Chapter 14

Friday ~July 7th

MCAT Office~5:30 am

Vin gave up any attempt to sleep, although knowing that his family was close by and safe was comforting, too many thoughts crowded into his head. The entirety of the last twenty-four hours was weighing heavily on his mind. By means of automatic motions, he dressed, made coffee and prepared the office for the coming day. He sat in Kelli’s chair at her desk, allowing her and the kids to sleep undisturbed, while he silently drank his coffee.

Tanner, you are a hypocrite, you talk big about facing fears, but right now you want Kel out of this mess and at home, no discussion. JD is laying in a hospital bed paralyzed, there was only five feet making the difference between Ezra being alive or dead and Kel…You could have lost her, as well as the kids yesterday Vin and why? Because of this job…is it worth the risk? Isn’t it enough that one of you is out here every day facing the bad guys? Do you both have to do it? Do you have the right to ask her to quit? Would you feel any better if she did? Hell Tanner, when did you turn into a coward?

The Texan saw the object of his thoughts coming toward him and he had to smile. Seeing her first thing in the morning was something that immeasurably pleased him. As he watched her gracefully move toward him with a smile on her face that he knew was for him, Vin again thanked the higher powers of fate that brought her into his life. He also wondered how many times you could fall in love with the same woman in one lifetime. “Mornin’, Mom.

Kelli slid her butt onto the top of the desk and leaned forward for a kiss, her voice was still rough sounding, but stronger. “Mornin’ to you too, Dad, you look as if you’re havin’ quite a conversation with yourself. Wanna share?” She sipped on her own cup of coffee.

“Just thinkin’ about things in general,” He rolled the chair directly in front of her, rested his forearms on her thighs, leaned forward, and sighed. “That’s not completely true. I was thinkin’ about how I could ask you to quit and stay at home with the kids without feeling like a first class hypocrite.”

She ran her fingers through Vin’s hair and tilted his head so she could see his eyes. “I’ll stay at home Vin, if you’re askin’ me for the right reasons. However a wise man told me just a few days ago, ‘don’t give in to your fear, but don’t keep it locked up either’. That was very sage advice.”

“Wise man huh? Well, that wise man has discovered that when it comes to his family, his apprehensions have the upper hand. This can be a damned ugly job Kel and I hate havin’ you and the kids touched by that part of it.”

“Vin, it’s an ugly job sometimes because it can be an ugly world and when good people quit fightin’, the bad guys will win. We cannot protect our kids from all the bad in life, but we can try and do somethin’ about the terrible things out there that can harm them. We have to let our faith guide us and do what we believe is the right thing to do to make this a better place for ‘em. I need to do my part in contributin’ to that goal without lettin’ fear, be it yours or mine, decide for me.”

The Texan knew from the beginning, that they would have to take each day as it came, love each other and have enough faith in a higher power that they would be granted a long life together. It seemed that he needed to hear that gentle reminder about faith and his own words repeated back to him, to put his fear in the proper perspective. “I reckon I should take my own advice” Vin stood up and drew her to him. “Do you remember everythin’ I tell you?”

“Mrs. Wise Eagle remembers every word.” Kelli wrapped her arms around him. “Vin, there will come a time that I will want to be at home with our kids, especially when we have five or six or seven or ‘em.” She had to stop and laugh at his expression of astonishment. “Okay maybe not that many, but at least a couple more. In the meantime I want to come back to work. I talked to Mallory last night and she offered to take care of the kids for us today, while Inez helps Casey. We can make arrangements with Max over the weekend to help, too.”

Tanner knew he would always worry about his redhead, but then she worried about him, too and fair was fair. “We’ll take ‘em out to the ranch together and then stop at the firin’ range on the way back here.” He took his time claiming a long leisurely kiss, taking advantage of their alone time before their day started.

They didn’t hear the elevator door open, but they did hear the unmistakable thread of amusement in Chris’ voice. “Okay time out, this is a G rated office.”

A lazy movement of his hand had Vin checking his watch and he groused. “Hell Chris, it’s barely six and besides we haven’t even made it to R rated yet.” He heard Kelli’s soft laughter against his shoulder and smiled. “What are you doin’ here so early?”

“I thought everyone would be hungry so I left early enough to arrange for breakfast to be delivered. It should be here in about fifteen minutes. You two the only ones up?”

“Yep, but we probably won’t be for long. I heard someone movin’ around in the lounge area and if the kids are on schedule they’ll be runnin’ around soon. I already called the hospital this mornin’ and there is no change on JD’s condition.”

Chris nodded, “We need to make some decisions today. Let’s have everyone meet at eleven and go over what we have.”

Kelli gave Vin one more tantalizing kiss. “I think I’ll get the kids up and turn Tanner’s workspace back into an office. Then I’m takin’ the kids to Mallory and comin’ back here to work.” She left to get started.

“Is she up to working?” Chris watched her go.

“Yeah and this is somethin’ she needs to do. She can take her truck to the house and I’ll follow ‘em. As much as I’d like to keep ‘em wrapped up here safe and sound…I know that’s not possible. We’ll leave her vehicle at the ranch and stop by the firin’ range on the way back here so she can certify. We should be back in time for your meetin’.”

“Who stayed besides Ezra?” They walked together toward the meeting room.

“Justin and Ross just traded off surveillance with Raphael and Paul; Buck is on guard duty at the hospital, Mark stayed and helped Pam with CASSIE.” Vin hesitated to bring up a sensitive subject. “Chris we need to have a back-up operator for CASSIE, Pam will need some relief, and we need Mark in the field.”

Chris stopped walking and was quiet for a minute. “I’ve already thought about that and as much as I hate to even consider that JD might not be back, we do need to find someone else that can operate CASSIE or be trained to do so. Truthfully, we should already have done so and regardless of the outcome with JD we will add another computer operative.”

A sleepy-eyed southerner joined them. “Gentlemen, do we have a report on our young brother this morning?”

“Sorry to say, nothing has changed.” Chris gave Standish the once over to assess his condition. “Breakfast will be here in a few minutes, coffee’s ready now.”

Vin stopped him before he moved to the coffeemaker. “”Ez, we’re takin’ the kids to the ranch, but Jason has somethin’ to give you before we leave,”

“I will make a point of conversing with the young man before you depart.” Ezra continued on to claim a cup of caffeine, hoping that it would see him through facing breakfast at this hour of the morning.

The food and the children arrived at the same time. “Thanks Uncle Chris, ‘m starved.” Jason immediately took the offered plate from Chris.

“Me too,” Andi chimed in.

Chris laughed, “Here you go, Miss Me Too.”

Kelli walked in and stood next to Vin. “Except for the roll-a-way bed, your office is back in shape and the bags to take with us are sittin’ by the door.”

Tanner handed her a plate of food. “You had best eat while you have the chance, as soon as they’re finished we’ll leave”.

She sat down next to Jason and the second he finished he turned and asked.” Can we do it now Mom?” Noting the Andi was done eating, too, she agreed and Jason zipped off to get his gift for Ezra.

Andi slipped off her chair and went over to Standish, pulling on his sleeve. “Uncle Ra, we want you feel better.”

Ezra sat the young girl in his lap and smiled. “How could I not when such a lovely young lady is concerned for me?”

Jason was back and seeing the look of confusion on his sister’s face, tried to help. “I think he means that you make him feel better Andi.”

“Indeed, you both know how to make your uncle feel better.” Ezra pulled Jason into a hug.

“We got this for you. Mom said she thought you would like it and we didn’t want you to forget so…” Jason handed him a beautifully wrapped box.

Two sets of little eyes watched Ezra handle their gift. “Perhaps y’all could assist me in opening this lovely package.” Quickly small hands were tearing off the paper and when the contents were revealed Standish was not sure what to say. Inside the box was an exact replica of his beloved jag, including its precise color. He lifted the model and was deeply touched that these two little ones realized how much that car meant to him. Not the monetary value, but as an extension of the persona he portrayed to the world “Thank you both, this is something that I will treasure always.” He hugged them again and was rewarded with two radiant smiles that he would never forget.

“Okay gang, time to move out.” Vin told the kids to grab their stuff and herded them toward the elevator, throwing a message to Larabee as they left. “We’ll be back in a couple of hours.”

Denver Memorial Hospital ~ 9:00am

Dr. Gilford came by for the morning rounds and had nothing new to tell Casey. It would take time for the swelling to reduce and until then, he did not expect any changes in JD’s condition.

“Mrs. Dunne, we’re in this for the long haul, you need to rest when you can.” Dr. Gilford offered his advice. “Go home for a while and see your children, he won’t be conscience for at least another twelve hours.”

Casey was torn between needing to be here with JD and her need to be with the girls. She watched the machines and brushed his hair back with her fingers, wanting to be strong for him, but unable to stop the tears from falling. This was not supposed to happen to them! JD had a brilliant mind for computer programming and he should not be laying here in a hospital bed, unable to move from a bullet in his back. Not her JD!

“Hon, why don’t you let me take you to the girls for a while?” Inez spoke softly. “We can come back later this afternoon.”

“I…what if he needs me and I’m not here?” Casey could not take her eyes off the man that was the biggest part of her life.

Dr. Gilford tried again. “I promise to call you the second anything changes.” He placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. “Go hug your babies and tell them we are doing everything that we can for their daddy.”

“Darlin’, Nathan will be here in a few minutes and he will stay with JD until you get back.” Buck was having a difficult time himself dealing with this turn of events. He knew they all took risks, but for JD to be shot in the back by an unseen enemy and not even knowing why was tearing him up inside.

Casey made a decision, standing up she leaned over and kissed her husband. “I’ll be back soon, I’m going to see the girls and tell them that their daddy is going to be fine. Do not make a liar out of me, JD Dunne.”

Buck hugged Casey and kissed Inez before they left. He would wait for Nathan and then he was going back to the office. “I promise you JD, I will find the bastard responsible for this. You have my word.”

MCAT office ~ 10:45 am

Chris had called Pam into his office; she was having a hard time dealing with JD’s injuries, too. However he had to consider the needs of the unit and wanted her input before he made a decision on how to proceed.

“Pam, regardless of how things turn out for JD, we need someone else skilled to use CASSIE. I need you to tell me what qualifications are necessary for someone that you can train.”

“Sir, are you saying JD won’t be back?” Pam had never attached herself to the people she worked with until she came to MCAT and found it damn hard to even consider that JD might not be coming back.

“No, but it will take time. Even when he returns, I feel that we need at least one more person that can operate CASSIE. We should have done this a long time ago, but it’s time to correct that oversight on my part, prepare me a list of requirements and I will go over it.”

“Yes sir, will that be all?”

“Just keeping working on the information we need and Pam…We are not giving up on JD, not now, not ever.”

Chris leaned back in his chair when she left and thought about the situation with his unit. What in the hell is so important to someone in California that warrants trying to kill three of my people? Drugs? Guns? Hell, if it was just that why risk killing three federal agents when they could protect their activities by simply moving their base of operations. What in the hell did we fall into the middle of?

Good question, Cowboy.

Vin walked in and threw a file on Chris’ desk. “Accordin’ to my sources, the hits were ordered by someone high up in an international organization as a warnin’ to MCAT to back off from our investigation. They’re still workin’ on a name, but we are talkin’ about some big time players. Looks as if drugs may be part of it, but I think it’s somethin’ more than that. What exactly it is, I don’t know yet, but I will.”

“I want to keep surveillance on that address we have here in Denver. We won’t hit it until we know what we are dealing with; it may be our only way to connect to a name in California. It may take time, but we will do it right.”

“Ez refuses to take any more time off, he volunteered to do the backgrounds on the men we have identified going to that address.”

“If he’s here we can keep an eye on him, Kel too, until we know if the hits have been cancelled or aborted. We keep someone with JD 24/7 and I’ve already informed Ezra he staying at the ranch.” Chris ran his fingers through his hair. “I know it doesn’t seem like it with JD laying in the hospital, but we have been lucky. We could have very easily been attending three or more funerals this week.”

“That is not somethin’ that ‘m likely to forget anytime soon and I have no intention of lettin’ Kel get too far away from me. She won’t like it, but she’ll have to live with it until ‘m convinced this threat is over. Max is gonna stay at the house with the kids and they should be safe at the ranch.

“I’m sure Inez will stick close to Casey and I’ve asked Mallory to stay on the ranch with the kids until we know where we stand.” Chris looked at his watch, stood and stretched. “Let’s get ‘em all in the war room and see what we’ve got.”

War Room ~ 11:00 am

Justin and Ross were still on surveillance duty, while Nathan was at the hospital with JD, but everyone else was present. Chris scanned the room and took in the condition of his agents. Buck looked awful after spending the night at the hospital with the Dunnes. Ezra and Kelli still wore visual proof of their recent attacks, yet they were willing to do whatever was necessary to help. The rest were in various stages of shock and just plain tired.

“Pam, what do you have for us?” Chris deliberately started with her because she was having the biggest problem shaking off the events of the last few days.

“I have the information and backgrounds on the known associates of both assailants.” She gave Larabee a stack of folders. “I also cross-checked the phone numbers on both their cells and in addition to the address we have under surveillance, they had one other number in common. It traces back to an O’Mara Enterprises, which is the same company that was listed on the work visas for the men killed at the warehouse. I am still working on the other phone numbers, but most of them go to disposable cell phones that are untraceable. I also have the list you requested.” Pam passed the list of qualifications for a CASSIE trainee to Chris.

Raphael was next. “Paul and I have been checking into the background of the people that went into the home at the address we have under surveillance. All are Caucasian males, generally under the age of forty, well dressed and after running their license number we found many other similarities. Ninety-eight percent of them, are college educated, employed, make over thirty thousand dollars a year and seventy-five percent are married. They are definitely not your average drug dealers and did not carry any bags either in or out of the residence.”

Paul continued. “None stayed longer than one hour and did not appear to be high or intoxicated when they left. In a twelve-hour period there were thirty-six males that entered that house. The house is a rental and the name on the lease agreement does not come up in our database, it is probably an alias. The current occupants have been in residence for eighteen months.”

“When we used heat-sensitive surveillance equipment we found several people on the ground floor that appears to be adult males. However upstairs, there were smaller bodies, women or perhaps younger individuals, at least six or seven of them that never came downstairs. Although several of the visitors did go upstairs and got damn close to whoever was waiting for them,” Raphael added.

“Are you suggesting that all we got from those bastards was the address of a whorehouse? Buck was exasperated. “We’re wasting out time on prostitution?

“The evidence does imply that whatever is going on in there is of a sexual nature.” Paul answered. “Of course that does not mean that there are no drugs on the premises.”

“Raphael, you said that the bodies upstairs could belong to women or of young people. How young do you think?” Kelli had something nagging at her and could not place what it was.

“It’s hard to tell, but you can bet none of them are innocents in a place like that.”

That was it! Kelli whispered to herself, “The right buyer will pay well for all that young blond innocence and I know where to find them.” She felt sick and turned pale. “God, help them!” Pieces were falling into place and making sense to her.

Vin immediately saw the change come over her and was concerned. “Kel, are you all right?”

“NO! That bastard wasn’t just spoutin’ off to hear himself talk; he knew exactly what he was sayin’. ‘The right buyer will pay well for all that young blond innocence’! He was talking about Jason and Andi because he knew where a buyer was!” Her fears had just turned to anger and for Kelli that meant doing whatever she could to stop the abuse going on in that house.

“What are you talking about?” Paul was lost.

CSEC, Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children. I’d bet you that there is not a girl in there over the age of sixteen and that they take special orders from their clients for other preferences. Talk about a money-makin’ business…the profit on drugs pales in comparison to what they can make sellin’ children. Did you know that child traffickin’ is the second most lucrative business in the world?”

Buck though she had lost her mind. “Kel, we are talking about the good old USA here, not some third world country

“So am I, 50,000 to 100,000 women and children are victims of traffickin’ each year in the United States, with no sign that this modern- day form of slavery is decreasin’. In fact, accordin’ to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, traffickin’ is the fastest growin’ criminal industry in the world. Unfortunately there is plenty of merchandise out there for them to pick up at any given time.”

Josiah had been looking over the reports. “Your description of the ‘customers’ fit the profile of men that look for young girls or boys to satisfy there needs. Kel is right about the availability, too. In this country there are over one million homeless children annually and according to the FBI stats, over two thousand people are reported missing each day. We still have over three hundred and fifty children missing from the foster care system in Louisiana since hurricane Katrina.”

Kelli added. “On top of that, over 450,000 children runaway each year from the ages of eleven to fifteen and most of them end up on the street, prime targets for traffickin’. Add to that another 438,000 that are lost, injured or otherwise missin’. Then you have the throwaway kids, more than 127,000 children each year are thrown out by their families and left to fend for themselves and these figures do not even include children at risk from internet predators. One twelve-year-old female can be worth thirty thousand dollars to a trafficker. Younger children from the ages of two and up are not only sexually exploited, but are used to make pornographic materials that can be sold. There are individual traffickers, but there are also organized crime syndicates that not only import from other countries, but export from here, also.”

“They keep them in line though, violence, intimidation, change of identities, isolation and drug addiction. They are not cared for and often end up with STDs, Aids, or other complications from sexual abuse. These kids have no one to go to for help because corrupt local officials take payoffs to turn the other way. These kids either earn their quota or risk being beaten or killed as an example for the others.” Josiah had seen too many of them come into the shelters. “Even the ones that are not used by others end up have to use sex just to survive the streets.”

“A house like the one you’re watchin’ can make over 1.5 million dollars in a two year period with as few as eight kids. They rotate them from one house to another all over the country so they cannot form attachments and to keep fresh merchandise, for their customers.” Kelli could almost recite the statistics from memory.

For Chris the pieces were starting to fall into place. Costa Mesa certainly had access to shipping, the locals were hiding some form of money making operation and that could very well the import and export of humans. Vin’s informant said an international organization was involved in ordering the hits on his people and taking the risk of killing three federal agents to hide this type of lucrative business made sense.

“Paul, Mark, I want you to relieve Justin and Ross, for now we observe only. Pam get me more information on O’Mara Enterprises and Raphael, I want you to get me an exact number of immigrants that received work visas for O’Mara, if possible a list of names to go with it.” Chris was already thinking ahead. If this was child trafficking he wanted to go after the men at the top of the organization. “Go on, get to it!” The agents scrambled out of the room to work on their assignments.

Buck was overwhelmed by all this information. “I had no idea that could be happening here”

Josiah answered. “Buck, children as young as three or four can be victims, often sold by family members. But it can be any age up to seventeen and still be considered sexual exploitation of a child.”

“Jesus, those are the ages of my girls! How can… Who could…What happens to those kids that are abuse at such a young age?

Kelli thought hard before she answered, but decided it was time to follow though on her promise to herself. “Some of them simply perish and some stay workin’ at prostitution, they die from drug overdoses or diseases or end up homeless on the streets. Others survive, grow up and try to help new victims. I was one of the survivors.”

The silence around the table after her revelation was deafening. Ezra knew most of the story about Kelli’s past, as it had been he, who had gone with Vin to Texas to track his wife down and he had heard the entire story. He knew how painful a subject it was for Kelli to talk about and was therefore, amazed that she had decided to talk about it in front of Josiah and Buck. Vin, however, was not surprised. He knew that Kelli had finally reached a point, emotionally, that she felt that she was able to share her history with the other members of their extended family. She had only been waiting for the right opportunity to do so.

“What do you mean, you are a survivor? Buck asked, shocked by her bold statement.

“I mean exactly that. What Chris did not tell you, was … what happened after Marissa abandoned me; her father stuck me into an overcrowded system that had no places open to put another child.”

Chris had remained silent as he listened to his daughter talk about a subject that she knew too much about. “Kel you don’t have to explain.”

“I know I don’t, but sometimes to see the future you have to let go of your past. My future revolves around our kids now and I believe it’s time to let go and quit hidin’ what happened to me.” She looked to Vin for his reaction and saw only his support. “I handled things by closin’ off my emotions, and thanks to Vin, I don’t have to do that anymore.” Kelli was ready to tell the men her father and Vin considered brothers, and with whom she had become close to, everything about her past.

“When I was two, I was placed into a foster home in Austin. Six months later the woman was dead and the man that turned out not to be her husband disappeared with me. Two years later I was dumped in front of a church in San Antonio, near dead. I had been abused physically as well as sexually and no one had a clue to my identity or where I had been durin’ that time. The state gave me a name, guessed at a birth date and shuffled me around different foster homes for the next three years. The third time I ran away, a Texas Ranger named Jake McKenzie found me, became my guardian and taught me how to channel my anger into somethin’ constructive. That’s when I learned how to handle guns.” Kelli added that last statement as a footnote.

“Last year I finally pieced my life all together and found out about Chris. The missin’ two years are still unaccounted for, I know what resulted from what happened, to me but I will never have all the answers. I am only certain about how it has and always will affect my life. The man that took me died on death row in Florida awaitin’ execution for the rape-murder of a seven year old girl after he had spent a lifetime of preyin’ on children.”

Hearing Kelli’s explanation about her past, explained so much for Josiah. It told him why Chris’ battle with guilt over not discovering that he had a child had been so intense. Chris wasn’t only feeling bad for not being in his daughter’s life, but because as a father he felt that he had failed to protect her. It also helped him understand the depth of her relationship with Vin, why their marriage was strong and why she had only showed limited trust to the family in the beginning. Listening to her now however, proved just how far she had come over the last year and the profiler made a decision.

“You know your facts Kel and have a good understanding of the issue. Maybe you could work on this with me and see if we can find some answers.”

“Thanks Josiah, I’ll help anyway that I can.”

Buck didn’t know what to say. After everything that Chris had gone through in losing Sarah and Adam, it sure in the hell didn’t seem fair that his oldest friend was burdened with knowledge that the daughter he didn’t know he had, had survived such cruelty. He understood now why Chris hadn’t told him everything that had happened last year. It hadn’t been that Chris didn’t think that he could trust Buck with the knowledge, but because it hadn’t been his story to tell. It was Kelli’s and he felt privileged that she felt that she could trust him with something so private.

Costa Mesa, California

Victor Donner was not a happy man. When he paid to have a job done, he expected results. Those MCAT agents were still alive and he was short two of his men. Now all he could do is to wait and see if those dumb feds got his message. He turned to his assistant and issued an order.

“Tell Zimmerman that I want to know the outcome of the MCAT investigation and that he is responsible for making it ago away. Also tell him if they persist…he is a dead man.”

Chapter 15

MCAT Office

Buck was still trying to digest all the information presented at the meeting on child trafficking. “How is it that this is happening here in the United States, and we see nothing about it on the news or in print?”

“It’s not something that most Americans want to acknowledge, but in the last few years at least our lawmakers are taking a more serious stand on it. A new law passed by Congress last year allows stiffer punishment for those accused of crimes against children and will be used against the defendants. If convicted, some face potential life sentences without parole. Our AG has also launched an ongoing investigation dubbed ‘Innocence Lost,” which involves a nationwide crackdown on child prostitution and sex trafficking.” Josiah tried to keep up with all the newest information.

Chris possessed a little more knowledge about the subject than most. He had made a point to learn as much as he could so he could understand better what Kelli had been through. Although her experiences did not last more than two years, he realized that it was only fate that took her out of that situation. His research proved that most of the young victims did not fare as well. If they were dealing with child trafficking, he knew this case could have an effect on every member of his unit.

“We’ll give it another day or two and then we have to take a hard look at how we handle this one.” Chris was already mulling possibilities over in his mind. “Buck, check with Nathan and see how JD is doing. Ezra, I want you and Kel to put some background together on the people we can identify from that house. Josiah, I need a word with you please.”

Vin, stick around.

Larabee waited until everyone left, except Sanchez and Tanner. ”Vin, is Kel really all right with this?”

“Yeah, she has already talked to Rain about it and she wants to use her experience to help others. She figures that if she can tell the family, then she can work up to talkin’ to the potential foster parents at our meetin’s about it, when we start goin’ again. It will help ‘em to better deal with kids that have been in similar circumstances to hear from someone that knows how these children feel.”

“I have a feeling that this case is going to have an effect on all of us. Josiah that is one of the things I wanted to talk to you about. Let’s make sure and keep an eye on all the agents that work this one, when kids are involved emotions tend to wreck havoc on our resolve, whether we want them to or not. Tell me if you notice anyone that may have a problem handling what we find.”

“I will make sure they all know I am available to speak with at any time. It’s already hard for some of them dealing with what happened to Ezra, Kel and now JD.” Josiah watched Pam through the window. “Pam and Buck are the ones I am most concerned about for now and then Ezra. He seems to have pulled back from all of us since the explosion and I know he feels partially responsible for what happened to JD.”

Chris nodded; he had sensed the same thing with Standish. “That is one reason that I put him back to working with Kel. She has a good read on him when they are working together and she is straightforward enough to call him on any unusual behavior.”

“Ez will come around; he just needs some time to works out a few things.” Vin remarked.

“We’ll see if we need to do more.” Chris had a question for Josiah. “A few weeks ago Mallory told me she was thinking about going back to work. Is this something that you two have discussed?”

Josiah nodded. “We have, but Mal can’t decide what she wants to do. She loves law enforcement, but now that we have two children she doesn’t want back in the field.”

“I have an offer for her then, and plan to discuss it with her tonight. She is the perfect candidate to train on CASSIE and I believe she would be an asset for the team.”

Denver Memorial hospital

Chris arrived at the hospital about four and headed for JD”S room. Nodding at the guard at the door, he found Casey sitting alone with JD. Inez had stepped out to find something for the younger woman to drink besides water.

“Casey,” Larabee spoke softly. “Has Dr. Gilford been in yet?”

“No, he should be in soon though.” Casey was tired, worried and afraid, all of that showed on her face. “JD hasn’t woken up yet.”

Larabee stood on the opposite site of the bed and observed the young man in the bed. “JD, you are more than the computer guy, you are an exceptional agent. This should not have happened to you this way. I promise you, that we will find the person responsible.” Chris was not sure that he spoke aloud, but judging from the look on Casey’s face, he must have. “We will Casey.” He felt the need to reassure her.

Dr. Gilford chose that time to make his entrance, after reading the chart and examining his patient he turned to Casey and Chris. “I know that to ask you to be patient is asking a lot, however that is what you will need to be. JD’s wound is what we call an indirect injury to the spine. While the spinal cord was not hit directly, the shockwave from the concussion of the shot caused massive swelling. The good news is that there were no fragments to deal with, the bullet stayed intact and is lodged in a place that will not cause any further damage. I have every reason to believe that when the swelling is reduced, JD will make a full recovery.”

“How long?” Casey asked.

“We should be able to see significant improvement within a few days. For the long run it may take two to three months for him to be back where he started from.” Doc explained.

“But he will make it all the way back, right Doc?” Chris wanted to hear it directly.

“Yes he will, as long as he follows my directives, gives his back time to heal and with the support from his family. I am keeping him sedated through tonight so if you want to take this time to be with your children, Mrs. Dunne, it is a good time to do so.”

“Thanks Doc, we will make sure he follows your orders.” Chris assured him as the doctor left the room.

Inez rejoined them in time to hear the last of the doctor’s comments. “He’s right; you need to spend time with the babies to keep yourself sane.”

“I know Buck is own his way. Why don’t you let me drive you to the ranch and Inez can ride back with him?”

Casey was torn about what to do, but good sense won out “All right, but I want to be here first thing in the morning.”

Chris acknowledged her statement with an affirmative nod of his head and watched as the young woman kissed her husband, preparing herself to leave.

“Let’s go before I change my mind.” Casey was out the door and ready to leave.

Larabee 7 Ranch

Larabee Home

Chris spent the evening thinking about and observing his family. Mallory and Rain had dinner prepared for the entire bunch and one by one they trickled in, each with a heavy burden on their mind. Casey of, course, tried to keep up a good front for the twins, but her heart was at the hospital with JD. She turned in, with the babies, immediately after dinner to catch up on some much needed rest.

“I’ll see you early in the morning and thanks Chris for letting us stay here. I don’t think I could face our home by myself just now.”

“No problem Casey, make sure and get some rest.”

Once Nathan had been filled in on their conclusions from the meeting today, Chris noticed that he hovered around Terrell. Nathan hated to see injustices and this one was eating at him because it potentially involved those least able to defend themselves. Larabee made himself a wager that by tomorrow Jackson knew as much about child trafficking as Josiah and Kelli did. It was in his nature to seek out all the facts.

“I’ll check on JD first thing in the morning. We’re going home for now, but Rain will be here early to help Linda and Mallory with the kids.”

“Goodnight Nate, and Rain, thanks for all you help.” Chris watched them leave.

Mallory refused to leave until everything was in order. Larabee had talked to her and made his offer that would give her a place on the team. She promised to have an answer for him within twenty-four hours. Josiah carried Joanne and Mal had Adam cradled in her arms, they were going home for the night.

Josiah could almost hear the wheels moving in Chris’ head. “Try not to think about it for a few hours. The news on JD is good, Ezra will be staying here for a few days, Kel is in good shape physically and Vin will make that she has the mental support she needs. Give yourself some time to plan things out.”

“Goodnight Josiah. Mal, I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

Ezra had not said three words all evening. Chris knew that this entire situation was weighing heavily on him and until he worked things out in his own mind, Standish would be reticent. Larabee was also aware that Ezra did not like being here under these circumstances.

“I am retiring for the evening, goodnight.” Standish turned and went to ‘his’ room.

Buck and Inez had stayed at the hospital until after seven. Both of them showed the strain of spending so much time there, but there is no other place that either of them would choose to be. Chris knew that Buck was having a difficult time dealing first with JD’s injury and now the information he heard today was foremost on his mind. Wilmington had sought Kelli out and gained permission to tell Inez what she had shared with them today. He needed to talk it out and try to put it in the proper perspective before it consumed his every thought. Now with another baby coming, it hit home for Buck more than ever.

“I’ll see you in the morning, stud. I’m taking my girls home.”

“Night Buck, hug them extra tonight, it will make you feel better.”

It never ceased to amaze Chris when he watched Vin and Kelli together. Larabee knew that Vin was the catalyst that not only had pulled him from the brink of darkness, but also pulled Kelli into the light. Jointly they could accomplish most anything and they had taken to parenting Jason and Andi like ducks take to water. As he watched his daughter, he could not help but admire how she had handled her own past and now had reached a point in her life that she could use her experience to perhaps help others.

Full circle…from losing one family to gaining six brothers…finding a daughter and a new love with Linda that had produced yet another child… Tanner had always believed that fate played a large role in all their lives and there were times in the past that Chris had disagreed with him about that, but no more. Taking inventory of his life Larabee could see where the hands of fate had touched every part of it. Vin played a major role in getting him to this point mentally and finding Kelli was in large part responsible for Chris being able to let go of all the tragedy in his past. Meeting Linda and having Grace was the promised rainbow after the storms of his life.

Larabee you are a damned lucky man. Now it’s time that you give back some of what’s been bestowed on you.

You’re thinking too hard, Cowboy.

Maybe, but if I am it’s all you’re doing, Tanner. You are the one that helped me fit all the pieces together in my life, so deal with it.

Don’t sell yourself short. You put a few pieces together for me, too.

“Okay you two enough. We have kids to take care of so save you silent conversations for another day.” Kelli prodded them along. “See you tomorrow Linda, goodnight Dad.”

“Goodnight Red and in case I forgot to tell you, I’m proud of you for having the courage to share your story today. Now take these babies home, I’ll see you in the morning.” He hugged Jason and Andi, “Vin, goodnight.”

Chris looked over a Linda and smiled, he could not imagine what his life would be like had he not met her. It had been a rough road for them to get to where they were, but he would not trade it for anything. As he watched his baby daughter sleep in her mother’s arms, he again felt the emotions that he was sure he had buried forever with Sarah and Adam. Yep life had brought him full circle…he had one hell of a family surrounding him and Chris knew that he would do whatever was necessary to protect their future. He only hoped that when it came time to do it that they would support the decision that he had mentally just committed to.

Saturday ~ July 8th

Larabee 7 Ranch

Casey decided to drive herself to the hospital to spend the day with JD. She promised to call Chris as soon as Dr. Gilford made his rounds and gave her the latest report. Chris got the message that she wanted to spend some time alone with her husband and told her he would be there later in the afternoon. Mallory and Josiah took the twins for the day and called Rain, telling her to spend time with Nathan and Terrell agreeing to reverse the arrangement for the next day.

Chris was in the kitchen preparing breakfast and talking to Grace. Her infant seat sat on the table with the baby strapped securely inside, her eyes tried to focus on the form that belonged to the familiar voice that was speaking to her.

“I’m making food for your Mama and Uncle Ezra. They are not like you and me, up at sunrise, they like to sleep late, but that’s okay. This way you and I have a chance to visit. I know you probably are too young to understand what I am about to tell you, but I’ll try anyway. Sometime in the next few weeks Daddy will be gone for a while. I want you to know that, I will be back, but this is something I need to do …”

“Is this one of those situations we should discuss? “ Linda stood in the doorway of the kitchen listening to this one-sided conversation.

“Yeah it is,” Chris set her coffee on the table. “Sit down and let me tell you a story…”


It had taken him most of the morning, but Vin was putting the finishing touches on the wooden swing set that he had built, his latest addition to the playground he had crafted for the kids. Jason was already on the monkey bars and Andi had to be the first one to try out the slide that was just her size. The Texan decided that he had to try the tire swing, just to be certain that it was secure.

Kelli stood on the unfinished deck of their new home and shook her head. Vin had stopped working on the house to build the miniature playground for the kids and she was not sure who was having more fun with it, him or the kids. She went down to join them and see Tanner’s handiwork firsthand.

Andi squealed with delight when her mom caught her at the end of her slide. “Hey princess, are you havin’ fun?”

“Yep, this is the bestest.” She ran around to climb up the ladder to do it again.

Vin untangled himself from the tire swing and walked over to Kelli, sliding his arm around her waist. “What do you think?”

“I think that you enjoyed doin’ it, but do they really need all of this?”

“Sure they do, a big slide for Jason, a smaller one for Andi, two sizes of monkey bars and…” Vin guided her over to the freestanding swing seat for two that he had made especially for them. “The smaller swings are for the kids and this one is for us” Pulling her onto his lap, he used his foot to set it into motion. “From here we can watch everythin’ they do.”

Kelli smiled and relaxed against him as she listened to the laugher of the children. “You did good Tanner. There’s room here for all the Larabee 7 kids to play and we have two very spoiled, but extremely happy little ones.”

“They deserve a little spoilin’ and so do you.” Vin held her close and for a while they watched the kids explore their new playground. There would be time later on to worry about work, but for the here and now all was right with their world.

The sound of an engine drew Tanner’s attention. “It looks as if we have company.”

“Uncle Ra, look at me,” Andi shouted as she took off down the slide.

Ezra easily caught her and lifted her into the air, much to Andi’s delight.

“Brilliant display of dexterity, princess,” The southerner grinned.

Jason ran over and Standish put his arm around the boy’s shoulder. “You young sir seemed to have mastered those monkey bars rather easily.”

“Yep, I learned how on the playground at school, but isn’t this great? Dad built all of this just for us.”

“Outstanding!” Ezra turned to the adults that were observing them. “Linda has lunch ready and sent me to insure that y’all would join us. The Wilmingtons are already in residence and your presence has been requested.”

“Food sounds good about now, as soon as I put up my tools we’ll be there.” Vin answered.

Ezra looked at the kids. “It would appear that I have acquired two additional appendages. With your permissions, I will take them with me and see your there shortly.”

Jason and Andi were not positive that they understood what Uncle Ezra had said, but it sounded good for them.

“Okay you two, ride over with Uncle Ezra and we’ll be there in a few minutes.” Kelli laughed when they both shouted yes loud enough to make Standish cringe.


When lunch was over the Tanners and Ezra went back over to the new house to work. Inez and Linda sat in the yard watching the girls and talked, while baby Grace slept. Buck sat opposite Chris in a lounge chair on the deck gathering his thought to begin a conversation.

“Just say it Buck. I’ve known you long enough to know when something is bothering you.” Chris waited for Wilmington to respond.

“That’s my problem Chris, I ‘m not sure what is bothering me. I knew when we started MCAT that some things would change, but I suppose I didn’t expect any of us to have difficulty with any of it. But now …Hell, a lot has changed and I’m not sure if I’ve changed with it.”

“Growing pains Buck. Ezra’s feeling ‘em and he’s not certain what to do about it. Josiah is dealing with adjusting to being in demand as a profiler; Nathan and Kat are going back to school to keep up with new forensics techniques. Vin is adjusting to a new leadership role, while Paul, Mark and Ross are learning how the feds work verses the locals. JD spends most of his time with CASSIE and Raphael is used to how the DEA works. Pam and Kel have always been distant with their co-workers and now have a team that they belong to. On top of that Kel is facing some challenges with her new role as sharpshooter. I could go on, but I think you get the picture.”

“So where does that leave me? I know how you think so overseeing these yahoos is easy. My experience with explosives and bombs is another given, but I feel as if my investigative skills are just sitting there, you know. I need a challenge Chris, something I can sink my teeth into and really feel like I’m making a difference.” Buck finally voiced what was dancing around in his head.

Chris studied his old friend. “This child trafficking issue has gotten to you hasn’t it?”

“Hell yes! It’s bad enough that I never realized that it was out there like it is. To find out how close it hits to home is a whole different ballgame. Aside from what Kel told us about, it was too close, knowing that Medora would have taken Jason and Andi if he had succeeded taking Kel out and… I want… no I need to be a part of this one Chris. Not just as back-up, but as a primary investigator.”

“Okay Buck, you got it, but make damn sure you can handle what you find.”

MCAT Office~6:30

Monday ~July 10th

Chris was in early and looking over the overnight surveillance reports from the weekend. Reading over them only confirmed for him that he was making the right decision. There were times that in order to get the desired results, you had to take a few steps backwards and be patient, despite what most people believed, Chris Larabee could be a patient man when necessary.

“Gunny!” Chris yelled for her.

When she came to the door she gave Chris a glare that he thought was worthy of any drill sergeant. “Sir, you do have an intercom, you don’t have to shout.”

“Either way, you’re here. I need you to contact Suzanne and set an appointment for me to see Travis this morning. I also need to speak to Captain Brenner, Denver Police Department/Sex crimes division ASAP. When Kelli gets here, send her in immediately.”

“Affirmative sir.”

Within two minutes his phone rang. Gunny had reached Captain Brenner and Chris quickly arranged for the man to meet with him here at MCAT before his afternoon briefing with the team. Part one of his plan had been set into motion, now came the hard part.

Kelli came in about fifteen minutes later. “You wanted to see me?”

“Yep, close the door and have a seat.” Chris waited for her to get comfortable. “Kel, I want you to write an apology to the SAC at the FBI field office in Costa Mesa and copy one to the Costa Mesa Chief of Police for losing your temper.” Larabee settled back and was ready for the explosion.

“Like hell, those are the bastards that turned their backs on us and waited for Ezra and JD to die! Why in God’s name would I apologize, when I know that I was right?”

Chris sighed; he knew from personal experience how hard it was for a Larabee to back down from a righteous position. “Kel…I want these bastards to pay for what they did as much as you do…but they are smalltime players. I want the sonofabitch that sits on top of this nest of vermin and directs their actions.”

She was quiet for a minute and then said, “I assume that you have a plan and a damn good reason for wantin’ me to do such a stupid thing.”

“I do and I will explain it all to you this afternoon.”

She considered her options, she knew that she could refuse, quit or raise hell, but in the final analysis it all came down to one issue and that was trusting Chris to do the right thing.

“It will be on your desk in fifteen minutes.” Kelli stood up to leave, “Anythin’ else?”

“No, that’s all I need.”

The intercom buzzed as Kelli was walking out the door. “Sir, Director Travis will see you at nine.”

Travis’ Office

11th Floor

Larabee laid out his plan to Orrin and told him what he needed.

“Chris, are you sure about this?”

“Officially our investigation has to end, it’s the only way I can protect my team. It will take longer this way to get results, but we will nail the sonofabitch responsible for the attempted hits on Ezra, Kel and JD. We also have an opportunity to shut down at least one crime syndicate that preys on children.”

“I see where you are going with this, but you must realize that this is going to be hard for everyone in the unit.”

“MCAT is supposed to take on the tough assignments, the ones no one else wants to touch…so we will. This one will be one of the hardest and my team will need some downtime once it’s over, but we will be successful.”

Travis thought about the proposal on his desk and what the cost of completing it could be. “I’ll make sure this apology gets to the right place and that they know that your investigation is closed. You make sure you can pull this off because I do not want to have to replace you Commander Larabee or attend your funeral.”

“Orrin, this is one that I have to follow through on to the end, for my daughters as well as for all the children that we can’t save.”

“Whatever you need, you’ll have, but I expect you to keep me informed.” Travis the director disappeared and Orrin the friend spoke. “Chris, MCAT going into this alone without using another federal agency for backup us risky. You make damn certain that the locals you choose can be trusted. Don’t take any unnecessary chances and do not let your paternal feelings get in the way of making smart decisions. I will support you every way possible, but I do not want to lose you on this one.”

”Thanks Orrin, I promise to be careful, I have a wife and two daughters that for some reason want me to stick around for a while. I plan to accommodate them.”

Chapter 16

MCAT War Room ~ noon

Tanner shut the door as the last of the agents entered the room and then took his place beside Chris. Normally this group would banter with one another and take their time settling in, but today the mood of the room was somber.

“Nathan, why don’t you start?” Chris asked the medic, wanting the report about JD’s condition to be first on the agenda.

“I went to the hospital this morning and I am pleased to report that our young agent is alert and awake. According to the doctor, JD’s prognosis is good. The doctor figures that with some time and physical therapy, JD should soon return to his previous physical condition. In other words, the doctor thinks he should make a rapid recovery. There appears to be no permanent damage incurred to his spine. JD said to tell all of you that he’ll be back to work before you can blink.” A big grin accompanied the report.

“That is great news Nathan.” Chris was pleased to feel much of the tension leave the room at the medic's words. "Most of you should know Mallory Sanchez from the team barbecues I've hosted at Larabee 7. She is the newest member to the MCAT team."

“Now we move onto the business at hand. As of today we are officially closing our investigation into the events that transpired in California.” Larabee gave time for all the protests that he expected to hear.

The responses came fast and furious. "You can't be serious!" Mark exclaimed, astonishment written all over his youthful face.

“No way! We can't just walk away and let those creeps in California think they got the best of us!" Paul added his two cents in.

“Why in the hell would we do that?" Josiah questioned, gazing at Chris intently.

"What about the bastard that tried to kill JD, Ezra and Kel? …” Buck exploded, springing to his feet. “You can't sit there and tell me that we're tucking in our tails and gonna do nothing!"

Chris let the team members speak their minds for a couple of minutes before he glanced over at Tanner. Vin and Kelli had both remained silent throughout their team members’ outbursts, already aware of the real reason behind Chris' decision to officially close the case.

"Buck, sit down...the rest of you calm down and listen to Lar’bee.” Vin said, and waited for everyone to quiet down again before giving the floor back over to Larabee.

"Starting now, you are not to discuss this case with anyone outside of this unit.” Larabee scanned the room to assure that he had everyone’s attention. "Unofficially we have one case to work…this one. I want the all the players involved to relax and believe that MCAT has backed off the investigation. Kelli, albeit reluctantly, has even tendered an apology to the FBI and Costa Mesa PD for her ‘mistake’. We are going to dig all the way to hell if necessary, but we will find a way into this organization. A word of warning though, this case is going to get ugly."

"I do hate ugly.” Buck murmured, earning him an irritated look from Larabee for the interruption."

Each one of us will be mentally and emotionally stretched to the limit. I expect that when this case is over a few of you may even be requesting transfers. I am telling you this, though; we are not going to stop until we find the bastards at the top and bring them all down. I do want you to be well aware going into this investigation that it will be virtually impossible for us to save all of the children; however, we will do our damnest to save as many of them as possible.

Pam... Mallory is joining our unit as an assistant CASSIE operative. You will train her and in the process have CASSIE shake loose every detail she can find that pertains to this case. Now, I want all of you to go have lunch, we will meet again as a team in one hour and you will receive your assignment at that time. I need Standish, Wilmington, Sanchez and Jackson to stay. Dismissed,” Chris made it clear that he would not entertain any questions.


Chris waited for the other agents to leave and then asked the remaining men to join him in the conflict room where lunch was waiting for them. Tanner closed the door and Larabee waited until they were all seated.

“While I talk, feel free to eat. I have given this a great deal of thought and we will be handling this differently than cases we have had in the past. Nathan, according to Vin’s sources this is an international organization. I want you to research O’Mara Enterprises and find out what ties they have around the world.”

“Do we know have any other names yet?”

“Not yet and you will need another agent to work with you.” Chris addressed them all. “We will work out who works with whom in a few minutes. Ezra, you are our undercover expert. I need you to supervise the set-up necessary to infiltrate the operation in California. I will be going under on this one, so put that brilliant mind of yours into motion.”

“Most assuredly,” Ezra was looking forward to some payback.

“Buck, I have been in contact with Captain Brenner of the Denver PD sex crimes unit. You will be in command of a task force we are putting together to track the trafficking routes these people are using. Brenner will cover MCAT’s involvement; but you will base from here, the room next to the lab is empty, use that one. You will choose one of our agents and four of his officers to work with you, Travis has arranged for them to have temporary status as federal officers. As federal agents, you have the authority to cross state lines and your final objective is to expose the route that these children flow through, but if you can snag some scum along the way and rescue some kids, do it.”

“You’ll have it, Chris.” Buck was very pleased with his assignment.

“We will not use any other federal agency on this, if we need additional manpower we will work with locals and scrutinize anyone we select to work with us. It is important that we stay below the radar at all times, I do not want anymore of my team members targeted by these bastards. When Ezra establishes my new identity, I will be out of here and Tanner will be in charge, both of you will give him daily updates. Vin will have final say-so on any order and the authority to call it, if we need to pull out.”

Tanner stood and picked up a stack of files. “Ezra, these folders contain everythin’ we have so far on Juan Medora, Ray Carmichael, O’Mara Enterprises and the officers of the Costa Mesa Police Department, along with background information of the two FBI agents that were at the bust.” Vin set the files down in front of Standish.

“Josiah and Kel have put together some reports for you Buck.” Chris nodded to Sanchez who then gave the information to Wilmington. “Captain Brenner will assist you with any other intelligence that you may need. I assume you will want Mark to work with you on this one.” Chris reached for a pen to start a list.

Buck hesitated for a moment before answering. “No I don’t.” He waited until Chris looked up before continuing. “I believe Agent Coulter is best suited to partner with me on this one. She is familiar with the issue and has more investigative experience than Mark does.”

Several objections flew through Chris’ mind before he stopped his emotional reaction and considered the request strictly from a law officer’s perspective. He may not want Kelli Larabee Tanner in the middle of this, but he had to agree with Buck that Agent Coulter was the best qualified to take on this assignment. “Good choice, “Larabee wrote her name down under Buck’s. “You might consider using Mark as your contact within the unit, to keep us informed when you can’t be here in person.”

“Will do Chris,” Buck was writing his own notes.

“A word of caution Buck, do not underestimate Agent Coulter. She is a damned good agent and you can depend on her, but do not make the mistake of expecting her to follow orders blindly or just because you say so. If she thinks you are wrong she has no difficulty letting you know it and why.” Ezra spoke from experience. “Furthermore, I expect to get my partner back when all of this is over.”

Chris was pleased to hear that apparently Standish and Coulter has reconciled their differences. “Ezra, who would you like to work with you?”

“Other than you, Commander, I wish to use the services of Agent Michaels and Cordova. Anderson will also be helpful in retrieving information that is necessary for this undertaking.” Ezra made his request.

Chris wrote while he nodded his head in an affirmative motion.

Nathan added. “Paul can help me research and I’ll let you know if we find anything.”

Larabee studied every man in the room. “We will not rush this. It may take weeks to set-up what we need, but the only outcome will be success. Failure is not an option, so let’s do it right.” Chris looked at his watch, “The rest of the team will be back in thirty minutes. We will pull them in on this and then you break off into groups and give your chosen team their assignments.”

Buck stood to leave the room. “I have a phone call to make before then.”

“I, too, have some notes to prepare.” Ezra stood to leave with Wilmington.

“I’m going to check on JD before we start again.” Nathan left the room to call the hospital.

Tanner could feel what Larabee was thinking. Kel will be fine with this, quit worrying about her.

I will when you do Tanner.

Josiah waited until everyone, but Chris and Vin had left. “They made good choices Chris and your confidence in their abilities will go a long way in helping them get past the vulnerability they have experienced in the last few weeks. Ezra as well as Buck needs to feel that they are fighting back and you have given them the opportunity to do that. I am positive that Kelli can handle whatever happens as well. Working with her on those reports, I made several observations about her.”

Vin leaned forward. “Anything you care to share?”

“Kel has a good read on people and her college majors were in psychology and criminology .Watching her methodically work on the facts for this case, I saw a side of her I had missed seeing before. Give her the right opening and I believed she would be a good profiler candidate. I know as our caseload grows we will have to consider adding another profiler to the unit eventually. With a little additional training and an experienced teacher, Kel could do it. That is if she was interested.” Josiah planted his idea now he would wait and see what became of it.

War Room ~ 1:30

Chris did not have to wait for his agents to settle down because as they entered the room, each one had reclaimed their chair and did so in uncharacteristic silence.

“Since we have two directions to take this investigation, we will be working this one in a different way. Buck will be heading a task force that will be overtly investigating the trafficking end of this business. At the same time Ezra will supervise a covert operation that hopefully will connect Costa Mesa not only to the hits that were ordered on our teammates, but with a business that sexually exploits children. Ezra, are you ready?”

“It will require time, research and considerable patience to successfully penetrate the criminal association responsible for these atrocious acts of wrongdoings. Nevertheless, this is the sort of mission that I am extremely familiar with and have had a discernible amount of success in implementing over the course of my career in law enforcement. I have chosen Special Agent Larabee, and Agents Cordova and Michaels to be the operatives in the covert activity. Agent Anderson, I have need of your expertise with intercity criminal organizations to prepare the details for this project. We will meet in the conflict room at the conclusion of this meeting to further discuss your individual positions.”

Chris resisted the urge to translate Standish’s words. “When I take on my new identity, Captain Tanner will be in command of MCAT and he will oversee both the overt and covert part of this operation. Buck, you’re next.”

“I just got off the phone with Captain Brenner, sex crimes division DPD. We decided on four of his officers that will be assigned to this task force and be given temporary federal status with MCAT for the duration on this. I know this man from way back and we’ll have no problem working with his people. Our task force will set up in the empty room next-door to the lab. Agent Westin, you will be the contact man here at MCAT and Agent Coulter will partner with me for this mission. Soon as Chris gets through talking here, see me.”

“Nathan will handle the international connection for us, with Paul’s assistance, and Josiah, Pam and Mallory will work out of the office. You have your assignments; now meet with your respective team leaders for further instructions.” Chris watched their faces as they exited the room. The underlying excitement of taking on a new investigation was hard to hide; he just hoped that his team could handle what they would be experiencing in the next few weeks.

Conflict Room

Ezra had no difficulty taking charge, in fact for the first time in weeks he felt as if his expertise was needed. He was already thinking of possibilities and obstacles, the biggest one was Larabee. Chris’ photo had been in numerous papers over the last year either for his involvement with MCAT, his marriage to Linda, or his own disappearance earlier this year. Placing him undercover would be a challenge, but not impossible.

“Chris, stop shaving and do not cut your hair. If we are going to put you under, your appearance will have to be altered and the sooner that you start living with the new you, the easier it will be for you to pull it off. I have a few ideas that may help though and I do expect your full cooperation.” Standish decided to see just how in charge he was.

“You’re the expert here Ezra and I am not changing my decision so whatever you have in mind I’ll adapt to.” Larabee wanted everyone present to here his message. “Agent Standish, this is your baby and you call the shots.”

Very well, we will follow a line of investigation into the Costa Mesa Police department and O’Mara enterprises. I want to find Justin a way in to the CMPD and we need to build him a background. Ross, you will be working with me on that and you will be Agent Michaels contact to the outside world once he is inside. Raphael, you and Chris will be infiltrating O’Mara Enterprises. Chris, a working knowledge of Spanish appears to be necessary, do you speak enough to get by or do you need a crash course?”

Chris sighed, “I probably will need a refresher course.”

Raphael grinned, “No problem, amigo. I’ll be happy to refresh your memory, besides the words you’ll need to use, you won’t be finding in a traditional Spanish course.”

Standish plopped the O’Mara files in front of the two men. “Memorize every detail in these folders and then we’ll work on how to get you both inside. Ross, you will also be working with Larabee and Cordova. With a little luck the task force activities will draw all the attention publicly, making it easier for us to slip in unnoticed.”

“What about the FBI involvement?” Chris had to ask.

“Leave that to me, Vin is making some inquires for us and I expect to have a way to deal with the FBI in due time. Start reading while I confer with Pamela concerning CASSIE’s role in our mission.” Ezra left four men deeply immersed in reading while he sought out Pam to make his request.


Buck hitched his hip on the table at the front of the room and explained to Westin and Coulter about the new Task Force.

“We have four officers from DPD that will be assisting us, Rick Carson, Brett Jacobs, Cynthia Wright and Jose Gonzales. I know them all and they have experience with cases involving sexual exploitation of children. You will be meeting them here in the morning, for the time being I also arranged for a surveillance team to watch the activities going on at our suspect’s location until we have own schedules set.”

“You mean the prostitution house.” Mark interjected.

“Yes, but if what we believe to be happening is factual, then that is not accurate. It’s more of a prison for those kids and they are the victims here, not the criminals. We won’t act until they move these kids and bring in new ones, but we do need to have crisis counselors available that are familiar with dealing with sexual abused children, as well as their families. Kel, can you set that up?”

“Sure, let me make a couple of phone calls and then I’ll come back and help you set-up this room.” Kelli went to her desk in the main office.

“Say what you have to say Mark. I know you are biting at the bit to vent.” Buck watched the young man.

“If you wanted a new partner Buck, all you had to do was say something, not spring it on me in front of everyone else!” Mark let his anger show.

Buck had expected this reaction and was ready for it. “Mark, this is not about partners. MCAT works as a unit and we all have our strengths and weaknesses. Being good at this job means we use the best tools available and the right people for the job in front of us. You do not have the investigative experience needed for this particular assignment, but you can work it to your advantage and learn from it, if you keep an open mind. Don’t take it personal because it’s not and I sincerely hope that it will not be a problem because like it or not, this is not about you or me. It’s about putting a stop to a repulsive criminal act, and finding the man or men responsible for issuing the orders to kill three federal agents.”

Mark hesitated, but only briefly. “I will listen, observe and learn Buck. Whatever you need me to do I’ll do it, you can count on me.”

“I never doubted that kid.”

Kelli rejoined them within twenty minutes. “I talked to Barbara Lindsey; she knows the best counselors in Denver and is willin’ to help us connect with ‘em. She will be our coordinator not only for the counselin’, but to help us identify some of these victims and arrange legal representation for ‘em if necessary.”

“Identify them? Won’t they tell us who they are?” Mark questioned.

“We have to assume that they have been conditioned or threatened to be silent and some of ‘em may be reluctant to tell us anythin’.” Kelli sighed, “Some of ‘em may not remember where they belong.”

Mark was perplexed. “How could they not know?”

Buck placed a hand on his shoulder, “Listen and learn son.” He knew that the young agent was in for some hard lessons. “Now, let’s get this room ready for tomorrow, first things we’ll need are some phone lines installed and at least five or more computers. Make a list Westin, we have a lot to do and a limited amount of time to do it in.”

“Yes sir,” Mark began to write.

Wilmington Home ~ later that evening

Inez stood at the door and watched her husband, he had read two bedtime stories to the girls and even though they were sound asleep he was reluctant to leave their room. She walked over and took his hand, urging him to follow her to their room.

Once she had closed the door she turned to watch Buck. “This case is already getting to you and you are just starting on it. Are you going to be okay?”

Buck sat in the large chair by the fireplace and ran his hands down his face. “It started weeks ago darlin’, maybe longer than that.” He pulled her down next to him. “We have been so very lucky with our girls. They haven’t had to face any of the ugliness that’s out there and our new baby we’ll protect the same way. Some of the kids in this case have not had anyone to protect them in a long, long, time. I know that just getting them out is not enough and for some of them nothing we do we be enough to save them.”

She placed her hand on Buck’s heart. “But you want it to be, here, “she tapped his chest.” You have a strong heart, but don’t let it comes out of this with too many scars. Remember that for every bad outcome, there will be a good one. You will have to take the little victories and savor them as well as swallow the defeats.”

Shaking his head he agreed. “I know and it is gonna be hard spending so much time away from you and the girls. I won’t be able to be there for JD either.”

“We are not going anywhere and we’ll be here for you. JD will be fine, too.” Inez laughed, “Casey will have her hands full trying to keep him out of the office once she gets him home.”

“You are right about that.” Buck stroked her face. “I love you lady.”

Inez smiled and began to unbutton his shirt. “The girls are asleep and it’s time for us, let’s don’t waste it.”

Buck grinned, “Have I told you that I like the way you think?”

“Not lately,” Inez grinned.

Taking her in his arms, Buck claimed a passionate kiss and smiled. Lord he loved this woman, and had for what seemed like forever. She was gorgeous, smart, and sexy as hell. He loved to see her fiery Latin temper flare-up; she was a sight to behold when she was angry. Looking at her now, with desire in her eyes, she was simply beautiful.

“I’ll tell you later, but for now…we just enjoy being with one another.”

Inez smiled up at him, feeling a shiver of heat rush down her spine at the fire of desire etched out in Buck’s lustrous blue eyes. It was always this way between them. Buck had only to look at her in that special way of his and Inez felt as if she was consumed by desire. She was just as certain that she had the same affect on him, as he did on her.


Larabee Home

Grace was finally asleep and her parents slipped out of her room hand in hand. Linda wanted to say so much to Chris, but found it difficult to find the right words. She did understand why he felt the need to go under on this case, but it did not erase her fears.

Chris knew that Linda was trying hard to support his decision. Wrapping his arms around her he whispered softly. “I promise you that everything will work out fine. I have no intention on leaving you and that beautiful child of ours on your own. Grace is only the beginning for us; we need to give her a few brothers and sisters to play with and just so you know, I plan to be here to contribute my part toward that effort.”

Linda tightened her hold on him, “You damned well better be Larabee.”

“Count on it babe.”

Chapter 17

Friday~ July 14th

Denver Memorial Hospital

Two weeks seemed like a lifetime, JD was tired of seeing the same four walls and desperately needed to see his girls. Casey being here every day did help, but they had decided that the girls would not understand why daddy couldn’t play and opted to wait on bringing the babies to the hospital.

“What are you thinking sweetheart?” Casey had watched JD over the last few days and saw a growing anger inside him.

“Two weeks and Doc still hasn’t even hinted about how much longer I’ll be here! If he’s gonna do more surgery I wish he’d get it over with ‘cause I’m tired of waiting.”

Standing in the doorway, Dr. Gilford chucked. “Do I sense a bit of impatience, young man?”

Yeah, tell me some good news Doc.”

Dr. Gilford sat in the chair beside the bed and spoke to both Casey and JD. “The progress you have made is remarkable and I am very pleased with the latest test results. The swelling along the spine is gone and there is no more paralysis.” Doc flipped through JD’s chart. “I will not be performing further surgery JD. The bullet in your back poses no threat to your mobility and the risk of invasion outweighs the option of leaving it alone.”

Casey wasn’t certain that she understood. “You mean to leave it permanently?”

“Yes, as long as it stays where it is, it poses no problem. If that changes in the future we’ll take another look at our options, but for now we are done and you should be back to your old self within a month or so. I do want you to finish two more weeks of physical therapy, but you can do that as an outpatient.”

“So I can go home?” JD was almost afraid to ask.

“You are not ready to resume all of your normal activities, but yes, you are going home. Give yourself time to regain all your strength JD, spend time with your children and come see me next Wednesday.” Dr. Gilford wrote on his clipboard and then handed Casey some papers. “These are my instructions, prescriptions and the forms you need to spring him from this place.”

A huge smile broke out on JD’s face. “Casey give me my clothes, I’m going home!

Dr. Gilford patted the younger man on the shoulder. “Take care son and don’t overdo. I’ll see you Wednesday, but if you have any questions before then call me.” He smiled as he walked out the door; it always felt great to see the young ones walk out intact.

MCAT Office

Chris and Ezra were reviewing the information that they had gathered about Costa Mesa. They were attempting to piece together a plan to gain a credible entrance for Larabee and Cordova to work their way inside the criminal organization.

Ezra picked up the file on Ray Carmichael. “I believe it would be prudent for our profiler to visit Mr. Carmichael’s cousin, Samuel. He now resides an Arizona State correctional institution and his knowledge of Ray may be beneficial to us.”

“Talk to Josiah and…” Chris was interrupted as a furious Tanner stormed into his office and threw a folder on Larabee’s desk.

“That goddamn sonofabitch set us up and nearly caused Ez, Kel and JD to be killed in the process!”

“Who Vin?”

“Travis’ friend that works in the Ag’s office, that’s who! Hell Chris, he is the AG and accordin’ to my sources he’s been using us from the get-go.”

The Commander opened the folder and began to read, it did not take long for his own anger to surpass Tanner’s. Without a word he stood, grabbed the file and brushed past Vin. Agents moved aside as Chris marched to the elevator, their boss was on the warpath and no one wanted to be in his line of fire when Larabee’s rage erupted. It took only a minute for the elevator to reach the floor below them, and Director Travis’ office.

Travis’ secretary, Suzanne made the mistake of attempting to divert Larabee’s attention by standing in front of the door. “Sir, the Director is in a meeting and…”

Chris stopped long enough to physically pick her up and gently move her out of his way before barging into Orrin’s office and slapping the folder on his desk.

“Did you know about this?!”

Orrin addressed the other man in his office, “We’ll finish our meeting later Charles. Excuse us.” As soon as the man exited, Travis opened the folder and scanned its contents. Sighing deeply, he laid the file down. “No, I didn’t, but knowing my friend as I do, it does not surprise me.”

“Your ‘friend’ doesn’t work in the California AG’s office, HE IS THE ATTORNEY GENERAL, and he manipulated MCAT, damned near costing me three agents!” Chris fumed, “We agreed that I would choose the cases we participated in and as a favor to you I allowed my agents to become involved in this mess. Now I find out that the AG has a man in that FBI field office and he knew in advance that my people were walking into a trap!”

Chris! You know that I would never deliberately put any of our MCAT agents in jeopardy. Of course, this does explain how we obtained an unedited version of the videotape from the bust.” Travis held his hand up, “Let me make a phone call before we jump to conclusions. The man may have acted own his own and not on orders from the AG.”

Larabee ceased his pacing and sat in the chair opposite the Director, making it clear that he had no intention of leaving without some answers. Travis tried to ignore the intense green-eyed glare aimed in his direction as he made his call. Chris listened, as Orrin’s voice grew louder, until finally the man was shouting.

“I want every last report you have and I want it today! As of now you will take orders from us! Are we clear?!” Travis slammed the phone receiver down so hard that Chris was certain it would shatter; only it bounced and hit the floor instead.

“You know, with a little practice you might break my record, but I’ve made my receiver bounce at least three feet higher than that.” Chris could not help but grin thinking about all the times that Travis had chewed his ass out concerning phone equipment that he had busted in anger. He also found that the angrier that Travis became, the more his own rage diminished.

Travis took a deep breath, cleared his throat and slowly sank back into his chair. “Bradley…the AG, is expressing us detailed reports of his investigation. It seems that he has indeed been conducting his own operation and wanted to use us to help it along. His man in the FBI field office made certain that you received the video from the warehouse to insure MCAT’s involvement. He was also aware that the bust was a set-up to gain publicity for the SAC and the Costa Mesa Chief of Police. It was supposed to draw attention away from the low arrest rate in the area; however he did not think that our agent’s lives were in danger. He is now aware that he was wrong and that his mistake could have gotten them killed.”

“We get everything he has?”

“Everything and he is suspending his investigation until he has further instructions from us on how to proceed. I have assurances from him that he will cooperate with MCAT one hundred percent and he has offered to provide any resources that you may need while you are there. I’m sorry Chris; I had no idea that Bradley would sink this low to make a political name for himself as the AG tough on crime. The only thing we can do now though is to use his information to further our own investigation.”

Chris nodded an affirmative answer. “The man should get on his knees and thank God that my agents are still alive because that is the only reason I can think of not to tear his head off his shoulders.”

“You should have those reports by early afternoon, they are being sent directly to you. Once you review them and decide what you need him to do, tell me. I will personally make certain that he does it.” Orrin guaranteed it.

Larabee stood up and directed his words to Travis the Director. “You let him know Orrin, another one of my agents gets so much as a scratch because of him and I will personally make sure that his political career is finished.” Chris picked up the file on Travis’ desk and walked out.

Task Force Office

Buck has his team assemble for a briefing and to set their schedules for the next few days, Mark came in carrying a stack of documents and set them next to Wilmington with several folders.

“Thanks Mark.” He waited for the other agents to be seated. “We have had a fairly productive week. Along with getting a few bugs inside the house, thanks to our phone repairmen, Rick and Jose; we have also gained the cooperation from several other police departments. With their help we have a tentative trafficking route in place. Originating in San Francisco to El Paso to Dallas and then here to Denver, it is likely that the next stop is Las Vegas or Phoenix and then back to California, after that…we don’t know. However this particular operation stays west of the Mississippi and according to what we are hearing a change of ‘merchandise’ will occur within the next week or so.”

“Could it be more than one route involved?” Cynthia asked

“Yes, I’m sure there are more, but finding out where they move these kids from here is our priority. After the new ones come in we’ll raid the premises, hoping that the syndicate will think their leak is from the last place of operation. Until then, we will continue to monitor this house 24/7, during the daytime we have two teams from DPD out there, but at night I want us to be the primaries. Agent Coulter and I will be out there from five until midnight. Brett, you and Cynthia will swap with us then and stay until the DPD team replaces you at seven. Tomorrow night Rick and Jose will work the five to midnight and Kel and I will relieve you then. Cassie is running the names we have collected and soon we will have enough information to make more than a few arrests here in Denver.”

Mark was reluctant to show his inexperience, but he had to ask, “What about the kids that are there now? We know what is happening to them from the wiretaps but we’re gonna let them be moved anyway?”

“Yes, we have no other option if we are to have any chance of finding the entire route. I’m not thrilled about it, but following the merchandise is the only way we’ll get that answer.” Buck knew that was hard for the young agent to understand. “Mark, it’s not easy, but you have to think of those kids the same way you would a shipment of weapons or drugs. We could take them all now, but a few kids here in Denver weighted against several hundred out there that we might save …’”Buck sighed. “We have to look at the entire picture and work toward the end result of shutting this syndicate down for good.”

Rick empathized with the young agent. “If it helps Westin, after a while it gets easier to separate the emotion from the job, but we’ve all been where you are now and understand how you feel.”

“For every child that is in that house there are a thousand more out there waiting for a break. If you think about trying to reach them all, you’ll do nothing but cause yourself an ulcer.” Cynthia added.

Brett was nodding his head in agreement. “It is a full-time battle and sometimes we lose the skirmishes, but the war will go on. Each child that we save is a victory for the good guys.”

“Unfortunately we are badly outnumbered and the sad reality is that we cannot save them all.” Jose looked around the room. “I think we all carry a few battle scars though.”

Buck supposed that Mark had enough advice to consider and moved on. “Mark, you stay on top of CASSIE and I want you to hand deliver these transcripts to Jed Alders at the U.S. Attorney’s office. Kel, give Barbara Lindsey an update. I want to have everyone ready to move as soon as we move on that place. Brett, Cynthia, go home and sleep, we’ll see you at midnight. The rest of you can go on to lunch and then afterwards work your contacts.”

Kelli stopped to have a word with Buck. “I’ll be back here before four, but I wanted to remind you that I have a doctor’s appointment this afternoon.”

“I remembered and we won’t leave here before four-thirty so don’t rush.” Wilmington picked up the folders, “I’m on my way to give the boss a report, see you later darlin.”

Larabee’s Office

Chris had just finished telling Vin about his meeting with the director. He was still angry, but the worst of it had worn off and he at least could talk without pounding on something.

“You think that bastard will keep his word to Travis?” Vin had his doubts.

“He damned sure will if he values his existence!”

“We’ll see Chris, if he fucks this up though it’s open season on AG’s” Tanner promised. “By the way, while you were in with Travis, Ezra and Josiah took off for Arizona to talk to Sam Carmichael. They should be back in Denver sometime late this evenin’.”

“Between Carmichael and the reports from the AG, maybe we can find the break we’ve been looking for.” Chris finally sat down just as the phone rang and there was a knock on the door. “Enter,” he bellowed before answering the phone. Buck walked in and sat while he waited for Chris to finish his call.

Chris hung up the phone and grinned, “That was Nathan, and he’s with Casey. Doc released JD this morning and you know Nate, he wanted to see for himself that the kid got settled in at home okay.”

“Hot damn, that’s the best news I’ve heard in a month!” Buck yelled. “That is another cause for celebration tomorrow.”

“Planning the surprise party for Kel has Linda in high spirits already, now with a double reason to celebrate she’ll be even more thrilled.” Chris was pretty happy about it himself. “Kelli doesn’t suspect anything does she?”

“Hell Chris, she never has acknowledged her birthday because she knew it wasn’t real. I don’t think it’s even occurred to her that this year, for the first time she has a true birth date to celebrate.” Vin smiled, “Even the kids have managed to stay quiet about it and trust me for Andi it hasn’t been easy.”

“It just got easier for her then; Kel and I are working from five to midnight on surveillance tonight.” Buck supplied that bit of information. “So Andi should be good and asleep by the time we make it out to the ranch. Just make sure Kel gets to rest sometime, ‘cause we are on for the midnight shift tomorrow night.”

Vin nodded, “I will.”

Buck remembered the reason he was here in the first place. “Here’s the latest report on the task force investigation. I know you both listened to the tapes already, but it’s all transcribed through last night and I included the information we got this morning from the Las Vegas PD.”

“I know it’s hard to listen to young girls being abused and raped repeatedly by multiple attackers. The intimidation techniques that I’ve heard are enough to make any normal person sick. How is everyone holding up?” Chris was concerned.

“It’s been difficult for Mark, but the rest of the team is okay. They are all professionals and they are aware of what’s expected from them.” Buck answered, “Mark will be okay too, and he just has to learn that sometimes we have to make difficult choices to reach our objectives.”

“This is a hard one to learn on for him, but if it helps, tell him that because of your team we have a connection to California confirmed. The name Donner has showed up on three independent reports, yours, Ezra’s and CASSIE traced a phone number we found on Medora to Donner, they all lead back to Costa Mesa.” Chris set the folders off to the side for now.

Buck stood to leave, “Vin, you going with Kel to her appointment?”

“Of course he is,” Chris answered for Vin. “Raphael and I can start on the information we get from California. I’ll fill you in when you get back and no arguments Tanner. Take her to lunch and spend some time with your wife, you both have put in some long hours this week. The work will still be here when you get back.”

“Are you sure Chris?”

“Get the hell out of my office, both of you and that is an order.” Chris grinned, “I’ve got work to do and I can’t do it with you two jawing at me.”

“You heard the man Vin, but don’t believe that crap about work. He just wants to call Linda and have a hot phone conversation with her. You know the old man’s been doing without for…how long has it been stud?” A book sailed past Buck’s head as he ducked. “See what I mean, he’s just dammed ornery lately.”


Buck and Vin were both laughing as they exited the office.


Kelli was in the break room rummaging around in the refrigerator, looking for a something to drink

“I hope you don’t expect to find anything edible in there, Kel.” Mallory stood in the doorway.

“Nope, I’m just lookin’ for somethin’ other than coffee or coke to drink, but ‘m not havin’ any luck, so I reckon a coke will have to do.”

“Pam and I are on our way to lunch if you want to join us.”

“Thanks, but I have an appointment in a bit, so I’ll have to take a rain check. How are you doin’ after a week away from the kids?”

Mallory sighed, “Truthfully, it has been hell for me, but they love being with Max and the kids are doing great. I understand she’s staying on to help you and Vin right?”

“Yep, as soon as we move to the new house, she’s gonna take our old one. The lease on her apartment is up the end of next month and dependin’ on how things go here on this case, we hope to be moved within the next three weeks or at least before school starts.”

You don’t mind sharing her with me do you?”

“Hell no, Mal, the main reason she takin’ on our old place is to stay available for all of us and still maintain her independence. This way she can be there when we need her and she can still have her own place to go home to. One that is close enough to get to us, if there is an emergency call out for MCAT and we have to leave suddenly.”

“I think it’ great that she will be there and being ex-military myself, we have a lot in common. Hell, I like the woman as much as the kids do.”

Kelli laughed, “Me too, she takes care of me and Vin as much as she does the kids. Of course after knowin’ Gunny, I think that tendency must run in their family.”

I agree,” Vin walked up beside Mallory. “She’s fantastic with the kids and I like her, plus she stays on Kel’s butt about takin’ care of herself, too.”

“Hey guys,” Pam joined them. “Let’s make a break for it while we can Mallory or we may miss lunch entirely. Are you coming with us Kel?”

“Not today, but Mal gave me a rain check for next time.”

Mallory laughed, “I think we should leave before the Captain here decides CASSIE is needed again. See you two later.”

“Take your time, ‘m off for a couple of hours, Chris is preoccupied and most everyone else is gone so I think your safe for a while” Vin reassured them and then remembered. “By the way, JD got released from the hospital this mornin’ and I’d bet that you’ll be hearin’ from him real soon.”

Pam grinned, “That is good to hear and he can call all he wants to. I’m just glad he’s okay and I know Casey is relieved.”

Mallory urged Pam along. “Before he does call, let’s go eat, I’m starved.”

Vin waited until they left and he was alone with Kelli. “Chris is kickin’ me out for a while so let’s grab some lunch before your appointment.”

“Sounds like a plan to me, Tanner.”

Larabee 7 ~ early evening

Chris and Vin sat on the deck watching the kids play while they waited on Linda. Grace slept contently in her Daddy’s arms unaware of all the activity around her or her Mother’s list of to do’s for the men.

Linda joined them and sat next to Chris. “Okay, everything is on schedule, I talked to Casey and she said JD is anxious to be here with the rest of the gang. Vin, Kel still doesn’t know right?”

“Nope, me and the kids are gonna spring a surprise in the mornin’ and as far as she’ll know that’s it.”

“I need you to keep her away from here from eleven until at least one. All the family will be here by eleven-thirty.” Linda looked over her list. “That should give us enough time to set things up.”

“I’ve got it covered, Chris is gonna ask the kids over here and ‘m taking Kel out ridin’ the mornin. We’ll probably go up to the cabin for a while and then stop by the new house, before we head the horses back toward the barn. If she notices anythin’ out of the ordinary, I’ll just say it’s for JD’s homecomin’.”

“Well, you just keep track of the time and don’t get totally sidetracked.” Linda knew how easy it was for the Tanners to get preoccupied. “You two might as well know that I invited Barbara, and Chris it will up to you to make sure Ezra behaves, I don’t know what is going on with those two, but I really had to convince Barbara that we wanted her here and that as Kel’s friend she needed to set aside her difference with Ezra for the day.”

“Ezra will be a gentleman, but if you’re expecting more than that you might be disappointed.” Chris hoped that Linda wasn’t planning to ‘help’ Ezra and Barbara along. “Whatever is between them though, they will have to work it out.”

“Of course they will, but wouldn’t it be great if…”

“Linda, there will be no interfering, period.”

“Okay, no interfering,” Linda answered. “I guess that’s it, I have everything else taken care of.”

Vin stood up, “In that case ‘m takin’ the kids home, we have a few things to finish up and Kel won’t be in til late. See y’all in the mornin’.”

Chris and Linda watched as Vin rounded up the kids and headed for home.

Now that they were alone Linda had a thousand questions she wanted to ask Chris about what would happen in the next couple of week. She did not want him to leave her, but she had agreed to support him and now she was stuck living with her words. She decided to ask the question she had been afraid to since Chris had come home. “How much longer do we have?”

Chris sighed, “At least another week or two. It will take that long to finalize our plans.”

“Good, I go back to see Dr. Ryder on Monday and this should be our last couple of days of waiting. You just make certain we have at least next weekend for ourselves before you have to leave. You got that Larabee?”

“I wouldn’t miss it for anything. We have a lot of time to make up for and starting Monday night, I plan to do just that.”

Chapter 18

Tanner Home ~July 15th

Saturday morning ~2am

Vin awoke and with one glace at the clock he knew Kelli would be home soon. Deciding to stay up for her, he turned on the bedside light and gathered some reports to work on in bed while he waited. Buck’s truck stopped in front of the house ten minutes later and then Tanner tracked his wife’s movements by sound alone. The Texan could tell from the way she moved that she was extremely tired from her long day, but he had to smile when he heard her stop at the kid’s room to check on the sleeping imps. Certain that her next stop would be at the gun safe to secure her weapon, he got out of bed to meet her there.

Kelli had just closed the door to the safe when Vin slipped an arm around her waist. It did not surprise her that she had not heard him because the man moved in absolute silence with the agility of a mountain lion. She turned to take in his appearance. His hair was tousled; his face needed a shave, he was barefooted and he had pulled on a pair of Levi’s, but hadn’t bothered to zip them. Lord, did he know how irresistible he was.

“You got me again Tanner, but I think ‘m too tired to yelp.”

“Then lean on me and let me take care of you, baby. Are you hungry?” Vin picked up her duffel bag with one hand, and still held onto her with the other.

“Nope, Buck hit a McDonald’s on our way to the surveillance van so we had food. We stopped by the agency on the way home for him to file tonight’s report and while he did that I used the shower in your office and then changed into some fresh clothes.” Together they walked to the bedroom. “It was a rough Friday night; there must have been over a hundred men in and out of there. Just listening to all the perverse acts they put those young girls through makes me want to throw up. I felt so dirty after hours of hearin’ it that I needed to feel clean again.”

The Texan threw her bag in the corner and then turned to help her undress. “If you weren’t so tired, I’d make you forget all about what you heard. But tonight you rest because in the mornin’ you and I are gonna take the horses out, they need the exercise and we haven’t ridden together in a good while. We’ll ride back and we will have plenty of time to make JD’s homecomin’ party.”

“That’s sound great, but what about the kids?”

“Chris asked them to help him tomorrow; Linda has a list for him to do before Casey brings JD over so it will be just me and you. Tanner stepped out of his jeans.” They crawled into bed and Vin pulled her close enough to cuddle.

Kelli laid there for a minute enjoying the feel of being with her Texan, then with a smile she said, “Vin…I may be tired, but ‘m not dead. How did you plan to make me forget?”

Tanner grinned because he remembered saying the same words to her not too long ago. “Reckon I’d have to show you how.”

She wrapped her arms around him, “Reckon you would at that Tanner.

“I thought I’d start with this.” Vin nibbled at her ear lobe. “And then…” It was much later that Tanner wrapped the comforter around them and they both fell asleep secure in the familiar warmth of each other’s arms.

Tanner Home 6 am

Vin heard the kids moving around and slipped quietly out of the bed to help them prepare their surprise. He knew Kelli had not had enough sleep, but he also knew she wouldn’t want to miss what the kids had planned for anything in the world. Tanner pulled on his sweats and grabbed a gown for his redhead.

Kelli was more asleep than awake, but Vin’s words registered somewhere in her brain. “Kel, the kids will be in soon. Put this on.” Vin assisted her with the gown, kissed her gently and smiled when she turned over to go back to sleep. Enjoy it while you can baby, it won’t last long.

Thirty minutes later Jason and Andi were finally satisfied that the breakfast tray for their mother was acceptable. Vin helped by carrying it for them to the bedroom and when he opened the door, the two little ones ran to the bed yelling,

“Happy Birthday Mom!” Kelli managed to open her eyes just as both kids bounced onto the bed.

“We brung you breakfast, mama.” Andi shouted, “And presents!”

“Dad helped, but we mostly did it ourselves.” Jason explained.

Vin held on to the food until he was certain Kelli was awake and she pulled herself into a sitting position. Sitting next to her, he kept one hand on the tray to keep it steady as the kids continued to bounce on the bed.

“This is wonderful…” It had not registered with Kelli that today was really her birthday; she turned to Vin for help, inquiring blue eyes showed her bewilderment.

“When I told ‘em it was your birthday, they planned all this just for you.” The Texan watched her eyes and knew exactly when his redhead pieced everything together. “Of course we made enough for all of us, so you wouldn’t have to eat alone.”

Kelli looked at the dishes of assorted sliced fruit and large plate of buttered toast, thankful that Vin had selected food that was easy to eat with your hands. However it was the mug of coffee he handed her that held her interest. “By all means help me out here y’all, I could never eat all this by myself.”

That was all the invitation the children needed and it did not take long for the large amount of food to disappear. Vin set the tray aside and then let the kids give their gifs.

“We made this for you.” Andi’s turquoise colored eyes were shining as she proudly showed Kelli the card they had made and received a big hug in return.

Jason was next. “This is from all of us. Dad had to help us, but we thought you needed it.” Handing his new mother a small gift-wrapped package, he waited with excited anticipation for her reaction.

Taking her time, Kelli pulled the paper off the beautiful gift to find a jewelers box and tears sprang to her eyes when she opened it. Vin’s touch was unmistakably evident in the design of the beautiful family ring nestled inside, precious stones were set into a platinum band that she could wear and not damage when she fired her gun.

Jason pointed out each gemstone and identified who it represented, “This green one for May is dad, the red one for July is you, the blue one is sapphire, that’s September, for me and the pretty rose October one is for Andi.”

Emotion threatened to choke off her words as she slipped it on her finger, but Kelli managed to say, “I love it.” She hugged Jason really tight, pulled Andi in close and whispered. “Thank you; this is just what I needed and I love both of you to pieces.”

“Okay you two, time to get a move on, Mom needs to get dressed so go straighten your room. We’ll be out in a few minutes, and then you get to spend the mornin’ with Uncle Chris.” Vin herded them out the door, giving Kelli a chance to control her emotions.

Vin came back over and sat beside her again, “I know that you never have acknowledged your made up birth date, but now that you know your real one and we have the kids, I thought it was time we celebrated.” He reached into the drawer of the nightstand and brought out another package, handing it to her. “This one is from me to you baby.”

“I don’t know what to say. I didn’t even realize that today was…” Vin stopped her with his words.

“Just enjoy it Kel, and mark it into our book of memories. It is way past time for you to have your own day and I for one think that the day you were born deserves celebratin’. Now indulge me and open your gift.”

“I’m not sure what I did to deserve you, but I love you Tanner.” Kelli unwrapped his gift to find a book, bound in leather, and inside was every note and poem that Vin had written to her since the day they had met. On the last page was a poem he had written especially for today.

From the moment
I saw you
I wanted to meet you.

From the moment
I met you,
I wanted to know you.

From the moment
I knew you.
I was in love with you.

From the moment
I loved you,
I wanted to share my life with you.

...and from that moment
To this moment,

And for all the moments to come,
I will love you with all of my heart.

Kelli did not even try to hide her tears as she read the words that expressed his sentiment. “Vin, it’s beautiful.”

The Texan leaned over and kissed her, “So are you lady.” Vin’s tender kiss quickly turned passionate and lustful. It never took much to fan the flames of desire that was always there between them and when want became need they were in a whole different realm. For a few minutes the rest of the world was shut out and only the two of them existed.

The sound of children’s loud voices in the next room reminded them that it was time to get moving. Kelli reluctantly got out of bed and then put her book in a safe place as Vin picked up the tray to take to the kitchen.

Before he reached the door Tanner stopped and said, “I almost forgot, I had you new prescription filled on the way home yesterday and it’s on the shelf in the bathroom.”

“Thanks, I’ll be out in a few minutes.” Kelli could not decide how to take having a birthday, but when she looked at the new ring on her finger she smiled. Her own family…yep that made it easy to accept. She would celebrate with them and take pleasure in every single minute of it.

Larabee Home ~ 8:00am

Chris was holding Grace with one arm as he grabbed the phone receiver with his other hand. “Larabee…” Chris listened. “If it’s that important Ezra, come on over now and we’ll discuss it… Yeah, that will work.”

Linda watched her husband slowly hang up the phone, deep in thought. “Chris? ...Please tell me that we can have one day of fun without having to discuss your work.”

“Sorry Babe, It won’t take that long, but it is important.” He moved to sit in the empty deck chair, next to his blond. “I promise nothing will interfere with your party. It will take thirty minutes, tops. All you need to do is find enough to keep Jason and Andi busy in the meantime. They should be here anytime now.”

“Don’t worry Larabee, I already have some things that they can help with for the party. I also talked to Barbara last night and she said that she has everything that you requested. You do realize that you haven’t told me what she is doing for you?”

“Good, and yes I do know. Maybe we’ll find out that you are not the only one in this family that can pull off a surprise.” Chris grinned mischievously. “Grace and I make a good team; I tell her all about my planned surprises and she doesn’t tell a soul.”

“Yet Larabee…doesn’t tell on you yet; but give her time and that will change.”


Vin led Peso and Dancer out of the barn while Kelli was having a last minute conversation with the children.

“Are you both certain that you don’t want to go with us?” Kelli had trouble believing that the kids were turning down a chance to ride.

Jason looked at Andi and then answered for the two of them. “We’re sure. We promised Uncle Chris that we would spend the morning helpin’ him and like dad says, a promise is a promise.”

“He’s right, when you make a promise you need to keep it.” Overhearing Jason’s remark as he walked up, Vin had to smile. He helped them out some by changing Kelli’s focus. “The horses are saddled and ready to go Kel. We’re burnin’ daylight standin’ here and we really should get movin’.”

Kelli glanced at Vin and then back to the kids, she was certain that that something was going on that she was not supposed to know. The children had passed on riding this morning and instead of working on the house as he usually did in his off time, Vin had insisted that she ride up to the cabin with him.

“Okay, you two give us a hug and then run on up to Uncle Chris’ house while we can watch you.”

Jason and Andi sighed with relief; their part in this plan was working. They gave their parents a hug and then took off before there were any more questions. As soon as Vin saw they were safely at Chris’ house he handed Kelli the reins for Dancer.

“I’ll race you to the second meadow and even give you a head start.” Tanner knew that his wife suspected something, but he also knew that she would not ask what it was.

“Don’t need a head start Tanner; Dancer and I can outrun you and Peso any day of the week.” Kelli laughed as she mounted her horse and left before Vin even started.

Kelli had slowed down a little until Vin caught up to her and then urged Dancer on faster. The horses were ready to cut loose and enjoyed the fast paced run to the big meadow that lay at the base of the mountain path. Both riders reached the other side at the same time, Vin rode up beside his wife and stopped close enough to Dancer to lean over and kiss his wife.

The Texan grinned, “Peso and I took it easy on you two. Otherwise we would have beaten you by a good quarter of a mile.”

“A quarter of a mile Tanner? I don’t think so. If I hadn’t waited for you to catch up…” Vin silenced her with another kiss.

“Now that I have your attention,” Vin chuckled. “How about we ride up the mountain instead of going to the cabin?”

“After a kiss like that I’d follow you anywhere; lead on.” Kelli laughed.

The truth was it did not matter to her where they went as long as Vin was with her. As they rode single file up the mountain path, she studied the man that had taken the point position. Before meeting him she could never have imagined any one person becoming so important in her life. Now she could not imagine a life without him in it.

Face it Kel, you are not near as strong as you want people to believe. If it were not for Vin you could never make it through a case like this one. Knowing that he is there for you is the only reason that the old nightmares do not take up permanent residence in your sleep. Hell, if it were not for that blue-eyed Texan you would have nothing but that empty existence that you called a life, before you met him. First he helped you discover feelings that you did not know were possible to feel, and then he taught you about the power of love. Vin is the terrific dad that you knew he would be and you now have the family that you believed you would not have. But all that talk about leaving things to trusting fate and faith… Don’t fool yourself Kel, it scares the hell out of you that the worst could happen and you would have to go on alone. You may say you could live on the memories you two are making, but you know that is not true, you might force yourself to keep existing, but you could never really live again.

Kelli was lost so deep in her thoughts that she did not realize that they had stopped moving. Vin had already dismounted and was talking to her, but she had not heard a word that he said.

“Kel?” Vin stood beside Dancer waiting for her to acknowledge him. He did not know which direction her musing had taken her, but he was certain she was somewhere else at the moment. When he knew she was listening he tried again. “You wanna join me or stay on that horse all day?”

“Sorry…I guess my mind wandered.” She slipped off the horse to the ground.

Vin took her hand. “Come with me, I wanna show you somethin’.” He led her to the edge of clearing. “You are lookin’ down on all 4000 acres of the Larabee7; this is the only location on the entire property that you can see it in one view. Look closely and you may see some deer, elk or if you’re lucky a big horn or two.” He handed her the binoculars. “And if you look over there to the right where those three huge boulders are, you can see where our land joins it.” Tanner pointed to a landmark she would recognize.

“Lord, it’s a beautiful view and so much bigger than I thought, I guess knowin’ the square mileage and actually visualizing’ it, are two different things.” She knew how much Vin loved the land and even building their home he had taken great pains to make sure that as little of the natural beauty of it was disturbed as possible.

“Sometimes it hard to envision what you can’t see and all you need is a different perspective to grasp the bigger picture. Take those boulders for instance; it’s easy to forget that they have been in the makin’ for thousands of years and will still be standin’ strong long after we’re gone. The strength of ‘em won’t change just because we are not standin’ beside ‘em, able to reach out and touch ‘em. We’re all guilty once in while of forgettin’ that there is more than what’s in front of us and that some things will always be there, whether we see ‘em or not.”

Kelli leaned back as Vin wrapped his arms around her waist, he may be talking about the land, but what he was saying applied to their love as well as the case they were working on. Don’t lose sight of what is in front of you Kel. Trust that there is a bigger picture, even if you can’t see it right now. Now is the time to make more memories and not let your fears about the future rob you of the pleasures you can enjoy today

“Have I ever told you how amazin’ you are Tanner?”

“Maybe you have a time or two, but ‘m up for you tellin’ me now if you want to, “The Texan grinned and drew her into his arms. “I brought a blanket just in case we needed to discuss … anything.”

“Talkin’ is not what I had in mind.”

“Me neither.”

Larabee 7 Ranch

Chris’ thirty minutes had turned into two hours; but the information Ezra had gathered from Samuel Carmichael was just what they needed. Between that and the reports from the AG, Larabee could feel their plans coming together. Tomorrow they would secretly meet with Michael Vance aka Michael Welch, the man that the AG had on the inside and the ‘agent’ that had sent them the video of the bust in California. He was flying in first thing in the morning, specifically to meet with their covert operations team and then be back in Costa Mesa before nightfall.

However that was tomorrow, right now they had a birthday and a homecoming to celebrate. It was time to rejoin their family.

“It about time, Larabee,” Linda whispered as he walked up beside her and took Grace from her arms. “I thought I would have to call in SWAT to get you two out of your office.”

“Sorry babe, it took a little longer than I had expected.”

“Did you remember to warn Ezra that Barbara will be here?”

“Yep, and according to him he is fine with it.” Chris did not believe that for a minute, but Ezra was not confiding in him about his and Barbara’s situation. Until Standish wanted to talk about it with him Chris was staying out of it.

JD and Casey arrived with the twins. Family members surrounded the youngest brother before he had made it two feet inside the door.

Buck was the first one to reach him and gave him a big hug, careful not to squeeze too hard. “Damn, it’s good to see you walking around.”

Chris placed a hand on the younger man’s shoulder, “Welcome home JD.”

“How are you feeing brother?” Josiah asked

Nathan shooed everyone away. “Let him inside so he can sit down before you well wish him back to the hospital.”

“It’s okay Nathan, I’m just glad to be here.” JD looked around the room and smiled. “I wasn’t sure for a while I’d make it back here.” He noticed Ezra standing off to the side and thanks to Casey informing him, he was well of the fact that the southerner was still carrying feelings of guilt. JD decided that it was time to set things straight.

“From what the doctor told me, if Ezra hadn’t protected me when Carmichael came rushing in firing his gun, I’d be a dead man. Thank you Ezra, from me, Casey, and our girls.” JD walked over to Standish and grasped his shoulder. “You could have reached cover but you stayed with me and stopped the bleeding instead, Doc says that made the difference between me living and dying. I’ll never forget that brother.”

Ezra was speechless; he had not realized that his actions that day meant so much. He thought he had failed his fellow agent, friend, and brother. Suddenly he felt a huge weight lift from his shoulders and embraced JD, holding on long enough to calm his emotions that threatened to overflow. In a soft southern drawl he whispered, “Welcome home, brother.”

Casey was aware that it had bothered JD a lot that Ezra blamed himself for his injuries. She knew how important it was for her husband to set things right, she owed Ezra too, more than he would ever know. “Hey, I thought this was a party. Where is the birthday girl?”

JD released his hold on Standish. “Yeah we need to get this celebration going. We brought the video camera and it’s ready to record.”

Linda laughed. “I made the mistake of putting Tanner in charge of keeping her busy. Only the good Lord knows when he’ll bring her back.”

Jason boldly spoke up. “You told Dad to keep Mom away ‘til one o’clock. He’ll be here at one.”

“You’re right Jason.” Chris ruffled the boy’s hair. He respected the trust the child had in Vin and he was proud of his courage for speaking up. “Linda, you ought to know by now that Tanner keeps his promises and according to the clock he still has twenty minutes.”

“Thank you Jason for reminding me, I did say one didn’t I?” Linda had forgotten that the children were in hearing distance and they would not understand her teasing remark. “There is an open buffet so if anyone is hungry feel free to grab what you want.”

JD settled in a chair next to Mallory. “Welcome to the CASSIE team Mal, I hear you are doing well. We’ve needed the extra help for a while now and I appreciate you being there to help Pam and the team while I’m out.”

“Pam has been a good teacher, but I know when you get back she will be relieved. I’ve got the basic concept down, but I’m afraid I work a whole lot slower than she is used to.” She and JD discussed computers while they other family members were either eating or talking.

Barbara arrived shortly before one and avoided Ezra altogether. He watched her move around the room greeting the others, but he could not bring himself to risk talking to her. Courage, Ezra, courage you must stay strong, her life could depend on it.

“They’re back! I told y’all!” Jason yelled. He had been watching for his parents to return and he was excited about the surprise Miss Barbara had shared with him and Andi yesterday, even his dad didn’t know about it.


The horses were taken care of and Vin looked at his watch, it was twelve fifty-six. Perfect timing Tanner. It had been a very pleasant morning, after spending some time up on the mountain making love, he and Kelli had stopped at the new house on the way back here. Together they had finished painting the stars on Andi’s ceiling and they had a good start on Jason’s mountains. A few more days of work and their new home would be ready to move into.

The Texan grabbed his wife by the waist and brought her to his side. “Looks as if the whole gang is already here baby, let’s go and join ‘em.” Together they walked up to the ranch house.

Vin took her to the front door and opened it so Kelli could step inside before him. She was greeted with screams of “Surprise,” and there was a big banner hung across the room that said Happy Birthday Kel!

Jason and Andi ran up to them. “Are you surprised? “

“I certainly am. I reckon I know now why y’all didn’t ride with us this mornin’.” She turned and whispered to Vin. “You should have warned me.”

“Just enjoy it Texas,” he whispered back to her.

Chris made his way over to his eldest daughter. “The kids have done really well at keeping our secret, but I’m not certain how much longer they can last. For that reason and before this bunch makes it impossible to hear anything. I have a few things to say.” He took her hand and led her over to stand in front of the fireplace.

Kelli knew that Linda was behind this party and although she appreciated it, she was not prepared for anything like this. Vin stood close by with the kids and Linda had a big smile on her face.

“Quiet!” Chris waited for the talking to subside. “I’ve got a couple of things to say and then you can party on the rest of the day.” He held on to Kelli’s hand so she couldn’t move away.

“We’re listening big dog!” Buck yelled.

“Almost nine months ago, I stood here and told all of you that I was damn proud to find out that Kelli was my daughter.” He turned to Kelli. “You not only got a father, but you got this bunch of family too. I know this is the first time you have had a real date of birth to celebrate and I have twenty five other birthdays to make up for, but I wanted this one to be special.” Barbara handed him a large envelope. “I told Barbara what I wanted to do and she made it happen. Kel, this is something you should have had many years ago, I’m sorry it took so long, but I’m glad to be the one to give it to you.” He handed her the envelope.

Taking a deep breath, she opened the envelope and pulled out the contents. It was difficult to read it all through tear filled eyes, but she tried until she got to the third line and had to stop. “This is real?”

“Real and official, Barbara went to Austin, Texas and filed it in person.” Chris saw the impending flood of tears that was coming and pulled Kelli into a hug. “I love you Kel.” His own uncontrolled emotions made it difficult to continue, but he knew he had to. “It’s an amended birth certificate… for Kelli Coulter Larabee…born July 15 and under the space where the father’s name is placed, it says Christopher Adam Larabee. I also had her federal employment records changed accordingly.”

Kelli did raise her head at that statement. “But the age difference…”

“Travis took care of all that… with JD’s help “

“Anyone who has Kel’s birth date down as December 1st can delete that date. Six weeks ago, Director Travis cleared it and I changed all official documents to reflect Kelli C. Larabee Tanner born on July 15th and she is twenty six years old today.” JD added proudly. “However, her name at work won’t change; it will still be Agent Coulter.”

“I just had to make sure that you didn’t see any of the records before today. “Vin confessed his part, relieved that it was now out in the open. Keeping a secret from Kelli was hard for him.

Jason looked at Barbara, “Now?” She answered him with an affirmative nod.

That drew Vin’s attention. “Jason?”

“Andi and I have a surprise too, Dad. You need to stand over by Mom.”

Vin did as Jason asked and all the adults waited to find out what was going on. Barbara was the only one that knew and she was going to let the kids take care of it.

Jason took Andi’s hand and stood in front of their parents. “Miss Barbara helped make us ‘fficial too.” Andi gave Vin an envelope and Jason gave one to Kelli. “I know it’s not both your birthdays but…well this is from us.” They each pulled out the paper inside and read the two new certificates that listed Vincent Jamison and Kelli Larabee Tanner as the children’s legal parents.

It’s… our new… mended birth tickets. Andi managed to get out. “We ‘fficial, too, just like mama.”

“Birth certificates, Andi.” Jason corrected and then explained. “The court made y’all legally our parents and now we are ‘fficially Tanners.” He had been practicing that all day and was pleased that he got it right. “But … we don’t need no paper, y’all belonged to us already.”

Vin and Kelli were not the only adults in the room unable to stop the flow of their tears. As they pulled Jason and Andi close, a wet eyed, Buck took charge of livening up the room by exclaiming.

“Let the celebration begin!”

Chapter 19

Larabee 7 Ranch

Sunday ~ July 16th 10am

Larabee tossed the hay into the stall, muttering to himself as he worked off his anger. “Damn southerner, I should have ordered him to stand down, but did I? …No! He thinks he can tell me…Hell, he did tell me. You wait Standish your time is coming! When this is over…” The sound of laughter from the doorway of the barn drew Chris’ attention. “What’s so damn funny, Tanner?

“You are.” Vin grabbed another pitchfork and started to work on the next stall. “Most of the time, you’re spittin’ nails cause Ez takes too many risks. He decides to play it cautious for a change and you’re still angry with him. You can’t have it both ways Cowboy.”

“Who in the hell says I can’t?”

The Texan shook his head and chuckled; he stopped pitching the hay and then turned to face the blonde. “I think you just enjoy bitchin’ Lar’bee. If it was Ez goin’ under and you were meetin’ with a man you didn’t know, you’d be doin’ the same thing. No sense in advertisin’ what that ugly mug of yours looks like ‘til it’s absolutely necessary.”

“Be careful about who you’re calling ugly, Tanner. I’m in a mean mood and you are the closest target to take it out on.” Chris snapped. Two months of celibacy had Larabee tense enough; having three of his agents’ targeted for death in less than a week had him fuming, and the sordid details of this case made him sick to his stomach. To top it off with having the team undercover specialist practically ordering him to stay away from today’s meeting had him gnashing his teeth. Being insulted by his best friend and brother was the last straw.

Unaffected by Chris’ hollow threat Vin laughed. “Hell, Chris, have you looked in the mirror lately? You look scruffier than a wet gopher.” Chris had quit shaving and his usually neat blonde locks were in need of a trim. The rugged appearance of the man before him was looking less like the old polished Larabee every day.

Chris stopped pitching hay and leaned on the pitchfork He sighed; and then started to grin. “I’ve noticed a few times lately that you’ve been taking on this same type of appearance yourself Tanner.”

Vin smiled as he recalled Kelli’s sensory reaction to what she called his scruffy look. “Your daughter seems to find it … pleasin’… for some unexplained reason and I do try to keep her happy.”

Larabee shook his head, and laughed. Discussing women was something he and Vin had done often enough in the past. However, now it was different; the woman in question that Tanner was referring to was his daughter. “I don’t need to know details Tanner.”

“That’s good, cause you ain’t gettin’ ‘em, anyhow.” The Texan had no intention of sharing details about his and Kelli’s intimate relationship, but he had accomplished his goal of getting Chris to laugh.

Chris had just realized the time and wondered why Buck and Kelli weren’t back yet. “I thought another team was supposed to relieve Buck and Kel at seven. Where in the hell are they?”

“Kel called and said they would be late. Buck insisted they had to stay at the office until last night’s tapes were transcribed and I reckon he has a good reason for it.”

Chris nodded; he knew Buck would explain when he got here. “If you’re here and Kel is still working with Buck, where are the kids?”

“Inez is at your house with their girls and she asked me if Andi and Jason could play with ‘em. I feel for Jason though, when Sarah, Andi and Maria join forces they usually managed to get him into the middle of their latest escapade.”

“Yeah, I don’t think he has forgiven me yet for Grace being a girl.” Larabee chucked. “Anyway I appreciate you being here to help with the stalls; maybe by the time we finished we’ll hear something from Ezra.”

Chris and Vin had always been in tune with each other mentally and it felt as if they had known each other forever. It was something they accepted without question, it was just the way it was from the first time they met. It was as if two old souls had found one another again and rekindled a friendship older than the ages. They may argue, fight or be down right ornery with one another, but underneath it all they knew their friendship would survive. The old friends worked in comfortable silence for the next thirty minutes.

Inez's accented voice cut through that silence, “SARAH CHRISTINA AND MARIA INESA WILMIGTON!

Jason’s yell was not far behind, “DAD! You better come here!”

“Uh-oh.” Chris said. “Inez sounds hot under the collar.”

“I wonder what the girls did now.” Tanner commented, though frankly he did not think anything those three little angels had found to get into would surprise him…much.

Tanner and Larabee started out of the barn to go investigate what was going on. The two men raced across the yard and up the stairs of the deck expecting to find some type of major disaster. Coming to a sudden halt their worst fears vanished however when they took in the scene before them. Jason stood off to the side with his arms crossed in front of him, while Inez was giving her two girls a sound scolding. In the middle of all this Andi sat with her face completely covered with Inez’s make-up.

Jason rolled his eyes and said. “I was way over there by the tree swing dad; I had nothin’ to do with this.”

Linda stood by the kitchen door holding Grace, and tried to stifle her laughter. “Inez and I were in the kitchen. When we heard all the giggling out here, we thought we should check on the girls.” To keep the mischievous young ladies from hearing her laugh, she went inside for a jar of face cream to remove the paint job that the girls had masterminded.

“This is not the first time Sarah and Maria have gotten into my cosmetics. But I did warn them about doing it again and now I suppose they will have to be punished.” Inez looked over at the guilty imps.

Chris and Vin took another look at their two little nieces and it took a great deal of effort to control their own laughter. Both young ladies had a fair amount of lipstick and eye shadow smeared on their faces, too.

Larabee cleared his throat and spoke loud enough for Sarah and Maria to hear his message. “Inez I’m sure that they will not ever again take anything of yours without asking permission. “Right girls?”

Two young heads nodded yes, enthusiastically.

“Vin, I’m sorry they painted all over Andi, I’ll get her cleaned up.” Inez took the jar of face cream and tissues that Linda passed to her.

“Inez, stop frettin’ about it, she was not an unwillin’ victim.” Vin picked Andi up. “We can handle a little lipstick and…whatever.” Tanner wasn’t sure what the rest of it was, but it didn’t matter to him. “There’s no harm done.”

When Andi saw that the Texan was not too upset with her, she smiled. “Sarah make me beautiful Daddy.”

“You were already beautiful, Princess; but you should have asked before you used somethin’ that doesn’t belong to you. Next time, you need to wait for a grown-up to say okay first.” Tanner grabbed some tissues and a glob of cream to start removing the war paint from his daughter’s face. “Let’s get you cleaned up.”

Inez took on Maria, while Chris worked to clean Sarah’s face. The trio had almost completed the job when they heard Buck’s truck pull into the drive.

“Mom’s home, “Jason moved quickly toward the exit, deciding to distance himself from the girls, and he went to meet Kelli.

Vin knew what his son had in mind and laughed. “Kelli and Buck will have a full report on this little escapade before they make it to the deck.”

Buck was the first one up the stairs followed by Jason and Kelli. Wilmington had heard the story of the mischief that his daughters and Andi had gotten into from Jason. He knew that Inez would expect him to agree with her that the girls should be punished in some way, but he just did not have the heart to do it. The only thing he had on his mind was how thankful he was that they were here safe and sound. After all the horrible things that he had heard being done to innocent children during last night’s stakeout; a little mistake with some lipstick did not seem like such a big deal.

“I love both of you.” Buck had knelt down by Sarah and Maria with an arm around each one of his girls. “I know what you did and your Mother and I will talk about your punishment for using the make-up. We’ll let you know what we decide to do about it when we all get home.” He hugged them both. “Now I want you both to play close by and promise me that there will be no more trouble today.”

“In chorus the girls answered. “Okay. We love you, too Daddy.” They immediately took off to play and after Andi gave Kelli a hug, she followed them.

Jason looked at Vin and with a resigned sigh stated. “Reckon I’d better go too, and make sure they stay out of trouble.”

Once Jason was out of earshot, Inez said. “I don’t know what we’re going to do about those little imps.”

“We’re gonna love and protect them.” Buck answered softly, still watching his daughters.

“Y’all need anything to drink before I sit down?” Linda asked.

Kelli responded first. “I could use a shot of Tequila, but I’ll settle for a beer.” She walked over to the deck railing and wrapped her arms around Vin for a much needed hug,

“Make that two, Linda.” Buck replied.

Chris was surprised that either of them would ask for a beer this early on a Sunday morning, but said. “I’ll get ‘em, Linda go ahead and sit down. Vin, you want one?”

“Think I’ll stick to coffee, thanks.” Vin was more than surprised. Kelli never drank beer this early in the day, and he noticed that her hair was still damp, surmising that she had taken a shower at the office. It was becoming a habit with her to ‘get clean’ before she came home. The Texan had a feeling that whatever they had heard last night on surveillance was disturbing because both Kelli and Buck were very subdued.

Vin laid his hand on the back of Kelli’s neck and massaged gently. “You okay baby?” The Texan’s strong fingers rubbed the tense muscles knotted in her shoulders and neck.

Kelli rolled her head in response to the massage and sighed, “That feels good, and yeah I’ll be fine.”

Chris came out of the house and handed Buck his beer, and then walked over to Kelli passing her the other one. “Rough night?”

“And mornin’, but maybe we should discuss it later.” She looked over at Linda, Inez and Grace. “You need to talk to Buck.”

Larabee studied his oldest friend, noticing the tired lines that crossed his face and the slump of one shoulder as he stood off to himself. “Buck, walk with me to the barn. Vin and I left in a hurry and I need to put up some stuff we left laying around.”

“Sure stud,” Buck downed his beer and threw the bottle in the trashcan. “Let’s go.” Wilmington followed Chris down the stairs.

“Kel, you look tired. Inez and I will keep an eye on the kids; go get some sleep. Vin, take her home.” Linda could feel the tension in the air and wanted to help the only way she could. She knew that no one would discuss the case with her and Inez around.

“Sounds like a plan to me, “Vin took his wife’s hand. “Come on, let’s go home.” She went with him with no argument.


Chris busied himself picking up the pitchforks and putting them away, giving Buck time to gather his thoughts. He knew the man well enough to know that something was weighing heavily on his mind.

Finally Wilmington spoke. “I need more manpower for this task force Chris. We need to start doubling the surveillance so one team can leave if necessary.”

“Add as many people as you need Buck. You ready to tell me why?”

“There are a lot of different activities going on in that house. Last night…” Buck swallowed hard. “Last night was particularly busy and brutal for some of the younger girls. Keats, that’s the man in charge, also took an order from one of the clients for a virgin male, specifically in the four to six year-old range. They agreed on a price of twenty-five thousand dollars and made arrangement for him to take delivery later this week. I want a free unit to be able to follow him once he leaves there and rescue that child.”

Larabee nodded thoughtfully. “Once you have it on tape that he paid the money, we can arrest him and keep him locked up. No one would be the wiser. Do you know yet what day it will happen?”

”Not yet, but my guess is that it will take a couple of days to … fill the order.” Buck had difficulty getting the words out.

Chris cursed aloud. This case was taking one hell of a toll on his team already, and they hadn’t even begun to dig. He didn’t comment any further, knowing that there was more that Buck needed to get off of his chest.

“So what happened when you got back to the office?”

“Mark was waiting to transcribe the tapes for us, but after fifteen minutes of listening to that shit he became violently ill.” Buck shook his head. “I just can’t let anyone listen to those damn tapes anymore unless there is a second person in the room with them.” Buck began to pace. “God I will be glad when those bastards make a move so we can bust them. Hell is too good for the sonsofbitches.”

“I know how hard it is to just wait and do nothing for the children that we hear being abused Buck. But it’s the only way we’re going to be able to do it. We’ve got to dot all of our ‘eyes’ and cross all of our ‘tees’ on this one if we’re going to be successful in taking down as much as the organization as we can.” Chris had listened to every one of the tapes that they had as evidence. He knew how damaging the recordings were to his agents’ psyches and wished that they didn’t have to be subjected to anymore of the gruesome details, but realized that it could be weeks, or even months, before they were actually in a position to bring the case to a head and arrest anyone.

Buck stopped and studied Larabee. He knew that Chris had heard all the evidence as well and knew that it was just as hard for him as it was for the rest of them. “How much longer before you go in?”

“Soon, I hope. I’ll know more when Ezra gets back from his meeting with the AG’s man from California. Go home Buck, get some sleep.”

“Yeah, maybe I will.” The two men walked out of the barn together. “I need to hug my girls again, and tell Inez that I’m going home.”

Chris watched Buck say his good-byes. He knew that something had to break soon or he would have to put a counselor on full-time status for his agents to help them cope with this one.


It was late afternoon when Inez and the girls went home. She wanted Buck to sleep as long as possible in a quiet house before the girls made it impossible to keep the noise level down. She found that she had no need to worry about either. Buck was already awake and the girls decided that if they were quiet their parents might forget about their punishment for today’s ‘paint party’.

While the girls quietly watched a movie, Inez joined her husband at the kitchen table. “I thought that you would still be sleeping.”

“Couldn’t sleep, darlin’,” Buck took her hand. “It was too quiet.”

Inez knew Buck too well, “I am worried about you husband.”

“I’ll be fine as long as I know you and the girls are safe here at home.” Buck sighed, “But can we not punish them this once? I know they were wrong…” Inez placed her fingers against his lips to silence him.

“I gave them a warning this time, but next time, and there will be a next time, they will have to lose some privileges. Agreed?”

“Agreed, and in case I haven’t told you today, I love you lady.” Buck squeezed her hand and leaned over to gently kiss the beautiful mother of his children.

Inez sighed contently, pleased to see her husband relaxed again. “I love you, too. Now, go spend time with our girls while I make you your favorite dinner.” Inez kissed him and shooed him out of her kitchen. As she watched him go, she had a feeling that things were going to get worse before they got better for her big-hearted Buck.


Kelli opened her eyes and looked at the clock, it was almost six. Now if she could only figure out if that was am or pm she would be fine. The absence of Vin next to her and the sound of children’s laughter coming from the direction of the kitchen gave her a good clue that it was still Sunday. Damn she hated working nights and sleeping days, she missed out on so much time with the kids. She rolled out of bed and after a quick stop in the bathroom, followed the sounds of her family’s cheerful voices to the other side of the house.

She found Vin, Jason and Andi working on dinner and it reminded her of the first morning that the children were with them. Andi stood on a chair helping Vin with the makings for hamburgers and Jason was setting the table. That however was where the similarities ended; a lot had changed in the seven months that the children had been with them.

“Hi Mom,” Jason grinned and met her for his expected hug. “Dad said you’d be up soon and we almost have dinner ready.”

“We making hamburglers.” Andi said proudly, balancing herself on the chair positioned next to Vin.

“Hamburgers, Andi, not hamburglers.” Jason corrected.

“That’s what I said.” Andi stomped her foot and almost fell off the chair. Vin easily caught their little blond haired princess and set her down on the floor.

“Everythin’ is ready; all we need are some bodies with hungry appetites that are ready to chow down.” The Texan leaned over and kissed his redhead. “Did you sleep well, baby?”

Kelli smiled, “Yep, and ‘m starved.”

Vin noticed that her smile did not reach her eyes and her posture showed how tense she was. It is gonna be a long night Tanner, but she needs to talk and you need to listen. She’d do the same for you.

They sat down to eat and the kids kept a steady stream of conversation going throughout the meal. Most of it centered on their day or Sarah and Maria, but Jason dropped a question his parents were not expecting to hear.

“Dad, how do we get another boy in this family? Can’t y’all order a boy baby or something?

Vin had his mouth full of food and chewed slowly trying to decide how to answer that question. He didn’t expect to have to have this discussion with Jason for a least another few years and was not prepared to have it just now.

“Jason, that’s silly, we just ‘dopt one.” Andi answered her brother, confidant that she was right.

“Can we do that?” Jason wasn’t sure how it all worked, but that sounded good to him “I want a boy close to my age ‘cause there’s too many girls around here.”

Kelli looked at Vin and decided to let him answer this one. “Vin?”

Tanner cleared his throat and took a drink of tea before answering. “Jason, we can’t just adopt a child to have an extra boy around. Adoptions are special and we may adopt again sometime in the future, but not right now. However we have thought about being available as foster parents again.”

“What’s the difference?” Jason’s curiosity was boundless.

“We chose to adopt you and Andi and that means we are your parents for always, and we will love you forever. But there are other children out there that have no family they can go to and those kids are placed into a temporary home. We are approved to be foster parents, and when we foster a child they stay with us for a while, being loved and cared for, until a family can be found that wants them as much as we wanted both of you and then they leave.”

Jason thought about what Vin said. “So we could have a boy foster child and then he would leave when you find his Vin and Kelli?”

“Yes, it could be a few days or a few months, but he or she would leave when a home was found for him or her.” Vin smiled when he saw Jason’s reaction to the last part of that explanation. “You and Andi will always be ours, but if we help to look after another child that means you would have to share us sometimes. Are you willin’ to do that?”

Andi spoke up first. “Yep, Max help too.”

“Shoot, you helped us, it seems only right that we help another kid that has no home. If it’s a boy he can share my room.” Jason said. “But, I don’t think he…or she will find parents as good as we did.”

Vin looked over at Kelli. “I think we just made our first decision as a family.”


Chris was pacing the floor waiting to hear from Ezra.

“Larabee, you need to relax, he will call when he calls. Glaring at the phone will not make it ring any faster.” Linda smiled and patted the empty space on the couch beside her. “Sit with me while you wait, I promise we can hear the phone from over here.” She wanted Chris’ attention on her, not the damn phone.

“I know, but he should have called hours ago and…” The ringing phone interrupted him. Chris grabbed it and growled. “Standish, this had better be you!” he listened for a minute. “It’s not that late damn it … yeah I hear you, just be there by eight, no sleeping in Ezra.” Chris slammed the receiver down and cursed.

“Bad news, babe?”

“That depends on whether you’re me or Ezra.”

Chapter 20

MCAT Office ~ Monday Morning ~ July 17th

Chris was in early and anxious to get the days’ work moving. Ezra had called late yesterday evening and suggested that the Covert Operations Team meet at the office this morning to discuss their next move. He was reluctant to come out to the ranch and talk about his meet with Michael Vance.

Larabee stopped in front of Mrs. Montgomery’s desk. “Gunny set up the conflict room for the covert op team and then herd them all in there as soon Standish arrives. The meeting will begin at nine-thirty.”

”Yes sir. Will there be anything else?”

“Yes, we will have the entire unit meet at one in the war room. Make it happen.”

“I’m on it, Boss.”

Vin and Kelli arrived at the office together, both of them not up to par, due to staying up late talking, but they were determined to work anyway. Kelli’s emotions had held until after they had put Jason and Andi to bed; but as soon as Vin had closed their bedroom door behind them, the waterworks had fallen. Vin had cradled Kelli to him and held her as she wept, hashing over some of the things that she and Buck had been subjected to listen to the night before, and Tanner had found his stomach knotting up with a combination of anger and sorrow.

Tanner left Kelli at her desk and headed for Chris’ office. He gave one short rap on the door and then walked in. He flopped down in a chair across from the desk and waited for Larabee to look up from the paperwork he was going over.

“Hard night?” Chris queried. “Kelli okay?”

“Yes…” Tanner replied. “Kelli’s okay…just needed to unload a little. Did you hear back from Ezra, yet?”

Chris nodded. “Yes…I would have called you last night, but I thought you and Red could use some time alone. The Covert Op’s Team is meeting shortly to be briefed on what Ezra found out from Michael Welch aka Michael Vance, and then we’ll have a unit meeting at one.”

Vin ran a hand over his face. “Sounds good…look Chris, I’ve been doin’ some thinkin’.”

“That’s always a dangerous thing.” Chris couldn’t help quipping, thinking that Tanner was seriously in need of a laugh or two himself.

Vin chuckled. “It’s been known to happen a time or two Lar’bee…you might try it yourself sometime.”

Larabee cocked an eyebrow at him, but didn’t say anything else.

“This case we’re on is gettin’ pretty ugly already, and we haven’t even gotten into the worse of it yet. With just what we’ve already been able to find out, the fellows runnin’ the organization aren’t goin’ to go down easy. They are goin’ to play dirty; we’ve already been made well aware of that by the attacks on Ezra, JD, and Kelli. And that was back when they only thought we were sniffin’ at their bone; now we’re not only sniffin’ after it, we’re plannin’ on takin’ all of their bones away, and they are goin’ to come after us like the rabid dogs that they are.”

“I’m following you.” Chris said.

Vin straightened up in the chair. “We’re goin’ to have to not only hold our own against them, but we’re goin’ to have to be strong enough to bring them down. I want to institute a regiment of hard core trainin’ for the next couple of weeks, around everythin’ else that we’ve got goin’ on. It’s not goin’ to be easy; and I’m certain we’re goin’ to get some protests from the rest of the unit, but it’s imperative that we’re as ready as we can be to go up against those bastards.”

“Do it. They already are the best-trained agents around, but this will keep their skills sharp as well as teach them some new techniques. It might just reduce the stress level around here.”

“I’ll work out a schedule and have it ready for the team meetin’.” Vin stood up to leave.

“Work on it after we meet with Ezra. You need to know everything that’s going to happen because you’re going to be the man in charge when I leave.” Chris rose and headed for the door with Vin right behind him.

Conflict room ~ 9:30am

Ezra waited for everyone to find a chair before he started presenting his plan. He had worked on it most of the night and was anxious to set things into motion. They now had enough information to proceed and he was ready.

“Gentlemen, two things have transpired since we last met that will have an impact our planned mission. This first event was on Friday and I have asked Josiah to join us this morning because he accompanied me on a short jaunt to Arizona. We were able to interview Samuel Carmichael, cousin to the now deceased Ray ‘the Jag killer’ Carmichael. Samuel is currently incarcerated in the Arizona State Penitentiary and with the help of the Attorney General’s office of Arizona, very cooperative.”

Josiah passed out some folders to everyone before Ezra continued.

“We now have enough information concerning Ray ‘the Jag killer’ Carmichael to give Chris a believable identity and a way to infiltrate O’Mara Enterprises. Specifically, we have an avenue to get to our mysterious Mr. Donner.”

“How do we know this Samuel won’t blow my cover?” Chris asked.

Josiah answered. “Samuel is in prison for a first time drug possession and wants out. With the cooperation of the Arizona Attorney General’s office we were able to guarantee him an early release, provided he help us and we are successful. After talking to him I feel confident that he wants out worse than he wants to protect his dead cousin’s reputation. He has a wife and two children waiting for him on the outside.”

“Study the information in that folder Chris because you are going to be Adam Carmichael, another cousin. We will discuss how that is going to happen at the end of this meeting.” Ezra flipped his notes. “Raphael your folder contains a biography on one Creed Cortez, memorize it. You will become him for the duration of this operation.”

Raphael opened the file for his new identity and began to read.

“Yesterday I spent the day with Michael Welch aka Vance. He is an investigator that works for the Attorney General’s office in California and has been undercover for the last ten months. He is firmly established as an FBI agent in the field office located in Costa Mesa. Michael Welch was one of the men that Kelli ripped into after the fiasco at the warehouse. He is also the man that sent us the unedited tape of that day’s event. I have a copy of all of his reports and since he is partnered with Agent Zimmerman, they contain a wealth of information.”

“So we have proof of what is happenin’ there?” Vin asked.

“Proof no, but we know that Zimmerman, Chief of Police William Blain and two of his officers, Jeffries and Shipley are all on the take. Donner owns them and pays them a great deal of money to keep the law away from his organization. The warehouse bust was to be a diversion and the men he chose to have arrested were supposed to die. Our presence, meaning JD, Kelli and myself, threatened their plan and thus, we were to die also.”

“Sonofabitch, “Chris mumbled.

“That surmises my sentiment exactly, Chris. Nevertheless, we know Donner is the middleman and is the man responsible for issuing the order to kill me, JD and Kelli. He is the man we need to bring down in order to find out who his boss is and hopefully his connections around the country. Unfortunately, we have nothing that connects him to us, the child trafficking or the import of humans into this country. “It will be up to Adam Carmichael and Creed Cortez to hopefully prove that.”

Raphael grinned, “That will be a pleasure.”

“Justin, your folder contains the bio for Billy Ray Hackett. Billy Ray is a good friend of Michael Welch’s’ brother and after a few disciplinary reprimands from his current boss, he is looking for a new position. It just so happens that there is an opening in the Costa Mesa police department and Billy Ray is being recommended for the job. Study his bio and memorize it because sometime next week you will be receiving a call from California offering you the job.”

Justin nodded and began to read about Billy Ray Hackett.

“We will flesh out the details the remainder of this week; in the meantime you all must become your new identities. I want you to be that person from here on out and that means you need to begin to cut your ties with your families and start living, as your new identity will live. Justin since you will be going in first, take care of what you need to at home and carry this cell with you.” Ezra tossed him a phone, “This one has the number that belongs to Billy Ray and Michael will be giving it to the Costa Mesa PD along with your application for employment. Josiah has arranged with an old friend of his to work at a local mission in Costa Mesa. He will be the contact for all of you and he will leave for California next Monday morning.”

“Got it Standish,” Justin checked the cell and memorized the new number.

“Raphael, next week, you and Chris will be taking a room at a place called the Starz Motel, just outside Costa Mesa, closer to the action. The room will be registered in the name of Adam Carmichael and I expect you both to be living there by the end of next week. In your case Chris, we need to complete your transformation.”

“What in the hell does that mean?” Chris wasn’t sure, but it did not sound good for him.

“It means that where Justin and Raphael only need to learn who they are, their appearances won’t change much. You sir, have had your face plastered on television, in newspapers and magazines for the last year and need to …transform your appearance. We start today.”

Vin laughed, “It means you mug is gonna get even uglier, Cowboy.”

“Shut up, Vin.”

“Our Mr. Tanner is correct, I’m afraid. We need to darken you hair, change your eye color and I’m thinking you need to wear an earring, maybe some flashy gold necklaces and an entire new wardrobe…”

“Now wait a minute! You don’t really expect me to change that much…do you?”

“Indeed I do or you could let someone else go in your place instead.” Ezra waited. He was really against Chris doing this, but if his boss insisted he would make sure that he was not easily recognized.

Chris sat back in his chair. “No, I’m going under so do your best or worst Ez. I’m not changing my mind.”

Task Force Meeting ~10:30am

Buck waited until the room was quiet and then began his short presentation.

“Most of you know by now what happened over the weekend. We have a deal on tape for the purchase of a child; the delivery will take place in a few days. We’re gonna nail the bastard that made the order before he has a chance to hurt that kid. For us to be able to do that I made a request for more manpower. I’ll let you introduce yourselves after I finished, but we have with us six officers that will be joining our task force as of today. Welcome aboard, Selina Cordova, Wyatt Kellerman, Gary Carlson, Steve Womack Brad Garrison, and Hank Lawrence... I briefed all of them earlier this morning and Mark is passing out the new stakeout schedule. We are moving into twelve hour shifts, that way each of you will have at least a thirty-six hour break after stakeout assignment before you have to go in again.”

“When this goes down how do you want us to handle it?” Jose asked.

“With this schedule there will always be an extra team present, ready to follow the suspect away from the surveillance site, stop him, and then arrest the bastard. We’ll take the child into protective custody. I know that for most of you this is not near enough for us to do, but we wait on any other arrest until we have all the players and places located. That could takes weeks, so be prepared for the long haul on this one. If you need to talk to someone, we have counselors available. Also there will be two people present at anytime tapes are being transcribed. There will also be a unit meeting at one in the main conference room.”

As everyone introduced himself or herself to the new team members, Buck sought out Selina Cordova. “Selina, I know your personal life is your own, but I think you need to let your Dad know that you are joining the task force. He should be out of his meeting anytime now.”

“I had planned to sir; I just have not had a chance to catch up with him yet.” Selina had always been open with her dad and did not intend to keep her involvement a secret.

Kelli stopped beside the pair.” I’ll show her around and see if we can find Raphael, if it’s okay with you Buck.”

“Go ahead darlin’, the last I checked they were meeting in the conflict room.”

Conflict Room

Ezra had dismissed the team and made arrangements to meet with Chris after the unit meeting to go over his transformation. The only ones left were Chris, Raphael and Vin when there was a knock on the door.

Kelli stuck her head in. “Is it okay for us to come in for a minute?”

“Certainly, our meeting has concluded, but who is us?” Ezra inquired.

Kelli and Selina stepped inside the room.

“Selina, what are you doing here?” Raphael stood and went over to greet his daughter.

She kissed her dad on the cheek. “Actually I work here now, at least temporally. I volunteered to be on the Trafficking Task force and Agent Wilmington accepted my application for a spot on his team. I just wanted to let you know.”

Raphael was taken by surprise and had mixed feeling about his daughter working on this case, He knew it was ugly and only going to get worse, but he had always encouraged his girls to take on anything they thought they could handle. “I’m glad you told me. Are you sure this is what you want to be doing?”

“I’m positive Dad. You are the one that always said that it only take one person sometimes to make a difference in this world and never be afraid to step up to the plate to take a swing at it. I’m at the plate and ready to take my swing.”

“I guess I can’t argue with my own words now can I? “ Raphael stepped back, proud to know that Selina had listened to him on occasion.

“We need to get back, so we’ll see y’all later.” Kelli said for both of them

After the women had disappeared through the door Chris grinned and slapped Raphael on the back. “Welcome to ‘Anxious Father’s Anonymous’. Come on Creed, I’ll buy you a cup of coffee.”

Ezra was putting his papers in order and looked up to see that only Tanner had stayed in the room. “Was there something else you needed Vin?”

“Nope, but I wanted you to know that if you need to talk about risk taking and love, my door is open.” Vin was tired of seeing Ezra miserable. He knew that the southerner was in love with Barbara and for some crazy reason thought he was avoiding something disastrous by staying away from her.

“I assure you that I have no idea what you are talking about.” Oh but you do Standish. Ezra was aware that Tanner had an uncanny ability to see through him when others could not.

“Yeah you do Ez. Sometime loving a woman means taking chances. Don’t cheat yourself out of today; worrying about something you think might happen tomorrow.” Tanner stood up, but before he left he made another comment. “I wouldn’t give up one second of today with Kel even if I could see the future and knew it might hold some pain. But then I can’t read the future and the last time I checked, neither could you.” The Texan walked out.

War Room ~ 1pm

Chris watched as the room filled with agents, with the additions to the task force their number had swelled to twenty-five. He fleetingly wondered how many there would be still with MCAT by the time this case was over.

Larabee stood up to begin. “I know that most of you have met with your respective team leaders so I will make this brief. First of all welcome to the new members of the task force. Make a point to introduce yourselves to the new additions after we’re finished here.

Beginning next Monday Captain Tanner will be in charge of this unit. I will be around for a while longer, but he will be the man you go to with questions or concerns. My team leader has plans for me, or so I have been informed.” The room filled with laughter. Chris grinned and was pleased that his agents could still find something to laugh about.

“Go easy on him Ezra, when this is over he will be back in charge and he will be looking for payback.” Buck laughed.

“I think that I’ll have to instigate some type of amnesty program or I’ll never get even.” Larabee waited for the room to settle and then became serious again. “We have a rough road ahead of us. Captain Tanner and I had a discussion this morning and we made a decision. I will let him explain it to you. Vin, they’re all yours.”

Vin rose from his chair and faced the group. “As most of you are already aware, this case that we are workin’ on is goin’ to get nasty. Hell, it’s already nasty, and we’ve only just begun the investigation. We’ve seen what these bastards are capable of doin’ already, what with the hits taken out on Ezra, Kelly, and JD. The people that we are goin’ up against are cowards in the worse way. They pray on the young and innocent. We know this because of the extensive amount of evidence that our surveillance teams have already recorded; and will continue to record. The more we dig around in their business, the nastier things are goin’ to become, and ultimately more deadly as well. That is why, with Lar’bee’s approval, I am instigatin’ mandatory trainin’ for everyone involved with this investigation, regardless of the job you have been assigned.”

“What?” Buck exclaimed. “You’ve got to be shitting me? I’m pulling in so many extra hours as it is now, that my girls barely know me anymore.”

“Is that really necessary for Mallory, and myself, Captain?” Pam asked him. “We won’t be going to be out in the field.”

“Mr. Tanner I don’t see how I can possibly squeeze more time out of a day.” Ezra stated.

Vin listened to the protests and comments for another couple of minutes, before he finally exploded. “ENOUGH!”

Tanner’s voice echoed off the walls of the enclosed room and effectively silenced the MCAT officers.

Blazing blue eyes scorched the faces before him. “No one is goin’ to be exempt from this trainin’! No one! Do you understand me? It’s goin’ to take all of us, combined, to bring down this organization, and we can’t do that just because we have the law on our side. We’re each goin’ to have to be at the top of our personal best and focused to take on the players in this case. They are goin’ to come at us, no holds barred, and we’ve got to be ready for whatever they throw at us. While we’ll all be brushin’ up on our shootin’ skills, most of the trainin’ is goin’ to consist of a regimen of calisthenics and hand-to-hand combat techniques.”

Vin picked up a stack of papers that had a rough draft copy of the training schedule he had done earlier. He took one sheet of paper from the stack and passed the rest of them to Chris. Larabee took one and passed the stack onto the next person. “This is a rough draft of the trainin’ schedule for this week. It is subject to change at any given moment as needed. It will not be possible for all of you to attend each trainin’ session because of your assignments, but I do expect all of you to attend as many of them as possible. Anyone who does not show will NOT like the outcome. Meetin’ dismissed.”

That went better than I thought it would.

Vin snorted. I have a feelin’ we haven’t heard the last of the complaints, Larabee.

Larabee's Office

Chris sat and stared at the phone. It was simple enough, just pick it up call Linda and tell her he would be late coming home tonight. You are a coward Larabee. You know that she had plans for tonight and now…hell ...who are you kidding Chris? You were looking forward to tonight just as much as she was. But you cannot ask your team to do something that you are not willing to do yourself.

Forcing himself to dial the number, Chris counted the rings until Linda answered. “Hey babe …I have some bad news….

Training Facility

Just as Tanner had expected, there were a few more complaints made from the other MCAT officers who hadn’t voiced them during the meeting earlier in the day, as they entered the training center later that afternoon. He chose to ignore the complaints, knowing that if the shoe were on the other foot, he might have done the same thing. No, he would have done the same thing. He didn’t like spending anymore time away from his and Kelli’s kids as they were already doing, but he wouldn’t have the deaths of any MCAT agents on his shoulders because they were unprepared to face the ferociousness of their opponents.

“Everyone spread out arm lengths from the people on either side of you.” He commanded the group, and nearly smiled when Larabee immediately moved to do as he has instructed them. “We’re goin’ to start out with some of the basics…to get our bodies limbered up before we move into somethin’ more strenuous.”

“My body’s limber enough.” Buck quipped, causing laughter to break out among the group.

“Wilmington drop and give me fifty.” Vin figured the best way to start was to let them know just how serious he was about completing this practice.

“You’ve got to be kidding me?” Wilmington exclaimed.

Tanner moved up into the rogue’s personal space and said, “That little remark just attached twenty-five more pushups onto the fifty you already owe me. Want to make it an even one hundred?”

Buck bristled at the tone that Tanner used, but he didn’t argue. He dropped to the ground and began to slowly count out correlating numbers as he did the pushups that Vin had assigned to him.

Tanner put the rest of the agents through a series of stretches, pushups and pull-ups before he moved on to practice self-defense techniques. By that time Buck had caught up to the rest of the group and Vin paired the group up by similar body weight. He would show them a certain hold on his partner, who was Larabee, and then let the pairs practice the hold a couple of times, before moving onto another hold. When it seemed that the class had the holds down fairly well, he added a few more steps to the hold that they had learned, and again waited while they practiced what he had shown them onto one another.

While the moves weren’t quite as fluent as he had hoped them to be by the time he called an end to the first training session, Vin was still pleased at how well his teammates had done nevertheless. He and Kelli left the training center together, after checking to see that Buck didn’t hold any hard feelings toward him about his discipline of the other agent. Wilmington assured him that they were on as solid ground as ever.

Chapter 21

Tanner Home

Tuesday ~ July 18th 3:30am

Vin was mentally cursing his decision to add extra hours of training to an already heavy schedule. Max was due here in less than an hour to watch the kids and he needed to be at the training center before five-thirty to set-up. However, the only thing he was interested in at the moment was his redhead and the amazing things she was doing to rouse him from his sleep and capture his complete attention. He had to admit that she was very successful at it and as much as he wanted to lay in bed for the next hour or two and make love, he knew their time was limited, but…

The aroused Texan growled huskily and pulled her to him. “Baby you know we don’t have much time.” His mind was trying to be reasonable, but his body was not cooperating, neither were his hands.

Kelli grinned, “Then I reckon we shouldn’t waste any of it talkin’ Tanner.” She nipped at his shoulder and then laughed when Vin reacted with a gentle swat to her backside. “We can always take our time later Tanner.”

“Woman, loving’ you is gonna be the death of me yet.”

Playfulness quickly turned to serious passion. One hungry kiss led to another and the two of them were lost to the rest of the world.


Max arrived at four-fifteen and the Tanners rushed out the door, catching breakfast at a twenty-four hour McDonalds on the way in to work. Vin hated to be running late but truthfully he could not be sorry about it. Since the task force began the times that had found to be together had unusually included the kids, alone time for just the two of them had been severely restricted. The irony was that with Kelli’s new schedule she had more time, but now Vin had filled that time with his newly implemented training program.

“You do know that this is all you’re fault, Tanner.”

“We all need the refresher course on this one Kel. These guys play hard ball and I don’t want to see anyone on the team get hurt unnecessarily. Remember it was your trainin’ that kicked in and helped you when that bastard attacked you at the mall. I want everyone in top form and if extra hours of trainin’ are what it takes, so be it. It may cut into our free time, but…”

Kelli interrupted his little speech. “I wasn’t talkin’ about the class, Vin.” Her blue eyes sparkled with laughter. “I was talkin about runnin’ late. If you weren’t so damn good-lookin’ and sexy I wouldn’t feel the need to wake you up so early and… distract you.”

Tanner grinned, “You can distract me all you want, and I’ll make the time to take care of that need.”

“I never believed otherwise, Tanner.” Kelli then remembered the letter she received yesterday. “Did I tell you that I heard from Walter and he’s comin’ to visit?”

“No, did he say why?”

“Yeah, he says that wants to meet Jason and Andi, but to tell you the truth I think the man is lonesome. He has no livin’ family and his retirement is not workin’ out the way he thought it would. He has a lot of free time on his hands and no idea what to do with it. Accordin’ to his letter he’ll be here in two weeks.”

“We should be settled in the new house by then so there’ll be plenty of room. It will be good to see him; I didn’t have much time to visit with him before. Maybe I can get to know him better while he’s here.”

“I’m lookin’ forward to his visit, and I think the kids will like him. Speakin’ of kids, did you take care of that little surprise we planned for the weekend?

“All done, Ezra will pick it up on Friday and keep it hidden until we’re ready.”

Vin pulled the Tahoe into the parking garage.

“Move it Tanner.” Kelli hurried him. “I made you late so I’ll help you set-up the trainin’ class.”

Training Facility ~ 6:00 am

Vin rotated his neck and shoulders, trying to get the kinks out of them that the yesterday’s training session, added to the stress of the job that they were currently doing, had placed there. His and Kelli’s early morning love making had done wonders for the rest of his body. He grinned as he prepared the training room for another round of exercises, remembering the abandon that Kelli had exerted, just for him.

Today, after they had completed the initial stretching exercises, he was going to show the team some new moves to defend themselves against someone with a blade, or other sharp apparatus. Defending one’s self from an opponent’s hands was much easier, than defending yourself against someone who was wielding a knife.

The groggy, grouchy group drifted in one by one or in groups of two, and he waited for them to settle into similar positions that they had taken up during the previous session. Everyone was in a rather good shape and that was a bonus for the whole team, because it meant he would have them in the top form they needed to be that much faster. When the last person had arrived, he moved to stand before them.

“I know that y’all probably are hatin’ me about right now, but I really don’t care. If my runnin’ roughshod over y’all in these trainin’ sessions means that one or more of you are goin’ to come home alive from a bust, then that is all that matters to me. Yesterday I put y’all through some of the basic self-defense holds. Today we are goin’ to go over the same moves as before, ‘cause I want you to feel so comfortable with them that you could do them in your sleep. Then I am goin’ to show you a couple of new moves, which will introduce a whole different level of self-defense into them because I’m goin’ to arm you. Or rather, I will arm one member in each pair. These moves will be choreographed in order for no one to receive any serious injuries during class, but I do not want that to deter any of you from takin’ this seriously. In a real situation, your life will most likely depend on your ability to deflect the movements of your opponent, and you can be sure that they are not goin’ to play fair.”

He set the members through the familiar paces of the stretching exercises, and then allowed them to practice the basic holds that they had also done in the previous session. When he was sure that all of them were more awake, and limbered up, he motioned with his fingers for Chris and Kelli to join him at the front of the group, and then proceeded to pair up the rest of the team members.

“First we’re goin’ to start with a Cross Block.” Vin said, instructing the pairs to face off with each other, eyes leveled on their opponents, feet spaced slightly apart and body weight balanced evenly between them. “The partner in each pair that is standing to the right of me will be the aggressor, while the one on the left will be the defender. To begin, the aggressor’s are only goin’ to simulate havin’ a weapon in their hands. Your dominant hand will be the one that you will use, regardless if it is the right hand or left hand.”

Vin put the team through the steps of the Cross Block, and then moved them onto learning the steps of a Two-Hand Block. When he felt that they had gotten the steps down well enough, he moved over to the weapons bag he had brought from home and extracted a couple of knives, ice picks, screwdrivers, and stickpins. He gave Kelli a knife, and then moved through the group, distributing the rest of the items he had brought with him.

Practicing the moves with actual weapons in their hands against their teammates was an entirely new experience for some of them and a rusty one for others. As Tanner had expected, the partners who were playing the aggressors were even more conscience of their movements for fear of actually doing serious injuries to their partners. This slowed them all down considerably, and he had to encourage them to pick up their speed. The more they practiced, the more each pair got used to the movements that they had practiced and were able to pick up their speed some without anyone getting hurt. When he finally called an ending to the training session, Vin was pleased with how things were progressing.

MCAT Office

Chris Larabee was in a rotten mood, even after the workout Tanner had put them through this morning, he still was tense. It did not help matters that he had just spent the last hour with Ezra working on his makeover. His blonde hair was now dark brown and he wasn’t sure if he would ever get used to the contacts. He hated the ‘new wardrobe’ Standish insisted that he was to wear and no way was he going to pierce his ear to wear a damn earring. On top of that Linda was still mad at him for not coming home early last night to celebrate her release from the doctor.

Vin knocked on the door and walked on in. “Damn Chris, you look like a cat that just had his tail run over by a truck.”

“Cute Tanner, but blame Standish. He thinks this look is perfect for Adam Carmichael.” Chris grumbled. “Personally, I think I could just stick my finger in a light socket and have the same result.”

Tanner chuckled,” That might be an improvement over this look. Ez has always been good with disguises, but I believed he’s outdone himself this time. What does Linda think about the new you?”

“She hasn’t seen the latest installment and as mad as she was last night, I doubt she’ll be making any comment about my looks…or anything else for quite a while.”

“I told you that you should have gone on home. You’re in good shape already Chris, you didn’t need to stay last night.”

“Yes I did, I’m not going to order my agents to do something that I am not willing to do myself.’ Chris laughed. “Judging from the complaints about aching muscles this morning, I’d say your assessment of most of the team was correct. They need to stay in shape for this job and you’re idea was right on the mark. It won’t hurt any of them and might prevent them from having an unnecessary injury or two later on.”

Vin laughed, “Yeah, if the trainin’ don’t do ‘em in first.”

“You’re still planning on moving this weekend I hope. I want to help and I can’t guarantee I’ll be around much after Sunday.”

“Yep, we’re gonna go ahead and do it, unless somethin’ breaks here first. Max and the kids are at the new place today waitin’ on a couple of deliveries. Most of the big stuff is finished on the house and what’s left; Kel and I can do after we move in. I can work on the barn and corral for our horses at my own speed. Besides we’re goin’ back on the list for emergency care and we’ll need the extra space.”

“Are the kids okay with that?”

“They’re the ones that brought it up actually. Jason wanted to know how to get another boy on the ranch and Andi though we could ‘dopt one. When I explained to them that we weren’t ready to adopt again, the subject of foster care came up and one thing led to another. Bottom line we had a family meetin’ about it and decided it was time. Jason and Andi liked the idea so much they insisted that they both have twin beds so they can share their rooms.”

“That sounds just like something they would come up with.”

“Jason wants to make sure that we find each foster child their own “Vin and Kelli’, before we let ‘em go though.” Vin shook his head. “I explained that we’d have to trust CPS to look for new parents or placements for each child and that we were only there for temporary emergency care. If Jason and Kel had their way we would end up with ten or twenty kids and I’m not ready for that.” Tanner laughed. “I’m happy with the two that we have…maybe one or two more later on …but I’ll be satisfied just helpin’ some foster kids find their homes for now.”

“Hell Vin, you know damn good and well you and Kel seem to draw children like magnets. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if you two did end up with a houseful.” Chris frowned. “I wished that…”

“We haven’t given up Chris” Vin knew what Larabee was thinking about. “Kel changed doctors and we’ll just wait and see what fate has planned. We’re okay with whatever happens.”

Chris nodded his head. He was certain that Vin and Kelli would handle what fate had in store for them, good or bad. An easy silence fell over the room broken only by the ringing of the telephone.

“Larabee,” Chris had picked up the receiver and now listened. “Send her up.” He grinned as he hung up the phone. “Linda’s here, maybe she not as mad as I thought she was.”

Vin stood up, “You two need some privacy and I have work to do, see you later.”


Chris met Linda at the elevator and walked with her to his office, closing the door once they were inside. He sat with her on the couch and he hoped that it was a good sign that she was here and evidently still willing to talk to him.

“I’m glad to see you, but where’s Grace?”

“Inez has her for a while. What did you do to your eyes?” Linda wanted to ask who this man was and what he had done with the real Chris Larabee. It seemed that every time she saw him lately something was changed concerning his appearance.

Chris had forgotten about the contacts and took them out. “It’s part of Ezra’s plan to disguise me. He wants me to wear an earring too, but I have to draw the line somewhere.”

Linda laughed, “An earring! Now that is something that I would pay good money to see.” She shook her head. “Is all this really necessary Chris?”

“Yes, as much as I hate to admit to it. My face has been on TV, in newsprint and featured in a magazine or two in the last year and there is always the chance that someone could recognize me. Ezra doesn’t believe in taking chances on undercover assignments and insist that I need to change my appearance.”

A chill ran down Linda’s spine. Chris had refused to tell her the details of this operation, but until this moment she had not realized just how dangerous this could be for him. “I know you said that this was important to you and I agreed to support you on it, but…” She sighed. “I’m sorry… I gave you a promise and I shouldn’t ask questions that you can’t answer.”

“Trust me babe, the less you know the better off you will be.”

“Do you suppose that this unit can operate without you long enough for you to have lunch with your wife?”

Chris laughed, “I think that they might be able to manage.” He leaned in and gave her a slow and sweet kiss. “Let’s go babe.”

Larabee stopped at Gunny’s desk on the way out. “The Captain is in charge, you need anything, call him. I’m taking my wife to lunch.”

“Okay, so where do you want to go eat?” Chris asked Linda once they were in his truck.

“I hope you don’t mind but I made room reservations for us in that new hotel downtown. I thought we could order room service and talk about everything that is going on with the investigation that MCAT is doing, your participation in it, and how it’s going to affect the life that we share together.” Linda told him quietly.

“All right.” Chris agreed shifting the truck into reverse and backing it out of the parking spot it was in. He placed the vehicle into drive and headed out of the parking lot toward the hotel that Linda was talking about, slipping his free hand over hers. He dreaded the conversation to come, because he was firmly set on what his part in their investigation was going to be, yet hated the idea of being separated from Linda and Grace. Linda had come into his life at a time when he had almost given up on the idea of ever finding love again with another woman. Sarah had meant the world to him, and losing her had nearly done him in.

Admitting the truth is easy, Larabee. If it wasn’t for Buck’s unwillingness to let you wallow in grief and self-pity you would have never been in the right frame of mind to take on the ragtag group of men that formed Denver’s number one ATF team. You would have missed out on knowing these men that have become your family of brothers. You also owe Orrin Travis a debt of undying gratitude for allowing you to pick the men you wanted on the team. That led to your fateful meeting with Vin and the bond that the two of you share is something that will never be severed. Together these men had given you more reason to live than you had thought possible, and their influences on your life had helped you to see that life wasn’t worth living if you weren’t willing to take risks. Allowing yourself to fall in love with Linda was one of those risks and thank God, you did.

They arrived at the hotel a short time later and were escorted to the lavish suite that Linda had reserved for them. Chris paid the bellhop for his assistance, and then inserted the key card into the door slot. He opened the door and allowed Linda to precede him into the room, and then closed the door behind them. The room was done in a color scheme of gold and burgundy, with heavy brocade draperies, fine linens and maple furnishings. There was a sitting area, a kitchenette complete with full table, a bathroom bigger than his office at MCAT headquarters, and separate bedroom that held a king size bed, lounge chair, two dressers, closet, and an entertainment center complete with a 25 inch tv/vcr/dvd combo player, and CD stereo system.

“Do I even want to know what this room cost us to rent it?” Chris asked Linda with a grin.

“No.” Linda told him. “Just enjoy it. Who knows when we’ll be together again like this.”

Chris took Linda into his arms, and held her close. “I’m sorry that this is so hard on you. You know that I wouldn’t do anything to purposely hurt you.”

Linda sighed against his chest. “I know…I’m just scared, Chris, and feeling very selfish right now. I don’t want to be separated from you. I don’t want to know that you are putting your life in jeopardy to catch some bad guys, because the thought of anything happening to you again scares the hell out of me.”

Chris pulled away from her, slipping one of his hands over one of hers while leading her over to the couch and indicated that she take a seat. Linda sat down on the couch, and Chris settled himself onto it beside her.” Linda, we’ve talked about the possibilities of me going undercover in an investigation before. It’s all part of my job description as the Commander of MCAT. Is it something that I do in every case that we are working on? No, because it’s not necessary for me to do so. That job is usually reserved for Ezra or someone else on the team, but with the case that we are presently working on, it’s going to take all of us to go above and beyond what we’ve ever had to do before. I won’t sit back and let my agents take all the risks, and not do my part. Don’t ask me to do that.”

“I won’t, even though I want to. I know that this case has hit a chord with you that you can’t shake loose. I just wished...” Linda shook her head to clear her depressing thoughts. “I have our trip all planned out. Grace and I will leave Monday for Louisiana and visit with Luke a while. Then we’ll see Robert and his family in New York before we go to DC to spend time with Blake. Finally we will go back to Louisiana and stay until I hear from you that it’s okay to come home.”

“Is Matt going with you?”

”You don’t think I can spend that much time with my older brothers without a referee do you? Of course Matt is coming to try and keep peace in the family.” Linda laughed. “My elder siblings can be…difficult and overbearing at times. Matt and I together can handle them though.”

“I want you to be sure and let Vin know where you are at all times.” Chris instructed her. “He’ll know what is going on with me and if he feels you’re safe then I’ll know it. “

“You take care of you and don’t worry about us.” Linda leaned into Chris and kissed him gently. “Stay with me this afternoon, just you and I. Surely Vin can handle things at the office for a few hours without you.”

Chris hesitated only for a second and then reached for his cell phone. When Tanner answered Larabee got straight to the point. “Vin, I’ll be out of contact for a while. See you at the training this evening.” He hung up without even saying goodbye, and grinned at his blond. “I’m all yours Mrs. Larabee.”

At the office Vin hung up his phone and laughed. Good for you Cowboy.

Training Facility

Vin led the team through the usual round of stretching exercises, and then set them to practicing the holds, and blocking techniques that he had previously shown them in early classes. Then he had them reverse the procedures, making the former aggressor in the pairs become the defender, and their partner the aggressor. It was important that they all practiced both positions so that they could get accustomed to reading their opponent’s body language, and react reflexively to whichever move their attacker made toward them.

“Arm needs to be at an angle like this.” Tanner told Paul, taking hold of the other agent’s arm and showing him the proper way to hold it to block the thrust Ross made with the knife that he held. He gestured for the two agents to go through the sequences of movements that he had taught them, and was pleased by how quickly the two were picking up his instructions. He moved through the room, checking the postures and movements of the rest of the pairs to make sure they were doing them right, and he was pleased at the progress they were making in picking up the new techniques that he was teaching them.

The session had been going on for about an hour, by the time that Larabee made an appearance. Tanner grinned at him, “Glad you could make it cowboy. You are just in time to be my first opponent in a free-for-all. ”

Chris groaned good-naturedly and moved onto the mat to face off with Tanner. “Just remember that if you do any damage to my face, you’ll have to answer to Ezra for it.”

“Spoil sport.”

Chapter 22

Friday ~ July 28th 5am

The tensions on the Task Force kept mounting all week. Whether it was the longer stakeout time of twelve hour shifts, the added training that Vin insisted on or the fact that just waiting for action that had everyone one edge, who knew…or cared.

“What in the hell are the bastards waiting for?” Buck was restless and irritated. He and Kelli still had two more hours of surveillance duty and so far there was no sign of their ‘buyer.’ “Damn it, I was certain that they would act by now.”

“Buck, they will move on their schedule, not ours. Are you sure we didn’t miss anythin’ from earlier today?” She heard paper shuffling in the darkness and saw Buck trying to read with a small penlight. Kelli shifted in her seat to try and get comfortable. Her muscles ached from the extra training Vin had put them through the last few days. It was so hot that she and Buck had taken off their bulletproof vests and had laid them in the back seat.

“Aside from the normal or should I say abnormal shit that goes on in there, the only thing that happened today was a delivery of two crates by a local delivery company. They checked out as legit, and the bill of lading indicated that the crates contained an order of…sheets? Who gets sheets delivered in a crate? A laundry truck maybe but… shit!”

“What is it?”

“Those two crates were shipped from California Wednesday afternoon. Not even these slime balls would put a kid in a crate…would they?”

“It’s possible, I know there have been incidents reported where they have found kids in dog carriers, boxes, dresser drawers, and…hell Buck to them it only a commodity, not a live human bein’. The way they see it, if the lose one or two, it’ a cost of doing business.”

“So they ship two in case one…doesn’t make it ...Damn it, I hate this fuc…freaking shit.”

Kelli laughed, “You don’t have to censure yourself when we’re workin, and it gets to me, too. In fact, accordin’ to my other partner, I curse in at least three or four different languages.” She grinned, “Ezra says, ‘m supposed to have a temper too, but between you and me, I think he is exaggerates.” She hoped her outrageous remark would help Buck ratchet down his irritability a notch or two.

“Like hell, you have your old man’s temper, and after watching you in training this week, I’d say you are capable of kicking some ass, too.”

“Only when provoked,” Kelli smiled. “I tend to not start things, but …I have been known to finish a few skirmishes. When I lived with Jake I spent a lot of time on the rodeo grounds and trust me, a gal learns real fast how to take care of herself around all those testosterone-laden cowboys. Hell, some of the females were just as bad or worse about startin’ crap. I managed to hold my on though, with all of ‘em.”

Buck laughed, “I just bet you did. You only go to watch or did you compete?”

“I entered a few events, team ropin’ and cuttin’ horse competition mostly. I tried ridin’ a bull bareback a few times at home, but Jake caught me the third time I did it and I spent the next two months muckin’ out stalls. I never tried that again, for sure.”

“Like I said, you take after your old man ‘cause that is something he would have pulled. I remember one time that Chris had too much to drink and decided to ride at three o’clock in the morning. The only problem with that was the horse he wanted to ride had never allowed anyone to put a saddle on him. Talk about two stubborn mules squaring off… well he eventually rode him, but to this day I can’t figure out why that damn horse didn’t kill him.”

“If it was anythin’ like me and that bull, I’d say it had to be pure dumb luck.”

Buck sighed. “Are you doing okay with all this? I mean it must be difficult after…Hell, Wilmington, stick your foot in it why don’t you?”

“I’m okay, Vin gives me plenty of opportunity to vent when I need to and he keeps me grounded. I really don’t remember anythin’ that happened to me, only what I’ve read later in police or doctors’ reports. I used to have some crazy mixed-up nightmares that never made much sense, but even those are gone since Vin found out the truth about all of it for me.”

“I’ve noticed that I crowd my girls more than I used to, but I can’t help it after hearing all this crap.” Buck wondered if he would ever be able to give Sarah and Maria the freedom they would need as they got older. After this experience he wanted to wrap them in cotton and hang on to them forever.

“I know how you feel; I want everythin’ to be perfect for Jason and Andi too.” Kelli hesitated before continuing. “Being abused happened to me, but it did not, nor will it ever define who I am. Knowin’ that who you are and what happens to you are two different things; it is probably the most important thing a child can learn. Jason and Andi have had to learn that the hard way already, but we intend on givin’ ‘em enough love that they never doubt it for one second. Just love ‘em Buck, that the best gift you can give ‘em.”

“That I do, I…” The radio headset crackled and Brett Jacobs’ voice interrupted whatever Buck intended to say. “Head’s up, our suspect just drove to the eastside entrance of the house. Late model, blue Lexis… Colorado license plate echo, x-ray, bravo 399, calling in now for APB and instructions for assistance. “He is inside and the deal is going down…hell, he gave them the money in cash and they’re giving the kid…I hear some shuffling and…poor kid, stand by.”

“Okay boys and girls, we wait until he is away from this neighborhood before we stop him. Whatever it takes, we do not lose this guy.” Buck spoke into his headset. “Talk to me Jacobs, tell me what you can see.”

After a two minute break Brett was back “Suspect is loading a…pet carrier? ...into the rear seat of the Lexis and is closing the door. He is now entering the driver’s side and has started the engine. He circled the drive and is headed west on Carlyle Avenue.

“We have him in sight, stay with the van, we’re on it.” Buck started the engine and followed from a safe distance, while Kelli coordinated with the DPD on her cell phone.

“A patrol unit should intercept him three streets up and attempt to pull him over. The vehicle is registered to a Marshall Sorenson local resident.” Kelli gave Wilmington the information.

Switching the radio to the DPD frequency, Buck was able to monitor the activities of the patrol car ahead of them. “Unit has him spotted…damn it he gonna rabbit…the sorry sonofabitch isn’t stoppin.”

“Don’t lose the bastard Buck!” Kelli shouted.

Buck increased his speed, turned on the flashing lights and caught up with the original patrol unit that had now been joined by several others. The Lexis roared down the city streets at speeds up to one hundred miles per hour. Obviously the driver knew Denver well, but Buck knew it better.

“Hang on! “Buck turned at the next intersection on two wheels and increased his speed again, hoping to cut off the rapidly accelerating Lexis by taking a short cut. Wilmington came out on the next street just ahead of the Lexis and pulled in front of it, forcing the driver off the road and into a telephone pole. The expensive silver car ground to a halt. The engine was still running when Buck and Kelli jumped out of their vehicle with their guns drawn and directed at the car.


Buck took the driver’s side, while Kelli came up on the passenger side of the Lexis. Four other patrol units screeched to a stop and suddenly there were several Denver Police officers everywhere with their weapons drawn. The driver of the car did not respond.

“EXIT THE CAR WITH YOUR HANDS IN THE AIR NOW!’ Buck ordered again, and he began to move toward the car.

“GUN!” Kelli yelled and Buck dropped to the ground just as the suspect fired at him. She discharged her own shot into the car through the passenger side window and the man screamed in pain as the bullet shattered the bone in his raised arm, forcing him to drop his weapon.

Buck quickly made it to the driver’s side door, opened it and pulled the screaming man out of the vehicle, to the ground. Pulling the man’s wallet out of his pocket, allowed Wilmington to confirm the man’s Identification. “Marshall Sorenson, you are under arrest for … attempted murder of a federal officer. Wilmington did not hesitate to handcuff the injured felon as he read the man his rights.

Once the suspect and his gun were secured, Kelli holstered her weapon and opened the rear passenger door. Inside was a medium sized pet carrier, which she opened, only to find a small child inside.

“I‘m a police office, and you’re safe now.” Kelli spoke softly to calm the frightened child. “Are your hurt?” Receiving no answer she slowly reached inside and gently took the child’s hand. “My name is Kelli and ‘m not goin’ to hurt you, but I need to make sure that you are okay. Can you come to me?” She heard sirens in the distance and knew that the EMTS would be here soon. The child hesitantly moved a bit and she waited patiently. Kelli would not force the youngster to come out and was prepared to wait until the child voluntarily came to her.” I’m just gonna sit here and hold your hand, when you’re ready, I’ll be here.”

Buck stood by close enough to hear the conversation, and he made certain that no one interfered with his partner or her method of coaxing the child out. The ambulance arrived and the EMTS went first to the injured suspect asking for the key to the handcuffs so they could examine him.

“The cuffs stay on him, do what you can.” Buck ordered and glared at the medic. No one argued with him. Several Denver police officers stood behind Wilmington backing him up, in silence, waiting to see if his partner could get through to the scared child inside the carrier. They had no sympathy for the injured suspect and they were also not leaving until they knew the child was okay. A blanket was passed through the mass of policemen that shielded the car from the sight of onlookers that had gathered to gawk.

It was a long five minutes before Kelli felt the child move again and she saw a head covered with curly black hair slowing emerged from the carrier. ”It’s okay, no one will hurt you, I promise.” The child was a young boy; maybe five or six years old, he was drenched in sweat, had light chocolate colored skin and dark eyes. Without saying a word, he allowed Kelli to wrap him in the blanket that had mysteriously appeared and was passed to her by an unknown hand.

A female paramedic stood off to the side of the car and waited for a signal that would allow her to examine the child.

Kelli held the boy and whispered softly to him. “Can that nice lady come over and look at you? She just wants to see if you need a doctor, I’ll stay right here with you.” The small head nodded yes, but the grip on her hand tightened.

The paramedic was quick and gentle in her examination; but it was obvious that the boy was dehydrated and it was imperative that he be seen by a doctor as well. She stepped back and allowed Kelli to exit with the child. “I’m not going to start an IV here, but I think you will need to stay with him, at least until we transport him to the hospital.”

“This child is in my protective custody and I will stay with him even after we reach the hospital, but he is not goin’ to go in the same ambulance with that man.” Kelli corrected the young woman.

A senior ranking Denver police officer stepped forward. “Your partner will ride in the ambulance with the suspect and I will have one of my men bring your vehicle to the hospital. I will gladly give you and the young man a ride there also.”

The paramedic started to protest, but the determined look on Kelli’s face stopped her. “We’ll meet you there then.”

Denver Memorial Hospital

Buck handcuffed Sorenson to the hospital bed and made a few phone calls while Dr. Landers worked on the man’s other arm. His first call was to Chris, giving him a quick rundown of events and setting up a guard detail on the prisoner. The second phone call was to Barbara Lindsey, she would locate a counselor trained to deal with this type of situation and meet them at the hospital. He looked at his watch and could not believe that it was only seven in the morning; it seemed as if it were much later.

Wilmington stepped outside the examination room for a few minutes and looked up to see Brett Jacobs and Selina Cordova coming through the double doors.

Brett held his hands up in a surrender posture. “Before you say anything sir, Rick and Jose relieved us early. We followed the chase on the radio and thought you might need some extra bodies to help out down here.”

Nodding his head in agreement, Buck gave his orders. “Jacobs, go in there and stay with that bastard. Do not let him out of your sight, no matter where they take him and he contacts no one! No notes, no phone calls… no anything! If any one argues with you…hell shoot ‘em if you have to, but the suspect stays with you. Selina, you’re with me.” Buck took off down the hall to find his partner and see how the boy was doing.

Kelli showed more patience with the child than most people gave her credit for having at all. The boy refused to let go of her hand, and she did not argue with him. However, no amount of coaxing would make him talk, not even to say his name. She stayed quiet while Dr Gifford, at her request, examined the boy. Having explained to the doctor what had happened to the child beforehand, she knew that he would be thorough and was relieved when he indicated that there was no evidence of sexual abuse.

Dr. Gilford declared that in spite of his rough treatment the only thing he could find wrong with the child was moderate dehydration. He had the nurse hang a bag of solution and start an IV. He then explained to Kelli what was going to happen” Given the circumstances you outlined and his test results I will begin with restoring his electrolytes, but after this bag is empty I believe it will be safe to treat him with ORS or oral replacement solutions. Make sure he rests and monitor his liquid intake for the next twenty-four hours. That you can do at home so he should be ready to leave in a couple of hours. Young man,” Dr Gilford made sure the boy was listening to him. “You can trust Kel, listen to her and do what she says.”

“Thanks Doc, I appreciate you takin’ care of him.”

“It’s not a problem for one of my favorite ex-patients. Take care of yourself too, young lady.” He patted her on the shoulder before he walked out the door. Buck waited for the doctor to leave and then motioned for Kelli to come out into the hall.

“If you want to speak to me Buck, you’ll have to come in here and talk to both of us. My new friend prefers for me to stay with him.” She turned to the boy with a smile on her face and said. “These two are friends of mine. The pretty one is Selina and the big one is Buck, but don’t let his size fool you, he’s just a big old teddy bear with a moustache.”

Selina moved over closer to the bed and took the child’s other hand. “Can I stay with you for a few minutes while Kelli goes outside the door and talks to some people?”

The child narrowed his eyes and looked at woman he held on to. “I promise that I will be just outside that door and I will come back to stay with you.” Kelli waited patiently while the boy decided. A nod of his head and a release of her hand was his answer. “I’ll be back soon; you take care of Selina for me okay?”

Kelli slipped out into the hallway. She was surprised to find that while Dr Gilford had spent extra time examining the boy, Chris, Vin and Barbara had arrived at the hospital.

Chris and Vin both appeared to be angry, but at least her husband spoke to her. “Are you okay?” The Texan demanded crossly, but even as he spoke his eyes swept over his wife for his own assurance that she was all right.

“Yeah, ‘m fine, Tanner. You want to tell me why you’re so ticked off?”

Buck answered, “It seems partner that we neglected to use our vests this morning and two somebody’s are a bit upset about our little oversight.”

“Little oversight? You both could have died out there!” Chris shouted, but was stopped from continuing when his daughter grabbed him arm.

“Lower you voice! We screwed up on the vests and you can yell all you want to about it, later. But I will not allow you to raise your voice and upset that child in there. He has been through enough already.”

Chris could not believe that Kelli wasn’t in the least bit repentant about not following procedure and was telling him to be quiet. “Young lady…”

Barbara interrupted the potential argument. “How is the boy?”

“Considerin’ that he was abducted, tossed into a crate, apparently without food or water for two days, shipped like a damn piece of freight from California to Colorado, then stuffed into a dog carrier, and then was placed inside a vehicle involved in a police chase that was traveling at speeds over a hundred miles an hour before it slammed into a telephone pole…he is pretty fair shape. Doc is gonna released him in a couple of hours. He refuses to speak so I don’t know his name yet, but I will.”

“I have a counselor coming to see him.” Barbara advised. “Carmen Johnson should be here within the next half hour.”

“Fine, I know Carmen and she’s great with kids. As long as you understand that he is in my protective custody and I’m not lettin’ anyone take him until I can hand him over to his parents.” Kelli dared any of them to argue with her. “And just for the record Lar’bee, he wasn’t wearing any damn vest either.”

Buck just smirked and gave Chris that ‘I told you so look.’

Tanner decided that he could give his wife hell later for taking chances, but he saw an even bigger problem looming on the horizon. Kelli was already in full protective mode with this boy and the likelihood of her being hurt emotionally was far greater than the risk of being shot without her vest on. He remembered that according to the doctor’s report Kelli did not speak for months after she was found, this boy might not open up to her at all. It could take a while to find his parents too, unless an amber alert had gone out on him or they got lucky.

I hear you Vin Chris had come to the same conclusion after listening to his daughter’s passionate outburst.

The Texan moved closer to his redhead. “You gonna introduced us to this new man in your life?”

Realizing that her battle was won, at least temporarily, Kelli relaxed. “Come on in.” Vin and Chris followed her into the room, while Buck stayed outside with Barbara.

Neither man missed the child’s reaction when he saw Kelli come back into the room. He apparently had been watching for her and the look of relief on his face was obvious. It was also obvious that the boy was not Caucasian. That was something that neither Buck nor Kelli had mentioned. Probably because as far as either of them was concerned, the fact that he was a different race was not important.

“I told you that I would be back. I brought some more people for you to meet. The man with the beard and the set look on his face is my dad, Chris. This one is my husband Vin and we have a little boy that is just about your age named Jason and a girl that’s three named Andi.” She allowed the child to take her hand. “You know it would be nice to know your name, too.”

The boy studied the faces of all the adults in the room and then he made a decision. He motioned to Kelli to lean down and then he whispered in her ear.

Kelli smiled, “I think that is a great name. Y’all, this is Caleb.”


When Carmen Johnson arrived and she found out how many people Caleb had seen since he was at the hospital, she decided to delay her interview with him.

“It would be best if I talk to him away from here. Where do you plan to take him when he is released?”

Chris did not hesitate. “We’re taking him to our office. Once he’s there we hope that he can tell us more about what happened to him. We’ll take care of finding him a place to stay until his family can come for him.”

“Very well, I’ll talk to him after you move him there.”

“I’ll make it happen, Ms. Johnson.” Chris nodded his head. “Now, if you will excuse me, I have a suspect to look in on.”

Larabee had several thoughts racing through his head as he rode the elevator to the sixth floor. Granted, they had only rescued one child, but it would be a boost to the spirits of the entire team. He exited the elevator and saw Buck waiting for him outside the door to Sorenson’s room.

“Can he talk yet?”

“Only enough to demand a lawyer,” Buck said angrily. “I had the phone removed from his room and gave instructions to the nurse that he was to speak to no one. Kellerman and Womack are taking first watch on him, and I can go back to having one unit per shift on stakeout now that we have the bastard .That gives me enough manpower to keep him covered. The orthopedic surgeon still needs to look at his x-rays.”

“I’ll talk to Travis about keeping him sequestered.” Chris touched Buck’s arm. “Walk with me.” The two men took the elevator down, and reaching the main floor exited through the double doors to the outside. “Tell me why you didn’t follow procedure this morning.”

“Hell Chris, there’s no excuse. It all happened fast and I guess the only thing we had on our mind was getting the kid out safely. It was my responsibility as senior agent and team leader to make sure Kel was wearing a vest and I fucked up. I have to tell you though, she had me covered and her warning is the only reason old Bucklin is still here, I didn’t see the damn gun.”

“Still Buck…”

“I know and I’ll make sure that it doesn’t happen again.”

“Consider this conversation as your official warning.” Chris knew Buck well enough to know that he would not repeat this particular mistake any time soon. “It’s your team, so you handle it with Kelli, but don’t make it easy on her. I’ll expect an official explanation in your report.”

“You’ll have it.” Buck slapped his old friend on the shoulder. “Let’s go see if we can find that kid’s family.”

MCAT Office

It was almost one by the time Kelli had young Caleb checked out of the hospital, and was at the federal building. Vin had stayed with her and was surprised that the young boy easily accepted his presence. It was probably because he connected with the redhead and she made certain that the child knew she trusted the Texan.

Vin carried Caleb into his office and while Kelli settled him in with a DVD and the lunch they had bought him at McDonalds, Tanner went in search of some answers.

Chris was waiting for him and when Vin walked into his office, the blonde silently handed him the report Pam had found.

“Damn,” Tanner scanned the pages and he did not like what he was seeing. “What do we do now Chris? We can’t send him back yet and hell, you know Kel won’t turn him over to just anybody.”

“I know, but first things first.” Chris hit the intercom. “Gunny, ask Agent Jackson step into my office.”

“You gonna have Nate check him over?”

“Yes, if Caleb will let him. I want to make sure we take good care of him, he’s the only witness we have.”

Nathan knocked on the door and then walked in, not waiting for an invitation.

“I want you to check on the kid, and make sure we have everything needed for him. Vin can tell you what the doctor said.”

Tanner dug some papers out of his pocket. “It all here Nate, these are his discharge papers and follow-up instructions. That counselor lady will be here to talk to him in about fifteen minutes.”

“Is his family coming for him?” Nathan asked.

“There is no family. Caleb Evans, who turned six years old three weeks ago, and another boy…Danny, a five year old…were snatched from a group home in California Tuesday afternoon. Both boys were up for adoption. In fact, Danny, the one we don’t have, had a family coming to pick him up today, they were only waiting for a judge to sign the papers.”

“What about this one…Caleb, you said?”

“The director of the home seems more concerned about us finding Danny than hearing about Caleb’s recovery. The woman said that it was harder to place him because of his…mixed race and background.” Chris noted the confused look on Nathan’s face. “His father was African-American and his mother was Hispanic. Both parents are deceased. His mother died of a drug overdose when he a baby and his dad was killed while committing an armed robbery a few weeks earlier. Caleb has spent most of his life in one group home or another.”

“Tough break for a kid that’s so young, I’ll go check on him now.” Nathan left the room.

Vin stood up and walked over to the copier. “Carmen will need this information before she talks to him.” He sighed while the copies printed. “I reckon I’ll tell Kel while the counselor is in with him.”

“Better you than me brother. Knowing my daughter, I have a feeling that Caleb may be a guest on the Larabee 7 until we find him a permanent place and God help anyone that tries to stop that from happening.” Chris grinned. ”It a good thing you planned on moving this weekend, you’re gonna need the extra room.”

“Amen to that.”

Chapter 23

MCAT conference Room

Chris sat silently and watched his daughter read the report on Caleb from California. They had gathered in the conference room to decide on their next move. Carmen Johnson had been in with the child for twenty minutes, giving Tanner an opportunity to share the information with his wife. Nathan had stayed to watch, out of simple curiosity; he wanted to see Kelli’s reaction to the news for himself.

Tanner did not need to wait for her reaction; he already knew that Caleb would be coming home with them. Chris could call it protective custody, sheltering a material witness or whatever he wanted to, but Caleb would stay until they could find him a real home. He was also certain that his redhead would have a few choice words about the director of that group home. The woman had as much shouted her own prejudices in every word she wrote and Vin was positive that she was one of the main reasons that the young boy had not been adopted.

“You’ve got that look Kel.’ Vin stated.

“What look?”

“You know which one…the one that says you’d like to kick someone’s ass.”

“Well…the woman that wrote this certainly deserves it. The test results listed here for Caleb shows that he is bright, imaginative, and has an above average intelligence. Her report paints him as a slow, difficult, aloof child that would have a hard time fittin’ into a family unit. Hell, it’s no wonder no one has tried to adopt him…she marked him before he had a chance.”

“I read the same report Kel and according to those records he has had to be disciplined many times.” Nathan spoke up. “Maybe she knows something about him that you don’t.”

“That’s bull Nathan. That child is no troublemaker and believe me I was enough of one as a kid myself to know if he was.”

Chris smiled. “You…a troublemaker, I had you pictured as the sweet angelic type.”

Kelli frowned at her father, “Not by a long shot.”

“All I’m saying is that for a kid like him, not just anyone could understand how he feels and that could be interpreted by labeling him as a discipline problem” Nathan tried to explain.

“A kid like him Nathan? What in the hell does that mean?” Kelli narrowed her eyes and gave him a challenging glare.

“He’s a child of mixed color. It’s bound to present problems for him.” Nathan clarified. “He doesn’t belong with you and Vin, or any white couple; he needs to be somewhere else.”

“And just where is this somewhere else?” Kelli asked icily.

Tanner interceded before his wife had a chance to add some scathing comment. ”Nate, he’s just a kid and like any other child, all he needs is someone to love him. Besides, that’s our problem now because he’s goin’ home with us until we can find him a permanent home.” Vin had already decided and the subject was not up for discussion.

Carmen Johnson has stood silently at the door and heard most of the conversation. After talking with Caleb she had come to a few conclusions about the kind of care he had received in the group home and was not happy about it. She understood that Nathan was concerned about the boy knowing his African-American heritage, but first and foremost he needed love and acceptance for who he was.

“I’ll be more than pleased to assist you in finding Caleb a good home. He is a delightful young man and I’m sure that given some time we can find the perfect family for him.” Carmen stepped into the room. “He and I talked some, but he was not willing to discuss his abduction yet. He seems more concerned about the fate of the other boy…Danny…is there any word on him?”

“Not yet, Buck is going over the audio tapes from the wiretap now and he should be able to tell us something soon.” Chris answered.

“I left Caleb with a young woman named Selina. I do hope that was okay. He knows her from this morning and he seemed to like her.” Carmen looked to Larabee for his approval.

“That’s fine; she is a policewoman so he’s in good hands.” Chris knew that the counselor had overheard their previous discussion. “The boy is in protective custody. Do you foresee any problems with the Tanners taking Caleb in for a while?”

“None whatsoever,” Ms. Johnson answered firmly. “I do wish to speak to him again, and often, he has to work through talking about what has happened to him.”

“That’s not a problem; just say where and when and he’ll be there.” Vin assured her and noted Nathan’s look of disapproval.

Buck walked in and threw the latest transcripts on the table. “The second crate was a diversion, in case anyone checked, it was full of sheets. Keats made a call to an untraceable prepaid cell phone. The other package arrived at its destination intact.”

What does that mean?” Nathan asked.

“It means that the other boy…Danny… was shipped somewhere else.” Chris was hoping that the boy was here in Denver. “I’ll make sure the AG keeps the alert out on both boys. We are not letting anyone know that we have Caleb.”

“So where is Danny?” Nathan looked to Buck.

“My guess, about right now he’s in a living hell.” Buck retorted angrily. “It gets even better, our suspect is headed for surgery to repair the damaged bone in his arm and we probably won’t be able to talk to him before Monday”.

Carmen touched Vin’s arm. “If Caleb asks, tell him the truth. I know that you two did well in my class on fostering troubled youths; you should be able to handle it. If you need me call anytime. I’d like to talk to Caleb again and see how he is settling in. I’m aware that you are moving this weekend so I’ll come by your house Monday morning to see him.”

“Max will be with the kids then, we’ll let her know to expect you.”

Chris waited for Ms. Johnson to leave before saying anything. “We stick with surveillance only on the house for now. Buck, I talked to Travis, he is arraigning isolation for your suspect. Vin, you and Kel take off and get the boy settled. I’ll cover for you at your training class tonight.”

Vin nodded, “Okay, we have two full days until Monday to work with him and then Max will take over for us during the day.”

Kelli spoke up. “Actually, I can be with all the kids full-time until Thursday.” She looked over to Buck. “I’m takin’ the three day suspension without pay in lieu of a reprimand in my folder for not followin’ procedure this mornin’.”

Chris was surprised, he didn’t think Buck would actually do it, but he was okay with the way he handled it, and he would back his decision. “Three days is fair.”

“That’s all well and good, but I still reserve the right to give you hell over it.” Vin affirmed. “Until then, let’s get Caleb taken care of, we need to stop on the way home and buy him somethin’ to wear, along with a few essentials. I remember the shoppin expedition you and Ezra made for Jason and Andi… this time ‘m in charge.”

“I’ll get Caleb. You can call Max and give her a head’s up.” Kelli walked out, while Vin opened his cell phone and the room cleared, with the exception of Larabee.

“I’d say that this is going to be an interesting weekend.” Larabee commented. Nathan’s silent censure of Vin’s decision to shelter Caleb was evident, and Chris could only hope that it was a temporary condemnation.

Tanner closed his phone. “Max has been a busy lady today; she has stocked our new kitchen, finished packin’ the boxes to move, has a schedule set-up to have the movin’ finished by two ‘clock and planned a picnic for after we finish tomorrow. She said also said that Caleb would be a welcome addition.”

“I was certain that she would have no problem with Caleb.” Chris laughed. “As for the rest of it, you can take the woman of the military, but you can’t take the military out of the woman. I bet she will have you all settled in and shipshape before Monday rolls around.”

“No bet Lar’bee, Max runs a tight ship and if she says we’ll be done by two, we will be. Besides Gunny will be there and between the two of them I just dare anyone to mess with their plans.”

Chris grinned, “Lord, help us all.” Larabee then brought up a more serious concern “I’ve been thinking about what you said earliest this week, about these guys playing hardball. Since this is my last weekend at the ranch for a while and I know your work schedule will be full, I want to set up some extra precautions. I think we should have George put on some extra men and have our own security patrol on the property.”

“It would sure lift one worry off my mind. I have a feelin’ that things will be breakin’ sooner, rather than later and you’re right, the ranch could become a target. In fact with the cases we’ve been handlin’ and will be taken’ on in the future, it might be a good idea to make it permanent.” Vin smiled as a new thought struck him. “And I know the person that would be perfect to be in charge of Larabee 7 security.”

“Who do you have in mind, Tanner?”

“Walter Andrews. Kel told me that Walter is comin’ to visit and to meet the kids. She also said that he couldn’t find enough to do with all his free time. Hell, he was a cop for twenty-five years so we know that he’s qualified.”

“If he’s willing to relocate, it could work out to be a perfect solution for all of us. I’ll talk to Ezra and find out what we can afford to offer him as a salary and then we can call Andrews over the weekend.” Chris knew he would feel better with someone like Walter being around when the rest of them had to work a case. The safety of their families was too important to leave to chance and manpower from the unit was not always available cover the ranch.

Kelli walked in with Caleb. “We’re ready when you are Tanner.”

“He’s all yours Kel; I’m cutting him loose from here and covering him for training today.” Chris grinned. “Caleb, I’ll see you later.”

“Take it easy on the class tonight; I know your definition of a workout, Cowboy and most of ‘em couldn’t keep up with you.” Vin smirked

Chris threw a wadded up ball of paper at Tanner. “Get the…heck out of here.”

Larabee took a few minutes alone after Tanner left with Kellie and Caleb. He ran his hands over his face and frowned at the itchy feeling his whiskers produced. The frustration of waiting for something to happen was not exclusive to the rest of the unit. Chris was ready to ‘get this show on the road.’ He was more than ready for Adam Carmichael to take on O’Mara Enterprises. All the waiting had produced a large amount of apprehension, anticipation, and keyed-up tension in Chris.

The Commander made a decision and stopped at Gunny’s desk on his way to his office. “Gunny, I’m conducting the work out session today and I want to get started early. Have the entire unit meet me in the training room in forty-five minutes.”

Chris smiled as he continued on to his office. He knew how to work off frustration and after today’s session …so would his agents.


When Kelli realized that Vin planned on doing their shopping at Wal-Mart, she felt a profound sense of relief. She was aware that she could not avoid the mall forever, but she was in no hurry to go back there anytime soon. Vin knew exactly what he was after and wasted little time gathering what he considered essentials for Caleb. She managed to stay quiet about the extra purchases he had added, until it was time to checkout.

“Okay Tanner, the clothes, personal care items and the duffel bag to carry it all in, I can see. But since when are a teddy bear and a special blanket necessary purchases?” She spoke softy so Caleb would not overhear their conversation.

“Since when we move tomorrow, we are givin’ our kids the blankets that their mother made for them; I figured Caleb needed somethin’ special, too. I bought the bear because every little boy needs somethin’ to cuddle with at night.” The Texan grinned and whispered, “Big boys, too.”

Kelli shook her head and smiled as Vin’s attention turned to the cashier.Leave it to Tanner to make sure Caleb doesn’t feel left out. Of course that’s one of the reasons you love him Kel, because he does think of things like that.

Once they were at the truck, Vin carefully packed the duffel bag for Caleb. He gave him the bear after setting the blanket aside for later. The way Tanner looked at it, every child should have something that belonged only to him or her. The young boy was asleep before they were halfway home, holding his new teddy bear.

Larabee 7 ~ Tanner Home

For Tanner, making it home before five o’clock was early, but today had warranted special circumstances. Since Max had given them the news, Jason and Andi were excitedly watching from the window for the Tahoe to pull into the drive. The truck had barely come to a standstill when two little blurs raced out the front door to greet their parents and meet their new houseguest.

“Y’all are home!” Jason ran to Vin first for his usual greeting. The Texan did not disappoint him, easily catching the child and lifting him onto his shoulders.

Andi ran around the truck to meet Kelli. “You here!” Kelli has not seen either child since yesterday morning, having worked a twelve-hour shift on stakeout last night. After receiving her expected hug, Andi’s curiosity took over. “Where’s…Ca…what his name again?”

“Caleb,” Vin answered. He assisted Jason back down on the ground, and then he opened the back door of the truck. Caleb jumped out, not forgetting to grab his new bag and his bear. “Jason, Andi, this is Caleb and he’ll be stayin’ with us for a while.”

“Hi Caleb. It’s great to have another boy around here, but I gotta warn you.” Jason moved over next to the newcomer and smiled. “We have a whole bunch of girls on this ranch, so stick close to me and tomorrow I’ll show you around.”

Andi looked over to her brother, Caleb, and then at her Dad. A new realization crossed her mind, she and her mom we now outnumber by the guys. “Mom, we need ‘nother girl!”

“That’s okay baby,” Kelli grinned. “We can always ask Sarah or Maria or Joanne or Lilah or Daisy or Grace to come visit.”

Satisfied with that thought, her next question did get Jason’s attention. “Can they all come now?”

“NO! …I mean not all of them at the same time. Right dad?” Jason anxiously responded with his own question.

Vin laughed, “At least not tonight. Now how about we go inside and let Caleb meet Max?”

Max had dinner waiting for them. “You must be Caleb, I’m Max. Welcome aboard, son. Jason, would you show our new young friend where he can stow his gear?”

“Aye, aye, Max.” Jason answered with a giggle. “Come on Andi; let’s show him where we’re camping tonight.”

Kelli turned and questioned Max, “An early dinner and campin’?”

“We have a busy day ahead tomorrow and you young lady have not had any sleep going on how many hours now? Thirty-six? You need to eat and then rest. As for the camping, most everything is packed and ready to move, so we set up three sleeping bags for them, and for tonight they are ‘roughing’ it. I realize that it may be a hard night for Caleb so I am going to sleep in the room with them and we’ll be up bright and early. Gunny plans to be here by seven and breakfast will be served at seven-fifteen.”

“Max, you seemed to have though of everythin’, thanks.” Kelli was tried, but she wanted to try and hold out until the kids were asleep before she crashed.

“Not a problem. Now you two go cleanup, we eat in fifteen minutes. I’ll cover watching the kids ‘til then and after dinner we’ll review the schedule for tomorrow.” Max literally pushed both Vin and Kelli out of her ‘galley’.

Vin mumbled on the way to the bedroom. “Why do I feel as if I just left the principal’s office?”

“Complain all you want to Tanner, but you know Max, she runs a tight ship from stem to stern.” Kelli smiled at her grumbling Texan. “Besides, she just gave us fifteen minutes of quiet time to regroup. I want to try and stay awake at least until the kids are settled for the night and we’re certain that Caleb is okay with bein’ here.”

Tanner put his arm around her waist as they walked to their room. “I think Jason has appointed himself as Caleb’s guide into the Tanner household. He and Andi seem pleased that they can help make Caleb feel welcome.” He sighed and looked at the time. “I wonder how Chris is doin’ with the class.”

MCAT ~ Training room

Larabee smiled as he stood at the front of the training room and listened to the rumblings of the other agents as they entered, and then took up positions on the mat. He knew that despite their moans and groans about the extra training, that all of the agents were aware of just how beneficial the new moves that Tanner had been teaching them could be in saving their lives on this case, or future cases.

“All right, settle down.” He called out to the agents. “I’m not anymore thrilled about having extra hours being taken away from my home life, but I agree one hundred percent with Tanner that these mandatory training sessions are necessary.”

“Says who?” Buck commented from the back row.

“I do.” Chris said shooting Wilmington a warning glare.

Buck only grinned back at him and Larabee resisted the urge to knock that smirk off his face.

“Since Tanner isn’t here, we aren’t going to do any new moves.”

A cheer went up from the room of agents at his words, and he suppressed the chuckle that rose within him. Chris waved his hands to quiet them all down again.

“Cut it out already…the less serious you all are in doing this, the longer its going to take to get through all of the moves and holds that Tanner already taught us…and then means more time away from your families.”

“Maybe you can tell me why Kat and I are here.” Greg mouthed off from the back of the room. “We’re in forensics; the crime is a done deal by the time we arrive.”

Chris zeroed in on the voice of Greg Ramsey and with one crook of his finger called him to the front of the room. When the met face to face, Larabee whispered in a low deadly tone saying, “You are here because I said so.” Larabee then moved so fast that no one in the room saw his next action coming. Ramsey landed on his backside on the floor with his Commanding officer leaning over him and yelling in his ear, “AND BECAUSE YOU NEED THE TRAINING! NOW GET BACK IN PLACE AND PAY ATTENTION!”

Silence settled swiftly in the training room. “Let’s get to work.” Larabee started them all out on the preliminary stretches and exercises, before moving them into the holds that Tanner had taught in the first couple of sessions. They practiced those moves for about a half hour before moving onto the next set of lessons. By the time they were finished going over moves that the group had practiced in the last session, Chris wasn’t the only one that was worn out. He dismissed the group and spent a few moments cleaning up the training room, before disappearing into his office.

He took a refreshing shower, and was preparing to leave the office for the night, when his phone rang. He debated about not answering it and letting his voice mail pick up the message, but then thought that perhaps it was Linda calling him and moved back across the room to his desk.

“Hello?” he said into the phone, and fought down the disappointment that settled over him, when he realized it was Suzanne Mills, Travis’ secretary, on the other end of the line. “What can I do for you Suzanne?”

“Director Travis would like to see you in his office before you leave the building, Special Agent Larabee.”

Chris inwardly groaned. He should have let the answering machine pick up the phone. “Can’t this meeting wait until morning?”

“No…Travis is insistent that you come to his office tonight.”

“Tell him I’m on my way.” Larabee said and hung up the phone without waiting to hear the secretary’s reply.

Larabee 7

Once dinner was finished Max cleaned her galley and Vin took on the boys for bath time in the main bathroom, while Kelli bathed Andi in the other one. Caleb had remained quiet, but was well behaved and cooperative. Tanner was certain that given some time to adjust and with Jason and Andi’s encouragement that the child would open up soon. He was pleased with the way his children had accepted Caleb’s presence and of their efforts to make him feel at home.

Within thirty minutes, three clean, ready for bed children crawled into their sleeping bags for a night of inside camping. The skylight let them see the stars and Vin promised to leave the small nightlight on, just in case it got too dark for them. All three were sound asleep before Tanner could finish reading even one bedtime story.

The adults gathered in the living room, Vin on the couch with Kelli and Max in the chair opposite them.

“I know that you two have a full plate of things that need your attention. I made a schedule and took care of some little details to make this move easier for you.” Max picked up her clipboard. “Linda and Inez will have breakfast ready at the Larabees’ by seven-fifteen; everyone else should be here by then to help. All the boxes are labeled, numbered and assorted by the rooms they go to. The children and I took care of most of their gear earlier today. We also went grocery shopping and stocked your new pantry and freezer, so you don’t have to.” She handed Vin some papers, including the receipt from the grocery store.

Vin read them and laughed before he passed them to Kelli. “I’ll write you a check to reimburse you and ‘m sure the list will be helpful.” The papers listed each box by a number and gave details of what each one contained.

“Organization is the key to success. Your new kitchen is operable, you can always rearrange it the way you prefer, but at least it’s ready to be used. Your phone is also working at the new house, and that special delivery your requested Vin, is completed and ready to turn on.”

“Special delivery?” Kelli was half listening until she heard that.

“You’ll find out about it tomorrow, baby.” Vin was not going to tell her that he had a new hot tub installed on the private patio that connected to their bedroom. Max wanted one and when she made Tanner an offer on the one that was already here, he agreed. That was one less thing to be moved and the new one he had special ordered.

Max changed the subject. “As I was saying, organization is the key to a successful project. Gunny will be here to direct the move on this end, while I direct it on the other end. We will finish no later than two and with help from Mallory, Rain and Casey we will have a barbeque picnic ready to be served by three. I assure you that by this time next week everything will be in place and you will be enjoying the comforts of your new home.”

“We appreciate what you have done Max. Not just with the move, but with the kids too.” Vin had to admit the lady was amazing. Max’s military training was evident in whatever she did and after years in the navy; her vocabulary was sprinkled with naval terms like galley instead of kitchen or shipshape instead of clean. She was great with the kids and her natural compassion and caring attitude that made her a fantastic nurse, also made her the perfect caregiver for the children. When she decided to do anything she gave it her all and nurturing his family was no exception.

”You are welcome. You don’t worry about a thing; you just take care of those babies and let me take care of you two.” Max laughed and rose to retire for the night. “I think one of your babies may need your assistance to make it to her bed. I will see you in the morning.”

“Goodnight Max.” Vin smiled when he saw that Kelli had fallen asleep during Max’s organization talk. Actually she had lasted longer than he expected her to. After locking up the house, he turned off the lights in the room, and then carried his redhead to their bedroom.

Tanner lovingly undressed his wife, and put her to bed without waking her. As he prepared to join her he took a good look at his surrounding. They had made many memories in this room and tonight was the last night he and Kelli would spend in it. Tomorrow they would take another step into their shared future.

The Texan turned off the last light and crawled into bed, wrapping his arms around his wife. Physically her smaller size molded into his perfectly, mentally they were on the same page, at least most of the time, and spiritually…it just felt right for them to be together. Vin inhaled the barely detectable aroma of sandalwood, a rich, sweet, woody fragrance from the perfume she wore, one of Kelli’s favorites. Buck may tease them about their physical activities, but as good as they were together sexually, it was the quiet times they were together, such as this that Vin loved as well. His thoughts drifted down the hall.

Was it just a few short months ago that we were worried about having a family? Jason and Andi were the unexpected blessings in their lives and Vin could not imagined life without them. They may have been mistreated in the past, but both of them had compassionate spirits. Tonight, seeing them interrelate with Caleb was heartwarming and he was damn proud of both children.

Tanner, fate has taken your life one helluva wild, unpredictable ride the last fifteen months and face it, you would not change one second of it. Whatever the future brings, you and this lady will see it through together, and you can’t ask for more than that.

Chapter 24

Larabee 7 ~ Saturday July 29th

Chris looked over at the clock and saw that it was only five. Damn Larabee, between this case and Travis, you may never catch up on your sleep. His mind replayed his conversation with the director yesterday. As if you don’t have enough to think about right now, Chris. Although he agreed with much of what Orrin had to say, his idea was not one that would happen overnight, but it could be discussed. Yep, start with the brothers, let them bat it around and then, after this case is finished, well pursue it in earnest.

Linda stirred in her sleep and Chris reached over to brush a strand of blond hair from her face. It amazed him how much his wife had changed since Grace was born. Motherhood seemed to have made her more assertive, she was still impulsive, but more in control and self-assured than she had been before. She knew what she wanted and was damn determined to get it.

Chris, how will she handle you being gone though?

Since making his decision to take an active part in this case he had some small doubts. Thinking about Linda and that green-eyed infant in the next room they came to the surface again.Larabee, how can you separate yourself from this woman and that beautiful new daughter of yours? Aren’t you doing this to help create a better future for Grace’s world? Yes damn it, but…But nothing Chris, you committed yourself and now you have no choice but to go through with it.

“We’ll be fine, Chris.” Linda’s soft voice floated through the darkness. “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried, but I do understand why you need to do this. Beside, I’ll have the chance to introduce Grace to my side of the family while you’re gone.” Linda you made a promise to him, now try to keep it. This time will be different than the last disaster.

“Try not to let the Dubois arrogance rub off on her.” Chris laughed; Linda had told him about her brothers that he had not met. She planned to visit all of them while he was in California.

“Grace will be okay. You just make sure that her Daddy stays in good health.”

Chris pulled her closer to him. “Don’t worry. You are going to have me around for a long, long time.” He captured her mouth with a hungry kiss and ran his hands down her back. Passion flared between them and all thoughts about being separated were pushed aside. They still had two more days together before Linda left for Louisiana, and Chris planned to enjoy every minute of those days with his family. Now though, it was time to make love to his wife.

Their daughter had other plans. Her cries started off softly, but escalated into full-blown wailing within two minutes. Chris sighed and gave Linda one more kiss before he rolled out of the bed. “I got her.”

Linda smiled as she watched her husband quickly throw on some clothes and pad barefoot into the nursery. Grace darling, you and I need to talk about your timing.


Max was at the ranch house by six with Buck, Inez and the girls arriving by six -thirty. While Linda, Max and Inez prepared breakfast, Chris and Buck sat on the deck and watched the girls play. Grace was snuggled securely in her daddy’s arms.

“How are you really holding up, Buck?”

“Hell, you know me Chris; I can pace myself and just like the energizer bunny, keep on going and going.”

Chris shot his old friend an aggravated glare. “I’m not taking about physically and you know it.”

Buck hesitated and thought carefully before he answered. “It’s tough…real tough. Listening to that shit on the tapes and knowing what those young girls are going through…It makes me want to beat the crap out of somebody. The problem with that is…I don’t know who the all the bad guys are yet and that frustrates the hell out of me.”

“It may take some time, but I promise that we will find the bastard responsible for this.” Chris vowed and was surprised to find his temporary doubts were gone, replace with a strong conviction to succeed.

The Sanchez family arrived next, Mallory went inside to help the ladies and the kids joined the girls, while Josiah poured himself a cup of coffee.

“Good morning Brothers.”

“Morning Josiah,” Chris responded as he stood. “I’ll be back in a minute, this little one is out to the world and I’m going to put her down for a while.” Larabee went inside with his precious cargo.

Buck looked up and saw the Tanners walking across the yard. “You know Josiah; if you had told me five years ago that Vin would end up so blissfully domesticated I would have called you an idiot.” Buck laughed, “But just look at him now.”

“Vin has always had a good rapport with kids and Kelli is good match for him.” Josiah watched as Andi sat on Tanner’s shoulders, while Jason and Caleb walked on each side of the Texan. “Vin is still a dangerous man to get on the wrong side of, and anyone that forgets that is in for a hard time.”

“Hell, I know that Josiah, I’m just glad he’s on our side.”

“You’re glad who is on our side? “ Chris asked as he came back outside.

“Vin,” Josiah answered. “Buck seems to think he’s turned domestic on us.”

Chris laughed. “Yeah, like a rattler lazing in the sun. Leave him alone and you’re safe. Rile him and look out.”

“Damn, that’s why you two get along so well. It takes one to know one.” Buck smirked.

Josiah laughed, “Careful there Buck, you don’t want to annoy that green-eyed rattler.”

Vin and Kelli walked up the stairs, and then leaned on the railing to keep their eye on Jason, Andi and Caleb. The trio had stayed in the yard to play with the other kids.

“How is Caleb doing?” Buck had worried about the child all night, wondering if he would be permanently scarred by his ordeal.

“He seems to be okay. Jason has taken him under his wing and Andi is practicin’ to be a junior mother hen.” Vin smiled. ”Together they make one helluva team.”

Chris leaned on the railing next to Kelli. “Hey Red, I have a question for you. You took your suspension pretty calmly. Why? I expected you to protest loud and long about it.”

Kelli sighed, “I deserved it. There was no excuse for not takin’ the time to wear my vest, no matter what the circumstances.” She looked at the children playing. ”When it was just me, that was one thing, now that I have Vin and the kids, I have too many reasons not to take unnecessary risks. It won’t happen again.”

Shaking his head in acknowledgment, Chris looked over his daughter to Vin,

You give her hell?”

Nope, she seems to be doing a good job of it herself.

“You know, I really wish you two wouldn’t do that.” Kelli huffed. “It’s unnerving, not to mention impolite.”

Vin laughed and hugged his redhead. “Don’t take it personal, baby.”

Chris grinned and tugged at her hair. “We still love you Red.”

Ezra pulled into the driveway; driving a nondescript rental car until he could have the Jag replaced. He left the vehicle running and walked over to the deck.

“Hey Ez you forget to kill the engine on that thing.” Buck yelled before the southerner could make it up the stairs.

“I am well aware of that sir. I have a delivery for Vin that requires the use of air conditioning.” He addressed the Texan. “You are more than welcome to acquire possession of the package in question at any time, preferably now.”

Vin shrugged his shoulders.” Now is as good a time as any I reckon.”

“I’ll keep the children distracted while you take care of their surprise Tanner.” Kelli went ahead of the men and over to where the kids were playing. Vin went with Ezra to his car. Curious, as to what they were up to, Chris, Buck and Josiah followed them.

Tanner retrieved his ‘delivery’, hid it under his shirt and walked over to join Kelli and the kids. Four smiling uncles stood behind him and waited to see Jason and Andi’s reaction to their gift.

“Jason, Andi, come over here for a minute please.” Vin called to them. They responded quickly, but they were not alone; the other inquisitive children came along, too.

When the children had gathered around the Texan he knelt down and spoke to them. “I have a little friend here that is kinda scared about comin’ to a new home. You think you can help him not to be afraid?”

Jason saw his dad’s shirt move and warily said. “I guess so.” Andi stood beside her brother and enthusiastically nodded her head yes.

“Well then, meet my friend.” Vin reached inside his shirt and brought out an Australian Shepherd puppy. “He doesn’t have a name yet and he’s only eight weeks old, but he’s lookin’ for a family. You reckon we can help him out?”

Jason’s eyes grew wide and he asked in amazement. “We can keep him?”

“Yep, but remember, he’s still a baby and needs lots of care and a name.”

Vin let Jason hold the pup while Andi excitedly jumped up and down next to him.

Jason gently held the bundle of fur and called out to Caleb. “Look, we can keep him! You want to help us name him?”

Caleb hesitantly petted the wiggling ball of fur. “It’s your dog, you should name him.”

Andi went into junior mother hen mode and said. “You live here too, and we s’pose to share.”

“She’s right, and I can tell you now, it don’t do no good to argue with her. Andi can be a bit stubborn.” Jason could attest to that fact firsthand.

“He doesn’t have to have a name right this second. The three of you think it over, and take your time.” Kelli suggested. “He has his own special place waitin’ for him at our new house. We can take him over there so he’s not underfoot while we move.”

“Jason, you hold on to him until breakfast and then afterwards we’ll take him to his new home.” Vin was certain that Jason would be gentle with the puppy. While the children were eating breakfast, Vin would place the dog in his carrier.

The children were fascinated with the new addition and sat on the ground to keep the new pup company, while the adults keep an eye on them all.

Josiah waited until they were back on the deck and then commented. “Well done Vin. Now instead of being anxious about moving, Jason and Andi have something else to focus on.”

“That was the idea when we decided to get the puppy, although at the time we didn’t know about Caleb.” Vin explained.” Earlier this morning we also gave Jason and Andi a picture of their mama and the blankets that she made for ‘em before she died. I know it’s not the same, but we bought a special blanket for Caleb so he wouldn’t feel left out.

“Doesn’t matter, Jason and Andi have shown Caleb acceptance and he will respond to that. I think it will work out well for all three of them.” Josiah answered.

Chris smiled as he watched the children. “Kids are amazing aren’t they? Those two haven’t had much good to remember until they came here and now they are trying to help Caleb.”

“It is because of their background that they can help him. “Josiah said. “They understand how he feels and their concern he can accept easier than from an adult.”

Buck shook his head, “It’s that fate thing again. The right place at the right time.”

Vin grinned and looked at Josiah. “I think he’s finally getting’ it.”

JD, Casey, Nettie and the twins arrived with Gunny right behind them. The ladies headed inside with the twins and JD found a comfortable place to sit.

“I must say JD, you are looking well.” Ezra remarked.

“Casey and Nettie have been taking good care of me and I’m well enough to come back to work Monday.” Dunne grinned. “I still can’t lift much, so it will be limited duty. But I’m here today to cheer you guys on while you work and to make certain Vin’s CASSIE computer connections get transfer properly.”

“That is good to hear JD, we’ve missed you, and thanks for coming today, too. With Max and Gunny pushing us we need all the support we can get.” Chris smiled at the younger man. Having JD back at work would make the nightmare of the last few weeks easier to get past. For a while Chris had been uncertain if JD would ever be back.

“By the way Chris, I do have the information that you requested, perhaps we can have a Larabee7 meeting later this afternoon and discuss our options.” Ezra suggested.

“That will work. This may be our only opportunity for a while for all of us to be together.” Chris answered.

Max walked out and made an announcement. “Breakfast is buffet style, eat up and then report to me for your assignments. We have work to do gentlemen so let’s move it.”

“Yes ma’am. “Buck grinned and slapped Chris on the back, “Reminds me of our old days in the Navy.”

“I heard that Wilmington.” Max yelled over her shoulder.

“You had better behave Buck or Max will have you on report.” Vin laughed as they began to prepare the kid’s plates. “A word to the wise, don’t mess with her schedule.”

Rain and Nathan came in just as everyone was finishing breakfast. “Sorry we’re late. We were having a discussion and lost track of the time.” Rain glared at Nathan. Obviously whatever they were discussing, they were not in agreement on the outcome.

“No problem Rain, grab a plate and join us.” Linda offered.

“Thanks, I will.” Rain answered and grabbed a plate for herself and Terrell. Nathan was left on his own.


Max did have everything organized, right down to the last box. The women, with the exception of Gunny went to the new house to unpack and tend to the barbeque. The kids played on the mini-playground that Vin had built and the men were designated by teams to move everything.

Gunny supervised the order of the move from the old house amid the grumbling of the men. Chris and Vin worked together well and soon had a system going. Josiah and Buck also had an easy time of it, but the last team worked against one another.

“Nathan, if you don’t wish to participate kindly say so. “An exasperated Ezra chided. “Otherwise try to concentrate on the task at hand so we may finish.”

“Quit bellyaching Ezra, I’ll do my part, but you may have to get your hands dirty.” Nathan’s mind was still on his argument with Rain and not on working.

“Mr. Jackson, the sooner you cooperate, the sooner we will terminate this menial labor.”

“Fine Standish,” Nathan grabbed two boxes and loaded them on Chris’ truck.

“Methinks all is not well in the Jackson household this morning.” Buck observed.

‘I’m sure they’ll work it out, whatever it is. “Josiah said as he watched his friend. He knew something was bothering Nathan and only hoped that he would talk about it soon, before it boiled over.


Kelli gave her sisters a tour of the house while Max and Nettie became better acquainted and unpacked boxes. From the downstairs bedrooms, and recreation area to the attic loft specially designated for the kids, she was pleased to show them the detailed woodwork Vin had personally added to their home. The southwestern colors of sienna, tans, and beautiful greens were evident throughout the house. They had an almost complete tour, except for the master bedroom. She had promised Vin not to go in there until he was with her. Whatever his surprise was he wanted to be the one to show her.

“I think Vin did a wonderful job with the plans and there is so much room. There is not much he hasn’t thought of, but why no solid closet doors?” Mallory asked.

“Andi,” Kelli answered. “Jack too often locked her and Jason in the closet and it terrified her. Vin promised her that she would never have to worry about dark closets again.”

“I had forgotten about that. They are both are so well-adjusted now it’s hard to believe they had so many hardships before they came here.” Mallory shook her head. “How can anyone do that to a child?”

Kelli stood at the wall of windows, as Tanner called it, watching the kids laughing and having fun. JD and Casey sat on the swing keeping tabs on all of them. “I don’t know, but it happens, that and much worse.”

“Buck told me a little about Caleb.” Inez knew how upset her husband was because he rarely talked about their cases with her. Last night he had talked for hours, most of the conversation centered on the child they had rescued.” How is he doing?”

Kelli turned to answer Inez. “Fine so far, he hasn’t talked about what happened to him, but I think he will with a little time. Once he feels secure again, he’ll be okay.”

“If that’s what he needs, then he’s in the right place.” Inez agreed. “He will find acceptance and shelter here on the Larabee7.”

“What he needs is a permanent home with parents that love him. Vin and I hope to help find one for him.”

Rain sat quietly and listened to the conversation around her. Nathan was against Caleb being placed here, but she didn’t understand why. From what little she knew about his circumstances, he needed a safe place. Caleb was a beautiful child, polite, respectful and he seemed to get along well with the other kids on the Larabee 7. She knew also that Vin and Kelli would take good care of him and see that he got the counseling he needed. She thought back to the argument she and her husband had this morning.

When Nathan told her what he wanted to do she was stunned. She always thought that if, God forbid, anything should happen to them, that Josiah and Mallory would be the ones to take care of Terrell and that was the way they had set it up after he was born. Now he tells her that he has reconsidered and wants to name his brother as Terrell’s guardian in that event He hasn’t talked to his brother in over a year. What is that man thinking? Regardless, he has not heard the last of this.

“Rain? Earth to Rain, come in,” Linda tried to attract her attention.

“What? I’m sorry, I wasn’t listening.”

“I said, Kel promised not to look in their room, but we didn’t. You want to go with me and snoop?” Linda laughed.

“Linda Larabee! If I can’t look, then neither can you.” Kelli knew her friend was up to something.

“Mute point ladies, here come the men now.” Mallory smiled at her sisters.


Max was pleased, they were ahead of her schedule and the move was finished. It would take a while to get the new house in order, but there was plenty of time later for that. The kitchen, bathrooms and bedrooms were all set. The rest would follow in due time.

“That is the last of it. The food will be ready in one hour, in the meantime take a well-deserved break.” Max ordered and smiled when no one argued with her.

Chris made an announcement before everyone dispersed. “We have a couple of things to discuss and I would like to have a short meeting with all the brothers. We’ll meet out on Vin’s deck in ten minutes.”

Vin took the time to show Kelli what he had bought. “Close your eyes and come with me.” Vin took her hand and led her through the bedroom to their private patio. He had spent many hours on the plans for their room. It was important to him that they had their own space that cultivated the right atmosphere for their relationship. The room was large with a separate sitting area, fireplace and spacious walk-in closet. One gun safe was in the back of the closet space as well as another downstairs. The bathroom was a roomy indoor spa and had duel sinks, twin showers, a sunken tub that was big enough for two, with a therapeutic whirlpool and an open skylight there and in the main part of the bedroom. He also had allowed enough space to add a nursery, if they were fortunate to need one.

The patio was completely enclosed by a stone wall with had a rock waterfall in one corner. They was a raised deck to sit on with morning coffee and watch the sunrise or for late night moon watching. Vin also had the foresight to include a retractable cover that would keep out the Colorado cold winters, but was transparent so they could still see the stars.

“Now you can look.”

She opened her eyes and smiled when she saw the new hot tub. “I though we said the old one would have to last us for a while.” Kelli leaned into Vin circling her arm around his waist and hugged him tightly.

“We did, but that was before Max decided she wanted one and bought it. I took the money, added some to it and ordered this one special, just the way we wanted it.” It included an audio system and controlled lighting, was larger than the old one and was surrounded by a beautiful deck.

“I love it and can’t wait to try it out. I reckon we’ll have to though, won’t we?”

“At least ‘til everyone goes home” Vin slid an arm around her waist and they walked out together. He laughed when he noticed that JD had installed their miniature traffic light doorbell at the entrance to the bedroom. ”JD thinks of the important stuff, too.”

Once outside they were going separate ways. “This meeting shouldn’t take that long. I’ll find you when we finish.”

“I’m gonna help with the barbeque, so find the food and I should be around close.

Tanner grinned and kissed her. “The food, I think I can locate with no problem.”


Chris waited until everyone had found a place to sit. He knew that the time for them to be together was limited. Although he wanted to have a strictly family weekend there were some things they needed to discuss. He noticed that Nathan sat away from the others and was concerned, but he would not pry, at least not yet.

“OK, I hate to do this now, but after this weekend it may be a while before we can all be together again.” Chris started.

“If it’s about the horses, I though we had that settled at our last meeting. We all agreed that Linda could work her magic with the thoroughbreds and you and Vin would be working with the quarter horses.” Buck wasn’t sure what else there was to decide.

“We did, but another matter has come up concerning the ranch. Vin’s little speech last week got me to thinking. We are handling tougher cases with tougher bad guys. I want to know that our families are safe here on the Larabee7.We need our own private security patrol, especially now after what has happened in the last couple of months. I don’t want to have to worry about our wives or children becoming targets for what we do at work.”

“Chris is right. We can’t always be here or count on havin’ the extra manpower available to send out here to secure our families. Vin added.

“We can also include Josiah’s land and the Well’s ranch since both properties border Larabee 7. I asked Ezra to calculate how much we could afford to spend on security.”

Ezra explained. “We have had a good year and have done well with the sale of our young thoroughbreds. Mostly due to the fact that we gained good publicity with Texas Lady’s winning races and the fact that our stallion, Hunter is of the same bloodline as a certifiable winner. His stud fee has tripled and his colts have increase in value. Our quarter horse mares are also garnering attention for some of the top breeders in the country.” Standish passed out proposals sheets. “This is the plan I have worked out that would allow us to hire a security expert and the additional manpower needed.” He passed out copies of the proposal he had written.

“We can afford this much?” JD was amazed.

“Yes, we can.” Ezra replied. “If we all are agreed, I would like to propose that we follow through and hire a security expect as quickly as possible. I believe that a name has already been mentioned.”

Chris noted the nods of approval. “Then we go with it. The man we would like to consider is Walter Andrews. He’s a retired police detective with twenty five years of unblemished service. He is also the detective that found Kelli in San Antonio so many years ago and he never gave up on her case even after he retired.”

“I had the privilege of meeting him in Texas when I accompanied Vin there and I have spoken to him on several occasions since then. I would have no problem with us offering him the position.” Ezra stated.

“I’ve met him and Kel keeps in touch with him. In fact he is plannin’ on a visit anyway to meet the kids. He will be here in the next week or so. Accordin’ to what Kel tells me he has no family ties and is bored with retirement.” Vin said. “I would feel comfortable offerin’ him the job.”

“Hell, I say go for it.” Buck looked around at the others who were nodding in agreement.

“Good, I’ll call him this evening and see if he’s interested. “Chris saw that some of the brothers were ready to leave. “We do have one more matter to discuss, so hold on.”

“What now Chris?” Nathan spoke for the first time and sounded aggravated.

Larabee waited for a moment and then made his announcement. “The director called me into his office after training class yesterday. Travis wants MCAT to move.”

Chapter 25

“Travis wants MCAT to move, we’ll still base here in Denver, but from a different location.” Chris received the response he expected. Six men tried to speak at one time and no one was being heard. He gave them a minute to get it out of their system.

Enough! We’re not talking about today or tomorrow either for that matter, Travis wanted us to be aware of his plan, that’s all.” Chris clarified.

“Just what in the hell is his plan?” Buck groused

“First and most importantly, he has promised that we will have no more fluff cases or clean-ups.” Larabee let them digest that information. “However, we will continue to get the ugly ones. We can expect some assignments to take us out of the country and an intense focus on domestic threats. To quote our director, ‘Home-grown terrorism has always been here and it’s not a good idea to turn your eye away from what's happening at home’. Our current case has given him food for thought, the threats against MCAT and our agents, as well as our extended families concerns him a great deal.”

“As well it should.” Ezra voiced.

“I agree Ezra. While watching us train he came to the conclusion that we should not be so exposed. Who we are and how we do our jobs should be more private. I have a feeling that there may be more to it than that, but for now it’s enough to know that he is thinking about it. Orrin is looking into some places we can headquarter out of and have our lab as well as own training facility. I told him we could not even consider a move until this case is finished.”

“It not enough,” Vin spoke softly. “We need a place that we can keep under the radar. A safe haven, if one of us runs into trouble on a case.”

“What are you proposing Vin?” Josiah was very interested in his answer.

“MCAT has been a target from day one of its existence. Any place Travis finds will still be known to other government agencies and can be found. I think we also need our own private area here on the ranch and a contact point for emergencies.”

JD saw the direction Vin was going with this. “We need it for the same reasons we added a CASSIE contact for Chris and Vin here at the ranch. Shit happens and it usually happens to one of us.”

“That is a coarse analogy JD, but you are correct in your conclusions. We already have a makeshift firing range on the property. Why not expand on that and have a training facility accessible on Larabee 7 with a back-up contact point? If the worst were to happen and our offices or undercover identities were compromised we could endanger the entire unit by not having a safe environment to shelter in until help could arrive.” Ezra’s mind was already thinking of the possibilities.

Nathan huffed. “Money for one thing, it cost big bucks to put something like that together.”

Josiah answered. “That may be a challenge, but not an impossible hurdle. I’ve witnessed the mental fatigue a case like this one brings on and having an alternative place to work off stress would be beneficial.”

Ezra was mentally reviewing the available resources for the project. “It is feasible. I am certain that adequate funding is accessible.”

Chris had listened to all the comments and saw the wheels turning in their minds. “We will pursue this idea then, but we won’t act on it until after we finished our current case. I don’t like it that the unit will be spread so thin and we will have to cover so much area. I want our minds on getting out of this one intact and succeeding to stop at least this trafficking syndicate.”

“Amen to that brother.” Josiah expressed what they all felt. “Let’s close this out and join our families for a fun afternoon and some great food.”


The next two hours were full of family enjoyment and a great meal. Tired babies napped, while the older children took delight in the beauty of the day, their parents relaxing close by. Vin and Jason teamed up against Buck and Caleb for a rousing, yet amusing game of catch. After that, Uncle Ezra instigated a seemingly endless game of tag with all the kids, much to their delight.

“You go Ez, wear ‘em out. “Buck cheered him on after the young boys took off for the monkey bars after Standish. He knew that the more the children ran, the better they would sleep tonight, and he had plans for some adult time with Inez later this evening.

Linda made certain that Chris stayed with her and Grace as much as possible. She had to share him enough with work and had no intention of letting him spend more time with his brothers than he did with her.

Josiah sat next to Nathan waitin for an opportunity to converse with him alone. Within a few minutes Rain took Terrell inside to put him down for a nap and Sanchez decided that now was the time to confront his brother about his obvious anger. “Nathan, something on your mind is clearly troubling you. Is there anything I can do to help?

Nathan immediately turned on him. “Yeah, you can mind your own business!” Jackson jumped up and left Josiah shaking his head in disappointment.

Josiah watched his old friend relocate to a spot well away from the other members of the family. Since Sanchez was leaving tomorrow, he could only hope that Nathan would work through his anger and find a solution for his problem.

Vin sat with his back against a tree; Kelli next to him and one worn-out little puppy, the children had already named Tracker, curled up in his lap. “Damn, I’m glad this move is over, now maybe life can get back to normal. I feel as if I’ve been split in two for the last three months between workin’ over here and livin’ over there.

“Actually we have one more thing to bring in. It’s at Buck house now. Tanner you chill and we’ll be back real quick.” Chris said mysteriously. He, Buck Josiah and Ezra left with no explanation. They returned twenty minutes later, requesting that Vin and Kelli come over and see what they had brought.

“We wanted to do something special for a housewarming gift and we decided to go in together and buy this.” Chris stood aside and showed them the new pool table they had bought for the recreation room.

Vin laughed, he knew that they all had been trying to find a place for a pool table for the longest time. The problem was that no one had room for one until now. “Seein’ that it’s a gift, I guess y’all get to have the pleasure of settin’ it up and then we’ll have to try it out.”

Buck grinned, “All right! We’ll have it set up in nothing flat.”

Kelli laid her hand on Vin’s arm. “You go ahead with them. I have somethin’ I need to do.”

The brothers worked together to set up the billiard table and had fun during the process. Jimmy Buffet songs blared from the stereo, the beer was cold and Ezra directed the operation. Standish was done with the labor end of business for the day, besides he always thought he was better at supervising any way.

Chris looked at the finished project. “Done, rack ‘em up Buck.”


One hour of play turned into two and Vin realized that he hadn’t seen Kelli since they had started. She love to play pool and he figured she would be here demanding her turn. Tanner’s senses told him that his redhead was not close by and his gut said that he needed to find her. The Texan decided to let the guys continue their game without him, while he went to look for her.

Gunny was the first one that he ran into. “Have you seen Kel?”

“I believe if you check out your old house, you might find your missing spouse.”

“Thanks Gunny.” Tanner knew that the kids were well supervised and took off on foot back to their old place.

The house was cleaned and almost empty, ready for Max to move in next week. Vin found the object of his search in their former bedroom sitting on the floor. With her arms wrapped around her raised knees and her back against the wall, Kelli was so lost in her thoughts that she did not realize Vin was in the room. He quietly slipped in and sat down beside her.

Kelli looked over and smiled, “Hey Tanner.”

“Hey yourself, what are we doin’?” He did see the journal in her lap and had a good idea about what she was up to, but he wanted her to tell him. Kelli was strong in so many ways, but her deeply buried insecurities about belonging surface occasionally and when they did her emotions were fragile. She managed to keep her vulnerabilities well hidden, to everyone except Vin.

“I’m tryin’ to figure out how to close this chapter in our life. It’s a lot harder than I thought it would be. I feel the same way I did when we left the cabin after we were married.”

“We only left the cabin temporally; we’ve been back many times, Kel”

“I know, but we won’t be comin’ back here, at least not to live. “She sighed. “We made a lot of memories in this house. I remember the first time you brought me here; it was a turnin’ point for us and a big change for me. You wouldn’t let me hide my emotions anymore and look what happened.”

“We’ll we must have done somethin’ right, because amazin’ things happened baby and every day is better than the last one.”

Kelli leaned against him and he put his arm around her. “I know we have to move forward, but when I think about this place I think about all the great moments we had. Right over there was where our rocker was, you proposed to me while we sat in that chair. The first time we made love was in this room. And this is where you taught me all the ways to love you. If these walls could talk…”

Vin laughed, “Baby, if these walls could talk Max could never look at us again without turnin’ red in the face.

“You’re probably right, but Max is full of surprises. I do love havin’ her around, don’t get me wrong, but there is still a lot about her that she keeps concealed”

Vin reached over and pushed back her hair. “Maybe that’s why you two get along so well. You both keep your innermost feelin’s out of sight and put your strengths in the forefront to cover them. But … we’re changin’ the subject. I want to hear why you’re sittin’ in an empty house, alone, when you have a houseful of family just up the hill.”

“I love this place Vin; it was home for me, you and then the kids. I’ve tried to close out this chapter in my diary, but I’m not sure how… How do we say good-bye to our home?

The Texan wasn’t sure how to explain to her that it was only a place, nothing more, that there was no good-bye. Then it came to him, he reached for her journal. “May I?” With her permission he took the pen and began to write.

Kelli sat patiently and watched him as his bold script added to her last passage. When he was finished he handed the journal back to her and waited for her to read it. Her tears flowed freely as Kelli read the words that Vin had written:

Down the road of life's journey that we walk together, the roof of our love houses the home for our souls

We shall never be tethered to a solid foundation and need only the strength of our memories on which to rest

Permanent walls will not anchor us, but provide a mast to guide our spirits through the unlocked doorway of our hearts

Our bodies may dwell in many places, but our eyes are open windows, inviting our desires to enter with the morning light

While passion slips in the keyhole with the silences of the night, transporting us across the winds of time

The past will sleep, while destiny's path awaits our footsteps...

“Walk with me Kel, our future is waitin’ for us.” Tanner stood and offered her his hand. She took it willingly and stood with him in the room where they had started their amazing journey together. The Texan brushed away her tears and whispered softly, “Wherever we are baby …is home.” Capturing her mouth with a gentle kiss that was filled with tenderness and passion, Vin left Kelli with no doubts about where their home was and always would be.

Larabee 7 ~ Sunday morning ~ 6:45 am

Chris approached the barn and was surprised to see that the Pony, Peso and Dancer were already in the corral. He smiled to himself when he sensed the reason for it and entered through the open door.

“I didn’t expect to see you here this morning Vin.”

“Mornin’ Chris,” Tanner continued to spread hay in Pony’s stall as he spoke. “After everyone left last night, the kids crashed and so did we. I left ‘em all sleepin’ this mornin’ and I’ve been here for a while.”

“I can see that.” Larabee grabbed another pitchfork to help. I called Walter when I got home and he said that he was interested in the job, but he needed a few days before he could give me a definite answer. I told him to take until the end of the week to think it over. If he says yes, then you’ll have to give the approval for what he does.

“He’ll be here by the end of the week anyway, to meet Jason and Andi.”

“How did the kids manage the first night in their new rooms?”

“Jason had Caleb with him, so he was fine. Andi invited Max to have an ‘overnight’ with her and we left the intercoms open in case there were any nightmares.” Vin laughed. “I think all of ‘em were too tired to dream, period. They played hard yesterday, hell even the pup was still asleep when I walked over here this mornin’.”

“I’m amazed that Max wasn’t up at the crack of dawn, putting everyone to work unpacking.”

“Why do you think ‘m here? I saw her ‘to do’ list on the counter, and decided this was easier. I’ll let Kel deal with Max.”

Chris chuckled, “You think Max and Gunny learned how to be bossy or that it’s a family trait?”

“My bet is that it’s hereditary.” The Texan grinned. “I think though that Max has met her match with Kel. Your daughter can be a mite bossy herself at times. Wonder where she gets that?”

With a straight face Chris answered. “It must be a recessive gene; she didn’t get it from me.”

“That is a load of bull Lar’bee and you know it. Kel is so much like you in disposition that it scary sometimes. I just can’t figure out why it took me so long to realize it.”

“You know what they say Vin, love is blind. Are you complaining?”

“Hell no, Lar’bee temperament I can handle and it’s a good thing I can, ‘cause Andi is showin’ all the signs of being just like you and Kel. Fortunately, Jason and I are patient men.”

“Remind me of how patient you are the next time you tear into someone that gets on your bad side.” Chris smirked.

Vin hid his smile; it was good to hear Chris in a lighter mood. The events of the last few weeks had been weighting heavy on his shoulders and Vin was concerned about him going undercover. There was one thing though that he had to know for certain.

“Chris, this is the only time ‘m gonna ask this, but I have to know. You’re takin’ a big gamble going under on this case. I hope the reason behind your decision is not some deep-seated guilt about not bein’ there for Kel when she needed help. That was a different time and a different place.”

Larabee was quiet for so long that Vin was not sure he would get an answer. Finally Chris responded. “I have to admit that when this situation came up I saw a way to make up for not being there for Kel. I guess some part of me still feels that way…but hearing those tapes, and after researching the information Josiah gave me…it became more than that. A small part of me though, had doubts about why I needed to do this and then this morning everything clicked into place…it wasn’t just Kel I was fighting for, it was all the kids like her and Caleb that need someone to be on their side. This morning, I knew for certain that I have to do this for them and for me…I couldn’t face myself in the mirror if I did not at least try to make a difference for some of those kids that are still out there.”

Tanner nodded his head; he had guessed that Chris was attempting to make up for a part of the past that he could not change. But he understood how easy it was to get caught up in a desire to help the other children in the same circumstances. “Fair enough, you just make damn sure you make it all the way back. I don’t like the fact that I can’t be there to cover your ornery ass.”

“It’s a dirty job Tanner, but someone has to be in charge and on this one…you’re that someone. I’ll be fine.”

“I’ve a good mind to low-jack your butt, so you don’t get lost.” Tanner grinned at the look on Larabees’ face. I wouldn’t want to lose you out there, not on my watch.”

“No low jack and you can’t sew my name on the inside of my clothes either. I’m not even gone yet and you’re starting to act like an old mother hen.”

Buck walked in and drew both men’s attention; effectively put a stop to the teasing.

“Damn Bucklin, you look as if you been rode hard and put up wet. Didn’t you sleep at all?” Vin was alarmed by Buck’s appearance. Wilmington still wore the same clothes he had on yesterday, had dark circles under his eyes, and obviously had not shaved since Friday.

“Buck?” Chris too did not like what he was seeing.

“It’s started. I hadn’t been home ten minutes last night when Rick Carson called to tell me that they were moving the kids. They brought the new ones in, stashed in a boxed u-haul truck, no windows, very little air and a helluva big lock on the outside door. They unloaded the new batch and then the bastards loaded the ‘old’ merchandise into the truck and took off to their next stop. Kellerman and Womack followed them to Phoenix where the same process was repeated. I had Garrison and Wright pick up the trail and they are shadowing the truck now. The rental traced back to Fort Worth, the driver used a fake ID with a bogus address. I went down to the office and ran it and listened to the tapes…it’s all so damn disgusting!”

“Where is the truck now?” Chris could only imagine what Buck had heard.

“Looks like it headed to Vegas, I have another team driving in that direction to meet up with Kellerman. If they do drop in Nevada, he and Womack with stay there while Wright and Jacobs follow the truck. We’ll leap frog the units until we can mark as many of the stops as possible. Once we have gone as far as we can, we’ll shut down the house here in Denver for good!”

“You should have called us Buck; you didn’t have to do this alone.” Vin spoke softly.

“The task force is my responsibility.” Buck kicked the slats on the front stall. “It was…Those sonsofbitches laughed when they described to Keats how they had tested the merchandise. Gang raped is a more accurate term and then Keats took his turn. You could hear screaming in the background when…shit, I want those bastards to suffer.”

Chris walked over and laid his hand on Wilmington’s shoulder. “They will Buck. I promise you they will.” Larabee knew his old friend too well. Buck had a heart of gold and listening to the sordid details of rape and abuse every day was taking a toll on him. “Go home, get cleaned up and hug Sarah and Maria. Then meet us back here in an hour and we’ll go back to the office together to work out a plan for the raid.”

“We’ll need a female agent once we get those girls out. I don’t think a male agent will get very far in questioning them. Cynthia is on her way with Brett to intercept Kellerman and Womack. Selina is here, but she’s not an agent and has no experience with interrogations. It’s a helluva time for Kel to be on suspension.” Buck doubted that any girl in there would show trust to another man for a long time.

“Then it’s a good thing that I know her boss, I think I can pull some strings and override that suspension. “Chris grinned. “You will have your partner back before we move in and take those bastards down. Now go home, you’re a mess.”

Buck nodded. “Thanks, I’ll see you guys in an hour.”

Once he was gone, Vin put up the tools and commented. “Looks like this week-end just got shorter, Cowboy. I’m sorry; I know you wanted to spend time with Linda and Grace before they leave for Louisiana.”

“It can’t be helped Vin. In a way I’m glad because at least now we can take some action. You call the team in with the exception of Josiah. Let him know what’s going on, but he stays on stand-by status only, his flight leaves at five in the morning for California and he needs to be ready for it. Inform Kel that her suspension is postponed indefinitely; I believe she got the message about wearing her vest. Make your arrangements for the kids and then meet me at the house in an hour. Prepare for some long hours, this is only the tip of the iceberg.” Chris sighed, “I need to go and tell Linda our plans have changed…again.”

Chapter 26

MCAT Office ~ Sunday ~ July 30

The big map was on the display board with colored pushpins marking the route of the trafficking task force. The agents had followed the u-haul to Phoenix, then to Las Vegas, and the next stop appeared to be an unknown destination to the North or Northeast of Nevada. The MCAT unit had been working at this for the last six hours and finally felt that they had the situation covered.

“We have Kellerman and Womack watching a house in Phoenix. They have already advised the Phoenix Police on the location and plan to obtain assistance setting up a stakeout. Wright and Carson are doing the same in Vegas. It looks as if the truck is heading N/NW so I have Lawrence, Gonzales, Garrison and Carlson on a plane to Vegas. They’ll rent two cars there and while one team relieves the LVPD on surveillance, the other will try to connect with the team following the u-haul.” Buck gave the locations of his task force members to the others.

“That only leaves you, Kel, Jacobs and Cordova here to work the raid in Denver. The rest of the unit will assist your task force with the takedown. It’s going to take a helluva lot of cooperation to hit these places at the same time Buck.” Chris was working it out in his head. “It won’t happen fast.”

“Yeah and if that truck makes more than two more stops, I’ll have to rely on Local police departments to take over in the next city. It could be two or three days before we have all the pieces in place with warrants in hand and enough manpower to move in.”

Pam walked up and handed a report to Buck. “This is the property information on the addresses you gave me. Both are rentals and the names on the leases are clean.”

“Thanks Pam.” Wilmington passed the folder to Chris, “Same set-up that we have here.”

“First thing tomorrow morning let that federal attorney... What’s his name? ...Alders… Jed Alders, let him know where we are and what we need in the way of warrants. You have to see Sorenson, too. Get what you can out of him, also get a warrant to search his house, maybe we’ll get lucky and find a connection to Costa Mesa.” Chris then ordered. “Cordova and Jacobs can monitor things for you here. Go home Buck, you need to sleep while you can still get it.”

Standish stepped forward. “You too Chris, you have a wife and baby to take to the airport early in the morning. Besides, you need to keep a low profile on this one. I believe Vin is in charge as of tomorrow morning. Correct?” Ezra raised a brow and questioned.

“You’re right Ez, Chris put me in charge and I agree with you that he needs to keep a low profile. Lar’bee, go home.” The Texan crossed his arms in front of him and waited for Chris to reply.

Before their boss could answer, Ezra told Tanner. “You too, Vin. You and Kel have children waiting at home. I suggest you dismiss the rest of this motley crew as well. I am perfectly capable of monitoring the events as they unfold and will not hesitate to call, should your assistance become necessary. “

Chris eyed the Southerner for a moment before answering. “Cordova and Jacobs, stay with Standish, the rest of you go home. It’s going to be a long week ahead and Captain Tanner will need rested and alert agents for training classes. Next session begins at six tomorrow morning.” Chris laughed when he heard the moans and groans around the room.

Buck mumbled, “Vin’s gonna train us to death before the bad guys even have a shot at us.”

“Quit your whinin’ already.” Tanner called after Wilmington.

Larabee watched as his most of agents reluctantly left and then turned to Vin. “The warden over there,” He indicated Ezra, “Wants me to stay in the background on this one. As soon as I see Linda and Grace off to Louisiana in the morning, I’ll be in, but you’ll be in charge.

“Not a problem Chris and Ez is right. You’re too close to goin’ under to chance bein’ seen by the wrong people.” Vin knew that Chris preferred to be in the middle of any action, but it was too risky that word could get back to California that he was involved.

“You do know Vin that you’re getting good at being bossy yourself, don’t you?”

“Hell yeah,” Tanner grinned. “You’re a good teacher. Course, you’ve had more years …a lot more years to practice bossin’ than me. Years and years…” Vin moved toward the door.

“Tanner! I’m not that damn old!” Chris smiled as Vin disappeared around the corner. You life is never dull, Larabee, that’s for sure.

Larabee 7

Linda silently shut the door to the nursery adjoining their bedroom, and made her way over to the bed, where her husband waited. Tonight was their last night together for a while and she wanted Chris all to herself. Snuggling close to him, she let out a deep sigh of contentment.

“Think she’ll sleep?” Chris whispered.

“Long enough Larabee,” Linda grinned and kissed his neck. “God, I miss you already.”

Chris wrapped his arms around his blond and held her tightly. “Linda, I don’t want you to take any chances while I’m gone. Stay close to family and do not let anyone except Vin know where you are going to be until you’re there.”

“Do you think Grace and I are at risk?”

“No, but …Hell, call me paranoid. This case involves some very bad elements and I want to make certain you are somewhere safe. Just humor me okay?”

“I already promised to keep Tanner informed, and I will not do anything impulsive. Don’t worry about us; concentrate on what you have to do. Then I want you to get your butt home to us as quickly as you can, and in one piece.”

“Deal,” Chris rubbed her back and smile.” Now we should talk about us.”

“Uh uh Cowboy, no more talking,” Linda grinned.

MCAT Office ~ Monday ~ July 31

Tanner stopped at Gunny’s desk and gave her a list of things to do before the rest of the team made their way back from this morning’s training. Vin had Westin and Anderson put up the equipment, so he and Buck could get into the office and obtain an update from Standish.

Ezra was in the conference room marking the map when Vin walked in. “Mornin’ Ez, tell me where we are.” Tanner did not waste any time on extra words.

“The truck is on the move again after halting overnight in Carson City.” Standish was tired and trying to control his underlying anger. “Garrison has it in sight and according to him the driver and his help went inside for the night, leaving the ‘merchandise’ locked in the truck. They made the exchange about thirty minutes ago. As of now the truck is still headed north and we have two teams tailing it. The Nevada State Police have been very cooperative with us and have freed up our third team so they may continue to follow the trail.”

“What does Nevada need from us to correlate the bust there?’ Buck was studying the map as he questioned.

“I have obtained the name of the man that will be our contact with the State Police, Captain Ron Nickels. It appears that Nevada is very interested in the fact that underage girls are involved and will cooperate fully with your task force. Samuel Carrington will be your man to talk to in Phoenix; he is a lieutenant in the sex crimes unit of the Phoenix PD.”

“Buck, what time are you going to hit Sorenson’s house with that warrant?” Vin was flipping through Ezra’s notes.

“Alders promised to have it in my hands before nine and forensics will be there waiting for me at the rendezvous site by nine-thirty. I’m going by the hospital first and see if the bastard is up to talking.”

Vin looked at his watch. “Carmen should be at our house right about now to see Caleb. Kel will stay with him until the counselor is finished, so call her and have her meet you. I’ll keep an eye on the truck’s movements for you. Chris should be back from the airport by eleven so let’s have a unit meetin’ at one and see where we’re at by then. Does that give you enough time to do what you need to?”

“Yep,” Buck was already walking out the door.

“Ez, get some sleep and thanks for stayin’ last night.”

“I did manage to accrue a few hours of sleep, but I will retire to our lounge for an additional hour or two, because I plan to be at that meeting.” Standish sighed. “When I think about those girls being locked inside that truck all night I want to do grievous harm someone.”

“We all do Ez.”

Sorenson Residence

Greg Ramsey and Katrina Santos arrived at the two-story Tudor home, ten minutes before Wilmington. The MCAT mobile analysis’ Unit (M.A.U.) was a state of the art rolling lab on wheels. It was fully equipped with strobe lights and siren, which were standard on all MCAT vehicles. The difference was in the back that housed a stainless steel mobile command center. Online communication, satellite receiver, and three drawers with side slide storage were just a few of the many features on this truck. They were capable of performing all forensic activities, including fingerprinting. It also contained an array of ballistics tools, gloves, flares, lights and an illuminated slide out evidence tray.

When Buck arrived with a black and white unit behind him, they all met by the back of the truck. “I have the warrant and Kel should be here any…there she is now.” Kelli parked behind Wilmington’s truck, exited, and then joined the others. He smiled when he saw that she was wearing her vest.

“We’re ready when you are Buck. If the man has anything to hide, we’ll find it.” Katrina grinned. “Not much that we can’t find with all these gizmos.”

“Let’s do it.” Instructing the forensics teams to wait, Buck had the uniform officers split up, one sent around to the back and the other to the side door. He and Kelli knocked on the front door, identifying themselves as federal agents.

Mrs. Amanda Sorenson answered the door. She was a young, attractive, petite blond and she was obviously hostile to this intrusion in her life. “What do you want?”

“Ma’am, I’m Agent Wilmington and this is Agent Coulter. We have a warrant to search the premises. Who else is in the house?”

“You have a lot of nerve, harassing decent law-abiding citizens. First you chase my husband and cause him to have an accident, then you shoot him and I’m not allowed to even visit him in the hospital. Now you want to invade my home and scare the hell out of my kids!”

“Mrs. Sorenson, please call your children, and then I need all of you to stay here with this policeman.” Kelli indicated the uniform officer that now stood behind them.

Greg and Kat joined them as the team began a methodical search. The entire house was covered but they concentrated on Sorenson’s home office. His computer was confiscated and the agents went through his paperwork, hoping to find a connection to Keats or Donner. What they found was a picture of Caleb, with a phone number written on the back.

“We’ve got the bastard!’ This was the physical evidence that Buck had been hoping to find. He would also bet that once the hard drive on that computer was scanned, they would find more.

“Buck, it appears from these receipts that Mr. Sorenson keeps an apartment closer to town.” Kelli passed the receipts to Wilmington.

“We’re almost finished here. Can we get into that apartment?” Greg asked.

Already on the phone with U.S. Attorney Jed Alders, Buck was shaking his head. “We’ll meet you there.” He turned to his team. “Alders is procuring the warrant immediately and will meet us there. This picture gives him all the grounds that he needs.”

It took less than an hour to secure the warrant and gain entry into Sorenson’s’ apartment. Twelve boxes of kiddy porn magazines, explicit videotapes, and pictures were carted off, along with another computer. Restraints and sex toys found in the bedroom painted an ugly picture of what had gone on here and what had been planned for Caleb.

“You have enough Alders?” Buck asked the prosecutor, forcing himself to remain in control of the anger he felt building inside him.

“You don’t have to worry about this guy talking to the wrong people. The gun he used on you was registered in his name and twenty witnesses saw him shoot at you. The neighbors around here identified him by picture, as the man that lives here. The lease is in his name and with what you found at his home and here…Let’s just say he’s not going anywhere soon. His arraignment is this afternoon and I am sure I can have him held without bond.” He put his hand on Buck’s shoulder. “We got him right where we want him. If he has any information about a Californian connection, we’ll have it.” Jed Alders said his goodbyes and left.

“You okay Kel?” Buck asked as they prepared to leave.

“I just keep thinkin’ that if it weren’t for us Caleb could have been trapped in this hell. God, Buck this is only one guy, what about the ones we don’t catch? Who’s gonna help those other victims?”

“We’re not super cops darlin’. We do what we can and then move on to the next case.”

Kelli looked around the room and shivered from the images that flooded her mind. “Can you do that Buck? Just move on?”

Buck answered in a soft voice. “I hope so, I really hope so.”

MCAT Office ~ Conference room

Chris felt as if he was caught between Adam Carmichael and his real self. Ezra had given him enough information to become a new person, complete with a background that made him sound like everything that Chris Larabee stood against. He gave in on wearing the clothes that Standish had chosen, and most of the jewelry, but he drew the line at the earring. No way in hell would he pierce his ear, not even to complete this case. He had decided that it was good that Tanner was taking charge today so he could get his mind wrapped around being one of the bad guys. He was soon to find out that that was easier said that done.

Tanner watched the body language of the MCAT agents as they entered the room. It appeared that even with the stimulus of the extra training, some of them were letting this assignment drag them down. In particular Mark, Paul and Pam were having difficulty dealing with the subject of this investigation. JD was acquainting himself with the facts on his first day back to work and so far he had not seen enough to be too disturbed by it. Mallory, Nathan and Ross showed no outward sign that it was different than any other case.

The ops team was a whole different matter altogether. Justin carefully kept his ‘Billy Ray Hackett’ cell phone within easy reach, and the Texan swore that Chris’ new appearance looked just like a guy they busted last year. Raphael was taking on his new persona with little effort; the years of undercover operations with the DEA had prepared him well. Vin laughed to himself when he thought about Ezra’s role in this case. He had turned into ‘mother hen Larabee’ and did not even realize it.

A forensics’ lab worker had called up and informed Vin that Greg and Kat would be delayed. That made Buck and Kelli the last ones to enter and judging by the look they both wore, it had been a tough morning. The remaining task force team members showed the strain of the last three weeks of surveillance duty. Tanner’s first objective was to get them to loosen up. The next few weeks would be hard enough on most of them and unit meetings should not add to their stress, but instead, keep them informed of the case status.

Buck nodded when he sat down and Tanner began. “Welcome back JD, we’ve missed you.”

“It’s good to be back. You guys give me twenty four hours and I’ll be caught up with the rest of you.”

“We’ll hold you to that.” Vin waited for everyone to finished saying welcome. “Startin’ today, I not only get to be your tormentor from hell in the trainin’ room, I’m also in charge of you yahoos. Chris is officially out on assignment and the man that is sittin’ over there is not Commander Lar’bee, but Adam Carmichael…or he will be when Ez is finished with him.”

Chris grinned, “That is if I don’t finish him first.” Most everyone laughed and they began to relax.

“Josiah made it safely to California and is already set in his new role at the mission in Costa Mesa. Chris and Raphael or Adam and Creed will be joinin’ him there after today. Justin AKA Billy Ray is waitin’ on a phone call to set his part of this operation into motion. Paul will be Josiah’s contact man here and pass him whatever information he needs from us. Ezra will be callin’ the shots on the covert ops and will keep me advised of how events are unfoldin’ in Costa Mesa.

On the home front the case is heatin’ up. Our trafficker is on the move and we have identified three other cities involved with this syndicate. Phoenix, Arizona, Las Vegas, and Carson City, Nevada, and it seems that Seattle, Washington is the next stop on the list for these guys. We have secured the cooperation of the Phoenix police department, the Nevada State police and the State police in Washington. When the last drop off is completed we will take down all the locations in sync with the other involved law enforcement agencies. Buck, you want to update us on Sorenson?”

“We executed the warrant this morning and searched his home. His wife and two children were in residence at the time. A thorough search led us to proof that he was involved in the conspiracy to kidnap Caleb Evans and to a second location that Sorenson used for his secret life style. Jed Alders procured a warrant and met us there where we found…an assortment of kiddy porn, explicit sex tapes, pictures, restraints and other…tools of the trade. We confiscated two of his computers that Greg and Kat will be bringing up with the other logged in evidence shortly. Sorenson’s arraignment is this afternoon and Alders is confident that he can keep the suspect off the streets of Denver.”

Larabee and Tanner both recognized that Buck was wound up tight and it was taking a huge effort on his part to stay in control.

“That will take care of Sorenson. Kel, what about Caleb? Did he talk to the counselor about what happened to him and Danny?” Vin questioned.

“He did open up and tell her what he could remember, but ‘m afraid it won’t help much.” Kelli did not want to go into details.

Nathan spoke up. “Caleb either is or is not a material witness. If he is then we need his statement and we keep him in protective custody. If he’s not he should be returned to California without delay.”

Kelli‘s temper flared. “I have his statement Nathan, and that child is NOT goin’ back to California. I don’t know what your damn problem is with Caleb, but I strongly suggest that you get over it!”

Chris started to stand up and intervene, but then he sat back in his chair and decided to let Tanner handle it. Two angry Larabee’s was one too many and Kel did not seem to need help to get her point across to Nathan.

Vin deliberately kept the anger of out his words and spoke softly. “Kel, just tell us what he does remember.”

Tanner’s softly spoken words had the desired effect. Kelli’s anger began to fade, and she repeated a shorten version of Caleb’s story. “Caleb and Danny were the last ones on the playground at recess Tuesday afternoon. Their job was to put away the bats and balls the other kids had used. He and Danny were talkin’ and never heard the two men that grabbed them or saw their faces. The boys were blindfolded and thrown into a vehicle that he thinks could have been a van. The boys were scared, cryin’, and told to stay quiet. He did remember hearin’ one of the men say, ‘Two sweet treats, as ordered, one vanilla and one chocolate.’ They were taken somewhere and forced to get into a box, probably the delivery crates that we saw. After that he said that he either cried or slept. He received no water or food and could only feel the movement of the box, sometimes a hard jolt.”

Mark interrupted. “Did he understand what the men were talking about?”

“No, thank God, and he still doesn’t. Anyway once the box was opened he was kept blindfolded. He worried because he couldn’t tell if Danny was there too. Someone took him and made him bathe to get cleaned up and he said he felt hands on him that he thought maybe belonged to a lady. He was dressed in clean clothes and told again to keep his mouth shut, while they took his picture. They then left him in a small locked room downstairs. He was too frightened to do anythin’ else, but did hear bits and pieces of conversation. After a while they came for him, made him get into an even smaller box and put into another vehicle. We know what happened after that, the smaller box was the dog carrier and the vehicle was Sorenson’s car.”

“They must have given him some water or food. Didn’t they?” Serena was almost in tears thinking about what it must have felt like to a six-year-old.

Kelli shook her head no. “The first water or food that he had since he was abducted was at the hospital. I understood enough of what he overhead to know that the only thing they cared about was that he was virgin merchandise, and dark-skinned. That was what Sorenson was paying $25,000 to receive.”

Silence reigned around the table until Buck started talking. “Take Caleb and multiply him a hundred times over. Keep in mind that the goal we want to reach is to rescue more kids like him and put away the bastards that are selling them.”

“We will stay on top of that u-haul and be on standby status for the duration on this operation. We…” Vin was interrupted when ‘Billy Ray’s’ cell phone rang, Justin picked it up and left the room. “JD, when Greg and Kat get here, I want you in charge of the evidence. Get into those computers and I want you to dig into the files, and then the information in goes into CASSIE”S databanks. Use the conflict room to store it all and keep it locked. The rest of you stay close to your own phones and carry on with your assigned duties. I’ll see most of you after work in the trainin’ room, dismissed.”

Justin walked back in as some of the agents were leaving. Only Chris, Vin. Buck, Ezra, Nathan and Kelli remained. “That was Costa Mesa PD. They want me there at ten in the morning for an interview.”

“Then I suggest that we practice for that interview this afternoon. We’ll meet in one hour and go over what Billy Ray needs to do to get hired.” Ezra instructed.

Chris had been quiet, but he had to ask. “Kel, how do you plan to keep Caleb in Colorado, now that he is not needed as a witness?”

“Vin and I decided to do what was necessary for him to stay, and I spoke to our attorney this mornin’. We are applying to be his legal guardians until we can find him lovin’ parents of his own. Barbara has already set the wheels into motion, by filin’ our petition with the court.”

Nathan smirked. “What happens if you don’t find him a new home?”

“I have no doubt that we will.” Vin answered firmly. “For the record though, he has a home with us, for as long as it takes.”

Kelli’s cell phone rang. “Hi I was… “She listened. “Are you okay? …Yeah, I’ll be right down, just stay calm.” She closed her phone and turned to Vin. “It seems that we’re not the only ones with jobs that are dangerous. I need to go to the courthouse; some disgruntled parent set off a small bomb in the family court center. Apparently there were no major injuries, but Barbara was at the courthouse at the time. She thinks she is all right, just shook up but…”

Vin stopped her and replied as he watched Ezra for his reaction. “Go, and call me if you need me.”

Ezra stood and declared. “I am going with you.”

“That’s not necessary Ezra. She called me, and…specifically asked me to come alone.” She hesitated. “I will call you and let you know how she is.” Kelli left without another word.

Standish was already one the phone with the head of security at the courthouse and yelling. “This is FEDERAL AGENT Ezra Standish! I want to know how anyone can get into that courtroom with a bomb! What in the hell are you running down there a kindergarten class for security agents?”

Chapter 27

The undercover agent paced back and forth in a tight area of space, his lithe body coiled tight as he listened to the words of whomever was speaking to him on the other end of his cell phone. Chris, Buck, Nathan, and Vin watched their teammate as he paced, muttering under his breath words like “illiterate over grown orangutan with shit for brains,Neanderthal’, and ‘imbeciles who wouldn’t know their guns from their asses.’

“Uh-oh…he’s so out of his head he’s resorted to usin’ language we can understand.” Vin commented to his fellow agents.

“Who put together your training manuals, Bart Simpson?” Standish yelled into his cell phone. “An Irish Setter has better observation skills than Larry, Curly, and Moe, who must make up the leadership positions of your security force.”

“I think that may be an insult to Moe.” Nathan whispered to his friends, making mental observations of Standish’s erratic behavior.

“I swear if I don’t get a full accounting of what transpired on my desk by the end of the business day, this is going to get ugly. “ Standish continued. “And I have friends who don’t like ugly.”

Buck grinned proudly at Standish and said, “That’s my boy.”

“And if it’s NOT on my desk your worst nightmare will come knocking on the door in the ominous form of Special Agent Chris Larabee.”

Vin, Buck, And Nathan lost all control of the laughter they had been suppressing as they continued to listen to Ezra’s heated tirade. Vin collapsed against the wall, shaking with laughter, while Buck and Nathan fell into each other, laughing so hard that they could barely stand on their own feet.

Larabee who had been struggling with his own laughter, immediately sobered, and after shooting a glare in the direction of his hysterical cohorts turned his attention onto the squirrelly Southerner and said, “Standish, that’s not funny.”

Larabee’s words hit him like a bolt of lightning quickly returning Standish to his senses. He paled momentarily under the twin cannons of green fire aimed in his direction. The cell phone suddenly felt hot to the touch. He took a deep breath, straightened his shoulders and spoke softly into the phone, “I’ll be expecting the disposition of your inquiry into this matter.”

Vin pushed off from the wall, wiping his face with the sleeve of his shirt, and took one look at the ‘deer in headlights’ expression on Ezra’s face, and dissolved into laughter again.

Ezra nervously brushed at the sleeves of his jacket, trying to compose himself. “Gentlemen, I apologize for my atrocious misuse of the King’s English. But I fear I may be a tad upset.”

“You think?” Larabee stated coolly.

More laughter erupted from the three out of control agents.

The door opened suddenly and Justin entered the room. Quickly accessing the situation, he looked from Ezra’s stricken pallor, to the three hysterical agents leaning against the wall, before catching sight of his commanding officer’s deadly glare.

Being a wise man, Michaels quickly started to back out of the room, stating as he moved, “I just came in here to let you know I can handle that interview on my own. I’ll be in the bull pen if you need me.” His voice trailed off as he closed the door behind him.

“As soon as you hyenas are finished cackling, we’ve got work to do.” Larabee said, unmistakably annoyed.

Vin’s cell phone rang. He quickly reached for it, realizing it was Kelli calling him by her special ring tone, Yellow Rose of Texas, and worked quickly to compose himself as he answered it. “What’s the situation over there?”

Buck and Nathan quit laughing, as all four agents waited for Tanner to relay to them the extent of Barbara’s injuries back to them.

Tanner listened for a few more moments as Kelli filled him in on the situation at the courthouse, before hanging up. He turned toward the others and said, “Apparently Barbara was thrown back into a wall and hit her head. Kelli’s insisting that she have her injury examined, and is personally driving Barbara to Denver Memorial.”

Vin was certain that Ezra was contemplating doing something that was even more foolish and out of character than his usage of common words in his tirade of a few minutes ago. “Buck, Kel has her pager on if you need her. Chris, would you pull the covert ops team in here? We’ll set our plans for the next phase of this operation, but give me ten minutes before we start. Ez, I need to see you in my office.”

Standish hesitated momentarily, but decided to followed Tanner to his office, and shut the door behind him. He waited for Vin to begin the lecture he knew he deserved, but was met with Tanner’s silence instead.

“Well, aren’t you going to tell me I’m crazy? That I deserve to be so damn miserable because I brought this disastrous situation on myself?” Ezra walked over to the window and stared out at the city below. “Go ahead, you tried to tell me and did I listen? NO! I did not!”

“Ez, I asked you in here because I thought you might need a quiet place to think and a friend to listen if you want to talk.” Vin waited while Ezra pulled his thoughts together.

“I am not an inexperienced adolescent. My life has been one of decorum and refinement, and I do not do anything haphazardly or without reason.” Ezra sighed deeply. “Then one woman transformed all that. Barbara came into my life like a breath of fresh air and everything changed. Suddenly, I am talking to goldfish, rising early on Saturdays to traipse from one yard sale to another and enjoying it. Do you have any idea what it feels like to find out that what you thought was a full and complete life was…boring?”

The Texan chuckled. “You’re talkin’ to a man whose life hasn’t been the same since he crossed paths with a certain spirited redhead.”

“If that was Kel in that emergency room, you would be there.”

“Damn straight I would,” Tanner admitted. “ But …if I shut her out of my life the way you did Barbara, then I’d have to do some serious damage control before she’d see me. Especially after the big deal I made in Texas about us workin’ together, but you were there and you know that she thought she was protectin’ me.”

“Who are you kidding Vin? Kel wouldn’t let you get away with doing something that stupid in the first place any more than you would her.”

Tanner voice took on a serious tone. “Now she wouldn’t because she is confident enough about me lovin’ her that she knows we can work though anythin’. We do have some lively conversations and disagreements though, spirited for sure. But in the beginning…If I had shown her any doubts, even for the right reasons, she would have been gone. In fact she tried to shut me out one other time, but I knew from my own experiences that it was her uncertainties takin’ control of her actions. She mistakenly believed that if I knew about her past that I’d walk away.”

“The point is that you did not do the pushing away, and you did not allow her too” Ezra lamented. “I foolishly did the shutting out and Barbara did not try to stop me. She’s old enough to know better, but…Hell… I’m the one that let her walk away.”

Vin leaned forward. “Kel was old enough to know better, too, but she was too insecure about us to talk to me about it. She was also too inexperienced to understand that some things concernin’ the heart are out of our control. I never claimed to be an expert with women, but I did know that I had to be patient and let her learn to trust me. It took time before she was certain enough about our relationship that she would discuss important issues with me and not pull back.”

“Dear brother, you were much more patient and fair with Kel than I have been with Barbara, I fear. I did not want to see her get hurt because of my work and in retrospect I see that I should have discussed that with her. Instead I practically threw her out of my life. I wanted to protect her and now she’s hurt because of her work, not mine. I need her back with me, but if I rush down to the hospital, I know that she won’t see me. How in the hell do I fix this?” Ezra implored, looking at Tanner with pain filled emerald eyes.

“I don’t have the answer to that Ezra, but I do know that you’re a smart man. I‘m sure you can figure out a way to let her know that you’ve come to your senses.” The Texan stood up. “Let’s take care of business and then you put that Standish brain to work on winnin’ back your lady’s heart.”

“Contrary to what you may believe Vin, you are a connoisseur of people, and your instincts about your friends and family are superlative.” Ezra smiled at the perplexed look on Tanner’s face. “I am trying to say thank you friend for listening.”

“Hell Ez, you’d do the same for me, in fact I seem to recall your voice of reason screamin’ at me in Texas last year” Tanner grinned. “That’s what brothers do.”

“Touché, now as Chris would say, let’s get this show on the road.”

Conference Room

Standish and Tanner joined the group that was already assembled in the conference room. Ezra was back in control and began to review their plans for the next twenty-four hours.

He okay now?

He will be, Chris.

“Gentlemen, are you prepared for the next few weeks?”

Raphael answered first. “My family knows I am going under and we have our contingency plan in place.”

“What kind of contingency plan?” Justin questioned, wondering if he had done enough for his own family.

“The usual details I take care of when I go undercover. Important documents, such as my will and power of attorney are signed and accessible to my daughters. They also know to take particular precautions about any strangers that may come into their lives asking questions when I’m under. If they encounter an extreme emergency or have any out of the ordinary contacts, they will get in touch with Vin. They know that they will have to work things out on their own until I get back, if there are any problems, but they will not hesitate to advise Tanner if they are uneasy about any special situations.” Raphael explained.

“I’ve sent Linda to visit with her family. It gives her something else to think about besides me, and I know she will be safe with them. Vin has my POA and my will with a list of instructions to carry out if anything goes wrong and I don’t make it back. We have also arranged extra security at the ranch. I don’t believe that we’ll have any problems, but I feel better knowing that it’s done.” Chris added.

Justin nodded thoughtfully. “I have done most of that, but I probably should warn my wife about any strange contacts and tell her to call Vin if she has any uneasy feelings.”

“Give Beth my personal cell and home number too. Tell her to feel free to call anytime, day or night. Part of my job is to support y’all and to be there for your families if they need anythin’ or have questions.” Vin assured and then questioned Ezra. “Do we have the contact with Donner in place?”

“Yes, Sam put the word out that he knew where Donner could find replacements for Ray and Juan. Donner is expecting to meet with Adam Carmichael and Creed Cortez at a strip club in Santa Ana called The Silver Slipper, tomorrow night. Josiah is in place at the homeless mission in Costa Mesa and will be expecting to hear from each of you on a scheduled basis. One missed check in call will raise an alarm, but two consecutive ones will have the cavalry coming in to pull you out.”

“I want these bastards, but understand this. If at any time you feel as if your cover may have been compromised I want you out. Same thing goes for Vin; if he receives information that may put any of us in jeopardy he will make the call to abort this operation.” Chris wanted to make certain everyone was clear. “This is NOT a mission that we will pursue at any cost. I value my agents too much to risk sacrificing any one of them for the sake of making a case.”

Ezra cleared his throat. “Speaking from personal experience, I suggest you heed Commander Larabees’ words.” Standish then passed out three packets.” Inside, you will find your airline tickets, credit cards in your assumed names, and five hundred dollars in cash. You each have a clean cell phone to use and I expect you to memorize your contact schedule. Justin, your flight leaves at five in the morning; you will fly to LAX and commute to Long Beach where a car will be waiting for you and then drive to Costa Mesa. Once you are hired then make living arrangements for yourself. Whatever funds you need will be available on your credit card. Chris, you and Raphael will leave at ten tomorrow morning, same route, and then you know the drill from there. Paul will be responsible for keeping tabs on your cell phone and monetary activities. Are there any questions?”

“I’m going to talk to Travis and advise him of our plans. I have a few things to take care of here before I go, so if any of you want to leave early, feel free. Buck will be here monitoring his group and between the task force and the two of us we call handle anything that comes up. Vin is driving me and Raphael to the airport tomorrow. Justin do you need one of us to take you?”

“No, I’ve got it covered, thanks. I do have a question though. What’s to stop them from checking the fights and finding out that I did not fly in from Tennessee?”

Ezra grinned. “That’s the magic of computers Justin or to be more specific, the amazing abilities of CASSIE. Billy Ray Hackett left Tennessee early this afternoon on a flight to LAX as well as reserved a rental car, and if any one checks it can be confirmed. We will take care of covering your background and any inquires will be addressed from here.”

Justin leaned back and smiled. “Then, I guess I’m set and good to go.”

Tanner smiled. “Seein’ that this is y’all’s last night at home, I am cancellin’ the trainin’ exercise for today.” He was bombarded with balls of scrunched up paper from his ‘grateful’ teammates.

Travis’ Office

11th Floor

Chris exited the elevator and smiled at Suzanne. “I need ten minutes with the man.”

Suzanne shook her head. “That smile will get you nowhere Larabee, but it just so happens that the director is free. Follow me.” She opened the door to Travis’ office and announced Commander Larabee.

“Chris, am I to assume by your appearance that we are getting close to losing you for a while?” Orrin knew that somewhere under that look was the real Chris Larabee.

“Actually, that is why I’m here. I leave tomorrow morning.” Chris gave Travis a folder. “This contains all the details of our operation, as promised, and we’re all good to go.”

Orrin looked over the file. “I talked to my friend and he has the full support of State Senator Bryant Hansen to continue his investigation, Costa Mesa is in his district and he wants to stay informed of the AG’s finding. Aside from being senator the man is a very successful businessman from San Diego and backs all candidates that are strong advocates for law enforcement.”

“How much does this man know about our involvement?” Chris asked warily.

“None, the AG has managed to hold MCAT’s part in this separate. No one knows except him that he has asked for our help and I fully anticipate that that will not change.”

“I hope not, we do not need any political complications. I don’t like have the team split up as it is and…”Chris sighed. “Never mind I’m just ready to make this happen. Vin will keep you up to date on the situation in California and with the task force.” Larabee stood up to leave.

“Chris, do not take any unnecessary chances, and take care.” Travis shook his hand and then watched Larabee walk out of his office. Orrin knew that Larabee was well aware of what he was doing and of the risks involved, but he still could not shake the feeling that there were some rough waters ahead for Chris and MCAT on this one.


Dr. Landers was convinced that Barbara was not seriously injured. However he did suggest that someone be with her for the next few hours because anytime the head was involved he preferred to proceed with caution. Kelli took her friend home and called Buck to let him know that she was available to work if needed.

“Keep your pager on, and if I need you I’ll call, but I think we are several days away from any action. You take care of Barbara, and I’ll see you tomorrow.” Buck knew that Kelli would come back to the office, if necessary.

“Barb, I’m stayin’ so you go change into somethin’ comfortable, while I invade your kitchen and find us some food.” Kelli ordered.

“I am certain that I will be fine, but thanks for being here Kel. Since I have always concentrated on my work, I have become acquainted with many people, but you are one of a very few that I consider a close friend.” Barbara actually had not considered anyone a close friend until she met Kelli at the CASA meetings and for some reason they had just clicked. They came from different backgrounds, but still had much in common. Both had been isolated from the normal growing process for children. Barbara at private girls’ schools with only bi-yearly visits from her parents and Kelli had spent most of her growing-up years alone. Each one had poured their interest into their work early in life and not on pursuing the opposite sex.

“Then, this friend says, you’re welcome, now let me snoop in your kitchen and I need to call Vin to let him know that I’m stayin’.”

Barbara changed and then stretched out on the couch. Kelli had made tea and put together a fruit plate for them to snack on. Both women were comfortable in each others presence and passed the time talking.

“I did manage to obtain the guardianship order from the judge before that idiot decided to blow up the courtroom. Are you and Vin ready to take on a third child?”

“Sure, Caleb is no problem. He is a sweet kid that has had some bad breaks in his young life. Carmen is certain that we can find him a lovin’ home and he can stay with us as long as it takes to do that.”

Barbara laughed. “Kel, you would take him on as well as every other kid that out there needing a home. I have a feeling that you may become one of my most active clients.”

“You’re right, but I believe that Vin would draw the line somewhere. We’re blessed to have Jason and Andi and we still hope to have a baby or two someday. We did see the doctor you recommended and she convinced Vin that my situation might not be as risk involved as we were told before. Dr. Weeks explained that one is six couples in America have problems getting’ pregnant and then she gave me a prescription along with a barrage of shots that she believes will help. If we get lucky and it works, then I’ll have to be monitored closely but she thinks there is a high probability for a good outcome.”

“I’ve known Helen Weeks for several years and she has saved many women from having unnecessary surgery. Several of them now have healthy, happy babies, and I hope you have the chance to be another one of her successes.” Barbara looked over at Kelli. “You do know how lucky you are already I hope. You and Vin are great with kids and have a great marriage. You seem to have missed the problems the rest of us have making relationships work.”

Kelli laughed. “Oh we’ve had our share. I did everything possible to keep Vin at arm’s length, but I have to give him credit, he never gave up on me.”

“I have a hard time believing that. I thought…” Barbara wasn’t sure what she thought.

“You thought that you and Ezra were the only ones that could crash a relationship?” Kelli shook her head. “I tried every way I knew to make Vin behave the way I expected him to. He saw through my efforts though and stood firm. I was scared Barbara, I thought that once Vin figured out what an emotional mess I was that he would run the opposite direction. It took him the longest time to convince me that he was not going anywhere.”

“I didn’t push Ezra away; he did that on his own.”

“Maybe, I suppose that he believed that he had a good reason.” Kelli hesitated and then decided to tell Barbara about her own foolishness. “Last year, when I went to Texas and found out the truth about my biological family, I ran. I mistakenly thought that I was protectin’ Vin by doin’ so. I didn’t care about myself, but I could not stand the idea that he could be hurt because of me.”

Barbara sat up and wanted to know more. “So what happened? Obviously something changed your mind.”

“Vin happened. He tracked me down and let me know in no uncertain terms that whatever we had to face, we would do it together. Ezra was with him and saw for himself that I was wrong in thinkin’ that I could just walk away. That’s why it surprised me that Ez would try to do the same thing.”

“Ezra thinks that he is protecting me?” Suddenly everything fell into place for Barbara. “Of course he does! Barbara Lindsey you are the idiot! Why didn’t I see this myself? I have spent the last few weeks trying to figure out what I did wrong and it wasn’t me after all. If he thinks that he can get away with this that man has a lot to learn about me!”

Watching Barbara talk to herself had Kelli chuckling. “So what are you going to do about it?”

“I will need your help, but before this day ends Ezra P. Standish will know where he belongs!

MCAT Office

Chris was hanging up the phone when Vin walked into his office. “I take it that Linda and Grace made it okay?”

“Yep, and Grace is the center of attention with all those kids. Luke and his wife have eight of their own.” Chris laughed. “Lord I hope Linda doesn’t expect us to catch up with them.”

“You might not catch up Cowboy, but think of the fun you can have trying.” Tanner grinned. “I came in to let you know that we expect you to have breakfast with us and the kids. Afterwards, we’ll pick up Raphael and take you two to the airport in the mornin’”

“That sounds good to me. I want to finish up a few things here and I’ll leave the information Travis gave me on your desk before I close up shop. When are you going home?”

“I’m waiting to hear from Kel now; she has the truck at Barbara’s.” Tanner’s cell phone rang and he knew it was Kelli. “Hey baby, how’s it goin’?” Vin listened, “Yeah I can do that, if your sure…Okay see you in about twenty minutes.” He hung up and sighed. “I’m not certain what she and Barbara are up to, but she wants me to have Ez drive us over to Barbara’s apartment.”

“Uh oh, that does not sound good for Ezra. You go on, I’ll see you in the morning,” Chris smiled. “I’ll expect to hear all the details.”

Tanner left Larabees’ office and tracked down Ezra. They departed within five minutes and headed to Ms. Lindsey’s apartment.

“Are you certain that she requested me to come?” Ezra was surprisingly nervous.

“Yep ‘m sure, and Barbara knows that you are comin’. Relax Ez; this is your chance to start makin’ amends.”

“I would be more relaxed if I had planned this myself.”

Tanner knocked on the door and Kelli opened it, keys in hand and ready to leave. Barbara stood behind her and was only waiting for Kelli to do her part before she spoke.

“Vin let’s go, if we hurry we still have time to have dinner with the kids.” The Texan was a bit surprised, but he did not argue.

“We’ll see you later, Barb.” He whispered to Ezra, “Damage control, remember.”

The Tanners closed the door behind them and that left Ezra standing alone to face Barbara.

“Ezra, we need to talk.”

Standish knew the moment that he saw Barbara that he had been incredibly foolish in thinking that he could give this woman up so easily. Immense relief flooded through him to see that she was really okay and he silently vowed that he would do whatever it took to gain back her trust. “Barbara... There is no excuse for my recent dreadful behavior and I am truly sorry that my foolish action have caused you distress”.

“You should be Ezra, but then I suppose my behavior has been lacking also. I’m afraid I reverted to my insecure younger self and failed to recognize the signs that were flashing in front of me. I should have realized that you were trying to protect me; instead I reacted as an immature schoolgirl. Make no mistake, your words hurt like hell and it will take some time to repair that, but I will never allow you to do that to me again. If we are to have any chance for a future, it has to be together and we need to talk about the things that we are feeling.”

Ezra looked into her beautiful hazel eyes and saw the hurt, but he also saw that the love she had for him was still there too. “Barbara, I love you and I do want a future with you. I know I have no right to expect your forgiveness and I am willing to wait for as long as it takes, but I need to know that we still have a chance.”

Barbara knew without a doubt that she loved the man standing before her, she also knew that he was not used to being open with his feelings. A chance? Hell yes, but it would take time and patience. “If you mean that Ezra, then we start now. We must have open communications between us, and no more one-sided decisions. Whatever comes, we face together and I am warning you. If you’re in, you in for the full run so if you need time to think about it I understand.”

Ezra knew that his life as he knew it would change with the decision he was about to make. No more hiding the real Ezra Standish, no more secrets, and no more solo decisions, but he found that all of that did not matter anymore. He loved Barbara and come hell or high water he wanted her in his life. “I don’t need time to think about it. I want you back in my life and I promise, no more running. We’ll take the time to communicate and whatever happens in the future will happen for both of us. Tonight, let me take care of you and then tomorrow when you feel better we’ll talk more about our future.’

Relieved to hear that they still had a future to talk about Barbara was ready to give in to the exhaustion of the days events. “Deal Standish.”

Chapter 28

Costa Mesa, California

When it had become obvious that they would be sending MCAT agents undercover in California, Josiah had thought of his long time friend, Fred Wilcox. Wilcox ran a mission in Costa Mesa, California, that seemed an ideal place for him to take on another persona and act as a contact man for Chris, Justin, and Raphael. He knew for a fact that he could trust Wilcox explicitly to keep his true identity a secret, and from all of his years experience in volunteering at missions in and around Denver, Josiah knew the basics of how one was run.

He and Fred had met at a law enforcement seminar several years ago and had struck up an instant friendship that had lasted over the years. It was very rare that they had the opportunity to see each other in person anymore. After being severely injured on the job as a Los Angeles S.W.A.T. supervisor, Fred had gone on disability for a while until he had his health under control. He had made his decision not to return to work as a law enforcement officer, and instead had taken over the running of the Fourth Avenue Mission.

At the time that Wilcox’s recuperation was going on, Josiah had been fully entrenched with his caseload as a member of Denver’s elite ATF Team Seven; and then later on as a husband and father. Regardless of the infrequency of their visits to one another, Fred and Josiah had stayed in touch with one another via email and phone calls.

A couple of weeks before the child trafficking case had started; Josiah had shared a long phone conversation with Fred. They had caught each other up on everything that had happened in their lives over the past year. Wilcox had shared with Josiah that he was starting to get burned out on the day-to-day business of running the mission, no matter how worthy a cause it was, and was seriously in need of a vacation. Sanchez had commented to his friend how much they all needed a vacation, and then the topic had changed to other things.

Josiah had brought up his friend to Chris and Vin, explaining the friendship he had with Wilcox, and the man’s untarnished record as a law enforcement officer in Southern, California. He had explained to them about the telephone call that he had shared with Wilcox a few weeks earlier, and Fred’s mentioning that he was sorely in need of a vacation. Josiah knew that he needed to be in a position to ‘read’ each agents state of mind as they called in and keep an eye on what was happening in Santa Ana at the same time. It had taken him all of a couple of minutes to convince Larabee and Tanner that it was the ideal cover for himself, and Chris had given him the go ahead to set it up with his friend.

Josiah hadn’t even had to give Fred details into the case that MCAT was currently working on, past the fact that it had to deal with child trafficking, before Wilcox had adamantly agreed to do it. Wilcox had told Josiah that it would take him a week or two to set up Josiah’s cover as temporary director of the mission in his absence, with his employees, and Sanchez had assured him that there was time to do so before he needed to be in California.

Tuesday, August 1 ~ 9 a.m.

Josiah, alias, Jonah Drake spent the past two hours of his first morning at the Fourth Avenue mission, going over the meticulous records that Fred Wilcox kept as its director. He had arrived at the mission at 7, eager to have some time alone to familiarize himself with the layout of the building, how the three programs operated, and the details of the files of the four salaried employees, before anyone else arrived for the day.

He had learned from Fred before his arrival in California, that the mission’s assistant director, Marie Davis, was on maternity leave for the next eight weeks. That had been one of the reasons that his friend hadn’t been able to go on vacation, because he was short staffed. While the rest of his staff was familiar with the ins and outs of running the mission, they had only been hired to do their specific jobs, and not anything else. Josiah’s plan had worked to benefit both of them.

That had left him only three employees’ files for him to read through and memorize. Nancy Harding was twenty-five years old, single, and had been working for Wilcox as his secretary for the past four years; Zachary Stephens was forty-five years old, a widower with five children, and had been with the mission for ten years. Xander Browning, fifty-years-old had been the cook since the mission opened in 1990.

He had just finished going over the scheduled shifts for the regular volunteers, when someone knocked on the door to Wilcox’s office. He set the file on the desk, and rose from behind it and moved over to answer the door. A petite, blue-eyed blonde dressed in a short sleeve blouse, denim skirt and low-heeled sandals stood on the other side of the door.

“Hi, Mister Drake, I’m Nancy, your secretary for the next six weeks while Fred is gone.” She said bubbly, holding out her hand to him. “If there is anything you need, just let me know.”

“It is a pleasure to meet you Nancy. I would like it if you called me Jonah. Fred filled me in on informally things were run here. It helps set the people who come to the mission for help at ease, and generates an overall warm and comfortable place to be. I want that to continue.” Jonah said, shaking her hand.

Nancy smiled. “Alright, is there anything that you need my assistance with now? Explaining of some of the procedures? Help finding some files? A cup of coffee, maybe?”

Jonah smiled at her. “No. I can’t think of anything at the moment.”

“Okay. I’ll be at my desk if you need anything.”

Costa Mesa Police Department ~ 9:20 A.M.

Justin Michaels alias, Billy Ray Hackett, sat outside Chief of Police, William Blaine’s office, and waited for the man to call him in for his interview. As he waited, he mentally reviewed his persona’s work history; all the while observing the activities of the law enforcement personnel going on around him.

It was twenty minutes after ten o’clock when Blaine’s office door finally opened, and Hackett got his first glance at his potential employer. Blaine stood about 5’ 6, with a balding head, and a cumbersome body. His face was wrinkled and pock marked, and Billy Ray had to suppress the shudder of revulsion that crept over his body.

“Hackett?” Blaine queried

Billy Ray nodded, stood up, and moved over to join the Costa Mesa Police Chief in the doorway to his office. “That would be me.”

Blaine gestured for Hackett to precede him into his office, and then closed the door behind them.

“Records?” The chief held out his hand.

Hackett handed the older man his work folder and then seated himself in one of the leather armchairs before the desk, leaning back in the chair and stretching out his legs in front of him.

Blaine weighed the folder in his hands, and glanced over at Hackett. “Kind of on the hefty side ain’t it?”

Billy Ray smiled at him and shrugged his shoulders. “Shit happens.”

Blaine moved around his desk, seating himself, and plopped the folder onto the top of his desk as he opened it. Hackett pretended to doze as Blaine rifled through his records. The lengthy list of reprimands alone would take the older man at least an hour to peruse them, and he thought he might as well try and get over his jetlag by taking a nap.

The more he read of Hackett’s file, the more familiar the details became. He could almost imagine that the file he was reading had been replaced with that of either Jeffries or Shipley’s. After several moments had passed, Blaine figured that he had familiarized himself enough with Hackett’s idiosyncrasies.

He looked up from the folder and saw to his chagrin that it appeared that Hackett had gone to sleep while he had been busy reading. He stood up and moved around the desk and nudged Hackett’s feet with the toe of his boot.

“This isn’t the Queen Mary.” Blaine commanded. “Wake your ass up.”

Hackett opened one eye and squinted up at him. “Hell, I thought by the time that you finished reading that, you wouldn’t be offering me the job, so I figured I might as well catch some shuteye.”

“It definitely made for some interesting reading.” Blaine commented. “You’ve been a bad boy.”

Both eyes popped up open as Billy Ray studied Blaine, trying to discern whether the older man meant that as a censor or compliment. “Yeah, but I’m really at my best, when I’m bad.”

For the first time since Billy Ray had entered his office, Blaine cracked a smile. “I like a man who admits his shortcomings.”

“I aim to please.”

“Cocky, too, I see. I like that…”

Billy Ray grinned in response.

“You know that normally that work folder would end any chance of you being hired by reputable law enforcement agencies. However, I find your methods of carrying out the letter of the law creative. I could certainly use someone with your experience and ingenuity in my department.”

Hackett cast a wary eye at Chief of Police. “Really?”

“But I would be remiss in my duties if I didn’t ask you to explain a couple of things. First off, why in the hell choose California?’

“Would you believe me, if I told you that I’ve always dreamed of seeing the Pacific Ocean?”

“No. I wouldn’t.” Blaine said. “Try again.”

“To make a long story short I had one too many helpings of that young sweet stuff. One of the daddies kind of took it personally and filed a statutory rape charge against me. I decided not to stick around for the fireworks and no matter what happens here today, I’m staying in California. It’s a little too hot in Tennessee for me. ”

“How old?”


“I think maybe we can find you a position here. How long do you need before you are ready to report for duty?”

Billy Ray looked down at his watch. “Give me enough time to find a place where I can unload my car, and I’m all yours.”

“My day starts at seven, so yours does too. See you tomorrow.”

The two men shook hands and Hackett made his escape.

Santa Ana, California ~ 2 p.m.

Chris Larabee and Raphael Cordova, A.K.A., Adam Carmichael and Creed Cortez arrived at LAX with very little incident. Carmichael had been flirted with by stewardesses and female passengers alike, and attributed it to the getup that Standish had insisted he wear for his new persona. Leather pants that clung to his body like a second skin, blue silk shirt opened up at the collar, and a couple of gold strands around his neck. His hair had been darkened, and he now had brown eyes, as well as a mustache and full beard that he had worked to grow. Cortez hadn’t really had to change much about his appearance except for the style of clothing he wore.

The first thing they did after exiting the airport terminal was to pick up their waiting rental car. With Carmichael behind the wheel, and Cortez navigating, they maneuvered through the airport traffic, and out onto Interstate 5 heading south toward Santa Ana.

It was just a little over an hour when they arrived at the Starz Motel just outside of Santa Ana. Carmichael pulled the vehicle up in front of the motel and turned off the ignition. He took one look at the rundown building and decided that if their room was a mirror image of the outside, Standish was a dead man. The two men exited the vehicle and entered the manager’s office to check in.

The sign over the desk read in chipped paint letters “la oficina”. There was no one at the reception desk when they entered. Cortez noticed a bell on the desk and hit it to call for service. A few more minutes passed by before a large Hispanic woman sauntered up to the desk.

“Carmichael and Cortez. We called ahead.”

The woman answered him with a blank stare.

He tried again. “Carmichael and Cortez. We called ahead.”

“Let me try.” Cortez said and rattled off their names in Spanish and requested the keys to their room.

The woman’s face changed as she complied with his request. A few moments later, found the two men unlocking the door to room number seven. Carmichael opened the door and bravely was the first man to enter their new abode. The interior of the room didn’t mirror the motel’s exterior, it was much worse.

Two sagging double beds were in the center of the room, with stained bedspreads, to match the stains on the floor. The color reminded them both of a crime scene and the thought ran through both of their minds at the same time, ‘How many people had been murdered in the room and would they have any nightly visitors of the transparent kind’.

“It’s not so bad.” Creed said, optimistically. “I’ve seen worse…in the ghetto.”

Carmichael’s only response was a brown-eyed glare.

“I’ll flip you to see who takes a shower first?” Creed said.

“Be my guess. If you survive the ordeal I might give it a shot.”

“You’re all heart.” Cortez said as he moved toward the bathroom.

Adam considered unpacking his clothing, but decided that it was safer to leave them in the suitcase. Cortez stuck his head out of the bathroom and said, “We don’t have to be at the Silver Slipper until nine if you want to try and take a nap.”

Carmichael looked at the beds and decided that he didn’t want to know what was underneath the stained bedspread.

Silver Slipper ~ 8 p.m.

Somehow Creed and Carmichael survived the first few hours in the motel from hell, and arrived at the Silver Slipper an hour early to look things over. The interior of the club was dimly lit except for the stage area where scantily clad girls were gyrating around poles. Topless waitresses moved around the crowded tables, refilling drinks and taking orders from patrons.

Carmichael and Cortez elbowed their way through the crowd and up to the bar where they managed to find two vacant bar stools. The muscular young man in tight fitting leather pants and a vest, with no shirt, pranced over to their end of the bar and shouted, “What’s your pleasure?”

Adam and Creed both ordered a beer.

The bartender was quick to fill their order. He placed the mugs of foaming brew onto the bar in front of Carmichael and Cortez and winked at Adam. “My name is Ryan and my number’s written on the napkin. If you don’t find anything on stage that interests you, call me sometime and I can give you a private showing.”

Cortez choked on the sip of beer he had just taken, and glanced over at Carmichael, as Adam mumbled, “I didn’t even wear the damn earring.”

Creed flashed Adam a Cheshire cat grin, earning him another lethal glare.

Adam glanced at his watch. “It’s time. Why don’t you call Ryan over and ask him about Donner?”

“You ask him. He likes you.”

“Payback’s are a bitch.” Carmichael said as he lifted his hand and waved at the bartender.

Ryan flashed him a flirtatious grin and immediately came over. “What do you need, sugar?”

It was Adam’s turn to choke on his beer. Creed reached over and patted him on the back. “You okay there, honey?”

Carmichael lowered the timbre of his voice and said, “We have an appointment with Donner. Could you tell him that Carmichael and Cortez are here to see him?”

“Anything for you.” Ryan purred and went to convey Carmichael’s message to one of Donner’s bodyguards.

The muscular man glanced warily over at the two men at the bar that Ryan pointed out to him as being the ones that had given the message to him to deliver. The larger one of the two disappeared into a back room and returned a few minutes later with a well-dressed man accompanying him.

Carmichael and Creed studied the tall, polished Latino man in a three-piece Armani suit as he walked over to them. As he neared, they noticed that around his neck he wore enough gold to finance MCAT salaries for the next five years. They knew instinctively that this was Donner.

“Gentlemen, welcome to my club. Ryan, whatever they want it’s on my tab.” Donner’s unvoiced command had them moving over to his private table to discuss their business.

“Anything they want?” Ryan asked, his eyes suggestively raking over Carmichael’s body.

Ignoring him as best he could, Adam introduced himself and Cortez.

“Sam’s already told me all about you. I’m pleased to have someone of your reputation interested in working for my organization.”

“From what Sam has told me, you need someone like me and Cortez working for you. Let’s cut the pleasantries and get down to business. I understand that you have recently had two positions in your organization open up. I can guarantee you better results than your recently departed employees. We’re the best at what we do and expect to be paid accordingly. We’ll start at double the previous salaries and see how it goes from there.”

Donner studied the two men in front of him. He liked the confidence that Carmichael and Creed both exhibited. “I understand you have good resources. If they pan out you will be worth every penny of it. I’ll start you out on a month’s trial and see how it goes from there.”

“Sounds good to me,” Creed agreed.

“Housing accommodations will be on the premises. You will be on call twenty-four hours a day. I don’t like a lot of questions and I’m only interested in successful results. Willis will show you to your quarters later.”

Donner snapped his fingers. Two young girls appeared seemingly out of nowhere. Both were scantily dressed. “These two women are from my personal stable. They will be your entertainment for the evening.”

Rose, a buxom blonde draped herself over Cortez’s lap and proceeded to stroke a finger down his chest. Blossom, an exotic Asian beauty lowered herself into Carmichael’s lap and proceeded to wrap her arms around his neck, rubbing herself shamelessly again him in a sexual manner.

“Thank you, but we can find our own entertainment.” Carmichael said gently pushing the Asian woman off of his lap. Cortez followed suit with his own lap partner.

“In my club, you amuse yourselves with my merchandise only.”

Adam, thinking fast, said. “I don’t think you have the right merchandise. Besides, like I said, we can create our own amusement.”

To emphasize his point he turned and winked at Cortez. Creed had the decency to blush.

Donner grinned, “I understand. Perhaps Willis should show you to your quarters now. You can retrieve your personal items and get moved in.”

Carmichael could feel the daggers aimed at the back of his head from Cortez’s direction, and knew he would have to answer to him later. At least for now, he didn’t have to worry about answering to his wife after this assignment was finished.

Donner made a motion with his fingers to dismiss the two girls, and also for Willis to appear at his side. “Arthur, escort Carmichael and Cortez to their new quarters.”

Willis nodded and without preamble began to walk toward the back of the bar. Carmichael and Cortez rose as one to follow Donner’s bodyguard. The suite of rooms at the back of the Silver Slipper, were a vast improvement over their current accommodations, although a bit flashier than either men preferred. But they weren’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth. Not only had they managed to secure positions for both of them in Donner’s organization, they were also being sprung from the hell motel that Standish had arranged for them. That definitely had to be the icing on the cake.

The two men were leaving the Silver Slipper a short time later to retrieve their personnel belongings from the Starz Motel, when they were stopped at the door by the bartender.

“If you ever decide that you’d like to try out someone younger than your amigo here,” Ryan said to Carmichael, casting a disparaging glance over at Cortez. “You’ll know who to call. I’ve got moves someone his age could end up in traction over.”

Cortez bristled at the remark and stepped threateningly toward the bartender. Carmichael stepped carefully between the two men. “I’m flattered, really, but I’m quite satisfied with my Latino lover.”

“Pity.” Ryan replied. “You don’t know what you are missing.”

He stalked back toward the bar, as Carmichael and Cortez exited the nightclub and got into their vehicle. Silence reined in the car for several moments as Carmichael waited for Cortez to explode over the scenario that he had gotten the two of them into. He didn’t have long to wait.

“You could have warned me back there that I was about to become your bitch.” Cortez commented, an edge in his voice.

“Ease off with the macho shit, Cortez. This isn’t a stab at your manhood, or anything. It was the only thing I could come up with that would prevent Donner from further insisting that either of us sample the merchandise.” Carmichael told him as he drove. “I don’t like the situation anymore than you do, but to be honest, I’d rather face your ire any day than try to explain to my wife what I was doing letting some other woman drape her body all over mine.”

“Suppose your right. Just took me by surprise is all.” Creed sighed, after a few more moments of silence had passed between them. “Women! … Now that’s a laugh. Those girls looked barely sixteen, if even that. Knowing what we know about the sick bastards entangled in this twisted mess, sixteen is almost too old for their preferences.”

“And that’s why we’re going to bring Donner and everyone else involved down.” Carmichael stated in a lethal voice.

“Damn straight.”

It took them less time to grab their belongings, turn in their keys and leave the Starz Motel, than it had for them to check into it a few hours earlier. They returned to the Silver Slipper a short time later and retired to their new living accommodations. Without a word, the two men swept the room for surveillance equipment and found that the room was clean of everything, except for a couple of listening devices that they quickly disposed of. If Donner asked any questions about why they had removed them, Carmichael and Cortez would tell their new employer that either he trusted them at face value or they walked. Regardless of whether or not Donner agreed; they would do regular checks. They could not afford to have their covers blown before they got enough physical evidence on Donner to bring the man down, and anyone else that he was working with.

Carmichael headed immediately for the shower, even as Cortez stripped down to his boxers and climbed under the covers. The two men had agreed on the way back over to the Silver Slipper that they were going to have to carry through with acting out being lovers by sleeping in the same bed. Neither of them were too thrilled with the concept, but knew they couldn’t risk someone coming into the suite and finding them sleeping apart, and questioning them on it.

Cortez was still awake when Carmichael came out of the bathroom wearing silk pajama bottoms and flashed Cortez a grin. “Nothing about us having to act like lovers or sleep in the same bed…ever…gets put into any official reports or reaches Buck’s ears, do we understand each other?”

“This isn’t exactly a scenario I’d ever want to try and explain to my daughters or my grandchildren.” Creed told Carmichael. “I’d rather go to my grave first before I’d ever tell anyone about this. Just make sure you stick to your side of the bed and we won’t have any problems.”

“You’ve got a deal.” Carmichael said he slid under the covers on the other side of the bed. He reached over and turned the light off. “Get some sleep…”

“Night.” Creed rolled over onto his side, facing away from him.

Carmichael lay on his back on the bed and stared up at the ceiling in the darkness. Their cover was effectively established. What tomorrow held for him and Cortez he didn’t know, he just hoped that they would be able to get the evidence that they needed to take down the Donner’s operation so he and Cortez could get back to their real lives in Colorado.

Cortez didn’t fall asleep right away. He suspected that Carmichael hadn’t either. Even though he was an old hat at undercover work, each assignment had to be approached differently. He had done all of the mental preparation well in advanced, as best as he could, given the circumstances that had led to him and Carmichael being in California in the first place, but knew it wasn’t going to be enough. Most of his prior operations had dealt with drug dealers or gunrunners, not with people who dealt with innocent children as commodities. These bastards were the lowest scum of the earth and they would be brought down if MCAT had anything to do with it.

Chapter 29

Friday ~ August 4

Standish Townhouse

Barbara had awakened earlier than normal, and crawled immediately out of bed; much to Ezra's chagrin...He wasn't as ego-centric as other men were about certain things regarding women. But it did kind of bruise a man's ego just a bit to know that his lady love was scrambling out bed, moments after making love to him, in order to get ready for an early breakfast date with another man....even if he had known about it well in advance.... As he watched the graceful brunet cross the room, he could not help but want her naked body back in his arms.

“Are you sure that this is necessary at this ungodly hour?” Ezra knew that the courts ran on their own schedule and that Barbara did have to meet with other attorneys, but he was enjoying having her back in his bed and did not want to give up one minute of it.

"Don't pout, Ezra." Barbara had told him with a loving smile that grew wider as he protested quite loudly that he NEVER pouted, and it slowly dawned on him that he was being teased...He looked so devilishly indignant that Barbara had rushed back over to the bed and peppered his face with light kisses, before finding his lips and giving him a searing lip lock that made him lose his breath.

Ezra grabbed her hand before she moved away. “Live with me Barbara.” The look on her face told him that he had not expressed himself as he wished. Normally his vocabulary was his best weapon, but she reduced him to fragmented sentences and a loss of coherent speech. “Hell, what I mean is…move in with me here, you Huey, Dewey and Louie. I know that planning a wedding will take time, but I love you and I can’t wait that long to have you with me every day, occasional overnights are simply not enough.”

Barbara sat on the edge of the bed and stared at the man she loved more than anyone in this world. “Ezra did you just propose marriage to me?”

Kicking himself for his lack of timing and finesse, Ezra ran his hands over his face. “Damn it, I wanted to do this the right way. Candlelight, romantic music, a ring, flowers and…”

She leaned over him and hushed him with another searing kiss that left them both wanting more, before she spoke. “You said you loved me and that you want me in your life. That’s what is right.” Barbara took a deep breath. “Yes, I will marry you Mr. Standish, but you best be warned. Now that I have you, I won’t let you go.”

The Southerner relaxed and grinned. “There’s not a chance in hell, lady that you could.”

“I love you and I hate to do this Ezra, but I do have to be in court.” Barbara’s tone of voice expressed her regret.

“You take care of business love and tonight we’ll discuss details over dinner. I can be patient about the rest as long as I know that we’ll be together.”

“Deal Standish.”

MCAT Office ~ late afternoon

It had been a long week for the MCAT unit. As expected cover stories were checked out, and apparently has passed. Billy Ray, Adam and Creed were settling into their new position and the reports from Jonah were good. Alders was good at his word and Sorenson was held in without bail and in isolation. The only drag was the attempt to coordinate the takedowns by the task force. With so many states involved it had turned into a bureaucratic nightmare.

A frustrated Buck Wilmington stood in front of the big map. They had identified locations of trafficking houses in Phoenix, Las Vegas, Carson City, Seattle, and Salem. The law in Arizona, Nevada, Washington and Oregon were all very cooperative. The last four locations were in California, San Francisco, Sacramento, Los Angeles, and San Diego, according to the State Police it would be Monday before they would be prepared to act.

“I don’t like it Vin, the longer this takes, the bigger chance we have of word leaking out and losing it all. My entire task force is spread out from here to California; I only have Kel, Selina and Mark left to work the raid here in Denver. If Denver PD hadn’t picked up on the surveillance here we’d be up a shit creek without a paddle.”

“Buck, you have what’s left of the unit to back you and you know how important it is to have at least one member of your team in each location, so relax. Regardless of what California does we are a go for Monday.” Vin assured him.

“Yeah I know.” Buck sighed. “I don’t like having our unit spread all over the map though. At least with Max moving this weekend we’ll have a diversion, otherwise I think I’d spend all my time pacing in front of this damn map.”

“Walter will be in tonight, too, and y’all will have a chance to meet him tomorrow. JD, Nathan and Ezra will be at the house by nine. All we have to do is unload the truck and we’ll have Max moved in within a couple of hours. Then we’ll eat some fine barbeque and enjoy the afternoon with our families.”

“It won’t be the same without Josiah and Chris there, but I’m glad Mallory is coming with the kids.” Buck turned around to face Vin. “Speaking of kids, Inez and I have been talking. I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but we would like to help out with Caleb.”

“What kind of help Buck?”

“We know that when you and Kel moved to be his guardians, you lost any financial assistance from the foster care system. We’d like to outfit him for school, you already have Jason to buy for and…Hell Vin, I know you can handle it, but it’s something we want to do for the boy.” Buck waited anxiously, hoping that Tanner would not ask too many questions about his motives, at least not yet.

The Texan saw a certain look cross his brother’s face and he knew that this was important to him. Vin also recognized something else, and decided to follow his instincts. “We appreciate your offer Bucklin, and your attention will make Caleb feel special. I think you should tell him though, you and Inez together.”

A huge grin spread across Buck’s face. “Thanks, we’ll tell him when you get ready to take Jason shopping, and then we’ll take him and Sarah at the same time. She’s looking forward to preschool, that’s all she and Joanne have talked about for the last two weeks. It’s hard to believe they are already old enough to go to school.” Wilmington added. “I also managed to get tickets for the Broncos exhibitions games in late August. I thought maybe we could take the boys, they would have a ball.”

Tanner grinned, “Yeah they would. I don’t think either one of them have ever been to a football game.”

“Then it’s a done deal.” Buck slapped Vin on the back and then returned his thoughts back to work issues. “So what do we need to do now?”

“Chris, Justin and Raphael have checked in, your surveillance is covered, mandatory refresher training is over, and we have a full day ahead tomorrow at the ranch. What do you say we try to get away from this place at a semi- decent hour? I don’t know about you, but these fifteen hour work days are playin’ hell with my love life.”

“Tanner, you read my mind.”

Sacramento, California

Millard Jefferies was certain that there was something big in the wind; he was just not sure what it was. His position with the State Police did not give him access to the files he needed to see. Hell, it not much, but it better than nothing.

He picked up the phone and called the Costa Mesa Police department “Lyle Jefferies please.” He waited to be connected.

“Captain Jefferies.”

“Hey big brother, I have some information you might be interested in knowing. The big brass is up to something and it’s big, I’m not sure what it is, but it’s going down on Monday and some fed agency is involved.”

“Which agency is it?”

“That’s just it, I never heard of this MCAT, but they seem to be calling the shots on this one. Sorry I can’t tell you more, but the brass is keeping a tight lid on whatever it is. I’m off this weekend, but I’ll be in early on Monday. If I hear more, I’ll call you.”

Lyle Jefferies narrowed his eyes and wondered what in the hell MCAT was up to now. “I’ll pass it on bro, call me if you hear more and next time I see you I’m buying the beer. See you later.” Captain Jefferies thoughtfully started at the phone after he hung up and then made a decision. He made his way up to the Chief’s office and walked in unannounced.

“Damn it Lyle, don’t you know how to knock?” Chief of Police William Blain was busy with a young blond and the intrusion was unwelcome.

“We may have a big problem, Bill.” Lyle waited for his boss to untangle himself from the young hooker that was servicing him.

“Fuck! Get you clothes on and get out, now!” He threw some money at the woman and waited until she was out the door.

“This better be worth it Jefferies! “ Blain zipped his pants and glared angrily at his Captain.

“One of my sources just called. I’m not sure what it is, but something big is going down here in California on Monday and MCAT is calling the shots.”

“MCAT is working in my state again? I guess they didn’t get the message the last time they were here.” Blain leaned back in his big leather chair. “Donner will owe me for this one, you go on home Lyle, and I’ll handle this.” The chief waited for Jefferies to leave and then called a number he had committed to memory.

Santa Ana, California

The Silver Slipper catered to urban businessmen, lawyers, doctors and professionals. It was over 12,000 square foot in area and was considered to be an upscale gentlemen's club that featured female strippers and dancers. Adam Carmichael and Creed Cortez were sitting on the cushioned chairs at the half mooned shaped bar watching the crowd. The club was packed with a rowdy bunch, waiting for the acts to change. Adam had no difficulty picking out the undercover vice cops in attendance, although he was certain they were on Donner’s payroll and no busts would be forthcoming. Carmichael was nursing a beer and a headache. The DJ had the music turned up so loud that he was sure they could hear it in LA, add that to the smoke in this place and he decided that the ache in his head would not be leaving anytime soon.

Ryan the bartender nudged Creed’s shoulder. “Boss called and said he wants you two in the back office, now.”

Adam downed his beer and sat the glass on the bar, “On our way.” He and Creed made their way through the crowd to the back of the club.

Before either of them had a chance to knock on Donner’s door, it opened and Willis rushed out almost knocking them over. Adam could hear Victor cursing and tentatively stepped into the room.

“You wanted us?” Creed said lazily.

Donner turned quickly toward them. “Damn right I do. Tell me about MCAT!”

Adam hoped that his face did not betray the shock that he felt. How in the hell does he know? The best that he could do was try and bluff his way through this and hopefully buy them some time. “MCAT?”

“Yes! I want to know what it is, who’s in charge and why in the hell they are fucking with my business!” The older man’s voice steadily escalated in volume.” Those sonsofbitches are coming into MY state and plan something big for Monday.”

”The only thing I know about this MCAT is it’s some kind of new government agency.” Adam said with a confidence that he did not really feel. He realized that somehow Donner had gotten wind of the planned task force activities and made a connection to MCAT. “I haven’t heard about anything going down, but I’ll keep my ears open.”

Willis had returned, whispered a message to his boss, and then he turned to face Adam and Creed. “You two are headed south. We have a shipment scheduled to leave out of Costa Mesa tonight. You will make sure no one interferes with it.”

“Give us the details and we’ll handle it.” Creed proposed.

“Details, you won’t need. Willis will connect you to the man in charge. Your job is to guard my men.” Donner answered. “Until I know what those bastards are after, I won’t take any chances.”

“Guard your men? What about your merchandise?” Adam asked.

Donner shrugged his shoulder. “My merchandise is expendable as well as stupid, but employees talk and make deals. Any law enforcement agency gets close enough to take any of my men down; your orders are to silence them…permanently.”

“Silence the law officers or your men?” Creed was certain he knew the answer, but wanted to hear for himself.

“Both,” Donner stated. “I hate loose ends.” Victor then ordered. “Go with Willis, he’ll set you up with what you’ll need.”

That last order dashed any hope that Adam had for making a phone call to warn Vin about Donner’s information on MCAT. Somehow he would have to find a way to get word to Tanner before it was too late.

Denver Colorado

Wilmington Home

“Daddy’s home!” Sarah saw him first, but Maria was hot on her heels as they ran to launch themselves at Buck.

Easily catching the little whirlwinds, he hugged them both. “You two were good for Mommy?

“Yesssssssss!!!” Maria squealed.

“The bestest,” Sarah assured. “We missed you Daddy.”

Buck hugged them tighter, “Not half as much as I missed all of you.” He looked up to see Inez watching them from the kitchen doorway. “Hello beautiful.” His words were few, but his eyes told her how glad he was to see her.

“I saved you some dinner, if you’re hungry.” Inez felt her heart rate speed up the way it always did when Buck walked into the room.

“I am, but first I want to tuck these two into their beds and maybe read ‘em a story or two.” Two ear-splitting shrieks told him that he had said the right thing. With Sarah riding on his shoulders, he swung Maria through the air like an airplane and made his way to their room. Twenty minutes and a half a story later both girls were asleep.

Slipping quietly out the door he was not surprised to see Inez waiting for him. Buck wrapped his arm around her waist and kissed the top of her head. “How is my little mama feeling?”

“Better, since you’re home.” Inez knew her husband’s work was important and necessary in this crazy world, but it did not diminish how much she missed or worried about him. The children kept her busy and she loved having a houseful, but still…Buck made her world complete. “Come husband, you need your dinner.” Leaning on one another they slowly walked to the kitchen.

“Baby, I have missed your cooking, it seems as if I have lived on burgers and pizza for a year.” Buck savored the home-cooked meal.

“Did you have a chance to speak with Vin about Caleb?” Inez had spent a great deal of time with the new addition to Larabee 7 and found him to be a delightful child. Having lived most of his life in either group or foster homes, he had learned to adjust quickly to new surroundings.

“Yep, and he agreed. We can take him shopping, when we take Sarah to get her school stuff. Then we can find the right time to talk to Vin and Kelli together. You haven’t changed your mind have you?”

“No, I want to do this as much as you do. Caleb is a wonderful little boy, and the Tanners are doing well with him, but he needs us Buck. I know that in my heart.” Inez was certain that their decision was the right one. “We have enough love in our life to include him and besides, with new baby girl coming, you need another male on your side.” The Latin beauty laughed. “Sarah and Maria already think he’s great and this way they can have the big brother they have always wanted and an adorable little sister to fuss over.”

Buck pulled her into his lap. “You darlin’ are an amazing woman, your ability to share love is my greatest gift. We are going to be the best damn family in the universe and have four beautiful children to share our lives with. Te quiero, Inez.”

“Te quiero, el marido.”

Well’s Ranch

Friday evening

JD stood in the doorway of the nursery and watched his daughters sleep. He smiled, Lilah slept on her stomach always, barely moving, but Daisy was all over the place. That was the way they were when they were awake, Lilah, was the peaceful one and Daisy was the one that you never knew what outrageous deed she would do next. God, he loved them with all of his heart and soul.

What JD could not understand was how anyone could hurt someone so innocent. But they do, the evidence you have been processing all week tells you that. How can I protect my angels from the ugly side of the world we brought them into? I can’t...someday they will have to face the fact that there really is evil, and sometimes it is found in the most unexpected places. Please God; show me how to make them understand when the time comes, protect them and keep them safe.”

Sweetheart, are you okay?” Casey had stood silently by and watched her husband. This was not the first time she had seen him standing at the doorway to the girl’s room, watching them but it was the first time she had seen tears roll down his cheek while doing it.

Brushing his sleeve across his face, JD answered in a choked voice. “Yes, I’m okay, I just…Casey…you think they already know how much we love them?

Casey slipped her arm around his waist and hugged him. “Baby, they knew that before they were even born.”

Jackson Home

“Rain you are not even trying to understand how I feel.” Nathan was almost hoarse from attempting to explain himself to his wife.

He had thought that out of anyone else that Rain would understand where he was coming from. She, alone, knew how hard it was to be an African-American living in today’s society. She had faced prejudices just like he had, and had thought that she would support him in his choice to become more active in African-American causes. He wasn’t just doing this for himself; he was doing it for her, for Terrell and any future children that they would have together. He wanted to make the world a better place for their children to grow up in.

“Oh I understand! You want to disregard a man that has been like a brother to you for over fifteen years and replace him with one that you have only spoken to four times in the last five years! Well, it’s not going to happen! Furthermore, if you continue with this kind of crazy talk, you may just be talking to yourself! Rain shouted back at him, fighting to control the tear that threatened to fall. She entered their bedroom and after throwing out Nathan’s pillow slammed the door, effectively ending their ‘conversation’.

Nathan picked up the pillow from the hallway floor, and moved back into the living room. He stretched out on the couch for the night, pulling the afghan on the back of it over him, and wearily closed his eyes. Tomorrow was a new day. Surely Rain would see reason by then, and the two of them could discuss things in a much calmer fashion.

Costa Mesa, California

Willis drove and they arrived in Costa Mesa before ten. Stopping in front of a warehouse, he cut the engine while looking at his watch and spoke the only two words he had uttered since they had left Santa Ana. “We wait.”

Twenty minutes later two trucks rolled up and the drivers exited to meet Willis. After a five-minute huddle, he motioned to the two to join him. “This is Carmichael, he’ll be driving the lead truck, the other one is Cortez he’ll take the second one. Now move your asses and get them loaded.” The first two men entered the warehouse and opened the large overhang doors.

“Alberto and Reyes will take care of the merchandise; you two drive and keep your eyes open for cops. Loose this load and Mr. Donner will not be a happy man. The only thing you need to know is that your destination is a border town called El Centro. You will overnight there and return tomorrow.”

“What about the merchandise?” Adam asked “Will the buyer be meeting us?” He hoped that they would be lucky enough to gather enough incriminating evidence against Donner quickly.

“You will leave the trucks with the keys inside at a location that Alberto will point out. A vehicle will be waiting for you at a local motel and you will drive back here tomorrow. I will have transportation waiting for you when you arrive.” Willis gave Carmichael a hard look. “Your job is to drive and not ask questions. I don’t particularly like either one of you, but the boss wants you so you’re here. That doesn’t mean that I trust you. Alberto and Reyes have their orders, too. You best not give them a reason to return without you. Usted entiende amigos’?”

“Yeah, we understand…friend,” Cortez scoffed and muttered something about Willis murdering the Spanish language.

Neither Carmichael nor Cortez were surprised that the merchandise was of the human kind. They were however shocked when Alberto had them to pull off the main road to a secluded area after two hours of driving,

Reyes simply grinned and said. “Hey we get to try out the merchandise, its not like we can ruin it or anything.” He pulled the back door open on the truck and yanked two young girls out onto the ground. “There more than enough to go around, so help yourself.”

Thanks, but no thanks.” Adam shook his head.

“Suit yourself.” Alberto and Reyes then proceeded to brutally rape the young girls in plain view of Carmichaels and Cortez. Before they were finished they had gone through four girls and made no attempt to hide their activities.

Creed was certain that he would hear those screams in his nightmares for years to come. Damn, he hated undercover work! He knew that if either of them interfered they would both be dead. They only way to stop this was to stop Donner and he vowed that one way or another that man was history. If they could get enough proof to prosecute him, if not…

Adam wrestled with his conscience. This seemed too much like a test of loyalty to interfere, it was as if that was what Alberto was expecting them to do. There was too much more at stake to risk overtaking them and having to explain themselves to Donner at this point. They had not been here long enough to gain the trust they needed to have access to information that would hold up in court.

There were only two things that Carmichael was certain of tonight. Some how he would find a way to warn Vin about the leaked information and that before this way over Victor Donner was a dead man, one way or another.

Larabee, there is no way in hell that you can walk away from this, no matter what the cost.

Chapter 30

Larabee 7 Ranch

Saturday ~ August 5

“Time-out Tanner!” Kelli stopped running and bent over with her hands on her knees to catch her breath. They were three miles into a four-mile run and she had had enough. Even though she knew he meant well she had to draw the line somewhere and this was it. She would follow Vin into hell in a heartbeat and not say a word, but the last two weeks had passed that description and he needed to realize what he was doing.

Concerned, Vin backtracked to where his wife now waited for him. “You okay Kel?”

Kelli straightened up and looked at the man that she knew so well. “Tanner, we need to talk.” She took his hand and led him to a place where they could sit for a while. “I love you and would do anythin’ to make you happy, but this has to stop.”

“What ‘this’ are you talkin’ about?”

She smiled and shook her head. “Vin, I didn’t say a word when you set up the additional trainin’ at work because I agree that we all need to stay sharp on this job. I also stayed quiet when you insisted that you and I train one on one in addition to that. But enough already, it’s not even six-thirty in the mornin’ and after an hour of great, but vigorous lovin’, a thirty minute workout, tendin’ horses, and runnin’ three miles, on top of a work week of twelve to fourteen hour days, ’m tired. We still have three energetic kids to face at breakfast, a day of movin’ Max, and a family dinner to look forward to. I do enjoy runnin’ with you in the mornin’s and it seems here lately that anytime we can spend extra time together is a windfall, but…”

“Kel, I hear you, but it’s important to me to make certain that you are prepared for whatever may happen out there. Especially after that incident at the mall, we were lucky…damn lucky and I…” Vin rubbed her back as he talked.

Kelli put her finger to his lips. “I know that and I was to blame for most of that.” She laughed. “I was carried away with being a regular mom and taking the time off work was enjoyable. I forgot somethin’ very important though and became careless. The job is always there and I should have been watchin’ closer, instead, I quit thinkin’ like a cop for a while and it almost cost me my life. It won’t happen again, I promise you, but I think I did okay and you have never complained that I was out of shape before so…”

“Hell, you’re not out of shape and I know that you are capable.” The Texan sighed deeply. “This case is gettin’ to me the same as it is everyone else and bein’ stuck in a waitin’ pattern for some action to start is hell. The more I learn about this syndicate, the more I tend to be apprehensive about the kind of people we are dealin’ with. Then havin’ to split the team between here and California…I don’t like it at all. My gut says that this one is gonna cost us before it’s over and I’m not prepared see someone I love get hurt again.”

“I know how much you care, and I do understand that you are concerned about Chris as well as the rest of us. Raphael may not be you, but he is good at what he does and he knows what’s important. Keepin’ his partner safe will be his highest priority and he’ll watch dad’s back. You did right by insistin’ on the mandatory workouts, but in-between your schedule of extra trainin’, this case, the kids, the move, and those damn shots Dr .Weeks has me takin’, you’re kickin’ my ass Tanner.”

Vin flashed her with a rascally grin and his blue eyes filled with amusement. “I reckon we could cut out the vigorous love sessions.”

“In you’re dreams Wise Eagle because that is not an option.” The redhead smiled. “We can though; cut our runs down to twice a week, relax our workout schedule and stay in shape chasin’ down kids instead. The drainin’ side effects of those shots won’t last forever and this case will end, eventually. You still want me to practice more defense moves, then we’ll do that in the bedroom and have a helluva lot more fun in the process.”

Vin stood and offered his wife a hand up. “You have a deal. I suppose I have been a bit obsessive here lately and I promise to let up. Besides I can think of better things to do with that sweet ass of yours that to kick it and there some new moves I can show you that we can practice in our bedroom.” The Texan slid his arm around her waist after patting her backside and they began to walk. “We’ll take a slower pace and go home, if the kids are up Walter may be lookin’ for a rescue.”

“If last night is any indication, Walt can handle the kids’ just fine. He did surprise me, because for a man that doesn’t have any of his own he had them wrapped around his finger with his Indian stories. His wild tales reminded me of the ones Jake use to tell.”

“He did at that. I like him and I hope he decides to take the job here on the ranch. I know you’d like for him to be around and I think the kids would too. Walter reminds me a lot of my grandfather. He was a soft-spoken man, but you knew you had better pay attention to what he said because when he talked it was usually about somethin’ important or profound and he wasn’t goin’ to say it twice. He was a firm, but gentle man that had a unique way of seein’ life and was able to convey that to me without lecturin’, but he could tell one hell of a story.”

Kelli heard the love in Vin’s voice and she knew that his grandfather’s spirit was still with him. She did not have to meet the man to know him. He had taken a young boy and helped to shape him into the man that stood next to her and he was a part of everything that Vin was. His grandson was now passing on the teachings he had learned to Jason and Andi with the same firm, but gentle hand that had taught him. “I think I would have liked your grandfather.”

“Grandfather would have liked you. “Tanner grinned. “He always considered a wild spirit to be a personal challenge and your spirit is almost as wild as mine was.”

“Was Tanner? You’ll never be tamed; your spirit is as free as the eagle and as wild as the raging river that spills down off the mountains. Your gentle, caring soul emits a healing spirit, yet beneath that is a fierce protector that I know will do whatever is necessary to safeguard the ones that you love.” Kelli leaned in and hugged him. “Don’t ever change Vin. Our circumstances in this like may alter, but it’s comfortin’ for me to know that Vin Tanner is and always will be the same man that I fell in love with.”

Vin answered her with a return hug and sighed. He recognized that to Kelli he was all of those things, but it was useless to try and explain to his redhead the power her words held over him, she could not or would not comprehend what having her in his life meant. Many years ago his grandfather had told him that one day he would rediscover two spirits that he had known in the past and that once reunited, one would strengthen his mind, and that with the other, his destiny in this life would be revealed. Chris was the brother of his spirit and certainly made him stronger mentally, but Kelli was the one that fulfilled his fate.You may be a raging river Tanner, but since Kelli came into your life you know where that river leads.

“Let’s go home, Texas.”


When the Tanners walked into their house they found that Walter already had breakfast started. The aroma of frying bacon made them realize how hungry they were and evidently had aroused the children from their sleep. The sound of running feet and giggles alerted the adults that quiet time was over and that three little ones were on their way in to meet the morning. Vin and Kelli grinned and hugged each child as they raced into the kitchen.

Walter laughed. “Now that is the best way I know of to start a day. I took the liberty of makin’ breakfast and if I may enlist some help from the junior crew here to set the table; we can eat in five minutes.”

Three little helpers went to work and within a short time breakfast was underway. Quickly mounds of bacon and eggs disappeared along with two pans of homemade biscuits.

“Dad, may me and Caleb be excused?” The young boys were ready for the outdoors.

“Caleb and I, and yes you may.” Vin smiled as the boys took off for outside.

“Mama, you play with me ‘til Sarah and Maria comes?” Andi turned her pleading blue eyes on Kelli. “I don’t wanna play boy stuff.”

“Tell you what baby, you go change into day clothes while I straighten up in here and then we’ll play ‘til the other girls arrive.” Kelli watched their little princess zip off to her room.

“Go on with her Kel, I’ll finish in here.” Vin saw her hesitate, but before he could say more Walter interceded.

“I’ll help Vin, it will give us a chance to talk about the ranch security.” Walter smiled, “Besides she won’t always be little, enjoy her while you can.” Kelli gave in and followed Andi.

“You have a beautiful family son. Don’t be like this old man and spend more time on your career than on the important things in life. I should have married and had a houseful of young’ns, but I never made the time. After ten years in the military, I discharged and went into law enforcement and then let it take over my life.”

Vin nodded, he had seen too many law enforcement officers let the job run them instead of the other way around. “We promised ourselves not to let that happen to us. Kel and I make time to be with each other and the kids. It’s not always easy, but it’s worth the effort.”

Walter studied the younger man in front of him. “Before I give you my answer about the job, I want to tell you why I’m interested in takin’ it. When I first laid eyes on Kelli she wasn’t much bigger than your Andi. When I saw her I was certain that even if she made it to the hospital alive that it was highly unlikely that she would last through the night, but mercifully I was wrong.” He stopped to compose himself and swallow the lump in his throat.

Tanner laid down the dishtowel and turned to face Walter. “I didn’t realize that you were there before she was taken to the hospital.”

“The preacher that found her called the police dispatcher. I happened to be close to the location and was the first one to respond to the call. Now, I had a military background, a few years on the force behind me and had my gold detective shield for three years. I thought I had seen just about everythin ’but…I tell you Vin, that child got to me right here.” Walter patted the chest area over his heart.

“She can still do that.” The Texan smiled. Walter reminded him of the mountain men he had heard so many stories about as a kid. However as tough as the older man appeared to be at first glance, Tanner had seen the gentler and compassionate parts unveiled when he spoke about Kelli or the kids.

“Anyway to make a long story short, I stayed with the case and spent a lot of time with that girl. I wanted to make things right for her somehow and could not give up. Not havin’ kids of my own I suppose Kelli is the closest I ever got to havin’ a child and bein’ able to see her now with her own family makes me feel good. Correspondin’ with her and hearin’ about how her life turned out is the only bright spot in my retirement. I’m not so much interested in the money Vin, because I do have a good retirement income, but I am lookin’ for a place to settle that I can call home and a family to share my twilight years with.”

Vin knew that Walter’s determination to stay on the case was the only reason he was able to find the answers that Kelli had needed to end her nightmares. He owed this man more than he could repay and had no problem making him an extended part of their family. “I reckon you found one Walter.” The Texan offered his hand. “Welcome to our family. There is a room downstairs with your name on it if you get tired of livin’ in that motor home.”

Walter took the hand that Vin presented, “Thank you son. In that case I accept the job offer and with your approval I’d like to talk to the ranch foreman and begin puttin’ together a plan to present to you and the others.”

“I’ll go with you and introduce you to George before I get started with helpin’ Max. Later today you’ll get to meet the rest of this wild bunch we call family.”

Vin and Walter walked down to the barns and found George. After introducing the two, Tanner moved on to connect with Buck and the other brothers that were already assembled at Max’s new place. They had just raised the door on the big u-haul truck and were preparing to unload when he walked up.

“Good timing Vin, we’re here and ready to get started.” Buck grinned. “We’re working on Max’s schedule and Miss Nettie is helping Gunny to make sure we stay on track. Rain, Mallory, Inez, Barbara, and Casey took all the kids up to your place.”

“I can’t lift, but I can lend you guys some moral support.” JD offered.

“Thanks JD, we’ll take it.” Nathan answered as he grabbed two boxes to take inside.

Ezra took two more boxes and sighed. “If JD is supervising then I suppose I am to be demoted to manual labor.”

Tanner grinned. “Hard work never killed anyone Ez, besides if you end up with achin’ muscles, ‘m sure Barbara can massage ‘em away with no problem.”

“There is that.” Ezra grinned back at Vin. He and Barbara had decided to wait until this case was over to announce their engagement, but she was moving in with him this weekend.


Inez, Kelli, Barbara, and Casey started on the dinner, the food would be slow cooked and the barbeque ready by the time the men finished unloading.

“Kel, how is Caleb adjusting?” Inez asked.

“He seems to be doing okay. He has always been in either temporary foster homes or a group house so he’s used to followin’ rules, but he needs more than that. Caleb needs the freedom to be a little boy and parents that will love him. I am tryin’ to get him to be more assertive though and ‘m teachin’ him a little Spanish. You know his mother was Hispanic so I though he should at least know the language. He’s smart and it’s easy for him to learn so he’s pickin’ it up fast. All in all he is a great kid, beautiful on the inside as well as outside.

“Caleb is a child that could steal anyone’s heart after only a few, minutes of spending time with him. I have a feeling that that child will have his own family before you know it.” Inez smiled and turned to work on the food preparations.

Outside, Mallory and Rain were watching the children play.

“Mal, are you doing okay with Josiah gone?”

“Yeah, pretty much. We miss him, but I know that what he’s doing is important. This case is affecting everyone in the unit in one way or another and I hope we have a good outcome with it.”

Rain huffed. “It certainly has made an impact on Nathan, especially since they found Caleb. I tell you Mal, I think that man is having a mid-life crisis or something close to it.”

“I know he was upset about Vin and Kelli taking Caleb, but I’m not sure that I understand why.”

Shaking her head, Rain sighed. “Nathan thinks he has sold out his black heritage. Caleb made him realized that there are too many little ones like him out there that are not learning about their history. He thinks that he has gotten too comfortable in the white world as he calls it and now he is determined to be active in programs that promote black heritage. With Vin and Kelli, it’s not that he doesn’t believe that they can be good parents, he knows they are. But he doesn’t think they can teach Caleb what he needs to know as a black child. He even wants us to change our will and list his brother as Terrell’s guardian instead of you and Josiah should anything happen to us. I haven’t agreed to it and I won’t. However the fact that he wants to list a brother that he only speaks to maybe once a year simply because he’s black, instead of a friend he sees almost every day that he has known and trusted for more than fifteen years says a lot.”

“Do you think that once this case is over that it will make a difference in how he feels?”

“I hope so, because it sure has put a strain on our marriage,”

“If there is anything I can do, let me know.”

‘Thank Mal, for now just keep your spare room open. If Nathan doesn’t become reasonable soon, Terrell and I might need it.”

“You ladies look as if you’re trying to solve all the world’s problems.” Casey commented as she and the others came outside to join Rain and Mallory.

“We were discussing MCAT’s current assignment and how it has affected everyone.” Mallory explained. “I think every agent in the unit is on edge.”

Casey nodded affirmatively. ‘You mean THE case, the one that has JD not sleeping and checking on the girls ten times a night.”

“The one that had Ezra become a jackass and try to run from our relationship.” Barbara added with a smile. They had worked past the harsh words that had almost cost them their relationship. Their future was now on solid ground and Barbara still had to pinch herself to believe that they were going to be married. When the time was right they would share with the rest of the family, but for now she was content and she was confident that Ezra would never try to shut her out again.

“The same one that has my Buck’s heart doing summersaults, and he’s not sleeping either. He wants to keep our girls within our sight twenty four hours a day until they’re thirty.” Inez sighed. “I’m worried about him. I’ve never seen him take an assignment so personal, unless it involves one of our brothers.”

“Vin is the same, he just hides it better. Chris insistin’ on going undercover and allowin’ the team to be split is what I think worries Vin the most. Not being able to be in two places at the same time. Knowin’ that Josiah is in California helps, but if he had a choice, he’d be there too.”

Two little ones approached the group and as Maria made herself comfortable in her mama’s lap, Andi did the same with Kelli. The ladies’ conversation quickly changed direction while the girls fought a losing battle to keep their eyes open. Two dark headed little Dunnes followed, Daisy climbing into Barbara’s lap while Lilah claimed Casey’s. Terrell and Adam were not too far behind, leaving Joanne, Sarah, Jason and Caleb on the swings.

“Vin did a great job on this playground, it is an amazing wonderland, seems there is something for every age child to play on. Whatever gave him the idea?” Mallory asked.

Kelli laughed. “Don’t you know that Vin is still a kid at heart? He wanted to make certain that no child would be left out, even the littlest ones. That’s why there is soft padded plastic around the sand box area and the smaller swings.”

A sudden flurry of activity from the other children signaled the approach of the men. Sleeping toddlers were shifted to the inside while the final preparations for dinner were finished. The move was successful and Max, Gunny, and Nettie soon joined the rest of the family. By the time the meal was served Walter was on a first name basis with the wild bunch. Afterwards he gathered with the brothers on the deck to discuss his plans from improving the security around the ranch.

Ezra was impressed with Walter’s ideas “I must say that using our existing personnel rather than bringing in more men is an excellent idea, not to mention cost efficient.”

“They already work here and I found that many of them have the necessary qualification to do the work that needs to be accomplished. Instead of several additional salaries, increasing their pay seemed to be the better option as well as least expensive. I’ll have the cost estimates on a security access gate for the front entrance, video feeds from all sections of the property, and alarm systems for the fence line for you on Monday.”

“That sounds good to me.” Nathan agreed. “I wouldn’t mind having you look at our home security system either.”

“Not a problem, and with your permission JD I’d like to include your fence line in that estimate. Chris did say that the Well’s place and Sanchez land were to be included. Correct?”

“Yep and Nettie has already agreed to comply with whatever needs to be done.” Once JD had explained that it was for the protection of the family she did not hesitate.

“Josiah already knows that you’ll be taking a look over their place, Mallory is expecting you. You might as well check our security system too while you’re at it.” Buck offered. “I think we’re set up well, but I want to know that we have the best available.”

“I reckon it safe to say that you’re on the right track Walter. Make a list of the things you want to implement and we’ll…” The ringing of his cell phone interrupted Vin.

“Tanner,” he answered. “Chris, what in the hell are you doing callin’ this number? ...Yeah, are you certain? …Got it…On it now…Watch your back pard.” Vin closed the phone and faced four sets of anxious eyes.

“We may have a problem.”

San Diego, California

Adam Carmichael closed his cell phone and signaled to Creed that their mission was accomplished. He felt better knowing that at least the team had an idea of what they may be facing and he trusted them to find a way around it. The last eighteen hours had been a living nightmare. There was a big difference from hearing these activities on pre-recorded tapes in his office and actually being there when it was happening.

You wanted this, you insisted on being here in the middle of it didn’t you? I supposed now you have to find a way to live with yourself when this is over. What? You thought that knowing that you were doing the right thing would make it easy? God! No one should have to endure what those girls are going through…and you had to stand by and do nothing to help them. That makes you no different than the ‘good folks’ that stood by and did nothing to help your daughter when she was trapped in hell.

Doesn’t it?

Chapter 31

MCAT office ~ Sunday ~ August 6 ~ Noon

It may have still been the weekend, but you would not know it from the buzz of activity in the MCAT unit. From the time that Chris’ call came in yesterday afternoon, the agents had been working to move their Monday takedown to Sunday. Coordinating with law enforcement officials in five other states, it was now past noon and the last of the details were coming together. Director Travis had joined Tanner and Wilmington in the war room and now stood looking at the huge map dotted with colored push pins.

“You have been in contact with each member of the task force?” Travis inquired.

“Rick was the last one to check in and California is now a go. We’re synchronized to serve all ten warrants at 5:00pm MST. “Buck informed the Director.

“Our team is ready to move, and will be in place before four. Denver PD is providin’ fifteen additional officers to help out. The hospital has been alerted to expect an influx of young people to examine and the counselors are on standby.” Vin continued. “As soon as the takedowns are complete we’ll have reports with fingerprints of all the recovered juveniles from the other nine sites and feed ‘em into CASSIE. She’ll compile and compare the results as well as help us locate some of the families of the kids.”

Travis nodded affirmatively. He knew his unit was prepared and had every confidence that Tanner would cover all the details. “I’ll be here for the duration, if you need anything. “He hesitated. “The minute you hear from Larabee, I want to know.”

“Yes sir.” Vin agreed as he watched Travis leave for his own office. Travis was not the only one worried about Chris. Tanner knew the risk he had taken to call him direct instead of going through Josiah. Larabees’ next check-in was tomorrow and the Texan was certain he would not relax until that happened. “Buck I need to follow-up on a few things. I’ll be in my office if you need me.”

“I’m good.” Buck observed the younger man walk out. He knew Vin well enough to know that something was bothering him and Wilmington wished he knew how to help him. Chris would know. His eyes searched the room and saw that Kelli was also watching the young Texan retreat to his office.

Kelli had just hung up the phone when she saw Vin come out of the war room. Most anyone that saw him would think that the laidback Texan was in complete control, but she knew better. The telltale signs of his stress were there if you knew what to look for and she did. Ninety percent of their time the work environment complied with their rule of keeping a professional relationship here at the office. However there were times that it was just not possible and Kelli Coulter, agent, lost out to Kelli Tanner, wife. Hesitating only briefly she rose and followed him to his office, entering without knocking.

Vin was sitting at his desk staring off into the distance. She walked up behind him and began speaking as she massaged his shoulders. “I just talked to all the kids. Caleb said to tell you hi, and Jason and Andi send you their love. While Max is fixin’ lunch I think Walter has them as well as Joanne and Adam mesmerized with his tales of the old west.” She felt him lean back into the massage and sigh. “You know that dad is tough and it takes a helluva lot to stop Chris Larabee. He would not have made that call unless he knew it was relatively safe.” She continued to rub his neck and shoulders and was pleased to feel some of his tense muscles relax.

Tanner reached up and took one of her hands and squeezed. “I heard somethin’ in his voice Kel, somethin’ I didn’t like. I’m not sure what it was, but I do know that whatever is goin’ on out there has him more uptight than I’ve ever heard him. Normally I’d agree with you about how tough he is, but the last year has been hard on Chris, emotionally as well as physically. My gut says he may not have been ready to go under on an assignment that is this volatile.”

“Once he had made up his mind, do you think you could have stopped him from going?”

The Texan thought about it before he answered. “No, but he’s too damn stubborn for his own good sometimes.”

“There is an entire unit out there that is dependin’ on you to direct them and they deserve your full attention. Vin, ‘m not tellin’ you not to worry, because I know you will, but Chris is not in there alone, and Raphael will back him, no matter what. However, if you gut says Chris is in danger, pull him out, if not have a little faith, and don’t let your uneasiness about not being close enough to read him, eat away at you.”

“You always manage to cut through to the heart of things, don’t you?” Vin tugged on her hand and pulled her around him and across his lap. “You’re gonna make me break my own rule about our work relationship, too.” He gathered her closer and claimed a gentle, reassuring kiss before asking. “Does your husband know that you fool around with your boss?”

Kelli laid her head against his chest and sighed contently as he held her. “Maybe, but then he is an understandin’ man. Of course, he’s only human though and he does have his limits.”

Vin kissed the top of her head. “Thanks for remindin’ him.” He then swatted her backside. “Now, it’s time for Agent Coulter to get back to work.”

“Whatever you say Captain,” Kelli grinned and Vin helped her to her feet.

Sunday ~4:55pm ~August 6

Buck and Vin would be the first ones through the door to serve the arrest warrant for Keats and his three men. It had been determined that there were five paying clients inside and once the suspects were in custody the uniformed officers would sweep the lower floor before they moved upstairs. Selina and Kelli would follow the uniforms and hopefully be the first ones to come in contact with the girls upstairs. Paramedics were on standby down the block and would move in closer when the all clear was given.

Tanner checked his watch and then spoke into his headset, “All units standby.” Silently everyone prepared to move in from their assigned positions and waited for the next signal.

A nod from Wilmington five minutes later had Vin issue the go ahead. Three of the men on their wanted list were captured easily, lounging around the foyer. Keats tried to make a run for it and with Tanner right behind him; he foolishly made a grab for a hidden gun.

“Give me a reason!” Tanner yelled as he leveled his sidearm at the man’s head.

Jonathan Keats saw his own death in the agents’ eyes and wisely decided not to take hold of the gun. Throwing his hands up he dropped to his knees and surrendered. Vin handcuffed him and passed him over to another officer. After being read his rights, he was taken and placed in the backseat of a waiting patrol car.

“First floor clear,” Buck shouted and they moved on to the second floor.

Chaos reigned as half-dressed, middle-aged men tried to run and young girls screamed. The men were quickly taken into custody. Coulter and Cordova moved forward to confront the girls while Tanner and Wilmington covered them as a precaution.

“You are not under arrest, but I need you to remain where you are and stay calm.” Kelli instructed in an even tone. “We are here to help you. Please sit where you are and wait until we clear this floor.” Several young girls huddled together, not comprehending what was happening around them.

Selena found three more girls in other rooms and assisted them in dressing before she brought them out. Kelli had coached her about how to talk to the victims and what to say. She spoke softly, but firmly. “Sit here and try to remain calm.” Cordova rejoined Coulter.

Kelli looked at the twelve frightened young girls in front of her and wished she could make this easier for them. However, there were certain actions that had to be taken, and information that was necessary to collect. “My name is Kelli and this lady is Selena. She, along with two other police officers, is going to ask each of you to give them your name, age and family information if you know it. We want to try to get you home. Medical care is available to those of you that may need it and you will be fingerprinted for identification purposes only. But I need you to look around and make sure that everyone is here. If there is anyone that you know of that is not, please tell me.”

At first no one made a move and Kelli was sure they were too scared to say anything. Then one of the youngest girls spoke in a low voice. “There…there’s a room…for the sick ones.”

“Where is this room?” Buck asked, trying not to let his anger show.

The girl looked up and whispered, “Attic.”

Vin was already looking for a way up and he found a concealed entrance in the hallway ceiling to an attic crawlspace. Pulling himself up into the darkened area he turned on his flashlight to find three seriously injured children. Moving closer he kept his voice clam and soothing. “We’re gonna have you out of here before you know it. Don’t be afraid ‘m a police officer and pretty quick some people will be here to help you.” His stomach knotted when two of the girls pulled even further away, the third one was too still and he knew that they were too late to help her. He decided not to add to their fear and eased himself down from the opening.

“Buck, we need the paramedics in here, and tell ‘em to send the female ones only. Call Bones and have him and the forensics crew come in too.”

Keying in the radio, Buck felt his heart contract. He was aware that it had always been a possibility that they might not be here in time to help all the children, but he had hoped they would not have to face finding any of them dead. “Mark, send up the female paramedics and tell Bones we need him.”

While Wilmington radioed for the medics to move in, Vin went back to the other room and whispered to Kelli. “Move these girls downstairs; I think one of the ‘em in the attic is dead.”

Kelli paled slightly, but followed orders. “Okay, we’re gonna go downstairs and then we will take a trip to the hospital. There are doctors there waitin’ to help you.” Watching their eyes as the girls slowly began to move broke her heart. There was pain, distrust and a loss of innocence in those eyes that they would never recover.

MCAT Office ~ 11:30pm

Buck stood up and stretched as he reached over to pick up the last page of his report from the printer. He and Vin were the last ones left in the office, since he had sent everyone else home for the night. The day had been an emotional rollercoaster and he was relieved that the waiting was over and the takedowns were finished. No agents had been injured here or at the other nine locations. However, now came the hardest part of piecing back together the lives of two hundred and seventeen juveniles that had been rescued from the hell they had been living in. He knew that it would be at least another twenty-four hours before he had all the reports in his hand, but he did have enough preliminary information to know that it had been a successful day for law enforcement.

A quick rap on Tanner’s office door and Wilmington walked in handing him his report before he sat down. “That’s the last of mine. I expect to have the rest of them sometime tomorrow, but prelims look good. Two hundred seventeen juveniles in protective custody, thirty-two arrests were made, twenty-one computers confiscated as well as a total of over a quarter of a million in cash.”

Vin placed the report with the others on his desk. “Kel and Selina are on their way over. The girls are settled in for the night and the counselors are staying with them. Except for the two in ICU the others were released from the hospital and Bones will have a report for us tomorrow on the COD of the one that didn’t make it. I also want you to make certain that JD has access to those other computer hard drives to feed the information into CASSIE.”

“JD will be here at six in the morning and already has made arraignments with each state involved to connect with their computer expert. As soon as the last interview is finished at each location our people will return to Denver and we’ll be working with Jed Alders to put our case together for the U.S. Attorney.” Buck sighed. “I’m just sorry that we didn’t find anything on Danny yet. I had hoped...”

“It’s too early to give up Buck; we may still find a lead on his whereabouts. Your task force did a terrific job and you should feel good about what was accomplished.” Vin was aware of how Buck was involved emotionally with these kids and wanted him to see the bigger picture. “Hell, you have enough work now to keep y’all busy as beavers for the next few weeks. Enjoy the moment of victory Buck, we don’t get enough of ‘em.”

“You’re right. All in all it has been a day to chalk up to the good guys.”

There was another rap on the door and Kelli came in with Selina. “Hey.” She set a stack of papers on Vin’s desk. “Last interview completed and all the medical reports on the girls.”

“So what do we have?” Buck picked up one on the reports.

“Fourteen females’ rangin’ in age from eleven to sixteen, with the exception of the two in ICU, most of ‘em are in fair health, but there are a few that will need some follow-up. One of ‘em tested positive for pregnancy. Five other girls tested positive for assorted types of STDs. We have full statement from all twelve, and seven of ‘em were able to give us information about family. The others either couldn’t or wouldn’t.” Kelli consulted her notes. “Nancy Donaldson....Carmen Johnson...David Wallace... and Sandra Edwards are all qualified crisis counselors and will be workin’ with ‘em over the next few days or weeks if necessary. We left them safe and secure for the night and we’ll check on ‘em in the mornin’.”

Buck stood up. “I’m gonna crash in the lounge for a while, you guys staying or going home?”

“We’re stayin’, I already talked to the kids and they don’t expect to see either of us ‘till tomorrow night.” Vin answered for himself and Kel. “Selena you can go home or if you want, or you can use the couch in Chris’ office for the night.”

“Thanks, I believe I’ll stay.” Selina answered.

“I’ll point you in the direction of a pillow and a blanket and then you’re on your own. See you two in the morning.” Buck escorted Selina out of the office.

As soon as the door closed Vin stood up, offered his hand to his wife, and initiated the hug that they both needed. “You okay baby?” Vin held on tight, letting some of his tensions drain away. No matter how bad it was with work, Kelli had the power to reach through the worst of it and lighten the load on his shoulders.

“I reckon I will be. It was hard hearin’ their stories Vin. What they have been through…” Kelli shivered.

“We’ve done all we can do Kel. At least now they have a chance they didn’t have before and it’s up to them whether they make good use of it or not.” Tanner rubbed her back. “The kids sent their love and there is a nice hot shower waitin’ through that door that has your name on it. There are cold cokes in the fridge along with a salad if you’re hungry. Then we’re gonna curl up together on that couch and for a few hours forget what we’ve seen today.”

Kelli hugged her Texan. “I’m not hungry for food, but that’s the best offer I’ve heard all day.” She handed him her gun to lock in his desk with his.

“Hit the shower, baby and I’ll finish up in here.” He patted her backside and urged her to move toward the bathroom door. Vin knew that she needed a few minutes to come back from the world she had just left. Kelli wanted to make a difference for those young girls and felt good that she could be proactive on this case, but it still wore on her emotions.

Vin put her gun in the drawer, shut down his computer and then walked over to lock his office door. Next he flipped off the ceiling light, leaving only one soft desk light to illuminate the room. By the time he had the couch ready for the night and had undressed, Kelli emerged from the bathroom with a towel in her hand and wearing one of his shirts.

Tanner took the towel and had her sit on the couch in front of him while he worked to dry her wet hair. Vin always enjoyed doing this for his redhead, it was relaxing and it put him closer to his favorite person. He leaned down to kiss the back of her neck and grinned. “This keeps up Coulter and your husband is bound to find out about us.”

Kelli turned to face him and teased. “I am certain that he already knows that ‘m in love with you.” She slid her hand through Vin’s hair and pulled his head down. The sizzling kiss that followed left both of them breathless and the growing need between them was more than physical.

“Now that you mention it ‘m damn sure that he knows I love you, too.” His hands gently caressed her hips and pulled to him. Tomorrow they would start over and face the ugly side of their work again, but tonight called for a spiritual cleansing that the beauty of their love offered. “But you’re right, he is an understandin’ man.” Tender touches soon gave way to reckless passion and the workday was forgotten, at least for a while.

Santa Ana, California ~ Midnight

Carmichael and Cortez had been back in town less than an hour. As soon as they stepped into the club they could feel the prevailing tension in the air. The music was still deafening, the patrons were half-drunk and boisterously enjoying the show, but something was different. Making their way to the back of the club to Donner’s room, the feeling was stronger and when they reached the door of his office there was no doubt about the source of the disquiet.

Creed opened the door and they both ducked to miss the flying projectile that crashed into the wall over their heads. Victor Donner was on a violent rampage and the air was blue from his raving expletives. Most of what he had to say made no sense, but several words stood out to the two men that had recently joined the organization. “MCAT… retribution… Larabee…regret.”

Adam looked over at Willis, Donner’s right hand man and calmly asked. “What in the hell is wrong with him?”

“I’ll tell you what’s wrong!” Donner yelled. “Those fucking MCAT agents meddled in my business and now they have started a war! They think they have me, but they will never connect me to anything with their pathetic efforts to bring me down. However, I will bring every one of those bastards to their knees before I’m finished with them! Obviously Larabee didn’t receive my previous message and now he’ll wish he never heard of California!”

“You’ve tangled with Larabee before?” Adam asked. “I’ve heard he can be a tough bastard.”

Victor laughed. “Not tough enough. I warned him when I went after his agents, and he didn’t listen. Now he’s made this personal!” Donner turned to Willis. “I want everything you can find on MCAT, how many agents, all about their families, where they live, hell I want to know what they eat for breakfast! I also want specifics on Chris Larabee, their so called commander. That man just cost me millions of dollars and years of work, I want him to suffer. Call Zimmerman, he should be able to help. What good does it do to have the FBI on you’re payroll if you can’t get details on another government agency?”

“You want to order a hit?” Willis asked.

“No … not this time. I think I want Larabee to watch his family and agents suffer. If they die quickly he won’t feel their pain and I promise you that man will rue the day he interfered with my business.” Victor was still livid about losing ten of his money-making operations. We’ll start with that redheaded bitch that killed my men, she’ll make a good addition to my enterprise and I’ll take care of breaking her in myself! I also want to know how many other females work for MCAT; they can start replacing the bitches I lost. Get on it now!” Donner ordered

Although Carmichael was not surprised to hear Wills confirm that Donner ordered the hits on his agents he still felt a surge of anger bolt through him. When he thought about what Victor’s answer implied a chill ran down Adam’s spine recalling the treatment the girls received from Donner’s men. He caught Creed’s look and realized that both of them were having the same thoughts about the female agents on their team. The unit evidently had been successful in bringing down a large part of O’Mara enterprises. He was relieved to know that Vin had heeded his warning and made it happen, but now he had to find a way to inform Tanner about Donner’s plans.

“Whatever we can do to help you, we’re ready.” Adam stated. He knew that the risks had just compounded for him and Creed, but he had to be in a position to know what Donner was doing. All he could do now was pray that Victor did not make a connection between Chris Larabee and Adam Carmichael.

“You and Creed will work here; I’ll take care of MCAT myself.” Donner dismissed them with a wave of his hand. “Get out of here, I have plans to make.”

Chapter 32

Costa Mesa, California

Wednesday ~ August 9th

Jonah Drake stood on the dock of the warehouse and stared out at the streets of Costa Mesa, but his mind was in Denver, Colorado. Ten days was such a short time on the calendar, but the dynamics of his world had changed dramatically. His primary thoughts were on Mallory, Joanne and Adam, he knew that his brothers would move heaven and earth to keep them safe, but there were always unforeseen issues that could breech even their watchful eyes.

Billy Ray Hackett seemed to be moving in the right direction. Chief Blain had assigned Billy Ray to be his personal driver. Slowly information was beginning to come through about the corrupt dealings of the Costa Mesa Police department. That should have made Jonah feel good, however it only accentuated how truly alone he and his teammates were out here. Now it was certain that there would be no backup to count on from local law enforcement. Even without the foreboding warning from Adam Carmichael, Billy Ray’s last report indicated a great deal of unrest with the local PD. MCAT’s involvement in taking down ten trafficking houses had indeed stirred up a hornets’ nest.

Carmichael’s message was perhaps the most disturbing. Nothing good ever came from vengeance and retribution, but that appeared to be the path that Donner was taking. MCAT was the target of that hatred and that meant that Jonah’s entire family was in the line of fire. They were in Colorado and he was here in California, helpless to assist. He said silent prayers for them and for Vin Tanner, the man that would have to lead them safely through dangerous territory.

“Jonah … Mister Drake?” Nancy Harding tried again to get her boss’ attention.

Returning from his mental trip to Colorado, Jonah shook his head to clear his mind. “Sorry Nancy, you caught me daydreaming. What do you need?”

Nancy smiled, “It is a beautiful day, isn’t it? I just need your signature on this inventory report sir.”

Drake took the clipboard and scrawled his name across the bottom. “There you go.” Jonah took one last look towards the east and then he went inside.

Santa Ana, California

Creed Cortez thought that he had seen too damn much in his years with the DEA, but what he had witnessed since coming here was enough to give him nightmares for the rest of his life. He was finding it difficult to separate the images of his daughters and granddaughters from the ugly scenes that had played out over the last few days. Young girls that should be home playing with dolls and being safely tucked into to bed by loving parents were forced to perform perverse sexual acts that no child that age should even know about.

Splashing water on his face, he caught a glimpse of his reflection in the bathroom mirror. How long can you stand by and do nothing, before you lose what little control you have left? Damn it, why in the hell couldn’t Donner send them to Colorado instead of playing bodyguard for his merchandise. Those sick bastards of his that move these girls should be castrated! Shooting was too good for them! He heard movement in the other room and knew that Adam was awake.

Creed entered the room while drying his face on a towel. “You okay?”

“Hell, I may never be okay again!” Adam growled. “It’s bad enough that Donner kept us here, but another night like this last one and I’m gonna have to kill somebody.” Last night had been the worst so far. The ‘merchandise’ was much younger than the previous group had been and it was gut-wrenching to watch the atrocities that were happening to those children. The only thing worse was to know that Donner planned the same for the women that he loved and being here in California there was not a damn thing he could do about it. Staying here was something he had to do; no matter what was going to happen or who disagreed with it. The only problem was he had no idea why or how far how was willing to push it.

“We had better find some tangible evidence on this bastard soon or I can’t promise that I’ll remember which side of the law I’m supposed to be on.” Creed had seen more than enough.

“I hear you, but… I know I didn’t leave you much choice when I told Jonah I was staying, but if…”

Cortez was already shaking his head. “You’re in and so am I, end of story. We’ll do this together and come hell or high water we’ll find a way to take that sonofabitch down or if the worst happens, drag him into hell with us.”

“I just wish to hell I knew what was happening in Colorado.”

Donner’s Office ~ late afternoon

Carmichael and Cortez responded to the summons their boss had issued. Victor Donner was in much higher spirits than he had been yesterday and welcomed them with a smile.

“Good Afternoon, gentlemen,”” Victor greeted them. “I trust that you rested well.”

“Well enough, “Adam answered casually.

“Good, I have another assignment for you. O’Mara Enterprises has several diverse operations and I need your assistance with one south of the border. In light of recent events, I find it necessary to concentrate on quick cash merchandise verses long term. I will be sending you both to Oaxaca, Mexico to pick up a package. You’ll fly down tonight and return Friday night, simple. Manuel will be your pilot and he will give you the details once you cross the border.”

“This package, what is it?” Cortez asked.

“Do not concern yourself with small matters at this point in time. Do your jobs well and perhaps you will earn yourselves a promotion in my organization. Be prepared to leave after midnight.”

It did not take a genius to figure out that quick cash and Mexico meant drugs. Adam felt like a traitor. He was relieved to be sent away from the live merchandise, but it would take them even further from whatever was going to happen in Colorado.

“Willis gonna tag along?” Adam had not seen Willis and he was certain that he was the man that Victor would send to deal with MCAT.

“No, this will be your assignment only. Willis and a few of my associates are on their way to Colorado to take care of some business for me. I will expect you both to join me for a late supper before you leave. That will be all for now.” Donner dismissed them from the room and his thoughts.

Adam did not like this turn of events, yes the drug part of this operation had to stop, but it was the trafficking that was his priority. Two days in Mexico would not bring them closer to finding the physical proof they need to tear down that part of Donner’s business. He looked towards the exit and with a slight tilt of his head, indicated for Creed to follow him outside.

Once they were clear of the club Carmichael began speaking. “I don’t like this shit. You know what he wants us to do in Mexico.”

“Yeah, but unless you think we’re in a position to pick and choose what we do I don’t see that we have a choice.” Creed pointed out.

“That doesn’t mean I have to like it.” Adam retorted. “Let’s find a place that we can call Jonah and inform him that we will be out of the country.”

Adam made the call while Creed covered his back. “Jonah Drake, please.” He waited for his call to go through.

“This is Jonah Drake, how may I assist you.”

“Hell, I think we’re beyond assistance. Just wanted you to know we’ll be out of the country until late Friday or early Saturday. I’ll have to call you sometime over the weekend.”

Jonah leaned forward in his chair. “I have a message for you. Abort and come home.” The return silence on the line was not reassuring.

Finally Adam answered. “No can do. We’re staying.” He hung up before Jonah had an opportunity to argue with him. Vin, take care of the family and try to understand.

Josiah sat and stared at the phone. He knew that Chris was a tenacious man, but he did not think he would disregard an order that clearly was issued for his protection. He dreaded the next call he had to make. Vin Tanner would be furious when he found out that his order had been ignored and that the risk to his brother’s life had just multiplied tenfold.

MCAT Office ~ Thursday ~10:00am ~ August 10th

Josiah had relayed Chris’ message on Monday and the last one from yesterday, but they were no closer to answers now than they were then. Chris could only tell them that all of MCAT was targeted, especially the women and to take every precaution. Mallory was sent home to stay with Adam and Joanne until further notice. Kat and Pam had a daily escort to and from work and Vin was keeping close tabs on Kelli, if he couldn’t be with her he made certain that Buck, Nathan or Ezra was. Justin’s family left yesterday to stay with relatives in Florida per Tanner’s direction and Walter was working to implement the new security measures for the Larabee 7 as well as to protect the Sanchez and Well’s property.

The task force had pulled together all the reports and over half of the juveniles rescued were already with their families. Both girls that were in the hospital were improving, and the rest were in the processes of being relocated. The U.S. Attorneys’ office had filed charges on all the men arrested and were confidant that they had strong cases to take to trial. Additionally the officers that were loaned to MCAT from the Denver PD had returned to their previous positions and MCAT would handle the remainder of the work.

The entire MCAT unit had been on high alert status since Larabee made his call, and everyone’s patience had vanished. Wilmington and Standish were in Tanner’s office and the tensions were running high.

Buck threw down the report in his hand in disgust. “There is NOTHING in this shit to connect Donner to any of these operations! Not one shred of physical evidence to bust his ass on. We KNOW he ordered the hits on Ezra, JD and Kel. We KNOW he was behind the trafficking of those kids and we KNOW he is planning to hit us again. But we can’t touch the bastard! You’re the man in charge Tanner so act like it and abort this op before it blows up in our face.”

Vin stopped pacing and yelled. “No shit! I don’t like the way things are any better than you Buck! Hell, you think I want to keep Chris and Raphael in there knowing that Donner is actively searchin’ for information on MCAT. It’s just a matter of time before he realizes that he has Chris right in front of him and when he does it’s gonna be too late for us to help ‘em!”

“Pull him out Vin! You leave Chris in there and he dies, it’s on you head!” Buck yelled louder. “Call it! We’ll get Donner another way!”

“You think I haven’t fuckin’ tried! Lar’bee refuses to back down and acknowledge that particular order! That hard-headed sonofabitch is determined to stick it out ‘til he finds proof that will nail Donner, even if it kills him! In the meantime I have to deal with the angry women in this unit. It seems they don’t like having full-time babysitters any more than Gunny or Judy, Travis is all over me for answers, and ’m workin’ around the clock tryin’ to stay ahead of this bastard. Now you wanna ride my ass and tell me how to do my goddamn job!

Tanner’s cell phone rang and he grabbed it. “TANNER! I kinda in the middle of …What? Is she fuckin’ out of her mind! ... I AM NOT YELLIN’!” Vin took a deep breath. “I’m not yellin’ at you Kel… I know it sounds like it… NO! ...I’ll handle it …Hell, I don’t know…I’ll just add it to my growin’ list of things to do!” Vin closed his phone and sat down. One look at Ezra and Buck and he knew they were waiting for the next shoe to drop. “Linda decided to come home, seems she’s tired of arguin’ with the Dubois family so now she’ll be spendin’ her time and energy arguin’ with me “

“Why would she argue with you Vin?” Ezra had been silent during the heated exchange between Buck and Vin.

“Hell Ez take your pick. Findin’ out that she has to be restricted to the ranch, not bein’ able to get information about Chris, or maybe the fact that she couldn’t get in the goddamn gate when she came home since Walter changed it to an access code entry. She didn’t know the damn code because she’s not supposed to be here yet. Accordin’ to Kel she spent twenty minutes on the phone catchin’ hell over it.”

Buck sat down too. The more he thought about Linda and the gate, the funnier it became and soon he was trying to stifle his laughter.

“You find somethin’ amusin’ Bucklin?”

“Yeah, I was tryin to picture that conversation between Linda and Kel. I’d bet it was loud on both ends.” Buck sighed and then turned serious on the young Texan. “I’m sorry Vin, I know you’re doing all you can, it’s just damn frustrating. Chris needs to be reminded that you were put in charge for a reason…to avoid this, but I know how stubborn he can be. So now what?

Ezra laughed. “Well I think Vin may have to do some damage control with Kel. She’s already not thrilled with being watched everywhere she goes and now he yelled at her on the phone.”

“The last time I yelled at Inez that way, it took me a month to work my way back into our bedroom.” Buck agreed. “Our ladies can be a bit prickly and headstrong at times.”

Vin sat silently wrestling with his conscience. He knew that he had been hard on Kelli the last couple of days. His temper had been short and his apprehension about her safety had him snapping at her constantly. He had worked three days straight because he felt the weight of responsibility was his alone, but he really didn’t have to do everything himself around here. Finally he made a decision; he needed to get away from this office for a while. “Buck set up a meeting for four o’clock in the war room, we’ll go over where we are, and then see if JD can pull anythin’ else from those hard drives. Ezra, you call Linda and explain why she can’t leave the ranch and let her know what we authorized Walter to do.” Vin stood up to leave. “You two try and keep a lid on this place ‘til I get back.”

“Where are you going?” Buck knew the answer to that question, but asked anyway. Vin had not left this office since Josiah’s call came in on Monday, he needed to recharge and that was something he could not do here.

“I’m gonna follow Kel to the ranch, leave her truck there, spend some time with the kids, and then ’m takin’ my wife to lunch.” Vin smiled. “It’s not gonna take me a month, Bucklin.”

Once Tanner was out the door Ezra looked at Buck and grinned. “I doubt it takes him more than a few minutes to make amends.”

“You’re probably right, but he needs to unwind and spending some time with Kel and the kids will help. Now if the rest of this mess was that easy to fix, we would be in fine shape.”


Tanner walked out of his office and quickly scanned the room. He knew that everything that could be done had been done and that he could do nothing more except wait for Donner to make a move. For now though he needed fresh air and some time with his wife.

Kelli was taking her frustrations out on her keyboard, which made it difficult to finish the work in front of her. Cursing under her breath, she was so intent on beating up the defenseless letters and her poor mouse that she did not see Vin coming.

Without warning he was leaning over her shoulder and whispering in her ear. “Shut that down, grab your keys and come with me.”

Although she was still irritated with Vin for yelling at her on the phone, not going with him was never a consideration. When it came down to it, she would go with him anywhere, anytime, no questions asked. “One minute.” Kelli shut down her workstation, took her keys from the drawer and allowed Tanner to escort her to the elevators.

Wordlessly Vin punched the down button and waited for the doors to open. Once inside he pushed LL to take them to the parking garage, still holding on to Kelli’s arm as the elevator began its descent. Somewhere between the ninth and tenth floor he reached over and hit the emergency stop, the small elevator car came to a halt and in one fluid movement he pulled Kelli to him and shrouded her with his body, claiming a leisurely kiss that seemed to go on forever.

Kelli leaned into the strong arms that held her and sighed. Vin had the power to touch her soul effortlessly and he was unquestionably the love of her life. He was her Texas sunrise and he made each day they had together special. He may irritate her occasionally with his stubbornness, but there was no way she could stay mad at this man, not now or ever.

Vin felt her sigh and read the signs of surrender in her movements. The last three days had been hell, and his energy had been depleted. Five minutes in an elevator with this woman made him feel like a new man. Kelli may not realize or acknowledge the affect she had on him, but he knew. Hell, just holding her gave him the strength to take on the world, and loving her brought out the best in him. His hands made on more pass over her body before he said, “Reckon we should get this thing movin’ baby, before they try to ‘rescue’ us.”

With her head against his chest listening to his heartbeat Kelli mumbled. “Do we have to?” Lord she had missed him the last few days.

The Texan chuckled, “Yeah we do, but ‘m gonna follow you home, spend some time with the kids, and then ‘m takin’ you to lunch.” He reached over, hit LL again, and they began to move. Reluctantly they separated before hitting the eighth floor, where they were joined by two other people.

The lady standing in front of Tanner questioned. “Is there trouble with the elevator?”

“No ma’am. I lost somethin’ and stopped the car deliberately in order to retrieve it.” He grinned when he saw Kelli smile. “Everythin’ is fine.”

MCAT Office

Ezra rubbed his temples to ward off the headache he was developing. Linda Larabee was not a happy woman and had spent the last ten minutes letting him know it. She took exception to being restricted to the ranch and was extremely upset that Standish would not tell her anything about Chris.

“Linda, I assure you that Chris knows what he is doing.” Ezra crossed his fingers as he spouted that dubious statement. “I will relay your message to him, however at this time it is unadvisable for him to attempt to communicate with you. In the meantime Walter will assure your safety as well as all of the Larabee 7, Sanchez and Well’s property. Please be patient and I promise I will keep you advised of the situation.” He said goodbye and sighed as he hung up.

Buck heard Ezra’s end of the conversation and it was not difficult to fill in the other side. “You’re a braver man than me, Ez. Let’s just hope that she doesn’t find out that Chris is staying under after Vin ordered him and Raphael out.”

“Amen to that.”

Parking Garage

Tanner was still grinning as he and Kelli walked out the exit doors toward their vehicles. They had almost reached her truck when he heard someone call his name. Turning he saw Selina Cordova walking over to them.

“Captain Tanner, I was on my way to your office to speak to you. Do you have a minute?”

“Hello Selina, I was on my way out. Is it urgent?”

“Not urgent, hi Kel, but it will only take a few minutes. I wanted you to look over my application to join the MCAT Unit. Could you make certain I have everything necessary?”

Vin was somewhat surprised by her request, not because he was against it, but that he didn’t see it coming. Selina was young, but was also a damn good officer. She was her father’s daughter after all and the strong principles that Raphael possessed had been passed on to her. “I can look at it, but I can’t promise you a position.”

“I know it’s a long shot, but to even be considered would be an honor. I have several recommendation letters and a copy of my work record as well as my education transcripts. However, I wasn’t sure what else might be required.”

Tanner took her application and then looked over at his wife. “You go ahead Kel; I’ll only be a couple of minutes behind you.”

“Okay, I’ll see you at home.” She kissed him on the cheek. “Bye Selina and good luck.” Kelli climbed into her truck and started the engine while Tanner spread Selina’s application papers out on the hood of his Tahoe and began to review them.


Arthur Willis had been surprised to find that somehow MCAT had been alerted to an impending threat to their female agents. Later, he would have to find out just how they knew. Watching the redhead pull out of the parking garage, he waited to see if one of her bodyguards would follow her. When no one else exited, he started the engine of his rental car and merged into the traffic behind her truck.

Picking up the two- way radio that lay on the front seat beside him he keyed it on. “Team one Subject is on the move, headed west on Sherman Avenue, looks as if she is headed out of the city. Prepare to intercept.”

“We’re good to go on this end.”

“Make it happen and don’t fuck this up.”

Keying in the radio again, he order “Team two, you have your assignment, wait for your best opportunity and then move in.”

“Affirmative, sir.”

Willis sat back and relaxed as he made a right turn to go back to the hotel. He had hired some of the best men available for this job. All he had to do was to wait for them to report their success.


Vin looked at his watch and cursed, Kelli had left over fifteen minutes ago and he was still here in the parking lot. “Damn! Selina, I’ll make sure Chris sees this when he returns, but I should have left ten minutes ago.”

The Texan was pushing the speed limit and chiding himself for being so paranoid, with only the morning traffic it would not take that long for her to make it home. Kelli was fine and he was worrying over nothing. He would feel better though when he had her in his sight. He pushed #1 on his cell phone and waited for her to answer.

“I’m here Tanner.” Kelli answered.

“Where is here?” Vin relaxed when he heard her voice.

“Hmmm... ‘m comin’ up on exit 73 I think…yep, one more exit to the frontage road.”

“Take the lead out of your boot and slow down. I’m ten minutes behind you.” Vin laughed, Kelli had two speeds when she drove…fast and faster. “Slow can be a good thing you know.”

“Slow is only good when you’re around and then it’s fantastic. You want me to stop and wait for you?”

“You don’t have to stop; just try not to break any land speed records ‘til I catch up.”

“I’ m takin’ the exit to the ranch road now Vin. Traffic is clearin’ out and …damn! It looks like the county is doin’ some road repairs up ahead. Guess I’ll have to slow down.”

For some reason Vin had an uneasy feeling and was about to tell her to stop and wait for him when she spoke again.

“It’s not that bad; they put up a helluva lot of warnin’ signs for a small patch of rough road. I’m turning on the road to the ranch now, another fifteen miles and ‘m home. Be careful when you hit that rough road though, it looked like there were a few big holes and yes I did manage to avoid ‘em.”

“Stay on alert Kel, I ‘m not that far behind you now and keep our phone connection open.” Vin’s uneasy feeling was intensifying and a few minutes later when he hit the road construction’ it went on a rampage. Where Kelli had passed only minutes before with no problem, the road was now barricaded. Tanner switched to four wheel drive, went off road and around it, picking up speed.

“Kel, how many workers were on that road crew?”

“Two, I think. Why?”

“Because now there are none and the road was closed off. Be ready for anythin’.”

“I am. Are you… Vin, there’s a green SUV coming up behind me pretty fast and …oh hell! ...” Kelli had been busy watching behind her and when she looked forward again, there was another SUV in front of her. She saw the brake lights come on, but was traveling too fast to stop. Quickly she turned the wheel, hoping to avoid a collision…

Vin heard Kelli scream moments before the crash and then silence ensued a moment before their phone connection was lost. He immediately called Buck as he raced to get to his wife. When Wilmington answered Tanner began to rattle off a string of orders.

“Buck, we’ve got trouble! Call 911 and get them out to the ranch road, eight-mile marker, ASAP. Call Walter and have him tighten the security at the ranch. Bring at least five agents and get your ass out here too. Kel’s had an accident and I believe she had some unwelcome help with it. I’m almost there now.” Tanner threw the phone down on the seat. Five minutes baby…hang on.