you on your stunning press conference!"

Chris heard the laughter in his friend's voice and instantly resented it. "Buck...," he warned.

"No, no, really! The way you told those reporters that 'hell would freeze over' before you were going to answer a stupid question like what you thought about Denver, it was a joy...."

He did slam the phone down on his number three man.

+ + + + + + +

He couldn't believe it, he just couldn't believe it! One moment he was happily drinking his coffee, waiting for his prey to come out of the diner she worked in and the next moment he saw his face plastered all over the television in the bar he was waiting in! He'd hastily left and went back to his hotel. There he'd watched the rerun of the six o'clock news and it had left him cold!

His former name, his chosen identity, a picture and even where he'd come from, it was all there! Told by some man dressed in black he'd never ever seen in his life! How did he know all that? HOW? And so accurate?

The warning the man gave that all longhaired blondes with green eyes had better not venture out alone during the next days had been bad enough, but a deep rage started to burn inside him when he heard the guy call him names. He said things like 'insane maniac', 'bastard', even referred to him as a 'freak'. What really got to him though, was when this... this nobody told everyone that they figured out he was on some sort of rampage because he'd had a crush on a girl that didn't want him. 'Pathetic', this guy called him.


'Did you really think Stacey would want you, love you? God, Brad, you can be really pathetic.'

Then the laugher, HER laugher.... He knew it had been her fault all along, Josh...Josh had been a real friend until SHE came along....


God, and this guy looked like her! Look at that, blond hair, green eyes....

The man was looking straight in the camera, straight at him, when he told the world that he and his team were going to nail this sick, sorry excuse of a human being. By that time he had been screaming and raging against that arrogant son of a bitch who was ripping his life to shreds right there before his very eyes.

After the rerun he'd gone back to the diner, but what he'd feared had happened. Two young men had escorted his prey back to her car, looking around themselves constantly. One of them even got in with her and the other drove their own car behind them. He gave it up right then and there.

On his way back to his hotel room, he saw police officers coming out of another hotel, both carrying what looked like some piece of paper.


He was very careful when he entered the low priced, seedy hotel where he'd rented a room. It seemed that the police hadn't been there yet. Nonetheless, he didn't take any risk. He packed his bag, put his laptop in its casing, kept the tranq gun and his knife handy, and left.

He wasn't going to leave Denver though, not yet, he wanted revenge first. He needed revenge first. Revenge for the destruction of the life he had built so carefully.

+ + + + + + +

The best moment of the evening was when Josiah called from Litchfield Park. The profiler had had to bang on some doors to get his answers, but eventually he had been able to get a hold on the zoo director. Yes, they had had a Josh LaPlant work for them as a Hospital Keeper about eight years ago. The young man had started to work on everyone's nerves, so when the Zoo Hospital needed a reorganization, he had been fired.

"The only thing they could never fault him for, was his care and devotion to the animals. They found him odd, though. The zoo director couldn't really pin it down on anything, but he told me that some of the girls felt really uneasy with him around."

"Did they know where he went?"

"Not really. But the director remembered how one of the Veterinary Assistants talked to a VA from another zoo on a conference. It seems they really hit it off, started gossiping about the people they worked with and the VA found out that Josh was working at the zoo where this other VA came from. We have called him and he remembered it. Said it was four years ago, a conference in 2001 and that his colleague came from the Saint Louis Zoo. Chris, the director will have his administrative staff go through all the records and see if they can come up with his social security number, but he thinks the chances are not that good. The Saint Louis Zoo might still have it on record somewhere though."

"Yeah, or the zoo in the last place he was. It's a safe bet with all we know now that he's been working there as well. I'll tell Vin and Ezra to go for it. You coming back? They might need the jet to go there tomorrow."

"Yes, we are on our way to the airport right now and will come back immediately. Chris, you sound tired. Is something wrong?"

"Nah. Let's just get this bastard."

He warned Vin and Ezra that approaching the zoos would probably get them this guy, only to find that they were already on it.

"We'll have his social security number tomorrow Chris and then we'll be able to track him to where he lives now," Vin said confidentially.

"And what car he drives," Ezra added, putting down his phone while glaring at it.

"Credit cards won't take long after that either." Vin again. "We'll have him in no time."

"Let's just hope we were on time to keep him from getting another victim, that's my main worry now."

"I would also worry about that Chris," Ezra sighed, nodding towards the television screen. The sound was off, but they had the TV itself on constantly now and that had given them a very nasty surprise. A special had been sent out about the commander of the brand new crime fighting unit that was the government's latest idea to fight terrorism and organized crime. It had been all about Chris and it hadn't been very flattering.

"Yeah, well. I do wonder how they got all that stuff on me so fast. Bastards! Time to do something back!"

"Chris, how ever would you want to take on these journalists?" Ezra asked seriously, swiveling his chair so he could face Chris more easily. "We could sue for misinformation for what they told the public about the year after Sarah and Adam died. They paint you as a dangerous drunk and that is simply not true. But the allegations of misusing your position in the ATF will be harder to countereffect, after all you seldom worked strictly by the book of rules and regulations. I strongly advise against you just go and attack them."

"What I really want is a way to make them stop making public where I live and where our office is, Ezra. The worst is that they're advertising where Linda lives as well. Have those Marshalls already arrived to protect her?"

"They'll be there soon, Chris," Vin assured him.

"Anyway, I wasn't talking about the journalists," Chris said softly, his eyes going to Sam Reed, who was trying to hide a very smug smile ever since the special had hit the screen. "Reed? Inside."

Chris? You think he got anything to do with it?

I'm positive.

You think he has the resources? How?

Just watch your back, Vin.

Shit! You think he's more than a spy for the brass!

Chris didn't answer, all he had were his thoughts and that just wasn't enough to go and make accusations. He was going to let them know he was on to their game though. Maybe that would have them show their hand somehow. While he was on his way to the office, he saw from the corner of his eye that Ezra was having another animated phone call.

Once inside his office he told Reed softly, "That was very stupid, Sam. Giving that information to the media also jeopardized a civilian. You should have left Linda Dubois out of it!"

"What are you talking about?" Reed smirked. "I can't help it if reporters do their job. I don't know why they would be interested in you, but hey, it has nothing to do with me!"

"Pack your stuff and get out, you are no longer part of this team."

"WHAT? You can't do that! I have a right to a full six month trial period and it's only been about two months! Just because some reporter found out all your dirty little secrets and about your private whore doesn't mean...."

He didn't get to finish his sentence, because Chris had slammed him against the wall, arm almost crushing his throat. Chris waited until Reed's lips started to turn blue and there was real panic in the man's eyes before releasing him. While Reed was coughing and trying to get oxygen back in his starved lungs, he quickly took the man's weapon.

"Give me your badge and cell phone and get out," he said softly when Reed was finally recovered. "Now!"

The look in Reed's eyes was one of pure hate. Then he threw his badge and phone on the ground and stormed out. Chris pushed a hand through his hair and sighed. The damage was done, but at least he'd let them know he wouldn't take anything else from them.

Now he had a difficult phone call to make. He didn't think Linda would take kindly to having some Marshalls stationed at her ranch.

+ + + + + + +

"Chris Larabee," he whispered, watching the big screen television. He was glad that he'd broken into this abandoned home with the idea to watch the television for more news. It was why he'd caught onto the special that one of the regional networks was running on the man who had shattered his life.

With addresses and all!

Now he was watching the rerun of the special. It was a bit modified, he saw with regret. The first one had pictured Larabee as a drunk and a loose canon who should never have been given his own ATF team after a year of drunken debauchery. So why would this man now lead a new special task force that was given much more power than any other agency currently existing? They had also had some FBI agent, Sanders or Saunders or something, complaining about Larabee and his gang busting in on a highly sensitive FBI investigation concerning bombs and hits on judges.

The rerun had a high police officer denying the allegations of drunkenness and telling whoever was interviewing him a sad story of a man grieving for the death of his family, complete with some pictures of that heartbreaking happening eight years ago. It was sickening! They also had some ATF agent telling them that Larabee's team had had the best arrest results of all the ATF teams there were, which made Larabee and his team the perfect choice for this new unit. And that case the FBI agent had been bitching about now got a whole follow up on it's own as the first success story of this new MCAT unit. It seemed that they were the ones responsible for apprehending the snipers that had been taking out judges all through Denver only last week and they even had saved the life of the Governor of Colorado.

He definitely preferred the first version! It didn't matter though. It still showed the ranch high up in the mountains where Larabee lived and even better, it showed where the beautiful blonde woman lived he had spotted on Tuesday.

Unbelievable that she turned out to be Larabee's whore! He wanted her now more than ever!

But even more than that he wanted revenge, revenge on the man who had ruined his perfect life. He would have to forge a new identity for himself and who said he would be able to take one that would still allow him to work at a zoo?

He needed to work with animals, he would die if he couldn't do that.

Damn, the live images they had of the ranch of that blonde whore just showed a police car coming up. He could forget her for the time being. Again he looked at the addresses he'd scribbled down. If the police were up there with his bitch, wouldn't that mean that Larabee himself was still in Denver, working? Here, in this government building they had identified on the television as being the one that housed the new unit?

Yes, he was going to start there. Larabee would probably not be in it now, but he would surely turn up in the morning. That would give him time to scout this new hunting ground.

He smiled and went to check his tranq gun.


"I don't know how you did it, but thanks," Chris told Ezra first thing Thursday morning. He had seen the rerun of the special on him and the new additions late Wednesday evening. In fact, Vin had dragged him out of his office to see it. He also had seen the satisfied look on Ezra's face. With Josiah coming in at that moment he'd had no time to talk to Ezra about it last night, but he'd asked the Southerner to come into his office this morning. Vin was there as well.

Ezra smiled and tipped two fingers at an imaginary hat. "I merely provided the network with some additional information," he said modestly. "Their journalistic values made them do the rest."

"Oh, sure! I heard you threatenin' their director with disclosure of some of his, what ya called it? Yeah, his finer hobbies," Vin smirked.

"Aah, well, that.... Just a friendly conversation about what constitutes for a reputable pastime."

Chris and Vin grinned at him and Ezra gave them a benign smile back. Then both Vin and Ezra looked at Chris, now very serious.

"Chris, why did you cast Reed out of our midst just like that, after seeing this program about you?" Ezra asked.

Chris sighed and looked at Vin. Then he looked back at Ezra and shrugged. "There was a lot of inside information in that program, Ezra."

Ezra whistled softly. "You think he was the original source of information towards the network! He was a very obnoxious man, but would he go that far?"

"He's been trying from the start to give me or Vin a bad rep, wanted to have one of us look incompetent."

"The entire office noticed that, Chris. We perceived he was trying for one of your jobs. Our bet was that his best chance would be Vin, I do not see how he would ever have made it to being commander."

"Great, thanks Ez! Feels real good you thought he might manage to take my job!"

"Ah, but even that would have been a very slim chance! Chris wouldn't have wanted him as his captain, we all knew that. And I think he knew it as well. So why try? It was why we thought it was more the character of the beast, if you will forgive my imagery."

Vin looked at Chris. "Ez is right, Cowboy. You would've kept him from getting my job, but I can't see him getting a shot at unit commander either. So what was he playin'? He did try to undermine us both at every opportunity!"

"I don't think he was expecting to get the job for himself," Chris said softly. "And I think unit commander would work best for them, although they could work with a captain in here as well."

"Put in their own man?" Ezra whistled. "Someone wanted his own man to lead this team. Oh yes, the politics that were the very reason to form this unit in the first place, a unit that would be able to work outside of that political red tape that is hampering so much in this great nation, is already at work to get a stranglehold on it." His eyes were actually gleaming and he started to rub his hands. "So one of the founders, as I so lovingly like to call them, would prefer to have control of this unit. Well, then I had better find out who is the one who brought Sam Reed into this unit."

"I already asked Travis," Chris told them. He was staring at his desk and playing with his pen.

"Chris?" When he looked up Vin was staring at him, hard. Chris looked back and finally he sighed.

"CASSIE," he admitted. The two kept looking at each other and then Vin nodded.

"Makes lots of sense. Hell, Chris...."

"You two do know that this is very rude, don't you?" Ezra asked, clearly not amused. "Perhaps I should point out that secrets shared are the least dangerous ones for those who know those secrets?"

Chris and Vin looked at each other again. Then Chris nodded. "Alright," he said softly. "I don't like spouting accusations without proof, but since Vin now knows it as well and you're good at these devious schemes, I'll tell you. I think CASSIE is the main reason they want someone in."

"CASSIE," Ezra repeated carefully, raising one eyebrow.

"Ezra, CASSIE can get into anything, any government program or database we want! You two really should listen to JD a bit more."

Vin snorted and Ezra rolled his eyes.

"It can even get into the witness protection program," Chris told them softly. "I made JD put a lock on that immediately, but I think with him and Pam at the wheel, CASSIE can find out almost anything, given some more time. Military data as well."

"I can see why that is of some benefit to the right kind of unscrupulous individuals," Ezra said thoughtfully. "I don't like the implications of all this, Chris."

Chris sighed and nodded.

"Anyway, I've got a meeting with Travis and you two have to find a serial killer. The rest has to wait. This as well, Ezra!"

+ + + + + + +

The parking garage was ideal to hide in. Good, because if his prey came out, it would be to take his car. He would be on police business or whatever this new unit would call it, or he would be on the way to his ranch or his bitch's ranch. And for both he would need his car.

He had his own old and beat down vehicle hidden further away. The first leg of the journey would have to be in his victim's car. If only he could find out which one it was, but that had not been in the programs he had found and watched about his prey. It also hadn't been on the internet, where he'd found a surprising amount of detail about this Larabee. Very up to date as well. It had made him wonder for a moment, but frankly he didn't care how all this information about someone leading a high profile law enforcement unit had become available on the net. He just cared for what he could use.

At least he had a really great view of the elevator from his chosen hiding place. He would follow his prey to his car and then make the kill. Keeping his hand on his tranq gun and on something else he had pursued late last night, he settled in to wait.

+ + + + + + +

"Josiah! You're back!"

"So I am, friend Nathan, so I am. We landed yesterday evening, rather late I might add and had a meeting with Chris, Vin and Ezra. After a nice argument, Vin managed to persuade Kelli to go with me for a good night sleep in my guest room and Paul went home. He's gone with Justin to take over for Buck and Mark with the DPD and Kelli is eh... in conclave with Vin at the moment. And what are you up to? You seem to have developed a heavy case of the right kind of suit. With tie!"

"Shut up, J'siah. Where's Chris? We're supposed to meet Travis."

"Really? What about?"

"I guess it was set as an update, but Chris got this idea we should have our own forensics team and medical examiner. Wants me along to tell Travis about the trouble we had with forensics on this case." The big black medic threw himself in the chair opposite Josiah's desk and started fidgeting with his tie. He didn't mind looking presentable at all, but he did mind ties.

"So how's little Adam? Didn't you miss him terribly?"

"We do have a jet, Nathan and it was only for one day. And evening. And the five quarters after midnight before I finally made it home. But who's counting?" Josiah grinned. "He and Mal are fine, Nate. It's Joanne that worries me a little at the moment. She kept away from Adam from the beginning and she still does. She's also angry." Josiah heaved a deep sigh and shook his head. "It seems that she is developing a big case of jealousy. Luckily she doesn't take it out on Adam, but she is mad at Mallory every time Mal picks him up. It's hard on Mal and had better not take too long."

"Damn," Nathan sighed. "Maybe Rain and me shouldn't wait too long if we want a second child. Sarah seemed to have no trouble with the coming of Maria at all, but then she was only one at the time. Maybe she was too young to realize it was competition. And in all the books I've read about children, they are developing territorial behavior around the age of two. So it might be smart to have the second one before that happens."

Josiah's booming laugh rolled through the office.

"What?" Nathan asked a bit peeved. "What's funny about that?"

"The fact that you think you can predict a child's behavior, brother! From books! So, how is Rain? When is her next check up?"

Nathan smiled happily. "She is doing so great, J'siah. She's positively radiant! I'm so glad she didn't have the trouble with morning sickness Mal and Inez had. It's as if she is even fitter than before her pregnancy. And she is so beautiful."

"That she is brother, that she is."

"NO! Linda, I'm not calling them off! Damn it, woman, don't you get it? That guy Kelli spotted eyeing you, that really was the serial killer! And now your address was all over the god damn TV!"

Chris stopped his march when he was close to Nathan and Josiah and rolled his eyes at his two friends. 'Women', he mimicked at them silently. Josiah and Nathan looked at each other and couldn't help grinning. It was just so good to see Chris all fired up about a woman, even if she made him fume in anger as well.

"WHAT?" Chris shouted just then. "NO, I WON'T TELL THEM THAT! LINDA! NO, LIKE IN N-O! NO! STAY PUT!"

He looked in helpless rage at his cell phone and then at the two men in front of him. "She hung up," he told them.

The two friends couldn't help it, they burst out laughing. Chris glared at them, which only set them off again. Two heads peeked out of the door to the smallest of the conference rooms. Since Mark had likened the biggest one to a war room, no one on the team used the name conference room anymore. War room it was from then on for the biggest and the small one had been dubbed the Conflict room, although Buck had suggested another name in honor of the captain and his wife. Both heads had very tousled hair and kiss swollen lips, proving Buck's point.

"What's going on?" Kelli asked suspiciously. "Chris, did Linda give you a hard time again? You want me to call her and give her some hard truths?"

"No, no Kel, it's alright. She did agree to stay at the ranch after all. Well, in a way."

Vin grinned, Chris scowled at him and suddenly Vin was doubled over in laughter. "She... she didn't," he gasped.

"Hey, we're here as well," Josiah told the two friends mildly.

"She... she...," Vin lost it again. All heads in the bull pen were now turned towards Chris, who started to fidget.

"If you have to know, she wanted me to tell the Marshalls to take her shopping. Said she would be safe with them around and they could help her carry." Everyone started to laugh until Chris put his hand in the air, waving for silence.

"She also said she was certain that if she didn't go and do something, no one would think about Inez's birthday, including Buck. Which, by the way is next Tuesday."

The new agents all laughed again, until they noticed that the old team seven members suddenly looked very somber.

"We DON'T want Buck forgetting her birthday again," JD said emphatically. "No way!"

"Last year was awful," Josiah agreed.

"Remember how she wouldn't eh... talk... to him for two whole weeks?" Nathan added somberly. "It was hell for Buck not to get any... talking."

"Yeah, and that meant hell for us as well," Vin sighed. "Nope, we don't want that again!"

Five heads nodded emphatically.

"Think of something then. Buck's asleep in the lounge room at the moment, he and Mark had a rough night of it, but make sure you hammer it in about Inez's birthday the moment he wakes up. Nate, let's go. And leave that tie alone!"

Nathan looked at Josiah before standing up and shook his head sadly. Chris was in a real foul mood.

+ + + + + + +

That mood wasn't any better when the two men came back about an hour later. Chris' face looked like a thundercloud and Nathan looked very put upon.

"Travis didn't agree with the idea of a forensic team?" Josiah asked when Nathan had settled himself behind his desk and was viciously yanking his tie off.

"Oh no, he loved it. There was some entanglement 'bout the fact that Chris wants that ME from Amarillo, but he even gave on that point. Then he started 'bout Reed, 'bout the fact that Chris had thrown him out and that Chris really didn't need to anger the upstairs brass any further after the stuff on TV about him. That nonsense even made me mad, I can tell ya! Do you know why Chris threw Reed out?"

"Because the man is a disruptive force to the team, something we can't use on a sensitive case like this? But what are you talking about, stuff on the television? Did Chris make a big asshole of himself during the press conference? I know he was going to warn the public about this killer."

"Oh, he was a complete ass, you gotta see it to believe it, J'siah! Don't worry, I immediately called Rain and made her tape the rerun, this just had to be saved for the next generation! I can see some happy future family moments with playing that tape," Nathan grinned. "The public loved it though, so the networks did too. At least, I think they did, Travis started on some offers from networks who wanted Chris on a talk show. Chris got mad and then the stuff about Reed started. Nope, what was bad was some documentary that one of the nets did on him, real personal stuff and at first all negative. They changed it for the rerun and some other network made a whole different piece, but those accusations of Chris being a drunk will keep hanging I'm afraid."

"A documentary? On Chris? He must have hated that! Why did they make one?"

"Oh, come on! This unit is something really new, you didn't expect them to ignore more info about it, did you? Even if it was focused on the unit commander? Besides, it turns out Linda is rather well known in society. Seems the Dubois family is old money, so to speak, high rollers in the racing world. The media ate it up, them two together. Yep, Chris is getting to be quite a celebrity all on his own."

"He will hate that," Josiah sighed. "And Linda is jet set? Poor Chris.... So, do we get Reed back now?"

"Nope, Chris told Travis that Reed was the leak of information about him. Then there was a whole argument 'bout evidence and finally Chris told Travis he would appreciate it if he was allowed to do his job and if not, Travis could have his badge right then and there."

"Oh no...."

"Travis told him in very plain English Chris had better not use threats on him again and that was the end of the meet. Next time YOU go with him! But I think we'll get our own forensics team and our own lab."

"Well, thank God for small favors."

Just then Chris came storming out of his office. "Josiah, hurry up! They found the hotel room where he's been! He's gone, but maybe we can find something. I want you along to see if something there can tell you more about him. Vin, are you and Ezra any closer to tracking him down?"

"Waiting for some phone calls right now, Cowboy. I'm only waitin' for what 'll come in first, those phone calls or Ez with coffee, bagels and rolls from the nearest Starbucks," Vin told him. "Said he was in dire need of some real quality."

"That's Ezra. Phone me the moment you have something!"

The two friends looked at each other and finally Chris nodded.

Don't worry, Vin. I'll relax, promise.

+ + + + + + +

He didn't like it. This was taking a lot longer than he'd anticipated. He'd expected Larabee coming out of hiding and running around the city hours ago. Was that man like some spider in his web, having his agents do all the foot work?

I should just blow this place, he thought angrily, looking upwards to the ceiling. There, somewhere above him, they were all busy tearing his life apart. Yes, he should bomb the building! Maybe he would anyway, after he'd killed the leader of the pack.

He squirmed around a bit until he was comfortable again. A chime alerted him that the elevator had arrived and he readied himself, just in case. Like he had done dozens of times before, every time for nothing.

Oh my God, it was him! Yes, blond, green eyed... it was him! Together with an older man who shouldn't be a problem. Grinning he fingered his newest weapon. Nope, that guy shouldn't be a problem at all!

Following the two was easy as you please, slipping from car to car, unseen, undetected. Stalking his unsuspecting prey, hand ready on his weapon of choice. First the blond, then the older one. There, that black RAM, was that where they were going?

Yes, yes they were! And no one else was around!

He slipped closer, tranq gun ready now. Which was a good thing, because suddenly the blond one, the one he wanted, whipped around, eyes searching. The grey haired one said something, but the blond shook his head and put his hand inside his coat.

Instinct warned him to shoot, shoot now and he did. The dart bore itself in the blond's arm just when the hand came back out of the coat, holding a gun. His prey choked out a cry and the gun fell on the floor. When the older guy yelled something and ran around the car to help, he shot another dart in his prey's leg. He dropped the tranq gun and hurriedly brought out his new weapon. With a soft plop his gun with silencer sent a bullet straight in the unimportant one's chest.

With satisfaction he saw the big, grey haired man go down. The cry of anguish coming from his prey was even better. Slowly sliding down the car, eyes on his dying companion, the blond man cried out again, something that sounded like a name.

He smirked and stood up. The prey tried to lunge for the gun on the floor, but by now the sedative was working. Even if he got his hand around the gun, he would never be able to lift it up in time. See? He was already there and with ease he kicked the gun out of his prey's hand. He turned the still weakly struggling body over and searched it quickly for the car keys. His prey had been standing at the driver's door, which told him he was the one with the right key.

Yes, there it was.

Five minutes later he was roaring out of the parking garage, his prey bundled up on the back seat, hands hastily tied up. He would do a better job of it once he had reached his own car and made the switch. For now his prey was out and would stay out for several hours. At least. Long enough to prepare him for further treatment in his chosen place.



Vin's cry of anguish was heart rending, but Nathan didn't have any time for him. He was too busy trying to save Josiah's life. His hands were covered in blood where he was putting pressure on the chest wound and he was sure that the bullet was still in there. Kelli was busy phoning it in.

Vin in the mean time was running like mad for his truck and a moment later he took off with screeching tires, taking the curve to the exit almost on two wheels.

Kelli kneeled down beside him and Josiah. She had managed to get a first aid kit from somewhere. Oh, yeah, from his own truck. He'd tossed her the key before he'd thrown himself down beside Josiah, knowing that he had to act immediately to save his friend's life.

"There's an ambulance coming, Nathan. What... what...." Her voice broke for a moment.

"Towels, there gotta be towels in there!"

"Here!" Soon he was pressing towels down on the wound with force. "I can't do anythin' else, can't take my hands off, Kelli. You gotta do the rest. Find somethin' to put under his head, I want it elevated a bit, see if it helps for his breathin'."

Kelli immediately took off her jacket and rolled it up. Carefully she lifted the grey haired head that looked so frightening white at the moment and put her jacket under it. A gasp came from the otherwise too still body.

"NO!" Nathan shouted at his best friend. "Don't you dare leave this world! You've got little Adam waitin' for you! That boy will need his father and... and you can't leave before he's at least had a chance to get to know you! Damn you, Mal needs ya too! How can she handle little Joanne's jealousy and such a small baby without your help and support? So you hold on, you hear me? SHIT, WHERE IS THAT AMBULANCE?"

"It's coming Nathan, it's coming. Listen, you can already hear it. I've phoned the others upstairs and... Oh, there they come. OVER HERE!"

Buck and Ezra were there first, with the others close behind them.

"Oh my God," Ezra breathed, not believing what he saw. "What... what happened?"

"JOSIAH! Nathan, what happened to him? Who did this?" Buck yelled.

"Someone shot Josiah," Nathan said through his clenched teeth. "And Chris is gone, disappeared."

"Chris?" Buck asked.

"They left together," Kelli told him. "The police had found the hotel room of the killer and they were going to check it out. Then suddenly Vin started yelling that something was wrong with Chris and ran off. Nathan and me, we ran after him. When we got out of the elevator we saw the tail bumper of Chris' car disappear out of the garage. Vin... he just took off, ran for his truck and rode off. We couldn't go with him though because Josiah...."

Her voice broke again.

An ambulance entering the parking garage with wailing sirens made any conversation impossible for a moment. Paramedics jumped out and soon Josiah was surrounded by the medical team of the ambulance and their equipment. Everyone was silent when they saw how much equipment was being used to stabilize their friend and colleague enough to drive him to the hospital.

By the time the ambulance was ready to leave with Josiah and with Nathan as well, who had been given permission to ride along, Vin came back. Without looking if he blocked any cars the sharpshooter rode up close, jumped out and ran to the ambulance.

"How is he?" he asked, tense with worry.

"Hangin' on. Chris?" Nathan wanted to know.

Vin shook his head, frustration clear on his face. "I was too late, no sign of his truck anywhere. I... I can't sense him, Nate, I can't sense him at all! Oh God, Josiah can't die, he just can't! Mal... and his two little kids. They only just got Adam! He was so glad 'bout that, he and Mal never thought they would have a second child!"

"Sir, we have to go, fast!"

"I'll make sure Mal 'll get to the hospital. We can't all come right now though, Chris...."

"I know, J'siah will be in surgery first anyway. I'll call!" Nathan managed to yell before the doors of the ambulance slammed shut and it left with tires that screeched as much as those of Vin's truck had done. The siren was wailing again.

"What a mess," Buck raged. "What a fucking mess! If I ever get my hands on whoever let out where Chris lives and works, I'll just squeeze the life out of him! Damn! Who could have him?"

"Our dear serial killer, I would say," Ezra said softly. When they looked at him, they saw he was holding up a tranquilizer dart. "I gather that is the reason you cannot sense him right now, Vin. He must be sedated quite heavily. That... that monster shot two darts in him. He forgot to take them with him this time though. Maybe because Josiah was there as well."

"Oh hell," Buck breathed.

Vin's face became a rigid mask, his eyes cold. He didn't react when Kelli put a soothing hand on his arm. "We're gonna get that monster now," he said softly. "Before he can do to Chris what he's done to all them women." Without looking at anyone he marched off.

+ + + + + + +

His prey was now bound securely and resting in the trunk of his own car, a blanket thrown over him for good measure. He'd ditched the black RAM in the back alley where he'd made the switch, doors enticingly open, confident it would be stolen and gone from that place within the hour. It was that kind of neighborhood after all. Now he was driving carefully to the place he had found and set up for his preys.

The searing anger inside him made him think of all the things he would do to this one. Although it wasn't what he'd prefer, he knew he was going to enjoy this very, very much.

He was going to have some fun and then, when they all thought this was it for him and relaxed their guard, he would get the bastard's beautiful whore. It would be so great to make this one watch while he slowly consumed her. And after that, he still had this one to finish.

He licked his lips and smiled. He might have to lay low for awhile, reorder his life, but he would make very sure that this one and his blonde whore would keep him going for all the time he needed.

Not long now and he would have his first taste of male blood. He licked his lips again, while he inserted his car in the traffic flow on Interstate 70.

+ + + + + + +

Forensics had confirmed it, the tranquilizer darts they had found contained the same sedative as found in Elena Whitaker's body, Rompun. It was a safe bet that it was indeed the serial killer who had Chris and not a copycat, although to leave nothing to chance they were also looking into other possibilities. Paul and Katrina were currently looking through heaps of old files.

They had also found the RAM. Buck had bullied the man driving it into showing them where he had 'found' the car and that was the end of that lead. The one good thing was, that they finally had gotten all the information on this so called Josh LaPlant. They now knew the social security number he used, what car he drove and the number plate it had, and they had everything ready to act as soon as the bastard used his credit cards.

That was the bad part, that they had to wait, that the next move all depended on what the killer would do. So for now it was the end of those leads as well.

It was also the end of Vin's computer monitor, it hadn't survived the crash to the floor when with one frustrated move of his arm the Texan had swept everything from his desk.

He was calmer now, after having visited Josiah in the hospital with Kelli. Josiah had been the one thing that had cheered them up a little in this whole mess, JD thought. The surgery on him had been a success, the bullet had been removed, all internal bleeding had been stopped and Josiah was pronounced stable as of an hour ago.

JD hadn't been to the hospital yet and he fretted about it. He wanted to see the profiler, that bighearted philosophical man who had always listened to him, who had helped him find a way to finally court Casey and who could have this huge grin about things no one else saw anything funny in. But they had been working very hard to track down all possible information on the killer and CASSIE was invaluable for that. He and Pam had been really busy.

He knew Buck was with Josiah at the moment, together with Nathan, Rain and of course Mallory, who wouldn't leave his side. Mallory must feel so bad, so frightened, JD thought. Geez, she was only just home from the hospital herself! Despite all her protests they hadn't let her and little Adam out of there until Monday. She had been so glad to go home and now it was Thursday, only three days later and she was back at the hospital with her baby. Unsure if her husband would live, because no matter that they said he was stable, he was still in a very bad shape. That much JD knew from his last phone call with Buck.

Inez was at home taking care of not only Sarah and Maria, but of Joanne as well. You just couldn't keep a very lively two and a half year old cooped up in a hospital. Before he left, Buck had confessed to JD that Inez had a real hard time with not being able to go to the hospital. They all loved Josiah, there wasn't a single one in their bunch who hadn't had some great advice, kind words and a big slap on the back to help them through a rough time from him.

Guess I'm not the only one held away by necessity, JD thought sadly and suddenly he felt the tears prick behind his eyes. Josiah on the brink of death and Chris.... God only knew what was happening to Chris.... Because Vin sure didn't seem to know. He didn't feel Chris at the moment and JD knew it scared the hell out of the Texan.

It scared the hell out of him too.

The phone was ringing in Chris' office and everyone was staring at it until, with a curse, Vin strolled in and snatched the receiver up. It was a short conversation that apparently agitated Vin enormously, if his arm movements were any indication. Soon the normally so stoic Texan stormed out of the office, yelling for Kelli.

"Vin? What's wrong? Did you find something out about Chris? Don't tell us Josiah...,"



At that moment Chris' phone rang again and Vin stormed back inside. The door stayed open this time, so they could all hear him yell, "NO! DON'T LET HER OUT OF YOUR SIGHT! SO, SHE SPEEDS! YOU'RE MARSHALLS FOR HEAVEN'S SAKE! DON'T TELL ME YA CAN'T KEEP UP WITH HER!" The phone was slammed down and they could all see Vin pacing. He would pass the door opening with angry steps, smoothing his hair back, disappear and a moment later he would stroll into view again for a few heartbeats, until he disappeared at the other side of the door.

"Damn," Kelli muttered and bravely she went into the office, slamming the door behind her.

"I'm starting to hate this case," Pamela whispered.

JD looked at her. She was staring at her computer screen, but he knew she wasn't seeing anything, she was blinking her eyes too fast for that.

"It's different when it's someone you know, isn't it?" JD asked softly. She looked at him briefly and then stared back at the screen again. After a moment she nodded.

"I... I haven't had that happen before, ever," she confessed. "It's always been others, people I don't know. And now.... I really like Josiah, JD. He's so nice, and working with him to try and find this killer, that was... oh, it was awesome! He's good! And so is Chris. When they were analyzing that map together.... I was proud to be part of that, of it all. But now...." She sniffed and looked away. "Sorry," she mumbled. "That's really embarrassing. Not professional at all."

"Screw professional!" JD said heatedly. "And don't be embarrassed. I still remember the first time when one of our team was almost killed and how I felt. I... I had to go to the men's room to hide that I was crying like a baby. We all care for the people we try to save, but when it's someone we know, it's even worse, it just is. Tell you what though, there is not a tougher lot than the men of team seven! We have survived more than you'll ever know and all you newbies will have a hard time following that act!" With a huge grin, he added, "We're just too damn stubborn to die!"

"Oh you!" Pam swatted him on the arm and he gave her a satisfactory yelp. The lightening of the mood didn't last long though. "Do you... do you think we'll find Chris before... you know?" The last two words came out in a whisper and she kept her face averted when she asked.

"Chris isn't one of those girls he took! Who says he'll do the same things to him? And you don't know Vin, he'll find Chris for sure, he and Ez! They're good."

"Alright. But if they do, YOU go to the next press conference with him! That was... that was.... Nope, on second thought, I wouldn't have wanted to miss that for anything in the world!"

"Hey, that's not fair! I've a right to some entertainment as well!"

The two agents smiled at each other. "Thanks JD," Pamela said softly.

"Aw, that's alright, I didn't do anything. If you don't mind, I... I really need to make a phone call."

"I don't mind. Say hello to Casey for me, will you?"

JD felt his cheeks start to burn and he hastily left for the small conference room, the Conflict Room as it was now known, although Buck was opting for a more romantic name whenever he saw Kelli and Vin get out of there, both disheveled or straitening their clothes. Well, alright, maybe romantic wasn't the right word for a name like that, JD thought, blushing a little.

He closed the door behind him and walked over to the window. This side of the building didn't look at the mountains where he lived with Casey and Aunt Nettie, all he saw were the buildings of Denver and a vast expense of blue sky.

"Casey Dunne," the sweetest voice on earth said.

"Casey... how are you?"

"Hi JD. Aunt Nettie and I are almost at the hospital. We've been to Inez first to cheer her up a bit and have bought some food for everyone. How are you doing? Any news on Chris?"

"No," he choked out, leaning with his head against the window. At least he was talking with his beloved wife now, which made it all more bearable. Soon he was imagining her arms around him and her sweet scent filling the room.

He wanted this case to be over. He wanted Josiah out of the hospital and Chris home and he wanted them all on the ranch enjoying one of their rowdy family gatherings.

He wanted Casey here with him for real.

+ + + + + + +

Linda didn't come quietly into the office, but with the door banging off its hinges. Two very ragged looking Marshalls came running in behind her. She didn't stop until she was in front of a very stone faced Vin Tanner, who stood leaning against the wall beside the door into his office, arms crossed and one foot tapping on the floor. All in all he looked very dangerous and ready to rip someone's head off.

She couldn't care less! If anyone was going to rip a head off it was her.

"Where's Chris?" she asked, keeping her voice level with all the willpower she possessed. What she really felt like doing was shrieking. "All Inez could tell me when she called me, was that Josiah has been shot and is at the brink of death, and that Chris has disappeared, been kidnapped most probably. So, what's going on? Where - is - he?"

"Linda, what do you think you're doin'!" Kelli called out indignantly from somewhere to her left. She ignored her friend and kept staring at Vin Tanner. The man who supposedly had this extraordinary connection with Chris, HER Chris. She heard someone walk towards her and immediately recognized the firm, short staccato steps of an angry Kelli.

She didn't care about that either, she was the one who was angry here.

"I've been locked up at my ranch, surrounded by men who have been told they needed to baby sit me, I've had Marshalls sent out to harass me, all because I was supposedly in danger. Only to hear that it's Chris who has disappeared? WHERE IS HE? ANSWER ME, DAMMIT!"

"I'm sorry 'bout this, but I guess we'll take it from here," Tanner said softly to the Marshalls behind her, talking over her head as if she wasn't there.

"Thanks, we're out of here then," she heard one of them say behind her. The other one snorted and added, "Good luck!"


Angrily she marched the last steps separating her from the biggest asshole of them all. "For the last time, where is Chris?" she hissed. A door closed behind her and suddenly Tanner didn't look all fired up and mean anymore, only tired, very tired.

"I'm sorry Linda. We just never thought.... There's no easy way to say this, but the serial killer probably got him."

"What?" She almost laughed about that statement. "You're joking, right? That... freak kidnaps and kills women, not men!"

"It's true. I wish J'siah was here, he might 've been able to tell us why he's suddenly done this. Myself, I think it's because of the press conference."

"The press conference?"

"Yeah, Chris gave a press conference 'bout everythin' we got on the killer and to warn blond haired women not to go out on the streets alone."

"I know he gave it! I've watched it! Hell, I've watched every rerun of it and every rerun of that stupid documentary as well just to SEE him! What's that got to do with anything?"

"Maybe he got mad with Chris for exposin' him, it's the only thing I can think of," Vin said softly.

Oh God, that could be it, that actually made sense! No, she viciously shook her head. No, this wasn't right, not that serial killer who... who butchered his victims with a knife! Chris had been very clear about that, trying to make her see how dangerous the man was. For women, not for men! Not for... Chris.

"Chris," she whispered. She felt tears behind her eyes, but she wasn't going to cry. No way was she going to cry in public, she never ever cried in public.

Arms wrapped around her and there Kelli was, whispering in her ear that she'd better come. Soon they entered a private office and the door shut behind them.

"Does he... does he really have Chris?" God, she sounded like a little girl. She cleared her throat and tried again. "Kelli, he can't have Chris, can he?"

"Linda, please, we'll find him. We'll find Chris before it's too late. We've got a really good team here, the best, I swear! We have the killer's name, we know how he looks and we got his social security number, which means we could trace the car he's driving, yes, also the license plate number and we could find his credit card number. You know what that means! As soon as he tries to pay with it, we've got him! And all found out in just a few days, when no one else even knew he was out there, killing!"

"He only needed a few days to kill that girl!" she shrieked. Embarrassed she covered her mouth with her hand. Had she really done that? Had she really shrieked?

"S... sorry, Kelli. It's just... I l... love him so much and the last thing I said...," She couldn't stop herself, it all came pouring out. "The last thing I said to him... over the phone... I... I was nasty, Kelli, because I was so angry with it all. Marshalls coming over to protect me, to restrict my freedom even more... and Chris not with me, but here in Denver. I m... missed him so much, he'd just finished that last case and now he was buried in a new one again! And then Inez called to tell me that Josiah was shot and Chris had disappeared. When I phoned here to the office to learn more, Vin told me to stay away Kel, to stay put! God, I never thought you'd marry an... an idiot!"

Now she was crying after all.

Kelli's arms were still wrapped around her. "I love ya like a sister, Linda," her friend whispered. "And I know you're distraught, but really, if you ever call Vin an idiot again, I'm gonna throw you in the nearest pile of horse manure I can find, you got that?"

Somehow Kelli's remark was exactly what she needed and made the tears stop. "Oh yeah? You and what army?"

She felt Kelli's arms tighten around her affectionately. "Like I need an army to throw you around! Linda, we'll find Chris and we'll find him in time, you'll see. You wouldn't believe the resources we can use. We'll save him!"

At that moment the door flew open to show an agitated Katrina. "Kelli, please, get out here now! It's Vin, there's something wrong with Vin!"

Hastily Kelli ran out, Linda right on her heels. They found Vin slumped in a chair, sweat rolling from his face.

"Vin? What's wrong? Are you getting sick?" Kelli asked worriedly, putting a hand on his brow.

"N... no, no, it's Chris Kel. I don't know what that bastard just did, but I felt Chris wake up. He's the one that's sick and then he was hurtin', hurtin' real bad."

Linda felt as if she was doused with a bucket of cold water. She could only stare at Vin. There it was again, that strange connection. Then Vin's eyes met hers and she saw the pain in them, but also relief.

"He's not dead," her best friend's husband whispered. "I... when I didn't feel him, I was real scared, but Linda, he's not dead! He might be hurtin', but he's not dead, he's still alive!"

"For how long?" she couldn't help saying. Still feeling cold all over she turned away from him and went back into the office where she'd been with Kelli. Looking around for the first time, she realized it was Chris' office.

It didn't really register. All she could think of was Chris out there, in the hands of a madman and now probably injured as well. She wanted him back! She wanted Chris back and feel his arms around her, while he whispered in her ear that he didn't mind her temper tantrums in the least. She wanted her lover to hold her and she wanted to hold him in turn so badly, it hurt. It hurt all over.

"Just hang on Chris," she whispered. "Just hang on!"


He wanted to breathe, simply breathe, but he couldn't. He felt like he would suffocate and every lungful was a struggle. Desperately he tried to move, only to find out that he couldn't do that either.

What was happening to him?

He tried to move again, but his hands and feet were... tied?

Oh God! Chris' eyes flew open. It didn't help, everything was blurry and he had trouble focusing.

"Not feeling so good now, are you? Nope, you're not so high and mighty anymore," a voice rasped.

Hands grabbed him from behind and he felt how someone tried to lift him. A moment later there was something at his back, something hard he could lean against and he did, gratefully, resting his head backwards and trying to get enough air in his lungs.

Oh God, he felt sick! Hastily he opened his eyes and tried to focus once more. Vaguely he saw a figure in front of him. He blinked and blinked again until he thought he could distinguish a face, barely.

Bile was rising up in his throat and Chris swallowed, not wanting to puke.

"You ready to stand? Oh fuck, like I care, stand you will!"

The hands were back, trying to get him on his feet. The movements made him feel even more nauseas. There was no way he could stop it now! Hanging forward Chris was violently ill.

"Shit, that's gross!" Suddenly a fist came out of nowhere and connected with an audible thud against his temple. His head flew aside. Missing strength his body followed and he fell down heavily.

He didn't try to get up, just tried to breath. A kick followed the blow, another kick and another while a voice shrieked at him to get up. Finally he tried to get his legs under him and that's when it happened. His body started to twitch and shake violently and he couldn't stop it. It scared him as much as the difficulty to breathe.

"Alright, then don't walk!"

Vaguely he felt how his body was kicked and rolled, despite the convulsions that kept going on and on and then he fell down, hitting solid stone again and again. Pain flared up throughout his body. The last thing he registered before he lost consciousness was laughter coming from somewhere above him.

Miles away, in the middle of Denver, a young, longhaired man jumped up, fists at his side and determination in his eyes while he started giving orders to the agents surrounding him. At the same time in the intensive care of the Denver Memorial Medical Center pale blue eyes opened under shaggy grey hair. A woman sitting beside the bed with a tiny baby in her arms started to cry, while a group of people in the hall gathered in the doorway, trying to get as close to the patient as possible without breaking the explicit orders of the doctor. One hurried off, while taking out a cell phone. A moment later the longhaired man answered a telephone call that set him running.

Josiah Sanchez had woken up.

+ + + + + + +

"Are you sure you can do this?" Mallory asked softly, holding on to the hand of her husband. "If you can't, I'll tell them to stuff it!"

The sharp pale blue eyes she loved so much looked into hers and she felt the big hand squeeze softly. He was so weak, so very weak! She'd never seen her strong husband so weak before and it tore at her heart. Vaguely she heard Adam's cries from across the hall and she soft crooning sounds of Miss Nettie, who tried to settle him. She wasn't worried about Adam though. He had just been fed and with Miss Nettie he was in the best of hands. No, right now she was worried about her other man, the man she had gradually come to love more and more with everything new she learned about him. Until she couldn't picture life without him any longer, she just couldn't. If he died her soul would be ripped out of her!

"I won't let them in, only if you can handle it," she told him.

"No..., Ch... Chris...."

Briefly she shut her eyes. She remembered Nathan had said something about Chris being with Josiah when he was shot, but it hadn't registered. Normally she didn't miss anything, but now, hardly a week after Adam was born, she still wasn't her old self. And Josiah... God, Josiah had been so close to dying, she had been so frightened!

"K... killer...." That normally loud and booming voice was terribly soft, she could hardly hear him.

"Killer?" she asked confused.

"Killer? Was it the serial killer, J'siah?" a Texan drawl asked behind her. Vin, he'd come in anyway. Josiah nodded and Vin cursed. "Nate, go ask one of the bunch outside if they wanna call the office and tell them to drop all the old cases, we only need to focus on the serial killer. Damn, but it really was him!" He raked a hand through his hair and suddenly looked very pale. It gave Mallory a cold feeling inside.

"Vin? What's going on?" she asked, alarmed now. "What has this serial killer you're hunting to do with Josiah being shot? Or with Chris? They said he's... he's missing?"

"Ch... Chris d... dead?" Josiah suddenly asked and Mallory gripped his hand tighter. He looked so forlorn, her normally larger than life husband, while asking about his friend and boss.

"Dead? No, no, he ain't Josiah, I swear! Bastard took him though, we found two tranquilizer darts."

"Two? Vin, are you sure?" Nathan asked while stepping back into Josiah's ICU room. Mallory could glimpse Casey hurrying off and a very anxious nurse peeping in before the door closed behind him. The nurse would stay out for now though, this was police business and Josiah had wanted to comply.

"Yeah, we found them, why?"

"That means he's gotten more of that stuff inside than the girls that were taken so far. Normally the killer uses only one." Nathan looked worried.

"Whadda ya saying? He might be dyin' from too much of that stuff?" Vin's voice sounded hostile. No one took offense, they all knew it was fear speaking, fear for his best friend. "I felt him, Nate! I felt him wake up, he ain't dyin'!"

"You feel him now?"

"No, but that don't say anything! That bastard really hurt him so he's just lost consciousness again!"

"Stop it!" Mallory hissed, seeing the distress in her husband. "If you can't behave, get out!" Both men looked guiltily at Josiah and then at the doctor who had suddenly materialized, arms crossed and looking at them sternly as if wanting to punctuate her words.

"Sorry Mal, J'siah, doc," Vin said ruefully. "We'll behave, I swear!"

The doctor nodded, said, "See that you do and remember, no more than ten minutes" and left again. Mallory knew he would stay near though. She was grateful for that.

"Just... I know he's still alive, so don't worry," Vin said softly to them all. "We'll find him before that bastard can do more to 'm."

Vin Tanner was not a very good liar and they all knew he was desperate. Oh, there was no doubt in Mallory's mind that given time this team would find the killer. The question was, would it be in time to save Chris?

"Wh... where?" Josiah rasped. All eyes went from staring at the floor to staring at the unit's profiler.

"Where? We don't know, we don't know where Chris is."

"N... no! Where... you look?"

"We have no idea where he is, Josiah," Nathan took over from Vin, who was struggling with his emotions. "Right now we're waitin' until his car is spotted or hopefully he uses his credit card soon."

That made Josiah frown. He looked with some perplexity at his friends. Then he looked beseechingly at Mallory, very beseechingly.

"What is it, Josiah?" she asked softly. His eyes begged her and she understood. Without letting go of his hand she stood up and leaned over him, so her ear was close to his mouth.

"Killing... rituals," her husband whispered.

"Yes, I think they know that," she told him gently. "They know the killings are some sort of ritual."

"Need... place for ri...tuals." His breath caught, then he continued, "Search... other towns... for...places with... bl... blood."

"What? Josiah, what do you mean? Vin, he says you should search the other towns for places with blood. That the killer needs a place for his rituals."

"Blood?" Vin asked.

Josiah gave a small nod. "Vic... tims killed... some... where," he wheezed, loud enough now for Vin and Nathan to hear him as well.

"And then they're thrown in some river or other water, away from where they are killed" Vin said softly. "So he can use the place again."

"Yeah, and he makes sure no evidence stays on the body for forensics to find out where she's killed," Nathan commented a bit bitterly.

Mallory suddenly had a frightening vision of finding Chris' body in the Platte a few days from now, badly mutilated like all the girls this horrible slasher had been killing. She shuddered. When she looked at Vin, she saw the anguish on his face and she knew that Vin had been thinking the same. Nathan and Josiah were looking just as grim and frightened for their friend.

"Search... what kind of... place he u... uses," Josiah said, impatience in his eyes. It was clear that he knew what he wanted them to do, but he just didn't have the strength to lay it all out for them. Vin looked steadily at him for a moment, then he suddenly nodded.

"You think he might use the same type of place every time, don't ya, J'siah? And maybe CASSIE can find it by comparing crime files again from the cities he's hunted."

With relief in his eyes Josiah nodded back.

A small smile formed on Vin's face. "I like it! See what kind a places he's been holing up in to do his butcher work." Immediately after having said those words fear was back on his face.

"J'siah, Mal, sorry, but I really have to go and get JD and Pam started. I don't think we've got that much time." He hurried off. At the door he stopped for a moment and looked back at Josiah. "Thanks pard, for thinkin' of the right thing again. We'd never had a chance on catchin' this monster without you, you know that, don't ya?"

Before Josiah could grunt something in reply, the lithe, fast figure was already gone. Mallory looked at the door for a moment longer and then back at Josiah, tears in her eyes. "He's right, you know," she said softly, proudly. Then she gasped. If the killer had known that, he might have taken Josiah instead of Chris. She felt cold all over at that idea. This day had been bad, the worst in her life because she had almost lost this man, but if it had been her husband in the hands of that maniac, not knowing what would happen to him except that that monster would eventually kill him, it would have been even worse.

With a trembling hand she caressed his lovely face. The feelings of anger and resentment that this had happened so close after one of the most joyful days in their life, the birth of their son, slowly evaporated. She still had him, had the love of her life with her. He was here, safe for now and not in the hands of a vicious killer.

Josiah smiled at her, a tired smile. "Love... you," he mumbled.

She bent over him and carefully kissed his brow. "Love you too," she whispered back. They looked at each other for a moment longer until her husband lost the battle with his weakness and tiredness. Slowly his eyes closed.

"Love you so very much," she added softly. "So don't you dare leave us!"

+ + + + + + +

Slowly Chris opened his eyes. For a moment he had trouble focusing again, but to his enormous relief his eyesight cleared. He was laying in a damp cellar, the only light coming from some windows high up near the ceiling and a trapdoor. The windows were cracked and half of the trapdoor was missing. Through the hole he could see a little piece of blue sky.

Cobwebs were everywhere. The dirt floor was filled with debris. Everything spoke of years of abandonment.

A memory was tugging at him. For a moment he stopped taking in his surroundings and he let that memory surface. It was like a fist in his guts. Josiah, Josiah dying right beside him!

Oh god, Josiah!

Blinking the threatening tears away he decided that the best thing to do was try and get out of this place. They would get the bastard and make him pay for what he'd done. I swear, Josiah, I swear I'll make him pay! For those girls, for you... for Mal. Oh, Mal...

Then he saw the man sitting cross-legged in one corner, staring at him through lank, black hair falling over his face, cleaning his fingernails with a big knife.


He started to tremble. Shit, no, he wasn't going to get the shakes for some maniacal freak, he just wasn't. He couldn't control his body though and soon it was twitching and shaking, no matter how he tried to stop it. It filled him with fear.

"Convulsions," a voice suddenly said from very close up. "Knew it would be a bit much, two darts. But with that first one ending in the sleeve of your coat and you bigger than my girls I sure wasn't gonna take a risk. Least you're breathing properly again, was afraid I'd maybe done you in after all. Oh shit!"

Vaguely he felt himself being turned to his side when he started to vomit, then he lost consciousness again.

The next time he opened his eyes, the man was sitting beside him and he wasn't in the same place anymore, it seemed he was dragged away from the vomit.

That big knife was still in the man's hand. He was playing with it, not looking at Chris. He was also murmuring to himself.

"Thinking he can take away my life. I built that life, it's mine! Thinking he can rip it all away, expose me! I'll show him, I'll show them all. No one trifles with Josh LaPlant!"

The man looked like he was miles away with his thoughts and Chris closed his eyes, glad that he still might have some respite before things started to get... ugly. He couldn't keep the knife out of his mind, or the file pictures of this man's victims.

Josh LaPlant. He didn't even use his own name for his private musings. Musings that gave Chris a very good idea why the guy had come after him. Revenge, revenge for exposing the sneaky little bastard.

He felt a hand on his shoulder, shaking him. "Hey, you awake down there? Yeah, you are, ain't you. Yer breathing's different. Come on, open them green eyes!" Chris did, glaring at the cowardly weasel.

"Oh yeah, green like the eyes of my girls. Hair's a pretty golden blond too!" The hand started playing with his hair and Chris pulled away in disgust. It angered the man. He took up his knife, pointing it at Chris.

"You don't like me touching you, you filthy bastard? After ripping my life to shreds you're gonna take whatever I want, you hear!" he yelled.

Pain be damned, Chris wasn't going to roll over for a pervert with a knife. When the man moved in close he ignored his pain, he ignored that knife and he lunged his head forward. It hit the other square in the stomach, making him fall back. The yelling ended in a surprised yelp. For a moment Brad Cleaver just sat there, then he jumped up with a shout.

"How dare you?" He lunged at Chris.

Chris swept his bound feet around, hitting the legs of Cleaver squarely and rolling away so Cleaver wouldn't crash right on top of him. Pain flared up in his shoulder, traveling all along his left arm, making Chris aware that something was wrong there.

No time. Cleaver had dropped his knife and hastily he kicked it out of reach of the man. He made sure he was on his back when the man came at him again, viciously kicking out when the killer jumped at him. His feet connected with Cleaver's abdomen and the man crumpled down, crying out. Chris swung his feet out again, aiming for the head of his captor. He almost succeeded, but at the last moment Cleaver realized what was happening and jerked out of the way. He still managed to hit Cleaver's shoulder, getting another cry out of the man.

Unfortunately that was it. Cleaver slowly stood up and walked to the knife. Bound up like he was, Chris couldn't stop him or get there sooner. He did manage to get to the wall behind him and work himself into a sitting position, the wall protecting him at his back. He tucked in his feet, ready to kick out again.

The killer squatted down just out of reach of his legs and smiled. "Seems we better do something about them long legs, shouldn't we?" he grinned. "Wouldn't want you to overexert yourself." He was rubbing his shoulder while talking. "And then I'm gonna make you pay for what you just did. As a bonus to what you've already coming!"

"What's the matter, you hurt Brad?" Chris taunted him. "You're a little coward who can only attack people from behind, with a club or a gun."

Cleaver's eyes clouded over, whether from Chris' taunt or from the use of his real name Chris couldn't say. He was biting his lower lips, staring at Chris in rage.

"I'm not a coward," he hissed at last, "I'm a hunter and a hunter shoots his prey!"

"You took a branch and clubbed your best friend, your only friend, to death over a girl that didn't even want you, you pathetic little fraud," Chris told him with a voice dripping contempt. "You don't face your prey, you just shoot those girls from some dark alley you're hiding yourself in and you call yourself a man? Yep, pathetic sounds about right."

Shrieking in rage Cleaver launched himself at Chris again, knife raised. Chris was ready and this time his kick had the young man crumple against the wall across from him. Chris waited for a moment, but Cleaver didn't move.

The knife, where had the knife gone to? Frantically he looked around until he saw it not far from Cleaver.

Shit, that was a risk, but he really needed that knife to cut through his bonds. With a last look at the unmoving figure Chris decided to go for it and rolled away from the wall. When he was almost there laughter sounded and he froze.

"That was fun to watch," Cleaver said softly, rising up and dusting himself off. "You rolling in the dirt like you ought to." Not knowing what else to do, Chris decided to try for the knife anyway.

Like he had feared, he didn't have a chance. Cleaver limped now, but he had his foot on the knife a lot sooner than Chris could execute his last roll. Hastily Cleaver got the knife from the floor and stepped away from Chris. "Now what?" he mumbled. "I don't want to sedate you again, I've waited long enough for you to come around, dammit! Besides, I think it's dangerous for you if I used the stuff on you again."

Chris didn't say anything. His eyes never left the killer, he was ready to move again. Only... he was feeling strange, really strange. His eyes blurred for a moment and then he felt it start, the trembling and shaking.

NO! No, not now, please not!

It didn't stop, it didn't go away and soon his body was imprisoned in those horrible convulsions again. He heard the killer's laugh and through it all he felt hands on his body, on his legs. Fighting against unconsciousness he tried to get his body back under control.

He couldn't. He could only ride it out.

When the convulsions finally ended he wasn't able to fight anymore. His feet were bound to an iron ring hammered low in the wall, making it impossible for him to kick out. The killer stood leaning against the wall, looking down on him with a small smile. He was rubbing his shoulder again.

"It's over? Good, I'm dying to start with you!" The young man barked in laughter. "Dying to start! Guess who's not the one going to die here?" He kneeled beside Chris and put his big knife under Chris' chin, forcing his head back.

"Now, first we need to get those clothes out of the way. That makes it all a lot easier. With my girls I always peel them off very slowly, laying bare their riches and beauties one by one. You ain't a girl though, so let's just get it over with. I bet you'll be pleased to get out of them as well, they're rather... soiled." There was that laugh again, a laugh Chris was truly starting to hate.

He didn't say anything back and closed his eyes when the knife started to cut his clothes away. Soon he felt his flesh exposed to the cool, damp air in the cellar and the slightly damp earth against his back.

The killer took the shreds of clothes and threw them in a corner where another pile was laying. When he came back, knife still brandished, Chris knew that from now on it would really get bad. Catching the killer's eyes he poured all his hate and loathing into the glare he sent him. It made the young man stop and falter for a moment. Then he was at Chris' side and stabbed the knife into his already hurting left shoulder. Chris couldn't stop the cry that escaped him at the sudden sharp pain. Blood poured out of the deep wound.

"First things first," Cleaver smiled. "It was time for me to start on my new prey, but I guess you will have to do. Let's see what kind of strength male blood can give me."

What the hell?

Before Chris could react to those strange words, Cleaver stooped down, put his mouth to the wound and started to suck.


Chris tried to twist away, a deep loathing filling him, but Cleaver just held on and kept drinking the blood.

His blood.

Oh God, this wasn't happening! Josiah had said something about blood, the blood being important for the killer. Josiah....

He felt teeth around the wound. It made him sick, but before he could puke a hand was clamping his mouth shut.

"Don't you dare!" Cleaver hissed. "I never let my girls soil this sacred moment, don't think I'll let you!" The hand didn't leave and Chris was forced to swallow his bile back in or choke.

Choking might have been better, he thought when Cleaver's mouth closed around the wound again. Then it was over and Cleaver was looking at him, licking his lips with a feverish light in his eyes, a strange looking knife in his hand.

"Now... now your strength flows through me and it's time to make you pay. Do you know what this is, Christopher Adam? Don't look so surprised that I know your full name, your whole life is on the internet, did you know that? First it was all over the television and then I found everything I needed to know on the net as well, very convenient. Except for your car, for some reason your car wasn't mentioned anywhere, isn't that odd? Still, I asked you something, do you know what this is?" He held up the strange looking knife.

Chris swallowed. He knew what it was, he knew exactly what it was. Desperately he tried to work his hands out of the ropes, tried to free his feet.

"Yes, I see you know what it is. Something to make you scream and scream again. I wonder if you will scream less than my girls, or if there won't be any difference. Let's find out, shall we?"

Unable to keep his eyes off it, Chris watched the skinning knife land on his chest. With the first small strip of skin Cleaver took off he knew that yes, he would scream. A lot.


"Vin, you need some rest!" Kelli was adamant. Her husband looked like hell, but he just kept on working! Phoning everyone he knew for favors and information on the killer they now had a full identity on. Looking at maps of Denver and its immediate surroundings with Justin and Buck. But most of all making JD's and Pam's life a hell.

Orrin Travis looked up from where he was going over the notes they had on the case, again. Kelli thought he must have read them hundreds of time by now. Didn't that drive the man nuts?

She knew most of them were slowly going crazy, she sure was herself! They didn't know what to do, how to get the killer, where to look. They had no choice but wait for the killer to make the first move and that was slowly getting to them.

The waiting had always been the part of police work she hated the most. Even more than paperwork and that was saying a lot! It was even worse now, with a life in the balance.... The life of someone she knew and cared about.

Damn it, all the waiting when she'd been a cop in Texas had made her apply for this job in the first place. This was supposed to be a special unit that would respond to high profile cases all over the country, fast paced cases she had expected would not involve all the waiting, just the doing!

Talking about a fast paced case.... They had moved like lightning on this serial killer and now look. She was waiting after all! Waiting for hours already! Chris had been taken around ten that Thursday morning, after his meeting with Travis and at the moment it was approaching 2 a.m. and they found themselves two hours into Friday.

She didn't want to think what could have been done to him in all those hours.

"Vin!" she grated, grabbing him by the arm when he was heading towards Pam and JD, again. "Stop harassing them and let them do their jobs! Just go and lay down in the lounge! We'll call you as soon as there is something, alright?" And give me some time with Linda who is going quietly to pieces in Chris' office, she added silently to herself.

Linda worried her as much as Vin did. While with Vin her worry was for the uncharacteristic frenzied way in which he was doing everything, with Linda it was just the opposite. The 'running around and getting into everyone's hair' Linda seemed gone, her friend was almost lethargic. She had been like that ever since Vin had doubled over in obvious pain, gasping and calling out "Chris, no!" After one horrid look at the unit captain, Linda had fled into Chris' office. There she had been sitting behind Chris' desk, in Chris' chair, looking at the pictures he had standing and hanging around.

When Kelli last looked, Linda had been holding a picture of her and Chris, taken at one of the family Sunday lunches. Kelli knew it hadn't been on Chris' desk for very long. She was glad that it had been standing there, prominently, so Linda could have the feeling that Chris did want her in his life, did feel connected to her.

On the other hand, that knowledge must be making Linda's grief even more pronounced.

"VIN!" She was getting positively angry. "Damn it, Tanner, what good will you be to Chris if you pass out and we'll have to leave you here when we finally do find him? Go - get - some - rest! NOW!"

Vin looked at her with blazing eyes. "You think I can rest while Chris, while he...." His voice broke.

"Oh Vin," she said softly, immediately regretting her temper. She knew she was on a short fuse ever since it was clear that the killer had taken Chris and they couldn't find a lead to where he was. This must be so much worse for Vin, who had a bond with their unit commander beyond anything she had ever seen. Without paying any attention to the others in the office, hardly acknowledging that no one was taking any rest, she wrapped her arms around him and held him close. It took a moment, but then Vin relaxed, dropping his chin on her head and wrapping his arms around her. They were holding each other so tightly Kelli felt the shudders going through him.

"We are all worried Vin, we are all working on getting him back. It would be the smart thing to do, to work in shifts and you... you look like hell! Just go try and get some rest, please."

"You don't understand Kelli," he said softly, so only she could hear him. "I look like hell 'cause Chris feels like hell. He hurts so much, Kel, so damn much! I can't shut it out!"

Oh shit! Seems there was even more to this connection between her husband and her boss than she'd thought she knew. "You're really feeling his pain?" she asked, hesitantly. "Not like a flash, some kind of warning when something happens to him, but all the time?"

"Yeah, sort of. I'm not... not feeling it as a part of my own body, like I'm hurting too. But I feel it in my gut, in my heart. It radiates through me somehow."

"Maybe you could take a light sleeping pill."

He pushed her off and looked at her angrily. "I wouldn't do that Kel! I would never try and shut him out, especially now!"

"Vin, you can't go on like this, please!" With her hand she cupped his cheek, trying to make him see reason.

"Yeah I can! Chris can too and he's the one bleedin'. I appreciate you bein' worried about me Kel, really I do, but this sure ain't the place for it. We wouldn't let our feelings interfere with the job, remember? Come, I'll be fine, let's just go back to try and find this killer."

She looked at him, at the determination in his eyes and reluctantly she nodded. "You're right, I was out of line. It's just... it hurts me to see you like this. But you stop letting your feelings cloud your judgment as well and give JD and Pam some breathing space, alright? They are just as worried and determined and don't need you pushing them when they are pushing themselves harder than they should!" She looked at the two heads bowed over one of the computers. Pam was typing furiously. Orrin Travis was standing behind them, keen eyes taking everything in but not interfering. "They are doing everything they can, Vin. I don't think anyone would have thought that this search would give them so much data!"

"It's frightening, ain't it, so many places that could've been possible crime scenes," Vin agreed.

"Well, since you won't listen to me anyway," she told her husband in a teasing tone while pulling at one of his earlobes, "I'm going to Linda, who is slowly losing it in Chris' office. I'm gonna try and persuade her to go home. It's not like she can do anything here, or will be allowed to come along when we do find out something. And she has nothing here to distract her from what's going on. She just sits there thinking the worst."

He pulled her hand from his ear and smiled. "Love you, Texas. You're braver than me, tryin' to make her see reason. Don't think you'll have any luck though."

Kelli sighed and looked at the closed office door. "No, I don't think I will either. But I gotta try."

+ + + + + + +

He looked down at his prey with satisfaction. Larabee had lost consciousness again and he could tell what he was doing was getting harder and harder for the man to bear. He smiled, thinking back on all the screams, moans and finally the soft whimpering. He'd loved that the most of all, when his prey had lost the strength for anything else. He always loved that moment the best.

The man hadn't begged though, not once in all that time and that bothered him.

Something else bothered him as well, a restlessness he was feeling inside, an ache low in his belly. He'd had the blood, the flesh and the pain and anguish of his prey, but this one couldn't satisfy him as much as his women. It was great to take revenge like this, but Larabee just wasn't what he really, really needed.

He needed a regular prey, one he could use for all his wants and needs!

A grunt and some movement told him that this one was coming around again. He kneeled down, pressing hard on one of the deeper wounds. His victim gasped in pain, the green eyes flew open and for a moment he felt good, so good when he saw the hopelessness in them.

"We need to talk," he said softly, when the eyes were focused on him. The fear that had been in those green depths when the man had just woken up and had realized the truth of his existence was gone, replaced by the anger and disgust he was getting used to.

He so much preferred the other looks! I will get you there, he vowed silently. I will get you to the point where hopelessness and fear is all that's left in your eyes. And then... then you will die!

"I have some needs, some desires that are still unfulfilled," he told his prey softly, drawing the point of his knife slowly down along the bloody torso before him. A look of utter horror filled the man's eyes and he smiled. "I see that, as a man, you know what I'm talking about." In one smooth move he slashed the knife through his victim, another slash among many and he stood, looking down at his prey with satisfaction.

"They will think that since I have you, your blond bitch will be safe. She was mine you know. Mine! I had marked her! But you interfered, didn't you? Somehow I just know she wasn't around anymore for me to take her because of you! I will get her now anyway. I'm going to give you some water and you drink it, all. I want you alive long enough to see what I will do with her!"

That brought a look of such abject terror in the eyes of the man at his feet, that he felt a warm glow all through his body.

This was going to get better and better!

+ + + + + + +

"Vin? Linda has agreed to go back to the ranch and look after all the horses for us, since there is nothing she can do here."

"Huh?" Vin looked up from the notes JD and Pam were showing him. They had finally figured it out. The killer seemed to be very partial to cellars. Cellars of abandoned houses or of houses whose occupants were temporarily gone and came home to a nasty surprise of shredded and blood-soaked garments, a very bloody floor and even in some occasions pieces of flesh, human flesh laying around. In a few cases it seemed he might have taken an occupied house and killed off the tenants.

Vin turned back to the data in front of him. "Damn, but it seems Josiah had this guy pegged right again. He sure likes to stick to the same MO in everything," he sighed. "I just shudder to think about the many houses with cellars we have in and around Denver."

"Around," Pam stated. "They were all just outside the cities he had taken his victims from, with no neighbors in the proximity."

"Makes sense," Buck said somberly. "He might like to make them scream, so he wouldn't want any neighbors."


"Yeah, Kelli?" Finally it registered to him that Kelli had been talking to him and he looked up a bit guiltily.

Kelli was standing beside Linda, one arm wrapped securely around her friend. Vin was shocked at how pale Linda was, with her features a lot sharper than normal. She was staring at Buck with a look of horror on her face. Kelli was looking at Buck as well, only she had an angry glare. Shit, Linda must have heard Buck's comment about the screaming, he understood suddenly. His heart went out to her. This waiting, this inability to do something, must be even harder on this energetic woman who thrived on taking the bull by the horns and just acting.

At least they all had their job and right now that job was focused on saving their team commander. Linda did not even have that.

"We'll find Chris, Linda," he vowed. "Please, don't give up, alright? He ain't dead yet."

Now anger flashed in her eyes, anger and resentment directed at him. "Really? Says who? You? Because you FEEL him? Oh God...." Tears suddenly came and a moment later Kelli was holding her close, waiting out the storm of weeping.

"S... sorry," Linda managed to choke out after a while. "I... I don't normally.... But this waiting, while Chris is...." She fell silent.

"Linda is leaving for the ranch, I'm gonna escort her to her car, alright?" Kelli informed them all.

"Linda, is that what you want?"

Linda nodded at him. "Yes, I don't want to stay here, w... waiting like this. I need to do something, anything! Making sure the horses are alright will at least be something."

"But... the killer?" JD asked, worried. "We still don't have him." All eyes went to him. He started to squirm under the scrutiny of them.

Nathan was the one who said it. "He already has a victim, JD. Linda will be safe." They all heard the unspoken words, 'until we find Chris' body.'

NO! Until we find Chris! Vin thought vehemently. He wasn't going to give up, not ever!

It was just taking so long, so long... and all that time Chris was in the hands of a madman.

He looked after the two women. He had two people in his life now who meant more to him than anything or anyone else. One of them was at that moment walking to the office door and she was escorting the woman who had become so important to the other one.

He had thoroughly enjoyed seeing Chris with Linda these last weeks, seeing the 'devil may care' person that Buck Wilmington had told him and the others numerous stories about. He had loved seeing the light in his friend's eyes in the morning, when they were taking care of the horses and he knew Linda was the reason for that light.

He was not letting some pervert kill Chris Larabee, the indestructible, just when Chris had found the joy of love in his life again. He just wasn't!

Chris, God, where are you?

While the door closed behind the two women, he felt hurt sweep through his body, Chris' hurt, Chris was conscious again. Only a quick grasp for the desk kept him from falling.

"Vin?" he vaguely heard JD ask. He was just about to say that he was fine, when a deep wave of despair coursed through him.

"Linda," he whispered. "He's goin' for Linda!" Then he was running, fast. He exited the office just in time to see the elevator doors close. Not thinking about anything he sprinted for the stairs and practically flew down. One floor, two, three, four. After the seventh flight of stairs he was breathing heavily, but he wouldn't let that stop him. Eleven, twelve..., Jezus, he was tired! One more, to the parking lot. Seeing the women having almost reached Linda's fashionable and very luxurious Jeep gave him an extra spurt of energy and he burst out in a fast sprint.


Two heads swiveled his way and Kelli was suddenly holding out a gun. It made him smile briefly. God, he loved her! Protectively keeping Linda behind her and casting an eye in every direction, Kelli waited for him, wearily. Vin remembered Josiah laying on the floor, bleeding, close to where they now were and he looked around himself frantically as well. What if the killer had decided to wait here for Linda?

"Yes?" Kelli asked, tense. "Vin, what's wrong?"

"Linda... Linda can't... go!" Shit, he needed to catch his breath.

"What do you mean? Why can't I go?" Linda asked sharply.

"He's coming for you," Vin said simply.

"WHAT? Not that again! He didn't come for me, he came for Chris! He still has Chris, so he won't come for me, you all said so upstairs! Are you saying that Chris is dead?"

"NO! No Linda, he's not dead!"

"Then why do you think that... that maniac will come for me?"

Linda sounded downright hostile and Vin looked at her in surprise. He knew there was something about him that seemed to bother Linda and somehow in the past hours it seemed to have grown into real resentment. He didn't understand.

"Linda, so help me, you can it or I'll just take you over my knee and spank you!" Kelli told her friend with heat. "Vin ain't the enemy here! What would Chris think if he heard you?"

The angry words made Linda wilt and she looked guiltily at the floor. "Still don't see why Vin suddenly seems to think the killer will come for me after all," she muttered.

"Chris," Vin simply told her. When Linda looked up at him incredulously, he gazed at her steadily, willing her to acknowledge the truth of his words.

"Are you telling me that you know more than that he's in pain? He's talking to you or something?"

"Normally he is, but not now," Vin said softly, sadly. He didn't react to the stunned look on Linda's face. Kelli seemed a bit dazed as well when she heard him make his statement so casually. He knew she had suspected a little bit of how deep the connection between him and Chris was, but not the full extension of it. It was something that he and Chris never talked about, ever, not with anyone. It just... was.

Well, now they knew, for good or for bad. He reached for his beautiful wife, with whom he had built a connection all of their own the last months. "He feels too far away for that," he told them softly, sadly. "So it's basically emotions I'm getting. The pain, the disgust for the killer and just now this enormous feeling of despair that has to do with you, Linda. Please, the killer IS coming for you!"

"Oh shit!" Linda cried out and gave her car a vicious punch with her left fist. Her face immediately grimaced in pain.

"Linda, you dolt! You can break your hand that way!" A disgusted looking Kelli grabbed for the hand. "Let me see that!"

"Nope. We're going back upstairs. Nate or Kat can look at it there," Vin disagreed firmly, taking Linda by the arm to escort her to the elevator. He was flipping open his phone, once more able to think coherently now that he had Linda safely with him again.

Got her, Chris! I got her, she's safe!

At first he didn't know if he'd gotten through the blond's pain and anguish, but then, suddenly, the utter despair he had felt in Chris was gone. He had somehow managed to reach his friend. Good, at last he'd been able to do something for him.

Then he lost Chris. His heart constricted, but he knew it was probably because Chris had lost consciousness again, like before. He would know if his friend died, he just would and this wasn't it!

He went back to the business at hand and punched in Buck's number.

"Buck, that you? We gotta act fast, the killer's on the move. Get Denver PD and see which men they have close to Linda's ranch. They have to get someone there in waiting, to see if they can spot him. Make sure they all know the car and that every cop is on the look out for it. NO! No arrest! We need to know where Chris is, so they better follow him! We don't know if he will tell us, Buck. I have a bad feeling about that possibility. That's one angry dude we're chasing. Angry and completely bonkers. Yeah, we're on our way back up. You get the DPD on it, fast!"

When he looked at the two women just before entering the elevator he felt better than he had since discovering Josiah bleeding his life out and Chris gone. "We're back in the game," he told them confidently.

Chris, we're coming for you! Just you hold on!

+ + + + + + +

Chris coughed and opened his eyes to the stillness and darkness of the night. He thought he'd heard Vin's voice in his head, like he had so many times before. Telling him they were coming, that he only had to hold on.

It didn't matter, he knew Linda was safe and that was the only thing of importance. The rest... God, he just hurt too much to think about anything else, especially holding on.

He closed his eyes, willing his body to lose consciousness again. Unfortunately it didn't happen. Another cough racked his body and he couldn't stop from moaning.

It hurt, it all hurt so much. He wanted it to stop, just stop!

He wanted to forget what that madman had been doing to him with his knives. God, that guy could sure be creative with them!

But when he'd started gnawing at him.... Hastily Chris rolled over so he wouldn't drown in his own puke, crying out because moving hurt almost more than he could bear. When the searing pain throughout his entire body had finally lessened enough for him to be aware again, he tried the ropes around his hands. He should be able to free them, now that his wrists were slick with blood. Trouble was that it hurt so much, so damn much to try.

He had to try though, because being here when that demon came back would be infinitely worse.


He'd come, the bastard really had showed up at the ranch! He'd hidden his car and had prowled around carefully, before settling in to wait for whatever would come in the early morning. He'd seen Ben Watson and the foreman Rob Cleveland take care of the horses. He'd seen Ben's wife come out to ring the ranch bell and warn everyone breakfast was ready.

Buck and Mark had seen the same things, but only from the corner of their eyes. Their attention wasn't focused on the happenings at the Southern Breeze Horse Ranch; it was riveted on the killer and his antics. Through their binoculars they'd gotten a good look at the murderer and had whispered how uncanny it was to finally see this phantom.

Not even a week. They weren't even a week on this case, but it felt to Buck as if it had been months now. So much had happened in that week, information had poured in at a rate a lot higher than he'd been used to when they had been an ATF team and he was still stunned by it. Much of that had to do with CASSIE, he knew. He wasn't that much a fan of computers, but he had to admit that what CASSIE gave them had been priceless. In this case and in their first case as well. CASSIE was what made it possible for them to catch this... this monster, CASSIE and JD and Pam. Those two were wonders with that program or whatever it was.

It made him realize that yes, he had lost JD as his main partner. Not that JD had gone in on a bust very often while they were still ATF, he was mostly the one operating the communications and observation equipment. But now he didn't even get to go and investigate or round up snitches with the kid either. JD was needed behind the computer.

It had been strange to ride out with Mark instead of one of the original seven, instead of JD, the first few times he'd done it. He knew that JD was where he needed to be and truth to tell, he liked Mark. Mark was as eager as JD had always been, as naïve in some ways as well. The difference was that Mark came from the academy fully qualified and schooled for field work, where JD had to be trained for his license when their team had started seven years ago. A lot of JD's training had fallen on him, while Mark already knew what to do. That didn't mean the new kid on the block couldn't use some smartening up though, Buck smirked. Especially in street smarts.

Be that as it may, it sure took some getting used to and losing JD to the computer, in a way, wasn't the only thing he needed to get used to. Josiah was another. He had been stunned by the ex priest during this case. The way Josiah had pieced together the person from the statistics given to them by CASSIE had been uncanny. Josiah had made a cold and brutal picture out of all the data. He'd brought the killer to life for all of them and it had made Buck realize that the man had been wasted on their original ATF team. He'd been a great agent and even a greater teammate, being able time and again to get tempers back under control and traumas out in the open, but damn... he was a really terrific profiler! He had been so RIGHT about everything!

It hadn't been something they had needed very often as an ATF team. Going undercover to get drugs or arms dealers was different, they knew their targets.

Buck sighed and moved a bit backwards from the rise where they were keeping an eye on their subject, so he could stand up to do some stretching exercises. Man, he was stiff from all the crouching and lying around on the cold, damp ground! What he wouldn't give for one of Inez's massages right now. Or for a little romp with Sarah and Maria. Looking at the sky he sighed wistfully. The kids would be up by now, and around this time they would be running through the kitchen, screaming for pancakes and making a mess with the syrup once they finally got seated at the table. He knew Inez only had to look at them and say very distinctly 'Sit!' to get them to behave, but he always had to chase them, pick them up and dump them in their chair. Well hell, it was just so much more fun that way, he didn't care how much it made Inez shake her head in desperation!

He and Mark had left the office the moment Vin had told them the killer was going after Linda and had taken over from the two cops keeping an eye on the farm. Those two were now hiding on the other side of the ranch as back up. It had been about an hour later when the killer had turned up. Mark had been so exited about it all, but Buck had felt his gut clench. This was a guy you wouldn't look at twice when passing him on the street. He was slight, kind of small and his whole posture spoke of a nobody. But he had murdered, no, tortured and butchered countless women in nine years time. It made his blood boil just thinking about all the women who had suffered so much from this guy. His hands had clenched into fists when he saw the killer for the first time, he so much wanted to pound and hammer on him, hurt him, make him bleed, until he was begging for mercy like all his victims probably had done as well.

He wanted to make the son of a bitch hurt so much that he would beg to be allowed to tell them where Chris was.

God, Chris, what had the bastard done to Chris? And why was he after Linda now? Why Linda? Did he know Linda was connected to Chris? They had been speculating about how the killer found out where he could get Chris and they were pretty sure it was because of the specials on the television about him. Linda had been in those specials too, getting a lot of attention. It had taken him by surprise and he thought the others as well, to see that the media were pretty interested in her and her lover. The woman turned out to be regular jet set. It had struck Buck as pretty hilarious and he'd stowed it away to rile Chris with it after the case, because he knew how Chris hated everything that had even remotely to do with fame, richness and everything the gossip columns loved to write about.

Then Chris had been taken, Linda's life had been endangered as well and it just wasn't funny anymore.

He knew that throwing Sam Reed off the team had something to do with those shows on TV. If he ever found out that it had been Reed who leaked all the information, he was going to look that son of a bitch up and have a little heart to heart with him. With his fists. Only, how would Reed have found out all the dirt on Chris? It just didn't make sense, no sense at all.

A hiss made him look up. Mark was waving for him to come back. The kid was as fresh as if he'd just jumped out of a bed, instead of having been up all night. God, he was suddenly feeling his years. Not feeling old, he would never feel old as long as he lived, more... well, like his bones had had a bad night. Stealthily he climbed back up and took his binoculars out.

"He's moving," Mark whispered. "Look, I think he's giving up!"

"Yeah, well, he must've finally understood that seeing no Linda anywhere probably means there is no Linda here," Buck whispered back. "Yep, you're right, he's heading for his car. You keep an eye on him until we really have to roll, I'm gonna get the motor running." Hastily he scrambled back down and put the car in gear, ready to tear out. Not long after that Mark came tumbling down the low slope in a heap of twigs and leafs.

"He's... he's really going! He's backing away towards the road!" he gasped when he jumped in breathlessly beside Buck. They kept waiting, their car concealed off the driveway towards the Southern Breeze Horse Ranch. After a while a beat up truck passed them and took a turn towards Denver at the end of the driveway. Carefully they turned the same way.

"Buck, don't you have to get closer?" Mark asked anxiously when they kept so far behind he couldn't see the car they were following.

"Relax kid, relax, I know these roads like the back pocket of my pants. Besides, look, that small transceiver we managed to get on his car is working like a charm. See, there is its signal. Now, warn Vin... eh, headquarters, that he's on the move! And that the tracking device is working."

"Oh, yes, yes!" Hastily Mark took out his cell phone and dialed Vin's number. When he'd gotten his message through and listened, he put away the phone again with a frown on his face.

"What did he say, kid?"

"He yelled that we better not loose him. Like we would do that!" Mark said indignantly. "He sounded angry!"

"Yeah, well, I think he ain't too pleased to be in Denver instead of here chasing the baddy, Mark. That's his best friend we're trying to get back."

"But yours too, isn't he? JD said you and Chris, you practically grew up together?"

There was a clear question in the youth's voice and Buck looked aside for a moment. Damn, there it was again, like he'd seen in JD and in lots of other young agents. That hero worship for Larabee the legend. He sighed. He wasn't in the mood for grand story telling, he just wasn't.

He never realized that the whole original team, Team Seven, was a legend by now. His thoughts were centered too much around his missing unit leader and friend. Shit, Chris had been such a big part of his life for so long now, he couldn't imagine losing him, he just couldn't. Especially not now, when Chris had finally opened up his heart for a possible new love.

He just couldn't.

+ + + + + + +

The moment Vin had gotten Mark's phone call that the killer was on the move he was yelling orders. Within seconds Paul and Katrina were taking Linda to the hospital where most of the family was before joining the chase, Pam and Ross were grudgingly agreeing to defend the home front and Justin was off to the Denver PD to coordinate their actions with MCAT. The rest took cars and headed out. Vin jumped in his truck with Nathan beside him and JD in the back. The young Bostonian was holding on tight to his lap top and the second receiver they had for the tracking device, trying to pick up the signal from the small transmitter. Ezra was already taking off in his prized Jag with Kelli. He had given her a murderous look when she had tried to get behind the wheel and had left the building first, diving into the traffic as if he was the only one on the road. Vin was close behind him, cursing him in two languages and finally flipping open his phone, one hand on the wheel despite driving way above speed limit, to curtly inform the undercover agent what would happen to him if he ended up in a car accident with his wife.

Soon Mark phoned again and told Nathan, who took the phone, that the suspect was heading along Pat Creek Road. "Damn, that's north! What's north?" Nathan asked frustrated.

"Ranches, houses. Lots of places to hide," Vin said somberly. "JD? You got a signal?"

"Yes, yes I've got it now, Vin. But it's very weak. Damn, it's gone! Oh, good, it's back. It was back as soon as we got from under the overpass and I can see it again! West is about right."

"Tell Ez and Kelli we better go due west from here."

After a while another call came through. "Brook Hollow", Nathan yelled.

"Shit! He's heading for the Interstate!" Vin cursed. "Warn Ezra!" Immediately he made a sharp turn that almost caused an accident. That led to a phone call from Kelli, scolding him soundly for taking unnecessary risks.

"Where?" Nathan was barking in the phone, not bothering to switch his connection with Mark off again. JD was trying to make sense of the signal on the receiver, while at the same time talking to Paul and Katrina, telling them where they were all heading. Vin ignored it all. He was too busy neglecting every traffic sign to get them on the Interstate in record time. He had his police siren on to make sure they would get away with his blatant disregard for every rule.

"Vin, you're right. He's reached Interstate 70, he's goin' further into the mountains!" Nathan yelled.

Vin floored the car but was still passed by the flying Jaguar of Ezra who could go over the speed limit a lot more than his truck could.

"They're reaching Idaho Springs and... Hell, the guy's gone off the Interstate! JD, warn Ezra!"

"Yes, that's about right with the signal I'm getting. He's slowing down now as well. Nate, what are they saying? He's really slowing down. Are Buck and Mark close to him, can they see anything?"

"I'll ask, you warn Ez!"

Fast talking in the back seat was suddenly drowned out by Nathan's agitated voice. "He's WHAT! BUCK! BUCK, TALK TO ME, WHAT'S GOING ON? BUCK!"

Then, softly, "Dammit!" while at the same time JD yelled, "He stopped!"

"WHAT?" Vin shouted, trying to get more power out of his vehicle. "Nathan, WHAT?"

"The bastard! He... he got out of his car and shot a girl with his tranq gun."

Vin swerved and almost made them dive off the road. In the back seat JD shrieked in surprise, barely able to keep his lap top and receiver safely on the seat beside him.

"He... what?" Vin asked, stunned. "What else? What did they tell you?"

"Nothing Vin. That's what Mark managed to get out before breaking off. That the bastard had shot a girl and they had to stop him from taking her."

"Oh shit!" Vin groaned, his face suddenly gone very pale.

+ + + + + + +

"HALT! POLICE!" Buck yelled, jumping out of the car, leaving it standing right across the road, not bothering to close the door. He was waving his badge and his gun, making sure the bastard saw them. The killer looked up through the lank tresses of black hair hanging before his face. Buck would afterwards swear that despite the hair and the distance he saw the eyes of their suspect grow wide.

Come on, run you bastard, run! he thought, letting Mark get into the lead and ready to turn around back to his car. Escape, idiot, you gotta escape!

It seemed the shooter finally saw the light, because with a cry of rage he jumped off and raced to his car. Mark immediately aimed his gun.

"MARK! NOOO!" Buck yelled and to his immense relief he saw the gun waver and drop to Mark's side. "Get the girl, get to the girl and help her!" he yelled to his partner, turning around to go back to his car. He had to follow the bastard and convince him somehow that he'd lost the trail. Then, when the killer felt confident enough, he would go back to Chris, Buck was certain of it.

"You bastard," he hissed. "You fucking bastard! You're not going to hurt or kill anyone ever again!"

He hadn't run more than a few paces towards his car, when he heard it. Sirens, police sirens and screeching tires. When he turned around to find out what the hell was going on, he swore savagely. A police car was blocking the old and battered truck of the killer, ordering him to put down his weapon. The other agent was keeping his weapon aimed in the general direction of him and Mark, wavering between them.

"No," he whispered. "No!"

The killer had dropped his weapon and had stuck his hands in the air. He had surrendered. With a howl of frustration Buck hurled his weapon into the grass, holding up his badge once more, so the police could see it.

What a mess, what a fucking mess this whole action had just become!

Mark had lowered his gun as well and kept his arms away from his sides. "Police!" he was yelling at the top of his lungs. "We're police officers!" Buck waved his badge to emphasize Mark's point. A moment later one of the agents came from behind the police wagon and went to the killer with handcuffs ready. Soon the murderer was kneeling down with his hands cuffed behind him and the cop came over to Mark, who was nearest. After having checked Mark's credentials he waved to his partner.

Buck sighed and claimed his gun back from the still wet grass. It would mean cleaning the thing, but damn, he had been so angry about what had just happened. Had these idiots not gotten all the messages sent out about this case and the stern warning not to apprehend this subject? Despondent he walked over towards Mark and the policeman, curtly showed his ID and walked over directly to the killer, who now had the other agent beside him. He didn't look back, he knew that Mark and his Idaho Springs colleague would take care of the girl. He had another priority now.

Holding out his badge, he told the other cop curtly, "MCAT, which means I outrank you. This prisoner is mine."

"Really?" the cop smirked. "Seems to me we made the arrest, while you were running away."

Buck suddenly saw red. He grabbed the young man, no more then a cocky rookie, by his lapels and pulled him close. "You have just interfered with an important investigation, you moron!" he hissed. "An interference which just might get a man killed, a man who's worth fifty of you!" He shoved the gurgling kid away, not bothering to react to the shouts behind him of the rookie's indignant partner and turned towards the prisoner.

"Where is he?" he hissed.

The bastard had the nerve to smirk, a smirk that was gone fast when Buck grabbed him, hauled him up and slammed him against the police car.


"If you let me go, I might tell you."

"If you tell me, I might let you live," Buck hissed, getting a good grip on the prisoners collar and squeezing.

"HEY!" someone yelled behind him and he felt hands tugging at his arms. He didn't care and he certainly didn't let go until the lips in the face before him turned blue and the eyes panicked.


When nothing came out of the man but some wheezing he squeezed again. Now the eyes were rolling away before he finally released his hold, again ignoring the yelling and the hands at his arms. He didn't even acknowledge the gun he vaguely felt against the nape of his neck. He didn't care and he knew the rookie wouldn't shoot anyway. Dropping the coughing prisoner he took one step back.

"Want me to start kicking you?" he asked menacingly.


Without turning around Buck said softly, "I told ya, kid. We're MCAT and that means I outrank you so far you don't even know what hit you when I decide to take your badge. Understood?"

"I'm calling the Chief of Police!"

"You do that, son. And don't forget to tell him you and your partner screwed up our case. There were enough warnings sent out that this guy was NOT to be apprehended! Now, for the last time, where is Chris?" His whole focus was on the prisoner again. The man had stopped coughing, but his breath was still wheezing. He looked up through the lank, black trashes that were falling over his face and his smile was almost angelic.

"Dead," he said softly. "He's dead, so I dropped him in a river on my way to get his blond bitch. That's what I promised him, that I'd let his lady follow him in death soon, after making her suffer of course." The smile grew. "You should 've seen the fear in his eyes when I told him that. And that's when I killed him, cut his throat."

"You're lying," Buck whispered. "You're fucking lying!"

"Why? Why should I lie? You wanna find him? You have to drag the river I threw him in. Well, more a creek. One of them wild creeks I passed on the way to the blond bitch's farm or ranch or whatever it is." Cool, pale eyes held his while Buck staggered.

He vaguely heard more cars coming and then a soft voice asked, "Buck? What... what is he saying? Is he saying that Chris... that he killed Chris? Is that why he needed another victim, because he had f... finished with Chris? Buck?"

"NO!" he spat. "No, I don't believe you!" His hands grabbed for the prisoner again, while he yelled, "Tell me! Tell me where he is!" He couldn't reach the bastard though, because suddenly another body came between him and his prey, the body of a uniformed cop. The rookie was trying to interfere again, even though he had to have heard that Buck had just been told that his friend, his brother, was dead.

"S... sorry sir," the rookie told him with trembling voice. "I... I just can't let you do that. He's got rights."


"B... Buck? Please?"

This time it was Mark who was talking to him. Suddenly very tired Buck looked at the young agent, his new partner. He could see that Mark was trying very hard to keep up a brave front.

"Buck, what do I tell Vin? I... I... what do I say?"

That was one phone call he couldn't let the kid make. Vin was his friend, his family and he should tell him.

Tell him that Chris might be dead after all, that that was the reason this vermin had gone hunting again. With a deep sigh he turned away and took out his phone. Before he dialed he looked at the still form of the girl. She was covered in blankets now and someone was holding her wrist, seemingly taking her pulse.

"That a doctor?" he asked Mark.

"Y... yes."

"You told him what kind of sedative the bastard uses? No? Better go do it then, I'm gonna call Vin."

Mark looked at him for a moment, then he sighed, nodded and walked away. Buck flipped open his phone. This was one conversation he didn't want to have. Suddenly he fervently hoped he wouldn't be the one who had to tell Linda. Telling Vin would be bad enough.

+ + + + + + +

He couldn't do it, he just couldn't do it. The ropes were too tight, biting into the flesh of his wrists and even with all the blood making his wrists slick he couldn't get his hands free.

He felt so weak, so very weak. Thinking of Cleaver coming back after he had found out he couldn't get to Linda made him shudder and he hated that. It was just that he didn't want to go through it all again, all the cutting and the things that had been even worse.

Looking up he noticed that the light outside had become brighter. The morning was steadily moving on. He didn't think he would have much time left before Cleaver came back.

He had to get free!

Again Chris tried to get his hands out of the ropes, pulling and pulling until the pain became too much to bear. He never noticed when he lost consciousness.


Three cars screeched to a halt on the pavement before Idaho Springs City Hall Building, ignoring the 'forbidden to park' zone. Soon five very agitated men and two equally frantic women who had no eye whatsoever for the beautiful old building or the glorious mountain peaks around them, were hurling themselves up the short stairs and through the main entrance, flashing badges and demanding to be brought to the Chief of Police. There were a few tense moments between their longhaired leader and the Idaho Springs Chief, but finally the edgy group was looking into a room that held a man with lank, black hair half concealing his face, handcuffed to a table. Two men and one cop in uniform were guarding him, one of the men staring hard at the prisoner, never taking his eyes off him.

"The girl?" Vin asked, tense.

"She's still sedated and was sent to Denver Memorial. That's heavy stuff he used, isn't it?"

"Rompun, or Xylazine," Nathan answered softly. "Used to put animals down."


"She's not hurt in any other way?" Vin wanted to know for sure.

Randy Newcastle, Chief of Police of Idaho Springs, was still a bit stunned that a notorious serial killer had just tried to kidnap a girl within the boundaries of his jurisdiction and had been apprehended there. He took a deep breath and shook his head. "Julia 's alright in any other way. Bumped her head a little when she fell down, but otherwise it's just the sedative."

"Good," Vin said softly. He looked at the man they had arrested and knew they had blown it. According to the Chief of Police he'd just laughed when asked where Chris was and told them to find the nearest river.

Why the hell didn't they let him escape? We had the transmitter on him! God, now what do I do? Chris? Please Chris, where are you?!

For a moment he had to turn away from what he saw in the room and take a deep breath. Punching a hole in the wall wasn't going to help Chris, he had to keep it together. Briefly he looked at Kelli. She didn't come over and hug him, she knew better than that, but her smile and the love in her eyes made him feel a little better.

Newcastle was talking to him again and he turned back to Idaho Spring's Chief of Police. "... very sorry that we weren't on time for your man. I guess we should at least try and find out what river or creek he dumped the body in. We could take him down the route and make him point it out."

"I... I can't believe it," JD whispered. "I can't believe that Chris... that we're too late!" There was a look of utter incredulousness on the young man's face.

"I guess that's why he went after Linda,'' Nathan said softly. "He needed his third prey. Only... Vin, how did you know he was going after her? Chris, did you feel Chris...." The medic fell silent.

"Chris knew that's where he was goin', Nate. And nope, he ain't dead yet. He's in a lot of pain and he's getting' weaker every moment we're wastin' here, but he ain't dead! So, let's go and get some answers!"

"But...," Newcastle started, only to be passed by Vin who almost shoved him aside in order to enter the room. In there he met the eyes of a very tense Buck Wilmington. Keeping Buck under wraps was going to be hard, Vin feared. He practically radiated anger and the need to inflict violence. It was something Brad Cleaver knew as well, because there was unmistakably fear in his eyes when he looked at the mustached man.

"Why did ya fuck up our investigation?" Vin asked the policeman in the room softly.

"We... we didn't know you were following him, sir," the policeman said anxiously. "We were warned by someone that a girl was shot and when we came to the area we saw a girl down and we saw three men with guns. What else could we do but stop them? He fit the profile the caller gave of the girl's attacker, so we focused on him and made sure we would at least get him. We didn't know about your man, we never received the information on this case, I swear!"

Vin stared at him for a moment, feeling sad. The man had only done what he thought was right, but it might cost Chris his life if they didn't get Cleaver to talk. He looked back at the captive and a deep anger started to burn inside him. That bastard had wanted to capture Linda and take her to Chris, probably to kill her in front of Chris. Or maybe he figured Chris was already dying. And when Linda wasn't there, he'd picked up another girl.

It was something he hadn't expected at all. That angered him as well. He should have anticipated this!

"If you'd wait outside," he said softly to the policeman and turning his eyes on the Chief of Police who had followed him in, he included him as well. "Me and this piece of shit have some business together." He didn't know it, but at that moment his voice sounded almost as lethal as Chris' voice could be. The two men nodded briefly and hastily left the room. Vin looked at the killer, who looked back a bit uncertainly.

"Where is he?" he asked.

"Dead!" Pale grey eyes looked at him with triumph. "He's dead and floating in some creek I crossed on the way to get his blond bitch!"

Vin moved instantly, grabbing Cleaver by the neck and banging him forward on the table. The man yelped in pain. There was some commotion at the door, but a brief look assured Vin that no one would be able to pass Nathan and Ezra. He slammed Cleaver against the table again, trying to keep his red hot anger in check.

"I know he's still alive, so where - is - he?"

"Told you, he's dead!" the captive wailed. "You can't do this, you hurt me!"

Vin bowed low. "Yeah, well, I don't see any witnesses. Or maybe I do. Maybe that's just what I want, for you to complain and get released. That way I get to hunt you and kill you. You see, you little weasel, that's what I'm good at, huntin' people. Have done it for a lot of years. But I do it for real! With a real gun, a real rifle and I always get my prey, always!"

"Yup, best bounty hunter the West has ever known," Buck confirmed, setting himself at the edge of the table and looking down on the man squirming in Vin's grip. "Oh, and in case you haven't noticed," he flashed his badge, "we are kind of a very new branch of law enforcement. Means everyone's gotta listen to us, do what we tell 'm. We tell them in what kind of penitentiary we want you put, that's where you're put. And I know exactly where I want you. I know this one penitentiary in Colorado, got this special wing for rapists where you'll fit just right. Boy, they gonna love your ass over there."

The man blanched.

"So you better tell us where he is," Vin said softly.

"Yup, or I'll start this rumor that you're a police informer and that's why you probably gonna walk on some cooked up thing like police brutality. You think he'll leave the Canyon State Penitentiary alive? I know it'll spoil your fun Vin, but he would die so much more brutally there. Those inmates only got their hands, some self made knives and plain brute force to kill him with. No nice, fast bullets there!"

They felt Cleaver waver, felt how he radiated fear. Then suddenly he spat and laughed. "Better than to be locked up for the rest of my life without... without ever a chance to see an animal again! So I don't care! At least I'll know that the one who's responsible will be dead as well! Yes, you're right that he's still alive right now! Who knows how long he'll be laying there in that...." He suddenly stopped talking. Then he said softly, "He's in a lot of pain, you know. He'll die really miserable."

Vin slammed him back in his chair. "JD!" he hollered. "Get that machine of yours hooked up! Ez, get someone here who knows the real estate, more 'n one if ya have to! We have to find us a cellar!"

He saw the eyes of Cleaver widen at that statement. God, he wished Josiah was here, he was fairly certain the profiler would've known exactly what buttons to push to make this guy talk. He had him pegged down from the beginning. "Get the real estate websites of this area on line, JD," he told the young man softly. "Ezra's gonna find someone to help."

+ + + + + + +

It took a long time, a lot longer than Vin could stand to make a list of all the abandoned houses with cellars. Three real estate agents had finally shown up, all with specific knowledge of the area. Newcastle had shaken his head over it all, but had cooperated in every way. He now had his patrol officers hunt down an old man who knew the area around Idaho Springs better than anyone.

"No, no neighbors," JD told the real estate agents again. "I told you! No neighbors and they have to be of stone! Stone cellars. Oh, and he also uses houses where the residents are on vacation, but he prefers abandoned ones. Ruins too sometimes. As long as the cellar is still good."

With everything JD said, Cleaver was getting whiter and whiter. "Who are you people?" he finally asked, bitterness edging his voice. "How do you know all that stuff? How did you find out about me?"

"Courtesy of CASSIE, asshole, and of Josiah!" JD mumbled. "Vin, the list is ready! I have categorized them in ruins and really abandoned houses, in empty houses for sale that are good to live in and in houses where they know the tenants are on vacation."

"Good!" Vin all but snatched one of the copies from JD's hands. "Me and Nate do the abandoned ones. Buck, you divide all them empty houses for sale with Paul and Kat, 'cause they are really spread out and Ezra and Kelli, you take the ones with them owners on vacation. JD, you're our spider in the web here, we all keep y' updated and if any new possibility comes to you, you let us know! Call Justin and get out as many men as you can to join the search! We don't succeed in this area, then we're gonna expand. Come on, we gotta hurry! Nate, let's go!"

Vin ran off, holding the list tightly. He hadn't taken the abandoned houses for nothing. He had this sense of broken windows high up in crumbling walls and some kind of... door through which he could see the sky. A sense of oldness and abandonment he couldn't really explain. As usual he went with his gut, he just didn't dare to put all on one card so he had the other houses searched as well. Before he left the hallway he briefly looked back at Kelli. No matter how much he wanted her by his side at this time, he didn't switch partners. He knew he had the best chance of finding Chris out there and when he did, it was Nathan he was going to need. Nathan or Katrina, but, well, Nathan was familiar. Familiar to Chris as well.

Running for his car, Nathan close behind him, he tried to reach Chris, tried to tell him to hold on. He didn't feel anything and he knew Chris was unconscious again. Damn, that wouldn't help!

Don't do this Cowboy, don't leave us like this! You gotta let me find you! he thought desperately. Please wake up, help me find you!

+ + + + + + +

Something fluttered at the edge of Chris' awareness and slowly he opened his eyes. Sunbeams were falling on the floor not far from him, dust dancing in the golden rays. Nearby a rat was sitting, staring at him and suddenly he felt himself go cold all over. The blood, he knew it would draw them if he lay quiet long enough. He felt something, a sharp pain at his left leg. Trying to relieve some of that pain he moved and rolled on his back.

Small bodies scurried away and bile rose in his throat. He looked back to where the first rat had been. It was still there, looking at him and he felt the panic rise up. Sit, he had to try and sit, so he could look around the cellar better. At the very least he had to try and get the wall at his back.

He didn't know if it would help, but it would sure make him feel better.

Desperately he tried to sit up, only to discover he didn't have the strength. When he had worked himself on his side again, unable to stop from crying out in pain, he could hardly raise himself. At least all his moving had made the rats disappear. He heard small, scurrying noises fading in the distance. The rat that had been looking at him was gone now and that made him feel a lot better, despite all the pain.

Shit, he felt himself slip away again. No, he couldn't, he just couldn't! Not with rats around. With a deep moan he tried to curl up on himself, in the hope he wouldn't feel the pain so much, or the nausea. It didn't help, nothing helped.

Not knowing anymore what else he could do, he did the only thing left to him, he reached out with his mind, reached out farther than he ever had before to try and find him, the other half of him, to try and find Vin.

There, he felt a flutter almost at the edge of his awareness. Vin. Worried as hell. He smiled. Vin was looking for him and Vin almost always found what he was looking for.


Chr... Chris? Chris....

Something else seemed to follow, deep emotions of fear, fear for him and desperation, a deep desperation. No words... Vin was too far away. Only that fear and desperation deep inside his best friend. It made him feel sad. So he tried to send some kind of reassurance to Vin, tried to tell him not to worry, that he would hold on until Vin was here.

Suddenly laughing green eyes surrounded by beautiful long blond hair rose up in his mind. Linda! God, how he wanted to see Linda again, talk with her, hold her in his arms.

Yes, he would hold on, he simply had to.

+ + + + + + +

After they had searched five abandoned houses and one almost unrecognizable ruin, Nathan knew that this maddening search better not take too long, because Vin was slowly losing it. There was something about what he was feeling from Chris that had the young man worried, almost in a frenzy and it scared Nathan. It made him fear for the state he would find Chris in.

Not that it could be very good, considering that that monster had had Chris for quite some time before he decided to go on the move.

He looked at the list of addresses and at the map they had been given of the area. "Next one left, Vin."

Vin nodded. They weren't searching alone anymore. It was late afternoon by now and the whole area was crawling with cops, many with dogs.

Looking at Vin's tense features Nathan again wished that that bastard Cleaver would finally open his mouth. He'd had a quiet phone call with Rain after the last house they searched, to give the homefront an update and to find out how Josiah was doing.

"Josiah's stronger than he was yesterday, Nathan. But Linda.... She scares me, the way she is just sitting there. It's like she isn't alive anymore. God, Nathan, she's taking this really bad! I've ordered some Valium for her and at least she's laying down on the couch in the hall now. I better go and check on her. You find him Jackson, you hear!"

"Rain, we won't stop until we do."

"Good. Now, I better go take care of Linda and Mal."

"Just... don't overdo it, you hear? You're pregnant, remember?"

"So? Pregnant doesn't mean sick, mister! In case you have forgotten history, women have been pregnant and running around for centuries."

"Just take care of yourself as well, Rain. Promise?"

A deep sigh, then he just knew his lovely wife was smiling that beautiful smile of hers, the one that had made him fall instantly in love with her so many years back and she told him, "Alright, mother hen, I will. You take care too."

Mother hen! She was always telling him he worried too much and maybe he was. Sometimes he gave himself a headache thinking of all the things that could go wrong, trying to anticipate them and take care of them before they happened, trying to keep everyone healthy. He just couldn't help it, too often he'd been on the brink of losing one of this strange, ragtag family he'd one day found himself a part of.

Everyone worried about Chris right now and about Josiah, but he couldn't help worrying about Linda and Vin too. It just... happened. He saw that anxious face beside him with the deep shadows under those normally so vibrant blue eyes and the worry was there. And then he had to try and make things right, or if he couldn't do that at least make them better.

If he was truthful with himself, he knew why he was doing it. He'd lost too many people in his life when he was young and he just couldn't bare the thought of losing anyone else, he just couldn't. In a way he was as bad about that as Chris. It's why it had taken him ages before he finally dared to ask Rain to marry him. Ages and Josiah, he remembered with a smile.

Josiah, thank God Josiah was going to stay alive!

Suddenly Vin's head jerked up and he looked around himself desperately.

"Vin?" he asked. "What's wrong?"

"I... I thought I felt...." Abruptly Vin hit the brakes, causing the police car behind them to almost crash into them.

"SHIT!" Nathan cried out. He would have made a dive forward if it hadn't been for the safety belt he luckily always wore. Those belts had saved his life a time or two and had certainly saved his head from a lot of bumps. Vin didn't react to the horn behind him or to Nathan's exclamation, he had flipped open his phone and was speed dialing.

"JD? JD, that old man they found, the one who knows this whole area? He still there? Good, I need ta know somethin'. We're on...."

"Ouch," Nathan hissed when Vin hit him on the shoulder before pointing impatiently at the map.

"Yeah, wait a moment, Nate's lookin' it up. We're at a small road called Alps Mountain Road. There's supposed to be a house on the end of it, but is there somethin' halfway this road as well? Anythin'?"

Nathan looked at Vin apprehensively. What was going on now?

"Yeah, a what? Some small farm, from a long time ago? Where the road makes a sharp turn, somewhere over there? Nope, I don't care if there's almost nothin' left, I'm gonna check it out, thanks."

The phone ended in Nathan's lap and Vin made a sharp turn, after which he raced back. There were some heavy gestures from the cops in the police car following them, but it turned around as well.

A small track run off to the left in the turn of the road. Vin stopped for a while, holding his head to the side as if he were listening to something. Then he nodded once and headed up the track.

It made Nathan shiver. Especially when they found a small farm house at the end of it, with the roof fallen in. Vin jumped out and was at it in a flash, calling out for Chris. Nathan followed more slowly, looking around himself and noticing the beauty of the place. The Denver Mountains were all around them, beautiful peaks with snow glittering at the top. Where he stood beside the car the grass was a lush green, dotted with numerous wild flowers. Bees were humming and in the distance he heard a bird call out with a wonderful melodious voice. Something scurried through the grass close to a terrain full of brambles, some yellow roses gone wild and other bushes. Wondering what it was he moved over to it. Rabbits probably.

"OH YIKES!" Disgusted he jumped back.

"Sir? Sir, are you alright?"

"Yeah, I'm alright. Rats, there's rats here is all," he shouted back to the concerned cop.

"RATS?" one of the other cops yelled, jumping back as well. "Shit, I hate rats!"

"Yeah, well, lets look this place over real quick then."

They followed Vin inside the house and Nathan followed. In it they saw Vin working at a half rotten wooden door.

"Think this is the way down the cellar," he told them, attacking the wood again.

"Maybe, but it don't look like it's been opened in a long time, Vin."

"I know Nate, I ain't blind! He could've found another entrance though, so we better check."

"Sir? I got a crowbar."

"Smart boy, go at it!"

While the cop attacked the door with a vengeance Nathan looked aside at Vin. "What's goin'on with you, Vin? Why you actin' like this? Like you know...." He couldn't say it.

"Yeah, well, I do Nate. You see, I can 'talk' with him now and that means he's close, he's real close." He pushed back his hair with one hand and Nathan saw the slight shaking of that hand.


"He ain't hearing us work on the door, Nate. How could he be in there and not hear that? It worries me."

"He gotta be in a bad state."

"Yeah, well, he is, the hardheaded mule. Can't hardly form a coherent sentence. YES! The door's down! FLASHLIGHTS, WHERE?"

Vin was down the stairs first, hardly looking around at the dark space he found himself in. He was playing the flashlight over the walls as if he was looking for something specific and didn't look at the floor even once. "CHRIS? CHRIS, YOU HEAR ME?"

No answer, nothing. Nathan let his flashlight play over the floor, but it was soon clear that this cellar hadn't been disturbed in a very long time.

"Damn!" Vin swore, again playing the lamp over all the walls.

"This ain't it, Nate. It just ain't it! He's got light where he is! But I don't see a door or anythin' that might lead to another part."

Thank God Chris has light, Nathan thought fervently. Just picturing Chris in something so dark and dismal as this place, hurt and in pain, tied up probably, made him feel nauseas.

"There's nothing here," one of the police officers who'd come down with them called out from the far corner.

"SHIT!" Vin was storming up the rickety stairs and for a moment Nathan thought the whole damn thing would collapse with his captain on it.

"CHRIS!" he heard Vin holler and the frantic running of footsteps.

"Nothing here, sir. We checked the whole house. Truth is, there's nothing much to check, most of it has collapsed.


Gingerly Nathan climbed the stairs, glad they held him until he was through the now broken down door. He heard a curse behind him. "You okay?" he yelled.

"Yeah, one of the steps cracked in half when I put my foot on it, gave me a scare is all."

"Just be careful, it's real old!"

Outside he saw Vin, standing very quiet now in the mountain meadow surrounding the house, his face tilted to the sun. With a sigh he walked over to his friend and stood beside him, waiting, offering his silent support.

After a while he couldn't stand the silence anymore. The cops behind them were getting restless and so was he. Chris was out there somewhere, probably hurt and they needed to move, to find him.

"Vin, you alright?"

"Sssh," Vin hissed, opening his eyes and looking around him. "It don't make sense, Nate. He's here, I just know it! In a cellar! But where? He says there's some windows close to the ceiling and a trap door, a broken trap door he sees the sky through. And something yellow, small and yellow. Oh Christ!"


"Rats," Vin whispered. "He says the rats are back. Nate, we gotta find him quick, he can hardly move and if those damn creeps find that out...."

"Oh my God," Nathan whispered. He didn't question the truth of Vin's statement, he'd seen that weird connection between his two friends too often to doubt it. He didn't like it, it was something that just couldn't exist, but it was there and he'd decided years ago to never talk about it, never think about it and just live with it.

God, rats! "Is he... is he bleedin'?" Stupid question with what they knew about the killer.

"Yes," Vin whispered. The answer that was to be expected.

Someone cleared his throat behind them and when Nathan looked back he saw the suspicious looks in the three pairs of eyes that stared at them from under the police hats. He shrugged them off and looked over at the brambles and bushes he'd been admiring before he entered the house.

"I know there are rats here, saw one over there."

Vin looked where he pointed and suddenly grew very, very quiet.


Vin gave him the oddest answer. "Yellow," he whispered, almost reverend.

Yellow? "Yeah, some roses that went wild. They're lovely, ain't they?"

"Yellow," Vin now said very distinctly and then he was running, right into the bushes.

"DAMMIT! Here, look here! Tire marks! Why the hell didn't I see those? God, it's here!"

"Where?" Nathan was right behind Vin, who suddenly stopped, staring at the fundaments of what once must have been a barn. No way in hell Nathan could distinguish any tire marks in the lush grass that was growing behind these bushes, but he did see a trap door in what once must have been the barn floor. A broken down trapdoor, half of it gone. There were rosebushes here as well, yellow roses softly swaying in the calm breeze.

Vin was already there, banging open the door and running down some deep, stone stairs. When Nathan came over, he saw something that looked suspiciously like blood on the steps.

That's when he heard Vin cry out brokenly, "Chris! Oh God, Chris!"


Not good, Chris wasn't good at all, Vin thought and almost laughed aloud. God, he could hardly see Chris, all he saw was blood, blood and... raw meat here and there, he couldn't describe it any other way.

Shit, he was getting hysterical!

That's when he found the clear green eyes, eyes that despite the pain in them radiated calm. Running the last steps towards the corner where his friend was lying, tied down, naked and bloody, it made him almost angry. There was nothing to be calm about!

Yes there is. You found me.

Damn it! Even your thinking is weak!

But I'm still thinking... God, sick!

A moment later he was carefully cradling Chris' head, supporting the heaving body. His knife was already sawing through the ropes around his friend's wrists.

"Oh God," he heard beside him. Nathan was there, trying to get through the ropes around Chris' feet with his Swiss pocket knife. The little knife kept slipping in the blood on the ropes.

"Here." Vin thrust his own big knife at Nathan. When he did, he saw Chris look at it, a shudder going through the lean body. "Shit, keep it out of his sight!"

"I need my stuff," was all Nathan said.

"Yeah, I'll...,"

At that moment they heard a yell coming from outside. "HELLO! You two in here? Did you find something?" Footsteps could be heard coming nearer and Chris stiffened. Vin looked down at him. The green eyes pleaded and he nodded.

"Watch him, I'll be right back," he whispered to Nathan, carefully lowering Chris' head back down, making sure his jacket was under it. He couldn't resist brushing away some of the blond hair hanging over the forehead and then he hurried off.

"Keep out!" he barked when he saw two booted feet descend. "Get back right now!" The boots hesitated and he saw that the owner was preparing to lower himself anyway.


He was already running up the stairs and the police officer had no choice but to back up. "Get Nathan's medical supplies, all of it," he ordered. "NOW! It's in my truck. MOVE!"

"Y... yes sir. He's... he's there?"

Relenting a little, Vin nodded. "Sorry, but he don't want anyone ta see him like... like that. He's bad, so please hurry."

"Yes sir, sorry sir." Wide open eyes were looking at him. N, not at him, at.... Looking down at himself Vin saw that he was covered with blood, Chris' blood. It made him feel sick and he swallowed, trying to keep himself calm and functioning. While Chris....

Oh God!

Vin, it's alright...


"No," he said to the young cop. "No, I'm sorry, you couldn't know."

Nathan's voice hollered from below. "VIN! I can't get a signal on my mobile! Can you, out there?" He immediately grabbed for his phone, only then remembering that he'd left it in the truck. He'd thrown it at Nathan. Stupid, stupid!

"Phone!" he yelled at the two cops still standing there, watching him and the trapdoor behind him uncertainly. One of them looked up, a bit dazed.

"He's... he's really in there? But... how? How did you know? How did you know what to look for?"

"Yes, he's in there and he's hurt bad! Now give me yer phone!"

It was the other one who moved and soon Vin was talking to JD. "Yeah JD, we did, we found him. Yes, yes, he's still alive, but... DAMN IT, JD! SHUT UP AND LISTEN! He's bad, real bad and you gotta keep it together! Shit, are you still there? This line is weak. Thank God, there y' are. Listen, you gotta get a medical chopper here, fast! Yeah, yeah, that road I called ya from, Alps whatever. Alps Mountain, that's it. When you get on it from the main road, it's to the right of the curve, to the RIGHT! There's a track there that ends in this meadow with this ruin. Plenty of room to land. Just get them here fast! Tell them he's cut a lot and has lost a lot of blood . And JD, Cleaver sk... skinned him, the bastard actually did it. Don't lose it now, dammit! Alright, I'm giving the phone to someone else now, you have to coordinate with him. Just hurry!"

Thrusting the phone, still open, back to the cop he told him, "You're in charge here now. No one, and I mean no one, gets in there except the Flight for Life people, is that understood? Now, you talk with my man on the other end of the line, he's got them calling for a chopper already and you help him get it here fast! Understood?"

The young police officer nodded and, suddenly all business, put the phone to his ear. He looked capable, Vin decided. Glaring a 'what took you so long' look at the cop who was gasping hard from having run all the way to the cars and back with the medical equipment at top speed, he took the bags and ran down the stairs again.

"Remember, no one in here but that medical team!" he yelled back one more time to be sure. It had been too important to Chris and after having seen that mangled, naked body he could understand his friend's feelings too well.

"Here Nate."

"Thank God. I... I need to stop the bleedin', Vin. Lots of wounds luckily ain't bleedin' anymore, but there are so many who still are. And I need to clean the wounds. That bastard let him lay here in all this filth. Shit, I don't know where to start.... What... what that bastard did to his chest and back...."

"Nathan?" Vin didn't like to hear his friend talk like that. He needed Nathan right now, he needed him to keep Chris alive! "Nathan, please. You're all he's got!"

"I KNOW THAT! Ya think I don't know that, dammit?"


"N... Nate?" The voice was so soft that both men thought they had imagined it. Still, to be sure, they looked at Chris. They saw his pain filled face while he opened his mouth again. Nothing came out this time, but he looked steadfastly at the black medic. Nathan stared back for a moment and then he heaved a deep sigh. Calmer now he looked back at the wounded body of his unit leader.

"I ain't got nearly enough water with me to clean him and there's nothing here. I'm gonna concentrate on stopping as much of the bleedin' as I can. Vin, try and get him to drink."

Mutely Vin accepted the bottle of mineral water and then he tried to carefully lift Chris against his chest, so he could help him drink some of it. In the end Nathan had to help him get Chris in a comfortable position and Vin was very grateful for that. There just didn't seem to be a place where he could touch Chris without hurting him.


He looked down in his friend's face and saw him look up steadily, asking him with those expressive eyes not to worry so much. Yeah, well, and how was he supposed to do that? Then the green eyes suddenly closed and a hiss escaped his friend.

"Dammit Nate, you're hurtin' him!"

"You think I like doin' that? Shit!"

"Nate? You alright?"

"No! Now shut up and let me work!"


"God, how long 'til that chopper gets here? Shouldn't they be here by now?"

Vin felt Chris' hand suddenly grip his arm hard. "Oh hell! Please Nate, can't you give him somethin' for the pain?"

"I don't dare. What if it interferes with what the Flight for Life team wants to do? Why ain't they here yet? I can hardly do anythin'. He needs a hospital for cryin' out loud!"

A commotion at the top of the stairs made them both raise their heads. They heard Ezra's distinct drawl and then Kelli's angry voice.

"I don't care! That's my husband inside, so I'm sure he didn't mean for you to stop us! And you seem to forget it's our boss and friend who's laying in there, hurt and wounded!"

The hand on his arm tightened again and Vin looked down into pain filled, worried eyes of the man resting against his chest. He smiled reassuringly. "Nate? I think one of us gotta tell them to really keep everyone out, Ez and Kelli too."

Nathan looked up. "I'll do it. It's better not to move him and I've stopped most of the bleedin', well, where I can. It'll also give me a chance to find out where that chopper is and yell at 'm to hurry up. Chris, you hold on tight, we'll get you out of here."

"Th... thanks," Chris managed to whisper. Then Nathan was gone, climbing the stairs. Soon they heard his familiar deep voice in what sounded suspiciously like reprimands. It made Vin smile for a moment. Nothing and no one would ever change Nathan, he was sure of that. He gazed down at his best friend's face, avoiding a look at all the ravaging one deranged human being with a knife had managed to do to that lithe body that always had been in such great shape. He thought about the last time they had been sparring in hand to hand combat and how exhausted he'd been afterwards. Chris had teased him mercilessly about that. God, the shape that man always was in! He knew he was in great shape himself, but sometimes it still made him exhausted just to think about running with Chris.

Nope, he wasn't gonna cry!

That's when he realized that not all the sadness he was feeling was coming from inside himself. A part of it was coming from Chris.

Chris? What's wrong?

How can you ask? Josiah.... I c... couldn't stop him, Vin!

Stop who? Josiah? OH!

Suddenly it dawned on Vin what Chris was so sad about. "No, no! Listen Chris, Josiah ain't dead! It was a close call, but you know Josiah, he fought and he pulled through."

Josiah ain't dead Chris, he ain't! And today he was a lot better than yesterday, JD checked with the hospital right before we found you.

Profound relief radiated with such force from Chris, that it amazed Vin how Nathan, who was just coming down again, could miss it. Softly he squeezed one of Chris' hands and then he looked up expectantly at Nathan.

"Man, but Kelli can be a handful when she sets her mind to it! You better prepare yerself for some tough moments when you're home again, Vin. She ain't pleased at all."

"But she stays put?"

"Yep, I told her and Ezra they ain't important in this, only Chris. But she was angry enough to eat my hide 'bout not getting to see him, I can tell you! And Ez' wasn't much better about it."

Vin sighed, although he also had to grin inwardly. He felt a chuckle inside Chris as well and was glad of it. "And the medical chopper?"

"Can be here any second now. JD is keepin' contact with them and they're close." Nathan settled himself beside Chris and took one of the limp hands in his own big black one. "So you hold on tight, boss. Any minute now and you're outta here."

+ + + + + + +

It took Flight for Life another two minutes, but then finally they heard the unmistakable roar all the way into the cellar. Before long a very efficient medical team rushed down the stairs with a gurney and all the equipment necessary. An IV was soon hooked on, plasma going into Chris' body to try and replace some of the blood he had lost, pain meds were given and a start was made cleaning some of the worst wounds, while at the same time dry cloths were put over Chris' trembling body. Vin and Nathan hadn't dared to cover their friend, afraid anything they would lay over the blond would get stuck into the many wounds.

"I can't believe it," one of the medics said softly, "these ones over here are no knife wounds, they are bite wounds."

"The rats," Vin whispered, feeling sick. He hadn't left Chris' side for a minute. Neither had Nathan, not even when they had heard Buck's unmistakable roar upstairs.

"Rats? Don't think it looks like rats. It's as if something has been gnawing on his flesh."

The killer, Vin immediately knew from Chris. The image he got from his friend finally was the one that made Vin violently sick. "Human, made by a human," he managed to get out before he ran off and threw up in a corner. Vaguely he heard the flight nurse saying, "These here, on his left leg, they could be from rats. We have to give him shots, get the Tetanus." It made him throw up all over again.

In what seemed an endless time to Vin, but was in reality only minutes, the efficient medical team had Chris ready for take off. "You did good," the nurse told Nathan. "You already stopped some of the bleeding. We did notice bruises, where you can see anything else except... except...." She looked away, her emotions taking over for a moment. "In all my years I've never seen something like this," she whispered. She shook her head once and the professional flight nurse was back. "Luckily it doesn't appear there is anything broken. As of now there's also no sign of any internal wounds, but to be honest it's really hard to tell. He has lost a lot of blood though and is very weak. And infection is a very great danger right now, especially for... for the skinned areas."

"We'll get him to good care fast," her colleague told them. He had adjusted the last straps so Chris was safely attached to the gurney, taking extreme care with his patient, trying not to add to the hurt. Vin saw the compassion in this paramedic's eyes whose name he hadn't gotten at all and nodded.

"I'll help," he said softly, taking one side of the gurney, while Nathan positioned himself at the other side. The medic team took their own positions and finally they could take Chris out of that dreadful cellar. Soon they were carefully lifting Chris through the trapdoor, where Buck and Ezra won the competition of who would take hold of the gurney and help lift Chris out.

It was Nathan and Vin though who immediately took over again after they had climbed out as well and no one denied them the right. They helped hurry Chris towards the waiting blue, white and orange helicopter, the big door open and waiting. Soon the flight nurse and the paramedic had secured the gurney and were ready for take off.

"I'm coming too," Vin said softly. "And me," Nathan added, looking at Chris who was groggy now from the pain meds and not really aware of what was going on. He was still in a lot of pain though, but what worried Vin more was that he felt his friend fading, fast.

The nurse and the paramedic looked at each other, at Chris and then at the two men. "Only one can come, if he sits quietly in the back," the medic decided. "We have too little room to work in here as it is." Frowning when he saw both men make a movement to get inside he pointed to Nathan. "Him, he's a medic after all, he can be useful if something happens."


"Him or no one."


Nathan will be here, Vin. I'll be alright.

It's just.... Damn it Chris, I just found you again!

You saved my life, pard. You....

A wave of pain stopped any other thought and it made Vin realize again that speed was of the essence here. He stepped back, his eyes glued to the still figure on the gurney.

"They'll take good care of 'm, Vin," Nathan said softly before hopping in.

"They better," Vin whispered, keeping his eyes on the too quiet figure until the door closed. Then he hastily backed off so the helicopter could lift off.

It was for the best, he knew when he looked at the waiting group of people that had found their way to this lonely spot in the mountains, following JD's directions. Nathan could keep them all informed the best and also had a wife waiting in the hospital. While he had someone who was looking at him very anxiously from between the small crowd of onlookers.

For some reason there was no festive air amongst the people silently standing there, waiting for Vin to update them as to how Chris was doing. They had all seen the amount of blood on Nathan and the medics, were still seeing it on Vin. Vin looked down at himself with disgust. He was glad that he was here with his own truck, at least he had a reasonably clean sweater in the back.

"Well?" Buck grated. "How is he? And why didn't you let anyone of us in there? Dammit Vin, he's our friend too!"

"He was a mess, Buck. He was naked and ch... chopped up. He didn't want anyone seein' him like that. You know Chris, you know how he is. God, that monster really did a number on him. He's been cut in so many places." He didn't want to go on, but when the eyes kept riveted on him he sighed and reluctantly told them more. ,,The bastard did use a skinnin' knife on him. His chest, God... I never seen anything like it. I think he'll need skin transplants or something. And he's lost a lot of blood...."

"I can see that," Buck said, still angry that he'd been shut out, looking Vin up and down.

"Buck, Chris really didn't want anyone to see him like that! He knew how he looked and... and...." Looking around at the group of people, many who were cops he had never met but were put on the search, he raised his voice slightly.

"I want to thank each and every one of you and yes, we found our man, our friend and colleague, so I'm really grateful to all of you. We found him in time as well! He's lost a lot of blood and has been cut up, but I for one think he's gonna survive. Chris Larabee is a fighter, so he'll fight this as well. Thank you all very much and let's go home!" Or to the hospital, he thought. Soon only the people of his own unit who had made it to the meadow were standing around him. Paul and Katrina had been too far away and were told by Ezra to head to the hospital, because they would probably arrive on the meadow at a time when everyone hoped to be gone from there.

"And the other things that maniac did with his female victims?" Ezra asked softly when it was just them.

"No, not that, Ezra. The bastard didn't do that. Chris couldn't have hidden that from me. He tried to hide that the bastard had been drinking his blood, but it was there, in his mind."

They all looked shocked. "What?" Buck asked, incredulous. "Drank his blood?"

"That is really revolting!" Ezra stated, shuddering.

In fact it had been even more revolting, Vin knew. He wasn't going to tell them about the other type of wounds though. Not ever. If Chris wanted them to know, it was his story to tell.

He shivered, thinking about those 'other wounds'. "I wanna go," he said softly. "I never wanna come back here again, ever!"

A hand was put on his arm and he found the loving eyes of Kelli on him. "I'll drive you," she said softly.

Mutely he nodded and let her take him to his truck, the rest of his friends, his family following close by.

Mark was keeping his distance, probably feeling like an intruder until Buck took him by the arm and pulled him along. "We two will get JD," he said roughly. "You and Kelli just hurry up to the hospital, alright?"

"Thanks Buck," Vin said softly. "I know you wanna be there to."

"That's why Buck goes to the hospital immediately as well, I will get JD," Ezra stated firmly. "With my Jag we might even beat you in getting there. Buck, no, I'll go. I better hasten, the kid will be frantic." Ezra hurried away and soon his Jaguar was speeding over the dirt tracks.

"He didn't even complain when we had to ride through all that mud to get here," Kelli said softly.

"He's as worried as we all are. Come on Mark, I wanna be at the hospital as soon as I can."

Buck left with his partner and then Vin and Kelli were alone. She immediately wrapped her arms around him and held him close. He sighed, shuddering in those loving arms, needing them, needing her.

"He's such a mess, Kelli, such a mess. It was just aweful to see what... what that maniac had done to him. It's... it's hard to believe it when you haven't seen it, Kel."

"We've all seen the pictures in the files on his victims, so we can make a good guess. But the main thing is that he's still alive. He's alive Vin, you found him in time."

"We all did."

"No, you did and don't you try and deny it! Those cops told us all about it, they still couldn't believe what they had seen happening, how you just... knew and seemed to be talking to him." She grinned softly. "I'm afraid the legend about the Magnificent Seven and about you and Chris has just grown again."


She kissed him, soft sweet lips caressing his. It made him finally break down and in her safe arms he let go of all his pent up emotions. When he finally pulled back he looked at her beautiful face and he knew he was blessed.

"Thank you, wonderful lady."

She smiled. "You're very, very welcome Vin. Now, let's go to the hospital. I know you need to be with him, see him. Come on."

A moment later the meadow was silent and undisturbed once more. The only signs of all the recent activity were the tire marks, the scars in the ground where the helicopter had been, the downtrodden grass around an open, broken trapdoor and for anyone who looked really carefully, tiny flecks of blood from that trap door all the way to the clumps of clay the helicopter had dug up from the meadow.


Vin and Kelli were just heading into Denver when Nathan called. "Vin, he ain't in Denver Memorial, they flew him to State University Hospital."

"University?" Vin's heart dropped. "Why?"

"They had contact with the hospital on their way in and when they told them 'bout Chris' injuries and how... how he was sk... skinned in places, it was decided to see if University's Burn Unit would wanna take him. They said yes."

"Burn unit? Nate, he ain't burned!"

"Nope, but he's missin' a lot of skin. University has the best equipment and know how when it comes to that."

"Makes sense," Vin said softly. "Kel, we need to leave the Interstate at the next exit. Do you know the University campus?"

"No, that's a place I haven't been to yet."

"Don't matter, just follow my directions." Exhausted Vin laid his head back. He didn't want to think about Chris in a burn ward of all places. He just didn't.

Briefly he wondered what Buck would have to say about this.

+ + + + + + +

They could hear Buck's opinion from miles away when they had entered the hospital. Buck wasn't pleased, not pleased at all. Vin found out why soon enough when he tried to enter the Burn unit. He was firmly stopped by a nurse.

"Sorry sir, but you can not enter here. Not like this."

Vin looked down at himself. Granted, there was still blood on his jeans and he hadn't gotten it all off his hands, but he had donned another sweater, so he didn't look too frightening, did he?

"The Burn unit is an isolation unit," the nurse told him forcefully. "Burn patients are very susceptible to infections and diseases and we can not take any risks. You have to be clean and healthy in order to be given permission to enter."

"Oh shit! Why didn't Nathan tell us?"

"He's been calling everyone and he had a very long talk with Linda, she really needed to hear what had happened. She's on her way, Rain is bringing her," Buck said softly, sounding very tired all of a sudden.

At that moment an equally exhausted looking Nathan came walking up. He had clearly attempted to clean himself. When he saw the nurse he shook his head. "Not good enough, I know. I'm going to go and clean myself at home as soon as Rain and Linda are here. Then I'll be back. But we do have a problem here," he told the very determined woman.

"Really? What's that?" The matronly woman didn't look impressed while she gazed up sternly at the big medic and crossed her arms before her.

"Vin here's the one with Power of Attorney for the patient that's been flown in. So that means he's gotta be in there. They wanna go on with procedures they need him. The patient was unconscious when we got here."

"He was?" Vin and Buck asked together.

"Yeah, he was. Just as well, I think he was hurtin' a lot despite the pain meds they'd given him."

At that moment a haggard looking man in a white surgical coat walked through the doors to the unit. "Dianne, is there anyone here for Chris Larabee? I need to find a relative, there are decisions to be made." He stopped and looked at the bedraggled group in front of him, taking a step back. He particularly looked at the blood marks on Nathan and Vin.

"Gentlemen, are you two wounded? Dianne, maybe these men had better go to first aid."

"Ain't our blood, doctor, it's Chris's," Vin said curtly, trying to wipe his hands a bit more on his jeans.

"These men are here for Mister Larabee," Dianne said with a deep sigh. "But no way can they enter the Burn unit like this."

"No, they can't. You really are alright, then? Are you family?"

"Yes," said Buck, while at the same time Nathan said, "No."

"We're his friends, the only family he's got," Nathan stated.

"Not good enough. I need someone next of kin and I need someone fast. At the moment we are still trying to get all his wounds cleaned up, but then I need permission for further treatment."

"How is he?" Vin asked worried. He didn't like the look on the doctor's face.

"Are you family?" the doctor answered him pointedly.

"Yeah, I am," Vin said coolly. "I was designated next of kin by Chris and I hold power of attorney."

"Good, then we need to talk. But you need to get cleaned up first. Do you have any clean clothes with you?"


"Oh well. Dianne, show him a place where he can shower and give him some hospital garb. Then lead him to the family waiting area. I better go back to the patient. I will see you there then, as soon as possible please."

"Yeah, we'll be there."

"We? I don't think so, only family is allowed in here and never too many. Dianne, you better get them one of our pamphlets with visitor's rules. They need to know what kind of unit they are dealing with." With those words he walked off in a hurry.

"He might sound a bit scruffy, but Dan Reynard is a great doctor," Dianne told them all with an indulgent smile on her face, while she was looking at the doctor's retreating back. "Your friend is in the best of hands, I can assure you. Eileen? Eileen, will you come over for a minute? I need some help. These people need to know how the Burn unit works, will you see to that?" Looking back at Vin, she measured him for a moment. "I'll get you something to wear, wait here."

Soon Buck and Nathan were staring morosely at a colorful brochure that told them how to behave in the Burn unit, while Mark was trying to locate the hospital cafeteria or at least a coffee machine and Kelli was staring after her husband. Vin followed Dianne to where he could wash and change clothes. The nurse carried a bundle for him with what looked like scrubs and Vin shuddered, thinking about himself in that dirty green color. But it would get him to Chris.

This close to his friend it didn't matter that Chris was unconscious, he could still sense him and he didn't like the pain he was feeling inside the blond. He wanted to see him, see what was going on.

Chris? he tried again. Still no answer came. No, he really needed to get in there.

When he was finally clean and dressed in the scrubs, he hastened back to the admittance into the Burn unit. The first thing that struck him when he went through the doors was the warmth in this part of the hospital. Sweat immediately poured down his forehead. He was pointed his way to a waiting area immediately to his left and told that he wasn't allowed into the rest of the unit without consent and even then only after the proper precautions. With a sigh he decided he'd better read one of the pamphlets on visitor's regulation that were laying around all over the waiting room.

At least this room had an almost normal temperature.

He had just grabbed a pamphlet when the door to the waiting room opened and Doctor Reynard came in. A breath of warm, moist air followed him.

"How's Chris, doc? Please, can you tell me more?"

"Yes, I will. You can prove you have Medical Power of Attorney?"

Vin nodded and handed over the right documents. Reynard looked them over briefly. "Good, I'm glad I have found the right person so fast, because a decision needs to be made and the sooner, the better for my patient. Mister Tanner, one reason your friend was brought here, is that we deal with the saving of heavily burned patients and a big part of that is trying to replace the skin they lost. Now, Mister Larabee is not burned, luckily, but he has lost large parts of skin and we need to deal with that as soon as possible, because these wounds didn't happen only a few hours ago, did they?"

"No," Vin said softly. "No, the bastard who did this to 'm got his hands on him yesterday mornin'. I figger he's done his worst yesterday evenin'."

The doctor sighed. "So the first wounds could have been made as long as 24 hours ago. I was afraid of that. There are already signs of infection, especially in the deeper wounds. We had a hell of a time cleaning them all, but since we are used to much, much worse unfortunately, it wasn't a real problem. It was hard to see what's been done to him though, one nurse even had to leave. He... he must have really suffered...." The doctor's voice trailed off and he swallowed.

"Yeah, it's hard to imagine how some people can do this to someone else, ain't it?"

"He... I saw the news about the serial killer, that's what he did to... to the women he captured?"


The doctor shuddered and then he became all business again. He had a patient waiting. "Mister Tanner, we have to decide how to treat Mister Larabee's wounds. The first 48 hours are always the most critical and we already lost too many of those hours. Due to severe trauma and blood loss, Mister Larabee lost consciousness on his way in and I have to say, he really wasn't good when he arrived. We nearly lost him and it has been difficult to stabilize him enough so we could start and clean his wounds. He needed blood transfusions and is still receiving them, together with antibiotics. My colleague is cleaning the last wounds even as we speak. After they are all clean, we have to treat them immediately. That is where I need your decision. The skinned parts on his chest and back and on his right arm and right upper leg can be treated the traditional way, where we cover those places with dressings to keep infection out and the area moist enough to help the healing process. These dressings need to be changed twice a day and the wounds cleaned as well to prevent infection. I can tell you that this is painful process. We do have another option though and that is to cover the skinned areas with the newest type of artificial skin. An artificial skin actually promotes skin regeneration."

"Ar... artificial skin?" Vin felt the need to sit down and hold his head. This was too much information all at once. They nearly lost Chris? How could that be? Chris was awake and looking at him when they put him in that chopper! And artificial skin?

"Yes, artificial skin, Mister Tanner. It has two layers, an outer layer to protect the wounds from the outside environment like our first layer of skin is doing and a second layer that in a way replaces the lost second layer of skin. This second layer of the artificial skin is the part that promotes the skin regeneration and in essence will eventually be incorporated into the body. While the much faster healing process is the main benefit of this product, there is also another significant one for the patient. This artificial skin need not be replaced, it will stay on and when there is sufficient new skin the outer layer just peels off."

"Incorporated? Ya mean, that stuff gets absorbed or something?"

"Yes, it does, but please don't let that frighten you. So are many stitches we use today. After the wound is closed they get absorbed in the body as well, so we do not have to remove them and cause the patient discomfort again."

Vin nodded, a bit dazed. That he could see the benefit of. But a whole piece of... of some stuff he didn't know anything about? In Chris' body?

"Mister Tanner, I can assure you that we have very good results with these artificial skins. The one I'm thinking about is the newest in this area and looks even more promising. Because we don't need to replace it, this treatment is a lot less painful and the patients we use it on are less scarred than the patients that are treated in the traditional way."

"Scars?" God, this got worse and worse.

"If we use this new product, I don't think that Mister Larabee will be too scarred. The wounds are very regular and they aren't deep either. The main problem is the fact that we are talking about big open wounds here, but with this artificial skin Mister Larabee's own skin will have the chance to heal a lot faster and more evenly."

"If that artificial skin is so good, why don't you just do it?" Vin asked wearily.

"Well, that IS why I'm here, to discuss using it with you," Doctor Reynard said, a surprised look on his face. "And to recommend it. We are talking however about a relative new treatment, one that is not adopted universally. So I do need your approval."

Vin sighed and looked through the window of the waiting room to the sky outside. It was fast getting dark He reached out with his mind, wary that he had to do this, had to make these kind of decisions. He'd done it before, too often to tell the truth, but he never got used to it. Used to deciding over Chris' body, Chris' life sometimes.

Chris? Hell Cowboy, you there?

"He's still unconscious," he said softly.

The doctor looked at him strangely. "Who? Do you mean Mister Larabee? Yes, he would be. Cleaning those wounds, so many wounds, we had to do it under full sedation."

It was logical and something he was grateful for as well, after all he had felt Chris' pain when Nathan had tried to help him in that damn cellar. Still, it left him with the mess of making the decisions.

"Do it," he said softly. "When that's the best for Chris, you just hurry and do it!"

"Good, then I better get to it. I think they will have reached the final stages of the cleaning process." He looked at his watch. "The antibacterial ointments are probably being applied about now, if they haven't encountered any complications." He looked at Vin gravely. "To tell you the truth, Mister Tanner, he really doesn't need any complications right now, but I do fear highly for infections. We will have to monitor him for that most of all. There were also signs of fever."

"Shit," Vin mumbled. He knew that fever and infection were two closely related things and just hoped the one wouldn't automatically mean the other.

"I really ought to go, but first, do you have any questions?"

"Yeah. They said to us that only family members are allowed in here? I saw the same in that there pamphlet. It also states that there can't be more 'n two visitors at a time."

"Yes, that is correct. We do have to try and keep infection out of this unit for our patient's sake. One of the ways to do that is to keep visitors to a minimum. We also want rest and peace around here, it is our strong belief that it helps the healing process."

"Doc, Chris' family ain't a normal family. We sort of chose each other, friends but more than friends, you know? We formed our own family. I know that don't count legally, but it's family all the same and he'll need us. He'll need us to heal. It'll be too damn hard on him when he can't see the others."

"I'm sorry, but his real family comes first. They can come to visit if they abide by the rules of this ward and inform him about all of your concern."

"There ain't no other family," Vin said softly, "only us."

"Right now it isn't a problem, no one can visit him at the moment anyway. He will be in the OR until the artificial skin is in place and all the wounds are treated properly. Mister Tanner, as soon as the nurse has come with the appropriate papers for you to sign, my advice is that you go home and get a good night sleep. You can come back tomorrow afternoon."

"No, I can't! I need to see him! And what do ya mean with tomorrow afternoon? We'll be here first thing in the mornin'!"

"You will find yourself outside a locked door, Mister Tanner. No visitors are allowed until noon. This is done purely for the patients. In the morning their dressings get renewed and rehabilitation practices are given. We need those mornings for the treatment of our patients and we can not allow visitors at those times. There is also an absolute phone silence."

"Chris don't need those treatments! You just said that that artificial skin doesn't need to be replaced."

"They still can't just lay there on his body, they have to be covered with special, non sticking dressings and those need to be replaced, together with the dressings on the wounds with signs of infection. And then there is the area where he's... chewed upon.... That part must be observed very closely, it worries me the most to tell you the truth."

"Dammit!" Vin cursed. He didn't like it, not at all.

The doctor's beeper sounded. "Time for me to go back, we are ready to treat the wounds now." He looked at Vin with compassion in his eyes. "If as you say these friends are the only family he has, I will see what I can arrange. Being surrounded by loved ones is very important for the healing process. We will talk about it tomorrow." He nodded to Vin and wanted to hurry off.

"Doc, wait, one last thing, please! There's... there's somethin' you should know 'bout Chris. I don't like him bein' here 'cause he lost his family to fire, his wife and little boy. And seeing burn victims...." Vin's voice trailed off. He looked at the doctor hesitantly.

"I understand you're concern, Mister Tanner. With a loss like that, seeing what a fire does to a body, seeing the pain of the victims would be even harder to bear for him than it already is for us. Do not worry, he will be in his own, separate room, as are all patients. We have a strict isolation policy here and keeping the patients separate in their own room is part of that. We will see that Mister Larabee is not confronted with the burn patients. He has enough to contend with. Now, if you'll excuse me?"

A moment later a nurse came in with the necessary legal documents stating that Vin had given permission for the type of treatment Chris would receive. Silently Vin signed them and then he looked at the nurse pleadingly.

"Please, I need to see him," he said softly. The young nurse blushed when she saw those mesmerizing blue eyes fixed on her.

"I... I... I'm sorry, you can't. You really can't," she stammered.

"Then I'll wait here." Not listening to her, he lowered himself onto the big, deep couch that was standing in the waiting room. A couch that was a damn sight more comfortable than anything he had ever been sitting on in Denver Memorial, he thought ruefully.

"Sir, please...."

"I ain't goin' nowhere until I've been to Chris and 've seen him," he told her with force. "Sorry, y'all can just forget that! I stay here. All night if I have to."

She fled. A moment later Dianne came in, looking at him with compassion. "Please sir," she said softly. "It is of no use and I really would prefer not to get security. The burn unit is already closed for visitors, you were only allowed in because the doctor needed you for the decisions that had to be made. Now your friend is getting the treatment he needs and you can all see him tomorrow. We have the papers with your telephone number, so when you are needed we will call you immediately. Please, there is a whole group of distressed people waiting outside this unit, who need to hear how their friend is."

"Oh shit!"

Nothing, there was nothing he could do about it, or about Chris. He suddenly thought about Linda and how frightened she had to be. How frantic as well, not being allowed in to see the man she loved and had almost lost so soon in their relationship.

"Shit!" he said again, not caring who heard. What a horrible mess. Now he had to tell the others, tell Linda, what the doctor had told him. Wearily he stood up and followed the relieved nurse outside. Through the doors he already saw his friends and the new agents of their unit, pacing up and down the hallway outside. He saw Linda standing like a statue, staring at the door. Kelli was holding her.

"They didn't want to wait in a waiting room," Dianne told him with a suffering sigh. "No matter what I tell them, they look ready to just burst into here anyway. That really can not happen!"

"They wouldn't do that," he told her softly. "It's just that they're concerned. I'll talk with them." For a moment he needed to gather his waning strength, then he stepped through the door to let the worried group of friends and agents know what he knew. And then he was going to see Josiah and survive the time he had to wait before being allowed to see Chris.

At least they had Chris back, alive! That would have to suffice for now.



He felt hands and then the pain got even worse. Something else touched him as well.


/How about here, Larabee? How about taking this part of skin? Here's my knife, do you feel it? Do you feel it cutting your skin off?/


"Doctor, I can't hold him!"

"Mister Larabee? Mister Larabee, please, it's alright, you are safely at the hospital. Mister Larabee?"

/Larabee? You with me again? It's alright, I just cut off a small strip there. Now, how about I'll take some more skin right beside it? Let's go see how you look underneath that skin. Here goes..../

"I really can't hold him, he keeps fighting!"

"We need to sedate him! Get the Propofol, I need a 3 mg solution!"

Black, everything went black.

+ + + + + + +

Pain. Lots of pain. Laughter, that awful laughter in his ears. And hot, he was so hot, it felt as if he was burning.


Linda? Was that Linda? No, he couldn't have gotten Linda, he was sure he'd felt Vin telling him that Linda was safe. He was sure!

He tried to say her name, only his voice wasn't working and his throat was so dry.

Eyes, have to open my eyes.

He tried, but when he thought he'd managed it everything was a blur.


Hey Cowboy, you with us?

V... Vin?

I'm here and Linda too.

C... Cleaver?

He moved his head to try and see the woman he loved and his best friend, but immediately pain seared through him and he screamed.


There was so much anguish in her voice and suddenly he saw Cleaver looming over her with a knife. Then he was cutting her and he screamed again, lunching forward to try and stop him.

Chris, stop, you're safe, you're in the hospital!

It didn't make sense, nothing made sense. Only pain and heat and fear.... And blackness, he welcomed the blackness.

+ + + + + + +

Voices. Through it all he heard voices. Cleaver... no, not Cleaver's voice.

"It looks bad. We have to clean it very thoroughly this time. Luckily he's still out."

"He always freaks out when we touch his shoulder, even when we think he's unconscious."

"It has to be cleaned! It's the worst of the sources of infection and his fever is way too high, we have to do something. I will have to cut some of the flesh away I'm afraid. Get the saline ready."

"Yes doctor."

Hospital? He was in the hospital?

Something bit in him, into his shoulder and like before he felt teeth tear at him there.



"The Propofol, get the Propofol!"

He kept fighting the madman until he felt himself slip away.

+ + + + + + +

Cool, something lovely, cool was touching his hot face. Chris opened his eyes and the first thing he saw were the eyes of a woman. Friendly, green eyes. Not the eyes of Linda though. Where was he, anyway? He tried to shift and pain slammed through him.


God, he hurt!


V... Vin?

Chris, you're awake! Hang on, I'll tell the doctor to wrap it up and we're coming!

Linda? he wanted to ask, but the woman above him was talking to him, trying to make him understand something. He looked at her in confusion. It was too difficult to make sense of what she said, so he just closed his eyes to wait for Vin.

"Did he wake up, Denise?"

"Yes doctor. I think he's still awake."

"Really? Mister Tanner, how could you know?"

"Eh, just a feeling. Chris?"


Yeah. The doctor is here as well and there's someone waitin' to see you.

That got Chris' attention and he opened his eyes, looking up hopefully at the two figures beside his bed, seeing a man in a long white doctor's coat and Vin. He smiled at Vin, immensely glad to see his friend. Then he tried to see if someone was behind the two men, if Linda was there. He craned his neck and started to lift his head, but the pain was too much and with a moan he fell back.

"He's gonna be sick!" Vin warned. The next instant someone was helping him lean to the side while he threw up. Not much came out, only some green bile. That and the pain made him even sicker. A glass was held against his lips and greedily he drank the ice-cold water.

"Easy, not too much. Does this help?" a woman's voice asked. "Doctor, do I need to give him something for the nausea?"

"Let's see if it will stop by itself. He is getting enough medicines already."

"What are you givin' him?"

"Besides the pain medication he is being given antibiotics. It seems we now have the right combination, because his fever finally broke."

Vin? What's happening?

You're in the hospital, Chris. Do you remember what happened?

Shot...Oh my God, Josiah! He shot Josiah! And he... he....

Chris jerked away from the hands of the nurse and tried to sit up. He looked around himself frantically.

Cleaver! He went for Linda! Vin, where's Linda?

"Linda's alright Chris. Chris? Look at me, Linda's alright. She's waitin' to come in, but first the doctor wanted to see you and talk with you."

"Mister Larabee, you shouldn't move too much. We had to give you artificial skin and you have to make sure that it doesn't tear. By now your skin has started to repair itself, although the high fever you had the last two days will have slowed down the healing process. At the moment the artificial skin on your eh... wounds is still very fragile."

Fever? And then it hit him, artificial skin? What the hell?

"Ar... artificial skin? What's... that?"

"Best you see it as a super band aid Mister Larabee. A band aid that actually helps your skin repair itself, where you lost it."

Lost it, lost his skin....

"He's gonna be sick again!" Vin called out.

While Chris was hanging to the side throwing up, he vaguely noticed the nurse walking around the bed. She injected something into the IV standing there.

"What... you do?" he managed to get out, despite the fact that his throat felt like sandpaper.

"It's something against the nausea," the doctor informed him. "Denise, you better give him some more water. No Mister Tanner, not you! I know you have scrubbed your hands, but I still do not want you to touch the patient, we need to keep him in isolation for a while longer, we haven't won the battle against his infections yet."

Chris and Vin looked at each other ruefully.

What does Kelli think of that mask?

She hasn't seen me with it, but I can just imagine her comments!

She hasn't?

No, Chris there's something you gotta know....

"Mister Larabee, did you hear me? Mister Larabee, are you still with us?"

Chris tried to focus on the doctor and nodded. Bad idea... pain immediately throbbed through his skull. Why was that? He hadn't hurt his head, had he?

"It's probably that damn fever, Chris. You had it bad. Doc, I don't think he can take much in of what you wanna say, he's got this headache."

The doctor looked at Vin and raised an eyebrow. "And how would you know, Mister Tanner?"

"Eeeh... the way he's squinting his eyes? I just know Chris, doctor."

Chris smirked at his friend, the smirk turning into a grimace when another movement filled him with pain again.

"It is understandable with all the fever you have had, Mister Larabee. It has broken now, but it still isn't gone entirely and that is why I was telling you that you need to stay in isolation for a few more days, just to be sure."

"I... isolation?"

The doctor smiled and shook his head ruefully. "You really didn't hear me, did you? It doesn't matter, you seem to be with me now. Mister Larabee, you are currently in an isolation unit, which means some strict protocols and not too many visitors. Hopefully the antibiotics we are currently giving you will do the trick and you can get out of here soon. But for the moment you are stuck here, I'm afraid. And again, for the artificial skin we have grafted on you, please try to move slowly and carefully and not too much. Some of it had to be grafted back during your more... shall I say volatile moments during the fever?"

"Vola... tile?"

"You have woken up a few times, only to try and fight us off while we were treating you."

Chris blushed. He had? "Sorry," he mumbled.

"Don't be! It's not your fault when you don't know where you are. Now, there is a very eager lady waiting outside, so I will leave and let you enjoy the company. Mister Tanner, you know it has to be a brief visit, Mister Larabee is still too weak. Denise, no more than ten minutes, max. If necessary, they will have to leave sooner."

"Yes doctor."

Chris wasn't paying attention, he was gazing longingly at the door. For a moment he didn't know who was entering when the doctor left, because all he saw was a mask. Then he took in the blond hair that was tied back severely and the eyes... there was no mistaking those eyes! She looked at him and he felt himself drown in those pools of gold and brown flecked green. Next she was there, holding his hand before the nurse could stop her.

"Miss, please...."

"Leave 'm," Vin said softly, his voice rasping. "It's only holdin' hands and she scrubbed. So what's the danger in that? I think it'll do him more good than harm!"

Chris closed their voices off, his sole attention was for the woman now standing at his side.

"Linda," he whispered.

There were tears in her eyes. "Chris, oh Chris, I'm so glad y... you're back! For a moment I thought, I thought.... Well, it doesn't matter, you're here and you're awake, really awake!"

"When... he said... he w... was going a... after you...."

"Sssssh, he didn't even get near me! I was in Denver, in your office, being protected on all sides. You... Vin said you warned him."

"I... tried. Thought he... he heard, but so far away... I couldn't... couldn't be sure."

"Chris, please, don't talk, you don't need to talk. It worked, Vin stopped me from going back to the ranch because you reached him. Otherwise... well, let's not think about that, it didn't happen. The only one who got hurt here was you."

"And that... girl. And all... the... others."

"You and your team put a stop to that, don't you forget that, Chris Larabee!"

"Miss, I'm sorry, but I think you better leave. He's getting upset."

"Please," Linda pleaded.

Chris grabbed her hand and glared at the nurse. The elder woman sighed and shook her head.

"I don't think that's wise. You wouldn't want the fever to start again, would you? Please Miss, let's not make this difficult."

"Oh, alright! Chris, I have to go, I'll see you soon."

"Tomorrow," the nurse said. "They will see you tomorrow."

"Can't we come back tonight?" Linda pleaded.

"I am sorry, I really am. But I have strict instructions not to let anyone visit here again today. Tomorrow afternoon you can come back, when the patient has gathered more strength."

Chris heard the determination in the woman's voice and knew Linda was fighting a losing battle. He couldn't let her and Vin go without the answer to one question though.

"Wait! J... Josiah?"

"Josiah's fine Chris," Vin said softly, coming to stand beside Linda. "He had a good weekend and today he could leave ICU."

Weekend? How long...?

We got you here late Friday, its Monday now and almost evening. Ya had a real bad fever, pard. Come on, you better sleep and get strong. Me and Linda'll be back tomorrow.

Chris nodded and looked at Linda again. "To... morrow?" he asked softly. She smiled through the tears he suddenly saw in her eyes.

"Nothing can keep me away," she whispered. Chris tried to raise a hand to wipe those tears away, but suddenly the nurse was there.

"I am sorry, it's really time!"

"Bye Chris, see you tomorrow," Linda smiled. She made a move as if to kiss him despite the mask, but the nurse immediately stopped her.

"That I cannot let you do, I'm sorry, I really am. But we cannot chance another infection, he really isn't strong enough for any extra complications."

"Sorry, you are right." Reluctantly Linda let go of Chris' hand. "Until tomorrow."

"T... tomorrow, I'm... waiting."

She smiled at him and his day immediately became brighter.

See you, Cowboy.

See you, Vin. Say hello to everyone and that I'm looking forward to seeing them.

For a moment Chris thought that Vin wanted to say something, but then the Texan smiled at him, waved and took Linda by the elbow.

Nice ponytail! Chris couldn't help smirking when he saw the back of his friend. Without breaking stride Vin flipped him the finger. Then the door closed behind the two people who were closest to him and Chris suddenly felt alone, very alone.

/Alone? Why? I'm here, I'm here in every movement you make, in every pain you feel. Me and my knives!/

With a soft moan he curled up, trying to keep the nightmares at bay.

Chris, no, you're not alone! I'm here! We're all here and Cleaver is gonna pay!

No, not alone, he wasn't alone. With that thought he fell asleep, a real, deep sleep.

+ + + + + + +

"Vin? Are you alright?"

The far away stare vanished and Vin looked at Linda, who was disposing herself of her mask and getting the ponytail out of her hair. She was examining him worriedly.

"Yeah, I am, everything 's fine now," he smiled and suddenly Linda realized what a nice smile he had, especially when it lit up his eyes. She'd seen it when he and Kelli first started dating, but worry about her chosen sister and later her unease about the connection between Vin and Chris had made her lose sight of that. Sight of the fact that this was a really great man to know. Hesitantly she smiled back, still a bit unsure. Because frankly it had given her the chills again when he and the doctor had come out of conclave because Vin insisted Chris had finally come around.

Finally! Finally her life promised to be all right once more.

She had been so afraid. First when Chris had been kidnapped and after that when he'd been so terribly sick with fever. Now, now she could hope again.

"I... I never thanked you for saving his life," she hesitantly told Vin.

"Ain't nothing to thank me for, was the same as Chris would do for me."

"You two are very close, aren't you?"

"Yeah," Vin said softly, escorting her out of the Burn unit. Once more she was immensely grateful that she wasn't here to visit someone who had been burned. What had happened to Chris was rough, very rough, but he would heal a good deal better than when his wounds had been from a fire. Those were wounds that sometimes took years to heal, she knew and that was something she wouldn't wish on anyone and certainly not on the man she had come to love so much.

It had been so good to see his smile today, that great smile that made her go all weak in her knees. So much better than her earlier visits during the days he had been wracked with fever, battling a man who wasn't there anymore to torture him. The one time he'd seemed to come around, had ended with Chris' eyes full of fear and panic and it had shaken her to the core. Vin later had told her that Chris at that time had believed she had been captured by Cleaver as well.

She hadn't questioned what Vin said, she was beyond that. It still made her uneasy, but she knew it was that connection between the two men that had enabled Vin to find Chris and she also had been very grateful for Vin's insight in to how Chris was doing. Suddenly she realized that Vin was talking.

"We been close from the first time we saw each other," he said soflty. "We took one look at each other and it was as if I was comin' home, finally comin' home after too many years of loneliness. Chris' friendship was a lifeline for me, Linda."

"Kelli says that your friendship was a lifeline for Chris."

"So I've been told. What I know is that he was still hurtin' a lot about his family's death and that he found some peace in our friendship. And me in his."

Linda was silent after his words. Vin had said nothing about telepathy, about something more than friendship. She looked at him and saw his eyes scrutinizing her.

He never would, not ever again after that one time in the parking garage, she knew. Not even to Kelli. Like Chris never would. It was there and they didn't deny it, but they also didn't talk about it.

Damn, those two deserved each other!

"I'm truly sorry you don't like me that much, Linda," Vin said softly. "I know Chris has waved it away until now, not wanting to examine it. But I also know it worries him, deep down inside."

"Oh, it's not...!" Shocked she stopped with what she had started to say as well as with walking. It wasn't that she didn't like Vin at all. Jutting her chin upwards and staring into his eyes defiantly she told him the truth, like she always took her battles head on, not looking to spare herself. "It's not that I don't like you, Vin. You are a very likeable man and I think Kelli is incredibly lucky she found you. It's not that at all. What I don't like is the bond you have with Chris. I mean... I love Chris and I'm pretty sure he loves me, but it's you he senses and your thoughts and feelings he knows, not mine. I don't think that's how it should be. I think that when two people are in love, they should be number one to each other."

Vin stared at her, shocked.

"Sorry," she mumbled, looking down at her feet. She resumed walking, wanting very much to leave the Burn unit and see the others. A hand grabbed her arm and stopped her. When she looked up, Vin was staring at her intensely.

"What if you had a child with Chris, Linda? Wouldn't that be an all consuming love? Where would that leave Chris then, second place?"

"WHAT? I would still love Chris just as much.... Oh."

"I know how much Chris loves you, I KNOW! If I ever hurt you, he'd punch me in a heartbeat, no matter how much we're connected."

"I get your point Vin, I do. And I know it's childish, but.... Besides, Chris doesn't want any ch... children." Oh, she hated how pathetic that came out. Shit, and that it had come out at all, Chris wouldn't be pleased she had blurted out something that private, even if it was to his best friend!

"He might not want them now, might not feel ready for them, but don't think that's the end of it, Linda. It's Chris we're talking about here! That man can leap right into danger without thinkin', but when it comes to things of the heart he's got this tendency to worry it all to death!" Vin grinned. "He'll get there. But Linda, when that doc and me were standing beside Chris' bed, all he was interested in was where you were, he was searching for you. Don't that tell you somethin'?"

"He was?" she whispered. "He really was?" She couldn't help it, it made her choke all up and start the tears. She felt Vin's arms around her and leaned into him, crying like a little baby. It embarrassed her to no end, but she just didn't seem to be able to stop.

"I know," Vin murmured, still holding her. "I know Linda, I thought I'd lost him too."

"Doesn't m... make you bawl your eyes out!" she managed to croak, pulling away slightly and starting to look in her pockets for a handkerchief. Damn, she never had a handkerchief!

"Who says? But you forget that I've got Kelli. If she hadn't been there for me these last few days, she and the rest of the family, I'd be a wreck right now. Here."

Suspiciously she looked at the hankie he was holding out to her. "Don't you dare go and start reading my mind too," she snapped indignantly, grabbing it out of his hand and blowing her nose ungracefully. She heard him laugh.

"I won't, don't worry! One cantankerous, stubborn mind is more than enough for me to know!"

"Did Chris 'hear' that?"

"Nope, he's finally sleepin' and I mean a real sleep! Come on, those two nurses are definitely givin' us dirty looks. I think they're getting' ready to throw us out."

She nodded and together, side by side, they walked to the doors and exited the unit. Outside their friends were waiting, anxious to hear about Chris. Yes, she thought, Vin is right. The family he and Chris were a part of was great. She wouldn't have survived these last days without them.


One more day here and he was going to die of boredom, Chris decided. He was sitting in his bed, well, it was more like hanging, sitting still hurt too much, and looking ruefully at the phone beside him. At least he had a telephone now, his lifeline to the outside world and sanity. He'd thought the previous times he'd been in a hospital had been bad, but this...! With this isolation he really had hit the jackpot of worst times in your life! His days in here were an endless repetition without relief, except for the few visitors he was allowed during the afternoon. A repetition of blood being taken, dressings being changed, rehabilitation exercises and frankly of pain, lots of pain.

He was getting real tired of the constant pain.

After the treatments it was almost noon, when he would be allowed to use the phone. Allowed! Like some little kid! He couldn't call that many people though, they all had their jobs and he didn't feel he could keep disturbing them while they were working. Luckily they called him or by the time visitors were permitted he'd be screaming mad! And he could call Josiah. That had been the best moment when he'd finally been strong enough and been given a phone. Hearing Josiah, hearing that rumbling voice in his ear and talking to the profiler had at last freed him from the haunting images in his head of his friend going down with a bullet in his chest. Going down because of him and laying on the concrete in a growing pool of blood, while Chris hadn't even been able to move enough to go to him! It had been great to hear Mallory too and to ask her how she was coping with her husband in hospital and with Joanne and little Adam. She'd cried then and told him that they were all doing okay and he'd better think about himself for a change.

The best time of the day though, by far, was when he was finally allowed some visitors. The bad part of it was that only Vin and Linda had permission to see him. And even that had almost not happened. As soon as he had been coherent enough, he had been asked if Linda really was his fiancée. He still got fuming mad thinking they had wanted to keep her away too.

It hurt that he couldn't see his family because they weren't his kin legally. Although he suspected the hospital might have lightened up on those rules if it hadn't been for the bad fever he had had, a fever they said had almost killed him.

That would have been a way to go, killed by a fever of all things, after surviving....

NO! He wasn't going to think about that!

He looked at the television hangig above his head, but made no move to turn it on. It was difficult to concentrate on it, because he was still a little feverish. His vision often blurred and his head would start to hurt. He had seen enough though to know that he and Linda were figuring prominently in the news. It should have been about MCAT and about the fact that his team had apprehended a serial killer, but those idiots on the networks preferred showing him and Linda. And the parts of the press conference in which he'd dressed down some reporters were repeated endlessly as well, for some unfathomable reason.

A lot of it had to do with Linda, he knew. He'd never realized she was jet set and actually, he didn't know how he felt about that. No, he was lying to himself, he knew exactly how he felt about it, he hated it! On one of her visits, when he was still looking with disbelief at some of the nonsense about them on television, she had just waved it away. "That utter garbage," she had snorted. "It'll pass, it always does. Luckily gossip lovers have a short time span, you'll see Chris."

'You'll see?' Talking about a worrisome statement! It sounded as if she expected this kind of thing to become a normal part of everyday life! He hadn't thought about it long though, because she had looked at him so fiercely protective that all he could focus on was how much he wanted, needed to kiss her!

Not allowed.... Not a damn, single thing seemed to be allowed in here!

Carefully Chris changed his position, hissing when numerous wounds immediately started to let him know they were there. If he ever got his hands on Cleaver, he'd show him a thing or two! He looked at the drapes before the window, which told him nothing about the time. All he knew was that it wasn't seven a.m. yet, because the vampire hadn't been around.

Vampire, that was rude. The nurse who came for his blood three times a day really tried to do it nicely. This one at least did. The first one, a male nurse, hadn't come back when he'd told Chris he couldn't believe a man, a cop if he had understood correctly, could be so squeamish about giving a little blood. Chris had icily told him he felt he'd had given enough blood when he had been chopped up in a cellar by a blood drinking maniac, thank you very much and had turned away, not caring that the young man hadn't finished his job yet. Vaguely he had heard Denise whisper to the man and she hadn't sounded friendly. He had never seen him again.

Now it was a cheerful girl, who always seemed on the verge of bursting into a song. She made him almost wish the first, rude one back. At least that one hadn't pretended life was a party.

To hell with it!

Chris grabbed the phone and dialed Linda's number. He knew she loved sleeping late, but he needed to hear her voice so bad, it almost hurt. To his deep disappointment there was no answer on her cell phone and he had never bothered to take down her home number. Stupid, stupid! Now what? After a moment of hesitation he dialed another number and soon he heard a curse on the other side. "This better be about that bomber case or you're dead!"

Bomber case? Tanner was sooo screwed when he came to visit this afternoon!

"It wasn't at first Buck, but it is now! What bomber case?"

"Who the hell is this? Chris? Chris, is that you? What you doing phoning so early? Do you have any idea what time it is? It's hardly past five! Is something wrong?"

"Me being stuck in here, that's what's wrong. Nope, I don't know what time it is, they think a clock is bad for the patient or something, makes him look at it too much in anticipation of those few visiting hours, I guess! Only five? Shit!"

"You sure sound a lot better than you did yesterday!"

"Guess I feel better. At least I'm not nauseas anymore. So what's the bomber case?"

"Someone is blowing up taxis all through five states. It landed in our lap two days ago and now we have the great prospect of flying all over the country to examine crime scenes."

"Taxis with people still in it?"

"Yeah, afraid so."

"Fuck! Any leads yet?"

"Chris? I don't think it's a good idea for you to talk about a case! Vin said you still had some fever yesterday."

"I think it's a great idea, because frankly the biggest threat to my health right now is boredom. Tell me about it, please!"

With a sigh that said, 'I'm going to get into trouble but I really can't say no to this idiot', Buck did. Soon Chris was asking him about times and places and also if there was something which might connect the drivers of these taxis.

"The drivers? Except that they're dead, I wouldn't know. We haven't really looked into the drivers yet except what the locals told us about them. No connections so far."

"You said that some of the taxis had passengers, others hadn't, but they all had their driver in it. So why didn't you try and look into them more?"

"Chris, there have been bombings in ten different city's! What could possibly connect these drivers?"

"Just... just let CASSIE look... at it. Damn!" Chris couldn't suppress a groan when his body told him in no uncertain terms he had been overdoing it.

"Chris? Shit! I knew this was a bad idea! I'm going to hang up! Oh, hello baby? Has the phone woken you up? No, it's your Uncle Chris." Some commotion could be heard and then a happy voice shouted, "Uncl' Chris! Uncl' Chris!"


"Uncl' Chris, I'm with daddy now in the liv' room! Mommy said, leave me alone and go to daddy!"

"Really, sweetheart? So your daddy isn't in bed?"

"No, he was on the couch!" Giggles and then, "He is aaaall nekkid Uncl' Chris. He looks silly!"

"Sarah, give me that phone and go back to bed!" he heard Buck yell in the background.

"NO! Mommy said you talked too much! I can talk now! Uncl' Chris?"

"Yes, Sarah?"

"You do that? Sit in the liv' room nekkid?"

Chris started to cough, a vivid image of him and Linda naked before the fire jumping up in his mind.

"Sarah, enough! Your uncle is not well and we were just ending this conversation because he needs to sleep." Buck again in the background.

"You still sick, Uncl' Chris?"

"I'm afraid so, Sarah."

"When can I see you? It's no fair only Uncl' Vin and Aunt Linda can see you. I wanna come too! Mommy says it's no fair too! We saw Uncl' J'siah another day and now I wanna come see you!"

"You saw Josiah? That's good, munchkin. I... I wish you could come too, Sarah. I miss seeing you, all of you."

"Me too."

At that moment his nighttime nurse, Sylvia, stepped inside and the look she threw him didn't promise much good.

"Soon, alright? Soon we can see each other again. You better give your daddy back now, I have to hang up shortly."

"Luv you!" A smacking sound like a wet kiss sounded.

"Love you too, sweetie. Buck? That you? I have to go now, I don't think the nurse is very pleased."

"Well, what did you expect? Just hang on in there, alright? They can't keep you in isolation that much longer. Sarah? Sarah, keep your pajamas on! NO, you can not go around naked! And you can't go outside like that, no! Oh, shit, Inez will kill me!"

Chris couldn't help but grin. He could just see Sarah throwing her pajamas off to be like daddy and he knew there were a lot of embarrassing moments looming in Buck Wilmington's nearby future.

"Have to go. Don't forget, look into the drivers more carefully, don't trust what the locals gave you on them!"

"Mister Larabee! That is enough! Put the phone down!"

"I will. I really have to go now." Suddenly a memory hit him. The day, he had totally lost what day it was!

"Buck? Inez, Inez's birthday? I screwed up her birthday, didn't I? Shit!"

"You and Josiah both, stud, you didn't really think we were gonna celebrate without you two? Don't worry about it, she...." He couldn't hear anything else, because the nurse had taken the phone away.

"Hello? This is Sylvia Allegro, Mister Larabee's nurse. I am very sorry, but Mister Larabee really has to hang up. What? Very funny, but I will tell him anyway. And what... oh, hello sweetie. Yes, I will tell him that too. Is this the father again? Thank you for understanding." She put the phone down and looked sternly at her recalcitrant patient. "Mister Larabee, you know that telephone calls are only allowed during the afternoon and evening! Why are you persistently trying to do break hospital rules now that you are fit enough to sit a little? Don't give me that look, it's what you've been doing! We really only try and get you well Chris, and frankly we try and get you well enough as fast as we can so we can kick you out!"

"Why shouldn't I use the phone now?" Chris asked stubbornly. "It's not like anyone is busy with me! And I disturbed no one!"

"Chris, please. You were disturbing yourself! You don't look very good right now and if I'm not mistaken, you don't feel so fine either, do you? Well, do you?"

Chris only stared at her. He wasn't going to let her know he felt like hell at the moment and that the nausea had come back too.

"Chris, when it's seven o'clock your blood will be taken and after that you have to go through the changing of your dressings and your rehabilitation exercises. You are far from well and I know the things they have to do must be heavy for you! I'm not here when they treat your wounds, but I know how many you have and how long it approximately takes to change those bandages. Please, settle down and try to sleep for a while longer, so you hopefully feel a bit better when they have to start working on you! I am going to give you something light to help you sleep again for a few hours."

She added something to his IV, lowered the head of the bed back down, busied herself with his pillows and gave everything a check over. Chris felt himself get drowsy despite his resistance. He really didn't feel good.

"Your friend on the phone said I should tell you not to worry so much and make more work of the nurses when Linda isn't looking. Is she your wife? And then what sounded like a little girl started shouting that she wanted you to come and take her to see the horses. If I understood her correctly that is. I did think she said that she wanted to go without clothes, just like daddy? And you should too, because that would be fun?"

Chris choked. The nurse smiled at him and after giving the blankets one last tuck in, she was ready to leave. Just then a nurse knocked at the window in the door.

"Excuse me."

She went out and Chris saw the two nurses talking for a moment. A few moments later Sylvia stuck her head back into the room. "Your lady called. Seemed you tried her first? Anyway, she was too late at the phone and when she saw your number here in the Burn unit on the display she got really worried and called the hospital, since this unit can not be reached directly until noon. My colleague is letting her know that you are alright. Just, please, don't do this again Chris. Or we will take that phone away during the night and morning."

The door closed and he was alone again. He felt bad that he'd given Linda a scare, but then he thought about little Sarah and he was glad he'd called Buck. At least now he knew what was going on with the unit.

Having talked to Sarah had been the icing on the cake though. He smiled, remembering the sweet voice with a little lilt and the wet smacking sound she had made when she said goodbye. Thinking about the little girl and then about Linda and how he longed for her visit that afternoon, he fell asleep.

+ + + + + + +

"Someone sure's in a good mood!"

"Hell yeah!" Chris answered Vin with a huge grin plastered all over his face.

"So? What's the occasion?"

Chris' grin grew wider and Vin whooped.

"Tomorrow, really?"

"What tomorrow? Don't do that!" Linda said annoyed, swatting Vin since she wasn't allowed to swat Chris. Truth to tell, even if she was allowed she couldn't have swatted Chris, he had bandages everywhere.

"Linda, they say I can leave this place tomorrow! God, I can't wait to see everyone else. Never thought I would miss all those ugly faces."

"Lar'bee, you're all heart."

Just then doctor Reynard stepped inside and saw all the smiles. "Doc, is it true? Chris gets out of here tomorrow?" Vin asked.

"Maybe, I've only said maybe. Miss, will you excuse us for a moment?"

"Doc, I told you before, she can stay," Chris said, annoyed. They had this conversation every time, but doctor Reynard was adamant. Besides Chris he only spoke with one relative about Chris' medical condition and that was Vin. It wasn't all because of the protocol around the Power of Attorney, it was also to protect the doctors and nurses of the unit so they could do their very hard, demanding job. In order to do that, contacts with others besides the patients were held to a minimum. Vin and Linda had seen some of the work that had to be done when they walked over to Chris' room and they had come to understand why the unit had such strict policies, even though they knew it was hard on Chris. So Linda just smiled and swept out of the door. She was impressed with the people working here and wasn't going to be in their way. She had already made a huge donation to this hospital ward after the glimpses she had seen and especially after what they had done for Chris, were still doing for him.

"Alright, Mister Larabee," the doctor started as soon as Linda was outside. Chris sighed. He'd stopped trying to make the man call him Chris. He had the feeling that doctor Reynard needed to keep some distance in order to survive the horrors he saw in this ward. "Your blood is almost clean of infection signs. If the blood of this afternoon's and tomorrow morning's tests come out clean as well, then, after we have changed your dressings and thoroughly examined your wounds, you will be allowed to go to a normal ward. No more infection, then no more isolation. This is also possible because the artificial skin is doing its job. Now, if you would eat some more, then we could dispense with the IV with nutritional solution. I would like for that to happen before you are moved." Chris nodded, more than ready for one less IV himself. He had been forcing himself to eat, first to get rid of the stomach tube they had inserted to get food in him and also hopefully keep it in him. Now he was trying to satisfy his doctor enough to keep the tube out and to hopefully get rid of at least one of his IV's.

"Before I will give you your antibiotics, I see that we better change places for your IV's again."

"Damn!" Chris hissed. Another needle stuck in and another place to go sore from the IV attachment, as if he hadn't enough wounds already. His good mood was evaporating. He always hated the feeling of helplessness he had when in a hospital, but never more than these past days in isolation. He couldn't wait to get out and now, when he thought he was finally going to leave, it was maybe? He hissed when the needle sank in and so Vin beat him to the big question.

"Why maybe? Doc, is he going to get out of here or not?"

"We think that probably he will, but it all depends on the last blood tests," the doctor said solemnly.

"He is right here," Chris said in exasperation. "And he wants some time with his woman alone, it's been too long!"

While Vin smirked, the doctor looked positively panicked.

"Mister Larabee, no, you are still in isolation until we are sure it's safe to let you out! If you cannot abide by that, we will just forbid all visitors for the remaining time."

That got Chris' attention. "Shit," he mumbled, looking at the door, trying to get a glimpse of Linda.

"So we'll know for sure in the mornin'?" Vin asked. "You'll let me know then? I want some people around when he finally can get to a normal ward."

"I'll call you, Mister Tanner. Believe it or not, I understand how frustrating this week must have been for all of you. Don't worry, I don't think there will be any complications and he'll be out of here tomorrow. Now, Mister Larabee, enjoy your visitors. Hopefully tomorrow you will see them in a less strict environment."

"Thanks Doc," Chris said softly, his eyes already on Linda coming in. Vin smiled.

"You two be good. Linda, I'll wait outside."

The two lovers didn't hear, they were too absorbed in each other and in the joy of soon being able to touch each other again.

+ + + + + + +

The next day a whole gang was waiting outside the doors to the Burn unit. It was around noon and word was that Chris could come out any moment now. They were all eagerly waiting for the first time in a long week they could see their boss, friend and chosen family member. When finally a gurney was spotted whoops of joy could be heard.

"Please!" A very harassed looking nurse was trying to get their attention, but all eyes were on that gurney and the blond hair they could see sticking out from under the blankets. The doors opened and there was a rush in the direction of the gurney. A high piercing whistle stopped everyone cold and then Vin's voice could be heard bellowing, asking everyone what the HELL they thought they were doing. The person on the gurney moved, the blanket slipped a bit and then glazed green eyes were looking at the ragtag group. Everyone was suddenly very quiet, shocked by their leader's appearance.

Then a well known and unmistakable grin appeared on the white, gaunt face before them and everyone was whooping again. The nurse and the orderly escorting the gurney looked appalled, at a loss how they could get their patient through this throng. They didn't need to worry long. Vin took over and herded the whole group out of the way.

"You take yer time to settle him," he told the nurse. "I'll keep this bunch in line and make sure they know that out of isolation don't mean he's out of the woods yet, alright? Don't worry, they don't mean no harm, they're just very happy to see 'm."

Denise smiled. She had asked if she could escort Chris herself, having become attached to the quiet, suffering man she had been looking after and she was glad that he had such a big group of people who obviously cared about him. Chris had refused to talk about what had been done to him, but seeing this strong group ready to rally around him took some of her worries away. They looked like a group that could help anyone through anything, she thought. When she and the orderly wheeled the gurney past the now more quiet group there were grins and calls like 'Chris, good to see you', 'Hey boss!', 'Give'm hell, stud', 'Commander!' and more. After a stern glance from Tanner who kept a close eye on everything, no one tried to come too close though. Chris just smiled, a tired but happy smile and Denise could feel some tension leave the man.

At the end of the line stood the blond woman, Linda, who had been visiting him together with Mister Tanner. She and Chris locked eyes and when they moved on to the room that would be Chris', Denise saw how he craned his neck to keep that eye contact going as long as possible.

"See you soon, Chris!" Linda called right before they rounded a corner and went to the elevators.

Yes, he would be alright, Denise was sure of it.


"Dammit, Chris! Who brought you all them files?"

"Hi Vin. I just wanted something more to read."

"Yeah, yeah, and make suggestions about our two new cases, hm?"

"I can't just lay here and do nothing! Did they tell you anything about when I can leave? 'Cause they sure as hell don't tell me anything!"

"Chris, not unless your skin is grown back a lot more, you know that!"

"It's damn creepy stuff they put on me Vin, look! See? Part of it is just peeling off now!"

"Idiot, leave those dressings alone! And that's what it's supposed to do, isn't it? It's the parts where that ain't happenin' yet, is what they worry about. Like yer right shoulder and that deep gash on yer back."

Chris' face clouded and Vin sighed. "I know what he's done to you there, Chris. He's a regular Hannibal, ain't he? Man, you should've seen the FBI agents that's been interrogatin' him. They looked positively green afterwards, when they came to us for some additional info. Them pictures in the files sure made them ill. They still want you to testify, you know that don't ya? They've been pesterin' me to let 'm come here and get your statement."

Now it was Chris' turn to sigh. "Guess I'll have to do that. Fuck! I really don't wanna talk about it, 'specially not in court. Can you just imagine the field day the press will be having with it?"

"Oh yeah! Chris Larabee, the very handsome Unit Commander of the new MCAT Unit and fiancée of well known society flower Linda Dubois has just courageously faced the serial killer whose last victim he's been."

"VIN! Shut up!"

Vin laughed out loud. "Yup, you sure know how to pick 'm, Lar'bee! You finally, finally fall in love again and it's a society member. That's bound to get you covered in the media, 'specially with your current job. By the way, Travis is in heaven! He confessed to me that he'd been real worried after the dirt thrown your way at first, but now you've been hurt, you're a big hero! The media just loves a good victim."

"So I've noticed," Chris hissed under his breath. He knew Josiah and Mallory had had a lot of trouble as well, especially after the profiler had been released from hospital. They had fled all the commotion and the press hanging outside their house and were now safely tucked away in a luxurious cabin Ezra had managed to get them, complete with a private nurse for Josiah. Ezra sure had his shining moments, Chris thought. It was exactly what Mallory needed, someone to share the load so soon after her delivery and with her husband hurt bad and Joanne jealous of her baby brother. The profiler might have been discharged from the hospital, he was far from well.

The media didn't give up though. The requests for interviews with the man everyone now knew was responsible for profiling the serial killer with such accuracy, were even more numerous than the requests for interviews with Chris.

What they had managed to keep a secret in all of this was CASSIE. Chris had been very adamant about that. At first JD had resented it, his eyes all aglow with the celebrity status of it all. But seeing what had been going on around Josiah made him glad they had kept her a secret, he'd confessed at his last visit. Chris had a sneaking suspicion Casey had something to do with it as well. That girl was too down to earth and levelheaded to put up with all that media nonsense and he suspected she'd given JD an earful.

CASSIE.... That still wasn't resolved.

"So now Travis isn't worried anymore about my position?"

"Nope! It's strong now. Good publicity for MCAT gives good publicity for the government and their successful idea. Oh, and the fact that the word got out you're leadin' us already from your hospital bed, that came over real good too. Especially with the dashin' pictures of you having your bed covered in files and your hair stickin' out to all sides."


"Don't worry, the janitor who got those out has been caught when he tried to videotape you. He's been charged and minus one job."

"Shit." Chris pushed back his unruly hair. "Why aren't you more in the picture anyway? You're the captain of this mess!"

"I duck!" Vin deadpanned. When he saw the sour look on Chris' face he grinned. "No, seriously Cowboy, I'll do anythin' to keep myself low profile. Kelli's part of my life now and what if someone gets an inkling as to her past? Can you see them throw themselves on that one?"

"You're right, that's the last thing she'd need! Did you make some progress in getting the man that hurt her as a child? I never asked...."

"Nope, things 've been kinda hectic. 'Sides, we were gonna do this together, remember? Pool our resources. And I can use you at my back on this one, I don't know what 'll happen if I find him and I've got no one around to rein me in."

"Who says I'll rein you in?" Chris asked heatedly, sitting up straight. The pain that slammed into him after the abrupt move made him gasp and fall back into his pillows helplessly.

"Chris, will you be careful? You alright? Maybe I should call a nurse, have them give you somethin'."

"I hate being doped up all the time, Vin, you know that! And it's getting less already! We were talking about that son of a bitch that hurt Kelli in her past and how I'd love to get my hands on him."

"You get in line! Damn Cowboy, I was countin' on you to keep me out of trouble! Ah well, at the moment it'll have to keep. First we gotta get you outta here and then we've got Inez's birthday to celebrate!"

"Yeah, Inez's birthday!" Chris grinned. "You know, Sarah called me yesterday evening! She's only two and she did that! Alright, almost three, but still, ain't that great? She wanted to discuss her present for her mother with me. God, it was good when I could see the kids again. And everyone else too."

Vin grinned back at his friend.

You missed them all, didn't you?

Yeah, I really did....

Damn Chris, ain't nothing wrong with that! Hey, is Linda sneaking in tonight?

"No, she's been here almost all afternoon, talking about presents for Inez as well! And all the plans she's got for the party. That woman, if you let her go free she's a real menace for everyone who wants a normal, peaceful birthday!"

Vin had to laugh when he saw the mixture of annoyance and pride on Chris' face. "Yeah, and you love every minute of it, don't you deny it! Speakin' of birthdays and gifts.... I gotta go, Kelli wants to meet me for some gift shopping of our own. 'Sides, I don't wanna be kicked out again by that large nurse like I was yesterday. It was downright humiliatin', I can tell you that!"

Chris smirked. "She didn't fall for your baby blues, that's for sure!" He knew how Vin hated to have someone call his eyes that and this time was no exception.

"Larabee! Stuff it! You wanna see me again or you determined to chase me off?"

Seeing that Vin was serious about leaving made Chris all business again. "Vin? Did Travis give you anything on Sam Reed, or who got him into the unit?"

"Nope. If he knows somethin', he didn't tell me. Didn't he tell you when he was visitin'?"

"No. I tried, but he was evasive. He only told me what you said as well, that the position of me as MCAT leader seemed very secure now. That's not gonna sit well with the people who sent Reed."

"Damn! I hadn't thought 'bout that! You think they'll try somethin'?"

"CASSIE is too good to get your hands on. Yeah, I think they'll try something again. Now that my position is secure, they might try and focus on you. Hell, they might even try and find someone to replace JD or Pam." Chris creased his brow, thinking. "Actually, that's what worries me the most. They would've been easier prey from the start and replacing them would've given whoever is behind this someone directly working with CASSIE."

"Yeah, but they'd have to find someone who's as good with the system as they are."

"That's true. Those two have practically made CASSIE into what she's now. And having the Commander or the Captain in their pocket means they could do more than just get their hands on CASSIE, they could use the unit for their own agenda, see that they get as many of their own men in as possible. Form a unit within the unit as it were."

"Damn, you don't think small, do you Cowboy? That's a frightening scenario! If someone has big ideas like that, yeah, they sure would try something else."

"Vin, you will keep your eyes open, won't you?"

"I will and you better do it too. SHIT, you see her out there, in the hallway? That's that nurse from yesterday! I'm outta here! 'Sides, you're startin' to look grey. So give me those files, nope, stop that and give them to me! I'm gonna put them in here and you keep your hands off 'm until tomorrow! That's an order!"

"Order from who?"

"From the official leader of your unit until you're fit enough to resume that position again. Just do it, Chris, please?"

Chris looked at his friend angrily, thinking about refusing for a moment. But the truth was he did feel like hell. Reluctantly he nodded.

"GOOD! Now, about...."

"Mister Tanner! Are you still here? There is a clock right above that door! And what have I been telling you yesterday?"

"Sorry Miss, I'm goin', I'm goin'! See you tomorrow, Cowboy!" Vin beat a hasty retreat, much to Chris' mirth. That mirth was gone in an instant though when the big head nurse, who ruled the ward he was on with an iron fist, rounded on him.

"Mister Larabee, you should not encourage your visitors to stay for so long after visiting hours are over! We are very tolerant when it comes to visits on this ward, because we believe that the presence of loved ones helps the healing process. But your family and friends do stretch our patience by coming and going at all hours! Another big part of the healing process is peace and tranquility! Even when that wouldn't apply to you, although it does, there still are other patients on this ward!"

"Yes Ma'am," Chris sighed wearily. He lowered his bed and settled himself. He was too tired to get in a fighting match with this formidable woman.

"Why, this morning we even had to stop a man from coming here as early as six a.m.! That just doesn't cut it, Mister Larabee and I would appreciate it if you told your friends to stop this!"

"Six a.m.?" Chris asked, confused. "I didn't see anyone then."

"No shit! That's because we send him packing! Well, I did! And I will keep on doing it until that unruly bunch learns to behave."

"But it wasn't Vin?" Vin was the most likely candidate to sneak in at that hour. He would have said something though if it had been him.

"Mister Tanner? No, I know Mister Tanner by now. Too well, I might add! Someone much more compact in build, with very short, almost shorn hair. Looked a bit military."

Compact? Almost shorn hair? It sounded like Reed. Chris started to feel uneasy. "I don't think he was a friend," he said softly.

"No? Oh bummer, maybe someone from the press again! Ever since those pictures came out they are a nuisance as well. Not that I blame you for that, I know you can't help those mosquito's swarming around."

"Thanks," Chris grinned. The press, that was much more likely. "So, what's for dinner? Some real food?"

"It would've been if you had eaten properly today. Ah, speak of the devil, there it is. You try to eat and don't worry, no press mosquito will get to you on my watch!"

"Thanks...." Looking at her nametag provided the answer. "Thanks, Hyacinth," Chris mumbled, looking with disgust at what he was served for dinner. Broth again, and some watery looking mashed potatoes with obscure bits of green in it.

"You are on light food until you eat better, Chris," the head nurse said softly. "Just try and eat some more, alright? And I will see what I can do about your next meal."

"I... I'll try. Thanks, Hyacinth."

"You're welcome. After your meal Peggy will be back to see if you need something to sleep. Get some rest, Mister Larabee. Believe it or not, you do need it."

"I guess," Chris said with a deep sigh, picking up his spoon to start eating the babyish mess in front of him.

+ + + + + + +

"Vin! There you are! How's Chris?" Vin grinned when his red haired lady threw herself in his arms with enthusiasm the minute he exited the hospital.

"I tried to get in and see Chris for a moment while picking you up,'' she told him, "but they were very adamant that visiting hours were over. When I tried my badge, some big nurse told me she knew I was coming to see Larabee and that we oughtta be ashamed of ourselves, believing we were above the rules!"

"That sounds like the lady who just threw me out. You must've alarmed her to the fact that I was probably still in there."

"Really? Sorry!" Not that she sounded sorry at all, Vin thought amused. Her eyes were full of mischief and he was looking forward to taking her home and have some real fun together, the bedroom kind.

Suddenly full of desire for this beautiful woman in his arms he whispered huskily, "Let's skip the shoppin', Texas. Let's just go home and have some fun!"

Kelli swatted him indignantly. "We go home! After the shopping! I'm not going to postpone again! We'll have plenty of time for fun afterwards."

"Damn," Vin mumbled with resignation.

"I heard that! For that you buy me a real dinner! With steak somewhere! And chips of course! Or Mexican, yep, Mexican will do great!"

"You're on!"

The meal was delicious. Kelli was sparkling and full of stories about her day in Albuquerque, where yesterday two taxis had been bombed. It was good that Chris couldn't lead this one personally, although the man sure did try it from out of his bed, Vin thought. At least he couldn't go to the crime scenes. He didn't know how Chris would feel about seeing a bombed car. They had been able to keep the truth of the Burn unit away from him and he seemed okay with the case while just dealing with it from a distance, but it had been a worry for him and Buck right from the start of this unit. Terrorism often involved bombings and the victims of bombings. How would Chris feel about that? He and Buck had talked it over one night with Nathan and Josiah and all they had come up with, was to hope that he would be able to handle it after all these years and to just keep an eye on their leader the moment bomb sites came in the picture.

Vin sighed and looked at Kelli, at the candlelight reflecting in her deep blue eyes and the soft sheen on her beautiful red curls. But the excitement of wanting to take her home and throw her on the bed for some real fun had gone. Something was nagging in the back of his mind, something was trying to come up from underneath layers of thoughts and wanted to warn him.

He had the feeling that it had to do with Chris.

"Vin, what did Travis tell you all this morning, after I left for Albuquerque with Buck and Katrina? Why did he want to address the team?"

"He wanted to tell us that the brass upstairs was damned pleased with us and with all the heat in the media as well, now that they are so positive about MCAT. You know, I never thought about it and I don't think Chris did either, but the media sure seem to be a part of this job. They want MCAT to work, but the first reason it's been called into action is politics and that means having the public know how great they were in inventing us. Shit, I hate that!"

"And now we're all heroes, especially Chris."

"Yep, and I can tell you he don't like it one bit! Travis also announced that we'll get our own forensic team and lab, just like Chris wanted. As soon as he's back, he can look for his own chief medical examiner, again like he wanted. Suddenly all he's asked for is bein' delivered, so at least that's good! Oh, and after seein' us work that night when we tried to find Chris, made Travis decide that JD and Pam need a data typist. You should've seen JD beam!"

"Oh, that's great! Especially since you and Chris can't shove the typing work on Reed anymore!" Kelli grinned, clearly remembering with fondness how Reed had hated that. "Speaking of Reed, even if he was still around, no way he could've gotten you or Chris discredited enough now to get one of you thrown off the team! That's good too, no matter how much you and Chris hate all the exposure!"

"No, he couldn't...."

"Vin, is it true that they had images of Chris working from the hospital in the Denver News? And on the local network as well? How did we miss that yesterday?"

"Yeah, they had...." Vin's blood turned cold. What had been bothering him suddenly connected. It wasn't one thing after all, it was two things and Kelli just had innocently put them together for him. Abruptly he stood up and threw some money on the table, not caring it was way too much. He needed to get out of here, fast!

"Vin? Vin, what's wrong?"

"The hospital, Kelli, that's what's wrong! We never made it a secret where Chris was, but we didn't make it public either and I just realized that all the press heat's been 'round Denver Memorial for some reason. But yesterday afternoon they suddenly started snoopin' 'round State University as well. After those damn pictures were on the news! I think that before those pictures they didn't know Chris was elsewhere."

"I don't get it, Vin. Sure, it's a nuisance, but why are you so upset?"

"The other thing is what Travis told us this mornin', that Chris' position as Unit Commander is damn rock solid as of now! Like you said, it won't be easy after two successes so close after one another to root him out of the team! So they'll have to use another way!"

"I don't get it! Who's they? Vin, what are you talking about?"

They had reached the car and Vin hastily pulled open the door. "I'll tell you on the way to the hospital," he said, tense. "Bottom line is someone wanted control over MCAT from the start and wasn't happy with me and Chris havin' the lead. That's why Reed was there, to get rid of one of us. That ain't gonna happen through discrediting one of us anymore."

"Oh my God, you think they want to do something more drastic, like a... a murder? Vin, that means you're in danger too!"

"But Chris is vulnerable right now, Kel. And what's more, as Unit Commander he'd be asked to pick his next captain. No one would ask me to pick the next Commander. Just get in, please. I got a really bad feelin'!"

Putting on the siren, Vin recklessly dove into the early evening traffic, not caring what kind of mayhem he caused. He had a nagging feeling he might already be too late, despite the fact that he didn't get anything from Chris yet.

Suddenly something was there after all. Even as far from the hospital as he still was, he felt Chris tense all up. With a curse he floored the car to its maximum speed. If only he wouldn't be too late!


Chris shifted. It didn't help, there just never seemed to be a good way to lay down. Not on his back, not on one of his sides, not on his stomach. There wasn't a part of him that didn't hurt, didn't have wounds. What was worse by far lately, was that there wasn't a part of him that didn't itch abominably. God, but healing skin was the worst torture a man could be put through!

No, he wasn't going to scratch. They had been very clear about what would happen if he did and about the fact that it would keep him in the hospital longer. What was growing back was far too fragile to withstand any scratching.

Oh, shit!

Chris shifted once more, trying to surreptitiously shrug his back against the mattress, only to feel pain course through him from moving too much. He welcomed it, pain was a lot better to bear than that horrible itching!

Again he shifted, trying to find a good spot. No, no use. If he wanted to sleep, he'd better ask for something. He had refused anything that evening under the pretext he was already very drowsy. The nurse had looked a bit suspicious, so he had yawned and made his eyes droop. Too much experience had taught him the finer art of deceiving nurses. He hadn't done it lightly though or out of sheer stubbornness this time, he just hadn't felt right about taking something and he still didn't.

That description of the man who had been snooping around so early in the morning, it had sounded too much like Reed.

Fingering the little scalpel he had been able to sneak from the tray when they had changed some of his bandages and which now rested under the blankets, he laughed ruefully at himself. He was definitely getting paranoid. Of course Reed wouldn't try anything here. Reed was a sniper, someone to hide high on a building and pull the trigger when he least expected it.

Now, there was a thought to make him feel better!

On the other hand, they had been going through great lengths to keep things subtle and an assassination would lead to a big investigation, not in the least by his own team. It was the only thing that had kept him from ordering Vin into protective custody. That, and the fact that someone suspiciously like Reed had been snooping here, where he was.

If they wanted it subtle, they could try and make it look like he had a relapse and died of his wounds after all.

Something made him look at the door. At first glance it seemed as if nothing was there, but he knew better and silently he waited, hand on the little scalpel. As if he could do anything with a small thing like that.

He tensed. There was movement in the shadows beside the door and then Reed stepped out. "Guess it's true, you're sharp," his former agent said ruefully. "I'd never thought you'd spot me." When Chris said nothing, he shrugged and walked further into the room. "Doesn't matter. You're probably wondering why I'm here?"

Chris shook his head 'no' and kept his eyes on the man, who slowly walked towards his bed. Reed raised an eyebrow. "No?" he asked, clearly amused. "I wonder what you think it is I'm here to do."

"I know you're an assassin," Chris said softly. "Wasn't that hard to figure it out."

Reed stopped and looked at Chris incredulously. "What did you just say?"

"I was with the SEAL teams, Reed. I know assassins were trained somewhere in the military. And you didn't come just from that, but CIA as well. Most of your files were classified. Yeah, I know what you are. Guess they sent you instead of someone competent so you could use murder as a last resort."

"Instead of someone competent? Why you self satisfied arrogant prick! You could never run a law enforcement unit decently, ever! Pretending women, WOMEN can be good cops! As if they would know how to handle themselves if a situation gets really tough. Not to mention all those loose canons from your former team who don't even deserve the name agent! That southerner with his fancy suits and that long haired idiot you took as captain being the worst! Oh, no, not the worst! That would be you, a drunken dolt who couldn't even protect his own family all those years ago and never got over it in all the years following! I guess you preferred living in the past, because the present is a bit much?"

Chris was furious. How dare Reed bring his family into this? With a cry he pushed himself up, but immediately Reed was there, slamming him back down on the bed, a hand covering his mouth.

"No, I don't think you screaming for help is part of the plan, Larabee."

His hand shot down from Chris' mouth to his throat and squeezed. Desperately Chris tried to get air, grabbing for the hand. The pressure was taken off just enough for him to get some air in his lungs, but the moment he opened his mouth the pressure was back until he saw stars. When Reed let go of his throat just enough to let the air back in once more, he only glared at the man.

"Good, we understand each other. Off course this is not going to work if you die from strangulation. It must look as if it's because of your injuries, so I brought this little poison with me." He took out a syringe, filled with a clear liquid. "This will do the trick just fine. The dosage in here won't kill you immediately, it'll give the impression you contracted one of the more deadly hospital infections that roam the halls. You'll be seriously ill, too ill to be able to be coherent and make a statement, I'm afraid. And after a few days, before they can really find out what's going on your heart will give out." Looking around, the assassin sighed. "I still don't believe how I missed you being here that first week. I've been over all the hospitals in Denver and I've been here twice! You weren't on any ward, I would have sworn to that! Ah well, not important now. Thanks to that janitor I've found you just in time. My superiors were getting restless."

He let Chris go, but before the blond could get enough air in his half starved lungs, Reed knocked him in the head, hard. Chris gasped, trying with all his strength not to black out. He couldn't afford to black out. When his vision cleared he saw Reed inject the deadly liquid in his IV. He reached for the IV attachment to rip it out, but a strong hand clasped over it.

"I don't think so," Reed smiled and put his hand on the little tap of the IV. "Any last words before I open this and let it go into your veins?"

"Knew you... were st...stupid, but never... thought you'd let your... self be set up f... for the sl... slaughter like a... a meek lamb," Chris hissed.

Another fist landed on his temple and he groaned. "Don't call me stupid!" Reed told him coldly. "You're the one who's going down here."

"And... y... you're the one who'll end up p... paying for it in j... jail as the man who... who murdered his... boss in anger over b... being fired. They're g... good, those who... who sent you, I have to g... give them that."

That's not what's going to happen, Larabee," Reed grinned. "No way, I won't let them. Say bye bye now." Savagely he opened the little tap.

Chris had no time to think, he could only do. Desperately he grabbed for the little scalpel under his blankets and when he had it, he just lashed out, first at Reed's hand over the attachment and when Reed jumped back with a cry of pain he slashed through the IV line where it entered his arm.

He just hoped he'd been in time.

Then all chance of thinking was over when Reed jumped at him, giving an inarticulate cry of anger and knocking the scalpel away. Chris tried to keep him off, but he was so damn weak. He hated it when his blows didn't have the impact on Reed that they should have. Vaguely he thought he heard some commotion outside and then suddenly he was hauled off the bed and held in an iron grip, feeling the life being choked out of him again.

"Let him go," a deadly, Texan drawl said from the door opening. Chris managed to lift his head and look. There Vin stood, gun trained unerringly at him and Reed. He locked gazes with the Texan and then he let himself sag, making sure Reed would have as much trouble as possible in taking him along.

"Back off, Tanner!"

Vin did, slowly, still having his gun trained on the pair before him. His gaze shifted from Reed back to Chris and their gazes locked again. Chris immediately stopped his resistance and let Reed pull him along as a shield. He kept his eyes locked on his friend, ready for whatever Vin needed him to do. When they were nearing the door, Vin stepped out of the room and to the right. Instinctively Reed kept Chris between him and the armed man, but he did look to the left first, gun ready, before stepping out of the room. When all he saw was a cart with clean sheets and an empty gurney, he turned slightly so he could keep his eyes on Tanner. Carefully he kept Chris between them.

The man wasn't a pro for nothing.

So was Vin. Gun aimed rock steady, he was all set when something struck Reed with force from behind. The startled man looked behind him and automatically eased his grip on Chris when he tried to duck the bedpan that came flying from behind the cart. Vin was more than ready for that split second moment. One single, deadly shot was all it took. Then Reed and Chris were on the ground, Reed quiet and unmoving, Chris gasping and shaking. Footsteps could be heard coming from everywhere, but the ones closest where the ones Chris cared about the most. Soon his head was cradled in Vin's lap and Kelli was bending over him.

"Good... aim," he mumbled at her. She blushed. "Sorry, with the bad light I couldn't see very well how he was holding you and I didn't wanna risk a bullet going through him and hitting you too." With an impish smile she added, "Didn't think you could take that with all the rest, not at your age."

"Y... your age? Vin... you know who... who she's talking about?"

"Nope, old man, not me," Vin grinned, the relief pouring out of him.

After trying a glare, Chris just simply whispered, "Thanks for... coming back."

"Yeah, well, things didn't sit well. I wonder why he didn't try sooner, when it would 've been more believable to have you die of your wounds."

"He said... couldn't... find me...."

"Because you were in lock up!" Kelli grinned. "I guess they didn't think of looking in the Burn unit and besides, that's a ward you can't get in to just snoop around."

"Lock... up?" Chris grinned back. It sure had felt that way, but it seemed it had saved his life in more ways than one. Then a doctor was there, and nurses, and a gurney and all chance of talking was gone while he was whisked away, back to his bed. Soon he was prodded and probed and trying real hard not to scream. He did yell when someone grabbed the IV.

"Care... ful!"

"This had been cut."

"Damn! What's been going on here?"

"Poison. He... put in p... poison," Chris told them. "OUCH! Shit!"

"Melanie, try and be a bit more gentle! Poison?"

The medic let go of the IV and jumped back as if it had burned him.

"Mister Larabee, did any of it reach you?"

"Don't... know...."

"Just what we need here! Jim, get some gloves and get it over to the labs. I need to know what they tried to give Mister Larabee! Melanie, get someone here to take blood samples! Alright, let's turn him carefully, I need to examine his back and shoulder."

While he was turned on his side, Chris saw Vin and Kelli standing at the door. Vin looked white, his hands were balled into fists.

Vin? Vin, don't worry, I'll be alright. You and Kel got the bastard!

You said poison!

Don't think it... it reached me. Feeling drowsy....

NO! No you don't! Don't you dare leave us now!

Leave? Ain't going... anywhere...

+ + + + + + +

"DOCTOR?" Vin yelled when he felt his friend slip away.

"Not now!" the doctor grated. "Please leave! Will someone make those two leave?"

"But he... he...," Vin stepped inside, his eyes riveted on the quiet figure.

"I know. It's the pain medication we gave him before I knew about the poison. Most of it is laying here on the floor I think, but it does worry me. We're going to take him to ICU and hook him up to the monitors, just to be on the safe side. Now, will you please leave?"

Someone pulled at Vin's arm and reluctantly he stepped away, out of the room. There he stood watching while inside Chris was bundled back on the gurney and raced out and away. He made a move as if to follow, but a big nurse stood in his way. The big nurse that had sent him packing that evening.

"I'm sorry, Mister Tanner," she said softly. "He's on his way to ICU. I'm afraid you can't see him anymore tonight."

An arm slipped around him and gratefully he leaned against Kelli.

"Mam, I've warned our team and the police about the shooting. They will come and investigate this crime scene. It would be best if you held everyone away from this room and... that." She nodded towards the body with disgust.

Vin straightened, glad Kelli had kept her head cool. "I'm going where Chris is going," he rasped. "He needs police protection."

"I'm sorry, you can't...."

"Didn't you hear me? I said he needs police protection! They tried to kill him!" Not bothering to see if she would agree he stalked past her and hurried in the direction the gurney had gone.

"SHIT! I don't know where ICU is in this hospital! We're usually laid up in Memorial."

"I'll ask." Soon Kelli was back, steering him towards the elevators and the right floor. "You go Vin. I'll wait here at the crime scene and deal with it until the others arrive."

"Thanks Kel...." Vin turned to her. "Thanks for all the backup and for being here for me.... God, I was afraid we would be too late! I'm still afraid...." For a brief moment he took her into a fierce embrace. "You are amazing, lady. Love you!"

He felt her tighten her hold on him and some of his inner turmoil drained away.

"Love you too, Vin," she whispered, "and you are pretty amazing yourself. Now, take care of that trouble magnet upstairs, you'll see that he'll be alright! I'm beginning to think Death just don't want him, he'd be too much to handle. I'll be there as soon as I can, alright?" She grabbed his head, pulled it down and kissed him fiercely. "We'll make sure everything is alright and Chris is safe and then we take a hotel close by and I'll see to it that you relax some."

"Don't know if I can...."

"Oh, don't worry, I'll know just what to do once we're together," she whispered huskily. Then she was gone, back to the crime scene and he hurried to ICU. No one would get to Chris again tonight and not ever. A deep, cold anger was building up inside him.

This was not going to blow over, he vowed. He would get whoever had tried to kill Chris, just to take over MCAT and that person was going to pay. He didn't care how high up he had to go. Soon he stood outside the room where Chris was being hooked up to the many monitors.

'Just to be on the safe side', the doctor had said. It didn't make him feel any better about the situation.

If only he'd been here sooner!


"Dead?" Chris asked, stupefied. "He just... died?"

"Verdict's a heart attack," Vin told him somberly. He was eyeing the heart monitor Chris was still hooked on. "We told 'm to examine the body for toxins, 'specially the one Reed tried to use on you."

"I didn't get that much in me Vin, stop worrying!"

"The doctors worry too. They still got you hooked to that thing."

"Yeah, well, that's 'cause they're doctors. So the man who recommended Reed is conveniently a goner, unable to talk ever again," Chris grumbled. "Any other leads? Travis got any idea who might be behind it?"

"Yeah, several, which means that's several too many. Me 'n Buck wanted to take them all in for questioning and that's when he refused to give us any names. Says you can't just haul off Senators, Generals and the like and play good cop, bad cop on them."

"Guess he's right," Chris sighed.

Vin's eyes turned hard. "I don't see it. They ain't that special in my book, they're still men."

"Vin, there's no proof whatsoever, for anything. They'll probably write Reed's motive off as revenge for being kicked off the team."

Vin crossed his arms and stared stubbornly back. After a while he rasped, "Ezra had a good idea. He asked if there was a runner up for your position and there was."

Chris raised an eyebrow and smiled. "That's smart. Is it someone we can question?"

"We? What the hell do you mean, we? Ain't no 'we' here, Lar'bee, you're stuck in that bed."

"Not for long," Chris mumbled belligerently.

"You do exactly like the doctor orders, you hear? Ain't gonna have you risked again! 'Sides, Linda would kill me."

"Just tell me about that runner up."

"Seemed a really good guy, from Frisco. Headed the homicide division there and they had a spectacular rise in crimes bein' solved after he took over. Guess he wasn't that good a guy after all though."


"He died before Ez could talk to 'm. Seemed there was a shoot out with a gang that had sworn they wanted him dead."


"Ain't that a fact? Hell of a coincidence too, if you ask me."

"Anything else?"

"Nope, no trace to find anywhere."

There was silence for a long while. Chris was staring out the window, Vin was staring at his shoes until Chris asked, "Travis?"

"He called all them VIP's together that'd been responsible for getting this unit started and they're trying to lay down some ground rules to protect it from this kind of scheming. Chris? Why'd you think someone would try and take over MCAT? How did you ever get on to that?"

Chris turned and looked at his best friend. "Because it didn't make sense, Vin. Reed didn't make sense, riling us every way. Trying to sow discontent in the team and making us look bad. And then, when JD showed me what CASSIE is capable of.... Imagine having your own men with MCAT jurisdiction, with the right to take over command everywhere, with the authority to have every other agent, cop or whoever you can think of work for you, do what you tell them to. And to top it off you've got this computer system that can get you into every government system there is. Just imagine what you could do with that."

Silence again, then Vin softly stated, "Damn!"

They sat for a while in peace, enjoying each other's company. At last Vin nodded towards the monitor. "So, when they gonna get you off that thing?"

"Don't know." Chris craned his neck to look at it, above and slightly to the left of him, showing a regular heartbeat. "The whole thing seems pointless. You know, I think they only keep me hooked up so I can't move around too much. Least not without them knowing."

He glared when Vin started to grin and then convulsed in silent laughter.

"Hi guys, everything alright?"

Both men looked up, Vin still laughing and Chris now with a happy smile on his face. "Linda!" he exclaimed. "Come and kick him out!"

Linda smiled back. "Why? Hey Vin, you alright? What are you laughing about?"

Vin grinned at her, glad that they had come to a better understanding of each other after all their time spent in the hospital together, worrying about Chris.

"He thinks they leave him on the heart monitor just to keep 'm in bed."

Linda laughed out loud and then shook her head at the angry glare from her lover. "I told you the people in here are smart, Chris. What a great idea! Vin, if you don't mind, I have to kiss a scowl away."

"Nah, I don't mind. I've got a wife waitin' for me to drive us home and have us some real fun. You kids behave now! Linda, careful with this here fragile heart patient. I'll think 'bout you two holdin' hands here, when Kelli 'n me are playin' rough, all through our bed. Come to think of it, maybe we'll just skip the bed altogether. There's plenty of interestin' places on a ranch for some... fun." He leered at them and stood up to go. Suddenly serious he looked at Chris.

Trail might be cold for now, don't mean we'll give up Cowboy.

Yeah, we'll catch them one day.

Damn straight!

With a short wave of his hand, Vin disappeared into the hallway. Chris looked after his best friend for a moment, but then he shifted his attention to the beautiful woman at his side. "Please come closer," he said softly, reaching his hand to her.

"Oh, I plan to!" she replied huskily, opening the two top buttons of her shirt and purposefully marching towards the bed. "Let's make that monitor go all wild and erratic...," she whispered and lowered the bed railing to get closer to him.

Vin smiled when he walked away from Chris' room. There was a deep contentment coming from Chris and that felt good, damn good. It was about time his friend felt like that again.

+ + + + + + +

The next day the monitor was unhooked. Chris' blood was declared clear of anything that didn't belong in it. His wounds were checked and doctor Reynard told his patient they were all still healing nicely despite the man handling by Reed. Chris was in a foul mood anyway, because the files on their new cases had gone and no one was prepared to give them back to him. Finally, at the end of that long day he heard what he'd wanted to hear so very, very much for almost two weeks now.

He could go home the next morning. With tons of instructions, lots of pain meds and anti-inflammatories, a list about how to watch for infections and very strict orders to come back with the first sign of them, a special cream against the itching and a pile of new dressing materials.

"Damn, I better come and check you twice a day at least!" Nathan sighed when all those were delivered the next morning before Chris was allowed to get into the wheelchair and finally, finally leave.

That got him a glare from Linda. "I'll be fine with this," she declared. "I did tend to my father during his illness and I'm not squeamish, so I can handle those dressings."

"We also have your first appointment scheduled for you," doctor Reynard said hastily, giving an appointment card to Chris. "Don't miss it! You'll need some regular check ups and we'll make sure you'll come to those as well. As a matter of fact, like with this one we'll just make the appointments for you ourselves."

There were snickers all around, while Chris scowled at the card. Linda quickly took it from him and more than one voice assured the doctor Chris would be there. Definitely!

"Just get me out of here," Chris grumbled, swinging his legs over the bedside. His scowl deepened when more than one pair of hands helped him into the wheelchair. When he finally sat in it, he made sure he pinned them all down with a steely look.

"You're all NOT invited to stay at the ranch or come and go as you please!" he told his friends with a clear edge to his voice that drove the point home he was very serious here.

"Except for me that is," Linda said just as icily, glaring back. Chris' hard look immediately softened.

"Hey lady, why you think I want to keep them all away?"

"Oh, that's alright then," she smiled back. Their eyes were riveted on each other and they didn't notice the happy glances directed their way.

Finally Buck cleared his throat. "Message understood Stud," he said softly. "But we will be checking, we know you too well. And Sarah and Maria need to see you, so I hope you two will leave some room for that. I wouldn't wanna walk into something embarrassing with those two."

"So? Phone first," Chris mumbled.

"Oh no, you will do no such thing for the next few weeks!" Everyone had forgotten that Doctor

eynard was still there. While Linda was suddenly blushing fiercely, Chris glared at the man.

"Your skin may be healing, it's still very fragile, Mister Larabee. You take care of it! That means being very careful when you move for the next weeks. And keep that left shoulder from doing anything strenuous like leaning on it! Those tendons are healing nicely, but they aren't up to anything yet. It will take at least two months before they are fully functional again."

"I will see to it, doctor. Don't you worry," Linda assured the man.


They all laughed.

"Well Mister Larabee, all instructions seem to have been covered and I bid you farewell. You weren't the easiest of my patients," the doctor smiled. "But you sure were one of the most interesting."

Chris smiled back. "I don't know if that's a compliment, but thanks for all the good care, doc. I know you saved my life when I was brought in and I'm grateful."

"Good, you see to it then that my work wasn't in vain and take care of yourself." With that the doctor abruptly left.

"He really likes you," the orderly who was going to wheel him out of the hospital said astonished. "How you do that? He's a really great doctor, one of the best, but he always tries to keep his distance."

That brought laughter from everyone but Chris.

"It's a gift," Vin told the man while they finally left the small room. "He's so ornery, stubborn and completely impossible to live with, it rubs off on ya somehow."

"Yeah, go and mock the patient."

Chris' complaint only brought more laughter. At the hospital door his Ram was already waiting. Chris smiled when he saw his black truck and was touched by the small gesture from Vin to come and collect him in his own vehicle. He was settled in the front seat and everyone stood around, saying good bye.

"I'll bring the girls around tomorrow morning," Inez promised. "I don't think you'll be up to it today, you'll be too exhausted. NO! Don't say it, I don't want to hear you lie and say 'I'm fine'. Don't you lie to the girls tomorrow either. They need to understand why they can't pound on you like usual, you hear?"

"I hear you, Inez," Chris answered sheepishly.

When she and Buck walked off, the others came a bit closer. "We'll all be at your ranch come Sunday Chris, to celebrate her birthday," JD whispered.

"The whole MCAT unit as well," Nathan nodded. "We didn't want all of them here now, but everyone needs to see you safe and at home, so the party seemed like the best way to do it."

Chris nodded his thanks. Vin's eyes narrowed and then he shooed everyone away.

"Come on, before the man collapses! We're goin'. Kel, Linda, get inside, Chris needs a bed and he's still got the drive ahead of him."

When they were finally on their way he looked at the blond beside him. "Travis set up a meetin' with that woman doctor you had after Sarah and Adam died. Said you'd be more comfortable talkin' with her than with the Bureau shrink."

"WHAT? I don't need...."

"Yeah you do!"

Chris, that maniac did a real number on you and don't think I don't know you got nightmares!

Chris gritted his teeth.

'Sides, you won't get out of givin' a statement anymore now you're out of the hospital and you know it! I think you better talk to this doctor first.

Damn it Vin, I don't need talking at all!

"You ain't backing out, are you?" Vin asked worried. "It's your testimony that gives us the most chance on putting the bastard away for good."

"Why? We got him nailed."

"Chris, he ain't talkin' anymore and his lawyer is callin' it all circumstantial, no matter his fake ID. He says that tellin' us you were dead was all make believe, he never had ya, and all he did to the girl was sedatin' her, not murder her. I know we got a lot on him, but your testimony still is the surest thing."

"I'll testify, you know I will," Chris sighed. "Just... I don't need a shrink."

"Yes you do," Linda told him softly. "You need to get that monster out of your head. I'll be there for you Chris. I will. But let's not think about it right now. Let's just go home."

+ + + + + + +

His own house, his own bed. Chris sighed in contentment. Now all he had to do was heal further and get his life back.

Vin and Linda had helped him into his bedroom, while Kelli had been busy in the kitchen making soup and some chicken sandwiches. No mayonnaise, butter or anything else too fatty or heavy for him yet, but luckily she had proved to be a witch with some mustard, ketchup and herbs. It sure had been a lot better than hospital food.

They had refused to let him see Pony and that still rankled. Not long, he vowed, he wasn't going to let them all dictate his life much longer.

He felt Vin's 'bye' when he and Kelli left. Then the door to his bedroom opened and Linda came in. She was carrying pills, tubes and a glass of water.

"You look like you've got big plans," he softly teased.

"Oh, I have. I've been really envious of those nurses and I aim to do what they did from now on. Bath you, rub this cream in on the places where your skin is healing and... lots more." She put down the medicines on his nightstand and carefully pushed back the covers.

"Oh Chris," she breathed. "I've missed you so much, you have no idea."

"Yes I have," he whispered back, holding his hands out to her. His body was still healing and he knew Vin was right about the nightmares, but he was home, he had his family around him and he had this woman. No matter what else was lurking in the future, he knew things were finally going to be alright again.



Chris was staring at his journal, pen in hand. He had slipped out of bed, making sure Linda didn't wake up and now he had made himself as comfortable on the couch as he could. Even after a week at home other chairs were still too hard for him to sit in without pain.

He couldn't resist rubbing his back against the armrest of the couch he was leaning against, feet tucked up in front of him. He was also rubbing over his chest before he caught himself. Damn, but the itching was driving him mad!

It was one of the reasons he'd gotten out of bed. The cream Linda put on the healing skin helped, but only so long. He cursed and looked at his journal. Writing in it would at least keep him distracted and he had lots to write.

He'd finally given his statement that afternoon and it had been more difficult than he had imagined, talking about what Cleaver had done to him. It had made him realize that he'd better make a second appointment with Doctor Susan Zeller after all and this time really talk to her about what Cleaver had done. He knew he could trust her, she'd been there for him after Sarah and Adam, even though he'd hardly made use of her help. The few times he'd gone, dragged there by Buck, had helped though to keep him from really destroying himself.

He put the journal on his knees and opened it. The first entry was made four years after Sarah's and Adam's deaths, when he and the others had started thinking about forming Larabee 7. His finger softly went over the uneven, sometimes hardly readable words. He'd been so unsure about things then, about changing anything on and around the ranch he had shared with his wife and son. Trying to force a decision inside himself, he'd planned to clean out the attic and look through all his old stuff.

There had been more things of Sarah and Adam there than he'd remembered. Between them had stood the big cardboard box he'd dubbed 'Adam's box'. After the funeral he'd taken it to the attic and stowed it in the farthest corner, unable to handle seeing it. In it were some pictures of his son, some of his first baby clothes, his first shoes, a very little baseball cap, all the things Adam had made for him and Sarah, his son's first attempts to write, school work and five thick journals.

He remembered so clearly when he started writing these journals. It had been after Adam had taken his first steps. One day his little son of eleven months had been crawling through the living room and the next instant he'd suddenly stopped, worked himself up until he could stand, like he had many times before and then he'd taken that first, little step, followed by another and another, almost as if he was stopping himself from pitching forward. A delighted open mouthed smile had bloomed on Adam's chubby face while he was tottering to his father. Chris had called out for Sarah and in tears they had watched their son until he had fallen back and had been sitting there with a look of astonishment.

That night he'd realized how fast things changed and how hard it already was to remember when exactly Adam had started sitting. It had made him decide to write it all down, all those little steps and first words and all those big events that would be there in the future for his son, like his first day at school.

It had been fun to do and often Sarah had written things in it as well, short entries because she didn't really have the patience to write much. But he had loved to do it and he'd found out it gave him a sense of peace and restored his feel for what really mattered after a rough day at work.

Home, family, those were things worth fighting for.

Four thick journals full of what he had loved so much and a fifth, empty one, the one he would have started in as soon as he'd filled the last few empty pages in the fourth. That evening, up there in the attic, he'd stopped cleaning up and looked through them all, crying like he hadn't done in years. Afterwards he'd left it all there except the fifth, empty journal. That one he'd taken with him downstairs and in it he'd started to write a letter to his dead wife. He'd felt a burning need to talk to her and he didn't know any other way to do it but write it all down for her.

Chris slowly turned the pages and looked at his letter. It was long, in it he'd poured everything that had happened after her death, everything that had been and still was going on in his life. When he'd finished he'd felt totally empty.

He had also known what he wanted to do, how he wanted to go on with his ranch. The next day he'd called the boys and they had hammered out all the agreements to form Larabee 7. Since then he'd used the journal whenever he needed to make decisions or wanted to order his thoughts and feelings. Sometimes he wouldn't write in it for months on end, sometimes almost every day.

He went to his last entry, written just after little Adam had been born and looked at it. This was one of those times he wrote often. The MCAT unit, Linda, Vin and Kelli, the birth of little Adam, Casey and Rain pregnant, there was so much going on at the moment. So much that wasn't resolved yet. He picked up his pen.

<I can't believe it was only four weeks ago that little Adam was born and we celebrated the success of our first case. So much has happened. Sam Reed revealed himself and turned out to be placed on the team by someone who wants to take it over. Having control of this team and a computer system like CASSIE can give you a lot of power and there are always those who crave that power. Luckily we could stop this threat, at least we could for now. We'll have to stay very alert, because we still don't know who was behind this attempt to take over the unit. Travis is working hard on his end to help ensure something like this won't happen again.

At least we've safely concluded our second case and caught a very brutal serial killer. I will have to learn to deal with what he has done to me, but I have my family and I have Linda to keep me sane and help me cope.

Also I finally know what's been bothering Linda about Vin. It isn't Vin himself, it turns out she really likes him, but it is the connection he and I have. She isn't as troubled about it as she was at first, because she knows it helped Vin save my life, but she still has problems with it. I will have to find a way to make her see my connection with Vin isn't a threat to our relationship, just as my still existing connection to Sarah and Adam isn't. That she and I have a connection all our own, something no one can destroy, unless we let them.

Actually, the thing that worries me the most is not this unease of Linda, the threat of someone wanting to take over MCAT or my upcoming testifying at Cleaver's trial, but the media. I can't believe how they jumped all over this last case and over MCAT itself. The fact that the higher ups wanted the positive publicity as a sign to everyone that they are dealing with terrorism and the rising crime in our country, didn't help matters. And the fact that Linda's family is well known in the jet set didn't help either. Luckily the story finally seems to be getting old news, because if I see Linda and me on TV one more time, I'll throw a rock through the damn thing!

As for the family, everything is getting back to normal there as well. Inez' birthday was great, even though I couldn't do much besides hanging out on the couch. Josiah could hobble around a little more than I could, but not by much and he mostly kept me company. He is still baffled by all the publicity around himself. Well, he shouldn't be, he was simply great and so was everyone else for that matter. He and I are taking longer and longer walks every day now, to get our strength back.

It was the most rowdy birthday we had in a long time with the new team members there as well. That was good thinking of Vin and Nathan, they have been through a tough time and needed to see that everything was going to be alright for the unit. It better be, because they were already working two new cases when I was still in the hospital and a third is waiting on the sidelines. Luckily we will have our own forensic team soon.

I think MCAT can do a lot of good given the chance and I'll do anything I can to protect this wonderful unit.>

"What are you doing, Chris? You should be in bed!"

Chris looked up at the beautiful blonde standing in the doorway looking at him. Her hair was tousled and she couldn't stop a huge yawn. "Couldn't sleep," he confessed.

"Is something wrong?" Her immediate worry warmed him.

"Nah, just itching all over."

"I can help you with that," she grinned. Suddenly her eyes weren't sleepy anymore, but full of mischief. "You better come back to bed, lose those sweats and I'll start with putting some cream on."


"Oh yeah, that's definitely just for starters, gorgeous." She held out her hand. "Let's go."

He smiled. That was an invitation he was not turning down. "I'm coming. Just let me put this away."

"I'll get everything ready," she smiled.

Chris looked at her swaying hips when she walked away, unable to pull his eyes off her. He'd been apprehensive of all the new scars on his body at first, but it was soon clear Linda didn't mind them at all. Actually, she liked kissing them, a lot. Not that he complained about that. He took his pen and wrote down a few last sentences before following her.

<And I think my relationship with Linda is worth fighting for as well. She is one hell of a woman.

Sarah, I came a long way from the first entry in this journal and I think you would approve of MCAT and of Linda as well. I know that wherever you are, you are happy for me.

Love you lady, always, you and Adam. That will never change.>



Continued in

MCAT: Turbulent Transition #3 - Decisions