The hum of the engine was soothing. Almost eight-year-old Vin, settled happily in his booster seat next to Chris, was enamored by the play of headlights over the wet asphalt in the darkness. With each turn in the road the silver rays probed the darkness and then swept around to reveal their path in trusted brightness. Where the light ventured off road, bright patches of snow caused the beam to explode into a galaxy of sparkles. That sight, coupled with the rare alone time with his adopted dad, were things to be savored with every one of his almost eight year old senses and Vin did so with silent appreciation.
It was cold outside. He could feel the aura of it emanating from the side window near his face. When he leaned toward it, the little boy could feel the temperature drop with each inch but the heat blasting on his feet from the truck's vents thoroughly warmed him. The cab had a slight tang of damp leather and enveloped him in comfort. Vin saw Chris glance his way and smile, making him grin in return. They didn't need words to communicate their feelings.
It was dark outside because the side road they had chosen to take home had no artificial illumination to spoil the night. Through the broad windshield Vin caught glimpses of a star-splattered sky beyond the tips of winter-bare trees whose branches reached up like needy children. The nearly full moon played peek-a-boo between their boney fingers.
Like the trees, Vin wished he would stand on his toes and touch the stars. He imagined they would feel cool and sharp, like diamonds. He'd seen a diamonds once in a store window, glittering against black velvet like ice. He didn't get to look at them too long, though, before being shooed away like a stray dog. "That's what I must have looked like when I lived in the warehouse," he realized. "A hungry dog." He hugged Cat closer, the stuffed toy representing how his life had changed.
Vin's thoughts turned inward as he mulled over the past and especially the last two years. So much change and all for the better since he'd found Chris. Or Chris had found him. Cat, his adopted dad's first gift to him, was one of his most cherished possessions and a constant reminder of how much he'd grown from his time of living in a warehouse.
"Looks like you're havin' some heavy thoughts," Chris said softly. He released one hand from the steering wheel and stroked Vin's hair, smiling. "You okay?"
Again, Vin warmed. He smiled at his dad. "Yeah, I'm good."
Chris grinned. "I bet Cat was glad to get out for awhile."
Vin rolled his eyes. "Dad, he's just a toy!" Still, he laughed shortly and stroked Cat's back.
"Oh, yeah. I keep forgetting." Chris chuckled as he returned his hand to the wheel. It was wonderful to see the boy acting like a boy. At times, Vin seemed to carry the world on his narrow, bony shoulders and for a long time after they had come together Vin was wary, reserved and skittish. "Want some music?" he offered. "You can choose."
"Nah. I like the quiet."
"Yeah, it's nice, huh? There's something about winter, moonlight and the open road."
""n no JD talkin'."
Chris snorted and glanced at Vin again. "I do love the boy, but quiet is nice on occasion."
Vin giggled again. His acquired little brother didn't really have an 'off' switch and tended to wear most everyone in their extended family down. He sighed and let the smooth hum of the Dodge engine soothe him as he dropped his head back onto the seat back, Cat cradled safely and snugly in his arms.
The truck vent blew a gentle heat that made him drowsy. Vin's eyes slipped closed, his body completely and totally relaxed. He was lulled into that floaty phase of pre-sleep by comforting warmth and contentment when the truck suddenly jerked violently to one side. His head knocked against the side window. Vin's eyes snapped open as Chris spat an expletive.
Vin felt a hard thud and then a blur of brown flew toward him. He saw the deer's shiny, dark eye ringed white in terror a fraction of a moment before the windshield exploded and his world slammed into darkness.
Buck glanced at the wall clock and debated his next move. It was a few minutes before ten P.M. and Chris was now three hours late. If he were a single man Buck would smile at the thought that maybe his friend and roommate was getting lucky – that Allison Watkins sure was a looker and she'd made it abundantly clear at the budget meeting this afternoon that her sights were on Chris. But neither he nor Chris were really single anymore since adopting two homeless boys, and Buck knew that Chris had ducked out of today's meeting early to take Vin to the dentist. Then he'd called Buck to declare it "boys' night out" so he could take Vin to an early dinner and movie.
Buck chuffed softly. Chris sure did "get lucky", but the definition had certainly changed in the past couple of years! His gaze drifted to the clock again as his hand absently stroked the cuddled lump in his lap. JD was deeply asleep yet still squirmed like a pile of worms. Buck adjusted his legs to keep his adopted son from sliding off his lap and tucked the loosened quilt snugly around him.
The movie should have been over by seven o'clock. If they'd had to attend a later showing, Chris would have called. Now Buck was worried. His cell phone was in the other room and the house phone was in the kitchen. Was he worried enough, though, to dislodge the snoozing bundle in his lap?
Yes, he was. Gently, Buck twisted and lowered his long legs from the couch, gathering up JD as he moved. By the time he settled the boy into the lower bunk and returned to the kitchen it was a quarter past ten. He snatched up the kitchen phone and dialed Chris' cell.
"Mercy General," a female voice replied, momentarily stunning Buck.
"What? Who is this?" he demanded as his heart rate increased.
"This is Nurse Simmons at Mercy General Hospital. Are you related to Christopher Larabee? I have his cell phone."
"No. Yes. I mean, I have his medical power of attorney. What happened?"
"It seems, Mr. . . ?
"Wilmington. Buck Wilmington."
"Mr. Wilmington, Mr. Larabee has been in an accident and was air lifted to us."
Buck fought to keep his voice low and began to pace the kitchen. "Why wasn't he taken to Four Corners?"
"Mercy General is the designated trauma center for major injuries. Mr. Larabee is alive, but he's been severely injured. It seems he hit a deer and then swerved into a tree. He's been unconscious."
"What about Vin?" Buck breathed.
There was a hesitation. "Vin?"
"Yeah, his son. Vin was with him."
"Mr. Larabee came in alone. I didn't hear anything about a passenger. The boy could have been transported to Four Corners if he wasn't badly hurt."
That didn't make sense to the anxious agent. If Vin wasn't badly hurt, he or a nurse would have called home. If he was hurt at all, he would have been transported with Chris. Suddenly, Buck felt sick.
"What agency responded to the crash?" he asked, now all business. "Where did it happen?"
The next part of the hour was frantic, both cell and house phones utilized in Buck's search for information. He got the accident location from the responding agency's dispatch and sent Josiah to the scene since he lived closest to it. While he waited for the officer handling the report to call, Buck checked every hospital in the area. The county morgue number was at his fingertips but he couldn't get himself to dial it. Just the thought made his palms sweat and his eyes burn.
The cell vibrated and Buck snatched it up from the counter. "Wilmington."
"Agent Wilmington? This is Officer Beckett. I'm taking the paper on Agent Larabee's crash."
"Did you get to the scene before the paramedics?"
"Yeah. It was relayed by On Star from the truck itself at about 7:10 this evening after the airbags deployed. Good thing, because he was hurt pretty bad."
"Did you see Vin? Chris' eight-year-old son? They were together."
The momentary hesitation made Buck's stomach twist. "No, I didn't. There was no indication of a passenger at all. Hold on." Officer Beckett spoke rapidly to someone else. "You sure they were together? My partner checked the area around the truck when we got here, but if the boy was small enough he could have been ejected quite a distance through the windshield. We're still here taking measurements. We'll check again and I'll call you back."
Buck could hear Officer Beckett yell to someone prior to disconnecting. He took a deep breath to stop his hands from trembling and immediately called Josiah.
"Sanchez," the team profiler answered.
"Josiah, are you on scene?"
"Just got here."
"They're looking for Vin. He may have been ejected. Keep me updated, will you?"
"You don't have to ask, Buck. It looks like the officer and his partner are the only ones here." Josiah's breathing told Buck the agent was walking. "The truck's been towed already and everyone else is gone. I'm sure they can use the help searching."
"Josiah . . ." Buck found it difficult push words through his thickening throat.
"We'll find him, Buck. Call Ezra and Nathan to help. It's pretty dark out here. And if the damage to the tree is any indication, there's a good chance Vin's hurt."
Buck swallowed, a strangled noise escaping from his mouth.
"I'll check in regularly," Josiah said calmly. "Now go call the other guys. We can use 'em." Buck was grateful for Josiah's steadiness.
"Okay," Buck managed to choke before hanging up. Every instinct told him to bolt, to get to the scene and look for his other son but he knew he had to be here for JD. He called Nathan and Ezra, telling them what had happened and where to meet Josiah. The conversations were very short.
With nothing else to do for the moment Buck called Mercy General to get an update on Chris. It was going to be a long night; he just hoped there would be answers by dawn.
By midnight, Josiah had checked in twice without any news and Buck felt like screaming. He paced a track in the living room rug, even wearing out their two young dogs. Finally, he knew he had to act. Snapping up the phone he started to dial Mrs. Potter, the boys' regular weekday caretaker, but remembered that she was out of town for the weekend. Nettie? He considered the boys' old caseworker for a moment but knew she'd recently taken on raising her niece and Buck didn't want to disrupt the two of them. Raine – no doubt she wasn't asleep anyway after Nathan had been called away.
The phone was picked up on the second ring. "Buck? You need me?" she said immediately.
Buck nearly cried in relief. "Yeah, sweetheart, I do. I don't want to leave JD and I don't want to wake him up, either. I don't want to upset him without any news."
"I'm already dressed. I'll be there in twenty minutes. Good thing I know all the local cops from the hospital."
That gave Buck a welcomed laugh. "Be careful, woman. It's dark and cold out there." When he thought of Vin, his throat constricted and he fought back a sob.
"I'm on my way."
When Raine arrived just before 1:00 Buck burst from the house, pulling on his heavy coat. "Chris is at Mercy General. I'll call when I know anything. If you hear anything. . ."
"I'll call," she said softly, quickly giving him a wave. "Go."
It was just before 2:00 when Buck blew into Mercy's Emergency Room, demanding to see Chris. Waylaid by a nurse to fill out some paperwork, he hurried through the sheets and then was directed to the second floor, Intensive Care. When he arrived in the area he slowed, looking for the nurse's station. Once there, a middle aged nurse led him to the center room.
"He had surgery to stop some bleeding in his abdomen and they had to remove his spleen, according to the doctor. He has a major concussion, a small skull fracture and stitches over his left eye. His left arm and leg are broken, but they broke cleanly and should heal without any problems. Considering what happened, he was lucky to have survived."
"He hit a deer?" Buck choked, unable to tear his eyes from the still, bruised form of his friend and boss.
"Apparently so, then ran into a tree. The deer should have killed him, as far as it was inside the truck, and the truck was wrapped well around the tree. The medics had a time extricating him."
Buck watched the monitors flicker blue light across Chris' face. The steady beep of the heart monitor was the only indication that he was alive.
"You can go in for ten minutes. Talk to him."
Nodding, Buck entered the room and found a spot between wires, tubes and IV racks where he could reach Chris' right hand. Taking it in his own, Buck was shocked at how cold it felt so he covered Chris' hand with both of his own as he leaned in. "Hey, Chris. I can't lie, pard, but I've seen ya look better. You just rest and I'll take care of everything, you hear? Relax while you have a chance."
Buck noticed how translucent Chris' right eyelid was – he could see tiny blue veins running through it like rivers on a roadmap. Heavy bandages, spotted red, covered his left eye and the left side of his forehead. Purpling bruises peeked out from the snowy gauze. "Looks like you're gonna have a hell of a headache, boss, but hey – you work with Ezra so you're used to it." Buck swallowed hard, fighting to keep his cool. "I'll watch over the boys, Chris, don't you worry about that one little bit."
"Time," the nurse called softly from the doorway.
"Gotta go, ol' son, but I'll be back, okay? You rest easy. Buck's in charge now."
He carefully laid the cold, still hand back on the mattress and backed away. "How the hell can I tell him we lost Vin?" he thought, his eyes starting to burn again.
Once out of the room, he turned and fled.
Ezra stood at the edge of the trees and pondered. He didn't want to believe what his eyes were telling him, but he certainly couldn't deny it. He wasn't much of a tracker but the little things he'd learned over the years were enough in this case. Agent Standish hoped there was more to it and they'd come across Vin at any moment, but his mind whispered otherwise.
Vin had been taken.
Someone had tried to cover the tracks but had done an appallingly poor job. Now all he had to do was tell someone what he had found and that was proving to be more difficult than he could ever imagine. He'd almost rather find his precious adopted nephew near-frozen in a ditch; the implications of this kind of kidnapping turned his stomach.
They had been searching for hours. Other officers were called in and the circle of searchers slowly grew and expanded, none of them finding any evidence that Vin had ever been here. Most of them were gathered by the nearly frozen pond nearly a hundred yards from the crash scene, waiting for the cold water rescue team.
Ezra, though, knew it would be futile. As he stood with a fluttering heart staring at the faint marks in the patches of old snow and damp earth, the sound of crunching footfall told him someone was approaching.
"Ezra." Nathan sounded as weary as Ezra felt.
"Mr. Jackson," Ezra responded automatically, his voice as whispery like the cloudy puff that came from his mouth.
"You comin' to the pond?"
Ezra considered the idea. He knew, though, that the motion would only serve to harbor false hope for a brief while. He ducked his head and jammed his hands more deeply into the pockets of his custom cut wool overcoat. "No," he finally whispered, accepting the inevitable. "Vin's not there."
In the corner of his eye he saw Jackson's head snap in his direction. "What? How do you know that? Where is he, then?"
"I fear he's gone, Mr. Jackson; spirited away by a nefarious soul." He withdrew one hand and waved it over the hastily covered tracks. "He's gone."
Nathan turned his attention to the ground. Ezra's finger indicated the trail he'd visually exhumed from the snow. Seeing Nathan's confused look, Standish retrieved his flashlight, ficked it on and held it low to the ground, perpendicular to the nearly invisible tracks. The resulting shadows jumped out as black on white and told the tale.
"Damn," was all Nathan uttered.
There was a visible line of tracks leading from where they stood into the woods. They both knew that the line lead directly to the crash site and paralleled the tracks of the doomed deer. Nathan's gaze followed the trail backwards to an area behind them. Ezra shifted his flash light in that direction, showing that the trail stopped perpendicular to two parallel tracks.
"Tire tracks. Vin was carried to another vehicle and then they tried to cover the tracks," Nathan realized. "They took the booster seat, too. That's why there was no indication of a passenger."
Ezra nodded to one side. "The branch they used to sweep the evidence is over there. The leaves – I mean needles – of the branch do not match the tree under which is lies, although the responsible party tried to conceal that fact."
Nathan pressed the flat of his hand against his stomach and looked decidedly ill as the realization obviously sunk in. "Oh, Lord," he whispered. "We have to tell the others and check all the clinics and hospitals in the area. We also gotta check the list of registered sex offenders around here."
"I know for a fact that Mr. Wilmington has already called the hospitals in the area. Whoever did this does not want to be found. The first thing we need to do is initiate an Amber Alert." He pulled out his cell phone and began to dial. "Although I think it, too, is a moot point."
Nathan headed to the pond. After a few steps he stopped and turned. "I sure don't want to be the one to tell Chris about this. I'm gonna pray we find Vin before Chris wakes up."
"I am on board with that train of thought, Mr. Jackson."
"WHAT?" Buck realized that every head on the floor whipped in his direction. Unfazed, he only turned his back to them and strode to the deepest corner of the waiting room. Enroute, he glanced at his watch and automatically realized that JD would be waking up in less than two hours. "You're telling me Vin's been kidnapped?"
It was hard to hear with his heart pounding so loudly in his ears. Buck rubbed his dry eyes and took a breath as he tried to focus his thoughts. "That makes the truck a crime scene. Ezra, make sure forensics goes over it with a fine-toothed comb. Josiah and Nathan need to make sure the crash site is sealed off until morning and another forensics team gets there and then someone has to get over here. Chris can't wake up alone." Buck ran his hand over his eyes and swallowed the large lump growing in his throat. "I need to get to the ranch. JD will need me when he wakes up."
Satisfied things were in control as much as they could possibly be under the circumstances, Buck slipped his cell phone away and sank into the closest chair, head in hands. "Where are you, Vin?" he whispered, his voice raw.
Four days passed, four long, agony-ridden days with no further information and no results. No clues. No chances to find his second son.
Buck walked wearily down the crowded hospital corridor feeling absolutely alone. The doctors said Chris would be allowed out of his medically induced coma today since the swelling on his brain had reduced to a safe level. They didn't predict any brain damage; Buck shook his head with the thought. They didn't take into account the heart damage that would occur when his friend found out that Vin was gone.
The F.B.I. worked very hard in the past three days and had nothing. Vin had vanished like a puff of smoke in the wind. Buck's eyes burned anew, not an unfamiliar feeling in these last days. Unconsciously, he rubbed his biceps where JD's tiny finger bruises reminded him both physically and visually that he wasn't the only family member in pain. And soon there'd be another name on that list.
Buck Wilmington was tired – exhausted beyond any imagined belief. Between searching, checking on Chris and trying to soothe JD, he hadn't had much time to rest. Or eat. Or attend to any of the basics of living day to day. He just wanted this to be over, but it was beginning to look like it would never be over.
Buck scrubbed his weary eyes knowing they were bloodshot. He'd spent the last three nights in the rocking chair with JD until the boy cried himself to sleep, clutched to his Da's clothing like a frightened kitten. Morning always brought a sore neck, stiff back, sweaty shirts and red-rimmed, puffy eyes.
He sighed, continuing on with the day without really thinking anymore. "Just do it," was his mantra for each increment of time. With a miserable sigh, Buck pushed open the hospital room door, pausing with a tentative smile at the woman sitting there holding Chris' hand as best as she could around his cast. It had taken Claire Larabee a while to accept Vin as Chris' son, but once done, she was as devoted as a grandmother should be. Her red rimmed eyes and gaunt cheeks were proof enough of her sense of loss.
"Buck." Chris' father extended his hand as he pushed up from the wobbly chair at his wife's side.
"Matt," Buck said, his voice sounding strangled to his own ears. They shook hands briefly. "Did you get any rest yesterday?"
"Some," Matthew Larabee replied, taking his seat. Husband and wife looked rumpled and worn.
Buck found a place on the other side of Chris' bed and rested his hands on the cold side rail. "Did the docs say when he'd come around?"
"Any time now," Claire answered softly. Buck could see her thumb gently stroke the back of Chris' fingers protruding from the cast as her hand rested on top. "They removed the ventilator around three this morning."
"Good." Buck appraised his friend's face with sad eyes. Tape marks were still visible around his mouth and the general swelling had receded, leaving behind red-streaked bruises and multiple scrapes. The line of stitches that bisected his left eyebrow looked blacker than the fading bruises and, under all that, Chris' skin was a sickly pallor. The unshaven stubble of beard was the only natural color the man had at the moment.
And when he opened his eyes, the natural hazel would be dull and shadowed, lacking the spark that Vin had rekindled.
Buck took a deep breath to keep back the tears. They had decided to let Claire tell him about Vin; she had insisted, actually. Buck would then fill in the facts they knew. Matthew would be there to support his wife when she broke down; they held no illusion that she wouldn't. They were ready. All that was left was for Chris to do his part and wake up.
The subtle signs of awareness slowly began to show. Matthew stepped aside and called for the doctor. By the time he got there, a nurse trailing behind, wakefulness was apparent. Chris' heart rate sped up slightly and his breathing hitched. Arms and legs twitched and then shifted. The casts on his left side limbs allowed minimal movement.
"Mr. Larabee?" Doctor Mills dropped the rail on Buck's side and leaned over. He peeled back an eyelid, flashing the pupil with a light. "You're in the hospital, Chris. Don't move too quickly. Are you awake now?" Returning the flashlight to his pocket he rested on hand on Chris' shoulder and the other on his hip to keep him from rolling too much to either side as he woke.
A low moan rumbled from Chris' dry throat and Buck saw his eyes roll under his eyelids.
"Christopher?" Claire said lowly, now on her feet and leaning close. "Honey, do you hear me?"
Finally, slivers of dusty green emerged and he blinked, confused.
"Chris?" Matt peered over his wife's shoulder. "How're ya doin', son?"
Chris' head rolled slightly in his direction. "Dad?" Buck saw the word form on his lips rather than hear it. Chris coughed a little. "Mom?" The second word was scratchy and soft, but more easily understood.
"Hi, honey. I'm so happy to see your eyes open." Claire stroked his cheek and smiled.
Chris blinked at her and tried to say something again. It came out as a croak.
"Here." The nurse moved in and raised the head of the bed as Dr. Mills scribbled on Chris' chart. "How about some ice chips? Not too much."
Buck took the cue and grabbed the plastic cup on the bedside table. He angled it and dug out a few shards with the plastic spoon and bumped it against Chris' lip.
"Careful now," he said, causing Chris to frown as he parted his dry lips. Buck let the ice slide into Chris' mouth and he worked his jaw a moment. Then Chris' eyes found him and a small furrow creased his forehead in thought.
"Hey, pard. You look like a mile 'o bad road."
One corner of Chris' lips twitched, attempting a grin. "Feel . . . shit." His gaze flicked toward Claire. "Sorry."
She smiled, her eyes shiny. "It's okay, son."
After she said the word, Chris' expression fell and he looked puzzled for a moment, then his eyes widened and the heart monitor sang. "Vin!" he choked, struggling to sit up. "Where . . . where's Vin?"
The nurse moved to keep her patent from rising but Buck pushed his way in and took over. He pressed his friend's shoulders into the mattress with little effort and leaned over, telling him to calm down. Claire kept her hold on Chris' cast with both hands, tears running down her cheeks. Matt held the leg cast to the bed.
"Chris, stop. Stop movin' around or you're gonna hurt yourself more." Buck heard the doctor behind him say something to the nurse, who then pulled a bottle and syringe from her pocket as the doctor moved closer.
"Mr. Larabee – Chris – calm down or we will have to sedate you," the doctor gently insisted. "You've had surgery. . ."
Chris ignored the doctor and locked his eyes on Buck's. "Where's he, Buck? Where's Vin?"
Buck opened his mouth but nothing came out. He licked his lips and tried again, taking a breath. "Chris . . ." he started.
So much for the plan for Claire to break the news gently.
"WHERE IS HE?" Chris surged upward as the nurse grabbed the IV line. "TELL ME!"
"Honey," Claire sobbed.
Chris' hard eyes turned on his mother and instantly softened. When they focused again on Buck, they were etched with a pain that been gone for years. "Buck!" he begged. "Just tell me . . . please!"
"We don't know, Chris," Buck finally admitted in a shaky voice. "We just don't know. We can't find him anywhere. We think someone took him."
Whether from drugs, shock or pain Chris collapsed back into the mattress. "What do you mean? You can't find him?" He tried to sit up again, but pain made him wince and twist awkwardly. "Then look harder! He was with me!"
"I know, I know, Chris." Buck relaxed the pressure on his friend's shoulders. Beneath his hands, Chris trembled like a lost leaf in the wind. "It looks like he was taken from the crash site. He's gone. It's been four days and we don't have a clue. I'm sorry, Chris. I'm so sorry." Buck's voice cracked at the last and hot tears seared a path down his unshaven face.
Chris looked stunned as the sedation kicked in. He shifted his wide-eyed gaze from Buck to Claire. She could only stroke his arm, sorrow and tears stealing away any platitudes.
"They're still looking, Chris," Matthew said in a tentative voice. His son's eyes drifted, stunned, in his direction. "We'll never give up looking."
Chris' eyes filled as his body relaxed from the drug but he didn't drop his gaze. "He's mine, dad. Vin's mine. I can't lose him . . . I can't take it again – I just can't. I have to find him. I will find him . . . Vin . . . I was just talkin' to him . . ." Finally, he couldn't fight it any more and Chris' eyelids flagged shut. Even in his forced sleep, his breath hitched and tears trickled from under his lashes. His lips moved in wordless begging.
The nurse slid in front of Buck and adjusted the nasal cannula as she took his pulse. The doctor stood back, making notes and looking a bit grim.
"I don't think I can take it again, either, pard," Buck muttered, wiping his eyes with the heel of his hand. One glance at the others told him that he didn't stand alone.