Wednesday, 1 p.m.
Sitting in what they fondly called "the saloon," the remaining three members of Team Seven sat in silence while Jessica, Nancy, and Bridget Sanders slowly explained the details of what was going to be the focus of at least a portion of their two week vacation. The rest of the team had already headed out of town on their various adventures, Buck and JD to do some whitewater rafting on the Animas, Nathan and Rain off to California and the various amusement parks the LA area had to offer, and Josiah up to Boulder for a week-long retreat being hosted by the Naropa Institute.
The three stunning sisters' story was laced with just enough tragedy and selflessness that the ATF agents knew that they couldn't turn them away, even if it did mean an unplanned trip out of town. Not that it mattered, really. They hadn't made any specific plans for the two-week hiatus. Chris had been looking forward to getting some repairs done around the ranch, with Vin's help, but that would wait, and Ezra had only been hoping to get caught up on some reading out by the pool.
Larabee decided that the change in plans was all his oldest friend's fault. After all, it had been Buck who had introduced them to the women, or two of them, anyway. In fact, Buck had been dating Jessica for several weeks now, while Nancy and Ezra had been out a few times over the same period.
"Look, ladies," Chris said, his voice soft with sympathy, "we'd be more than happy to look into this for you, but why haven't you spoken to the police?"
"We tried," Nancy said, frustration clear in her voice as she reached out for Ezra's hand. "They just refuse to take us seriously; maybe because gram doesn't live here in Denver. We even called the State's Attorney's office." She looked to Bridget, asking, "Wasn't that it?"
"Oh, I wish Buck were here," Jessica moaned, wringing her hands and interrupting any reply Bridget might have. "He'd know what to do, I just know he would."
"If you could provide us with a name of the man who defrauded your grandmother, and the address of his business office in Woverton, was it? We will be more than happy to drive out there tomorrow and see that he's confronted on this issue." Ezra looked to the other two men and added, "Isn't that right?"
"Yeah, sure, guess we would do that," Vin agreed, finding it difficult to pull his attention away from Bridget's large, tear-dampened green eyes. "We'd be happy t' help ya, ladies."
Bridget looked up and offered the sharpshooter a watery smile. "Would you? Gram's just beside herself, and at her age "
"No need to worry any longer, dear ladies," Ezra added, leaning forward to gently pat Nancy's back. "I'm sure we'll be able to bring this scoundrel to justice. Taking advantage of a lovely woman like your grandmother, why, it's criminal!"
"Ez," Vin said with a slight grin, "it is criminal. Local authorities ought t' come 'round and take a look at 'im if we drop in."
"Why don't you drop off whatever information you have on this guy tomorrow," Chris added. "And"
"We can do better than that," Jessica broke in, pushing a single tear off her smooth, tanned cheek. "I have all the information right here." She reached into her purse and pulled out an envelope and handed it to Chris. "And five hundred dollars. Will that be enough for you to start?"
Larabee opened the envelope and pulled out a picture of a kindly-looking older woman, a business card for Adam Ricoco, investment analyst, and a cashier's check for $500. "All we'll need is the picture and the business card," he said, handing the check back to Jessica.
"Thank you. That's the man, that's the card he gave my poor, sweet grandmother," Jessica said, sniffing softly. She dabbed her eyes with a damp tissue.
"Can't you start today?" Nancy pleaded, her expression sweetly imploring Ezra. "It's only noon. Couldn't you get there today? What if he runs away?"
"Yes, of course we can start today. I'm sure we can be ready to leave in an hour or so."
Chris and Vin exchanged half-annoyed glances, but the profuse gratitude expressed by the three women cut short any ideas they might have had about waiting until the morning to leave.
"Sure," Chris finally said, forcing a smile. "We'll leave this afternoon."
"How can we ever thank you?" Jessica asked, leaning forward to kiss the blond lightly on the cheek. "If Buck were here, I would've asked him, but I forgot about the rafting trip, and"
"It's no trouble," Larabee told her, deciding Buck was going to owe him big time for this one.
"We'll get this miscreant," Ezra assured the sisters, helping Nancy to her feet. She reached out, resting her hands lightly on his shoulders, then leaned forward and kissed him.
"You're so wonderful," she breathed as they parted.
Vin extended his hand, helping Bridget to stand. Taking a step forward, she gave Tanner a hug. "We really can't thank you enough," she whispered into his ear. "But when you get back, we'll try " She pressed her hips forward slightly, suggestively, adding, " real hard."
Vin felt his cheeks begin to burn and cleared his throat, gently pushing her back. A tingle of doubt raced down his spine. The large green eyes staring back at him looked sincere, but the buzz in his gut told the former bounty hunter that this woman was trouble.
"I'll give you a call from Woverton," Ezra assured Nancy, walking with her to the door of the bar.
Standing there, the three men watched the sisters until they were out of sight.
"I can't imagine how Buck ran into them. They're such nice young ladies," Ezra said. "Don't you agree?"
"Yeah, they're nice enough," Chris agreed, adding, "but why the hell didn't Buck mention this before he left?"
Vin folded his arms over his chest and stared after the threesome, frowning.
"And you, didn't you think they were enchanting, Mr. Tanner?" Ezra asked, curious about the man's lack of response.
He shrugged. "Don't know 'bout that, but somethin' don't feel right 'bout their story."
Ezra shot his friend a disapproving glance. "What? Not another one of your 'feelings,' Mr. Tanner. It really isn't that uncommon for a younger man, a con artist really, to take advantage of older women like dear Mrs. Saunders," the former con man said.
"I know that," Vin defended himself, "ain't stupid, but I'm tellin' y', there's somethin' up with those girls."
"Jealous?" Chris teased Tanner with a grin.
"Hell, no," Tanner snapped back. "Look, if we're gonna do this, we better get ready."
"Well, I for one am looking forward to bringing this rogue to justice," Ezra proclaimed as he started for the door. "The nerve of the man, defrauding a wonderful woman out of her entire life's savings For shame!"
"For shame," Chris echoed with a grin, following after Standish.
With a heavy sigh, Vin shook his head and trailed after the pair, the buzz only growing louder with each step.
J. Watson's parking lot
"Keagan?" Jessica asked into the cellular phone while Bridget drove their silver BMW out of the parking lot.
"They'll be leaving this afternoon," she said.
"Nice work, cupcake. We'll take care of the rest. See Mahoney tomorrow afternoon the usual place and pick up your money."
"Ten thousand apiece, right?"
"That's what we agreed to, sweetheart. But you and your 'sisters' gotta take a vacation for a few weeks, understand? Go down to Mexico or someplace."
"I hear the Caribbean's nice this time of year," Jessica said with a smile, then disconnected the call. She smiled. "Thirty thousand dollars, ladies."
The three women squealed with delight.
"I can't believe they fell for that!" Nancy giggled. "Ezra is sooo gullible!"
"Buck, too," Jessica said. "But I was worried Chris and Vin might not buy it."
"All men are gullible, honey," Bridget said with a predatory grin. "All it takes is the right story and the right storyteller."
"I think a long weekend in a Bermuda beach cottage sounds just heavenly," Jessica said, leaning her head back against the seat and sighing deeply.
"Mmm," Nancy concurred dreamily. "But we'll absolutely have to do a little shopping first."
"Of course," Jessica replied. "That's the second stop we'll make tomorrow."
"The second?" Nancy asked her.
Jessica nodded. "First we stop and pick up all that money!"
Wednesday, 9 p.m.
"How much further to Woverton?" Chris asked as Ezra checked the Colorado state map that he had spread out across their restaurant table.
"Well, if the scale is accurate," he reported, double checking the distance for the third time, "I'd say we have approximately seventy-five more miles to go."
"Ain't too bad," Vin said, finding his coffee cup under the map and checking it. It was empty.
Standish carefully folded the paper back up.
"More coffee?" Chris asked when Vin reached for the plastic decanter at the far edge of the table only to find that empty as well.
"Could use some, how 'bout you?"
"Yeah, sounds good," the blond agreed, catching sight of the pie menu behind the salt and pepper shakers.
"Yes, more coffee would be nice," Ezra added.
Vin flagged the waitress, requesting a refill. The young woman took the carafe, returning a couple minutes later. "Here you are," she said, seeing Chris still looking at the pie menu. "You guys want some dessert to go with that?"
"Hmm, this sounds good, doesn't it?" Ezra asked his associates, smiling widely at the pretty young woman. Chris handed him the list and he skimmed it, saying, "I'll have a piece of 'fresh banana cream pie.'"
"Okay," she replied with a grin, "'fresh banana cream pie,' we get 'em right out of the can every day can't get any fresher than that."
"Lemon meringue," Chris said, grinning.
"Apple, with a scoop of vanilla ice cream," Vin finished.
"I'll be right back," she promised.
Wednesday, 10 p.m.
Ezra sat in the back seat of Larabee's Dodge Ram and gingerly rubbed his stomach. "I don't know about you gentlemen," he said, "but that last pot of coffee tasted a little odd, and my stomach's suddenly unhappy. Or perhaps it was the pie. Or the coffee and the pie Then again, I suppose it could be a virus. You can never be sure these days."
"Weren't the best coffee I ever had," Vin replied from behind the wheel, "but m' pie was good an' I feel fine."
"Me, too," Chris added.
"Maybe it's just me then, a mild case of stomach flu."
"Is it bad?" Chris asked, turning slightly in the passenger seat to get a better look at their undercover specialist. Standish looked fine, if a little tired.
"No, not yet."
"Well, hang in there, we're almost there," the blond said. "We'll find a hotel and get started in the morning."
Ezra nodded, frowning and gingerly palpating his abdomen.
Wednesday, 11 p.m.
The threesome rode in silence, the dark State Highway deserted except for the Ram. Vin shrugged his shoulders, then twisted his head side to side in an effort to ease the tension in his neck.
"You doing okay?" Chris asked quietly, not wanting to wake Standish, who was sleeping.
"Yeah, m' neck's just gettin' a little stiff is all."
"Want me to drive for a while?"
"Naw, the last sign said Woverton's just twelve miles, I c'n hold out that long. Should start seein' a motel or two pretty soon."
Chris peered out at the dark countryside. The land was mostly flat, with occasional rolling hills, like most of the northeastern plains of Colorado. "Looks like this place is pretty remote."
"Yep, might as well be in Nebraska out here."
A pickup, its headlights off, rumbled out of the darkness, cutting them off and nearly scraping the side of the Ram as it passed. Vin jerked the wheel to the right in order to avoid hitting the truck, wheels squealing on the pavement before they caught in the loose dirt along the shoulder.
Despite Vin's frantic efforts, the Ram drifted into a slow revolution, the tires spinning on the loose dirt and rocks until they reached a shallow ditch and caught, flipping the truck over once. The outline of someone flashed by in the beams of the headlights and Vin thought he heard a scream as they hit and the images shattered into blackness.
Thursday, 6 a.m.
A deep, stabbing pain attacked Vin's head and side, each warring for supremacy as he slowly climbed toward consciousness. His thoughts were disjointed and confused, but the same images kept flashing through his consciousness: a pickup roaring out of the dark, a wild flip of perspective, dancing colored lights, voices, hands, and a cold, barking laugh like one he knew he'd heard before
He groaned and forced his eyes open, only to close them again in order to shut out the glare from a bright overhead light that came on in response to his groan.
Raising a hand to block the light, he tried blinking again. His vision was blurred, but it wasn't hard to identify his stark surroundings. "Jail?" he groaned disbelievingly, glancing around the otherwise empty grey cell.
Despite the pain, Vin pushed himself up to a seated position, worry helping him along. "Chris? Ez?" he called, but the words echoed hollowly and remained unanswered.
He reached up, gingerly touching the left side of his head and his fingers came away sticky with blood. "Great, just great," he sighed, leaning back against the cold wall. His throat began to close and he swallowed several times as his stomach threatened to turn over. "Not now," he moaned softly to himself, glancing around, looking for a sink or a toilet, and finding nothing.
He felt terrible, but it looked like there was no help coming for a while. Closing his eyes, he tried to concentrate on his body, wanting to know if there were other injuries, but the constant pounding in his head made it impossible to tell and he quickly gave up.
Where were Chris and Ezra? He wondered. Were they all right? He hoped so, but he wanted to know for sure.
"Hey," he called, but his voice was too weak to carry to someone outside the cell. "Ah hell," he breathed.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Chris flexed his fingers and toes, glad to feel them respond. He wasn't dead. At least he didn't think he was, not if his fingers and toes were moving. Would he even have fingers and toes after he died?
"Hey, you awake? Hey, mister, can you hear me?"
"Yeah, I hear you," Larabee growled, forcing his eyes open. A large grey-haired man in a green uniform started down at him, a slight grin on his lips. "Where am I?"
"Woverton County Jail. You Chris Larabee?"
The agent nodded, sitting up to face the man. "Where are my friends?"
"In their own cells."
"Why are we here?" he asked, confusion adding to the generally fuzzy feeling in his head. "We were run off the road just outside of town Who found us?"
"You say you were run off the road?"
"That's right," Chris replied, shrugging his shoulders and rolling his neck; looked like he was all in one piece, just a little sore where the seatbelt had bruised him. "A pickup came out of nowhere no lights, drivin' like a bat out of Hell. Vin swerved and we caught the shoulder and rolled."
"We didn't see any signs of another truck. All we found were your tracks."
"That's impossible," Chris stated flatly, rubbing at his bruised and aching shoulder. "There had to be something."
"Looks like you and your friends are in a little bit of trouble."
"Your truck hit someone."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
"Being in an automobile accident is no reason to put someone in jail!" Ezra argued with a young deputy who was obviously enjoying the agent's agitation. "We should've been taken to a hospital, not here. Now, I'd like to see my friends. Were they hurt?"
"No," the deputy snapped, then grinned. "Well, not too bad, anyway. And you're not goin' anywhere. When you rolled into that ditch you hit a little girl, jack. That's why you're here for murder."
"What? That's impossible."
"Leann Gleason was walkin' home from her sister's house. She was down in the ditch alongside the road so she wouldn't be up with traffic, just like her daddy told her. You hit her all right; killed her dead."
The blood drained from Ezra's face, leaving him as grey as the cell walls. "That's terrible, a tragedy, I'm sure, but Mr. Tanner didn't mean to hit anyone"
"She was fourteen years old. Pretty as a picture, too."
"Mr. Tanner couldn't have seen her. He'd never"
"He killed her."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
"There's nothin' I could'a done!" Vin yelled at the leering deputy, anger, pain, and frustration evaporating what little patience he had left. "I told y', a truck forced me off the road. I can't remember what happened after that!" He stopped, rubbing at his aching head. "Think we flipped over."
"Nobody forced you off the road," the deputy said.
"I'm tellin' y', there was a truck. Didn't have his lights on. I swerved. I didn't have time t' look an' see if there's someone in that ditch. I don't remember seein' a little girl. Y' think I wanted t' roll the Ram? I didn't see that girl, an' I couldn't've stopped if I had!" he yelled his accent getting thicker.
Vin sucked in several deep breaths, trying to force the dizziness away and settle his stomach. Was that what happened? he wondered. It was hard to remember the details, but there had been a truck, a truck without lights, of that he was absolutely sure.
"Well, Mr. Tanner, I might've believed that you and your partners were tired. I might've even believed you fell asleep at the wheel. Standish admits that he was sleeping when it happened. It was late, you'd been driving for a long time."
"Yeah, he was sleepin'. But I wasn't. Chris an' I were talkin' when that pickup came up on m' left. Damn near rammed right int' us. I had t' swerve. The tires caught along the shoulder an' we rolled. That's it end 'a story."
His stomach threatened to rebel and Vin leaned back, breathing deeply through his nose, willing it to settle. No way was he barfing in front of the glowering deputy.
"One more question, Mr. Tanner."
"What?" Vin snapped, his eyes dipping almost closed as his vision began to blur again.
"How do you explain the fact that all three of you had cocaine in the blood samples we took?"
The man's blue eyes popped open, his gaze immediately going to the crooks of his elbows. "What? Blood samples? There's no"
"And," the deputy snapped, "how do you explain the pound of uncut coke we found in your Ram?"
"A pound 'a cocaine? There's some kinda mistake here," Vin growled, wishing the throbbing in his head and side would go away long enough to let him think through this new turn of events. "M' friends an' me, we don't do drugs. We're ATF agents. Call our director, Orin Travis, in Denver, he can tell ya."
"There's a mistake all right, Tanner, and you and friends are the one who made it. We don't tolerate junkies and drug pushers around here, especially junkies and pushers who kill little girls!"
"Didn't kill anybody!" Vin argued. "An' we don't do drugs! How many times d' I have t' say it? Now, I wanna know if m' friends 're all right? Were they hurt?"
"They're fine. We'll be moving the three of you to the Woverton Penal Facility later this morning."
"What?" Vin asked, then snorted and shook his head, instantly regretting the move. "Guess y' guys never heard a' due process, or a trial? How 'bout innocent 'til proven guilty?"
"You watch your mouth, boy," the deputy snapped, stepping up to grab the front of Vin's T-shirt and giving him a shake.
The sharp motion sent shards of fiery agony through Vin's head and chest and he brought his hands up to fend off another attack, moaning softly.
The deputy released him and took a step back, his hand coming up to rest on the butt of his revolver. "You'll get your damned trial soon enough, Tanner. In the meantime, we don't post bail for drug dealers, or murderers."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
"Wait a minute!" Chris yelled, climbing to his feet. "I told you, we're federal agents, you"
"I don't care if you're the freakin' Queen of England."
"Fine. We have the right to make a phone call and have a lawyer appointed to us. I want to make that call now."
"Well now, I see you watch television," the grey-haired deputy said. "But we don't do things here in Woverton County like they do on TV. You'll go to the Facility until your trial. And don't you worry, we'll make sure you have a lawyer present for that. Judge Murphy should be back from his fishin' trip in a week or two."
"A week or two? This is completely illegal, you know that, don't you?"
"And once you're convicted you'll be sent back to the Facility to serve out your sentences."
"I don't believe this!" Chris snapped.
"Well, you'd better believe it, son. You screw up at the Facility, you'll never leave this county."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
"People 'round here are real fond of their own, Mr. Stand-swish and little Leann was a real favorite, so you're going to be here a while."
"I assure you, Deputy, you will not get away with this," Ezra said. "We are federal agents; we have friends and coworkers who will be looking for us."
"Let 'em look," the young deputy smirked. "They won't find a thing they can identify."
"I want to see my friends. I want to ensure that they are still breathing," Standish stated firmly.
The deputy chuckled and shook his head. "You're a real mouthy son-of-a-bitch," he said. "You'll see 'em soon enough when they take you to the Facility."
Ezra watched the deputy leave, locking the door behind him, then dropped onto the cement bench that served as chair and bunk. He shook his head. This is wrong, very, very, wrong. It looked like Vin's evaluation had been right after all.
Thursday, 10 a.m.
The three ATF agents were herded across an almost empty parking lot toward a small school bus that someone had painted lime green. Chicken wire covered the windows and large black letters spelled out "Woverton Penal Facility" across the side. The chains that linked their feet together made it necessary for the three men to shuffle along single file toward the vehicle. Another length of chain ran up from between their feet to handcuffs that were attached to leather belts, securing their hands near their abdomen. Relief at finding the others relatively healthy was evident on each of their faces.
When they reached the small bus, the older, grey-haired deputy unlocked the chain securing their feet and tugged it free while the younger deputy stood guard, a shotgun leveled on them in case they tried to bolt. Once they were freed from one another they were waved into the bus.
They took seats in silence, another man locking a mesh door to confine them before leaving to gas the bus.
"We've been set up," Chris said softly.
"And yer first clue was what?" Vin moaned, panting slightly as he sank back against the seat and closed his eyes.
"It appears to be a rather expert job," Standish offered.
"You okay?" Chris asked Vin, frowning. Tanner was pale and sweating, his complexion grey.
Tanner shrugged. "Anybody leave a note so someone knows where we are?"
Larabee shook his head.
"That was my fault," Ezra moaned softly. "If I hadn't been in such a rush to help Nancy and her grandmother"
"If there even is a grandmother," Chris interrupted. "Look, it's no one's fault."
Vin leaned forward slightly as another wave of dizziness swept over him. He squeezed his eyes shut and swallowed convulsively, silently commanding his stomach to stop climbing up the back of his throat. "We were all too quick t' help those girls Josiah will start lookin' for us when he gets back from Boulder."
"He won't be back for another day," Chris said and sighed.
"No. I called him an' left him a message told him we was goin' out 'a town an' we'd be back in two or three days, and that I didn't like the feel of it. I figure he'll start worryin' in four," Vin said.
"I hope you're right," Chris told his friend, watching Vin rub at his temples and then noticing the dried blood for the first time. "Christ, this is like something out of a really bad movie."
Tanner shifted, grimacing as he did.
"Vin, you sure you're okay?" Chris asked again.
The sniper nodded, opening his eyes. "Think I might've bruised some ribs. An' m' head's killin' me." He glanced around the bus and frowned. "Where are we?"
Chris frowned, but answered, "Woverton. We were arrested, remember?"
"This is wrong," Ezra said, shaking his head. "Mr. Tanner should've been taken to see a doctor."
The three men looked up to find a large, red-haired man standing at the front of the bus. He held a thick nightstick in one hand and was pointing it at them. "There'll be no talkin' unless you're spoken to, ladies. Understood?"
They refused to say anything, but they nodded.
The man opened the mesh door and sat down, stretching out along the first seat, turning slightly so he could watch the three federal agents. The man who had gassed the bus returned, sliding into the driver's seat.
"You boys better take a good look," the red-haired man said, grinning at them, "gonna be the last view of freedom you're gonna see in a good long while."
Woverton Penal Facility
Thursday, near noon
"They should be here any time now," Warden Cletus Wilton told his guests as he smoothed down the few strands of hair that traversed his otherwise bald head from temple to temple. The pair made him nervous. Wilton could be a vindictive, vicious man, but he prided himself on being straightforward. These two were much more subtle and that set him on edge.
One of the two men nodded, a self-satisfied smile spreading over his handsome face. Turning to his companion, he chuckled. "So, Matthews, what do you have in mind for my entertainment?"
"From our conversations on the phone it's my understanding that you want these men destroyed, correct?"
"Yeah, but I want to see them suffer in the process. It can't be too fast. They're responsible for my brother's death, for ruining my career. I want to see them pay, and pay dearly for both."
"The mind is a wonderful instrument, Mr. Keagan, and I guess you can say that I'm a master conductor. Do you have the rest of the files I requested?"
Keagan nodded toward a small building marked: Warden Wilton. "They're in Cletus's office."
"Good," Matthews said. "I'll need a day to read them over and come up with something you'll enjoy. In the meantime, Warden, see to it that they're placed in isolation cells."
Wilton nodded and walked off, glad to escape the pair. He was being paid well enough to help Keagan and his partner, Lonny Mahoney, and even if he wasn't, he'd have to help the former ATF agents anyway; they knew too much about his illegal gun sales for him to risk saying no.
"I'm going to drive back into town. Would you like to meet me and my partner later for dinner?" Keagan asked the psychologist.
Matthews nodded. "Just let me pick up the files."
The bus passed by the Woverton Penal Facility's main gate, a set of double chain-link rolling partitions topped with razor-wire. Two men stood guard at the entrance, each holding a rifle. Towers stood at the four corners of the large compound, fifteen feet high, each with two more armed men keeping watch on the prisoners below. Three large Quonset-style buildings dominated the center of the enclosure, labeled: A, B and C. Next to building C sat three smaller wooden structures, stenciled on the outside: Warden, Infirmary, and Mess Hall. At one edge of the compound sat a large three-story Victorian house complete with a wide lawn, trees, white picket fence, gazebo and several outbuildings. Several smaller houses sat on either side of the Victorian.
Two more lime green buses sat parked behind the Mess Hall. Next to building A were three other small buildings, but the angle made it impossible to see what they were. Beyond the chain-link fences were acres of cultivated fields. Chris made a quick count, finding twenty men dressed in pale-blue overalls working in the fields while five guards watched them.
"Get up," the redhead snarled.
Chris and Ezra complied, Vin moving a little slower, favoring his ribs and fighting lightheadedness. The deputy immediately stepped forward, shoving Standish out of the way and reaching to grab Vin's shirt, roughly jerking him the rest of the way to his feet.
Vin grabbed for the back of the seat in front of him, the world suddenly spinning out of control. His legs went weak and he leaned over the back of the seat to help support his weight.
"Hey!" Chris barked, taking a step toward his friend.
The deputy smoothly slid his billyclub out of its ring and shoved the tip under Larabee's chin. "Back off, blondie," he hissed.
"Look, uh, officer, he's hurt," Ezra tried. "He"
"Hurt?" the man interrupted. "Well, ain't that just too damn bad." Using the club to keep Chris at arm's length, he jerked Vin out from behind the seat and into the center of the bus. "I said let's go."
Using the back of the seats to guide and support him, Vin made his way to the front of the bus before everything whirled again and he swayed on his feet.
"What's the matter?" the second deputy asked, a taunting smirk on his face. "The junkie-kid-killer a coward? Afraid of doin' a little hard time, pussy?"
Tanner tried to focus on what the man was saying, but the words made no sense. He didn't do drugs. He hadn't killed anybody. Why was he in jail? Nothing made any sense. He tried to put it all together, but the soft buzz that filled his head escalated into an overpowering roar, sweeping all the fragmented thoughts away in a surge of pure agony. He tried to raise his hands to his ears, but the cuffs stopped him far short.
"Come on, get out," the second man ordered them.
Chris's hands pressed gently against the middle of Vin's back and the sharpshooter moaned once, then staggered, half-blind, down the bus steps, feet landing in the dusty earth. With no breeze, it was hot at the work farm and Tanner squinted against the glare that seemed to be lancing straight through his eyes and into his head, adding to the building agony. He sensed more than heard Chris and Ezra step down behind him and take up positions on either side of him.
"Move," Red commanded, gesturing toward the building labeled: Warden Cletus Wilton.
Chris leaned closer to Vin, asking, "You okay?"
Tanner tried to nod, but the slightest movement made the pain unbearable. "Think so," he said thickly. "M' head jist hurts bad."
Red gave Ezra a shove that nearly knocked the man off his feet, but he pulled himself up and started forward, leading the way. Vin ground his teeth together and forced himself to take a step, then another, managing several more before his stomach finally rebelled at the pain. He stumbled and fell to his knees, heaving bile into the dirt.
Chris knelt, reaching out to help his friend the best he could. "Easy, Vin," he soothed. "Come on, maybe we can get you some help."
Forcing himself to straighten, Tanner stood soundlessly. With Chris's help he shuffled painfully after Ezra.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The warden studied the three men carefully, wondering what they'd done to deserve what was coming. Not that it really mattered; he was being paid well enough not to think about it too much.
"Gentlemen, Woverton Penal Facility might not look like much, but let me assure you that it's run tight. We do not tolerate any insurrection. You follow orders and stay out of trouble and you'll find that the time will pass a whole lot more pleasantly," he said, delivering his well-memorized speech for new inmates.
"Warden " Chris said, glancing at the name on the building, "Wilton, my friend's hurt. He needs to see a doctor."
Wilton's eyes narrowed as he looked at Tanner. The man's grey complexion, hunched shoulders, and wheezing breath suggested that Larabee was telling the truth. "What's wrong with him?"
"It might be a concussion," Ezra volunteered. "We were in an automobile accident, and he has the right to be seen by a physician."
Wilton grunted. It wouldn't do to have Keagan's and Mahoney's fun interrupted, for any reason. Glancing past the three ATF agents to the guards, he said, "Tork, take him over and have Dr. MacKenzie take a look at him. Red, put these other two in isolation."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Red escorted Chris and Ezra to one of the smaller mystery buildings near Building A. Stepping inside the small structure, they were all struck by stale, hot air. The deputy gestured Chris into one tiny cell and Ezra into another, leaving an empty cell between them.
Another guard entered, tossing a pair of light blue overalls into each cell. "Put 'em on," he growled. "Shove everything out through the window. Hold anything back and you'll be breakin' rocks."
Red slammed the solid metal doors shut, sealing both men into a silent, oppressive darkness. The guard opened small six-inch by six-inch windows at eye-level in the doors, taking their clothes and belonging, and then left.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin stumbled into the dark, cool building and slumped down into one of the two plastic chairs in a small, stark waiting room. He clutched the chair arms, squeezing them as his throat began to tighten again. His left arm trembled and he tried to bear down on his grip, but the muscles refused to obey, his hand slipping off the plastic.
"Hey, Doc!" the deputy called.
A young woman entered from another room. "What is it, Tork?" she asked, her gaze flickering from the leering guard to Vin and back again.
"Says he's hurt. Take a look. We'll be back for him later." With that the deputy turned and left.
The doctor crossed to Vin. "Do you think you can make it back here so I can take a look?" she asked, helping Vin to stand.
"Think so," he said thickly. "Feel kinda sick."
"Okay, we'll just go easy." She slipped an arm around his waist, which had him flinching away.
"Ribs," he gulped.
"All right," she said, guiding him by the arm as he shuffled into the treatment room where she helped him climb carefully onto the examination table.
He sat, glancing around the room. The infirmary wasn't exactly state of the art; in fact, it looked more like a kitchen with a sink, stove, and refrigerator. But there was some medical equipment scattered across the counters as well. Glancing through the door to the small waiting area where he had been, he realized that there were bars on the only windows and multiple locks on the door.
"What happened?" the woman asked, stepping up to him with a blood pressure cuff and a stethoscope.
"Almost got hit by a truck on the highway, our Ram rolled over," he said through gritted teeth as she helped him lie down on the table. "Now my ribs hurt an' I got a headache that won't quit. Dizzy, too, an' m' stomach's tryin' t' crawl up m' throat."
"Okay, just relax and I'll have a look," she assured him, raising the head of the examination table to help ease his nausea. She retrieved a small rolling table and placed a silver kidney-shaped basin on it. "If you get nauseous"
He watched as she took his blood pressure, checked his pulse and respiration, then lifted his shirt and checked his ribs. She wasn't exactly what you could call pretty, but there was something captivating about her appearance. Her light, reddish-brown hair was cut boyishly short, and she had pale, jade-green eyes set above high, prominent cheekbones. Her angular-shaped eyes were almost too big for her heart-shaped face and gave her a startled-doe kind of look. Too-large pale-blue coveralls hid her figure, but her touch was light, efficient, and caring.
She paused to make notes on a sheet of paper attached to a clipboard, then said, "It looks like you have a couple of bruised ribs, although they might be fractured. There's definite tenderness and swelling of the overlaying tissue. Does it hurt when you breathe?"
He nodded. "Some."
"I'm going to take an x-ray, just to be sure."
Vin lay still as she rolled the portable machine over, set up the film and took the picture of his ribs, then one of his head as well. Finished, she pushed the machine back to its corner, saying, "I don't want to bind your ribs unless I have to. It makes you breathe shallowly and that can lead to pneumonia. I know it'll hurt, but the best thing you can do is take several deep breaths while you're pressing against the injured ribs. Do it three or four times a day for several minutes."
"Okay, Doc," he agreed, then offered, "M' name's Vin. Vin Tanner."
"Megan MacKenzie," she supplied blandly, without looking at him.
"Work here long?" he asked as she used a penlight to check his pupils.
"Guess it's against the rules to talk to the doctor, huh?" he rasped.
She paused, meeting his gaze, and he could see her trying to decide how much to trust him. "Mr. Tanner, I'm a prisoner here, just like you. And after a while you'll learn, like I have, that it's better not to get involved with the other inmates."
She walked away, gathering several items onto a tray that she then carried back and set on the wheeled table. "It looks like you might have a concussion, too," she said, cleaning the laceration along the side of his head. "Still dizzy?"
"Comes 'n' goes."
"Yeah," he said emphatically. "That's been pretty constant."
"Do you remember the accident?"
"Sorta, but it's more like a dream. I remember bits 'n' pieces, but 'm not sure if it's what really happened or not."
She nodded. "That's not unusual. You need to rest for a day or two, long enough to make sure there's no bleeding or swelling between the skull and the brain. I'll speak to Warden Wilton. I have one bed here you can use."
She walked over and retrieved the developed x-rays. Sliding them under a metal clip, she turned on the backlight to illuminate it. "Looks like you're lucky. No broken ribs, just bad bruises. And no skull fracture either."
"Guess that's somethin'."
"Around here, it's more than something. Do yourself a big favor, Mr. Tanner. Don't draw attention to yourself, and don't piss off the guards. They enjoy inflicting pain on the inmates and you're not up to that, not yet."
As the room tilted slightly, Vin grabbed for the edges of the exam table and snorted. "Guess 'm not."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Red stalked into the infirmary an hour later. "Hey, Doc, where's Tanner?"
"In here," Megan called from the treatment room.
The deputy tramped in, scowling. "All right, Tanner, let's go."
"Go?" she echoed, stepping up to the side of the treatment table. "But he can't leave, not yet."
Red shook his head. "My orders say different, Doc," he growled at her. He threw a pair of pale-blue overalls at Vin, the sharpshooter catching them with a fumbling gesture. "Get 'em on and let's go."
"Look," she tried again, "he has a concussion. He needs to rest for"
"Take it up with the Warden," Red snapped, the hard edge to his voice forcing her to take a step back.
"Fine," she breathed, turning away.
Sitting up, Vin watched Megan leave the room. Despite her claims about not wanting to get involved, she still had a professional ethic, if not an ability to care. Sliding to the floor, the sharpshooter stepped out of his clothes as quickly as he could and pulled on the overalls.
Dressed again, he started for the door. The guard gave him a shove as he passed and Vin stumbled outside, the landscape tilting dangerously. Grabbing Tanner's arm, Red escorted the ATF agent to one of the outbuildings, pushing him into the empty cell between Chris and Ezra.
Red slammed the metal door shut and Vin flinched as the sound echoed in the small space. In the cool darkness, he sank down to the cement floor and drew his knees up, resting his forehead on them. His skull pounded, his chest burned, his shoulder and hip were starting to ache, and he wanted to throw up. "Shit," he muttered aloud.
Lifting his head, he looked around, but the darkness made it impossible to make out anything. I should've listened, he chastised himself. I should've listened t' m' gut. Wonder where Chris 'n' Ezra are. Hope they're all right.
Thursday, 6 p.m.
Michael Keagan, Lonnie Mahoney, and Dr. Devlin Matthews sat at a corner table, enjoying their dinner at Woverton's nicest restaurant. Around them, the café buzzed with customers.
Matthews savored another bite of his roast beef, then took a sip of the strong coffee. "I've skimmed the files and Warden Wilton called me earlier. It seems Tanner's hurt. The doctor thinks he might have a concussion. This is going to be much easier than I anticipated."
"What do you have in mind?" Mahoney asked, finishing off his meal and pushing the plate back.
"Tanner's the weakest link right now. We'll use his death to break the other two."
"How?" Keagan demanded, leaning over the table slightly, his dark eyes flashing. "I want details, Matthews. Those bastards are responsible for my brother's death. For us being fugitives. I want to hear, exactly, how they're going to suffer."
The behavioral psychologist chewed another bite, nodding. "Fine, fine, Michael, you want details, I'll give you details. We'll start by having the guards focus their attention on Tanner, wear him down. He's already hurting, so it'll be more obvious and heighten the protectiveness in the other two. If Larabee and Standish try to interfere, Tanner will pay the price. They'll back off, of course, wanting to spare him, and Tanner will feel abandoned. Once we create a wedge between them "
"I think I like the sound of this, Devlin," Keagan interrupted, glancing at his partner.
Mahoney shrugged. He would have preferred to have killed the seven bastards from Team Seven, but Keagan had other ideas and he'd gotten used to letting Keagan make the decisions.
Dr. Matthews smiled. "I thought you might, Michael." He sipped his coffee again. "But this is contingent upon Tanner being able to survive anything long term. If not, Larabee and Standish will watch him die rather quickly, and then we'll be forced to start on them " He paused, regarding Keagan and Mahoney momentarily before continuing. "If you don't mind me asking, what exactly was the relationship between these men and your brother?" Noting the dark look that crossed Keagan's face, he added hastily, "It might help me prepare their treatment."
Keagan drew a deep breath and nodded. "My brother was involved in some questionable, activities, shall we say?"
"Lonny and I were helping him and somehow Larabee caught wind of it. These seven assholes set my brother up to get at us, and in the process Johnny was killed by Tanner. Mahoney and I are fugitives, and most of the money we'd set aside for our retirement has been seized by the government. It's payback time."
"Yes, it's as they say," Matthews said, nodding.
"Yeah, payback's a bitch," Mahoney chuckled.
The psychologist's eyebrows rose slightly. "I was actually thinking of the old saying that revenge is a dish best served cold."
Keagan shook his head. "You have it your way, I'll have it mine. Besides, just thinking about these guys makes my blood boil. And when we're done with these three, there are four more to go."
"Well, then, I'll go make a call," Matthews said. "We might as well get the ball rolling."
Keagan nodded, a heinous grin curling his lips. Mahoney just grunted and shoved a piece of his apple pie into his mouth.
Thursday, 7 p.m.
Vin jumped when his cell door creaked open. He looked up, squinting against the raw glow from the bare lightbulb that hung in the hall outside.
"Let's go, Tanner."
Vin stood, wondering if he was being taken to eat. Despite his surly stomach, he was hungry, and as he stepped out of the cell he realized that he hadn't eaten in almost twenty-four hours. A milkshake sounds good, he thought as he was grabbed by the arm and shoved roughly outside.
Red led Tanner across the dusty compound to what looked like a small outhouse. Several other inmates passed them by, their heads down, eyes averted.
"Inside," the guard snapped, gesturing to the structure.
Vin reached for the handle, but Red stepped in front of him, forcing the sharpshooter to stop.
Tanner sighed heavily, in no mood to play games with the man. "Y' want me in or not?"
Red grinned. "Nice friends you've got, Tanner," he chuckled.
Vin refused to respond.
"Larabee and Standish they're pretty smart."
Vin's eyes narrowed, but he still refused to reply.
"They traded you, pigeon."
"Don't know what you're tryin' t' pull"
"They traded you. It was you or them out here for the night, and they said you. Guess we'll get to do whatever we want with you, pussy, and they'll get it easy. That's the way it works in here them on top gets it easy, provided they've got something to trade. Your friends traded you."
"Like hell," Vin hissed.
Red shrugged. "Believe whatever you want," he said. "You'll see." He shoved Tanner into the small metal box and padlocked the door shut.
Inside, Vin examined his new lodgings. He guessed the shed was about three feet by five feet cramped by any definition. The walls were corrugated metal sheeting that would absorb the heat during the day and the cold at night. An A-shaped frame at the top of the structure was covered with the same metal, but a foot high opening about eight feet up allowed air to circulate through the enclosed space. A man wouldn't suffocate inside, but he might wish he could.
Leaning back against a still-warm wall, Vin slid down slowly to the concrete slab that served as a floor, trying to minimize the jarring to his head. He couldn't stretch his legs out, but he could settle down, and he knew he needed the rest. His head continued to pound, his ribs still ached, and his stomach seemed to be in a permanent state of revolt. Resting his head in the corner, Vin licked his thick lips and wished for a cold glass of water. A moment later, dry heaves forced him over onto his hands and knees.
It was going to be a very long night and he hoped it was going better for Chris and Ezra, and that they were coming up with a plan to get them out of here.
Friday, 8 a.m.
Chris squinted against the bright morning sunlight and watched as Ezra was pulled out of his isolation cell. Together they were led to the Mess Hall for breakfast and then herded outside to stand with the rest of the prisoners, who were also filing out of the Mess Hall. He sighed. The situation had a vague echo to his bootcamp days, but at least there he'd known the drill instructors were trying to teach him how to stay alive in combat. This is more like being a P.O.W.
He glanced around. Where the hell is Vin? he wondered. Why haven't they brought him out yet?
Maybe his injuries were worse than I thought.
Maybe the doctor kept him in the infirmary.
Yeah, that would be the best-case scenario at this point.
The men continued to line up while another guard stalked out from the Mess Hall. Tall, with almost snow-white hair, the man radiated a coldness that immediately raised Chris's hackles. "Line up!" he commanded from a foot in front of Larabee's nose.
Chris did what he was told, knowing that any resistance would just open the door to punishment, and that wouldn't help them to escape.
"Now!" the man barked to the rest of the men, pacing along the line of inmates. "We haven't got all day, ladies!"
Chris kept his eyes focused straight ahead, hoping Ezra would do likewise. He blinked, sweat already running down his temples. It was going to be a hot day on the plains.
The rest of the inmates quickly fell into formation, their continuing silence eerie. Several guards kept watch over them, prowling the lines, shotguns in their hand. And still no sign of Vin.
Chris sucked in a deep breath, knowing he was about to tempt fate, but still said, "Excuse me, sir, but where's my friend? Vin Tan"
The tall, white-haired man whipped his billyclub from the ring on his belt, driving one end into Chris's midsection. Larabee doubled over, clutching his abdomen and sucking in great gulps of air.
"No talking," Ice said flatly.
Red walked down the line, stopping when he reached Ezra. He grabbed the sleeve of the man's overalls, yanked him out of line and led him away without a word.
"Unhand me!" Ezra yelped, but one threatening glare from the burly man silenced any further comments.
Forcing himself to straighten, Chris watched Red escort Ezra across the compound to the infirmary. Maybe he'll see Vin, he thought, but that notion died when a wiry, blond guard walked over to what Larabee realized was a sweat box, pounding on it with his billyclub for several seconds. Then, grinning, he unlocked the door and reached inside, dragging Tanner out.
Chris almost took a step forward when his friend crawled out and promptly threw up in the dirt. The guards laughed, and Blondie reached down, jerking Vin to his feet.
One arm pressed against his ribs, Vin shuffled over to stand in line with the other prisoners.
"Okay, listen up, ladies," one of the guards barked. "Green, Larabee, Vickers, you're on clean-up. McBride, Price, Tanner, Wilson rock pile. The rest of you, out to the fields."
The announcement hit Chris like a second blow from Ice's billyclub. You goddamn bastards, he thought. He's hurt! Can't you see that?
He watched the sharpshooter step out of line along with the other three men. Vin looked terrible, his face drawn, skin sallow. Dark circles clung under his eyes and pain radiated from his hunched shoulders and compressed lips. Red gave Tanner a rough shove and he stumbled forward, not even bothering to glare at the guard.
Ice gave Chris a nudge. "Come on," he said, jerking his head to the side. He and the two other men followed the guard away.
Risking a quick glance over his shoulder, Chris managed to catch Vin's gaze and they exchanged furtive nods. Damn, he thought. What the hell are we going to do? He sighed heavily. For the moment there was nothing they could do except wait, and survive.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Ezra was shoved into the coolness of the infirmary. He found it hard to believe that it was already getting hot outside, and it wasn't even mid-morning. He blinked to let his eyes adjust to the dim light inside the building and then looked around.
"And just what, exactly, am I supposed to do here?" he asked the young guard who had escorted him to the building.
"Whatever the doc tells you, pigeon."
"I'll take over now, Craig."
Ezra turned, surprised to find a young woman standing in a doorway, her hands on her hips.
"Okay, Doc, but you keep him in here. Understand?"
"I understand," she said simply, nodding toward the door.
Craig turned and left the two alone.
The woman moved to the window, watching to be sure the guard had actually left before turning to face Ezra. "Whatever you do, don't get Craig mad at you. He might look like a teenager, but the man's a sadist. He likes to hurt people and if you give him an excuse, he'll hurt you, bad."
Ezra nodded. "Thank you for telling me, Doctor ?"
"Doctor is fine," she replied. "Come back here, I'll show you what to do."
He followed her into a treatment room. "Doctor, I believe you treated my friend yesterday Vin Tanner?"
"Yeah, I saw him," she said, pulling out a metal bucket, gloves, and a scrub brush from under the sink.
"Is he all right?"
Twisting the faucet, she let the bucket fill with hot water. "No."
Ezra moved closer, glancing around the room. Could they be watched? Listened to? "Could you tell me what's wrong with him? Is it a concussion? Will he be all right?"
She turned the water off and lifted the bucket out, carrying it over to the stripped treatment table. Walking over to a cabinet, she removed a bottle of disinfectant and returned to the bucket, pouring in a cup full. She replaced the disinfectant in the cabinet.
"Concussion," she said with a sigh. "Bruised ribs."
"Why isn't he being kept in here? A concussion"
"Please, call me Ezra," he interrupted.
She sighed. "Fine, Ezra. I'm a doctor, but I don't work here. I'm a prisoner, just like you are. I do what they tell me, and they told me to examine your friend. I did. What they do to him, or why, isn't my business. And if you're smart, you won't make it yours either."
"I'm afraid I can't do that. He's my friend. My"
"Scrub this table down every inch. I have to get my paperwork caught up."
She turned and started for her small office, Ezra scrambling to block her path. "Wait, Doctor, please, if he's hurt"
"Mr. Standish, there's nothing we can do," she insisted, her voice dropping. "If you want to help your friend, then do what you're told and stay alive. And my name's Megan MacKenzie" With that she brushed past the man and escaped into her doorless office. "Call me when you're done," she instructed, then sat down at her desk, ignoring him.
Ezra turned back to the table and bucket, but found himself wandering back to the tiny waiting area. He stared outside, spotting Vin standing near the far end of the line, his shoulders pinched and his head down. He was obviously hurting and Ezra wished he could do something to help him. Chris stood at the opposite end of the line, looking healthy, but concerned. Standish continued to watch as the men were herded off in three different directions, then turned back to the treatment room and the task waiting for him.
Friday, 11:30 a.m.
Vin concentrated on the job at hand, carrying cantaloupe-sized rocks from the site where two of the inmates broke them up to a row of waiting wheelbarrows. The fourth man pushed the full wheelbarrows from the site to the men conducting clean-up of the grounds so they could use the rocks to line flower and garden beds at the Warden's home, walkways, and rings around the various trees scattered across the facility grounds.
Each trip was an ordeal for Vin. His arms were weak and shaky, forcing him to cradle each stone against his chest as he staggered from the rock pile to the wheelbarrow. As the morning wore on the trips grew harder and harder as muscle cramps began in his arms, then spread to his back and legs, making each step an agonizing trial. When the pain grew too severe his stomach rebelled and he stopped to throw up. Whenever that happened, the guards quickly descended on him, pushing him, slapping him, forcing him onto his feet and back to work. White and yellow spots exploded in front of his eyes, but he didn't pass out.
After a few hours the clean-up detail shifted and Vin could see Chris as he worked, whitewashing a picket fence that edged the Warden's front lawn. Not for the first time he wished he was there, helping his friend. Really got ourselves in a fix this time, Cowboy, he silently told Chris. Just hope we c'n find a way out, an' soon.
Vin dropped another rock into the wheelbarrow and wiped the back of a shaking hand across his forehead. His head throbbed painfully and he realized he was flinching slightly with every heartbeat that shot pain through his skull. He tried to draw a deep breath, but his ribs burned with an insistent fire that flared agonizingly each time he bent down to heft another rock. Damn 'm gettin' soft, he chided himself.
He guessed he'd been working for less than four hours, but it was already gruelingly hot. It was hard to imagine what it would be like in the afternoon, when the heat would be at its peak. They had been promised water at noon, and that thought motivated him to continue.
Licking his dry, cracked lips, Vin forced all other thoughts away, concentrating only on the seventeen steps that carried him from the wheelbarrow back to the rock pile.
He stumbled as his calves cramped again and a guard was there, giving him a shove with the butt of his shotgun. "Move it, pigeon," the man snarled.
Vin ground his teeth together and forced himself to take the remaining three steps to the rock pile. Bending, he grabbed another stone and tried to straighten, but his muscles refused, beginning to tremble uncontrollably. He dropped to his knees, the cramps twisting his leg muscles into small, excruciating knots. He released the stone, grabbing at his legs, groaning.
The guard roughly shoved his shoulder. "Get up, pussy," he growled.
Vin tried, but his legs refused to move. Ah hell, he thought, they're gonna kill me
The guard grabbed Vin's overalls, screaming, "I said, get up! Get up, you shit! Get the fuck up!"
Vin nodded, forcing himself onto his hands and knees.
"Get up, asshole! Now!" the guard screamed, slamming the butt of his shotgun into Vin's shoulder.
The sharpshooter blinked, his vision blurring. Where 'm I? What the hell's goin' on?
The guard grabbed Vin's overalls again, pulling him up. This time, Vin managed to regain his feet, but swayed dangerously as he tried to meet the guard's gaze. Sweat poured off his forehead, nearly blinding him.
"Get movin', asshole!" the guard snarled, using the butt of his shotgun to push Vin forward.
Tanner shuffled closer to the rocks, panting shallowly. He bent over and grabbed the next rock, snugging it close to his chest while his arms shook uncontrollably.
"Move, damn it!"
Vin turned and tried to focus on the wheelbarrow. Seventeen steps. Just seventeen steps. One two three four five
He pitched forward, collapsing.