"Sorry, Larabee. Orders from Summerton."
"I understand." Chris didn't fight the cops, who couldn't help this anymore then he could, when he was not just handcuffed, but really put into the irons this time. His hands, chained in front of him, were linked to a chain around his middle and shackles were put around his ankles. It made him feel uneasy; this was the way criminals were secured when they were transported, to court for instance.
Was Summerton finally charging him and had he already managed to get it in front of a court? It seemed strange, but Chris decided to be prepared for the worst.
It was hard to walk with a chain between his legs, forcing him to take small steps. Besides, the damn things were heavy. He ignored the laugher and catcalls from the two inmates who had been trying to rile him up from day one, but the guard who had come with the two police officers yelled angrily, "You just wait! The cops to bring you your irons are already on their way and then you'll be going to a real prison, where you won't have so many airs."
"They are finally leaving?"
"Yep," the guard said. "Convicted, both of them, and soon to be escorted to prison for many, many years. But it won't be quiet for long. We already have two new ones in the interrogation rooms and someone who's still on transport here."
"At least those two clowns will be gone."
The guard grinned. "Ain't that a fact. Good luck with Mister Sour Kraut."
Chris grinned back. He decided he liked the nickname, it suited that bastard Summerton. Two soft chuckles on either side of him told him the cops felt the same way. He wondered what an asshole Summerton had made of himself to have so many cops dislike him. Probably the man had just been his unlovely self.
Soon they stopped before an interrogation room and Chris was ushered inside. Summerton was already waiting. An unpleasant smile came on his face the moment he saw Chris heavily bound in chains.
"Why don't you take a seat, Larabee?"
"That's Commander Larabee to you."
"I don't think so, not for long anyway. All right, if you prefer to do this standing." Summerton rose from his seat behind the table and activated the tape with a fast flick of his hand.
"Christopher Adam Larabee, I hereby arrest you for the murder of James Best, who was shot two times in the heart. You have the right to remain silent. If you give up that right, anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney and to have an attorney present during questioning. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided to you at no cost. During any questioning, you may decide at any time to exercise these rights, not answer any questions, or make any statements."
The cold, grey eyes never left his face and Chris made sure none of his emotions showed. His throat had gone dry. Despite the fact he had expected this for the past two days, it still was a shock to be charged officially and hear his rights being read to him.
"Any questions?" Summerton asked with a nasty smirk.
"When will my lawyer be here?"
"You mean that agent of yours who tried to get in here at the first day of your incarceration, or a real lawyer?"
"He is a real lawyer, he's my lawyer and he should be told."
"He will be, he will be. But first you will be escorted elsewhere. It has been brought to my attention you should have been housed in a federal facility."
So... he really was going to be transported.
"Why now? And which federal facility?"
"Don't worry. I'm sure they will let you contact your lawyer from there and you can tell him. Let's go." Summerton came forward and grabbed one of Chris' arms. Chris tried to pull himself free, but Summerton only tightened his hold.
"Are you resisting, Larabee?"
"Let go, you asshole. I can walk by myself just fine."
"Careful, Larabee, or you'll be charged with offending an officer of the law as well."
Chris bit his lip. It was hard not to make a scathing remark, but the last thing he needed was any extra problems. What he did need, was to get out and get home, to his children. He knew things were going well, he could feel it from Vin. All he had to do was stay out of trouble and wait until they came for him. So all he did was give Summerton a confident smirk, the one he knew drove people up the wall.
Summerton's face distorted to an ugly mask and he tightened his grip on Chris' arm even further. Then he shoved Chris forward through the door, not giving the blond a change to adjust his steps to the chain between his legs.
The two cops who had escorted him were still hovering around and their faces showed their disapproval when they saw Chris being shoved outside, the only thing keeping him from falling Summerton's iron grip. One of them stepped forward, but Summerton held up his hand.
"You two are no longer needed. I'll escort this prisoner myself to where the car is waiting. Come on." A savage yank made Chris almost go down again, a curse escaping him when he realized he wouldn't even be able to break a fall, chained as he was.
Walking through the hallways of the precinct all bound up in chains was a sobering experience. Chris stared back defiantly at everyone who looked at him while Summerton dragged him along, one of his men following them, but he still hated to be seen like this. Relieved he stepped outside into the small parking lot filled with patrol cars. Two vans were waiting, with cops all around them. Chris was pushed almost into their arms, while Summerton's agent handed over some papers to the eldest of them. Then, without a word, Summerton left, his agent immediately following him.
The elderly cop studied the papers and nodded. "Get him in that van and make sure he's secure, he seems to be a dangerous one, needing some special treatments."
Chris was shoved into the van and chained to his seat. A few minutes later one of the two inmates who had been taunting him was put inside as well. It gave Chris an uneasy feeling and suddenly he was sure Summerton was up to something. Before he could ask anyone anything the rear door of the van was slammed shut and they were on their way.
The second man in the van laughed hatefully. Chris half turned around to give the bastard his meanest grin. The man blanched and looked uncertain for a moment. Then the smirk was back. "Seems like you and I are going to the same prison after all, Pretty. I think we'll have plenty of time to try out some of the things we discussed in those police jails."
The same prison? The sinking feeling inside his stomach intensified. This man wasn't talking about a federal facility at all, he was talking about the real thing. This couldn't be right.
He leaned forward and yelled through the wired part between him and their guards, until one of them looked back in annoyance.
"Where are we going?"
"You know where you're going, Doyle. Colorado State Penitentiary."
"Doyle? I'm not Doyle!"
The other prisoner started to laugh, a hateful laugh, meant to hurt.
"Jimmy, Jimmy, you trying to pull everybody's leg again?"
Chris glared at the man and then turned back to the cops in the front.
"I'm telling you, I'm not Doyle! I'm Chris Larabee. There must've been made a mistake."
"A mistake?" The police officer turned to the other prisoner. "You seem to know him."
"Hell yeah, me and Doyle spent four days in next-door cells, it creates a little bond, eh, Jimmy?"
"Stop that! Tell them who I am!"
The man frowned. "You said Jimmy Doyle, that's all I know, mate. We weren't exactly that chummy."
"You bastard!" Chris turned his focus back on the police officer. "I swear I'm not this Jimmy Doyle. I'm Chris Larabee, I was supposed to be transported elsewhere."
"Sure you are." The man turned straight again. "The things they make up," Chris heard him say against the cop driving the car. "We better warn the Penitentiary to be careful with this one and that he's full of crap."
"You checked his papers?"
"I did," the third one said, "and they were all legit, nothing wrong there."
"I'm telling you there has been made a mistake!" Chris yelled again.
"If there is, I'm sure someone will sort it out. Now shut the hell up and let us do our job. We're late as it is; State Penitentiary closes at six and you two need to be in there by then."
Oh God. Chris' stomach made a steep drop when it hit him he was going to prison right now, as someone else and with an inmate who knew who he really was, what he was. 'Closes at six'... he knew what that meant. No one going in, no one going out until the next morning; it was an extra safety precaution. The eager anticipation he saw on the other inmate's face told him he had better convince the people at the prison who he really was. He didn't think he would survive a single night there with the other man telling everyone inside that he was an agent.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra looked on in amusement as Kelli jumped the young doctor who had treated Drake Dwyer and who had been less then helpful.
"Doc, can we finally see Dwyer?"
"Miss, I have told you before, he is a patient and I won't let you harass him. Right now Mister Dwyer needs to rest."
"That's officer to you, mister, or Agent Coulter, whichever you prefer. Come on, the arrestee was only nicked a bit in the leg. I know, I'm the one who shot him. So, let us do our job and interrogate him."
"Yóu shot him?"
"He did try to escape."
Ezra stood up and walked over to the pair. "My partner had no choice, since this man is wanted in a murder case as well as for selling drugs. Luckily for him she is an excellent shot. Now, can we finally see him?"
"I... I think I better check with someone." The young man practically fled and Kelli let out a huff of frustration.
"Where ever did they find this one, I wonder? I'm gonna get us a doctor with some insight."
"No need," a familiar voice said behind them. "Hello Kelli, Ezra. How are you two? I heard about Chris, how is he holding up?"
"As well as can be expected," Ezra answered doctor Landers. "We are keeping everything as much out of the media as we can. He doesn't need any more exposure after the tabloids had a field day about Linda's departure."
Doctor Landers shook his head sadly. "I still have a hard time imagining she could leave him and their two beautiful children. But I know that's not what you wanted to talk about. The suspect is in here?" When Ezra and Kelli nodded, he opened the door and preceded them. "Alice," he told the nurse, "these two police officers need to speak with the patient. Will you keep an eye on him?"
Ezra cursed softly when he saw how alert the patient was and hastened over to the bed, to firmly handcuff the man to the bedrail.
"You have no right...." Dwyer yelled.
"Mister Dwyer, I have every right. Why in heaven's name did you run from us? We were not there for drugs, as you well know we are investigating a murder. Could we not have handled things a bit more civilly, so we wouldn't be here right now?"
"What are you talking about? I didn't run from you two, I eh... I was exercising. And I didn't have any drugs on me."
Ezra rolled his eyes, but was distracted when the door opened and a nurse came inside. "Is an Agent Coulter in here?"
"Yeah, that's me," Kelli answered.
"A Captain Tanner called and asked for you."
"Hell. Ezra, I'll be right back. Don't start without me."
"I wouldn't dream of it." Ezra sat down in the chair beside their prisoner. "Exercising," he snorted. "That must be the lamest excuse I have ever heard in my long time career as a law enforcer. And believe me, I have heard a good many. Whatever made you decide running was a good idea? All it did was make me loose my breath, not to mention my temper. Do you reprobates never learn that eventually you will get caught anyway?"
"You... you had no right. You have nothing on me."
"Ah, well... that is to say... you did drop some interesting items on your way through that hellishly filthy alley." Ezra put his hand in his pocket and pulled out a small pill bottle.
"You said it, my friend, you said it. There certainly was enough of it in that alley. Be glad you did not end up in it when my partner brought you down."
"She shot me! She just plain shot me!"
Ezra smiled benignly. "Yes, aren't you the lucky fellow. I had just made up my mind to shoot you myself and believe me, I would certainly have hit you in a much worse place. My friend Josiah would call it 'divine intervention' that she shot first."
"You... you're crazy."
"Me? I am the sanest person I have ever known. Hmm, actually, come to think of it, that isn't saying much as the people I know all are a bit, well, crazy. My mother first amongst them. I guess that should tell you something about my character as well." He grinned at Dwyer, which for some reason made the man cringe very satisfactorily.
The door opened and Kelli came back in with a determined look on her face.
"They found some blond hairs in the trunk of that fancy thing on wheels Thompson has. Bones has already started DNA analysis." She looked down at the prisoner. "He said anything?"
"Not much and certainly not something worthwhile. But then, you did ask me to wait for your return."
"I did, didn't I?" Kelli chewed her lower lip a second, but then seemed to shake herself mentally and looked at Dwyer.
"Why don't you tell us about Tuesday night again, Dwyer?"
"I... I don't know what you're talking about. I was with my friend, Wesley. We were at his house."
Ezra snorted. "While his prized car was at the scene of the crime of Mister Best's untimely demise? Do not try and deny it, we have proof."
"I don't know nothing about that!"
"You do know you are a main suspect in this murder case, don't you?" Kelli asked.
"Not to mention the drugging and kidnapping of a federal agent," Ezra added.
"Yeah. And you were the last person that agent saw. He remembers you very clearly. Gave us an apt description."
"He remembers you coming to him while he was at a bar, in a sports club, drinking some juice...."
"Juice you drugged. Which, incidentally, was seen by three witnesses as well."
"Yes, by three lovely ladies, all very willing to help us out. So, you see, it all points to you," Ezra concluded smugly.
Dwyer shook his head more and more in denial, while Ezra and Kelli piled their accusations on him.
"No! No! I didn't kill anyone! I didn't!"
"Are you willing to testify on that?"
"If... if you can get the charges for drugs dealing dropped."
"Ah...," Ezra sighed in delight. "A deal. Music to my ears. I can promise you we will never even charge you for dealing, we will totally forget about it, if you tell us what happened that night."
"I didn't kill anyone. I... I did put some drugs into that cop's drink like Wesley asked me to and I brought him out to the car. But I swear I didn't kill anyone. I didn't know what Wes was planning, honestly. He took the cop's car keys and made me get his truck, then he pushed James inside it. James wasn't doing very well, Wes had been hitting him and he was bound and gagged. Then we put the cop in the trunk of Wes' car. He hardly fit, but that stupid truck didn't have no trunk and we sure didn't want anyone to see him. Besides, Best had fitted as well. He looked a bit green when we pulled him out and could hardly move, but ...." His voice trailed off and he stared at the two agents in fear.
"Wasn't... wasn't my idea," he managed to get out.
With a conscious effort Ezra let go of his anger and put a hand on Kelli's rigid shoulder.
"Do go on."
"Well, eh... I drove the truck after Wes until he found a remote road in the mountains. There we pulled Best out and Wes made me untie him, take the gag out as well. Wes was holding the gun of this cop and Best started to plead, but Wesley... he... he simply shot him, twice. Best dr... dropped."
Dwyer wiped his face with his free hand and looked at them with huge, pleading eyes. "Wesley never said he was gonna kill Best, I swear! Then he told me to pull the cop out of the trunk. The guy was still out cold and we knew he would stay that way until the following morning, I made... made sure with the dosage. We placed him on the grass, a few meters from the road and Wes put the gun in his hand, put the cop's finger on the trigger and made him shoot another bullet at the stars. Then... then we left. That's it, that's just it. I didn't kill anyone, I really, honestly didn't."
Ezra and Kelli looked at each other.
"Are you willing to sign a statement?" Ezra asked.
"Yeah, yeah, I am."
"You do know you're doing this without a lawyer?"
"I know. I just... I know Wesley will try and make me take the fall. That's why I needed to get away, 'cause I just knew he would try. But I won't let him."
"Good. In that case I had better get my laptop out of my car, so I can type your confession."
"And I'll call Vin."
The two stepped outside.
"This was easy," Ezra said softly.
"Ezra, what was that about not charging him for drugs dealing? We couldn't charge him, he got rid of the evidence, remember?"
Ezra smiled and felt at his pocket where the small pill bottle he had loaned from a nurse without her knowing it yet, was still secure. "It isn't important, Kelli. The promise helped make him talk and he is going down for accessory to murder and the drugging and assault on an officer of the law. His small time dealing is nothing compared to that. Something tells me this Mister Dwyer isn't the brightest of men."
"Guess that's why Thompson had him around, muscles he could easily command. I'm gonna call Vin, you start typing."
"Why don't I call Vin and you start typing?"
"'Cause he's my husband," Kelli grinned, quickly stepping away. "See you soon."
Ezra sighed and shook his head. Then he went in search of his laptop.
"This one is full of crap. Tried to tell us he ain't Jimmy Doyle." Chris winced when he was unceremoniously hauled out of the transport van. He glowered at the police officer rough handling him.
"That's 'cause I'm not Doyle."
"The other one says you are. Why would he do that?" the cop sneered.
"I'm an agent and he knows that. He wants me inside."
One of the guards took the papers from the three cops and looked them over. "Seems okay," he told his three colleagues. "Jimmy Doyle, 6 foot 3, blond, beat his wife and kids to death in a fit of drunken rage."
"Jesus," Chris mumbled. He had known the man was bad news, but he hadn't expected this.
"Yeah, and it seems it wasn't the first time he hit them. Hit a bit harder and longer this time, didn't you, Doyle?"
"I swear I'm not him."
"Still telling tales, Jimmy?"
"And you are Richard Newark," the guard read. "Rapist, second time offender. So, you like it rough, boy?" The guard looked with distaste at the man. "I think you better keep a low profile in here, creep."
"Oh, shut up. Let's get them inside. Here, signed and well." The guard gave half of the papers back to the cops. "You want to drink some coffee before you go?"
"Nah, it's late as it is, thanks to the mistake of some pencil pusher. We just wanna go home."
"Listen, I'm not this Doyle!" Chris yelled, resisting the guard who was pushing him through the compound to the steel doors. "Damn it, it won't harm you to check things out! And get these chains off!"
He was slammed against the wall, the back of his head hitting the concrete hard. A big, red face came so close he felt the warmth of the man's sour breath. "Seems like you're going to be a troublemaker, aren't you? I'm warning you, we have our methods to handle men like you."
"Really?" Chris hissed, pushing his head forward so the other man had to pull back to avoid a collision. "Seems to me you're too stupid to handle even yourself."
He was slammed into the wall again. Pain flared through his head and suddenly his anger, barely held in check these past days by his despair, flared up in all its strength. With an angry yell he dove forward, right into the guard, his head slamming against the man's chin. Immediately two of the other guards were there and pushed him back against the cold concrete.
"Are you mad?" one of them bellowed. "You aiming for solitary confinement before you're even inside?"
"Ryan, you all right? Jesus, can't you even handle a heavily chained man anymore? You're getting soft, big guy."
Chris felt himself being pushed harder against the wall than was really necessary, he saw the enraged look on the face of the guard who was down and he heard Newark laugh. The bastard knew what Chris knew as well, he had just made sure these men wouldn't listen to him.
Then it reached him, the words 'solitary confinement'. When the burly guard he had downed came up with murder in his eyes, Chris used the fact the other two were holding him and kicked both feet forward, chain and all. He hit the guard square in the stomach.
"That's it. Stupid, crazy bastard, you're going down into solitary right now. Four days!"
While he was dragged away Chris grinned at Newark, who stared open mouthed and looked like a kid who had just been denied his candy.
+ + + + + + +
"That's it, I ain't taking anymore of this crap." Buck grabbed Summerton by the lapels of his jacket and rammed him against the wall.
"Buck!" Vin had been on the verge of doing the same, but he knew this could get Buck into trouble, trouble they didn't need right now.
"This bastard is going to tell us what he did. Where is Chris, you asshole?"
"I did nothing wrong. I did my job and this afternoon I charged him with murder."
"So - where - is - he!"
"He was transported to a federal facility. Your man who claimed he's a lawyer told me numerous times that is where Larabee should have been in the first place."
"And why didn't you tell us right away? Why all the stallin'?" Vin didn't like it. He felt panic coming from Chris, so he didn't believe for one moment what Summerton was telling him.
Damn it, Cowboy, ease up and let me know what's going on.
"I don't know what you are talking about. You are his agents and as such should not even be here. I keep telling you to leave this investigation alone or there will be repercussions and you keep ignoring me."
Vin stalked out of the office Summerton had confiscated and headed straight for the Chief of Police himself. Behind him he heard Buck follow. They walked right past a protesting secretary and Vin slammed the door of the Chief's office against the wall, hard. "Tell me about the prisoner's transports," he demanded.
"Eh, what?" The Chief of Police gave him a puzzled look. "Oh, you are Commander Larabee's men, aren't you? Well, you'll be pleased to know he has finally been taken to a federal facility, the one on Elm Avenue. I don't think they will try and keep you away from him there."
"You got their phone number?"
"Sure." The Chief reached for his intercom. "Susan, can you please give me the number of the Federal Bureau on Elm Street?"
A minute later Vin was cursing a blue streak, his phone almost ending at the wall. The Chief and Buck looked at him in surprise.
"Vin?" Buck asked. "Something wrong with Chris?"
"How the hell should I know? Damn Bureau was on the verge of calling here, because guess what? It wasn't Chris who arrived there, someone else did."
"What?" Buck asked, shocked.
The Chief of police rose behind his desk. "What did you say?"
"You heard me!"
"I... yes. Did they say who arrived in his stead?"
"One Jim Doyle."
"Oh, my God. There was another prisoner transport at the same time. Two men were sent to the high security facility of the Colorado State Penitentiary, one a rapist and the other a murderer who beat his wife and children to death. Jim Doyle. Both are mean men. One of the guards told me they continually tried to bait Commander Larabee while they were incarcerated here for their trial. He had to shut them up more than once and was getting very sick of them."
"Why would they do that, bait Chris?" Buck asked.
"Because he is an agent, off course. You know how criminals like it when a law enforcer goes down."
"You mean Chris is on that transport? With an inmate who knows he's an agent?" Buck yelled.
"Since I heard nothing about a missing prisoner and it was Doyle who arrived at the Federal Building instead of the Commander, I'm afraid a mix-up is the only explanation. Damn, this would never have happened if the transport of those two hadn't gotten delayed because of the stupidity of one of my Division Chiefs, Andrew Damek."
Anxious, needing to know where Chris was for sure, Vin closed his eyes and tried to let go of his emotions so he could reach Chris.
Cowboy? Where are you?
Something flashed through his mind, a feeling of pain and bruises. Chris was tense, very tense and Vin didn't like it. Then suddenly he briefly saw the image of a prison guard, before his head felt like it connected with hard bone.
He flipped open his cell phone. He knew enough.
"Justin? I need the chopper right now. Oh hell, Raphael's undercover... I need someone else to fly it."
He heard Justin yell to the others and muffled answers, then Josiah's voice came over the phone.
"What's wrong, Vin?"
"Josiah? We need the chopper, fast. We need to get to the Colorado State Penitentiary, Chris is there. Don't ask me how that's possible," he said right through Josiah's angry exclamation, "I don't know yet and I don't care at the moment. All I know is some kind of switch took place and we have to get him out. Get me someone to fly that chopper."
"I'll do it."
Shit, he had forgotten. Josiah had flown helicopters while in the army; in combat situations even. It wasn't something the profiler liked to talk about, but he had kept up his license.
It was the fastest way. "Fly to Civic Center Park, we'll meet you there. And give me Gunny."
Vin was already running, again not bothering to look if Buck followed. He knew his friend would be right behind him.
"Gunny? I need to speak to the warden of the Colorado State Penitentiary immediately. I don't care what he's doin', get him."
Buck was already opening the doors of his truck and was behind the wheel before Vin had set one foot inside. "Civic Center Park?" he made sure.
"Yeah, it's the closest place a chopper can land, just a few blocks away. Josiah will put the chopper down there."
Buck left with screeching tires. "Josiah?"
"Raphael's undercover, remember."
"But Josiah hasn't flown in a long time."
"He kept his flight hours up, so he's qualified enough. Gunny? Have you reached him? Wait." Vin took out a small notepad and a pen. "Alright, shoot. Yeah... yeah... got it. I repeat...."
He disconnected and dialed the number she had given him. He was put on hold twice, despite Gunny's preliminary work, making him almost scream in frustration, before he finally had the man himself on the line.
"Warden, I'm Captain Vin Tanner of special unit MCAT. I believe you have one of our agents in your prison, Chris Larabee, our Commander. He arrived late this afternoon and...."
"I am sorry, Mister Tanner," a smooth voice told him. "No one has arrived with that name. Only two prisoners arrived this afternoon from Denver and they were...."
"Jim Doyle, a murderer and Richard Newark, a rapist. Yeah, I know. There's been made a switch somehow, Doyle is in reality Commander Larabee of the special law enforcement unit MCAT."
"Really? How unfortunate. This man...."
"Just keep him safe until we arrive, we'll be there shortly. He's a law enforcer, he can't be placed inside your prison."
"Until you arrive? Captain, I am sorry, but safety protocols make it impossible to open the prison after six p.m. and I'm afraid that is in ten minutes."
"I don't care, I'm gettin' our man out now and you better not try and stop me if you wanna keep your job."
"Are you threatening me, Captain?" The voice was decidedly cool now.
"You refuse to get an innocent man out of that hellhole of yours right now, damn straight I'm threatenin' you!"
"I am sorry you feel this way, Captain. We will sort this out and make sure your man is safe. You can come and get him tomorrow."
Vin swore when the connection was severed.
"What's up?" Buck's worried voice asked, but Vin didn't take the time to reply. He was already dialing for Orin Travis.
"There's the park."
"Get us in. Josiah already there?"
"No, not yet. He's gonna land here? So much for low profile...."
"Sir? It's Vin Tanner." Vin was already out of the truck, walking briskly towards the big field of grass, while he explained the situation to their director. When he was ready, Travis was as angry as he was.
"Don't worry, I will pull the necessary strings. You go and get him out. Oh, and Vin? I want a thorough investigation of Summerton's role in this. I don't believe for one second this switch was made accidentally. Not with a transport arriving so late at the prison it would be impossible to get Chris out before the night. It seems Summerton knew his game was over and grabbed the last chance he had to make Chris miserable a bit more."
"He played with Chris' life here!"
"I know, Son, I know. But he has seriously underestimated MCAT and what it can do. What do I hear?"
"It's Josiah with our helicopter, Sir. I have to go."
"Good luck, Vin. Get him out."
I will. Chris? You hear me? We'll get you out.
+ + + + + + +
Chris had been hauled inside, told to strip with enough men around to make sure he wouldn't be able to attack another guard and then told to shower. Ryan, the guard he had brought down, was right in the forefront of those watching him, his hateful eyes on him all the time.
There was nothing he could do about it, so Chris turned his back on them and ignored them all while he soaped and rinsed as quickly as possible. A towel was thrown his way, then a blue shirt and blue trousers. When he was dressed in the prison garb, his hands were cuffed behind his back and he was escorted by Ryan and another guard through endless hallways and numerous gates, while they followed Remark and his guards. For one agonizing moment Chris felt panic rise when it seemed they were entering the area with the normal prison cells. He mentally prepared himself to make another attack if he had too, to get into solitary confinement. They didn't enter though, just waited for Richard Newark and his guards to go through the heavily barred door, then veered away to a smaller, almost hidden hallway. This one ended at a row of closed, metal doors.
He felt a big hand grab his arm, then Ryan told the other guard "I 've got him, you open his new home for the next few days."
The door opened to a tiny cell with no windows and nothing but a hard bunk and a toilet bowl. The only reason Chris could see anything inside it was because of the one lamp in the ceiling, spreading a harsh, white light.
This wasn't going to be the most pleasant surroundings he ever spent the night in, but at least it would be safe. Besides, it wasn't the worst he'd ever been in either, not by a long shot. It was even an improvement over the open cells at the police station.
Ryan leaned forward, his sour breath once again warm against Chris' face. "I'm gonna make sure you pay for what you did to me, you bastard. No one will notice when I come for a visit tonight."
"You and what army?" Chris scoffed. "I already know you ain't man enough by yourself."
"Ryan, what are you doing? Stop that and get him in here. Jesus, you sure can be an asshole. You know what the Warden said about you hitting any more prisoners."
"This one deserves it."
"That's what you always say. Just get him in here and don't conveniently forget to take off his cuffs, I'll be checking."
"Sure, sure, Mike." Under his breath Ryan mumbled, "Asshole," while he pushed Chris inside the tiny cubicle. Before he took off the cuffs, he whispered. "Oh, I have plenty to make you bow down, pretty boy. Just you wait for me tonight, I'll make sure you'll never forget me."
The door shut behind him with a bang and Chris suddenly suspected he wasn't out of the woods just jet. He had the feeling Ryan had plans to make good on his threat. He looked around, trying to determine the best place to take a stance and defend himself if necessary. His conclusion was it didn't really matter where, the cell with its padded walls had nothing to offer him, so he set down on the bunk, determined not to sleep.
He knew Vin was on his way and he would be out of here soon, thank God. He was sure that if he really had to spend four days and nights in this tiny hole with nothing, absolutely nothing to distract him, he would slowly go crazy.
His stomach rumbled, but he didn't mind they hadn't given him any food. He knew the thirst would be worse.
Sooner than he anticipated, he heard someone at the door. Immediately he stood up, taking on a defensive posture, but it wasn't Ryan who appeared in the doorway. A man in a neat suit was staring at him from the door opening, two guards at his back.
"Agent Chris Larabee?"
"Yes," Chris said in relief. "Yes, I am. So one of your guards warned you about me after all?"
"No, they didn't and I will talk to them about it. A very rude individual phoned me and informed me of the switch in prisoners, followed by a telephone call of the highest authorities. Naturally I immediately went to find you, but luckily you were already in solitary confinement. We will have to talk about the reason you are in here. I can't let you get by with molesting one of my guards, no matter who you are."
"I had no choice. I couldn't go in there with the other prisoners. The second man they brought in knows I'm an officer of the law."
"I will take that in consideration. In the mean time I am very aware of the fact you are charged with murder, so the best thing seems to me to leave you in this cell. You are at least safe here."
"I don't think...." The door closed before Chris could finish his sentence. With a sigh he sat down on the bunk again. At least the others knew where he was; now all he had to do was wait.
He hoped they would be in time before this Ryan fellow would make good on his threat and landed him in more trouble for fighting a guard.
"Are they aware of our arrival?" Josiah asked. "I don't really like being shot at because they think we are a threat."
"Yes, they are. Travis made sure," Vin yelled back in his microphone. Damn, but helicopters were noisy. "Travis pulled some heavy strings and it paid off. Now that it's clear Chris was set up, Travis' boss wants him out of there as soon as possible, same as we all."
"They're too afraid Chris' temper will have him do something stupid," Buck shouted, laughter in his voice.
They were all feeling good, damn good. Dwyer had confessed, and when Thompson had been confronted with all the evidence, plus the betrayal of his friend he had cracked. Ezra had just let them know the news. Both men were indicted and Chris was officially a free man again.
At least he would be as soon as they got him out of this hellhole.
The helipad on one of the roofs was clear to see, illuminated by numerous lamps, and Josiah had no trouble landing. As soon as the helicopter touched down, armed men surrounded it. Vin came out with one hand held away from his body, the other holding up his ID for everyone to see. A man in a suit stepped forward.
"You are Captain Vin Tanner of MCAT?" He asked, yelling over the noise of the helicopter.
The man came closer and took a better look at the ID. He nodded, but didn't offer a hand. He clearly wasn't amused by the whole situation.
"If you would come with me, please."
Vin gestured to Josiah and the noise of the helicopter abruptly died down. He and Buck joined Vin, getting them disapproving looks from the Warden. The man didn't say anything though, just turned and left. With a shrug at each other they went after him, a few armed guards taking up the rear.
A long walk followed through the hallways of the prison. Numerous gates opened before and closed behind them, until Vin wanted to scream. He couldn't wait to get out of this gloomy place where the walls seemed to slant towards him, as if trying to make sure he never left again.
"Always depressing to be here," Buck murmured, voicing some of his own feelings.
Finally they went through a much smaller hallway then the others and ended in a corridor with five steel doors.
"Jesus, what is this place?" Buck asked. "Why are we here?"
"Your Commander was put into solitary confinement. Apparently he attacked a guard even while heavily chained. I don't see what is so amusing about that! He will have to face charges for it. Anyway, since this at least is a safe place for him, we thought... Captain Tanner?"
Vin had heard something, some muffled sounds coming from behind one of the doors, the door he had felt Chris behind and he was already running toward it.
"Open it," he yelled when the door wouldn't butch.
The Warden motioned to one of his guards, who hastily unlocked the heavy door and pulled it open.
Inside they saw something no one had expected. Chris was standing on the balls of his feet in a fighting pose at the back of the tiny cell, fists at the ready, while near the door a big, burly guard slowly climbed to his feet. The man was bleeding out of several wounds and moved as if he was in pain. While Chris' eyes had immediately flickered to the possible new threat coming through the door and at seeing Vin had switched his attention back to the other man, the guard didn't seem to notice anything but Chris. He roared and ran at him, beefy hands forwards, ready to grab his opponent and tear him in half.
Chris ducked, came in low, gave the man a series of punches to his midsection, came up suddenly and at the same time let his right fist connect solidly with the chin of the much heavier man.
The guard fell on his back with an ominous thud, while Chris danced away, his eyes never leaving his opponent.
"Damn," the guard who had opened the door said in awe. "He's fighting Ryan and he's not even breathing hard. Wow, I never thought I'd see Ryan go down like this."
"Having fun, Stud?" Buck grinned, leaning over Vin to have a good look. "You want us to come back later?"
"Nah, almost done," Chris said in a quiet, deadly voice, his eyes still on the man who was slowly getting on his feet again.
"How dare you? You attacked my guard again," the Warden yelled, looking incredulously at what was happening. "Guards, stop this!"
The three guards who had followed them were obviously reluctant to step forward. In fact, they were all wearing huge grins while looking at the battered body of their colleague. It gave Buck, Vin and Josiah plenty of opportunity to move themselves between the men and the door.
"He attacked me," Chris stated. His eyes had gone cold while he threw a look at the Warden. "Is this how you run your penitentiary? Have guards come in, armed, to beat up your prisoners?" He danced away smoothly from the groggy man who was swinging his arms around, trying to get at him. The man let out a roar of rage and once more simply charged, too far gone to be able to think about what he was doing.
Chris dropped to one knee and moved upward when the guard charged into him, lifting the heavy man up with his own momentum and throwing him over his shoulder in one fluent motion. A hard crack sounded and no one moved except for Chris, who again danced away, only stopping when he saw his enemy was out cold, his head cracked against the toilet bowl.
"That was no boxing move," Josiah said.
"Yeah, well, as much fun as it was, I'd rather go home," Chris told him, his voice still having that same quiet intensity. It worried Vin and he saw it worried the other two men as well.
"Let's go then," he said. His eyes met Chris' green ones and he didn't like what he saw in them. Chris merely nodded though, but before he came, he stooped down to pick up some things.
"What?" The Warden stepped forward, looking at the crumpled form on the floor. "Do you really expect me to just let this man leave after... after this? He clearly is dangerous and volatile!" He involuntarily stepped back when Chris walked up to him, only to bump up against Josiah.
Chris stopped before the man and handed him a small black box, followed by a strange looking whip and handcuffs. "Nothing can excuse this," he said softly, before pushing the man aside and stepping out of the cell.
"A stun gun." Josiah picked the small black box out of the hand of the stricken Warden. "And a powerful one at that, incapacitates its victim for several minutes. Enough to restrain him, wouldn't you say? Ah, and a rubber whip, made to hurt, but leaves no marks. I wonder how they got here?" He stepped away as well. The Warden looked at Vin, holding the items helplessly in his hands.
"I ain't gonna let this go," Vin said, trying to control his anger. "This man will be charged and the way you run your prison will be investigated. In the mean time all of this points to self defense on Commander Larabee's part, so I'd get off that high horse if I were you."
He shouldered the man out of his way and went to Chris.
"You all right?"
"Yeah. Bastard wasn't more dangerous than a big punching ball. Let's just leave."
I want to go home, Vin.
You got it, Cowboy.
+ + + + + + +
Chris had barely been able to contain his impatience while his clothes and belongings were gathered. There was relief on his face when he could change in his own clothes, even though they had gotten a bit ripe, as Buck helpfully pointed out.
None of them had thought of bringing spares, their minds on other things, like getting to Chris as fast as possible.
"Chris, you think Summerton deliberately made the switch?" Buck finally asked.
"Yeah. But I don't think that can be proved."
"Don't matter none," Vin said. "It's already decided to investigate him and we'll find a way to make this stick as well. We'll look into all of his actions, includin' how he got your case. Mallory found out he was the one who brought it to the attention of IA, almost as soon as the first police officers were at the crime scene."
Chris looked up from buttoning his shirt. "I was wondering how the murder victim, Best, got my phone number."
Chris' words made Vin pause. Damn, he hadn't even thought about that yet. Beside him Buck slapped his head. "Shit, that's true, how did he get it? It's not like we leave our numbers laying around, hell, we're not even in the phonebook anymore. You think he got it from Summerton? I guess the bastard could've found out, working for IA."
Chris shook his head. "I was thinking Best must've phoned a cop from the Denver PD first before he contacted me, it was the logical thing to do. And the police knows how to contact us."
"Makes sense, Stud", Buck nodded. "Someone with a grudge against you, like Summerton, although I still think he's got something to do with it as well. I don't like how he was on your case as quick as a tick in a New York minute." He laughed. "But God knows he sure ain't the only one who wants to bring you down a peg. It must be your winning personality. Look what a good friend you made here in just a few hours."
Chris stiffened and turned away, finishing getting dressed.
Damn, Vin thought, keeping his urge to kick Buck in check. He could understand how the last days had put Chris on edge, but it looked like this whole mess had gotten more to the man than Vin had expected.
Chris looked up and met his eyes. Vin nodded and grabbed the brown paper bag with Chris' possessions in it. "Let's hurry," he told the other two, while Chris was already walking out of the door.
In the helicopter Chris didn't say a word. His eyes were closed, but Vin knew his friend wasn't sleeping, not even close.
Chris? Talk to me.
Nothing to talk about. I just want to go home.
You were set up, Cowboy. Drugged and set up. Wasn't your fault.
Chris' head turned and the green eyes glared at him. "I just want to go home', he mouthed. Then he closed his eyes again and Vin knew nothing much would come out of Chris right now.
Not much later Josiah set the helicopter down at the special reserved spot on Larabee 7. Kelli was already waiting, Jason beside her, jumping up and down. When Vin exited, his son ran up to him and Vin scooped him up for a big hug.
"Dad, you're back, you're back!"
"And glad of it. I missed you, Son, but shouldn't you be in bed?"
Kelli stepped up, putting her arms around the both of them. "Jason knew something was going on and when you called you were coming home with Chris, he heard. He just couldn't sleep anymore after that, could you, Jason? So I thought the sooner he saw you and Chris, the better. He knows he has to go to sleep right after this."
Jason nodded vigorously, but then his attention was drawn by someone else who exited the helicopter.
"Uncle Chris! You're home! I knew Dad would get you home."
With a grin Vin let go of his squirming son and soon Jason was in Chris' arms.
"Hey, Jason. How are you?"
"I'm fine. I was fine all the time, because I knew Dad would get you back."
Vin winced, a bit worried about the hero worship in his son's voice. But before he could think about saying something, Chris ruffled Jason's hair and told him, "He sure did everything he could, Jason. And most of the time that means he'll succeed, but you have to understand not even your dad can make everything happen, all right? Just you know that even when he doesn't succeed, your dad will have given everything he has and that is all anyone can ask."
Jason bit his lower lip. Then he nodded and renewed his hug around his uncle's neck. He leaned close and whispered something in Chris' ear. Chris looked stricken and then whispered something back. When he hoisted Jason on his neck, his eyes were glittering suspiciously.
Chris? Vin wanted to know.
Chris merely smiled at him. "Come on, let's go." He walked toward Vin and Kelli, who kissed him on the cheek, followed by a hug. "Welcome home," she said. "You look like you could use a lot of sleep."
"I sure can, Kel. But right now I want to see my babies first. Thanks for looking after them." The quiet intensity was back in his voice. Buck came up and grabbed Jason, making him fly before throwing the boy over his shoulder in a fireman's grip and running off with him toward the truck, Jason squealing in delight. Immediately Kelli's arm went around Chris, while Vin made sure he was right by his side.
"You know they'll always have a place with us, Cowboy. Don't you ever worry 'bout that. Ever," Vin said softly.
"Like we know you would take care of ours, Dad. It's important to know that in the line of work we're in and you can always count on it."
"From anyone of the family," Josiah added. "We all know the others will be there for the ones left behind and will take care of them no matter what."
"You did know, Cowboy, didn't you?"
"I did, truly I did. But... the idea they might grow up with a mother who ran out on them and a father in jail...."
"We have the bastards, you concentrate on that."
"I will, eventually. Right now I just want to see Grace and Cody. I wish I could see all the kids."
"You will, Dad, tomorrow. Everyone will be here to celebrate."
Soon they were all squeezed inside Kelli's truck and on their way to the Tanner home.
"Grace and Cody are there, Dad," Kelly explained when Chris protested. "You did say you wanted to see them first.
"I do! But it looks like they're not the only ones there."
Finally there was some laughter back in Chris, when he saw the group of people waiting in the yard. Soon he was surrounded by JD, Nathan, Ezra, Barbara, George, Max and Walter, who were all trying to slap him on the back, making it impossible for Chris to get his thanks out. Ezra grinned and told Chris they hadn't doubted for one minute he would be back, because no sane Warden would want him in his prison. Then Buck started to tell how that was the God awful truth, since Chris had managed to get thrown into solitary confinement the moment he arrived and had already been in the middle of a beautiful fight when they arrived to get him home.
Vin scooped up Jason and headed inside before Buck could launch in a colorful description about that fight, not wanting the boy to hear anything more.
"Time for bed, son."
"But Dad! I'm not tired!" Jason assured him through a huge yawn.
"I can see that. Those eyes of yours are just closing because they don't wanna see my face."
"Dad!" Jason opened his eyes as wide as he could. "See, I'm watching you."
"Oh, come here, you imp."
It was a great feeling to be back and tuck his son in. Vin was pretty sure it was one of the reasons Kelli had allowed Jason to come out of bed, so he could have this precious moment with his son. Jason was asleep even before his head hit the pillow and after watching him for a few moments, Vin left to see his other three kids. Andi was sleeping sprawled all over her bed as usual, one leg dangling outside, her blanket twisted all around her. Vin straightened everything out and gave his little whirlwind a gentle kiss on her forehead, already looking forward to her delight the next morning when she would discover he was home. Last he looked in on the twins, sound asleep, Bren with his thumb in his mouth, Trey softly snoring with his mouth wide open.
When he came out of the twin's room, Kelli was waiting for him, a happy smile on her face. He opened his arms and she immediately slipped inside them.
"Where is everyone?"
"They left. They wanted to see Chris was all right, but everyone understood he needed to be with his children. He did go into Andi's and the twin's rooms first, but then he disappeared into the guestroom where Grace and Cody have been sleepin' with Dottie and he hasn't come out since. I was just goin' to check up on him."
"He's all right, Kelli."
"I still want to check," she said stubbornly. "See it with my own eyes."
He grinned at his redhead. "All right, but not too long. I've missed our nights together and since the twins are deeply asleep right now, I think we should take advantage."
"Take advantage, Texas? I do like the sound of that."
Still wrapped in each other's arms they walked to their biggest guestroom.
"Dottie left with Max, wanting to give Chris space with his kids. You know, Chris didn't take a quick look with our kids, Vin. He went to them and put his hands on them as if he needed to feel they were really there."
"He did? I can understand, for a few days he thought he might never be able to be with them again."
They quietly opened the door to the guestroom. Chris was lying on the big twin bed with Grace in one arm. The little girl was all over him. Cody's child's bed had been pulled close and Chris' other arm was flung out towards it, his hand pushed through the rail so he was touching his son as well.
Green eyes flickered open, but closed again when they registered who were there. Vin smiled and pulled Kelli away.
"Seems to me everyone's sleepin' but us."
"Then what are we waiting for?" Kelli asked, her voice deep and sultry. "Let's get to bed."
"Oh, yeah," Vin whispered in his woman's ear. "But not to sleep."
"Texas, sleep wasn't what I had on my mind. Come on, hurry up."
They couldn't get to the bedroom fast enough.
Chris was running.
He had taken the path behind the stables and their biggest meadow, the fastest way to reach the woods and was now running the trail with the most climbs in it. At the end he wouldn't turn left and head back, but turn right and take Thorn Hill as well.
He needed to get really, really tired.
His feet went faster and faster while he thought about the outcome of the investigation on Summerton and his handling of Chris' case. An investigation not only into Summerton, but also into Summerton's old police buddy, Andrew Damek, the man who had started it all when he received James Best's phone call about an old murder case.
Chris jumped a big branch, mentally making a note to come back and clear it off the path. He sprinted as fast as he could to the top of the little rise behind it and slowed down again when he descended on the other side.
The early morning sun flickered in his eyes and he had to squint until he was under the trees again.
Damn Summerton and Damek; damn them for what they had been trying to do! During the investigation it had turned out that Wesley Thompson had been one of Damek's main sources of income from the street. So when Damek got the call from Best, he in turn called his old buddy Summerton for advice, the buddy he had helped get his career back on line by finding him a place in Chicago. And Summerton had seen a chance for some personal revenge when he realized who's case that old murder had been.
As a Division Chief, Damek had been able to get Chris' phone number without problem and he had given it to James Best, telling him he could best give the evidence to the cop who had investigated the murder back when it had happened. Then he had warned Wesley Thompson, giving him Chris' name as well. They had expected Thompson to kill Chris and Best both. But then Damek heard from his Captain, Bob Frisco, that Chris was found alive near Best's body and was the main suspect. He had immediately called Summerton and Summerton had jumped at a chance for revenge that sounded even better than Chris' death: destroy the reputation of the man he had hated for so many years and get him in jail for a long, long time. Damek hadn't been pleased, but at that point he had no choice anymore and had to go along.
Another rise and Chris again made a dash for it, trying to run off some of the emotions that had come back because of the trial yesterday, the trial against Summerton. Emotions he had held barely in check during the first weeks after his ordeal.
Summerton had cut into his personal life in a way Chris never had thought possible. The man had reawakened the fears in his family and himself that despite his determination and his fight he could succumb to drugs again. He had ripped Chris away from his children, starting a fear inside little Grace that still wasn't settled. Hell, even his home had been totally wrecked. The fact he didn't go to Freddy's Boxing School anymore, because it was considered a liability for him to have such a routine, might be considered a minor inconvenience by most people, but it had felt like a piece of freedom had been taken away from him.
Not to mention that he truly missed the boxing.
His speed had slowed down while he was thinking, but seeing Grace's anxious face before him when he had left the house to run, made his feet go faster once more.
The house had become home again with the help of all of his friends, his family. He and Grace had picked out a brand new sofa and chairs to replace the ones ripped apart and he hadn't minded the new bedroom either; he and Linda never had had the same taste in decorating.
As for the fear of drugs, he hadn't taken anything and that had to be enough. That and the trust a big part of his family had had in him, not wanting to believe the obvious and fighting to get him free. It still gave him a warm feeling inside just thinking about it. But the best had been Jason's words when he had stepped out of the helicopter all those weeks ago and the boy had jumped into his arms. Jason had put his head on Chris' shoulder and had whispered, just for Chris to hear, that he hadn't believed for one minute Chris had been sick again, because Chris had promised. He had been touched deeply by the boy's deep trust and had renewed his promise on the spot.
He had a talk with Vin and Kelli about Jason's perceptiveness for what was going on around him, but they had already realized their boy picked up much more than most kids. The Tanners would deal with it in a way that would be best for Jason, Chris had no doubt about that at all.
The worst of it all though, was what this had done to Grace. Her fear that her Dad might simply be gone one day, just like her mother, had brought home how Linda's actions had wounded the little girl more than they had thought possible at her age. It had been good to have Grace's fear out in the open and he had reassured her again and again he would never willingly abandon her, ever. But the little girl's fear hadn't disappeared; it had changed into a fright that something bad might happen to her Dad again.
After an hour of running Chris cleared the trees and stopped at the edge of the woods, his favorite place to do his cooling down stretching, there where he could see his and the Tanner's house spread below, with the barns, meadows and yards all before him. When he was done he jogged the last part back slowly.
Yes, as he had expected Grace was on the porch, anxiously staring until she was absolutely certain it was him. With a squeal of delight she escaped Kelli and came running for him on her short legs, arms flailing wildly. He picked up his speed to get to her faster and scoped her up before she managed to fall down, throwing her in the air.
"More, more," she yelled in delight.
"Sorry, sweetheart, but I'm a bit tired from all this running. Come on, you can have a ride."
He put her on his neck and felt her little fists grab his hair. "Fast, Daddy, fast!"
"All right, hang on."
He came back to the porch with a laughing Grace, but when he put her down, she immediately held up her arms to be picked up again.
"That was one long run, Cowboy," Vin smiled, looking at the antics of the little girl who kept squirming around in her father's arm, not sure if she wanted to have her head towards her dad or towards everything that was going on.
Chris snorted. "So? Take a long ride and we're even." He in turn would baby sit the Tanner kids while Vin and Kelli took some time off together.
"I sat up the playpen in your living room for the twins. Andi is keeping them busy right now," Kelli told him.
"I'll be fine. Just let me grab a shower and you two can go and have some fun. You deserve some time together after all you did...." Kelli's hand on his mouth stopped him.
"Will you stop the gratitude already? We did what we wanted to do and the whole family pitched in because they wanted to. We love those kids, Chris and we love you. Besides, we didn't do anything you wouldn't have either."
He nodded, holding on to Grace a little tighter.
"Now, before we go my husband has something he's been dyin' to show you for weeks and it seems it's finally the time."
Chris' eyes went to Vin.
You going to let me know at last?
Yep. Damn, but it's hard to keep a secret from you, Chris. You're as bad as Buck when it comes to finding out his birthday presents. Come on.
Nah, better not.
Chris raised an eyebrow, but nodded.
"Grace, I'm going with Uncle Vin for a few moments, I'll be right back."
Her arms tightened around him when he tried to set her down and he looked at Vin imploringly. Vin nodded, so he hoisted her on one hip and they took off the three of them. Behind him he heard Kelli's exasperated snort and he had to grin. When he looked at Vin, his friend was grinning as well.
Vin led them to his truck and soon took the path to Camp Larabee. During the drive they talked about family and their latest cases, while Grace was happily babbling in the back.
"So?" Chris asked when he saw the training facilities, looking deceptively like a few barns and nothing more. "Am I finally allowed in the last barn?"
"About damn time."
Once he stepped inside though, Grace again securely in his arms, Chris was speechless. What once had been an indistinct extra trainings room had been changed into a boxing area. A ring was set to one side and some jump ropes hung on the wall behind it. Along another side Chris saw a row of speed bags in different sizes, ending with two double end bags. In the middle of the room hung two heavy bags and one very big punch and kick bag that immediately drew him. He kicked off his shoes and walked toward it. Holding Grace in one arm, he let his free hand trail the leather, before giving it a gentle push, just to feel the swing of it.
"Hey, Stud, what'd you think of this?"
"Uncl' Buck!" Grace squealed and Chris hastily put down the wriggling child. She ran to Buck, who scooped her up easily and, as she knew he would, threw her in the air a few times.
"Come on, little girl, airplane."
"Yes! Yes!" Buck held her horizontally and Grace stuck out her arms to her sides. She yelled happily as Buck 'flew' her to the boxing ring. A moment later she was jumping up and down inside it with her uncle, after Buck had taken off her shoes.
Chris smiled at the antics of his friend and his little girl, but then he turned to the man who had entered with Buck.
"Freddy. You responsible for this?"
"I sure am, Sport," the old man grinned. "I couldn't let you and Buck train in an inferior surrounding, now, could I? I used Buck to test it all and boy, does his boxing need some work. I told him he'd better not let his skills slide again. Of course he's never been the enthusiast you are."
"I can't believe you're here," Chris said, looking questioningly at Vin.
"Buck and me had a talk with Freddy. He's willin' to come here once a week for your boxing training and he don't mind others pitching in as well."
You thinking of taking up some boxing yourself, Vin? I thought you were more a martial arts man.
I know, but you do both as well and I have to say, this looks... good.
That it does.
They smiled at each other. Then Vin told him, "Josiah also showed an interest. Did you know he boxed in High School and for some time during his Army days as well?"
"That one throws some mean punches," Freddy said in awe. "I would love to train him alongside you, Sport. I think he's more of a challenge than Buck, and more serious." The old man looked at Buck where he was fooling around with Grace and grinned. "I'm going to make sure Wilmington will become a lot more serious again, make him squirm some first to punish him for having neglected his training too long."
"Be careful, Freddy," Chris laughed. "He might surprise you. There's some other trainings he hasn't been lax in."
"I'm looking forward to it. Now, if you don't mind, I'm gonna get acquainted with that adorable girl. Is she your eldest, Grace?"
"She's a beauty. I'm glad I finally get to see her."
Chris watched the old man walk to the ring. Then he turned to the punch and kick bag and smiled, again caressing the leather. "I can't believe you all set this up."
"We knew you really missed it, so we came up with this."
"Don't worry, he's cleared. You and Buck trust him and that's good enough for me, but we decided to do this official. He'll come every Monday, when his Boxing School is closed. Said he wouldn't mind, since most lessons are done by other teachers now and he thought it would be fun to work with people who know what they are doing. This way you can still train once a week, Cowboy. Besides, you can come and punch those bags as much as you need to here."
"You try it all out. Take your time, Kel and I have all day to ride."
"Thanks, Vin." Thank you for this, for everything.
"You're welcome, Cowboy." Just relax, enjoy and we'll see you at the house.
Grace protested at first when she realized Chris wasn't coming back to the house just yet, but with Buck throwing her up and down and Vin tickling her, she was soon distracted enough. It was a good sign, Chris thought, looking after his eldest and her two doting uncles.
"You ready for some work out, Chris?" Freddy asked.
He turned to the man who had already taught him so many moves. "I sure am," he said, grinning in anticipation.
Another part of his life had just been given back to him and he knew he had his friends, his family to thank for it all.
It was a rich feeling, worth too much to keep brooding about what had nearly happened.
Home, family, they were things worth living for.