Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction based on the characters from the television show "The Magnificent Seven". No copyright infringement intended to Mirish, MGM, Hallmark, TNN, Trilogy, and all others who hold the rights. No profit will be made from this work.
Warnings: A few bad words, and the injury to a main character. There may be scenes that will be uncomfortable to some readers. Please use discretion while reading; if the idea of physical pain is abhorrent to you, read no further.
Author's Notes: Many, many thanks to SUPERDIVA Cin, and Brate, both of whom beta'd this to make it better.
"Think of it as a vacation," Assistant Director Orin Travis said, trying to persuade the agitated man in front of him.
"Busman's holiday," Senior Agent and Team Leader Chris Larabee replied.
"Almost a week without your team, and someone else responsible for them."
"You trying to bribe me or scare me?" The corners of Larabee's mouth rose into a half-smile.
"Whatever works to get you to go."
"Voluntarily leave my team to talk about my experiences? Nah. I'll stick with the insanity I know how to handle."
Travis used another argument. "No other team leader has dealt with a fraction of what you and your team have faced, and this is a leadership conference. Think of all of those other harried team leaders who could benefit from your experience."
"How? To say my team's unique is an understatement. If we weren't good at what we do, the ATF would have disbanded us long ago. We both know that."
"You're a supervisor with experience in handling difficult personalities. That's an invaluable skill, giving commands to people who resist authority."
"With respect, sit, rollover, and beg haven't been mastered by my boys. Check that – Standish has beg nailed."
"In response, you've learned at least twenty ways to say no."
"Does that include force?"
Both of Travis's eyebrows rose. "There something you want to tell me?"
The AD cleared his throat. "I see. Perhaps a break will be beneficial then."
"I'm not going."
"Did I say it was optional?" Travis lifted a single eyebrow.
Chris sighed. "No, sir."
"Good. Here's your reservations and itinerary. Have a good time, and I'll see you in a week." The AD handed over a manila folder.
"Gee, thanks." Chris stood, knowing it was useless to continue to argue. It was no wonder Travis got along with them . . . he was just as stubborn.
"Oh, and Chris?"
"Yeah?" Larabee turned to face his boss, one hand on the door.
"Try and enjoy it. You need a break for you every once in a while."
Chris paused. "Yes, sir. I just might be able to relax a bit."
"Good. Remember, you don't have to check into the conference itself until the fourth day. You're registered for the entire thing, hotel room's separate. But if you opt not to attend anything, or officially check in with the organizers until required, you have my permission. You've been under enormous pressure lately."
"I hadn't noticed." Chris left, heading back to his office. After nodding his head at his team, signaling things were okay, he went into his office, partially closing the door. His team knew that was a signal that he wanted to be alone for a bit, but if there was a problem, they were more than welcome to come in.
It took fifteen minutes before Vin appeared. "Hey."
"Hay's for horses," Chris replied, as he continued to reorganize the files on his desk without looking up.
"Where are ya goin'?" Vin sat in his customary chair, throwing his booted feet up on the polished surface. He nibbled on the apple in his hand.
"What makes you think I'm going anywhere? And get your boots off my desk."
"Yer workin' on clearin' yer desk, which means yer leavin'. The rest of us invited?" Vin kept his feet on the desk, giving Chris a devilish smile.
Chris shot Vin an exasperated look. "No. Travis has me enrolled as a speaker for a leadership conference next week. Seems a speaker canceled at the last minute, and the organizer's a friend of Travis's. He arranged for me to take his place, so I'll attend the conference for free. Lucky me."
"Talkin' about what?"
Chris flipped open the stack of papers the AD gave him earlier. "Unique leadership challenges, and forming a cohesive team."
Vin started coughing, having taken a bite of apple right before that statement, and almost choked with laughter. "I'll agree with unique."
"Figure unique's a polite way of saying riding herd over six bullheads."
"That mean yer the bullwhip? Or the cowboy keepin' the peace?" Vin smirked.
"More like getting ready to cut a Texas longhorn if he doesn't quit." Chris stared at his friend, holding a serious expression for all of three seconds. His lips turned up in a smirk. "With a dull knife."
"Do ya good ta get away," Tanner remarked, pulling his legs off the desk and planting his boot heels on the floor. He inched a little closer to the door.
"Hell, Chris, we've been puttin' ya through the wringer fer the past few months. 'Tween 'Siah's constant interview boards, Nathan's paramedic trainin', JD's computer classes, and the caseload we've had, ya ain't been able ta concentrate on anythin' without one of us bein' there. Sometimes ya need a little time alone."
First Travis, and now his friend urged him to get away. Chris leaned back in his chair, a thoughtful expression on his face. "Maybe."
"Ain't no maybe about it. We ain't meant ta be together 24/7. Go have fun, and we'll mind the store."
"Might be good for me to get away." Larabee finally began to like the idea as he thought of at least a few days of peace and quiet he could sneak in. No telling what kind of people he would meet, either.
"Reckon it will be more than good." Tanner gave a sly smile to his friend as he left the room, pulling the door closed behind him.
It was that smile that made the leader think again if this was a good idea or not.
Chris deplaned, heading directly for the car rental counters, eager to get away from the crowds. He bypassed baggage claim, shifting the strap on his garment bag, and stood in line. Once he got to the counter, he presented his reservation number.
The reservations worker shook her head after she typed his information into the computer. "I'm sorry, Mr. Larabee, but we don't have that reservation."
"Excuse me?" Chris stared hard at the woman.
"That reservation was cancelled by the ATF yesterday."
"Can your computer tell you who cancelled it?" he asked.
"I'm sorry, I cannot release that information."
"It shouldn't have been cancelled." Chris was really trying to hold his anger in check.
"I can only tell you that I don't have a reserved car for you any longer. It was rented almost immediately."
"Do you have any vehicles available?"
"Unfortunately, no. There's a large conference in town this week, and we're booked solid."
"You don't say," Chris bit off sarcastically but quietly. In reality he wanted to yell and barely held off. He told himself it wasn't this woman's fault; taking out his ire on her would not be productive. "Thank you for your time." Moving to the other rental counters, he tried, but there were no cars available. Since the conference was a good distance away from the airport, he really dreaded the cab fare, even though he knew he would be reimbursed
later. Chris set down his garment bag for a second, alleviating the pressure on his shoulder while he considered his options.
A brunette walked by him, and he automatically looked. She wasn't bad looking, and when she turned her head to check the company names, his breath caught in his throat. The woman looked remarkably like Sarah. Like a fool, he stared. The hair was nearly the same, and the body type similar; only the face was a little different. She
even wore a scarf – red – with the same panache as Sarah. Sharp shards of pain shot through him, and he realized that he shouldn't continue to watch this stranger. Not if he wanted to keep his emotions in check.
Grabbing his bag, he quickly headed toward the cabstands outside. He concentrated on breathing, and not allowing the emotional grief to consume him.
He ignored the female voice.
"Sir? Wait a second, please?"
Chris stopped, turning toward the voice. It was the woman. "Help you?"
The woman shot him a winning smile. "Maybe I can help you. Would you like a ride to the hotel hosting the leadership conference?"
"Beg your pardon?" Up close, she looked a little more like Sarah in the face, and a familiar pang hit his heart. Her voice was a note or two off, but it still brought back memories. He really had to concentrate on what she was saying.
"I couldn't help but overhear the clerk telling her supervisor that she was afraid the new guy had cancelled a reservation by mistake. I gather you were the one stuck without a car? I'm going to the conference myself, so I'd be happy to drive you over to the hotel hosting it."
Chris looked uncertain.
The woman opened her purse, pulling out a badge and identification. "Julie Robinson, FBI. I'm an attendee myself, and I'd be happy to give you a ride."
His mind screamed no, but his aching heart, still feeling the pangs of loss, overruled. It wasn't her, but she brought the memories back and maybe he could grab some of the good ones just for a little while. Besides, it wasn't like she was some stranger off the street; the identification, from what he saw, was real. "Thanks. I'd
"Follow me. By the way, you can call me Julie." She smiled.
Larabee shook his head slightly when he realized he hadn't introduced himself. "Chris Larabee, ATF. You can call me Chris," he finished with what he hoped was a polite smile.
"Well, Chris, let's go." Julie led him to the parking lot, letting him load the bags in the backseat.
She got behind the wheel, putting her purse within easy reach.
He climbed in the passenger seat, both pleased to have a ride, and wary of spending time with someone who looked achingly familiar. Plus, he wasn't comfortable giving up control to anyone. "Do you know where you're going?"
Julie laughed. "Yes. I've been planning this for a while, so I've got everything under control."
"You need me to navigate, let me know."
"Sure will." Julie merged with the outbound traffic, and headed toward the hotel. "So, where are you from?"
"Denver. You?" He figured he could handle small talk for a little while, but he hoped she wasn't a full-time talker. That's one of the things he loved about Sarah; she knew when silence worked better than words.
"Lately, all over. I've been in and out of places so much I don't know if I'm coming or going."
"Understand that," Chris said. He truly did understand with all the chaos in his life.
"You have no idea." She smiled again. "Listen; can you do me a favor?"
Julie handed him her purse. "Near the top are my sunglasses. I forgot to pull them out in the airport. Would you?"
"I don't like going in a woman's purse. Never know what will pop out at me." He grinned, keeping his voice light. "Especially an FBI Agent's purse."
"I'd heard ATF Agents were afraid of guns. Guess it's true." A smile danced on her lips.
Chris shot her a playful glare. "Which compartment? You've only got three." He then stared down at the trio of closed zippers.
"The center one."
"Okay." Gripping the zipper, he pulled it. A puff of smoke shot up into his face, and before he could react, the smoke surrounded him. He coughed, but it was too late. The fast-acting gas caused him to feel dizzy, and then there was blackness.
Chris never saw her lift the red scarf to cover her face, or heard the driver's window go down to air out the car.
"It worked," Julie said out loud, pleased with herself.
"I know," she replied to herself, in a harder, different voice.
"I wasn't sure. He's smart. He might have recognized me."
"You worry too much. He didn't recognize me." Derision entered the tone. The woman did not see anything wrong with talking to herself. In fact, it was with herself she had the most interesting conversations. "I caught him."
"He needs to be punished."
"Yes," Julie's voice was soft. "But killed?"
"Shh...Do you want to upset yourself while driving? You know what happens when you get upset." The other voice kicked in quieter to soothe.
"No. I don't want that. My head hurts."
"Then stop talking and drive. Everything's under control."
Temporarily silenced, the woman continued driving out of the area. When she arrived at her destination, she pulled the car into the garage, hitting the remote for the automatic door to close them off from prying eyes. Going to the passenger seat, she grabbed the unconscious agent under the arms and lugged him out of the car. With
a minor struggle with the unwieldy burden, she dragged him to the special room. Placing his form on a table, she prepared him, and then left.
When she passed a mirror, appalled at her appearance, she gasped. "I have to change." Julie made her way to the kitchen first. After a soothing cup of tea, Julie smiled. At last, all her research and plans paid off. She had him in her clutches, and no one expected to see him for the next four days. By then, it would be too late. He would have paid tenfold for what he did. What he took away from her. What he let be destroyed.
Now he was hers to do with what she wanted...
... and what she wanted was his pain.
His endless hurting.
In one word…
Chris felt pain, but he kept his eyes closed. He was trying to assimilate what was going on, and he figured playing opossum might help him. The person could leave and give him a chance to study his surroundings. His head ached, and his brain felt stuffed with cotton, it wasn't helping him to think.
"I said wake up."
Tick. Tick. Tick.
He ignored the command again.
Pain exploded in his left arm, and he tried to jerk away from it. His body wouldn't move properly. He couldn't get his brain to make it move, and he couldn't think clear enough to figure out why.
"I hate you."
"Don't like you much right now either," he replied softly. He pealed his green eyes opened slowly. It felt like they had been stuck together with glue. Finally, he managed to open them by a small slit. Weakly, he scoped his situation. He was on a metal table, stretched out and spread-eagle, while cold bands encircled his wrists
and ankles. Naked, the chill of the slick surface beneath his back permeated his skin, leaving him feeling slightly cold. The entire situation left him feeling vulnerable and unsettled.
"You must pay."
"Look lady. . . I didn't sign on for games. Let me up."
"What do you want?" Chris heard himself ask the question, but he wasn't sure if he wanted to hear the answer. He just wanted to know what the hell he'd walked into when he left the airport with her.
"You've got to pay."
"For what? I don't know you, lady, and I'm starting to dislike you immensely."
"I never liked you anyway. Always acted tough, like you were so smart. But you were so-o-o easy to catch. Stupid man. I thought you cop types were always suspicious."
"And didn't your mother warn you, you shouldn't pick up strange men," he cracked, sarcasm heavy in his voice.
She punched him then – not in the face.
He gritted his teeth, tried to hold it in, but Nature did not intend for men to be hit there. The pain receptors fired, sending momentary white-hot agony through his system. Even sluggish, his body knew that hit solidly connected, and throbbing replaced the fog surrounding his brain.
"I told you he would be bad," Julie said in a low tone of voice.
"I like him bad," she replied to herself, with a sultry purr to her voice. "Then I can hurt him."
Alarm bells went off in his head, drowning out the pain in his nether regions. The fact she was talking to herself like two different people was not good, especially about the part about hurting him. Chris stayed silent, deciding there wasn't much he could do about his situation right now, and he didn't have enough information yet to try
and talk himself out of this mess.
Her face appeared inches before his. "Don't you want to know what you did?"
"Figure you'll tell me," he replied.
"You took the most important thing in my life away from me."
Oh, boy, Chris thought. This was probably work related, which left a multitude of revenge seekers to try to sort through. He wondered how the heck this person knew how to find him. In fact, the statement raised more questions than it provided answers. Again, he used silence for prompting.
"Aren't you going to ask?" Julie asked.
"Do you want me to?" Chris phrased the question neutrally, not giving any indication of his level of interest. He noticed Julie wanted to be asked questions, but he temporarily would decline to oblige.
"I'll tell you! You took the light, the reason for my existence, and you threw it away. It wasn't enough for you to take from me, but you allowed my light to die."
"I don't know your light," Chris retorted. "Safe to say we're not talking about lava lamps?" Silently, he thought she was a few bulbs short anyway.
This time Julie slapped him across the cheek. "How dare you say you don't know? But that would be like you. You never cared about the light. Never!" She slapped him again on the other cheek. "I've been dreaming of making you pay since that awful day the light died, it's the only thing that has kept me going. I've planned on getting you for years, but you've never, ever gone alone anywhere outside of your precious Denver."
"How long have you been watching me?"
She answered him evasively. "Maybe when you let the light go out, but then, I woke up one day, and this voice told me you had to pay! And you're all mine for the next several days. No one will miss you, no one will care, and I have you to myself. All to myself." Julie laughed maniacally, slapping him hard once again.
Chris felt chills run through his system at her words, and then heard the door slam as she left. The thought of being stalked bothered him. He'd been watched long enough for Julie, if that was her real name, to know that he hadn't had a solo vacation in a very long time.
He also knew he was alone with a madwoman, and she was right – no one would look for him until he didn't show up as a speaker at the convention. Experimentally, he tried to move his wrists, but the shackles held secure. There wasn't much play in them, and they were too tight to try to maneuver his hands through them. Same with the ones on his ankles. A bit more aware now, as the drug she gave faded from his system, he tried to assess his surroundings.
The ceiling was painted black. He recognized the soundproofing material insulated what he could see of the walls and ceiling. That was not a good sign. Meager light filtered in from one window, not even lighting the entire room but only a small square of it, and the decorative iron filigree outside showed him that even if he managed to get free, he wouldn't be going out that window. Staring at the window, he realized the glass looked soundproofed, too. Yet another bad sign. There was a door on his other side, and a cabinet behind his head.
The light from the windows slowly faded, and darkness overtook the room. He needed to take care of business; he was thirsty, and highly uncomfortable. There was no sign of Julie yet.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
Time continued to pass at a snail's pace, and the pressure on his bladder increased to uncomfortable levels. He refused to go on himself, and counted to a hundred, then back again, to distract himself from his needs and that damnable ticking noise. It sounded like it was coming from the darkness beyond his feet.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
He was so intent on getting from twenty-nine to twenty-eight that he hadn't heard her come in.
She flipped on the lights. "Time for a catheter."
The last word caught his attention in a bad way. Chris wriggled on the metal table, trying to move away from her. His skin felt glued to the surface, refusing to turn him loose.
Her hands reached behind him, underneath the table below his head, and came up with a mask. He heard a hissing noise. She dropped it over his head, gassing him, as he tried to dodge the plastic covering being fitted over his nose and mouth.
The sticky-sweet smell filled his senses, his brain clogged, and his eyes closed.
A slap across his face brought him out of his drug-induced fugue. He tried to move again, but now he was strapped to the table in several more places. His body was held immobile except for the ability to move his head side to side, wiggle his fingers, and waggle his toes. A hand held him where her hand was not supposed to be, and he tried moving his hips, but they were strapped down. The effects of the gas slowed him down, leaving him uncoordinated.
"No," he moaned.
"This won't hurt a bit."
He screamed when the needle made contact and entered his flesh.
"I lied," Julie laughed.
"I liked his scream," the sultry voice said to herself. It was the low tone voice that spoke to him now. "Now, Chris, you won't make a mess. And I did it right, no matter what the nursing board says. I can put in IVs and catheters. Aren't you proud of me?" Her face appeared in front of his, inches away from his own.
"No. Let me go."
"No," that voice replied.
"You're sick, lady."
"Allowing you the privilege of going to the bathroom without making a mess makes me sick? I expect you to tell me when you need a bedpan," Julie said.
"Go to hell."
She slapped him across the face. "You already sent me there, Chris Larabee. You took away the light, and now all I do is live in darkness."
"Not my fault your light's a piece of garbage I took off the street. Did I put your light in jail, or in the ground?" He spat the words out for a reaction, to learn more details about this person he supposedly wronged.
"Piece of garbage you took off the street?" Julie screamed, and then wailed. "You thought that little of my light?" Reaching down below the table, her hand came up with a scalpel. "I'm going to make you suffer for that remark." She grabbed a foot.
He tried to pull away, do something, but he was pinned, and his head still swam from the gas. Helpless, he felt the blade make contact with his heel, and it cut into the skin. Nothing he did freed him from that razor-sharp scalpel. Moments later, she released that foot. He'd nicked himself shaving before, but the sensation of having his feet sliced put that pain to shame. All his attempts to move away failed. She grabbed the other foot, and he felt the layers of calluses shaved away. Julie kept going, not stopping until she was apparently satisfied.
"I know you're resourceful, and you'll try to free yourself. Even if you escape the shackles, you won't be able to walk away now. Like you walked away when the light went out. You'll weaken from blood loss. Then you'll need me to nurse you." The brunette smiled down with hatred etched on her features. You should have died, Chris Larabee, but you didn't. It's different now. You're mine now. And your death will be slow and painful. I'll put your light out, but I won't put it out as quickly as you put out mine. I'll hurt you, and I know enough to keep you alive until I'm finished." Leaving him bleeding, Julie walked away. She left one light on in the room.
He wondered if his remark had only made things worse instead of better.
Tick, tick, tick.
"I wonder what Chris is doing," Buck said to Vin, sipping his drink.
"Probably havin' a drink in peace," Vin retorted. "Ya already asked that twice."
"Maybe. Tried calling the hotel, but he wasn't in his room."
"Thought ya weren't gonna bother him."
"Expense summation for the bosses. Wanted to fax it to him for his signature before I sent it up the chain. I hate this accounting crap, but with Ezra on loan…"
"Ya got stuck with it."
"And Chris forgot to sign it before he left. Now I gotta get a signature to have it in before next Monday, and he likes looking it over first."
"That's 'cause Ez constantly tries ta slip stuff by him." Vin looked around the bar, sipped his drink, and then settled back on his stool. "Ya left a message?"
"Nah. I'll try back later. Didn't want to start his week away with this. I've got time."
"Good. He needs a break."
"Yeah, he does. Well, that does it for me. See you tomorrow?" Buck asked, turning to Vin.
"Yup." Tanner watched Buck leave, and then finished his beer. He left not too long after that, heading for his Jeep. When he reached his home, he wondered what Chris was up to that night. Probably out eating a nice, quiet dinner somewhere, or curled up with one of the many books he'd been unable to read in the last few months. And obviously ignoring the telephone.
Not that he blamed Chris; every time the telephone rang, it usually meant more problems. Besides, the man had only been gone less than a day, and that wasn't long enough for him to unwind. Like Buck said, give it a little time, let their friend relax a bit, and then get things tended to.
Vin only hoped Chris was relaxing; the man needed a break.
Chris wondered who
stopped time. So far, he'd considered trying to
get some blood under his shackles to wiggle his
feet free, but that couldn't happen in his current
position. Julie had strapped him down too well.
Besides, the bottoms of his feet were so sensitive
even the air hurt when it touched his raw wounds.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
Chris glared once again at the offending clock. Large with big block numbers, it reminded him of those found in school classrooms. The second hand ticked as it moved around the dial, a sound he was quickly coming to detest, along with the spotlight she left on it.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
He twitched in annoyance, and then groaned. Moving agitated the catheter, causing a minor amount of pain. The thought of that needle absolutely turned his stomach; he had no idea if the needle was sterile. Then there was the fact Julie implied the nursing board told her she couldn't perform those tasks. . .that scared him.
This woman was obviously disturbed, the way she talked to herself, and that bothered him as much as the damn clock. He thought he was dealing with two personalities, and both hated him. Both hated him enough to abduct him in the middle of an airport and bring him back here for a round of torture. Well, he'd gone with her willingly, and that was his mistake. Stupid.
How did Julie know where to find him, and how did she know that his schedule was clear? She must have some inside knowledge, because he only told his team where he was going. Unless she hacked into the computers and saw the reservations made by the ATF. It dawned on him that she was probably the one who cancelled the car reservation. Oh, boy. That made sense, more than anything else in this mess.
Now he was thirsty. But he wasn't going to call Julie for anything; he could handle this. The military trained him for this. But he just hoped that his team figured out something was wrong, and fast. He was not looking forward to more of Julie's company.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
"Do you like light?" Julie asked.
Hell, Chris thought, anything would be better than that damnable ticking clock with the big numbers and spotlight on it. However, he didn't answer her.
"I guess you don't, since you let the light go out, but I'm giving you light, Chris. You should thank me."
He heard a couple bangs, and then a bright, blinding light came on right above his eyes. Make that in his eyes.
"Let there be light!" She laughed hysterically at her own joke.
Blinking under the assault of the constant whiteness, his eyelids closed, protecting the green orbs, or trying to. His head was the only thing he could move; he was still strapped down so tight he couldn't do more than twitch. The restraints, yanked painfully tighter in Julie's last fit of pique, cut off the circulation in his feet and hands. He knew both had swollen under the unending pressure, and the raw wounds on his feet throbbed in three quarter time, just to keep him aware of the injuries there. His ego did not like the thought of him flinching from a simple light, so he turned his head to the side and opened his eyes.
They focused on the form beside his table, his abductor. Again, she looked like Sarah, but with a touch of madness in her eyes. More than a touch of madness. It hurt to even look at her, because he didn't want memories of this woman crossing with any precious ones he held of his beloved wife. He stayed silent; choosing not to give her the satisfaction of showing the light in his eyes bothered him.
She leaned down, tilting her head until it was even with his and purred in his ear. "It's time for treatment."
Chris didn't ask her to elaborate, trying to ignore the shiver her tone and the implied threat sent through his system.
"What treatment, you ask? You'll see." Her voice took on a singsong quality. "I've always wanted to try this." Julie giggled.
Larabee knew he definitely did not like the sound of that giggle. He started setting his mind to the mode it was trained for when he was in the SEALS, in the part of his conditioning that no one liked to talk about, or even mention - enduring torture.
The first prick in his hip caught him a little off guard, and he figured he was getting some type of injection. But there was another prick near it, and then another. It was annoying, but not too painful. He figured this wasn't so bad; he could endure this and piss her off when he refused to give her a reaction.
She continued with the pricks. Curious, he opened his eyes and squinted through the light. He was able to see she was pushing what looked like straight pins into his skin. This was different, he thought, and probably building to something not good.
"Do you feel any pain?"
Chris didn't answer her.
"No? Then I'll keep going," Julie said.
"Yes, keep going," her other self encouraged.
Julie continued sticking pins in his skin. "Prick, prick, prick."
"Me or the pins?" he asked. He tried swallowing, even though his mouth was dry. He knew she was enjoying his torture just a little too much.
"Both." She jabbed the next one in hard.
"Never denied I could be one. How about you? Ever denied you're a bitch?" He snarled.
"Shut up!" Julie yelled.
"Make him shut up. Take control," she ordered herself.
"Yes," Julie answered. Looking around, she grabbed a roll of bandages and some cotton.
"Truth hurt?" Chris cracked. When she reached for his head, he twisted away. He kept doing that until she screamed in frustration.
"Temper, temper," the ATF team leader told her. He didn't know why he had to provoke her, but he did. He wasn't going to lie there and do nothing while she played her games and if anything, he was not going to give her the satisfaction of knowing she was hurting him in any way. There was another sting in his arm, and with this one he felt the warmth of something running through his veins. His limbs felt heavy and he felt himself getting sleepy. "Bitch," Chris mumbled, going unconscious from her injection of drugs.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
Struggling through the fog enshrouding his brain, something in him heard and recognized his name. He listened, trying to decide if he wanted to wake up.
Pain. That jumpstarted him, and his eyes opened, right into the white light. His lids reflexively closed, but spots still danced behind the shuttered green orbs.
More pain, and this time in his upper left thigh. He'd been stabbed once before in a fight, but this felt like hundreds of tiny blades spearing his skin simultaneously, a sensation he didn't like. Alertness and adrenaline coursed through his system. The taste of cotton filled his mouth, but he couldn't spit it out.
His shoulder protested the assault, the nerve endings transmitting frantic messages to his brain. He turned his head to see more pins sticking out of his skin. Except this time on his still burning shoulder, where the sudden impact pressed them into his body. Absurdly, he thought this was not a pleasurable way to wake up.
"He's not screaming," Julie said.
"You gagged him, remember?" the other voice told her.
"Oh." Julie giggled and removed the layers of material preventing his speech, using long forceps to reach into his mouth so Chris wouldn't bite her fingers. "He's still not screaming."
"Hit him again," she instructed.
Julie took her flat board and hammered it on top of the lines of pins in his chest, driving them into his skin until the pinheads were the only things visible.
That hurt, but he gritted his teeth and did his best to ignore it. Chris visualized himself at his ranch with his team, kicked back and relaxing. Not strapped to a metal table, he didn't know where, with a madwoman trying her dominatrix act, with him as the unwilling victim.
"Scream," Julie urged.
Larabee ignored her. There was no way he would give her the satisfaction.
"Scream, damn you!"
Chris calmly blew out a breath, as if it didn't hurt like the dickens, and he didn't want to take that board and do some damage with it.
"I HATE YOU!" Julie yelled.
"I don't like you," Chris replied evenly.
Her face appeared centimeters from his. "You must have made the light's life a living hell."
"Lady, I own hell," he declared.
"Then I'll make you more comfortable," she hissed. Her voice grew a touch deeper as she issued her promise.
She moved to his lower chest. "I'll enjoy this." Julie raised the board, slamming it down into his abdominal muscles, and sending the pins deeper, along with the pain.
Figuring that was coming, he'd tightened the muscles there, but the term a thousand pinpricks came to mind when they buried to the pinheads.
She moved to the other hip and battered the board one more time. "There." Julie brushed a piece of fallen hair out of her face.
"How many pins did that take?" Chris, hissed through the pain but was unable to keep his sarcastic tongue quiet.
Julie screamed in rage. She went berserk, continually hitting him with the board, her anger giving her strength. In his earlier unconscious state, he hadn't realized she'd put pins in his raw feet. When the board hit there, he nearly screamed. It was too much. He wouldn't show her, but he was already feeling rough from the earlier injuries, and woozy from the drugs. She hit his feet again and again, but proud of himself, Chris didn't scream, he passed out.
"The light loves me." Clink.
"The light loves him not." Clink.
"The light loves me." Clink.
"The light loves him not." Clink.
"The light loves me." Clink.
"The light loves him not." Clink.
"The light loves me." Clink.
"The light loves him not." Clink.
Chris came to, hearing the child's game pervade his consciousness, not leaving him alone until he left the wonderful dream abyss for this waking hell. At least this time he couldn't hear the damnable clock and its miserable ticking, but he wasn't sure having Julie there was an improvement over the clock.
"The light loves me." Clink.
"The light loves him not." Clink.
He felt the sensation of things pulling around his shoulder. Twisting his neck, he didn't open his eyes until his head was ninety degrees and on its side. He'd remembered that annoying light in his face just before he burned his eyeballs again.
"The light loves me." Clink.
"The light loves him not." Clink.
"Which one's winning?" Chris asked.
Julie held up a pair of tweezers for him to see, and then shoved them at his skin, yanking out another pin. "The light loves me." Julie sighed with happiness.
"Told you," she said to herself.
Thankful that was probably the last one from her actions, he bravely questioned, "Which one does the light love? The weak or the strong?" Chris hoped to start an argument between the two voices he'd heard, figuring that would buy him a reprieve. If she was busy fighting with herself, she wasn't inflicting copious pain on him.
"Both of us. The light loves us both. Loves. Loved. Yes." Julie smiled. "But not you. Never you."
A sudden weight dropped into his stomach, and it was named Dread. With a capital 'D'. "Why wouldn't the light love me?" He must be losing his sanity if he was debating with a certifiable crazy person.
"You took the light away," Julie said.
"You have to pay. Make him pay," the other voice directed.
Julie reached over and picked up a roll of bandage tape. Ripping it into strips, she pressed the lengths onto his bloody legs.
Chris knew what was coming, and knowing didn't make it any less annoying or painful. He wondered if women getting their legs waxed hurt this much, feeling every hair ripped out by the root. Her tearing also stripped off the baby scabs that formed over the pinprick wounds. Only by gritting his teeth was he able to not yell. This time, he made no sarcastic comments, lest it give her the twisted idea of making him endure a male bikini wax with tape.
"That hurt, killer of the light?" Julie asked him. "Let's do some more." She plastered some strips on his chest, using slow, agonizing tugs there to remove them.
Her words about 'killer of the light' told him he'd probably shot whoever this light had been. Since he knew the names and details of every person he'd killed in the line of duty, he started going through what he remembered of their families. He focused on the ones who swore vengeance. This activity helped distract his mind from the press and pull occurring on his legs, chest, and arms.
He only flicked his eyes at her, not deigning to answer the obvious.
Julie picked up a spray bottle and smiled. "This might sting."
"Bring on the pain," she urged herself.
Sting? Uh-oh, he thought. Sting was probably an understatement.
"It will sting." Julie squeezed the trigger.
His skin was burning, and it felt like undiluted alcohol on open wounds.
Julie continued to saturate his body with alcohol.
Every pore, empty hair follicle, and pinprick filled with the liquid, nearly overwhelming him with pure agony. His breathing quickened, his jaw locked, but he kept telling himself he could withstand this. She was not going to hear him scream. Until she sprayed his feet. Still, he held the scream, but Chris let the sweet oblivion of unconsciousness claim him once more.
"Agent Wilmington." Buck answered the telephone with resignation in his voice, staring down at the piles of paperwork that had accumulated so quickly. He wondered again how Chris could stand all this paper pushing, and gave up on the telephone being a savior after the twelfth call asking him for form such-and-such.
"Agent? This is Jenny Blackwell from EZ Car Rental. I wanted to see if you could get a message to Agent Chris Larabee."
A woman! And she wasn't asking him for a form, nor did she work in the building. He leaned back in his chair and smiled. "Of course. He's away for a couple of days, but I'll get it to him."
"Excellent. Let me explain what happened. Apparently, someone called and cancelled Agent Larabee's reservation. Unfortunately, our newest employee didn't know that she wasn't allowed to cancel without
the authorization of her supervisor because of the contract, and didn't tell anyone what she had done. So when Agent Larabee arrived, we only showed a cancelled reservation and no car for him. I want to
personally apologize, and get word to him that we have a car for him. . .at our expense, of course. We are sorry for any inconvenience this may have caused him. I don't know where he's staying, so I'm calling his office to see if you can get a message to him."
Buck could tell she was also not asking for his friend's hotel name or information, and his respect grew a notch for her. Too bad she lived so far away, but still, he could always know someone to show him around if he ever went out there. His grin broadened, thinking of his friend standing at the counter without a car, cursing his horrible luck, and infuriated with the cancellation. "Now, Jenny, if I can get your name and number, I'll be happy to give him the message to call you."
"Thank you. It's Jenny Blackwell, EZ Car Rentals, at 1-800-EZ-RENTS, extension 5128. I really appreciate this."
"It'll be my pleasure. And if I ever come out there, I'll be sure to ask for you."
"I'll be happy to help you if I can. Can I have your name again?"
"Thanks, Buck." She put a slight emphasis on his first name.
"Anytime, darlin', anytime." Buck hung up, and then found Chris's hotel number. He figured to tell Chris about the car, and then ease into getting the papers signed. After several rings, Buck was switched back to the front desk. He left a message to ask Chris to call, no emergency. That done, he stood to go tell the others about his friend's latest misfortune.
Chris didn't want to wake up. The rest of him had other ideas. Like the itching sensation all over, or the foreign thing poking into his hand. Tilting his head and opening his eyes, he saw there was an IV set up. Great, he thought, another needle stuck in his body in addition to the catheter. Why he needed it was beyond him, she hadn't bothered to give him food or drink. He was so dry his mouth felt like he had been chewing on sandpaper. Adding to his list of painful accessories was a fan constantly blowing on his sensitized skin. Everything hurt, especially his eyes from constantly dealing with that light.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
And that damnable clock.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
He made a promise to himself to break it when he freed himself, just to stop it from making that annoying sound. A question coming from the darkness nearly startled him; Chris hadn't realized that Julie was even there.
"Were you ever in love, Chris?" Julie asked. "I was."
He declined to answer.
"You were too. I know that."
Chris stayed silent.
"Sarah. That was her name. The woman you loved. Sarah Connolly."
"Larabee," he corrected. "My wife. . .and you don't have the right to talk about her," Chris snarled. He tugged at his bonds, itching to make her shut up about his beloved wife.
Julie smiled; apparently pleased she got a response from him. "I look like her - Sarah - for a reason." She paused, and then slapped his stomach. "But we're alike now. My light is gone. And so is Sarah. I dressed like her to remind you of what you lost. You lost your Sarah, and you took my light away." Her fist buried in his stomach.
"It hurts you to look at me, and I'm glad."
Chris said nothing.
"I want you to hurt."
He ignored her, looking away.
Water poured over him, and he saw a tank with a long hose attached, the rubber length of it in Julie's hand. She continued to soak him, and the pain, which he thought under his control, blossomed.
For the water was not water, but a mixture of alcohol, salt, and sand. When she finished, Julie asked, "Does that hurt?"
"No," he replied through clenched teeth.
"He's lying," she told herself. "Let him dry. You've got other things to do."
"Yes, I do," Julie said, and then left.
Chris could only lie there. He felt the salt melt and seep into his raw wounds. The gritty sand irritated his injuries, making him itchy. The water left an uneven coating of the salt and sand mixture on him; he felt it dry feeling like it was drawing his skin up. He didn't want to admit it, but things were not looking good for him,
and rescue didn't seem to be as probable now. His mind tried to focus on the positive, picturing happy memories, but a sound intruded. Again.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
By nine o'clock Denver time, Chris had not called back. That bothered Buck, because Chris wasn't the type to blow off messages, even from him. Buck called the hotel again, asking for Chris Larabee's room. The clerk happily informed him that Mr. Larabee had picked up his messages about twenty minutes before, so he should be in his room.
A little relieved, Buck waited during the transfer, listening to the telephone ring.
"It's ringing," Julie said, staring fearfully at the phone.
"Answer it," she ordered herself. "You can act."
"Come on, Chris. Get out of the bathroom," Buck muttered.
"Hello?" Julie panted into the receiver, sounding sexy and aroused.
Buck's brow furrowed, and then he smiled. "Darlin', I sure hope I have the right room. Is this Chris Larabee's room?"
"Oh. . .ummm, yes," she answered just a bit breathlessly.
Buck couldn't quite believe what he was hearing or imagining, but he was damn proud of his old friend. Smiling, he asked, "Hate to interrupt, Darlin', but can I speak to him?"
"Well…he just stepped into the shower," Julie lied evenly, keeping her voice low and sultry. "I can have him call you back…later."
Hearing the anxious tone beneath the sexy voice, the ladies man envisioned his friend's shower was about to get a lot steamier.
"I guess he'll have to," Buck sighed, wondering why some guys had all the luck. "Tell him to call Buck Wilmington, it's important."
"Oh, you're Buck," Julie giggled. "Chris has told me a lot about you."
"He did? Well…all good I hope." Buck sat back, thinking this girl must be something if Chris talked enough to her to tell her about his friends.
"Of course." If possible, the voice grew sexier. "But I really must go, Buck."
Shaking himself out of his visions, Buck replied, "Sure, Darlin', you just be sure to tell the ol' Stu…Chris to call me right away."
"I sure will…Buck," Julie breathed out his name in a slow drawl, then hung up quickly.
Wilmington replaced the receiver, then sat back and stared at it. This was why Larabee had been so uncharacteristically out of touch since he left town. He met someone. Buck shook his head…this wasn't right. Hell, it taken forever it seemed before his friend finally took his hints – some as subtle as a proverbial brick to his thick head - about asking Mary Travis out. Since Chris lost his wife he didn't ignore women, he just didn't jump into bed with them for play, and especially not for any committed relationship at the drop of a hat.
He ran a hand down his face and chastised himself. 'I'm just jealous,' he thought. Chris has had a hard time lately, and he's entitled to a little fun. Isn't that what part of this trip was for was to get him away from here and let him relax? Besides, there were some trips Chris had made before that they never talked about, and
Buck had found telltale evidence of a woman's presence…like the scent of perfume on a shirt. Maybe Chris was having a fling, or just living in the moment like he used to, a long time ago.
Either way, he'd let his friend have a good time. Buck smiled, "Way to go Stud."
Reaching into the drawer of the desk he pulled out his address book. Well Chris could have his fun; he'd have to work on getting some himself. He wouldn't interrupt his friend's evening. If he called back, fine; if not he'd call him in the morning. He still had time to get the paperwork signed, and it didn't sound like Chris would need the car right away. He'd let him have his fun for one night, especially when they were so few and far between for his friend. But if he didn't hear from him tomorrow, Buck would turn the hotel and conference upside-down until he talked to him.
Julie's heart raced, and her hand shook when it left the telephone. "Do you think he bought it?"
"Of course he did," she told herself. "Now, roll around on the bed so it looks like he slept on it."
Julie did that, pulling down the covers and throwing herself across it, making it look unkempt. When she stood, she peered into the mirror. "I look just like him."
"Yes, you do. We planned this, remember?"
One hand touched the blond wig at the hairline, and felt the edge of the latex mask covering the features beneath. For all intents and purposes, a shorter version of Chris Larabee looked back at her. "Yes," she said. "But I hate him. I don't want to look like him."
"I know, but we needed people to believe he was here. Just think. If you hadn't answered the phone, his friend Buck would have worried. We don't want his friends here."
"No," Julie agreed.
"Look at the messages."
Julie read them, and then called Jenny Blackwell. Since it was past normal hours, she got Jenny's voice mail, and deepened her voice to sound like a man. More specifically, like her prisoner, who's voice she practiced constantly from the taped conversations she had. "Hello. This is Chris Larabee calling back, and I got your
message. I've met a friend here, so I won't need a car, but thanks for your offer." She hung up. "There."
"All done here. Let's go before someone recognizes Chris," she told herself.
Julie left, heading back to where she kept her captive. During the drive, the excitement of pulling off the masquerade made her feel bold, and she reveled in the boldness. Choosing to show off, and feeling magnanimous that she had him all to herself, Julie decided to drop in on her prisoner in costume.
A slap across the face woke him. He'd finally fallen asleep - no thanks to that damnable clock - and now Julie was back. When he turned his head and opened his eyes, he first thought that she had put up a mirror. Then he saw the image move, and it wasn't strapped to a table like he was.
"Hello, Chris. I'm Chris."
"You're not me," he angrily replied.
"But the people at the hotel believed it," she taunted. "I'm you, and no one misses you yet. Not even your friends. One called, but he thinks you found a woman tonight."
The dread was back. If Julie showed up at the hotel dressed and acting like him, no one there would raise an alarm or seriously look for him. Most of the people he wouldn't know, and the ones that did know him might be fooled from a distance by Julie's disguise. Even with the damn clock ticking away, he had no sense of time and wasn't sure how long he'd been under the madwoman's care. He'd probably already missed the dinner meeting he set up on the plane, but if it were assumed he found a date, the other man would not really be too concerned. In fact, no one would be worried if he was supposedly registered at the hotel and picked up his messages, until he didn't show up to speak.
Julie talked, bringing him from his thoughts. "But I'll tell you something to keep you company while you lie there. I want you to think about the light, because tomorrow, we're going down memory lane. And it won't be pleasant. So gather your happy memories while you can, Chris. The light's gone out, and so's this one, but your suffering has just begun." Julie leaned over him and turned out the constant white over his head. The only sound was of her footsteps retreating from him. Her last words came from the darkness.
"Sarah Connolly was my light." The door slammed.
Chris blinked at the inky darkness, relishing the relief from the bright light, even if dark spots still danced around his eyes. This madwoman was giving him a reprieve and was finally going to tell him why she so fervently sought revenge on him. He forced his tired, pain driven, sluggish mind to listen to what she was saying.
"Sarah Connolly was my light."
What in the hell?
Larabee's head moved from side to side in denial. No, that couldn't be right. This crazy person was after him because his wife died. And thought Chris killed her. No! He was the one in pain. Lying there panting, feeling the burn of all his injuries at every slight move, the constant irritation. He thought he was too dry, but felt tears begin to make a feeble track down his face. The physical injuries were nothing. . .nothing, compared to the emotional pain she caused by ripping open the agonizing wound in his heart. He still suffered every day from Sarah's absence, keener with the loss of their son Adam. Every morning he expected to see Sarah beside him in bed, or hear Adam yelling 'Pa' real loud, but the empty bed and silence started his day. It was a fresh loss every time he thought about them, and a perpetual pain in his soul.
How could his Sarah be her light? Sarah could never have known someone like her. They couldn't have been close; Sarah shared everything with him, and he knew most of her friends. And they were good friends, like Sarah; they wouldn't do this to him.
He lay there in almost silence, crying to himself, and only one sound kept him company. The damnable clock and its incessant noise. He thought of this crazy woman and this Julie…Sarah was her light?
Tick. Tick. Tick.