Chapter 33

MCAT Office

Buck Wilmington wasted no time with explanations; he quickly stood and began shouting instructions. “Vin’s in trouble! They’re out on the ranch road, near the eight mile marker.” Several agents rose in unison, and started to follow him toward the bank of elevators. “You can’t all go; someone needs to stay here and look after things. Pam, keep our line of communications open. JD, you’re in charge here. Call 911, and then the ranch; instruct Walter to lock it down.”

Wilmington wasn't sure what was happening, but he thought that it was best to prepare for anything. He yelled back at JD. "Also have the forensics unit on standby. Nathan…”

“Already done Buck,” Jackson had his medical bag in his hand and was two steps behind him.

“Ezra and Paul, you’re riding with me. Ross and Mark, you two are with Nathan, let’s roll.” Once the six agents had reached the parking garage, they wasted precious little time piling into the two vehicles. Buck took the lead in his truck, with Nathan’s SUV right behind him; both vehicles sped out of the garage with lights flashing and sirens screaming.


Hans and Broderick had a job to do. Willis had been specific, grab the woman and make certain she stayed alive to hand over to Donner. Collect one-hundred- thousand dollars and be on their merry way. Hans however had plans of his own, he would deliver her to Donner, but not before he had some fun of his own.

“Remember, Willis said she would probably be armed. Look for a gun, I don’t want any surprises.” Broderick instructed.

“Who in the hell do you think you’re talking to? It’s not like I’m new at this.” Hans answered incensed at his partner’s patronizing attitude. He hated working with this jerk, but for this kind of money he would work with Beebe the clown. “I'll get her gun; there won’t be any damn surprises.”


Kelli was certain that she had avoided hitting the truck in front of her. However, she felt the impact from the rear that threw her into the steering wheel, as her Chevy Avalanche slid across the road. Why did it seem as if the world was moving in slow motion? The rock facing that bordered the curve of the road was moving toward her and upon impact crushed the front of her truck with no difficulty. All motion and sound ceased for a moment and then the silence was broken by several earsplitting pops as her world turned white.

I can’t breathe! God make it go away, it’s everywhere…pressure …eyes…Lord they burn…I know what that is….air bags…I hate those things! Who’s shouting? Vin? No, that’s not Vin. Leave me alone and let me stay here please, my head hurts too much to move. That hurts, don’t pull, NO!

Unknown hands roughly grabbed at Kelli, pulling her by the hair, and dragging her away from the cushioned air bags. When her left leg refused to budge from where it was caught under the console, she heard a long string of obscenities echo through her head from what seemed far away in her dazed state. Although she didn’t recognize who was doing the cursing, Kelli could make out that there were two distinct voices.

“Hurry up damn it!”

“Shut the fuck up, Broderick! This ain’t exactly easy getting her out of here!”

“Come on bitch, move!”

Confusion reigned inside her head momentarily, but then her instincts kicked into overdrive! They were screaming trouble! Whomever, these men were Kelli’s intuition was telling her that they weren’t there to help her. She began to fight her ‘rescuers’ with a vengeance once they had freed her left leg and dragged her out of the vehicle. Nothing she was doing to fight them was working as it should.Think Kel think!

“Whoa! This one is a fighter. Donner will like that.” The man holding her cackled, his stinky breath perfuming her face for a moment, making Kelli’s stomach roll in response; at the same time she felt a thread of fear slice through her as she recognized Donner’s name and knew that these men had been sent by him…and why.

“Hans use the goddamn tranquiller on her already and let’s get her into the truck before somebody comes along.” Kelli heard the other voice tell the man holding her irritably.

She had only a moment of thought to digest his words, before she felt a sharp prick to her arm and felt the rush of something warm enter her veins. A new wave of panic fled through her as her body began to feel the effects of whatever drug they had injected her with start to work.

Vin! She screamed wordlessly, knowing that her husband couldn’t hear her, but couldn’t refrain nevertheless. She tried to remember how much time had passed since she had last heard his voice on the other end of her cell phone and prayed that he would get there in time to rescue her.


Tanner’s Tahoe careened down the exit ramp and around the curve onto the road leading to the ranch. Two minutes was all it took to get to the eight-mile maker, his truck sliding to an abrupt halt as Vin slammed on the brakes. He was out of his SUV, with his gun in hand, before the vehicle finally stilled. Quickly he surveyed the heart-stopping scene before him with mounting fury.

Kelli’s truck was lodged against the rock wall with two other vehicles surrounded it. His glinting blue orbs zoned in on the man, whose filthy hands were slowly dragging his wife away from the wreckage of her truck, and toward another vehicle a short distance away. Kelli was attempting to fight him off, but was not being very successful at it, and that alone told Vin that either his wife had been badly injured in the wreck or something else was impeding her movements.

Another man stood a couple of steps in front and to one side of the man that was holding a struggling Kelli. Both men’s attention left the woman that they had come to kidnap, and focused on the longhaired young man whose vehicle seemed to have materialized out of nowhere.

“Let her go.” Tanner’s voice was lethal as he stalked toward them, his movements strung tight with barely controlled rage.

Kelli’s heart gave a familiar tug as she recognized Vin’s voice, and raised her dizzy head up to see him stalking toward where she was being held, leaving himself open to be killed by her abductors. Frantically she tried to think of anything that she could do to offer her husband some sort of aide in taking the two men down. She knew that as long as she was in danger, that her Texan’s thoughts wouldn’t be focused on protecting himself, only on reaching her.

Hans, the man dragging Kelli toward his vehicle, gave the redhead a vicious tug that jerked her body before his in a way that he could use her as a human shield. “I don’t think so Cowboy; this whore is mine and I’m keeping her.”

He brought both of his hands up on either side of Kelli’s body and sliding his hand inside her shirt, ripped it open and then crudely touched her to emphasize his statement. “We’re gonna have our own private party before I deliver her to my boss.” The repulsive man who held her might not know it yet, but Kelli knew that he had just signed his own death warrant when he had dared to touch her in a way that was reserved only for her Texan.

Tanner never ceased in his approach, as he took in the lowlife scum that was manhandling his wife. His stride was steady and calculating, and his gun hand did not waver. “Then I reckon that you’ll have to die, but… first things first.”

Vin shifted his aim onto the other man that was holding a gun on him, and pulled the trigger of his weapon before he had even finished the sentence. He felt nothing at all, but the cool inner calm that settled over him every time he shot a weapon. He felt no remorse, only certainty that his bullet had pierced the man’s heart. Broderick was dead before he hit the ground. Nor did Tanner feel any satisfaction in the killing, only relief that he had neutralized one threat against his wife and then he directed his attention back onto the man that held Kelli.

“Now it’s your turn.” The Texan stated as he continued his advance.

Hans watched in disbelief and anger as the longhaired man had aimed his gun at Broderick and pulled the trigger without hesitation. Who in the hell was this guy? He raised the weapon he had confiscated from the holster on the redhead’s belt.

“That is close enough! One more step, and she dies.”

Kelli felt the muzzle of the gun press into the back of her already aching head. She fought against the waves of pain and nausea that assaulted her, and tried to center her attention on the deadly situation playing out in front of her. Vin was there, and she knew that she should find that comforting, but she didn’t. All she could focus on was the fact that he was alone, wasn’t wearing a vest and yet he still advanced toward the man that held her. Distantly she heard sirens and knew the cavalry was on their way, but if she didn’t pull herself together enough to help Vin, they were going to be too late.

Tanner stopped less than eight feet in front of Kelli and the man that held her. It seemed to him that it had been hours since he heard Kelli‘s scream over his phone, but in reality it had only been minutes. He risked taking his concentration off the man with the gun momentarily, and for the first time he glanced at his wife. Expecting to see a mixture of pain, fear, and confusion in her eyes, Tanner was surprised, because if anything he saw a flash of anger.

Kelli caught Tanner’s eyes with her slightly unfocused ones and knew that Vin was trying to tell her something, without actually coming out and saying anything that would tip off the man holding her hostage. She took a breath and let it out slowly, feeling it chase away the dizziness for a moment and kept her eyes trained on her husband, sure that if at all possible he was going to give her some sort of sign.

“You should have minded you own business, mister, not come in here like some damn avenging angel of death. Now throw down your gun unless you want to watch this bitch die.”

Several thoughts raced through the Texan’s mind, but the one that stood out the most was the trust he had in Kelli’s instincts; even injured he knew that she would understand what he was going to do.

Kelli’s eyes followed Tanner’s movements as he complied with the man’s commands. One boot shifted ever-so-slightly back on its heel, at the same time Tanner’s right elbow went back and his hand up as he dropped the gun onto the ground at his feet and waited.

With the threat seemingly gone, Hans relaxed his hold on Kelli and moved his gun to direct it at the young interloper. The man laughed. “That was right smart of you boy, but unfortunately for you it not gonna save your life.”

The moment he raised his weapon to shoot Vin, Kelli’s fear for her husband’s life, gave her a fleeting burst of adrenaline to fight the drugs in her system. She stomped back on the man’s foot with her heel of her boot, and then brought her right elbow backwards into the man’s solar plexus as hard as she could. Following the movement upwards with the last bit of strength she could muster, she swept the man’s gun arm up as the weapon discharged. The shot went wild, but Tanner was already in motion. He propelled himself across the short distance that separated them and tackled the man struggling with his wife.

Kelli found herself falling forward toward the asphalt as her husband and her abductor rolled back and forth on the ground, each one of them struggling to gain control of the gun that Hans still held in one hand. Franticly grabbing Vin’s gun off of the ground she precariously rose to her knees and aimed it at the struggling pair with trembling hands, attempting to cover her Texan.  

Tanner worked his fingers up to the gun and managed to grab onto his adversary’s thumb, easily snapping it. Hans let out a shriek as pain flooded through his hand and he dropped the weapon onto the ground. The moment it fell, Vin released his right hand's hold on the man’s arm and began to pound his fist into his opponent’s face. Hans struggled to defend himself from the Texan's furious blows, and managed to bring one hand up to grasp hold of Vin's throat and began to squeeze. 

Vin had no choice but to cease his ferocious pounding of his opponent's face, and bring both hands up to grapple with the tightening hold Han's had on his throat. Spots began to dance across his eyes as he started to pass out from lack of oxygen, and knew that he couldn't allow that to happen. Hans took the advantage, lifting one foot up into Tanner’s mid-section and sending the Texan flying backwards onto the ground. Tanner was momentarily stunned from the impact of his body hitting the ground, and couldn't move from the lack of oxygen in his lungs. Hans scrambled to his feet, and lunged onto the man that had killed his partner, and interrupted their fun. However; he underestimated the Texan's abilities to defend himself and keep his redhead safe.

As Hans lunged onto him, Tanner’s self-preservation kicked into overdrive, and his years of extensive military and martial arts training, rose to the surface.  He brought his arms up across his chest to block the blows that Hans aimed at his chest and face, while bringing up one knee to connect with the other mans' groin. The move sent Hans crumpling off of him in severe pain, and allowed Tanner to regain the advantage.

It was Vin's turn to lunge at the man who had so lasciviously attacked his wife, and show him just how serious a mistake he had made. But he didn't expect the man's fingers to fumble over the butt of the gun, which lay on the ground next to them, and only Vin's quick response, kept him from being shot. He drew the bowie knife that he wore on his belt, as Hans brought the gun up and aimed it at him. Vin then plunged the blade up to its hilt in the man's chest and gave it a savage twist.

The gun fell to the ground from the man's lifeless fingers, a moment before Hans himself, crumpled to the ground with a look of abject surprise on his face.

Tanner stood, a little unsteady on his feet, but basically all right. It was finally over and the threat to both of them was now gone. They had survived, albeit a bit banged up in the process, but alive. He turned in time to see Kelli on her knees, slowly sagging to the asphalt. Vin rushed over to her and caught her in his arms before the rest of her body could connect with the road. The sound of screeching tires and blaring sirens assaulted their ears and announced the arrival of the other MCAT agents.

“Talk to me Kel, and tell me how badly you’re hurt.” Vin began to assess her for injuries as Nathan, Buck and Ezra reached them.

“Jesus Vin, what in the hell went on out here?” Buck asked. “It looks as if you had your own private war.”

“Later Buck, Kel comes first.” Tanner answered without looking up. “Nathan, ‘m not sure what’s wrong, but she was in the truck when it crashed and then treated pretty rough by that bastard over there.”

Jackson knelt down by the two Texans. “You’ll have to let her go Vin so I can look her over for injuries.”

Kelli burrowed deeper into Vin’s hold on her. “Don’t wanna move. Check Tanner.” Her speech was slurred and obviously she was not thinking straight. Nathan could not check either of them until one of them moved. It seemed that was not forthcoming voluntarily by Vin or Kelli.

“I’m fine Nate.” Vin insisted.

“No you’re not! You are … in big trouble Tanner. As soon as … I feel better; you’re catchin’ hell for a week …at least.” Kelli’s words contradicted her actions; she clung tightly to Vin and refused to budge an inch.

Vin could not help it, he had to smile. He would gladly listen to her raise hell twenty-four hours a day and be grateful to hear it. “I’ll be lookin forward to it baby. But you have to admit that we made a damn good team.”

“There is that…I don’t feel so good Vin and ‘m co….cold. Make everythin’ stop spinnin… please.”

An exasperated Nathan had heard enough. “You two can talk later! But if she goes into shock you might not have a later. Ezra get me some blankets, Vin you’re gonna have to let go of her. Kel, I need to know…”

“Head hurts really bad ... don’t think anythin’s broken, just banged up all over… ribs ache and my leg was trapped…they …gave me a shot of somethin’… not sure…” Kelli voice trailed off.

“Vin, do not let her go to sleep! Buck, see if you can find a syringe or anything that might tell us what they injected into her.” Nathan took the blankets that Ezra handed him and covered Kelli. He gave up trying to make her move. He figured that she already had told him enough to know that she needed more medical attention than he could give her out here. “Where in the hell is that ambulance?’

Ezra was on the phone before Jackson had asked the question, and then reported. “There was a horrific bus accident about twenty miles from here and all local ambulances responded to it. There is one en route from the hospital now, but it will be another twenty minutes before one can be here.”

Wilmington ran back with an evidence bag in his hand. “I found this syringe by Kel’s truck and another one unused in one of the other vehicles.”

“That’s good; at least the doctor will have something to go on.” Nathan took the bag from Buck.

“Buck, you take them to the hospital in Vin’s Tahoe. I’ll take care of things here.” Ezra took charge. “Go! We’ll get your’s and Nathan’s truck to the hospital, besides you drive faster than any of us.”

Tanner was already on his feet, carrying Kelli to his truck. Nathan opened the back door and helped them inside while Buck jumped into the driver’s seat. As soon as Jackson was in, he took off. Nathan called ahead and informed the hospital that they were coming in and what to expect. To the amazement of his brothers, Vin kept a steady stream of one-sided conversation going for the next twenty minutes to keep his wife awake.

“Damn, I didn’t know Vin could talk that long outside of a meeting.” Buck noted to Nathan as they drove up to the emergency room doors.

“Me neither.” Jackson jumped out and opened the back door to assist Tanner.

To no one’s surprise Dr. Gilford was waiting for them and took over immediately. He did not even bother trying to get Vin to leave the examination room because he knew that the Texan would not go.

Doc gave the bag that contained the syringes to his assistant, Dr Brian Allen. “Run to the lab with it Brian, I want results ten minutes ago.” The sooner he knew what they were dealing with the better.

“Okay Kel, what did you get yourself into this time?” Dr Gilford teased.

“Wasn’t me, that bastard Donner did it.” Kelli was fighting to stay awake.

“You certain it was him, baby? Vin questioned, he had assumed that Donner was behind this, but since both men were dead they had no proof.

“That’s what that idiot said. Doc, check on Vin, ‘cause I wanna go home….need a shower.”

“We’ll see about that.” Dr Gilford began his examination.


Two hours later Ezra entered through the emergency room doors and found Wilmington and Jackson pacing in their ever-familiar waiting room. “I take it that we have no news as of yet?”

“Hell Ez, I haven’t even seen Vin since we got here. What have we got?” Buck stopped pacing.

“Forensics has taken over the scene. I drove your truck in and Ross will be along shortly with Nathan’s. Perhaps we should wait for Vin before we go over the details.” Ezra suggested.

“Nathan, can you…?” Buck motioned toward the closed examination room door.

“I’ll try.” Jackson started to leave the waiting room when Dr Gilford appeared and had them sit down with him.

“Gentlemen, Vin asked me to come out and explain to you what is happening. First off Kel, she has a concussion and with the sedative cocktail that she was injected with we have had a few challenges. However, I believe we now have that under control. There are no broken bones, but she does have a swollen left ankle, due to a pressure injury, assorted contusions, and one hellish headache. That could continue off and on for a few weeks given the drugs involved. Fortunately, it appears that the drugs were premixed and stored in sterilized packages according to what was found on the scene. Exposure to the HIV virus or hepatitis should not be a concern.

I am allowing her to go home in a few hours, with strict instructions and signs to watch for. She was lucky, her injuries could have been worse, and Vin has convinced me that home is the best place for her. I understand that Dr. Jackson lives close by and a nurse is available.”

“Yes, and we’ll make certain that your instructions are followed.” Nathan assured.

Dr Gilford laughed. “I’m sure you’ll try, but with two patients it will be interesting to see how successful you will be. At Kelli’s insistence, I examined our Mr. Tanner and Vin has one very sore rib and a couple more that may give him some grief for a while. I have ordered him to rest for the next twenty-four hours; of course I am certain that he will not follow my instructions. He said to tell you that he would be out in a few minutes to talk to you. Nathan, I will give you the scripts and the information that you’ll need.” Dr. Gilford stood to leave. “Good luck; I have a feeling your going to need it. Call me when you require reinforcements.”

”Ezra began to give Buck information from the investigation. “Preliminaries indicate that one of our deceased suspects was shot, by whom, we don’t know yet.

“I’m sure Vin can explain.” Buck snapped. “Ain’t no way this will go down as a bad shoot!”

“You’re right Buck.” Vin walked up beside Wilmington. “Donner sent those two to kidnap Kel and they would have eventually handed her over to him, if they had gotten away. One of ‘em held a gun on me while the other bastard had her own gun at the back of her head, drugged her and made his intent to sexually assault her clear. I shot the sonofabitch that had the gun and … I killed the other one, too. It was justifiable, end of story.” Tanner’s words did not hide the anger that he had been holding back around his wife.

Buck looked Vin over and for the first time noticed the bruise on his face and swollen knuckles. “You okay?”

“Kel’s safe, I’m alive, and the two bastards that were after her are dead. Yeah, I’m good”

Vin was ready to change the subject and issue a few orders. “I talked to Travis; neither of us believes that Kel was the only target. Donner’s men are probably still in Denver linin’ up their next prey. Orrin is moving his family to an undisclosed location and we are givin’ Judy two weeks’ paid leave. Our jet is on standby to take her to New York. She will stay there with some of her family until we call her back. The plane will also be available to any family member of an MCAT agent. Our office is closed until Monday. I want to know where every agent, and their families, is twenty-four hours a day.

“Buck, you find out where and with whom they will all be. I want all our families sequestered on the ranch until further notice, also make arrangements for Mallory and the kids. Ezra, talk to Barbara and see if she can take some time off work. We’d like y’all to come and stay with us for a while. JD and Casey will stay with Linda, that way he can use Chris’ CASSIE station to keep working. It took some convincing’, but Nettie will stay there, too.

Nathan, I want you to call Josiah. Tell him when Chris checks in to relay a message for me. Adam Carmichael is to contact me directly, ASAP! If he doesn’t I’ll go in and personally drag his ass out of there.”

“It appears that the accident was a set-up. The first vehicle was a diversion and the second one rammed Kel’s truck and sent her into a slide and off the road.” Ezra stated. “There are still some unanswered questions.”

“We’ll go over it all, but first I’m taking Kel home. I want our agents’ secured, and then you can take both our statements.”

Oaxaca, Mexico

Goddamn, stupid sonofabitch!” Adam Carmichael yelled and he was in severe pain. One of the helpers Donner had provided for them on their trip to Mexico had thrown a crate on the truck with such force that it shattered, wood splinters were sent flying in all directions, like small missiles. One large piece of wood was imbedded in Adam’s forearm and blood was spewing from the wound.

“That looks bad; we should get you to one of the local clinics and have a doctor look at it. You’re probably going to need stitches.” Creed wrapped a towel around Adams wounded arm.

“Great, we’re stuck in Mexico instead of somewhere we can do some good. Our idiot help incapacitates me, and now you want me to see a doctor that probably doesn’t even speak English. Then I am supposed to trust him to take a needle and thread to sew me up. This day just keeps getting better and better.” Adam growled. He had been on edge for the last few hours, his gut was saying that things were not going well at home and it would be tomorrow before he could call Jonah to find out what was happening in Denver.

“Relax, the good news is we’ll finish this job early, get out of here and be back in Santa Ana by tomorrow night. There’s a clinic a few blocks from here and I’m sure we can find someone to put a few stitches in that arm. I’ll translate for you and we’ll be back before we’re even missed.” Creed led him over to the jeep they were using and once he was seated they took off to the clinic.

It only took ten minutes to get there and Creed did all the talking. Adam sat down and waited for the doctor to clean his wound. A young Spanish woman came in and gave him a shot before the doctor began sewing the injury.

“Tetanus or antibiotic? Adam questioned, aware of the normal routine for injuries such as this.

Creed laughed, “You’re kidding right? They don’t worry about tetanus out here and antibiotics are hard to come by for these small clinics. They use what they can get. That was a shot to dull the pain while he sews you up.”

Adam flashed back to a familiar feeling and warily asked. “What was it?”

“Don’t worry amigo; it was just a dose of Demerol.”

Chapter 34

Denver Memorial Hospital

Buck had been a busy man making arrangements for families and checking on agents. Mallory took Adam and Joanne to the Wilmington home at his insistence. He had Max take the Tanner children over there too, knowing that Vin as well as Kelli needed some time alone before they saw the kids to decide just how much to tell them about what had transpired. He knew they did not want to lie to them, but they did not want to scare them either. How could they explain to the children and help them understand when even the adults could not fully comprehend the mentality behind the acts of a man like Donner?

“Inez, I know it’s a handful darlin, but…” Buck did not have an opportunity to finish.

“Nonsense, Mal should be here and the kids are all fine. Besides you know I love having them here, Caleb and Jason are no problem and Andi fits right in. You do what you need to and don’t worry about us.” Inez could hear the concern in her husband’s voice.

“Love you baby.”

Wilmington looked over his list; he had full itineraries from every MCAT agent. All were accounted for and ordered to remain on high alert status. Greg Ramsey was staying with Pam and Kat at the apartment the women shared and Buck had a patrol unit posted outside their building. Ross Anderson sent his family to visit with relatives and he had confirmed that Justin’s family was safe and sound in Florida. Selina assured her former boss that she and her sister were okay and that they had their own contingency plan to follow when Raphael was on assignment. Gunny was on her way to Max’s house, and Judy was in route to New York.

Closing his notepad Buck looked toward the examination room. Despite Vin’s best efforts. Dr. Gilford had not released Kelli yet. Tanner may not like it, but Wilmington had appointed himself personal bodyguard to the two Texans and would stay with them until they were safely home.

Ezra sat down next to Buck. “JD has moved his family to the ranch house. Bones said to tell you that and I quote ‘This old man can take care of himself.’ Mark, Ross and Paul are working on securing Larabee 7, with Walter and will assist him until Monday. I convinced Linda that she could be more help there than running down here. She is on her way over to help out Max with the preparations for dinner. I fear that Vin and Kelli will have a houseful of well-intentioned family members before this night is over.”

“I think you’re right about that.” Buck laughed. “It’s good that they carry extra clothes in their truck. At least they have a chance to cleanup and change before they get home. I suppose it’ll be up to us to make sure the crowd disperses early enough so that they can get some rest.”

“Most assuredly, but I have confidence that we are up to the job. Now however, I am on my way to meet Barbara. She is taking a few days off work, and is home packing as we speak. We are going to bring in extra supplies and will meet you at the Tanner’s before six. Is there anything else that you require?”

“Thanks Ez, but I believe we have everything covered. Since you are taking care of getting my truck home, we’re good. As soon as the doc springs Kel, we’ll be heading out, too.” Buck shook his head and sighed from exasperation. “Damn I hate this; it feels as if we’re going into hiding and I’d much rather hunt the bastards down!”

“Taking precautions with our most precious possessions is not hiding. We simply need time to regroup in a safe environment and to plot out our next strategy.” Ezra laid his hand on Buck’s shoulder. “Once we are certain that Chris and the others are out of harm's way, we can become the aggressors and ‘hunt the bastards down’ as you so aptly stated. I shall see you shortly.” Standish left the hospital. He was uneasy about the recent turn of events and earnestly hoped that Vin could convince Chris that it was time to pull out of O’Mara Enterprises and come home.

Nathan closed his cell phone and muttered something about hardheaded women before turning to Buck. “I finally convinced Rain that she was not needed here. She is on her way over to Vin’s house now and will not rest until she sees for herself that they are both okay. I did fill the prescriptions, but I doubt that either of them will take the pain medication… the muscle relaxants, maybe.”

“Were you able to reach Josiah?

Yes, and he sent back two messages of his own. One was to thank you for taking Mal and the kids to your house. Two was to tell Vin that it could be Saturday before Chris checks in, and he would only tell him to call. He felt that Vin should be the one to let him know what is happening here.”

“Thanks Nate, you can head on out and I’ll handle it from here. See you at home.” Reluctantly Jackson did leave.

Thirty minutes later a tired Tanner finally emerged from the examination room with a worn-out Kelli.

Buck stood up to meet them. “You two look like you took a slow ride through hell, it a good thing that I’m driving.”

“Thanks Bucklin, that is exactly what it feels like.” Vin was glad that Buck was there, the adrenaline rush from earlier was long gone. “Let’s get out of here; you can fill me in on the way home.”

Friday ~ August 11 ~3:00 am

Oaxaca, Mexico

Tossing and turning in his sleep, Adam was trapped in a nightmare. He saw Alberto and Reyes struggling with two little girls that were fighting the men that held them. One was blond and the other had red hair, their screams pierced his soul as he tried to reach them. Kelli! Grace! God, not them, too! Victor Donner held him and callously laughed when he screamed for the men to release his children.

As he struggled against Donner he saw the two children begin to weaken and then Alberto grabbed little Grace and slammed her to the floor while he began to undress. The scene in his mind changed and he saw a four-year-old Kelli standing in the corner, staring at him. Her words though cut him deeply. “You should have stopped them. Why didn’t you? You can’t help me, it’s too late, but you need to rescue Grace, she’s just a baby, they’re all innocent. Please make them stop!”

Adam sat straight up in bed and gasped in air. Sweat poured off him and as his eyes began to focus, he realized that he was still in their rented room in Mexico. It was just a nightmare! Get hold of yourself! Grace is fine and Kelli survived. The throbbing pain in his arm reminded him of his injury. That doctor had given him some pain pills, but he threw them away. Don’t want them and don’t need them.

Another evil voice from his past whispered. But you do want them, you want to sleep and make the nightmares go away, don’t you?

Throwing the covers back, his feet hit the floor. He remembered throwing the pill bottle in the trash can, grabbing it; he dug and found the bottle that held the pain medication. All I need is two, just to make the nightmares end. Opening the bottle he took two small capsules and held them in his hand.

“You okay?” Creed’s sleepy voice drifted from the other side of the room.

“Yeah… I…I’m okay.”

Cortez stretched. “Damn, I guess we should be up anyway. That plane will be ready to fly us out of here before sunrise. You want the bathroom first?”

“No, you go ahead.” He waited until Creed shut the door behind him and studied the pills in his hand. Is this what you really want to do, Larabee?

Tanner Home ~ 4:00 am

Pellets of water bounced off the ground as the rain fell; Vin listened to the distant thunder, and watched the magnificent lightening display Mother Nature was providing. He stood by the sliding glass door to their private bedroom patio, and tried to shake the feeling of unease that had settled over him. He had been up and dressed for the last hour. The disquieting events of yesterday had left him with an underlying anger that he was trying hard to control. Last night he had barely held onto that rage until everyone left, and by some means he and Kelli had made it through explaining her injuries to the children. Giving their statements to Ezra about the attempted kidnapping was over, but he could not get the image of that man holding his wife out of his mind.

What if I had stayed in that garage five more minutes? I would have been too late. Don’t go there, Tanner. You do not live your life on what if. But I knew Donner was a threat and I still screwed around. Vin! Since when do you second-guess your actions? You were there in time and Kel is safe. So what do you do now Tanner? Chris is out there in the middle of it all and refuses to come in. That bastard Donner is a loose cannon and is capable of anything. Take it one step at a time Vin.

A startled scream from the bed had him across the room in seconds. “Kel, wake up, it’s only a bad dream, baby.” Vin gathered her into his arms and waited until she could talk, brushing away the tears on her face.

“God, it was awful! I saw you coming across that road and that man shot you and I couldn’t stop him!” Kelli was trembling and only managed to speak between sobs. “I saw you laying’ there on the ground, covered in blood.”

The Texan held her tighter and massaged circles on her back as he spoke. “Shh, ‘m fine, and so are you. Hell, even if he did shoot me, it wouldn’t have stopped me from getting’ to you Kel. There is no way he was leavin’ with you and not him or his partner or anythin’ else was gonna get in my way.”

“Chris was there, and he was yellin’ at me, said it was my fault that you were dead!” Kelli continued to shiver. “Why would dad be in my nightmare and why would he think that you’re dead?”

I don’t know Kel.’ Vin hesitated before he said more. He sensed that Chris was experiencing some type of distress, but he was not certain what was causing it. “I reckon that Chris is not in a good place right now...not emotionally at least. Maybe we’re both pickin’ up on that.”

“Maybe, but it seemed so real…”

Tanner tilted her head up and kissed her reassuringly. “I promise you, ‘m not plannin’ on leavin you anytime in the near future. We have too much to do and kids that need both of us.” He found his anger dissipating, replaced with a desire to help his wife through her fears. “It’s early, you wanna try and go back to sleep?”

“Don’t wanna sleep.”

“Well, with that bruised leg, we can’t dance.” His teasing tone did produce a smile from the redhead. ”Doc said we shouldn’t risk getting pregnant till the drugs are out of you system, and that you should keep any physical exertion to a minimum for a couple of days. I haven’t own a condom since I met you, and anythin’ we start will end up physical, so lovemaking is out.” The Texan grinned. “We can raid the kitchen, you didn’t eat last night and I’d bet that you’re hungry.”

Kelli managed another smile. “I am hungry, but I reckon I’ll have to settle for food.”

“So the kitchen it is.” Vin helped her with her robe and let her lean on him. Slowly they made their way to the kitchen, with Tracker right on their heels. The pup had not been three feet away from Kelli since they had come home.

Pouring Kelli some juice Vin sat it in front of her. “No coffee for you, at least for another twenty-four hours, but breakfast I can do.” Vin began pulling out items from the refrigerator.

“Vin, how much longer before this is over?”

“Doc said the headaches, could last for a while, but the drugs should be out of your system within thirty-six hours.” Vin deliberately misunderstood her question and continued his preparations for breakfast.

His wife’s raised eyebrow and that annoyed look on her face said it wasn’t working. Tanner exhaled a deep breath before answering. “I don’t know Kel, soon I hope. I want Chris and Raphael out before Donner figures out who Adam Carmichael really is. If they don’t have any physical proof to connect him to all this, it will take longer, but we will get him. He will pay for sendin’ those bastards after you as well as everythin’ else he is responsible for.”

“I concur with that evaluation.” Ezra entered the room after overhearing part of their conversation. “May I inquire why y’all are sitting in the kitchen at this dreadful hour, instead of resting as the good doctor prescribed?”

“Hell Ez, I could ask you the same question. I didn’t know you could function at this time of mornin.” Vin smirked.

“On the contrary, the word morning indicates the break of dawn. It is…” Ezra looked at his watch. “Good God, it is the middle of the night!” Standish reached for a cup with one hand and the coffee carafe with the other.

“Do I smell coffee brewing?” Barbara joined them, “Morning all. How are you feeling Kel?”

“I feel fine.”

“Uh huh, sure you do.” She gave Ezra a lingering good morning kiss as he poured her a cup of coffee. “Thanks sweetheart.”

“That is one of the advantages of being up this time of day Ez.” Tanner grinned.” Plus a few…” The ringing of his cell phone, which he had earlier picked up out of habit, interrupted Vin. “Tanner.” He answered and as he listened to the caller his expression changed from a grin to a frown. “Hang tight Greg, we’ll be there inside of thirty minutes.”

“Someone attacked them at Pam’s apartment, shot the two officers on guard duty outside, and scared the hell out of her, Kat and Greg. They’re okay, but we need to get over there. Ez, you have five minutes to change.” Vin was already speed-dialing Buck as Standish kissed Barbara and then raced out of the room. “Buck, we gotta roll, outside, five minutes.”

Vin closed the phone and turned to Kelli. “Baby, I’m sorry but…”

She shook her head, stood up and wrapped her arms around Vin. “Don’t apologize. Go, and do what you have to, I’ll be fine.”

“We’ll be fine.” Barbara corrected. “I’m here and I can take care of the kids as well as a certain stubborn redhead.”

Tanner leaned down and kissed Kelli hard and long. “Love you, Texas.”

“Love you Tanner.” She watched as he left and said a silent prayer for his safety.


Katrina had been Pam’s roommate since Kelli had left and moved in with Vin, almost eighteen months ago. The two women were compatible and the most exciting thing that had even happened in their building was when the lady down the hall went into early labor, needing their assistance. Tonight had changed all that.

Pam and Katrina both had been on edge about the possibility of being targets, but did not believe for a minute that anything would actually happen. Asking Greg to stay over last night was more to appease Agent Wilmington, than any fear for their safety. Now there were two Denver policemen in the hospital, fighting for their lives, their glass patio door was shattered, their apartment was crawling with law enforcement officers, and a dead man lay in the middle of their living room.

As the trio sat on the couch and waited for their Captain to arrive Greg whispered to them. “You think we should let the Captain know that his extra training paid off?”

“Hell, I think we all owe him and the Commander a debt of gratitude for forcing us to attend those sessions.” Katrina knew the basics that she had been taught in the academy, but the new moves that Vin had instructed them on had, in her mind at least, made the difference here tonight.

“I know I owe him an apology, I balked the loudest when the announcement was made.” Pam thought that she did not need to stay up to speed on her hand to hand training, after all she work with CASSIE most of the time.

“Speak of the devil, look who’s here.” Greg announced.

Tanner was the first one through the door, flashing his credentials to the officer in charge. While Buck talked to the Denver Police Captain, Vin and Ezra sought out their teammates

“Y’all okay?” Tanner approached the trio of agents.

“Yes sir,” Pam answered. “That is, as much as we can be with a dead man in our living room.”

Vin sat in front of them, “Who wants to start?”

“I guess I can sir.” Greg answered nervously. “I was asleep on the couch when I head glass shatter and before I knew it, two men barged into the room with their guns drawn. I rolled off the couch onto the floor and made my way towards the other room. Before I could make it though one of the men spotted me in the darkness and came at me. Without thinking I threw my leg out, the way you and the Commander had shown us in class, and knocked him off his feet. The other man yelled and then I saw Kat come out of her room with a weapon.”

“Katrina continued. “I head the glass break, and looked at the time. It was 3:50 am. Anyway I jumped out of bed and grabbed my service weapon. When I heard a loud thud, I opened my door and saw one man on the floor wrestling with Greg, and another armed one at Pam’s door. I raised my firearm, identified myself as a federal agent, and when the man turned his gun in my direction I fired. Unfortunately I think that I missed him and that was when the first man jumped up. Greg and I were able to subdue him and we kinda lost track of the other one.”

“When I heard the shot, I counted to fifteen and then opened my door” Pam added. “I think Kat did hit him because he seemed stunned. I used the move you showed us and knocked his gun from his hand. What all happened next was so fast that I’m not certain which came first, but my man yelled to the other one in Spanish. He ordered him to abort the mission, whatever that meant, and made a fast retreat back through the window.”

“Our man was not so smart, he didn’t listen and instead, he grabbed the gun that had fallen on the floor, aimed it at Ramsey, and then I shot him. “Katrina sighed. “That’s him.” She pointed to the deceased.

“I called Bones and he should be here anytime now.” Greg offered.

Vin knew that Ezra was writing this down, but he wanted to make certain he knew what they were looking for. “Okay, so we should find both of the assailant’s weapons here, and the one that you might have hit, went back out through the window, correct?

Three heads shook yes in unison.

“Give Agent Standish the best description you can of the second man, and Kat I need your weapon.” Vin instructed.

“The police Captain already took it, sir.”

“Fine, I’ll take care of it. Ezra, no one talks to them but us.” Vin stood and followed the sound of Buck’s raised voice to the other side of the room.

There he found Buck and the Police Captain in a heated discussion about jurisdiction.

“Captain …” Tanner looked at the name on the officer’s shirt. “Captain Morris, I am sorry about your men, however this is part of an open MCAT investigation and we will be taking over the scene. Please leave any evidence you may already have collected and ask your men to vacate the premises. If you have any further complaints, take ‘em to the Attorney Generals office.” He turned to Buck. “They seized Agent Santos’ weapon. Make sure it stays here.”

Once the locals were gone, the MCAT agents set to work. Dr. ‘Bones’ Metfield arrived with the MCAT mobile analysis’ Unit (M.A.U.) and the real investigation began. It did appear that Katrina had shot the first man; however the loss of blood was not enough to indicate a mortal wound. Fingerprints were lifted, distances measured and photos taken. Bones took charge of the dead body and promised Tanner a preliminary report by late tonight, along with the final report on yesterday’s deceased suspects.

Several hours later they were finished, but the apartment was a mess. “Y’all are welcome to come and stay at the ranch until we can get this cleaned up.” Tanner offered.

“Thanks Captain, but Greg said we can stay with him. We’ll be closer to the lab for them, and I’ll have a chance to tackle the cleanup here sooner. “Pam explained. “We will stay together and keep our eyes open.”

“Make sure you hire some professional cleaners, and have that door replaced as soon as possible. MCAT will pay for it, so do it right.”

“We appreciate it, and Vin, thanks for the brush up on hand to hand. “Katrina smiled. “You were right to torment us into learning.”

Tanner just nodded his acknowledgment. “Buck, Ezra, let’s go, ‘m anxious for JD to start runnin’ these prints, maybe we’ll get a break.”

Buck and Ezra went on to the Tanner house in Wilmington’s truck, to meet their ladies, after a quick stop at Standish’s townhouse to check on Huey, Dewey and Louie. Barbara had installed an automatic feeder for her beloved fish, and the southerner wanted to make certain it was working.

Vin stopped at Chris’ to consult with JD about their findings. “Damn, it looks as if you’ve moved half the office out here.” Tanner shook his head.” I need you to process the fingerprints we found on the scene.”

“I can get right on it Vin. With the upgrades I’ve installed it like having CASSIE’S twin here with us. Tomorrow I’ll be over to upgrade yours.” JD was excited about his creation. If anything ever happens to our main CASSIE, this network will be one helluva replacement.”

“JD, you amaze me with your abilities sometimes.” Tanner grinned. “But start on tryin’ to match those prints now please.”

“You got it Vin.”

The Texan spent a few minutes with Nettie and the twins, while Casey and Linda were in the kitchen working on their evening meal. Tanner said hello and was almost to the door when Linda called to him.

“Vin can I see you for a minute in the den?”

Tanner sighed and followed her into the other room. “What can I do for you Linda?”

“You can tell me how to contact Chris. I need to talk to him.”

“You can’t talk to Chris, he only checks in three times a week and right now he needs to concentrate on his work.” Vin was not about to discuss the danger Larabee was in with Linda.

“Then you need to tell me what’s going on. Chris goes undercover, Kel gets run off the road, the unit is on high alert, and if I heard right Kat, Pam and Greg were also attacked. I did not ask a lot of questions when he told me what he wanted to do, but now I’m thinking I should have.”

“Sorry Linda, you will just have to be patient and when Chris gets home he can tell you what he wants you to know about it. In the meantime you can help him the most by keepin’ yourself and Grace safe. Since you decided to come home without informin’ anyone, the least you can do now is cooperate and stick to the security measures we’ve set-up.”

“Oh I will, but when you talk to my husband, you tell him that he had better call me, and I’m not gonna wait too damn long.”

By the time Tanner walked out of the Larabee home, he felt his headache growing and it was only 2:00 pm. Damn it Chris, you better talk to me real soon!


Grace was in her crib, and Linda had fled to her own bedroom after talking to Vin, her and Chris’ room. Only, Chris wasn’t here, was he? He was still on some mission and they still wouldn’t tell her anything, her, his wife!

She needed him, she needed him so badly. Even if it was only to talk for a while, talk to him about Grace. At least with Chris she felt she could talk about it all.

His arms around her when they talked would even be better.

She still couldn’t get over the closed entry gate and the invasion of her and Chris’ home. Although she was glad she wouldn’t be alone with Grace, she still felt like they had broken in on her privacy, her and Chris’.

It was Chris who should be here, not them. Chris she could talk about the disaster this family trip had been. She had talked with Matt about it, he knew how their brother Luke and his wife were, but she had wanted Chris’ understanding.

A soft whale came out of the baby’s room and she groaned. She fell down on the bed and grabbed her head. In a minute, she would go to Grace in a minute.

Why was she crying so much? Why had she been crying so much all the time she had been with her family? She had been to two doctors while she was in Louisiana, but they both had assured her Grace was doing fine. At home, her sister-in law. Doris had patted her on her back, before being demanded by her own eight kids, and told her it happened, some babies cried a lot, it was something you just had to live through.

That hadn’t been all though. Their constant observations about her life had been just as bad. Shit, she could still hear their derisive comments about Chris running around in her head; the man they didn’t think was good enough for their family.

“How could he leave you for so long when Grace is still so little, dear? It must be so hard on you.” Not that you really helped, Linda thought scornfully. You and your eight kids, pretending like it’s nothing to have so many! Looking at me with those mocking eyes when I couldn’t handle even one!

“Is she crying again? It’s awful when you have a baby like that, isn’t it? That is when you need the support from your husband the most. A baby that cries so much is not a burden to carry alone.”

But Chris hadn’t been there! And stuck on her own, in her brother’s household, where they expected her to be fully able to handle one tiny child on her own, was when she had realized how much Chris had done for her. How wonderful it was that he had taken Grace out of her hands the moment he came home, so she could do something on her own for a while, go for a ride, go take a long, hot shower or go clean the toilet for Heaven’s sake!

Share those broken nights with her…. Lord, this is not how you imagined it would be.

Her family did not understand…“He’s still not back? Damn, Linda, what’s that man of yours up to that he can’t even call his own wife to check on her and his new baby? I don’t get that; I really don’t.”

Even though she kept defending him, Linda did not know the answers to their questions either.

It had been wracking her nerves up until the point she couldn’t take it anymore and had fled, fled home where people at least knew about Chris and his job. But it had rankled her, rankled her deep.

Not even one phone call from him to hear how she and Grace were doing. Not even one call to let him know just how awful everything was going and perhaps convince him it was time to come home. That Grace missed him so terribly that she hadn’t stopped crying since he had been gone.

“I know I’m not your precious daddy!” she screamed when the wailing became more insistent. She was instantly ashamed with herself and hurried off to the baby’s room, to her daughter. Grace was so little, how could she blame her precious baby for things she didn’t understand herself?

All she knew was that she and Grace needed Chris.


Arthur Willis was not a happy man. Hans and Broderick had not reported in and according to his sources it was highly probable that they were both dead. Now his second team had run into trouble with their assignment. The only information Clark gave him over the phone was that he needed to meet with him immediately. So here he stood out in the middle of nowhere waiting on the only one of him men that apparently had survived the attack on the MCAT agents.

Clark was not out of his car before Willis laid into him. “What the fuck happened?”

“It went down bad, Rand is dead and I caught a bullet, it’s only a flesh wound, but it’s enough. I want my money so I can get the hell out of here. Once they check for prints they’ll have my face plastered everywhere.”

“You did not complete you assignment. What makes you think that I owe you money?”

“I figured that you’d want me out of the country before they have a chance to ask questions.” Clark answered cockily.

“You’re right, can’t have them asking too many questions. On the other hand I suppose they can ask you what ever they want to, you won’t be talking.” Willis, who was standing behind Clark, pulled out his gun and cold bloodily shot him in the head, at point blank range.

Willis left the man’s body where it fell. Calmly he walked back to his car, and picked up his phone to call Donner

Santa Ana, California

Adam and Creed were in Victor Donner’s office giving him a report on their trip to Mexico They had completed the assigned mission and now Adam felt that Donner should give them some more lead way.

“What you’ve had us do so far, any errand boy could do, and that is not what we signed on for. When are you gonna start giving us some real work?” Carmichael’s impatience was showing.

“Excuse me Carmichael, but the last time I checked, I was the boss. You work for me and will do what I want, when I want it! You will have a chance to prove your worth to me, when I say so and not before!”

Donner’s phone rang. “What!” He listened. “What the fuck do you mean? …How many dead? ... Sonofabitch! ...No, come on back here first, I think maybe it’s time we gave MCAT something they will never expect. We’ll talk when you get here.”

“Problems?” Creed asked

“Me? No, but if I worked for MCAT, I would be worried about right now. You two get the hell out of here I have some calls to make.” Donner dismissed them.

Once they were out the door and out of earshot, Creed asked. “What do you think he is going to do?”

“I don’t know, but I think we need to talk to Jonah, we’re running out of time.” Adam pulled out his cell phone and dialed.

“Jonah Drake, how may I help you?”

“Tell me.” Adam barked into the phone.

“A storm passed through yesterday and wrecked havoc, there was some damage taken at the red house, the condo and I heard Texas even took a hit. You need to call the Texan right away to get a breakage report.” Jonah passed the message and waited for a response.

Silence reigned on the line for a full minute and then Adam sent his own message.” No, tell Texas a much bigger storm is on the way soon and this cowboy hasn’t finished his ride.”

Chapter 35

Tanner Home

Things were well under control in the Tanner household. Since the ground was soaked from last night’s rainstorm, the children were playing up in the loft, and Kelli was finally resting on the couch in the family room. Rain had been by earlier to check on the redhead and agreed that rest was the best medicine she could have. Gunny was at Max’s house, helping her sister unpack the last of her moving boxes. After Barbara and Inez assured her that they would take care of the Tanner’s, Max had agreed to let them as long as they called her if she was needed. They decided to keep the evening low keyed, and that tomorrow the entire family would gather together in the afternoon.

Walter would be joining them for supper; he was staying in ‘his’ room downstairs while Mark, Paul, and Ross used his motor home for the weekend. Buck called a unit meeting for tomorrow morning that would include the full team. He was concerned about Vin pushing too hard, and wanted the Texan to take some time to recharge tonight. Wilmington also hoped that Chris would call by then, and they would have good news to share with the others. The moment they could confirm that Chris and Raphael were safe they could complete their plans to move in on Donner.

Vin found them all in the family room and readily accepted the coffee that Inez offered him. Sitting next to Kelli his first question was of course about how she was feeling. “How’s the headache, baby? He drew her to his side and kissed the top of her head.

“About the same, how’s yours.” She could always tell when Vin was stressed and today was no exception.

“I took some aspirin and ‘m fine. So where is everyone else?”

Buck gave him a rundown and told Tanner about the meeting. “I figured we could all use some time to regroup after the last twenty-four hours.”

“Probably, tomorrow mornin’ sounds good. We’ll have Doc Metfield’s autopsy reports to cover.” Vin chuckled. “Besides I think JD has plans for my computer.”

“I shall have my report finished tonight and we can begin to plan our next move.” Ezra had the start of an alternate plan of action in his head. Once Chris, Raphael and Justin were secured, they could become the aggressors.

Inez nudged Buck, since the girls were with Mallory at the house now seemed to be an opportune time to discuss their decision. “We have two attorneys’ present, and since this involves the Tanners, Inez and I want to run something past all of you.”

“Shoot Bucklin,” Vin had a good idea what his brother wanted to say.

“Well…we…Inez and I have talked, and we want to adopt Caleb.”

The Texan grinned. He had suspected that this was what Buck was leading up to with the talk about school supplies and football games. “I think Caleb is a lucky young man.”

“So you would approve?” Inez asked anxiously.

“Yes, and more importantly I believe that Caleb, Jason and Andi will approve. Our two have taken Caleb under their wings and they are determined that he ends up with good parents.” Kelli smiled. “I can’t think of any two people that would love him better.”

“I would be happy to represent you.” Barbara offered. “However before you talk to Caleb, are you certain? What about the girls and the new baby?”

“The girls love Caleb already as much as we do, and they want a big brother like Andi has. We haven’t discussed specifics with them, but thanks to Jason they kinda understand what adoption means.” Buck explained. “They know that it’s special.”

“We already know that our new baby is a girl, so that would give him three little sisters.” Inez addressed Barbara. “I am Hispanic and Buck is Caucasian, our girls are both. We understand what it means to have a child of mixed race. I know we have more than enough love for Caleb to be part of our family, and his background or race will never be an issue in our house.”

“I suggest that you talk to the girls and then Caleb, ultimately it will be his approval that is important. I don’t think that will be a problem though, and I see no reason that we can’t make this happen.” Barbara smiled. “We can even have guardianship changed over to you and Buck, until we can finalize the adoption.” She saw Vin nod in agreement.

Ezra cautioned, “It may take a little longer than the adoption of Jason and Andi. Kelli was blood related to them and they were pre-approved because of their foster care status. That doesn’t mean you will face any problems, but it will take time.”

“We understand, but we could talk to them today and get things started. If it all works out maybe an overnight for all the kids would be in order.” Buck looked to Vin and Kelli.

“Absolutely, but you had better plan on more than a few overnights in the future once Jason finds out that Caleb will be staying on the Larabee 7 . Those two have become best friends and now that they will be related, we may all have our hands full.” Kelli was happy, they might not ever find Danny, but Caleb would have a loving family and a chance at a future that he did not have before.

Vin squeezed her hand, he was pleased. Buck would be a great dad for Caleb, a strong influence for the child, and the perfect role model for the man he would become. Inez had the capacity to love and mother a hundred children, four would be easy for her. “Uncle Vin and Aunt Kelli will take their share of overnights, too.”

“Tomorrow, I’ll go over the procedure with you both, and if we are all in agreement, I can start the paperwork on Monday.” Barbara took the smiles around the room to mean a consensus by all the parties involved.

Ezra raised his coffee cup, and offered a toast, from Uncle Ra. “To the Wilmington family, may their future be blessed with love and happiness.”

They sat around for a while, planning how to handle the news with the other children and the rest of the family. They finally decided that Buck and Inez would talk to the girls alone and then come get Caleb. Once he and Inez told him what they wanted to do, the four of them could tell Jason and Andi, then extend the invitation for a sleepover. Tomorrow they would make an announcement to the rest of the family, provided that the kids did not tell everyone first.

Twenty minutes later Vin’s cell phone rang. “Tanner,” Vin answered on the second ring. “Josiah, I was expectin’…hang on a minute.” He pointedly looked to Inez, and she did not need to read minds to know that this call concerned MCAT business.

“Barb, you and I should start supper. We’ll leave this conversation to the MCAT agents.” Inez closed the door as they left.

“Where in the hell is Chris?” Vin shouted into the phone, and apparently did not like the answer he received. “Fuck! Who does the sonofabitch think he is? Superman?”

Josiah repeated his earlier conversation word for word.

“I’m supposed to know what in the fuck that means? Damn it all to hell and back!” Tanner took a deep breath. “Sorry Josiah, it’s not your fault that the ornery bastard is bein’ difficult.” Josiah tried to calm the waters and spoke for a minute. Vin sighed, “I don’t know right now. The last time he played the lone ranger it was only him…Hell, I’ll have to get back to you after I’ve had some time to think on it…Mal’s fine and the kids are too. They miss you and send their love…I will, you watch your back.”

The Texan closed his phone and barely resisted the overwhelming urge to throw it across the room.

Santa Ana, California

Adam had been driving around aimlessly for almost twenty minutes without saying a word. Creed was willing to give him some time to think, but when they passed the same street corner for the third time he figured that it was time to say something.

Raphael Cordova though, was ready for a serious discussion. “Chris, you gonna drive in circles all night or tell me what you got us into?”

Pulling the car to the side of the road, Chris dug into his pocket and came up with a handful of large bills. “I want you to take this, go to the mission and Josiah will take you to the airport. Use the cash to buy a ticket to Denver. I’m staying, but there is no reason you can’t leave.”

“Like hell I will! I have never left a partner on a case alone, and I am not about to start now! Just tell me what in the hell is going on.”

“Vin wants me to call him. He is going to order us out, I know that’s what he wants, but I can’t do it. I want Donner and the only way I can see for justice to be served is to follow through with our original plan.”

“Hell Chris, maybe he knows something we don’t. Have you talked to him?”

“No…and I don’t plan to. This is something I have to do, but you don’t, so take the money and go.”

“You are a hypocritical bastard, you know that. If anyone else pulled this shit, you would rip them a new asshole! You put Vin in charge for a reason. Do you remember what it was?”

“Yes, because I trust him to do the job, and I fully expect to have to answer for my decision. Hell it may cost me my job…and my best friend, but I can’t leave those girls without knowing I’ve done everything possible to sink that bastard. This had gone on long enough.”

“What about teamwork? Are you willing to take a chance that the unit will pay for your decision?” For the first time in this discussion Raphael thought he saw Chris waiver. “Think hard before you answer because I will not leave you without backup. We walked into the viper’s nest together and that is the same way we walk out.”

“I can’t explain why, but I know I can’t leave and I cannot ask you to disobey a direct order either.” How can you explain to the man that is willing to risk his life for his partner, what you do not understand yourself? …That it is only a stupid nightmare that is making you stay

Raphael sighed. “Hell, it’s not a direct order if I don’t hear it. I just hope you’re right, for both our sakes.” He saw Chris about to argue. ‘Don’t even think about pulling rank on me. You’re going rogue and God help me, I’m going with you. Now shut up and take us back…Adam.”

Denver, Colorado

Larabee 7 ~ 11:00 p.m.

All of the kids had been ecstatic when Buck and Inez told them that they wanted to adopt Caleb. Any fears that the adults had that they might need a period of adjustment vanished when Jason and Andi were thrilled that Caleb would stay so nearby and become family. Caleb looked around shyly and a bit dazed, but when Buck pulled him in his lap and asked him if Caleb wanted to be his son, the boy's whole face lit up with joy. And when Andi squealed that he could call everyone else uncle and aunt now, he carefully tried it out with the two people who had given him his first home, the Tanners. He called them Uncle Vin and Aunt Kelli, and his hug for them was so heartfelt that it moved most of those present to tears. Jason and Andi eagerly went to the Wilmington home for a sleepover celebration.

Ezra and Barbara had called it a night about thirty minutes ago and Kelli was starting to get impatient, waiting on her husband. She knew Vin was disturbed by Chris’ decision to deliberately avoid talking to him and that he needed some alone time to think. However he had been out on the deck, drinking beer for almost two hours and she decided that he had brooded enough.

Kelli limped out the door and had to stop long enough for her vision to adjust to the darkness.” You’ve been out here a long time Tanner. You ready for some company?”

Vin was stretched out on one of the deck loungers and motioned for her to join him. “Yep.” The Texan carefully watched her move slowly across the short distance to him and then gently drew her down beside him. “Clear skies, clean fresh air, it’s a beautiful night. Layin’ here lookin’ at the mountains silhouetted by the moon, it hard to believe there was a storm ragin’ through here yesterday.” He leaned over and kissed her on the temple. “Nights like this can almost make a man forget the evil that lurks in this world, waitin’ for him to falter.”

“We could run away from home, pack up the children and head for those mountains.” Kelli snuggled against him. “We won’t take any phones or pagers, just you, me. the kids, and Mother Nature. Or we can say to hell with the rest of the world and just lay here makin’ out.”

“Either one sounds good to me. “Vin tightened his hold and possessed her with a kiss that was demanding, yet gentle. The kind of kiss he needed to bring himself home from the dark place his thoughts had taken him. “Love you, Kel.”

She could feel the turmoil that was raging inside her Texan. Vin was hurting and the only thing Kelli could do was, to be here, and be prepared to listen when he was ready to talk.” Love you too, Tanner.”

Their physical act of love would come later, for now Vin concentrated on the powerful emotions that passed between them. This is what he had missed in previous relationships with women, the intimacy that demanded nothing, but gave so much. The love between them offered the gift of just being, and finding contentment in doing so, the pleasure of letting go, and having no need to explain. Together they lay in comfortable silence until Tanner finally spoke.

Chris has completely shut me out Kel. He’s only done this one other time and now…Hell…I have no idea what he’s thinkin’…if he’s thinkin’ at all. I only know that he has put me in one helluva bad position. He might as well have slapped handcuffs on all of us, because we have to keep playin’ defense as long as he and Raphael are in that hellhole. I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t.”

“You think he’s in trouble don’t you?”

“I think…” Vin sighed. “I think he may not have been ready to take on this assignment. It’s only been a few months since he went through all that shit with Jack and then…”

“The drugs… this is a test for him isn’t it?’ Realization hit Kelli hard. “Chris Larabee cannot admit that he may need a support system. So mister I can do it myself is out to prove that he can do what millions of other can’t. Go it alone and take on anythin’ right? Damn it! I though he finally recognized the fact that even he has his limits!”

“I’m only guessin’ Kel, I really don’t know, and I reckon that right about now he doesn’t either. The only thing that I’m certain of is the fact that I have to make some tough calls in the next few days, and anyway you look at it, ‘m screwed.

“Vin I wish I knew what to say that would help.”

“That’s the thing baby, there are no easy answers. I have a responsibility to the unit and to Travis to keep it going. I’m supposed to make the decisions that will either keep them alive or get them killed. On the other hand, my brother has turned into a maverick, and he is makin’ uninformed decisions that affect all of us, without a second thought about the consequences.”

“As hard and cold as it may sound, you have to forget that he’s family and do what you would do if it were any other agent jeopardizin’ the protection of the unit.” She raised her head to look into his eyes. “Vin, he’s my dad and I love him, as much as you do, but he has chosen the wrong time to go Larabee on you.”

“My gut says he’s in over his head and my first impulse is to go and try to help him, but…”

“Then you should quit and go after him, shift the responsibility of MCAT to someone else, and hope like hell it works out okay.” She hoped that her flippant statement would cut through the conflicted misgivings that that Vin was experiencing.

“You know I can’t do that Kel, not when we’re bein’ attacked from all directions, and accordin’ to Lar’bee more is comin’, he just doesn’t know what.”

Kelli reached up and stroked his cheek. “I do know that and so does dad. Chris left you in charge because he knows that you are strong enough to do the right thing, regardless of the fallout. Just listen to yourself Vin, you’ll find the path you need to follow.”

Tanner laid his hand over hers. “Like I said before baby, you do know how to cut to the heart of the problem.” Kelli had not told him anything that he had not already known, but talking it out helped to put everything in perspective. His responsibility to MCAT and the agents had to take priority, but he would continue to try and protect Chris the best that he could, in spite of his Larabee stubbornness.

Chris, you have nothing to prove, come home.

Santa Ana, California

He was back in that damn cabin and Jack was standing over him, laughing. Goddamn you Jack, you’re dead! It’s over!

But it’s not over Chris, as long as you remember, it’s still a part of you. The drugs may be gone, but you can still feel them, the euphoric rush you felt as they poured into your veins. The nightmare free sleep they provided. They can make the ugliness go away for you.

The scene in his mind changed, and he saw Alberto attacking the young girls that he pulled off the truck. Reyes was holdin two girls apart from the others and he could hear the blond headed one screaming. “Daddy, help me! Make them stop!”

The other child did not scream, but her piercing blue stare spoke louder than any words could. What are you doing? You travel to the past when the people you love are hurting in the present Do something to help them, before it’s too late. The storm is coming

Chris, you have nothing to prove, come home.

Forget them Chris, you can make it all stop. Trust me, I helped you before, I can help you now. You don’t need them; you only need to pick up that bottle.

Go away Jack, get the hell out of my life, and take you fucking drugs with you!

ADAM! CARMICHAEL, WAKE UP!” Creed shook the man that seemed to be lost in a nightmare until he received a response. “Are you with me here?”

“Yeah…bad dream…I’m fine now.”

“Hell, this place is nothing but a bad dream. You were asleep when I left this morning, but I did bring you some coffee.” Creed handed him the container.

“Thanks,” he took the coffee with shaking hands. “You find out anything interesting?”

“Not a helluva lot, but Donner is meeting with that FBI guy today…Zimmerman…and I did pick up this. “ He pulled a new phone from his pocket. “It a camera phone, with internet access. I figured we could start sending some pictures home of sunny California.”

“Good idea, but you had better keep that out of sight, if you plan on keeping it.” Adam apparently felt better after ingesting the caffeine. “What time is it?

“Almost ten, Zimmerman should be here by noon, so shake a leg and get moving.”

“Are you always this bossy in the morning?”

“Yep, it’s one on my most endearing traits don’t you think?” Creed grinned.

“Hell, it’s no wonder you’re still single. Now get the hell out of the way so I can go take a shower.” Adam threw back the covers and entered the bathroom. Once he closed the door all pretense of feeing good drained out of him. He locked the door and slid down to sit on the cold tile floor, holding his throbbing arm.

Flashbacks, Nathan said they were a possibility, but you never believed it could happen. You arrogantly thought it was all behind you. That damn Demerol must have triggered it. What in the hell are you gonna do, Larabee? You sure as hell can’t continue thus way!

Larabee 7 ~ August 12

Saturday Morning

Inez, Linda, Max, Casey and Rain were keeping the kids occupied at the Larabee ranch house, while they prepared lunch under Gunny and Nettie’s supervision. Once the MCAT meeting was over, they would take everything over to the Tanner’s deck and feed the hungry mass of agents.

All team members were present and prepared for their conference. It seemed strange to not be in their familiar war room, but it was nice to have everyone together, especially after the events of the last few days. They gathered in Tanner’s living room, and waited for him to begin.

“Y’all all are aware of what’s happened, and except for the forensics reports, I see no need to rehash the events of the last forty-eight hours. However, we have good reason to believe that more is on the way, and we need to be ready for it. Greg, you have those reports?”

“Yes sir, the three deceased suspects have been identified and I think JD has a rundown for you on their identities.” He paused while JD passed out folders to the others.” The first two suspects, Hans Riesman and Broderick Landon, have long criminal histories, both died at the scene of the attempted abduction of Agent Coulter.” He looked up at Tanner, who nodded. “Broderick was killed when Captain Tanner fired his gun and the bulled entered the suspect’s upper chest, killing him instantaneously. Riesman died as a result of a knife wound to the heart.

We have no way of tracing the drugs they used to subdue Agent Coulter. Aside from recreating the staged accident, we were unable to trace their movement before that. Nothing was found to make any further connections to another individual. Their vehicles were rented under assumed names and paid for in cash.

The deceased suspect from Agent Walton’s apartment was identified as Randal Davis. He has the same type of criminal history as the other two, but we could find no connection between them. He died from massive internal bleeding, caused by a bullet from Agent Santos’s gun. The second suspect was injured, but fled the scene. The State Police found a body late yesterday, and a preliminary report from Bones indicates that he was the same man that was in Walton’s apartment. The interesting thing to note is that the flesh wound he exhibited was minor; he was executed, by a point blank shot to the head from an unknown weapon.”

“No loose ends.” Buck solemnly stated.

“So we have nothing to go on from either incident?” Mark questioned.

“We do know from a statement made to Agent Coulter, that Donner sent those men to kidnap her. However, that alone is not concert evidence, so we keep working on it.” Tanner explained. “Greg, you and Kat continue to work on findin’ anythin’ that might connect those four men.”

“Paul and I found that O’Mara Enterprises does an extensive amount of business with South America. My guess is that in addition to human trafficking, they are into drugs and gunrunning, too.” Nathan passed around information sheets to the other agents. ‘This is a list of all the countries they have done business with in the last three years.”

“If we can’t prove the trafficking, maybe we can put them away on the drugs or guns.” Ross did not care what they went down on as long as they went down.

“We are aware that they recently had some type of operation in Mexico, we’re waiting for a full report on that. “ Ezra thought to himself that they would be waiting until hell froze over, before Chris called in a report. “However Justin Aka Billy Ray has secured a position as personal driver for the Costa Mesa Chief of Police and is in a position to obtain vital information.”

“What about the Commander and Raphael?” Pam asked. “Are they okay?”

“As of yesterday afternoon, they were both alive and well.” Ezra answered.

JD stood, “Someone tried to breech our personnel records. I had each one encoded with extra security measures and should know within twenty-four hours who did it. I found that they were specifically looking for picture identifications of every agent except, Kelli, Ezra, and me. I have to assume that is because Donner already knows what we look like. The intruder spent an excessive amount of time trying to access Vin and Chris’ files.”

“Donner has pictures of Vin and Chris?” Buck angrily shouted his question.

“Yes and no. Both files are sealed due to their days in the military and the top-secret missions they executed. Our spy evidently does not have a high enough security clearance to get to them. Yours either Buck. However, pictures of Chris are accessible on the Internet, all the publicity he has received in the last year has made certain of that. I did a search on each of our names and his was the only one that had pictures available. I scanned them so you would know what was out there.” JD handed them to Vin, who then passed them to Ezra.”

“Pam, you did some work on securing the files for the witness protection program, work with Mallory and develop something for ours. JD I want you to finish your upgrades and find me some damn link between Donner and O’Mara Enterprises to drugs, guns, or human trafficking! You and Pam will work from the office next week, but Mallory will work from Chris’ home terminal. Nathan, you, Mark and Paul explore the South American connection; find us a backdoor into this organization, drugs or guns, either one, I don’t care. We are gonna take Donner down one way or another and we aren’t going to sit on our hands while he’s planning another way to hit us.”

Vin gave Kelli a signal and she slipped out to call the other ladies about lunch.

Tanner continued. “Ross, I want extra security on our building, work it out with Crandall and don’t let him order you around. Oh and keep Chris’ name out of it, he and Crandall had a run in when Ezra’s Jag exploded and the man is probably not over it. Buck, I want to see you and Ezra when we finish. The rest of you, take every precaution you can in the next couple of weeks, we know it’s coming, but we don’t know what, when or how. As of today we are moving our game to offense, because havin’ to stay on the defensive sucks. Agent Wilmington and I will be away until Tuesday. Agent Standish will be in charge. Now, if you will join Kelli on the deck, I believe our lunch is on its way.”

As soon as the rest of the team was out the door, Vin turned to Ezra and Buck, “Ez, I know it’s a lot but I need you to do two things. I want all sensitive data removed from our office and brought here to the ranch. Work out a plan with Walter to get a start on the facility we agreed on… I know we said we would wait until this case was over, but…hell JD has already started to duplicate some of CASSIE’S files, and I see no need to wait on the rest of it. I also need you to keep an eye on Kel for me, and stay on top on things at the office until Buck and I get back.” Tanner gave him a sheet of instructions. “This is what I want you to do.”

“Certainly I will do it, but do you really feel this is necessary?” Ezra looked over the list.


Buck could not stand the suspense any longer. “Where in the hell are we going, Vin?”

“California, Chris won’t call us, so we’ll have to pay a visit to him.”

Chapter 36

Santa Ana, California ~ Sunday ~ August 13

Great Circle Airfield

Cord and Sam Buchman stepped off their private plane. Both men wore full western attire including, tight black jeans, cowboy boots, and Stetson hats. They garnered more than their share of attention as they walked over to their waiting rental. Sam slid behind the wheel to drive them to their hotel, while his younger brother reclined the passenger seat to catch a few winks. The Buchman brothers were from Texas and in town to meet a business associate, plus have a little fun.

The valet opened the door and Sam threw him the keys.” Here ya go son.” He slipped him a ten, grabbed his bag and followed Cord inside.

When they reached the front desk, Sam did the talking. “Sweetheart, we have a reservation, Buchman’s the name.”

“Yes sir, room 310,” she gave him two keys.

Sam leaned over the desk. “Darlin’, we have a little business to take care of and then we wanna have some fun. Where can two good ol’ boys go to get some action around here?”

“I wouldn’t know sir.” She looked helplessly at the bellhop.

“I’d be happy to assist you sir.” The bellman picked up their bags. “Follow me please.”

He led them to their room and gave them a few suggestions for their evening activities. Cord slipped him a fifty. “Thanks, we’ll take it from here.”

Collapsing across one of the beds Vin growled. “I don’t know how in the hell I let Ezra talk me into this. “Damn, my feet hurt. Tell me again why I had to wear new boots?”

“Ezra’s plan,” Buck groaned when he tried to pull his own right boot off. “We’re rich Texans that enjoy spending money. We want to stir up as much attention as we can so people will remember us as just that. Who is their right mind would believe that we’re federal agents?”

“Right, I still say we should just go to the club, find Chris and kick his ass’ till he sees reason.”

“Real low keyed approach huh?” Buck sighed. “Look Vin, Ezra may be a bit paranoid about this, but he does have a point. If Chris and Raphael stay rouge and refuse to come home, we don’t want our little visit to draw the wrong type of attention and have Donner asking questions. This way we’re just two rowdy Texans that will be gone in twenty-four hours.”

“That’s fine, but this irate Texan has a big bone to pick with a rogue cowboy and ‘m not leavin’ ‘til he hears everythin’ I have to say. Even if it means that I have to beat it into that bad-tempered hardhead of his.”

The Silver Slipper

Adam slipped on a long sleeved shirt after changing the dressing on his arm. It still throbbed and the he suspected that the redness around it meant that wound had become worse. Somewhere in the back of his mind he remembered Nathan saying that wood was notorious for causing infections, but any medical treatment would have to wait. Taking the pain medicine that doctor in Mexico gave him was the only alternative to going to the emergency room.

You can handle this Chris, you only need to take those pills for a while, to see this through. He swallowed three of the capsules and went out to meet Creed.

Creed was sitting at one on the tables out front, playing solitaire. “I thought I’d have to send a search party after you.”

“Was I on a damn time table?” Adam snapped irritability.

“No, the club is closed, but Donner has had a steady stream of visitors this morning. Zimmerman has been here again and gone, Victor in there with another associate now. I sent pictures home; maybe they can identify who it is.” Creed discreetly showed the pictures to Adam.

Adam looked around; it appeared that they were alone in the big room. “Where is everyone?”

“Hell, by their standards it’s early. The only ones moving around are Donner, Willis, and visiting associates. You want to stay and observe or go grab some lunch?”

“I’m not hungry, let’s stick around and see who else shows up. Deal the damn cards.”

Denver, Colorado

Larabee home ~ morning

Linda heard footsteps following her, but she didn’t stop until she was in Grace’s room and held her crying daughter in her arms. When she turned to go, she saw Miss Nettie standing in the doorway, looking at her worriedly.

“Linda, you look awful! Is Grace crying again?”

That heartfelt concern suddenly released her damned up flood of tears.

“Yes, yes she is, Miss Nettie. And I don’t know what to do! She’s been crying and crying all the time ever since… since Chris has been gone! Nothing helps; only when I feed her is she quiet! And for a little while after! But I can’t feed her every two hours! They say there should be four hours between feedings by now! And… and the doctors all say there’s nothing wrong with her.”

“There, there, dear, everything will be all right, you’ll see. Now, let me take a look.”

Grace was taken out of her hands firmly.

“Linda, I’ve been watching both of you since I arrived, and I can tell you right as rain what’s wrong here. This baby is hungry.”

“But… but I feed her even more than according to the schedule! I feed her a lot!”

“I don’t know how come, my dear, but I can assure you this baby needs feeding.” She looked Linda over sternly. “Maybe something happened to your milk, but it isn’t enough for her anymore. I’ll take care of it, I’m pretty sure Casey still has some formula with her and I’ll feed her by spoon until we have a bottle. You!” The old lady looked at her sternly. “You get some rest, right now!”

“Do you really think that’s… that’s...” God, she felt awful now, a failure as a mother. She had let her child go hungry all these weeks?

A wrinkled hand was put on her shoulder and Nettie gave her a soft shake. “Linda, she looks fine to me, so I gather you have been feeding her a lot more than that schedule, which means no harm is done. But it’s exhausting you, child, and it has to stop. Now, let old Nettie take care of everything and it will all be fine, you’ll see.”

It felt so good that someone took over, took the responsibility for a while. Linda nodded, too tired suddenly to argue. She still couldn’t get over that it might be hunger, simple as that, but at the moment she didn’t care what it was, as long as it stopped!

“Thank you, Miss Nettie. Thank you so very much.”

“Any time dear. Now, get that sleep!”

Once on the bed she sighed, deeply. If only Chris was here, then things wouldn't have become such a mess.... Did he even know how much she needed him? Needed him to be safe and at home? Thinking about her husband, wondering what was going on with him and why he stayed away so long, she fell in an exhausted sleep.

Tanner Home~ afternoon

Kelli was still under doctor’s orders to say quiet and rest, but she was finding it difficult to follow his instructions. She watched as the children prepared to go out. The kids were ready to run, but Caleb hung back to talk to the redhead.

Aunt Kelli, are you sure it’s okay?” Caleb was excited about his upcoming move to the Wilmington home, but he did not want to hurt Kelli’s feeling

“Of course, it’s okay. You should be excited; this is a big event in your life.” Kelli sat down so she was eye level with the child. “You know as much as we would love for you to stay with us forever, I am really happy that you will be so close by. The Wilmington’s want you to be part of their family and you get the best of both worlds. You’ll have parents and sisters that love you, plus a ton of aunts, uncles and cousins who will love you too.”

“I love you.” Caleb exclaimed, and threw his arms around Kelli’s neck.

Kelli held him tight as she held back the tears that threatened.” I love you too. Now I think Jason is waiting for you, something about a fort?”

“Yeah, we’re building one.” He grabbed two Granny Smith apples from the fruit bowl on the table and ran out the door to meet Jason.

Barbara picked up her coffee cup. “I hope he can last out the week until the guardianship change is completed.”

“That is one excited little boy.” Linda laughed. “Who would have thought Inez and Buck would adopt?”

“It not really so surprising, they love children and Caleb is a lovable kid.” Kelli commented. “I just wish I could figure out why Nathan is so against it.”

“He didn’t say anything in front of Caleb, but I think he and Buck had a few words over it.” Linda shrugged her shoulder. “I’m sure it will all work out.”

“Linda, I can’t stand it any longer. Please let me hold my sister for a while, I don’t see near enough of her.” Kelli reached out as Linda passed Grace over to her. “Lord, she’s grown so much and her eyes are so beautiful, Larabee green, just like her daddy.”

“Yes she has, and her daddy is missing out on a lot.” Linda supposed it was now or never. “Vin won’t do it, so Kel, tell me how to call Chris.”

“Linda, I don’t know how to reach him, he’s undercover, and no one can just call him up. He has certain check-in times and as long as he meets them, we have to assume he’s fine. You should know that.”

“Somebody has to be talking to him right? Couldn’t they just get in contact with Chris and tell him to call me? Linda pleaded, not willing to admit that she was so overwhelmed with the demands of motherhood that she needed Chris to help her.

Kelli gazed across the table at the blonde in disbelief. “Let me get this straight. Not only do you want to interfere in your husband’s work, you also want to jeopardize a federal operation, and endanger the lives of several agents. Not to mention puttin’ your own life and your daughter’s life at risk simply because you say so?

“Not because I say so.” Linda said in her own defense.” Surely he has some free time.”

Kelli said in a low voice so as not to startle the baby. “What part of undercover is so difficult to understand? Chris Larabee, your husband, my father, became someone else the moment he got on that damn plane and left Colorado. So no, you can’t talk to him.”

Barbara had been following the conversation between Kelli and Linda with interest. Thinking about it, she decided to put her two cents in. “I’m the newbie in this wild bunch, but even I know there will be times I will not be able to reach Ezra. You need to try and be patient.”

Trying a different tactic to get information the blond asked. “So where did Vin and Buck go on such short notice? And don’t you dare tell me you don’t know!” Linda huffed.

“Of course I know where they went. Vin said that they were going to a rodeo.” Kelli told the blond. “He said somethin’ about roundin’ up a rouge stallion and possibly castratin’ it if he give ‘em any problems.”

The Silver Slipper

Cord grumbled all the way to the club. “I smell like a damn brewery.” Sam had liberally doused him with alcohol after they left the hotel. If he was going to act drunk, he needed the rights props.

“Little brother, I never knew that you were such a whiner. Quit your bellyachin’ and save some of that grumblin’ for the cowboy. He’s the one that deserves it.” Sam laughed and shook his head. “Besides, I had to do the same thing.”

“This had better work! And just so we’re straight, I do not whine or bellyache!” Cord growled. “I hate this; it would be so much easier to just kick his ass.”

“You might have your chance to do just that before this night is over. Just make certain that we find a way to get that note to the cowboy in question.”

For a Sunday evening the club was relatively crowded. The blaring music assaulted their eardrums as they entered the darkened room, and it was time to put on their own show.

“Yew Haw!!!!” Sam let out a yell.” Hot damn, we made it!”

Cord, a bit unsteady on his feet meandered over to the bar and slapped a hundred dollar bill on the smooth surface. “Whiskey, straight, two shots, and leave the bottle.”

Adam looked up from the corner table, where he and Creed sat. He knew that voice, and that yell was unmistakable. Damn! What in the hell is Buck doing here?” He felt like shit, his arm burned and no matter how many he took, the damn pills that the doctor gave him had stopped knocking out the pain. The last thing he needed or wanted was to have to answer any damn questions about his actions. Elbowing Creed in the ribs, he nodded toward the front of the club, this called for some investigating.

Ryan took note of the two cowboys, and decided that at least one of them was way over the limit, but he set the bottle on the bar anyway, slipping the hundred into his pocket. He then turned to talk to one of the waitress as Adam and Creed made their way through the crowd.

“Here come our two lovebirds now.” The bartender flashed a brilliant smile. “Hey sweet cheeks, are you ready to ditch that Latin lover of yours, and spend time with a younger stud?”

Sam followed the younger man’s line of vision and almost choked on his whiskey, drawing attention from those close by. Cord pounded his brother on the back and grinned. The older Buchman brother’s blue eyes lit up with amusement when he realized that he was not the only one that saw the twosome approaching.

“Sir, are you all right?” Ryan looked at the mustached cowboy

“Yep, just got somethin’ stuck in my craw.”

Sam could feel the heat from the intense glare aimed in his direction as Adam and Creed straddled the adjacent barstools. Ignoring the two men seated next them, Cord slapped another hundred on the bar and told the bartender. ”Drinks fer ever’ body, and even include them lovebirds over there.” He tiled his head to indicate the ‘couple’ seated next to them.”

What the fuck are you doing here.

You never call, you don’t write, not even a postcard… sweet cheeks? What the hell do you think I’m doing here?


Don’t Vin me! You need to haul your ass out of here!

Not a chance in hell! Go home!

Adam did not miss the flash of anger in the blazing blue eyes of the younger man, before he turned away.

Sam shouted as the next act took the stage. “Look at that Cord! You reckon my Becky Sue could learn to move like that?”

“My Gina knows moves that would put that girl to shame. Hell that one ain’t half growed yet. Where’re the real women in this joint?” Cord spouted off.

“Hell brother, all the real women are in Texas.” Sam poured another drink.

As if on cue two scantily dressed, but obviously underage girls, made an appearance, draping themselves all over the two ‘Texans’.

Sam removed the arms that were wrapped around his neck and smiled sweetly. “Sugar, I ‘preciate the offer, but I think it’s past yer bedtime.”

Cord grabbed the hand that was reaching to lay claim to parts of his anatomy that he considered off limits. “The boys are private property, no trespassin’ without a personal invite.” The two rejected young ladies appeared to pout and then they moved on down the bar to the next customers.

Adam finally spoke. “What’s so special about the women in Texas?”

Cord winked and drawled, “They don’t come much livelier.”

“Then perhaps you and your brother should just mosey on back to Texas and leave the California women to real men.” Creed joined the conversation.

A wide grin creased the older Texan’s face as he pointedly looked from Cortez to Carmichael. “Reckon if there were any real men around here, you two wouldn’t be so smug. In fact, where I come from, your kind wouldn’t be caught dead in female strip joint.”

Course, I don’t reckon, you’d know about what real men like.” Cord added, prepared from what he knew was coming. It did not take long to get the reaction he was aiming for.

Carmichael’s fist connected to the younger Texan’s jaw with his first swing and the brawl began. It didn’t last that long, but enough damage was done to draw Victor Donner’s attention. His men put a stop to the fisticuffs’ and separated all the participants involved. Wills had hold of Cord’s arm, while his partner held on to Sam.

Donner stepped forward. “Gentlemen, you will leave on your own or with the help of my men. It’s your choice.”

Cord, pulled away from Willis and then he laid out a stack of large bills on the bar. “That ought ta cover any damages to yer club.” He took a step toward Carmichael, stuffed some bills in his shirt pocket, and grinned. “That was one helluva a good brawl, almost as good as back home.” He patted Carmichael’s chest. “Come visit our neck of the woods sometime.”

Be there!

Sam grabbed Cord’s arm. “Come on brother, I think we done wore out our welcome here.”

Donner watched the men leave, before turning on Adam and Creed. “I don’t pay you to start fights with paying customers. Get out and don’t come back until you have both cooled off.”

Adam’s temper was boiling and he started to smart off, but Creed pushed him toward the door. In a low voice only Adam could hear he snapped. “Not here and not now.”

Once they were outside the club, and far enough away so as not to be heard, Adam let his anger out. “We don’t need a goddamn babysitter checking up on us.”

“Empty your damn pocket.” Creed retorted.

Carmichael pulled out two folded over hundred-dollar bills with a small slip of paper tucked in between them. There was a crude map drawn on the note with a short message that Adam read aloud. “Your ride’s over Cowboy! One hour…BE THERE!

“That ornery ass Texan believes that he can order me around? Who in the hell does Tanner think he is?”


Buck leaned against their rented SUV, and hissed as he rubbed his aching hand. “You couldn’t find another way to pass Chris the damn note?”

Vin shrugged, “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

“Yeah, good and painful for both of us, and you’re gonna have one helluva shiner tomorrow. You think they’ll show?”

“I don’t know. Chris ain’t actin’ like our Chris, plus he’s hurt.”

“Hurt? You mean from the fight?”

“No, he favored his left arm, even before he hit me and he didn’t pull his punches like I did.” Vin knew he would be sore as hell tomorrow. “He’s not even thinkin’ like Lar’bee, and he’s holdin’ a lot of anger inside.” For the brief time that Chris allowed him in his head, he felt the turmoil that plagued the older man.

“Vin, maybe I should talk to him.”

“Uh uh Buck, he shut me out, not to mention disregarded a direct order. The whole purpose on me being in charge was to keep an objective view of the operation and protect MCAT while Lar’bee was under. Chris is acting like he’s the only one out here. He’s put the entire unit in jeopardy and he is gonna tell me why.”

Looking at his watch, Buck shook his head. “It’s been over an hour and they’re not here. You sure the map was clear enough?” All Wilmington was certain of is that they were somewhere near Big Canyon Reservoir.

“Nothin’ wrong with the map, Lar’bee knows where we are.”

Headlights indicated the approach of company. Keeping the SUV between them and the unknown car, Buck and Vin’s hands stayed on their weapons until they could identify their visitors. The car stopped and Raphael called out to them as he exited the driver’s side of the vehicle

Chris came out of the passenger side, advancing angrily toward the truck, and setting a course straight for Tanner. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”

Vin did not back down from the coming confrontation. “I’m doin’ my goddamn job! Trackin’ down a rouge agent who seems to think he’s the lone ranger!”

Buck intervened. “Maybe we should talk about this with cooler heads.”

Larabee snapped. “Stay out of this Buck; this is between me and Tanner!” Chris needed a target for his mounting frustrations, and the young Texan provided him one.

Vin’s own anger exploded. “The sonofabitch wants a fight Buck, and he’s got one! Bring it on cowboy!” Tanner didn’t hold back as he did in the club, he lit into Larabee with all the pent up rage that he had held in check since he had received Chris’ last message. They were not sparring for a class demonstration; both men faced one another with a burning ferocity. Chris got in several good hits, before Vin grabbed Larabee’s injured left arm and applied enough pressure to stop the raging black storm that Chris had unleashed.

A winded Tanner held on to Larabees’ arm and drew in a deep breath, “You want to continue this bullshit or are you ready to talk?”

Out of breath and in pain, Chris jerked away from the Texan, glaring at the younger man. Once he had the burning pain in his arm under control he ignored Vin and turned his attentions to Wilmington. “Take him home Buck, and I want both of you to stay there!”

“You want? You refuse to be called in, jeopardizin’ the entire unit as well as risk your own life and three other agents undercover. You know nothin’ about what is goin’ on and you have the balls to stand there makin’ demands about what you want! You are fuckin’ unbelievable! “Tanner yelled.” I’ve come damn close to losing four agents in the last three days, includin’ you daughter and do you care to know. Hell no! Hackers are breakin’ into our personnel records lookin’ for information on your ass! I’ve had to send all our families into seclusion and the whole damn unit is on high alert. I’ve got four dead suspects and I have to sit on my hands playin’ defense because you want everythin’ your way. You shut us all out, and owe me an explanation Lar’bee. I’m not leavin’ ‘til I get one!”

“I’m staying; you’ll just have to work around it! You seem to forget who is in command of MCAT. This is my unit and you take your orders from me, Tanner!”

“What happened to the Lar’bee that said ‘this is NOT a mission we will pursue at any costs’? You want to command, then get your ass back to Denver and do it! You stay here and you’ll be nothin’ more than out of control agent that has left the reservation and is runnin’ wild.”

“Your job is to mind the store in my absence, not dictate to me what I can and can’t do!”

“MY job is to lead the agents that work in this unit and ’til you walk back in that office that is what I plan to do. The only man I have to answer to is Travis. When you get back, ‘m gone, until then I am in charge and you can consider this a warning. MCAT has enough to take down Costa Mesa PD thanks to Justin and Zimmerman is history anytime we want him, thanks to Vance. We are going on the offensive against Donner, and we are gonna take him any way we can, along with anyone that stands in our way. I will not sit back and wait for you to get off that damn fence you’re sittin’ on, while MCAT is under attack.”

“I can fix that!” Chris turned to Wilmington. “Buck, as of now, you’re in charge.”

Buck hated being caught between two men that he loved and cared for, but he had to think with his head and not with his heart “Sorry stud, you’re the one that put Vin in charge, he has Travis backing him, too, and unless you’re coming back, he’s the man I take orders from. Looking from where I stand, he’s done a helluva job under some tough circumstances. Hell, he ought to get a medal just for handling Linda, she and Grace are home by the way, if you’re interested.”

Ignoring the reference about his family Chris only focused on Buck’s refusal to take over.” Fine, you two want to mutiny, go ahead. I will take Donner down myself, my way. I don’t need your approval or your interference! Get the hell out of California and go back to Denver, take Cordova with you if you want, but I’m not leaving!”

Vin briefly considered knocking Chris out cold and dragging his ass back to Colorado, but reason said even that would not stop him. Whoever this man was, he was not the Chris Larabee that he knew and Tanner had no idea what was wrong with him or how to keep him from self-destructing. The Texan was torn between loyalty to his brother and his responsibility to the other fifteen MCAT agents, as well as their families that were depending on his direction.

The deciding factor for Vin, was Chris’ refusal to listen, and his apparent apathy about his family’s welfare. “I’m sorry you feel that way Chris, my resignation will be waiting for you on your desk, effective the day you return to Denver. You might consider callin’ your wife though; she’s scared about what’s been happenin’ and worried about you.”

Chris did not give an answer; he simply turned and went back to the car.

Vin looked over at Cordova. “Rafael, your daughters are safe. Your wisest action would be to return to Colorado with us, because it’s your life at risk too. However, I’ll let you make that call as long as you realize that MCAT cannot sanction or protect you if you stay.”

“I know, and while I may not agree with him, he needs someone to watch his back. I’ll stay, and I will also be making the check-ins with Josiah myself from now on. You need to send a message, I’ll get it. I don’t know if I can influence the man, but I will try. You should have some pictures that I sent, waiting on you when you get back to Denver, maybe they will help. As soon as I get more, I’ll pass them along.”

Tanner nodded, and a non-verbal understanding passed between them. Raphael would do what Vin could not; stay here to protect Chris to the best of his ability, in spite of Larabees’ reckless actions.

“Watch both of your backs Cordova. It is no longer a question of if they find out who Adam Carmichael is, but when. I don’t know how much time any of us have before the shit hits the fan. I can only pray that it’s enough.”

Cordova shook Vin’s hand and received a slap on the shoulder from Buck. Taking the keys from his pocket, Raphael retraced his steps back to the car. He was aware that he might be walking into more trouble than he could walk out of, but his personal code of ethics would not allow him to leave Chris out here on his own. He vowed to himself that he would make every effort to get to the root of Larabees’ growing anger and attempt to defuse it…before it was too late.

Chapter 37

Santa Ana, California

Monday ~ August 14 ~ 6:00 am

Neither Buck nor Vin slept much, both men deeply disturbed by the hostile attitude that Chris had displayed a few hours earlier. Tanner finally gave up and decided that he was ready to get the hell out of dodge. Standing in a hot shower to relieve his aching muscles he thought about the events of the previous evening.

You handled that really well Tanner. What made you so certain that seeing Chris would resolve anything? It seems that you only managed to make matters worse. Hell, not only has he shut you out, now he thinks Buck has turned against him. Vin, he did not act as if it made a difference. He didn’t even ask about his family, or Kel or anyone else. What in the hell has he gotten himself into? The only time he has ever behaved this way was when…No; he couldn’t be back on drugs because. Chris is smarter than that. Since when does being smart mean a former addict can’t have a relapse? You heard what Nathan said, Chris would have to face the possibly that certain drugs could affect him for the rest of his life. Chris was still vulnerable; he had no damn business putting himself out there so soon after his troubles with Jack. Then again, maybe it is the stress of this damn case. Lord knows that it has played hell with everyone’s mental process.

Pounding on the bathroom door drew him back from his musings. “You plan on camping out in there all day”

“Be out in a minute Buck.” Vin turned the water off and grabbed a towel. Wrapping one around his waist, he took another to dry his hair, and unlocked the door. “It’s all yours.”

“He speaks! I thought you had forgotten how.” Buck took note of the bruises that were starting to show on Tanner’s body. “You okay?”

“I’m fine.”

“Yeah, sure you are and I’m Mother Teresa. Vin he…”

“Leave it Buck. I just want to get the hell out of here and go home.”

“I called the airport; the plane will be ready for take off within the hour.”

A slight nod of the Texan’s head was the only acknowledgement he was going to get.

Wilmington sighed; it was going to be a long silent trip.


For Chris Larabee, sleep was a long time in coming. Finally he was able to drift off just before dawn, and he had tossed and turned for the last three hours. His regular nightmares were back with a new one that saw his six brothers’ dead. He saw himself standing alone at their graveside wishing that he could join them, but the fire surrounding him would not let him. Chris knew that he was trapped in a living hell of his own making. Isolating himself from his family was not what he wanted to do, but in the state of mind that he was in he did not see that he had any other choice.

“Adam! Wake up! Jesus, you’re burning up.” Creed was certain that the man was in trouble, and when he pulled back the covers he understood why. The wound on his left arm was inflamed and a foul smelling yellow puss oozed from the stitches. “Damn it, why didn’t you say something?” Cortez wrestled the bigger man out of the bed and somehow managed to help him dress.

In his dazed state Adam could do little to assist him. He was hot, lightheaded, and not real sure about where he was. It was hard to separate his thoughts and his words made little sense.

Creed threw his arm around Adam’s shoulder and helped him out the door, through the club, and finally to the car. There was a hospital only a few blocks away, he could drive there faster than the time it would take to wait on an ambulance. It took only five minutes to reach the emergency room, but by the time they made it Adam had passed out. He explained to the nurse how Carmichael was injured, when, and what had been done to treat him.

That same nurse stopped Cortez at the examination room door. “Sir, there are some forms that you need to fill out at the desk. We’ll let you know about your friend as soon as possible.” Taking the clipboard, he sat down by the window and began to fill in all the blanks that he could. He decided to hold off calling Jonah until he had something more to tell him.

Denver Colorado

MCAT Office ~10:00 am

Buck had suffered in silence during the two and a half hour flight home. Vin had not said a word since they left the hotel early this morning. It wasn’t that Wilmington had not tried to get the Texan to talk; he had kept a one-sided conversation going for the first thirty minutes, but had finally given up. Once they landed Tanner had insisted that they go straight to the office.

Wilmington knew that Vin was as disturbed by Larabees’ behavior as he was, maybe even more. Buck had known Chris for over twenty years, and was well educated about the dark side of his friend. Tanner knew that Chris could be an ornery bastard at times, but they had a special twin like connection, and until now Vin had always been able to keep the blonde from sinking into that murky corner of his soul.

Appointing himself Tanner’s protector for the day, Buck set about becoming a buffer between Vin and the rest of the team.

“Buck, I think I may have found something that Vin should know about. Is he in his office?” JD roused Wilmington from his thoughts about his brothers.

“Yeah he is, but now is not the best time to disturb him.” Buck knew that Tanner intended to write his resignation, he only hoped that it would not be necessary for him to actually go through with it. “Why don’t you show me, and we’ll talk to Vin later.”

“I’ve been tracking O’Mara Enterprises’ financial trail, and have found several links to holding companies that are held in a blind trust. Usually that means someone in the public that can’t risk being accused of conflict of interest. I don’t have any names yet, but I’m close.” The report that he showed Buck was full of computer terms.

“Stay on it JD and try to put all of this into plain English for the team meeting in the morning. Be watching for pictures that Raphael is sending to us too. Good work, kid.” Buck grinned when JD rolled his eyes in response to being called kid and walked off.

Ezra approached Vin’s office door, but was sidetracked when Wilmington called to him. “Hey Ez, can I see you for a minute?”

“Certainly,” Ezra detoured to Buck’s desk.

“I figured you were on your way in to give Tanner a rundown of activities since we left. Hold off for a bit, Vin needs some time to …sort through a few things. I’m sure he’ll want to give you’re a report on what happened with us too. “

Standish took a closer looker at Buck, noticing the swollen knuckles and the tinge of blue on his cheek. “Am I to assume that all did not go well?”

Nathan walked up and joined them, overhearing that last remark. “Is Vin injured in some way?” Jackson had not missed the fact that Tanner had hurried to his office without speaking to anyone. “Does he need to see a doctor?”

Wilmington sighed. “No it didn’t, nothing major, and all he needs is some time. I’m sure that you both will hear all the details soon enough, but for now…”

Gunny interrupted. “Captain Tanner would like for the three of you to join him in his office. Agent Dunne has already been informed that his presence is requested, also.”

“I guess we find out now.” Nathan stated as he led the trio to Vin’s door where JD met them. Jackson wanted to check out the state of the Texan’s health himself.

Vin had done some soul searching and had come to two conclusions. One he would leave MCAT when Chris returned. His resignation letter was written and prepared to put down on Chris’ desk the day Larabee walked back in that door. Most of his personal files had already been transferred to his home office since they had moved into the new house. The rest were in a bag sitting behind his desk, along with a few other special mementos. Thanks to Ezra’s financial genius, and their decision to let him handle their investment selections, he and Kelli would not have to consider this choice a monetary hardship. Kelli’s trust fund, plus their investment returns would allow him to take time to consider his future. When the time came, all he had to do was walk away.

The second decision was more difficult. How much to tell the brothers about Chris’ behavior and how to proceed with their investigation. They needed to be prepared for actions that were sure to shock a couple of them. Vin’s first consideration had to be for MCAT. That meant making choices that would be contrary to any that he had made in the past. Larabee had made his decision and now the young Texan had to find a way to live with it.

Tanner was standing at the window with his back to the door when he heard the knock. “Come in.”

The four agents entered the room and sat down waiting for Vin to acknowledge their presence. Only one was prepared for what he suspected was coming, and the determined set to Tanner’s shoulders said that he was prepared to tell them.

Turning away from the window, Vin allowed for the expected reactions to his appearance before he said anything.

“Good Lord, what in the hell did you two get into in California?” Ezra was the first to speak.

Nathan was on his feet and already examining the black eye and bruised cheek on the younger man. “Damn, can’t you go anywhere without finding trouble?”

“I’m fine Nate, quit fussin’ over me.” Vin stepped away from the healer and went over to sit at his desk.

“Did Donner’s men do that?” JD asked “How did they know who you were?”

“All of you just sit.” Vin waited until they did.” What ‘m gonna tell you, I want it to stay with the five of us, for now.

“Sure Vin,” JD agreed and the other three nodded.

“I think y’all should know that our situation has taken a very serious turn. As of yesterday Lar’bee is to be considered a rouge agent. He refuses to come in under direct orders and will be stayin’ in California. However we will proceed with our aggressive investigation against Donner in spite of that. I’ll go over our latest reports and have a plan of action ready by tomorrow mornin’ to discuss with the entire team.”

Nathan questioned. “What wrong with that man’s thinking? When is he coming back?”

“I don’t know Nate, I wish I did.”

“Hell Vin, they deserve a better explanation than that. If you don’t tell them I will.” Buck stood up. “They have a right to know what that stubborn jackass is doing.”

Vin silently glared at Buck, and then took a deep breath. “Chris is not actin’ like himself. He was hostile, belligerent, and has only one thing on his agenda, and that is gettin’ Donner, his way. He and I had a difference of opinion about priorities, and he made no effort to disguise his dissatisfaction about how ‘m handlin’ my job. Raphael voluntary stayed with him to watch his back, and he will keep in touch with Josiah, but we cannot factor ‘em into any decisions made about how we proceed. Lar’bee and Cordova are officially on their own time.”

Nathan snorted. “Those different opinions have anything to do with how you got all those bruises and that black eye?”

“You and Chris got into a fight?” JD had a hard time imaging that they would let things go that far. “Now you’re saying we let him run off on his own, just like that?”

Ezra had sat silently and observed the conversation, while watching Vin and Buck’s body language. He also took notice of the slight changes in Vin’s office. Personal items, such as pictures and certificates, were not on display, it was as if all the individual signs that marked this as Vin Tanner’s space were gone. It was obvious that there was much more to this story than Tanner was willing to share. He decided to bide his time and wait for events to unfold.

“Gentlemen, I do believe we have heard all the explanation needed. I suggest that we refrain from asking more questions on this subject, and return to our duties.”

Buck knew how hard this was for Vin. “We’ll have a team meeting in the morning, for now it’s enough that you know what to expect.” Reluctantly Nathan and JD allowed Buck to herd them out the door, while Standish remained behind.

“Thanks Ez, I’ll talk to you later about the status of your covert ops. I need to go home early and talk to Kel.” Vin hated to even think about it, the Texan knew from first hand experience that being in the middle of a disagreement between two people you love was hell. He also knew that she would need to know a helluva lot more than he had shared here.

Ezra gave Tanner a two-fingered salute. “I am at your service brother; do not hesitate to call on me, should you require a friendly ear.”

Santa Ana, California

Donner’s office

“Are you certain that this man can do the job?” Victor Donner was wearing a hole in the carpet from his desk to the window. “I do not want this attempt fucked up like the last ones.”

“Word has it that he is the best at what he does, and at the price he’s asking for I’d say he has confidence in his abilities.” Willis sat in a chair and watched his boss pace. “His successful track record speaks for itself.”

“Three million dollars is a lot of money Arthur.”

“When you want an entire unit of a government agency taken out, it cost the big bucks. Once he has his money he will do the job, but you will not be able to call it off or even contact him again, besides Gant guarantees his work.

“He had better, I want MCAT ruined. Chris Larabee will rue the day that he dared to fuck with my business!” Victor stabbed a letter opener into a stack of papers on his desk. “Pay the man and tell him to go on it.”

Santa Ana Hospital

Creed had been waiting for almost five hours, before a doctor finally came out to see him

“Mr. Cortez, I am Dr. Glass. Your friend Mr. Carmichael asked me to come and talk to you. Let’s sit.” The doctor indicated the waiting room chairs and both men sat down.

“Is Adam okay?”

The doctor glanced over the chart in his hand. “He will be. The wound Mr. Carmichael received in Mexico was not cleared properly before it was sewed up. Consequently he was left with minute pieces of wood splinters inside that caused contamination to the injury. I have reopened it and cleaned the gash. Twenty-four hours of IV antibiotics and he will feel much better. We will be keeping him overnight, and you may see him as soon as he is moved.”

‘Thanks, Dr. Glass.”

“You are welcome, see the nurse and she can give you a room number. You can plan on taking him home late tomorrow afternoon or the next morning, unless we encounter unexpected complications.” The doctor shook hands with Creed and left.

Cortez when in search of the head nurse and she gave him directions to Adam’s room. By the time he found it they had Adam settled in and the young nurse was attaching another IV bag.

The nurse was explaining to Adam the purpose of each one. “It is not as bad as it looks, Mr. Carmichael. One bag is an antibiotic, the other is saline, and we also have a morphine drip that you can self administer when needed for the pain. All he had to do is push this button for a pre-measured dose to enter the IV line. “The nurse explained. “My name is Rita and I’ll be on duty until midnight. Call if you need anything.”

When she exited the room, Creed moved over to Adam’s bedside. “You look a helluva lot better than you did this morning. You need anything?”

Adam shook his head. “I do feel better, it hurts some, but I’ll live. Go on back to the club and tell Donner I’ll be back tomorrow. One of us needs to be there, and for now it’s you. Oh, and there’s no need to mention this to Jonah when you talk to him. “

“I hate to leave you here alone. Are you sure?”

I’m sure; I just need to get these antibiotics in my system to knock out this infection. Go on, I’ll be fine.”

“Then I’ll see you tomorrow, but call me if you do need anything.” Creed hesitated for a moment and then left.

Adam lay back on the pillows and sighed. He had the only thing he needed; he pushed the button on the morphine pump. He would not be having any nightmares tonight.

Denver, Colorado

Larabee 7

Early turned out not to be but an hour before their usual departure time. Tanner drove while Wilmington watched the young Texan silently struggle with his thoughts. Outwardly not many would know that Vin was hurting because that was a part of him that he rarely shared. Buck knew though and felt helpless.

“Anything I can do little brother?”

“Thanks Bucklin, but this is somethin’ I need to do on my own. I just have to find a way to tell Kel that her dad is being a stubborn bastard and that he is likely to end up gettin’ himself killed because of it this time.”

Buck had not yet considered that part of Vin’s turmoil had to do with his wife. How do you tell the woman you love that her father is leaving himself in a position that could easily have him end up in the middle of a disaster? Chris you have a lot of people needing some answers and you had better have some damn good explanations this time.

Trying to lighten the mood, Buck grinned. “I think she knows about the stubborn part already.”

Yeah, I reckon she does,” Vin stopped in front of Buck’s house.

“Vin …”

“Nothin’ more to say Buck, I’ll see you in the mornin’.”

Buck watched Tanner drive away and then he heard the shrieks of his two little angels as they yelled, “Daddy’s home!”

Dropping his bag, he caught the two little bundles of energy that were running to him. “Yep, Daddy is in the house.” He tickled both of them until they dissolved into hysterical laughter.

With a child under each arm he met Inez on the porch and kissed her before setting the young ladies down. “Hello beautiful.”

Sarah hopped from one foot to the other. “Can we show him now?”

Maria joined her sister. “Pleeeese, can we?

Buck looked to Inez for an explanation. “Barbara dropped off the preliminary papers for us to sign, she’ll file tomorrow and we should be officially Caleb’s guardians by the end of the week. The girls have an idea about a welcome gift they want to add for their new brother’s room, but they may need your help.”

“Then lead on ladies.” Buck grinned as they took his hands.

Tanner Home

“You’re home!” Andi and Jason exclaimed together the moment that Vin walked through the front door. Caleb’s broad smile in his direction was enough to let Tanner know how pleased the other boy was to see him again.

As all three kids ran to him, Vin dropped his overnight bag onto the floor and crouched down to catch them all in a bear hug. He stayed hugging them for several moments, relishing the feel of their arms around his neck, their love and excitement at seeing him a balm to his wounded spirit. He felt, rather than saw, Kelli enter the room from somewhere else in the house.

He looked up slowly over the children’s heads and saw her blue eyes widen a little in shock at the bruises on his face. Her mouth opened to ask him what had happened, but he gave his head a slight shake to indicate it wasn’t the time to discuss what had happened in California.

“That’s a pretty purple. “Andi reached up a hand to stroke his face lightly over where most of the bruising was located and asked, “Does it hurt?”

“Not much.” Vin told her softly, smiling at her comment about the color.

Andi kissed him on the cheek.” Now, it won’t hurt a’tall.”

Vin grinned at her lovingly. “Thanks, princess. Kisses always make booboos go away faster.”

Jason had been taking in the conversation quietly. “What happened?”

“Did you get in an accident or something?” Caleb added.

“No, I wasn’t in an accident.” Vin replied honestly as he stood up. “I just had a difference of opinion with someone.”

Jason gave him a funny look, and would have posed more questions to him, if Kelli hadn’t decided to intervene on Vin’s behalf. “Why don’t you kids, go get washed up for dinner? Max should have it about ready.”

“Okay.” Andi said, running off to do what she had instructed, but Jason and Caleb hesitated a moment, before they followed Andi out of the room.

Kelli closed the distance between them and Vin opened his arms to receive her. He hugged her tightly to him, drinking in the scent and the feel of her, adding it to the healing balm that the children’s hugs had given him.

“Bad?” Kelli said softly.

“About as bad as it can be,” Vin replied. “ Let’s not talk about it now, please…I just want to focus my attention on the children and supper…later, after they’ve gone to bed and we’re alone…I’ll give you all the details.”

“Alright,” Kelli replied. She would not push, because she knew that Vin would tell her everything when he was ready to talk about it.

Tanner leaned down and picked up his bag and the couple moved through the house toward their bedroom. Kelli talked quietly with Vin as he prepared to take a shower before supper. As each item of clothing was removed, her blue eyes trailed over his lithe figure checking for further injuries.

“I’m fine.” Tanner assured her, sensing her eyes upon him. “It’s not as bad as it looks.”

“I’ve heard that the women in California were aggressive, but damn, this is overkill.” She quipped lightly. “For your sake I hope you fought ‘em all off successfully.”

Vin cast a slight smile over his shoulder. “Don’t worry I protected the boys from trespassers. Your property rights are still intact.”

“That’s good to know. “ Kelli replied. “Not that I was worried in the least about your virtue. Now how about you get your assets in the shower and I will have the liniment ready for you when you get out.”

“Yes ma’am.” Tanner gave her a sloppy military salute as he headed for the bathroom.

The assorted members of the Tanner household gathered together for the delicious dinner that Max had fixed for them. The talk around the table that night was lighthearted for the children’s sake. No one mentioned blackened eyes, bruises, California, or Chris.

Vin eyed Andi picking at her Brussels sprouts and said, “What’s the matter princess, you don’t like the Brussels sprouts?”

“I’m not the princess anymore.” Andi replied, as she moved her fork around the little cabbages on her plate, lathered with butter. “I’m Sugar…’cause that’s what horses like, and I want them to like me.”

Snickers erupted from both boys on either side of the table in response to Andi’s comment.

Ezra quickly choked off the laugh that threatened to erupt when he noticed the chastising look on Kelli’s face. Schooling his features, he addressed the young lady in his best southern drawl. “Sugar is a popular southern endearment. I’m sure that the equestrians that reside on the property will be pleased with your choice.”

Tanner cocked an amused eyebrow at Ezra, and the southerner shrugged his shoulders as if to say, ‘What?’

Andi gazed across the table at Ezra with a puzzled expression on her young face. “Uncle Ra, what’s the question?”

Trying to decipher Andi’s response, it suddenly dawned on him what she meant. “Sugar, it’s Equestrian, not the question. Equestrian means horse.”

“Oh.” Andi’s cherubic face lit up with understanding.

As they were finishing their meal, Wilmington showed up.

“Hey, Buck. What’s goin’ on? Are Inez and the kids with you?” Kelli asked, looking behind him.

“Nope, I thought I would come over here and see if I could steal three little urchins for the night.” Wilmington replied.

Three little faces lit up.

“Can we Daddy?”

“Dad, can we?”

“Please, Vin?”

Vin looked at his wife who nodded her agreement. “Sure, why not? Go get your stuff ready.”

All three children excused themselves from the table and fled to their rooms to get their overnight bags. Once the children were gone, Buck seated himself in Jason’s vacant chair.

“Can I get you somethin’ to drink Buck?” Kelli offered.

“No, I’m fine.” Buck replied.

After Kelli, Max, and Barbara left the room with dirty dishes, Buck turned to Vin. “I thought you and Kelli could use some time alone to discuss California.”

“Thanks Buck.”

“While you two were gone, Ezra and I came up with an idea.” Walter spoke up. “Between your plans and Ezra’s financial wing dingin’, I think we can pull off that facility y’all want built on the ranch in no time at all. The location is perfect, accessible by the same road that goes up to your property and that makeshift firin’ range that y’all put up will be right close by, with a few improvements. It’ll be a separate and secure compound with everythin’ each of y’all requested, included. Best of all is that even by air it will appear to be just a set of barns for a few brood mares.

“I say go for it.” Buck said.

Tanner nodded his head in silent agreement.

“So, when are you going to inform the rest of us about what transpired in California?” Ezra asked.

“Ez, if y’all don’t mind I need to talk to Kelli first.”

“I’ve got the kids…” Buck said.

“Barbara and I can finish cleaning up in here.” Ezra added.

“I’ll be more than happy to walk Max home.” Walter volunteered.

Left with no more delaying tactics, Vin took a deep breath, and rose from the table to go to the kitchen and claim his wife. Vin knew that he had to prepare her for what could be a life changing experience, but …How do you tell the woman you love that the father she had just found and loved had made a choice that could end his life?

Chapter 38

Tanner Home

Just do it Tanner. Vin had never had a problem confronting dangerous situations. That was something he had done most of his life and never gave it a second thought; he would just wade in and take on whatever came at him. But when it came to possibly of hurting Kelli he had discovered that he was hesitant and unsure about just how to go about it. There was no way to soften the risks that Chris was taking and any way the Texan looked at it she was going to get hurt by either her father or her husband.

“Buck’s got the kids. Ezra volunteered himself and Barbara to finish cleanin’ up and Walter is gonna walk Max home. “Vin told his redhead when he entered the kitchen. “We need to talk.”

Kelli nodded silently, having anticipated that Vin would be ready to talk soon, and slipped her hand into his, allowing him to lead her out of the kitchen toward their bedroom.

Tanner closed the bedroom door behind them, leading her over to their rocker, and sat down, pulling her down onto his lap.

She gently caressed his bruised cheek. “Dad did this to you. Why?”

“He’s not comin’ home any time soon Kel, he’s on his own private mission and likely to get himself seriously hurt or killed.” Vin told her. “He was hostile, and just down right ugly about it. He let me know in no uncertain terms that he didn’t approve of the way I was runnin’ HIS unit. In fact, he tried to hand the reins over to Buck, but Wilmington refused. “

Kelli had figured out that Vin was reluctant to talk to her about Chris, and knew that whatever her father had done it could mean trouble. She decided to make it easy on Vin and not ask for all of the details…yet. “So what happens now?”

“Bottom line, the day Larabee walks back into MCAT, I’m walkin’ out. I’ve already written my resignation, Chris has accepted the terms, and I see no way of us continuin’ to work together after this case is over.”

She looked up at Vin to make certain that he understood where she stood. “Okay, so what do you have planned for us?”

Somewhat surprised by her apparent easy acceptance of his words Vin was a little thrown off track. He had expected that he would have to answer a few more questions about Chris. “Hell, I don’t know. I’ll probably take some time off and then go back to bounty huntin’.”

“Good, that’s somethin’ that we can do together.”

“Like hell it is.” Vin exclaimed. “You are NOT goin’ to be a bounty hunter.”

“And why NOT?”

“It’s too damn dangerous.” Vin stopped just short of yelling at her.

“As opposed to bein’ kidnapped, shot at, assaulted, and run off the road?”

“You are not goin’ to do this.” The Texan softened his tone and drew her closer.

”I can be like that bounty hunter’s wife on TV. She and her husband always work together, and they even get their kids involved.”

Vin gazed down at her with an incredulous look. “You’re serious, aren’t you?”

“Vin, my whole point is that we can do whatever we want to do. I love my Dad and of course ‘m worried about him, but my life is with you. I’ll back whatever decision you need to make.”

The Texan tightened his hold around her waist in response to her words. “You don’t realize how much that means to me. I know how difficult this is for you to be in the middle between us. This is the one time that I can’t be my brother’s keeper though and it hurts like hell.”

With Kelli’s encouragement he eventually gave her all the details about their trip to California. He knew that she was as worried about Chris as he was, but she made her feelings crystal clear. If she had her way she would be on a plane today, hunt Larabee down and give him one helluva lecture about his responsibilities to the people that love him and the foolishness of risk taking with his life as well as the lives of others. Fortunately the Texan was able to talk her out of it, reminding her about her concussion and their responsibilities to the children.

Once they had both vented, Kelli went to work on easing his pain. Her gentle massage helped sooth his aching muscles and her loving touches helped to diffuse Vin’s mental anxieties. Neither of them could control Chris’ actions, but together they could face the emotional turmoil that was created as a consequence of those actions. They found the peaceful comfort in one another that they both desperately needed and let sleep claim them for some much needed rest.

Tuesday ~ August 15 ~ 5:00 am

Vin felt one hundred percent better than he had last night. His body was rested and the aching muscles that had been protesting every move he made were now amicably agreeing to cooperate with his wishes. As he mentally reviewed the last few days his thoughts turned to the sleeping woman nestled next to him.

She learned well didn’t she Tanner. But then so did you, you thought that you were the teacher in this relationship, but she sure as hell showed you a few things. We spend our lives looking for the complicated recipe for happiness that is really very simple… love…so hard to find, but so easy to live with. Unconditionally given, it returns to enhance our lives with a freedom that is unobtainable in a state of solitude and immensely rewarding when shared. You’re one fortunate man Vin, do not ever lose sight of the treasure fate has given you.

“Tanner, you’re thinkin’ too hard.” Kelli snuggled closer to him “Whatever happens is out of your hands, Chris saw to that. The only thing we can do is pray that he comes out of this okay.”

“I got that message loud and clear, actually I was thinkin’ about you.” The Texan kissed the top of her head and tightened his hold on her. “The next few days are gonna be rough, I need Kelli Tanner wife, more than I need Kelli Coulter the agent. I want you to stay home for a while, give yourself time to completely heal, and be here to give me a place to retreat to after I leave the office. I’m not askin’ you to quit work, just…”

Kelli silenced him with a light kiss. “Vin, I do understand and I‘ll stay at home if that’s what you need me to do. We will get though this storm together, the same as we have all the others. You have been my safe shelter since the first day I met you, and I’m here for whatever you need, for as long as you want.”

“Then you had best plan on forever baby.” It had been too damn long since they had last made love and he needed to travel to that special place that belonged only to the two of them. With a one swift movement Vin rolled over her, blanketing his wife with his body and then proceeded to tenderly show her what he wanted, while their shelter of love shut out the rest of the world.

MCAT Office

Tanner had secluded himself in his office most of the morning reviewing reports. Had he been completely truthful, he would have acknowledged the fact that he was purposely distancing himself from the rest of the unit. After reading the same paragraph for the third time he threw the paper across his desk and sighed.

You made your decision Tanner, now live with it! I can damn it! Then why can’t you shake the feeling in your gut that says you should do more? Chris may have shut you out of his thoughts, but you can still feel his pain. Yes, but how do I help him and protect our families? Could you live with any of their deaths, if you didn’t do what your head says is required to insure their safety? You can follow your heart Vin, as long as you’re prepared to face the consequences. Are you? Damn you Larabee! Your stubborn ass is going to get someone killed if you don’t come to your senses soon. Talk to me, help me help you!

A sharp knock on his door pulled him back to the present. “Come in!”

Paul walked in, he was not certain if his information was important enough to disturb his Captain. However he was not willing to risk not telling him. “Sir, I’ve been going over the credit card receipts from our undercover operatives as you requested. Most of them are expected purchases but this one came in this morning and I think you should see it.” Roberts handed the information to Vin.

Vin looked it over, and was concerned. “Can you get me an itemized billing on this?”

“I already have Captain.” Paul passed three sheets of paper to Tanner.

Taking a deep breath, Vin knew he was holding a big piece to the Larabee puzzle. “Thanks Paul and let’s keep this private. If anymore come in, bring them to me immediately.”

“I’ll see if I can pry more information out of that computer for you.” Paul went back to his own deck, leaving a contemplative Texan behind.

Raised voice from the bullpen drew Vin’s attention. He recognized the two combatant’s words as belonging to Buck and Nathan. Those two had been dancing around one another since the Wilmingtons had announced their decision to adopt Caleb. It sounded as if they were done avoiding the issue.

Throwing his door open Tanner ordered. “Wilmington, Jackson, my office now!” Once he had them inside, Vin slammed the door. “What in the hell is going on with you two?

“I’m tried of hearing sarcastic remarks about us adopting Caleb. If you have a problem with me Nathan just say it!” Buck yelled.

“I don’t have a problem with you Buck! But what do you know about being black?”

“What in the hell are you talking about?”

“Caleb is a mixed race child. He has needs that you may not be able to handle anymore than Vin and Kelli could. He needs to know about his black heritage and someone that understands what that feels like. Until he came along, I didn’t realize how much I had neglected my own heritage and now I plan to do something about it.”

Buck was stunned by Nathan’s remarks. “You prejudiced bastard! You dare stand there and say we can’t be fair to that child! MY WIFE is Hispanic, and in case you’ve forgotten, my girls are of mixed race.” Wilmington took a threatening step toward Nathan. “We don’t consider race an issue with our children, and I damn well won’t allow ANYONE ELSE TO!”

”You don’t understand any better than Rain! I am NOT prejudiced! “Nathan met Buck face to face.

“ENOUGH!” Vin stood up shouted. “Both of you sit your asses down NOW!” Vin shot a scathing glare to both men. “Buck, you cool off.”

Tanner then turned and addressed the medic. “Nathan, I don’t know why this is an issue suddenly but it ends here at work. In all the years we’ve known one another I don’t think any of us have even thought about the fact that your skin color is darker than ours. ”Vin put his hand up to stop Jackson’s reply. “Regardless, whether you approve or not, Caleb is gonna have two parents that will give him what he needs more than anythin’, and that’s love. You have a problem with that, keep it to yourself! I want both of you to check your goddamn attitudes at the door! We have work to do here! Are we clear?”

“Yeah,” Buck sighed.

“Yes,” Nathan took a deep breath.

The Texan sat down again. “We may have a much bigger problem on our hands.” He pulled out the papers Paul had brought in. “Nathan look at this and tell me I’m wrong about what I’m thinkin’.”

Nathan read, and then raised his head to meet Vin’s eyes. “I wish I could tell you that this means nothing, but I can’t. If this is true then Chris is serious trouble. Did you know he was injured?”

“Yeah…yeah I did, but I didn’t think about how or…hell!” Vin looked at Buck. “According’ to what Paul dug up, he was injured in Mexico; a doctor there treated him and then sewed him up. The wound was contaminated and he had to go to the emergency room in Santa Ana. Evidently he or Raphael used Adam Carmichael’s credit card to pay the hospital expenses. Roberts was able to get an itemized list of the charges…they admitted him and …morphine was on the list of drugs included in the bill.”

“That is something Chris should never have, and I would guess that he had pain pills prescribed by the first doctor.” Nathan explained. “After what he just went through a few months ago…it’s too soon to expect his body not to react and demand more.”

“Damn, if he’s taking pills again that would explain his belligerence and all that hostility.” Buck shook his head. “We have to do something.”

“What would you suggest that we do, Buck? You saw how he was, and like it or not the man is of legal age, we can’t force him to do anythin’.” Vin stared out the window. “Chris knew that he couldn’t take any drugs without consequences. He made his decision and now we have to do our jobs.”

“I have some contacts in California, maybe I can track down the doctor that is treating the infection.” Nathan tried to think of a way to help.

“And then do what Nathan? You can’t ask about Chris Lar’bee, and you can’t use your name.” Tanner shook his head. “There is not a damn thing we can do unless Chris voluntarily agrees to it or comes home. I don’t see either of those things happenin’ anytime soon.”

Buck stood, “Vin…”

“Team meetin’ in thirty minutes, I’ll see you both then.” With those words, Tanner effectively closed the subject and dismissed them.

Santa Ana, California

Adam Carmichael did not have nightmares last night; in fact he slept better than he had in weeks. His arm still throbbed, but the sharp pains that he had been experiencing were gone, evidently the antibiotics were doing their job. As he lay in the hospital bed waiting for his doctor he thought about his situation. He knew he was walking on thin ice, but this was something that he had to do, for himself. He did not know any of these kids personally, but he did have children of his own and he felt the weight of responsibility to do something to help them resting heavily on his shoulders.

Vin doesn’t understand…Donner has to go down for what he has done to those kids. Anything less is unacceptable. I want the world to see him as the monster he really is. Didn’t Buck say Linda was home? Yes, but she will understand that I could not protect Kelli, but I can damn sure make a difference for Grace’s future. You should call her….No, not until I get that bastard and see that those girls make it home. Linda and Grace are safe, Tanner will see to that. You cut him out, what makes you think that you can fix things with him when you get home. This is Vin we’re talking about; of course I can fix things. He will forgive me, he always has.

Dr Glass entered the room with a nurse and picked up Adam’s chart.” How are you feeling Mr. Carmichael?” He began to remove the bandages on his arm to examine the wound.

“Better, it hurts like hell, but…better.”

“Uh huh, I believe the antibiotics have taken hold of the infection. I will be releasing you, but you must continue taking them orally. I will also prescribe a pain killer for you. Do you have someone that can pick you up?” Dr. Glass had the nurse redress the injury.

“Yes I do, but do you think you could double that prescription? I will be out of the country again soon and don’t trust foreign doctors anymore.” Adam requested.

“Sure, the antibiotics you only need for ten days, but I will give you a double script on the pain meds.” The doctor smiled. “You take care and don’t bang that arm around for a while.”

“Don’t worry doc, I won’t.” When the doctor left, Adam reached for the phone to dial Creed’s cell number.

MCAT Office

War Room

The agents barely had time to be seated when Vin started the meeting. The first thing they noticed was his short clipped words, no banter, and no preamble, just straight down to business.

“We have a lot to cover so let’s get started. Buck, you have a report on the task force results?” Tanner waited for Wilmington to start.

Buck opened the folder in front of him. “The task force has officially disbanded. The U.S. Attorney’s office has asked for and received felony indictments against thirty two individuals that we arrested in association with child trafficking and illegal imprisonment. Sorenson has felony indictments pending against him and is facing thirty years in prison. Two thirds of the juveniles recovered have either been reunited with their families or placed in a foster home. The rest are being treated for an assortment of medical problems and placements are pending. Bottom line, we shut down a large part of a multi-million dollar operation and our apprehended suspects will be spending many years behind bars.”

“Greg was next. “Forensics did not find any further evidence that would tell us who was responsible for the attacks on Agents Coulter, Santos, Walton or me. We are at a dead end on that part of our investigation. The only good news is that the two Denver PD officers that were wounded will recover.”

Nathan picked up next. “We may have found a South American connection to O’Mara Enterprises and weapons. I should have more information later today”.

“Our covert ops teams have been active. Justin aka Billy Ray has been assigned as a driver to the Costa Mesa Chief of Police and has been able to procure enough evidence to prove corruption in that department. The attorney general’s man, Michael Vance aka Michael Welch has proof of at least one FBI agents’ involvement and unfortunately has given us a trail of bodies to follow. It would appear that no one has survived to testify against either O’Mara enterprises or Victor Donner. Each possible informant has met with an untimely death. Raphael aka Creed Cortez has managed to send us picture of individuals that have met with Donner and I believe Agent Dunne has information for us as to their identities.” Ezra ended his report.

JD stood up and went to the big board. “Donner has met with several men over the last few days. This one is FBI Agent Zimmerman.” He pointed out the photos on the board. “This one is a known mercenary that specializes in weapons, Charles ‘Ghost’ Gant; CASSIE is digging into his background now. These other two we have not identified yet, but we will. I also am tracking a financial trail that had led to a blind trust. I am waiting on answers to inquires that I sent out, but if my suspicions are correct, we may have over first real link to Donner.”

Tanner nodded. Nathan, I expect to see what you’ve found as soon as it comes in. JD, Pam, stay on that link and I want Gant’s dossier on my desk ASAP. Buck, you and Mark join Nathan and Ross on finding those ties to Donner. Paul, you are to stay on top of the matter we discussed this morning. We are still on high alert status and will continue to work in teams, do not let your guards down, dismissed.”

Vin stood up, grabbed his folders, made a stop at Gunny’s desk and then went straight to his office.

Twenty minutes later JD was at his door and brought Gant’s file with him. “He is definitely a bad boy.”

Tanner took the file and JD still stood in front of his desk as if waiting for something. “What’s on your mind?

“How long do you want Mallory to work from the ranch, and do you think it’s safe for me to take Casey and the girls’ home?”

“I want to keep Mal out of the office for as long as Josiah is undercover, and no, I don’t think it’s safe.” Vin answered the younger man. “Keep working on that link. If the person you think is involved is at the top of this heap of criminals, he may be what we need to bring ‘em all down.” The Texan waited until JD had left to open the file and then began to read.

Three hours later, Tanner was finished making calls to his own unique sources, and he did not like the information that he had be able to gather. One thing he was certain of, MCAT was a target and this was no practice game. Whoever was behind this had hired the best and intended for the results to be lethal.

A sharp rap on his door as it opened was all the warning he got. Director Orrin Travis entered the room. “Don’t get up son, but we need to talk.” Orrin made himself comfortable in the chair in front of Tanner’s desk.

“Sir, you received the reports I had Gunny prepare and send to you?”

“Yes, I did, and that’s one reason that I’m here. I came to see for myself what it is that you weren’t telling me and to find out why you haven’t called Larabee in.” Travis laughed. “One look at your face tells me what you did not want me to see and unless I miss my guess, your received that paint job while attempting to convince Agent Larabee that it was time to come home.”

Vin did not answer, either to confirm or deny Travis’ guess.

Travis shook his head. “It doesn’t matter Vin, I suppose deep down I knew Chris was not ready for this. Travis the director is still in the dark, but Orrin the friend knows the demons that Chris has faced in the last few months. I should have pulled rank and ordered him not to go under, but…I did not. You are not to blame for him being out there, I am. Is he in serious trouble?”

The Texan thought about his answer. He may be pissed as hell with his brother, but he did not want to hang out their dirty laundry in public, especially with the director. “Probably.”

“I understand that this has put you in a difficult position Agent Tanner and I empathize with you. However, I trust you to do your job and right now MCAT’s survival is your job. I need to know exactly where we stand.” Travis made a decision. “What I am about to tell you does not leave this room.”

The tone of the director’s voice had Tanner’s full attention. “Yes sir.”

“As you well know, MCAT started out as a test. In the last year, we have done outstanding work on a number of cases. Most notably, this unit has neutralizing three terrorist’s threats, and halted at least two assassination attempts of high- ranking officials. Taking on serial killers, public corruption, computer crimes, and formed some remarkable specialized task forces, as well as now being involved with the current trafficking case, all of these successes have convinced the higher ups of MCAT’s worth. I told Chris that I wanted to move the office; I did not tell him the whole truth about why because at the time I could not confirm it. As of the first of the year we will not longer be under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Attorney General. MCAT will become an independent, specialized unit, and the only person I will report to resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. We have been given an unlimited budget and will have state of the art equipment, satellite feeds, a video war room, and anything else we ask for. We will remain a versatile, responsive, and respected premier Federal law enforcement agency, demonstrating excellence in all aspects of our operations. “

“Damn, sounds like a lot of expectations.”

“Indeed, and MCAT has proven itself capable of meeting those expectations. This unit will meet terrorist threats at home and from abroad, as well as to continue to take on the toughest, dirtiest cases, which will be what the public sees. We will however be called upon to covertly work on delicate matters that concern the national interest, which will not be publicly acknowledged. We will play an important part in keeping this country safe. MCAT must survive whatever threat is out there…even if all the agents do not. I need strong leadership and regardless of what happens with this case I plan for you to be a part of that. I will talk to Agent Larabee when he returns and make my expectations from him clear also. In the meantime, what are we facing?

Vin gave Travis the file on Gant. “My sources tell me he plays hardball, he is the best at what he does, he is successful ninety nine percent of the time, and has never left even one thread of evidence that would lead back to him for an arrest, hence the nickname, Ghost. I believe he has been hired to take out the unit.”

Travis read the dossier and Vin’s notes. “Okay what are you doing?”

“I am keepin’ the number of agents in the office at a minimum, our families are in safe locations, we are workin’ in teams of two or more, and I have ordered that our sensitive materials be moved to another location. I have also put buildin’ security on notice as well as kept all of MCAT of the highest alert status.” Vin leaned forward. “To be honest sir, if this man wants to take us out, there is not much I can do to stop him unless I have specifics on how he plans to do it. All we can do is to try to minimize the damage.”

“Can you link this to Donner?”

“He met with Gant in his office at the club, but just meetin’ with him is not illegal, I can only tell you what my gut says. We can take Zimmerman now for bribery and conspiracy to commit murder, connectin’ him to the attempt on Agents, Standish and Dunne in the warehouse. We have enough to indict five members of the Costa Mesa Police Department on conspiracy and corruptions charges. The only possible we have on Donner is this.’ Vin gave him the financial records that JD found. “I think you might recognize that name.”

“Yes I recognize that name and I hope you allow me to be the one to arrest the bastard.” Travis was learning how tough this job really was, with each new case. Not only did they have to watch for terrorist threats, they also had to deal with the greed of people that disguise themselves as law abiding citizens. “The man was already a millionaire, but he has to make money on the backs of innocent children too. That is unforgivable!”

“The only thing holding me back from giving the go ahead is the fact that I have two agents in deep with Donner. We blow the whistle now; they are as good as dead.”

Travis took in a deep breath and turned to Vin with troubled eyes. “Give them a forty-eight hour deadline to get out, and then we move on this despite the consequences. I will alert the proper authorities that we may have an attack coming, do what you can to protect as many as you can, but remember…this unit is not just one agent. Keep me informed and good luck son.”

As soon as Travis was out the door, Vin picked up the phone, dialed, and waited for the secretary to answer. “Jonah Drake, please.”

Santa Ana California ~ 5:00 pm

Creed had picked up Adam at the hospital earlier and was surprised at the difference twenty-fours hours could make. Adam looked one hundred percent better and sounded great. They were back at the club, sitting at the bar, waiting for Donner to give them their next assignment.

“Man, I can’t get over how good you look; yesterday I thought you were on death’s door.” Creed studied his partner.

“I’m fine, the arm is better and I’ll be good as new in a few days. Has Donner been busy while I was gone?”

“Yeah, something is up but I haven’t been able to find out what it is. I’ve sent pictures back home, but as for around here they have clamed up tight as a drum. You want to see who Donner’s been meeting with?” Creed had the stored pictures ready to show him.

“Hell, erase those and let the guys at home work on them, let’s see what we can dig up around here.” Adam rose from the table. “I think it’s time to let the boss know we’re ready to roll.” Carmichael downed what was left in his glass.

The two men walked through the club to the back and knocked on the door to Donner’s office.

“Come in”, Donner answered and turned to face them. “Just the men I wanted to see. You ready to work or do you need time for the arm to heal?”

Adam grinned, “Hell, it’s just a scratch and it’s not my gun arm anyway. What do you need?”

“I have a new associate that wishes to do some business with us. His men will be meeting me tonight to show me his merchandise. If I like what I see, then tomorrow night we meet with him. I want you two to go along as my protection. Be ready to move out in two hours.”

Creed smiled, “Will do.” He and Carmichael exited the office and walked outside the club.

“Now we have to protect the sonofabitch from one of his associates. I hate this!” Adam growled.

“Maybe this will be the one we can nail him on.” Creed tried to think positively. “I need to call Jonah and then we can go get ready.”

Make it fast; we don’t want to keep the man waiting.” Adam snarled.

Creed made the call and listened to what Jonah had to say. “I understand, we have a meet tonight, but we will make that deadline, I promise you. This is the last check-in we’ll make by phone, see you in two days.”

Adam had half-listened to the conversation. “What about two days?

“Code red, we have forty-eight hours and then we are out of here, with or without evidence. MCAT will be moving in on Donner then.”

“They couldn’t have enough to get him on the trafficking! What in the hell is Tanner doing? I should have hit him harder to knock some sense into that hard head of his!

“Doesn’t matter, we are out of here before they move in, you got that Carmichael! Midnight Wednesday we find Jonah and we are finished!”

“A lot can happen in forty eight hours!”

MCAT Office ~ 5:30pm

Tanner was ready to leave for the day. Tomorrow morning they would start the plans to take down, Zimmerman, The Costa Mesa PD, Donner and The big boss. Vin was anxious about Chris and Raphael, but hopefully Josiah could deliver the message and they would get out in time.

JD stopped him as he was headed to the elevator. “Vin!” Dunne was waving a picture at him. “You need to see this. I ran this photo through CASSIE again and crosschecked with our old cases. This man is the one that met with Donner this morning…he is also Kyle Wheeler, the same man that Chris busted five years ago.”


Chapter 39

MCAT Office ~ 7:30 am

Tuesday ~ August 15th

Tanner had worked late into the night trying to track Kyle Wheeler, after Josiah had confirmed there was no way to reach Chris or Raphael. The fact that Cordova promised to make the forty-eight hour deadline was not in the least bit comforting. It only further testified how out of it Larabee was. In his right mind, Vin knew that Larabee would have never have given up control of the situation, and would be staying in contact with Josiah himself. .As long as Wheeler was a wild card, Larabees’ life was in jeopardy, but the man was off the radar. After his early release from prison for ‘good behavior’, it seemed as if he had left the planet. The only good news was that Chris was still okay when Raphael made their last call in; it was possible that Wheeler never saw him.

Ezra walked into the break room where Vin stood staring at the empty coffeepot. “Why don’t you allow me to make a pot of fresh brew? I promise to mutilate it just they way you like it. Standish grinned at Tanner and didn’t wait for a response, before he proceeded to take over the coffee making. “Have you slept at all?”

“I got a couple of hours of sleep on the couch in my office. Appreciate you comin’ back in to help, Ez.

“Nonsense, we are a team and we support one another.”

“We were a team, now we’re…hell, I don’t know what we are anymore.” The Texan massaged his neck and grimaced.

Standish had been filled in on the events in California, and the suspicions that Larabee was reconnecting with drugs. It did not take a genius to see that stress and guilt were eating away at Tanner. While he may not be able to help Chris at the moment, Ezra pledged to do everything he could to ease the pressure on his younger brother.

“We are still a team, a damn good one I might add, but more importantly we are family. Although we may have our differences, perhaps a few more pronounced than others, we will find a way to survive. I know how it is between you and Chris, Vin. I have seen it, felt it and admired it, but he is an adult Vin. As an adult he will make his own decisions, good or bad, and answer for the consequences of his actions. Some of those decisions have inadvertently had an effect on the family as a whole. This one, however, is rippling throughout the entire MCAT unit, but in the final analysis, Chris is the one that will be held responsible, you can do no more than what you have done."

“You must have been talkin’ to Kel, that’s pretty much what she said. I know what I need to do and I will do it, but it don’t mean I have to be happy about it.

“It also ‘don’t’ mean that you have to face it alone.” Standish handed the young Texan a fresh cup of coffee.

Taking a sip, Vin smiled and gave his approval. “Damn, I didn’t know you had it in you. Are you gonna have some?”

“Good Lord, no! You enjoy it brother, I’ll stick to my imported brew.”



“Thanks Ez.”

“You are welcome.”

“Travis will be here in an hour, have everyone together in the war room by then. I need to call Kel.” Vin headed to his office and shut the door behind him. Sitting at his desk, he dialed home.

“Tanner zoo, head zookeeper speakin’,” Kellie answered, while she shushed the children.

Vin laughed, “Mornin’ baby.”

“Mornin’ yourself, Tanner…hold on…Jason take her outside to the box we fixed up, we’ll talk with your dad about keepin’ her….Tracker hush! Sorry, the kids found an apparently orphaned baby raccoon this mornin’. They brought it in and now Tracker thinks his territory has been invaded…I missed you last night…Are you okay?”

A slow smile spread across the Texan’s face. “I am now. I’m gonna try to get home tonight, but no promises. I love you, Kel.”

“Love you too.”

“You don’t overdo today, and remember to rest. Now, let me talk to Jason. I’ll tell him how to take care of that critter and suggest a few ways that might help Tracker become friends with our new family addition.”

“Oh lord, I suppose we add this one to the fish Barbara gave Andi and the turtle the boys found last week. Hang on…Jason, your dad want to speak to you.” Vin spent the next twenty minutes educating his son about raccoons.

War Room ~ 8:00 am

Orrin Travis joined the MCAT team meeting as a silent observer. He intended to stay closely involve until this case was brought to resolution. As he watched the agents come into the room, it struck him that the men and women of this unit were truly remarkable. Even though their unit and their families were threatened they did not back down and pulled together as a team. He knew also that Chris Larabee’s style of leadership was partially responsible for that, and he could see that same commitment in this room. He was also gratified to know that men such as Tanner, Willington, Sanchez, Jackson, Dunne and Standish, were also there to strengthen the core of this agency and teach that commitment to the newer agents.

Travis knew that he would do what he could to keep Larabee as the Commander of MCAT, but Chris would have challenges to meet, and hopefully with the support from these men he would be able to beat the demons that chased him. It would sadden him a great deal to lose a man of his caliber to drugs, and he could only pray that Larabee stayed alive long enough to have a chance to find his way back to a leadership position. Orrin was certain that MCAT however, would survive, because it was not the place or any one person that keep it alive. It was that commitment, caring, and the dedication of the team that made it what it was.

“Okay y’all listen up,” Tanner began, as he stood in front of the big white case board. “This is what we know.” He pointed to each item as he spoke, “This is a list of warehouses that O’Mara Enterprises uses and this one is the most active. Accordin’ to Agent Michaels there is a major shipment goin’ out of there in four days. We have surmised that Donner is reorganizin’ his inventory and plans to get rid of ‘excess baggage’. Nathan checked the shippin’ schedules and the ship they are using is headed to Turkey. Once we can place Donner with his unlawful merchandise at his warehouse, we will have the connection we need to arrest State Senator Bryant Hanson as a co-conspirator. JD has linked the two through, several dummy corporations, and a blind trust set up specifically to hide illegally gained profits from the trafficking of drugs, people and weapons. Director Travis has volunteered to make that arrest for us.

With information from Michael Vance, we expect FBI Agent Zimmerman to be present as well as several members of the Costa Mesa Police Department. Their purpose is to get rid of the loadin’ crew using their badges to make it look like a raid gone badly, when in fact it is plain old murderin’ the witnesses under the cover of law enforcement officers doin’ their job. This is the same set-up that Agents Standish, Dunne, and Coulter were caught up in last June. Once we move in, we will have what we need to charge all of ‘em with conspiracy to commit murder, kidnappin’, and corruption, to start with. The Internal Revenue Service will then begin another investigation into the financial affairs of the Senator, Donner, and O’Mara Enterprises.

Our target date is Saturday August 19th; the ship is scheduled to begin loading at 5:00 am and it will leave out Sunday morning at 3:00 am. We expect Donner to send his crates over to the dock by truck sometime around midday. Agent Wilmington has your team assignments, and we will leave for California at 4:00 pm Friday afternoon. In the meantime, we will remain on high alert status, and I am closing the lab for the rest of the week. Are there any questions?”

There were none, this was the moment they had all been waiting for, since the entire case had begun. This was their opportunity to strike back at the forces that were responsible for the attacks on their team and their fellow agents.

“All of you need to take the time to study these photos, and be able to match a name to the faces you see up here. Then see Agent Wilmington for your instructions, dismissed.”

Vin was gathering his papers when JD approached him. “I want to be involved, but Buck said you have me staying here.”

“JD, you are not completely healed from your last go around with these guys. I appreciated the fact that you want to go, but…I need you here.”

“I need to be there, to prove I can still work out in the field.” JD pleaded.

“Sorry, not this time.” Vin felt badly for JD, but he would not risk him getting hurt again, or worse. "I know how good of an agent you are JD; you don’t have to prove that. You will have other opportunities to be out in the field again, just not now." Watching JD walk away with slumped shoulders and obvious disappointment, Tanner almost called him back

“Being in charge sucks sometimes, doesn’t it.?” Travis grinned at the younger man. “He’ll be fine son, but you and I need to talk. Will it be in your office or mine?”

“Mine, it’s closer.” Vin led the way and shut the door when Travis entered.

Tanner waited for Orrin to sit down before he did, “Sir?”

“I have given our current situation some serious thought. When Larabee returns, he will need some time off to consider his future with MCAT. I am more than willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, within reason, that his rebellious actions are a one-time occurrence. However, I must insist that he attend mandatory counseling before he returns to his post and then there will be a probationary period for him to prove that he is truly rid of his…demons. I need you to continue as acting Commander until such a time I am convinced that Chris is indeed fit to return to his duties. This changeover is too important to leave MCAT without strong leadership and there will be numerous decisions that will have to be made concerning the new alignment for the unit.”

“When do you need an answer?” Vin had not considered that Travis would actually reprimand Chris. But thinking about it, what Orrin said made sense, not only for work, but for Larabee’s own health, mentally and physically.

“Is there a problem?”

Vin hesitated before answering. ”Actually sir, I was plannin’ to leave MCAT when Chris returned to Colorado.

Travis had suspected as much, and he was not going to allow that plan to come about in any event. Beside, he needed him to stay on until Larabee could straighten himself out. “I sincerely hope that you will reconsider. Just because Chris returns to Colorado, does not mean that he is returning to MCAT as if none of this ever happened. He will be put on suspended status regardless of your decision. Think about it and let me know what you have decided when this mission is over.”

“Tanner thoughtfully nodded his agreement. “I will sir.”

“Now what do you need from me for the operation on Saturday?

“Just be prepared to take Senator Hanson into custody when I call you.”

“That will be my pleasure.” Travis stood up.” Go home for a while, and that is an order. I know that you were here all night, and I do not want to see you drop from exhaustion before we’re done. You have a great team, delegate and let them help.”

“Yes sir.”

Larabee 7 ~ 1:00 pm

When Linda had called and invited Kelli for lunch with the girls, she never expected to get into the middle of a bitching session. However, here she was fielding questions from, Linda, Casey and Rain. Mallory, Barbara and Inez stayed pretty much out of it, but Kelli received the full brunt of the other women’s frustrations.

“We need a liaison with MCAT for all the wives and families of the agents. How can we help our husbands, if we have no idea what they are facing.” Casey asked.

“I agree that we need to be kept informed, not just ordered into seclusion because ‘it’s safer this way.’ Keep us safer from what or who? How can we protect ourselves if we have no idea what needs protecting? ‘Linda demanded. “Especially when our men are off on some assignment God only knows where.”

“It would be nice to understand what sets them off.” Rain joined in, thinking about Nathan’s strange behavior lately.

“It’s easy for you and Mallory; you both work there and know what is going on.” Linda snapped. “We get ordered around and aren’t even told why.”

Kelli sighed, and her head was about to explode. “Linda you of all people should know what it’s like out there. Some things you don’t need to know, just trust that it’s for your own good. But if you want things to change then you should talk to Chris when he returns and let him answer your questions, and decide then about a liaison.”

“I would ask him now if I could if talk to him. Can’t you just tell me when he will be back?” Linda glared at her friend.

"I don’t know when he is going to be back here Linda. It probably will not be until he’s finished with his end of this case. Kelli took a deep breath. “Look, I understand that it can be frustratin’, and this case has been hard on everyone, but it won’t last forever and then we can all take a breather.”

“Until the next case, “Casey commented.

Inez decided that it was time to change the subject. “Tomorrow night you are all invited to our place to welcome Caleb into our home. Barbara drew up the papers and Ezra filed them for us, and we are now officially Caleb’s guardians. Tomorrow is moving day for him, and the girls and I have a party planned. Buck is going to barbecue so come hungry, dinner first at six and then the party.”

Mallory hugged Inez, “Congratulations How long until you can officially adopt?”

Barbara answered. “We are hoping to have it completed before the new Wilmington baby gets here.”

“It doesn’t matter when the courts say its official, he is our son, and we plan to love him enough to make up for all the years he did not have a family. I am so grateful that Vin and Kelli brought him here.” Inez hugged Kelli. “Thank you.”

“No thanks are necessary Inez, just love him.” Kelli hated to lose Caleb, but she was more than please that Inez and Buck were the ones to adopt him.

“Unfortunately, since we are not allowed to leave the ranch without an armed escort, we can’t shop for a gift for him.” Linda pointed out.

“There are other ways to give a gift if you need to, Linda. But all he needs is the gift of family and we don’t need to shop for that.” Mallory smiled. “We will be there with bells on.”

“That’s somethin’ I need to see Mal. What kind of bells?” Vin walked in the back door. It had taken him longer to get away from the office than he had planned; it seemed that it was one thing after another. Buck and Ezra finally decided to take charge and insisted that the Texan go home for the rest of the day, assuring him that they would call if Larabee checked-in. When Tanner saw his children outside Chris’ home, he knew Kelli was somewhere close and stopped on his way home, visiting with the kids before he went inside.

“The jingly kind.” Mallory quipped, “What else?”

“Tanner you are just the man we need to see. “Linda was ready to blast him with more questions. “What happened to your face?”

“Sorry Linda, my head is killin’ me, now that Vin is here; I think I’ll try to persuade him to take me home.” Kelli was not about to let Linda start on him or tell her how he got the bruises. The redhead walked over to her husband and took his hand.

Vin narrowed his eyes, not sure just what he was missing, but was more concerned for his wife. “Of course, I will.”

“How about I bring the kids with me when I leave?” Barbara offered, more than willing to give her friend some time with her husband. “We may stop at the swings first though.”

“Thanks Barb, see you at home, and Linda thanks for lunch. I’ll see y’all later.” The couple walked outside, stopping to let the kids know that Miss Barbara was brining them home later.

“But we need to show you the baby raccoon.” Andi pouted, while Jason and Caleb ran off to play.

“Tanner knelt down and looked her in the eye. “I promise sugar, that I won’t peak until y’all are there to show me.”

Pleased that her daddy remembered her new name, Andi smiled. “Okay.” She quickly rejoined Joanne, Sarah and Maria.

“Vin led his wife to his truck and held the door for her to climb inside; she slid over enough to make room for him. As he put the key in the ignition he asked. “Do I want to know what you saved me from in there and how bad do you hurt?”

“No you don’t and I’m fine”. Kelli leaned into him and sighed. “Let’s go home. We have an empty house and you need some sleep.”

It only took a few minutes to make it to their home, and with his arm around her waist they walked inside. Once the door was shut, Vin drew her to him. “I’m not tried enough to sleep.” The Texan then lowered his head to meet hers and took them to a faraway, passion filled place with his kiss, as his hands caressed the women he loved and needed to take him away from the demanding world. The effect on both of them was immediate and explosive, leaving them breathless.

“Damn! “Kelli took a ragged breath and held onto Vin for support.

“Damn good!” Vin had found his shelter and for the next few hours he could forget the pressures of work and the stress of worry.

Tanner home ~ early evening

The newly acquired baby raccoon produced mixed reactions from the various adults in the Tanner household. Barbara was intrigued with the animal, Walter was amused, and Max took it in stride that they had another pet to care for. Ezra however, was apprehensive.

“Are you certain, that it is safe for the children to handle that…small creature?

Vin held the baby raccoon. “It’s safe Ez, you wanna hold her?”

“NO! I mean no thank you. I shall allow her to stay in your capable hands. After all you know more about wild things than I.”

Kelli smiled. Yep, “Tanner is an expert concerin’ …wild things.”

The Texan grinned at his wife’s double-edged remark and then placed the raccoon back in the box that the kids had fixed up for her. “First chance we get, we’ll build her a proper home, and have Matt come over to check her out.”

Max announced that dinner was ready and the group of adults and children turned their attention away from the new baby, to the meal that awaited them.

Santa Ana, California

Adam was anxious about the upcoming meet. Last night had only been a preliminary showing of the ‘merchandise’, two young girls that Victor took a personal interest in trying out. Carmichael and Cortez had no choice but to wait, while Donner took the juveniles into a back office for inspection. Once he was satisfied, he made arrangements to finalize the deal tonight, insisting that he would only do business with the boss. The time was set for 10:00 pm at a warehouse in Costa Mesa, and according to what they had been able to overhear, this batch of inventory was headed overseas.

“These are American girls being sold into sex slavery to foreign buyers!” Adam paced their quarters. “We have to find a way to stop this!”

“Unless you come up with a plan to put into action within the next twenty-four hours, our hands are tied. We are not going to miss out exit window.” Creed wanted to make sure that Carmichael understood that.

“Call Jonah, have him tell Tanner we need another week. We are too damn close to get out because someone is trying to play mother hen! I won’t leave until we save those kids!”

“No, I won’t! You did not hear a word I said did you? This is not about you or me! The takedown is already planned and scheduled; we have no way of changing that. We stay here and we might fuck up the best opportunity to get all the players or worse cause someone else on the team to get hurt. We are out of here by tomorrow night, with or without any evidence. You got that!” Creed did not want to risk the wrong ears hearing this conversation so he did not yell, but he did make his position clear.

Adam waited until Creed had stormed out the door and then pulled out his pills. He was certain this case was the root of his problem, and once it was over, things would return to normal. Tanner is overreacting and he has let the power of temporary command go to his head. I can straighten him out when I get home. Linda is overly concerned, but that is understandable, this is the first undercover assignment we’ve been through since we have been married. She’ll be fine once I return. What about Buck? Hell, I know he never meant to side against me, he was just caught up in Vin’s fears. Buck and I are okay What about the pills? Hell, I quit them before, and I can do it again, no problem.

In the meantime, it did not hurt a thing to use what he could to get through this hell This is only temporary. Downing four capsules without water, he counted the remaining pills. There were only a few left, but that was enough to get him through tonight, and tomorrow he would simply tell the doctor he needed more. He looked toward the closed door and said softly. “We’ll see about pulling out, Creed. I don’t need your help, and I damn sure don’t need Tanner’s. I will find a way.”

Costa Mesa Warehouse ~ 10:00 pm

They arrived in two vehicles, Donner and Willis in one, Creed and Carmichael in the other. Wheeler’s warehouse was in the last row of over a hundred nondescript storehouses. The remainder of Victor’s crew waited for him by the semi-truck that would transport his merchandise to a secure location until Saturday, when it would be delivered to the docks.

Victor Donner smiled when he thought about the results of this night’s work. He had made an exceptional monetary arrangement with his contact in Turkey and this merchandise was easy money. The fifteen units of merchandise would triple his investment in less than ten days. His crew was ready to neutralize the merchandise with drugs and load into a waiting container, as soon as the money changed hands. He ordered Carmichael and Cortez stay to assist the crew in the warehouse, while he and Willis walked to back office to meet with Kyle Wheeler, and finalize payment for the goods.

Kyle Wheeler was looking forward to making this deal. He knew Victor Donner by reputation, and if he was pleased with the merchandise, this transaction would produce a long and profitable partnership for his future. He stood to greet the two men that entered his office.

“Mr. Donner, welcome.” Kyle extended his hand and was ignored. Covering his embarrassment he walked over to the window that looked out into the interior of his warehouse.

“I have your money, tell your men to allow my crew to load my products.” Willis placed the case with the cash on the desk and opened it.

Wheeler signaled his men and started to turn away when he saw the face of a man he would never forget. He whirled around and yelled at Donner. “You bastard! You set me up for the feds!” He made a threatening step toward Donner, and Willis moved to intercept him.

“What in the hell are you taking about?” Donner yelled back.

“Chris Larabee, that’s what! That sonofabitch put me in prison for almost five years. Trust me, even under all that hair and with a beard, I’d know him anywhere! Him and that damn ATF crew of his have plagued my nightmares for years, and now you brought him here!”

“Show me.” Victor said softly.

“There…the man standing next to your car! That is Federal Agent Chris Larabee! He’s more ragged looking than I remember, but it is him!”

Donner took a deep breath to control the rage inside him. “You have been a great help to me, Kyle.” He placed his arm around Wheeler’s shoulder. “I never forget the people that help me, and I want to make certain that you get a reward.” The gun, which was pressed against his side made very little noise when it discharged. The bullet that entered Kyle’s body stopped only when it lodged in the man’s heart.

Stepping over Wheeler’s dead body, Victor wiped his hands with his handkerchief. “Arthur, no witnesses please.”

Willis nodded and then picked up the money case, following his boss out of the office into the warehouse. Heading over to the crew chief he quietly gave them their instructions.

Victor stopped and then called Adam and Creed over. “There has been a slight change of plans, gentlemen. I have one more meeting to make tonight. Carmichael, you’ll drive, Creed, with us.”

Willis and Donner entered the back of the car, while Adam slid into the driver’s seat and Creed sat in the front passenger seat.

“Where to sir,” Adam asked.

“Newport Beach, Peninsula Park, I have some business to tend to there with an old friend.” Adam drove toward the beach. Behind them at the warehouse, Donner’s crew boss carried out his orders. Six of Wheeler’s men lay dead in pools of their own blood, while the semi pulled out with the merchandise and a second car followed Donner at a discreet distance.

Adam followed the directions that Willis gave him, but he was beginning to get an uneasy feeling in his gut. This time of night the area they were headed for was desolate and dark, not somewhere he wanted to be with Willis and Donner behind him.

“Pull over here,” Donner ordered.

Exiting the car Creed passed a concerned look to Carmichael. He was beginning to have the distinct feeling that no one would be meeting them here. However, Cortez had no time to even register that thought before he saw a flash, and felt a burning pain in his chest and then… nothing.

“NO!” Adam lurched forward to attack Donner as he raised his gun to shoot Creed, but Willis was expecting the move. The larger man tackled Carmichael before he could reach Victor. With his reactions slowed down by drugs, and his injured arm, Adam was prevented from stopping the shot that impacted his partner’s chest. Helplessly he was forced to watch in gut wrenching agony, while Creed’s body fell to the ground and the front of his shirt was quickly saturated with blood.

Donner stalked over to Adam, his movements ridged with barely controlled rage. “Congratulations AGENT Larabee, you’ve just earned a one way ticket to hell!”

Chapter 40

California ~ Wednesday

August 16 ~ 7:00 am

The sky overhead was a bright blue with powder puff clouds dotted throughout it as seven-year-old Timmy Sanford and his father headed their blue van down the gravel and dirt road that led to the wooden pier that jutted out over the murky blue water a short distance away. His dad, James, had taken the day off work so that they could spend it fishing at their favorite pier. Although they never caught much, it was time that they could spend together and that was cool with him. Any day spent alone with his father was a special day.

Sanford parked the vehicle at the end of the long pier, and he and Timmy got out. Once they unloaded their gear from the car they began the trek to the water. As they walked onto it, a scrap of something colorful caught James attention out of the corner of one eye. He stopped suddenly and gave the speck of color more attention and felt horror fill him when his eyes were able to make out tousled strands of dark hair, and a pale face connected to it. Not wanting his son to witness the same thing that he had, he called quickly over his shoulder for Timmy to go back to their van immediately.

“Turn around and go back now Timmy!”

“But Dad…”Timmy started to protest, not understanding what it was that had caught his dad’s attention or why he was being ordered back to the van. They had only just arrived.

“Now, Timmy! I’ll be right behind you.” Once assured that his son was out of earshot, James Sanford pulled out his cell phone and dialed 911.

“911: please state your emergency.”

“My name is James Sanford. I was on my way to spend a day of fishing with my son when I spotted something colorful floating in the water along one side of the pier. Upon closer examination, I was able to discern that it was clothing attached to a body.

“Can you tell if the victim is male or female?” The emergency dispatcher asked.

“I think it’s a man, but can’t tell for sure unless I get into the water. I’d rather not do that because I don’t want my son to see.

“That’s okay, sir. Can you tell if the victim is alive or deceased?”

“I think the man is dead…’cause it doesn’t appear that he is breathing.”

“What is your location, sir?”

“Lido Isle at the Balboa Pier, I’ll be waiting at my car, a 2004 blue Dodge minivan.”

“I have a police officer in route now, ETA three minutes. Please stay on the line.” Sanford joined his son at the van and waited for the police to arrive.

“What’s going on, Dad?” Timmy asked curiously as the sound of a siren in the distance drew closer.

“Nothing you need to worry about.” James told his son as a police vehicle with flashing lights was pulling up alongside of them. He opened the car door and got out to meet the officer. “Stay in the van.”

As first officer on the scene, Deputy Reynolds took down Sanford’s personal information and his story for being there, before heading out onto the pier to check out the reported dead body. He had to wade into the water to reach the sandy little dune that the body lay upon. Positively identifying it as that of a man, he removed one glove, pressed two fingers to the jugular and was shocked to find a faint pulse. He immediately radioed in, "Dispatch, I need paramedics ASAP at my location. The previously reported deceased John Doe is in fact, alive.”

Mission Regional Trauma Center

Mission Viejo, CA

The double doors flung open as paramedics raced in pushing a gurney between them. Emergency personnel were waiting to take John Doe straight to surgery. They were prepared for the gunshot wound and acute blood loss, having monitored his stats by radio with the medics. They also knew that his condition was extremely critical and that every second counted in the race to try and save his life.

The Orange County Sheriff’s Deputy that had accompanied the victim approached the nurse at the desk. “Our John Doe is one lucky bastard. I don’t see how he is still alive, but if his luck holds and he makes it through surgery, contact me at this number immediately.” He handed her his card. “I‘ll swing back by and take his fingerprints, see if we can identify him.”

The nurse read the name on the card. “Deputy Reynolds it will probably be several hours before you can do that, but I will note his chart, and attach your card to it, with instructions to call you.”

“I doubt that he makes it, but thanks.” The Deputy left the emergency room to connect with his waiting partner and resume his duties.

Denver Colorado

MCAT Office

Their plans for the raid were in place for Saturday. The incriminating evidence JD had found connecting State Senator Hansen with Donner through the O’Mara Corporation, was in the hands on the U.S. Attorney, and the warrants had been issued. The only thing left to do now was to wait. Chris and Raphael had until midnight, California time, to contact Jonah and confirm that they were out, and Vin would not rest easy until then.

“Chris may be a hard-headed sonofabitch, but he won’t stay knowing that we’re coming in.” Buck sat in Tanner’s office and tried to assure the young Texan. His assurance would have been much more effective if he had been certain himself of what Larabee would do. Trouble was that he knew his old friend all too well. Chris Larabee was a man who was used to calling the shots, and didn’t take well to anyone ordering him around, whether it was for his own good or not. Being under the influence of narcotics was bound to make the man even more reckless and eager to carry out his own brand of justice regardless of the consequences.

“I wish I could believe that you are right in that Buck, but I just don’t know. I wasn’t going to say anythin’, but I’ve got a bad feelin’ about all of this. I haven’t been able to shake it since Monday, but Chris is way in over his head on this one.”

“Hell, I realized that when we saw him in California.” Wilmington let out a weary sigh. “Whatever he needs, we can handle once this is over. It may take the entire family to see him through the fallout, but we’ll do it one way or another.”

“If we get the chance Bucklin, Lar’bee has to get out alive first.”

“Even fucked up on pills, Chris will make it, he’s too damn ornery not to.”

Vin wanted to believe that it would all work out, but he just did not feel as confident about it as Buck did. He knew only too well how very lucky Larabee had been in the past, and the kind of obstacles that he had survived, but always before he had been able to depend on the connection that he and Chris shared to know what was going on with his best friend. Now all he had was instincts to go on, and the deep seated knot in his gut told him that something was terribly wrong in California. “Go on home Buck, and spend some time with your new son before his party.”

Buck grinned, “Son…damn that sounds good. Inez and the girls have his room almost finished. Sarah and Marie picked out a bed that looks like a racecar and added things they thought a boy’s bedroom should have. I don’t want to spoil him, but he deserves to have some of the things most boys his age take for granted. We’re gonna have one helluva welcome for him. I just wish Chris could be here for it.”

“Yeah, me too. “Tanner knew that whatever lay ahead was out of his hands, and that tonight belonged to the new Wilmington family. “Give Caleb a big hug from me, and get that barbecue fired up.”

“In case I forgot to tell you Vin, Inez and I are grateful that you and Kel agreed to allow us to give Caleb a home. I know you both love him and I swear we’ll make a good life for him.”

“I know y’all will. He’s got the best parents a kid could ask for. Now get out of here and go home.”

Ezra walked in as Buck was leaving. He waited until the door was closed before he spoke. “Mission accomplished. I have been online and have everyone’s gifts ordered and waiting to be picked up.” Since the ladies could not leave the ranch, Standish had been designated to acquire the gifts they wanted purchased for tonight’s celebration.” However, I need to borrow your truck to transport them. Perhaps we could swap vehicles for the remainder of the day.”

Tanner pulled his truck key off his key ring and handed it to Ezra. “Did you have a chance to take care of the cashiers check?”

Standish passed Vin the key to his rental. “Yes, I took the checks from each of the brothers and combined them. Caleb will have a good start on a savings account.”

Looking at the list, Standish laughed. “I do hope the lad has a big room, he’ll need it for all of this.”

“I reckon Buck and Inez will manage to find room for it all.” Vin looked at the key Ezra had given him.” When are you gonna replace the Jag?”

“Probably about the same time you and Kel replace her truck.” Standish sighed. “I fear that until this operation is over none of us have the time or the inclination to take on that task.”

The Texan nodded in agreement as he gazed out the window. “See you tonight, Ez.” He heard Standish quietly close the door behind him as he left the room.

I don’t know what in the hell you’re doing Cowboy, but it don’t feel right. Reckon you could open up that hardhead of yours long enough to let me know that you’re still around?


It was the slow rolling motion that threatened to make his stomach revolt that woke him. Chills racked his body and sharp pains accompanied the undulations his insides were performing. Chris tried to move his head and was rewarded with what felt like sledgehammers playing tag inside his skull. Attempting again with slower movements, he tried to recognize something that would give him a clue as to his location, and then attempted to remember what in the hell had happened.

Assessing his condition, he quickly realized it was not good. The bandages on his left arm were filthy and damp. Every muscle in his body screamed in protest and refused to cooperate with their directions to move. Several voices outside his door drew his attention, however the language was not English, it was Spanish. Although he could pick out a few words here and there it was spoken much too fluently, and with a dialect that Larabee had a hard time understanding. He listened intently for a few moments, trying to decipher more of what he was hearing, but he finally decided that he was coming up with nothing that would help him ascertain his location.

Think Larabee…what is the last thing you remember? Another attempt to move, found his right wrist resisting, and Chris slowly turned his head and saw that he was handcuffed to a steel bar welded into the wall of his small quarters. There was something familiar about this… A ship…you’re on a goddamn ship! How in the….God! Raphael? … Blood …too much damn blood!

Flashes of memory began to return. He remembered him and Cordova riding in a car with Donner and Willis. Then the four of them standing on a beach in the dark and Cordova suddenly falling and Donner, was yelling …He called you Agent Larabee! He knows who you are and it cost Raphael his life. You got your partner killed Chris. You and your damn, ‘I can do this on my own stubbornness’. Now you have to live with the guilt… if you survive. Why are you still alive? What kind of game is Donner playing? Better question Larabee… How in the hell do you get out of this? What happens when you don’t contact Josiah? VIN…he’ll come…he’ll find me. If he does you’re gonna have to help him Larabee, it might be beneficial to find out where in the fuck you are and do it before withdrawal hits you.

Mission Regional Trauma Center ~5:00 pm

Mission Viejo, CA

John Doe had survived surgery and now rested in the critical care unit connected to machines, tubes, and monitors. The general consensus of the staff was that there was no medical reason he was still alive. The amount of blood loss alone should have been fatal, not to mention the gun shot wound to his chest. The night nurse was checking on her newest patient, carefully jotting down the rate of his heart beat, pulse, and the changing of the IV bags down in the man’s charts, when she heard the door open behind her.

“No visitors,” she said automatically, not glancing up from the notations she was making in John Doe’s chart. When she didn’t hear the door open again to indicate to her that the visitor had left, she finished her writing and looked up finally and recognized the uniform. “Deputy, he is not awake, yet.”

Reynolds smiled. “That’s okay; I was going off duty for the evening and wanted to get his fingerprints if I could, before I sign out.”

“Hang on, let me get something to remove the ink when you’re through and I’ll assist you.”

“Sure, I’m in no hurry. I won’t be turning these prints in until in the morning anyway.”

Larabee 7 Ranch ~ 5:30 pm

Driving home, Vin still had not been able to shake the bad feeing he had about Chris. It was a little over eight hours until the deadline time, but deep down he knew that if Larabee was going to pull out or he would have already done it. It was going to be a long night if Josiah didn’t call with good news soon, but for the children’s sake he was going to try to put up a good front for Caleb’s party. He walked into his house, only to find it empty. A note on the kitchen counter told him where to find his family and he smiled as he read it. With the horses Tanner. Where else would they be?

“Andi, do not climb on there.” Kelli shook her head, and grabbed the mischievous imp, preventing her from climbing further up on the side on the stall. “We are here to visit the colts, not scare their mama’s half to death or me.”

“Mom, when will this one be big enough for me to take him out?” Jason was drawn to the little bay colt that he was brushing and was already callin him ‘Dreamer’.

“It will be a while, but if you really like that one, maybe we can designate you his personal caretaker.” Kelli knelt down beside him, while still holding on to Andi.

“I do…I like him a lot, but it seems like it’s taking forever for him to grow.”

“Just seems like it son.” Vin walked into the barn, hearing the last part of the conversation. “Midnight was about that size when I first laid eyes on him and look at him now.”

“Dad is home!” Jason jumped up and ran to meet him, laughing when Vin wrapped his arms around him for a bear hug.

“Daddy’s here!’ Andi wiggled loose from Kelli, and ran to Vin. She was hoping that he would keep her out of trouble for climbing again. “I love you and I won’t do it no more.” She giggled when he lifted her into the air.

Vin did not have to be a psychic to know Andi had done something that she shouldn’t have. He carefully leaned over with his additional blond cargo and kissed his wife. “What?”

“Climbing in the stall again,” Kelli whispered and smiled. She knew Vin would not be too hard on Andi. The little golden haired imp had him wrapped around her little finger.

Andi overheard. “Me forgot daddy.”

Shaking his head, Vin sighed. “Never climb into one of the stalls, you might startle the horse and get stomped on. We don’t want to see you get hurt Sugar, we love our Andi just the way she is, so remember, okay.”

“I will,” she answered, shaking her head enthusiastically as she spoke. Vin kissed Andi on the cheek, before he let her down. “We all okay about Caleb’s move?” Letting go of a foster child was hard even for an adult sometimes, he watched for any sign that either child had a problem with it.

Andi nodded and Jason answered for both on them. “He has his Buck and Inez now, we did good.” The youngster grinned and giggled. “He’s still got us too, Uncle Vin.”

“Then why aren’t y’all over at the Wilmington’s yet?” Vin smiled as he put his arm around Kelli’s waist. “I’ll bet Caleb is excited and anxious for you to get there.”

“We were waiting for you Dad.” Jason answered him as if he should have known why. “So our family can all go together.”

“Let’s put these babies back with their mamas and go then, ‘m starved.” Jason’s humor told him that he was okay, Andi’s smile said the same, but when he looked into Kelli’s eyes he saw the concern not for the children, but for him.

Tanner knew that he might be fooling the kids, but Kelli would know that he was worried. He sent her a silent plea to talk about it later and saw the reluctant acceptance in her eyes.


Chris did not have the strength to struggle any longer. He had given up trying to free himself from the cuffs, and now lay exhausted on the hard bunk. The pain in his arm was getting worse and he wished he had his pills to ease it, but they were gone, along with everything else he had on him last night. All he could do was stare at the ceiling and wait, for what he was not sure, but sooner or later he was positive that Donner would come to see him.

Suddenly the door opened and a man entered, gun in one hand, tray in the other. Sitting up as quickly as his aching muscles would allow, he realized that he did not recognize this man. “Who in the hell are you?”

The Latino man kept his gun aimed directly at Larabee, while he sat the tray on the floor. “No hablo ingles. No se mueva.”

“Great, the one person I see all day and he doesn’t speak English and tells me not to move, as if I’m going anywhere.” Chris mumbled and then attempted a question in Spanish. “¿Donde está aquí? Here. Where is here.” Chris pointed downward, but the only response he received was to have the tray of food shoved across the floor toward him. The man then backed out the door and locked it again.

Grabbing the water bottle, Chris fumbled awkwardly with the cap, trying to remove it. The food was some type of white gruel and not appealing at all, but the water was heaven sent. Once he quenched his parched throat, he sat back and thought about his situation. Any way he looked at it, it was not good; he could only hope that when he did not check in with Josiah, the team would begin to search for him. Maybe it was time to try to reach across the thousand miles to Denver and send Tanner a message.

Vin, if you can hear me, it’s time to send in the cavalry.

Wilmington Home

Wednesday evening ~ 7:00 pm.

Buck had laid out a barbeque feast for everyone’s enjoyment, and Inez had the house decorated with blue balloons and big banners. Some of them, the girls had helped with, but they all said the same thing. It’s a boy! Welcome home Caleb! The young boy was overwhelmed by all the attention, but a big smile never left his face. He alternated his time between his new family and the Tanners, and he and Jason were inseparable for most of the evening.

With the exception of Chris and Josiah the entire family was in attendance, along with Max and Walter. There were lots of hugs from all of Caleb’s new Aunts and most of the Uncles as well. Finally it was time for a few words and lots of presents. Buck stood and demanded everyone’s attention.

“I know someone is anxious to open all these gifts. But Inez and I want you to know how happy we are that all of you have joined us this evening to welcome our son into the family. If you had asked us a few months ago if this was a possibility, I probably would have laughed in your face, but Caleb came into our lives and stole our hearts without even trying. I want you all to know how proud I am to call this young man my son and Inez and I are looking forward to the coming years we will be able to spend with him. We also want to thank Vin and Kelli for bringing him to the ranch and loving him enough to let him come to us. In fact, Caleb has his own surprise tonight for them. We had a family conference and we all decided that he would have the honor of naming his new sister. I know she still has a few months to get here and it’s not December yet, but we liked his choice so much we wanted to share. Caleb, you want to tell them?”

Caleb stood next to his new dad and leaned into him to hide his embarrassment, but he had practiced what he wanted to say and his voice was loud and clear. “Our new baby sister will be Tannis Rose Wilmington.” He went over and hugged both Tanners. “Thank you for taking care of me and helping me find real parents.”

Vin could only nod, and Kelli tried not to cry, but it was obvious that they were both touched by Caleb’s choice. Apparently the child made his own slight change in their last name and thought Tannis was perfect for his new baby sister.

Ezra broke the emotional spell. “Before young Caleb opens his gifts I have one to present from the entire family.” He handed Buck and envelope.” This check is given with love from all of us to start a saving account for our newest nephew.”

“Thanks, all of you. Now I guess it is Caleb’s turn.” Buck handed him the first of many presents. When he was finished he was in a little boy’s wonderland, filled with all types of sports equipment, including a baseball, bat, football, helmets and pads. A gameboy came from Jason and Andi, lots of games, and more new clothes than he had owned in his entire life from the others. Many memories were made this day that he was not likely to forget in his lifetime.

While Buck and Inez helped their son with all his new possession and the party was winding down, Linda came over to talk to Vin.

“How much longer will it be before we are allowed to leave the ranch?” Linda asked casually.

“Soon, I hope. But until you hear differently, none of you are to leave here without an armed escort.” Vin hoped that after Saturday the worse of their worries would be over and Chris would be on his way home.

I don’t suppose you have…”

“No not since Monday, hang in there Linda, this will be over soon.” Tanner only hoped that his words held a confident tone that he was not feeling. He looked down at his watch.

Time is almost up Chris, call damn it!


Charles Gant was a disciplined man and meticulous when it concerned his work. Every job he had ever taken was important to him and he prided himself on his ability to succeed, especially where other before him had failed. Details were crucial and he made an effort to personally check out each one. He double-checked, the building blueprints in front of him. His equipment was the best that money could buy and few were able to match his skills. Picking us a disposable cell phone he left a message for his current employer.

Satisfied that all was ready, he turned in for a good night’s rest. Tomorrow was a big day for him and he did not want to be too tried to enjoy it.

Chapter 41

Thursday August 18th

5:00 am Mountain Standard Time ~ (Colorado time)

The deadline for Adam and Creed to withdraw from the undercover operation came and went with no word from Chris or Raphael. Vin gave up trying to sleep and quietly slipped out of bed, dressed and then headed for the kitchen to put on coffee. While it brewed, he walked out onto the deck, stared off into the darkness, and contemplated the possible reasons that Larabee had failed to make contact and the consequences.

He’s angry and not thinking clearly Vin, plus he did not want to be forced out. Maybe this is his way of showing you that he is still in charge… You don’t believe that Tanner, for a minute! Quit looking for a way to rationale your fears, and listen to your instincts. Chris did not make contact because he chose not to, but because he couldn’t! Now you will be forced into making one of the hardest decisions you have ever been asked to make. Can you say to hell with the case, and abort the arrest of the man responsible for the destruction of so many innocent lives to search for two rogue agents? Or do you perform your sworn duty to uphold the law, see justice served and hope like hell you can find them in the process?

Kelli had been awake since Vin had left their bed, and now stood in the doorway watching him as he struggled with his thoughts. She understood what it meant when Chris did not make his designated contact with Josiah, and to consider the possible scenarios that would explain why, hurt deeply. As much as she loved her father, knowing that her husband was caught in the hellish position between love and loyalty for his brother and his sworn duty to protect and serve justice, hurt worse. Silently she walked over and wrapped her arms around her tormented Texan.

Accepting her unspoken support, Vin returned her loving embrace. Resting his chin on top of her head, he let out a weary sigh. “I’m certain that Chris is out there in that darkness somewhere, in a world of trouble and hurt, waitin’ for me to find him, but with him cuttin’ me out and the haziness the drugs produce between us, I can’t hear him, and all I have to go on are my instincts. Hell, I don’t have a clue where to start lookin’.”

To Kelli, the powerful feelings of helpless frustration that was emitting from the Texan, actually felt like a physical presence standing beside them. With her head resting against his chest, she held on tightly to prevent room for those frustrations to flourish between them, and spoke softy. “Then you may have to wait for fate to lend you a hand, Tanner. In the meantime, have faith and trust your instincts to guide you into makin’ the right decisions.”

Tanner strengthened his hold on his wife. Fate and faith Vin. How many times have you said that some things are out of our hands? You are holding living proof of that in your arms right now. Have faith that mistress fate will provide the answers you seek, let her unfold her mysteries, and trust that your instincts will prepared you to act when she does. The Texan leaned back to look into the unwavering blue eyes that were waiting for him to resolve his conflicted feelings.

“Message received and registered, baby.” A light kiss sealed his words. “Coffee should be ready. What do you say we go in and face what Mistress Fate has in store for us today, together?”

“Sounds like a plan to me, Tanner.”

Mission Viejo, CA

7:00am Pacific Standard Time ~ (California time)

Deputy Alan Reynolds had come into work an hour before his shift officially began to follow up on yesterday’s John Doe. The way he saw it, if the man was fighting so hard to survive against the odds, he deserved to have a name. He took the fingerprints that he had obtained last night and entered them into Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System or AFIS, and he should have an answer within two hours.

MCAT Office ~ 8:00am MST

When Tanner had closed the lab and sent the technicians home for the week, he had not given much thought as to how quiet it would be to have half the twelfth floor uninhabited. The only evidence that they even had a lab was the presence of Greg Ramsey and Katrina Santos. Both agents had stayed on to lend their investigative skills to the unit and were working with Ross, searching dock records and ship’s registries for connections to the O’Mara Corporation.

Buck grabbed a cup of coffee and walked over to Tanner’s door. Leaning on the doorframe he took a sip and then said. “I figured with Ezra staying with you this week, he would at least be in on time in the morning.”

Without looking up from the papers on his desk Vin absently answered. “Ez is taking Kel to the doctor; she has a nine o’clock appointment. I expect Doc to release her today and they’ll both be in when she’s finished.”

“You okay Vin?” Buck knew that Chris not calling in had put the younger man in a damnable position. He had an obligation as acting Commander of MCAT to carry through with their plans, but he also had a deep sense of loyalty to his brothers, and when it came to Chris it was more than that. Regardless of why Larabee was acting like an ass, Tanner would move heaven and earth to try to protect him.

The Texan looked up. “As okay as I can be, Bucklin. We move in as planned on Saturday unless we find a specific reason not to.”

“You think they’re in trouble?”

“Paul says there as been no activity on their cells or credit cards since Monday, they have not contacted Josiah since that night, and my gut has a hole in it from churning so damn much. Yeah…I’d say it’s a safe bet that trouble found ‘em.”

“Chris is tough; he will hang in there and find a way to reach us.”

Vin realized that Buck was attempting to convince himself as much as anybody and simply nodded in agreement. He then stood and walked into the bullpen with Wilmington. Pam and JD were immersed into one of their CASSIE programs. Nathan and Mark were scouring over reports from South America. Tanner knew they would all continue to dig until it was time to leave tomorrow. He only hoped that Chris could wait that long.

California ~ 9:00 am PST

Chris had had a rough night. Only the chills that racked his battered, aching body, matched the pains in his stomach. Nightmares invaded his sleep and brought along all the demons from his past with them to torment him. He groaned as he tried to sit up and use the bottle they had left for him to relieve himself in.

Twenty minutes later, the door opened and Victor Donner walked in. “Agent Larabee, how are you this beautiful morning?”

“What the hell do you want?”

“Now is that anyway to speak to a guest?” Donner said a word in Spanish and quickly a tray laden with an assortment of appetizing food was brought in along with a television set. As one of the men hooked up the TV, Victor continued. “I thought perhaps you and I might share a brunch, and that you would be pleased to have some entertainment to pass the hours before you sail away.”

Larabee eyed the man suspiciously, Donner had told him a lot with that one statement. That he was to be here in confinement longer did not surprise him, nor did the fact that eventually the damn ship he was on would sail somewhere. But why was the bastard so damn happy? “Whatever game you’re playing, I’m not interested.”

Agent Larabee, you and I have been playing a game for months. I won, and I can be a gracious winner. You on the other hand, do not have to be a sore loser. You will of course disappear off the face of the earth to your family and friends, but you can count on a fairly long life in captivity… like an animal.” Donner laughed.” Yes, I find it rather satisfying to know that you will spend the remainder of you life in absolute misery.”

“I’ would not count on that Victor. You may defeat me, but my team will hunt you down.”

“You keep thinking that Agent Larabee, and we will see who has the last laugh. Now will you join me for brunch?

“Go to hell!”

“I will take that as a no.” Donner picked up a piece of fruit and then reached over to set the channel on a twenty- four hour news station.

MCAT office 10:30 am ~ MST

JD saw the alert coming through before anyone else, and quickly pulled it off the fax to read. Then without a word, he jumped up and ran to Vin’s office. Not stopping to knock he burst into the room and almost fell over the chair in his rush to get to Tanner’s desk.

“Alert from AFIS, someone just ran Raphael’s prints through there!”

“Calm down JD. Who ran ‘em?”

“All the info is on here.” JD shoved the paper to Vin.

Tanner read the full fax and then reached for the phone, dialing the number at the bottom of the page.

“Orange County Sherriff’s Department”

“MCAT Special Agent Tanner callin’ for Deputy A. Reynolds, it’s urgent that I speak with him about his John Doe.”

“Deputy Reynolds is currently on patrol, may I take a message?”

“NO, get me his superior NOW!”

“One moment please.”

It was considerably longer than a minute. But eventually someone did answer, someone that had taken the time to pull the information Tanner needed.

“This is Captain Johnson; may I assist you, Agent Tanner?”

“One of your deputies ran a set of prints through AFIS, all inquires on this man were tagged to send to us. Where is he?”

“We have him as a John Doe; he is at the Mission Regional Trauma Center here in Mission Viejo. He was found yesterday GSW to the chest, he’s in critical condition, but last I checked he was still alive. You have a name for me?”

Vin hesitated; he was not sure who to trust out there in law enforcement. “Cortez, Creed Cortez. I have one of my agents not far from there and I’m sendin’ him over to the hospital as soon as we hang up. Please make certain that there is an armed officer on this man’s door until Agent Sanchez arrives, he will have identification on him. I ‘d appreciate your full cooperation on this matter.”

“Tell your man to go to the critical care unit and find Deputy Reynolds. He is being dispatched to the hospital as we speak. He was also the first officer on the scene when Cortez was found and can fill in details for you.”

Thank you Captain Johnson.”

Hanging up, Tanner immediately redialed, waited for Josiah to answer and started barking orders. “Mission regional Trauma centers, Mission Viejo, CA. get over there to critical care unit ASAP, and find a Deputy Reynolds. Raphael was admitted as a John Doe yesterday, and I gave ‘em his name as Creed Cortez. Call me as soon as you find out the situation and check for any other John Does …Chris is still out there somewhere.” He slammed down the receiver and cursed.

“JD… Orange County Sherriff’s department… I need to know if this Captain Johnson is someone I can reasonably trust.”

“On it Vin.” JD ran out the door.

Vin went into the bullpen and found Wilmington as he was on his way out into the hall, Tanner stopped him. “Buck, you and I are headed out to California as soon as Standish gets back; Raphael is in bad shape at a hospital in Mission Viejo, no word on Chris.

“Damn! I’ll be ready, just say the word.”

The elevator door opened and neither man could believe it when Linda Larabee and Mallory Sanchez stepped out.

“Howdy boys, we were in the neighborhood and thought we would stop in and say hi.” Linda started to say more but Vin stopped her.

“I told you that no one was to leave the ranch without an armed agent!

Linda was ready for that. “Mallory is armed and is an agent, and we’ve been stuck on that ranch for over a week.”

“Vin, I’m sorry but it was either go with her or she was going on her own.” Mallory made a fast explanation.

“I want both of you out of here NOW!” Vin decided that he did not need this and wanted them gone.

“But, we just got here.’ Linda protested. “If Chris were here, he would let us stay”.

“Well, he’s not! GO STRAIGHT HOME NOW! No arguments!” Vin turned to Wilmington. “Buck, escort these ladies out of the buildin’ and make certain that they are headed home.”

“You got it, Ladies, this way please.” Buck made certain that they got on the elevator without another word.

On his way back to his office Vin stopped by JD’s station. “I want you to personally go down to Travis’ office. Advise him of what we know and tell him I need the jet on standby status. Buck and I are headin’ out today, before the rest of the team leaves tomorrow.”

“Here is the information you requested, and I am on my way to Travis’ office now.”

Tanner made one more stop by Gunny’s desk. “I need to see you in my office”

“Yes sir.”


Linda grumbled all the way down the elevator about Vin yelling at her. Malloy wisely stayed quiet and Buck made every effort to not snap at her himself. He walked them through the lower level garage to the adjoining lot where Mallory had parked.

“Mallory please, straight home.” Buck pled. “Tensions are high enough already without having to baby-sit women that should know better and stay on alert for anything that may look out of place.”

“Just what is going on that has everyone so stressed?” Linda would not give up easily. “We should know what’s going on.

Buck sighed, “Nothing that you need to be concerned about right now Linda.” He thought again about how Chris and Linda were perfect for on another, both of them were stubborn to the bone and tenacious as hell. Although how in the hell they managed not to kill each other was beyond him.

Before he could say more to convince the blond, Ezra drove in and parked three stalls down. He and Kelli exited the vehicle and walked over to the trio.

“Are we having a family reunion?” Ezra teased.

“No, more like a farewell party. Ladies say good-bye” Buck tried to rush them into the car.

“Kel, what are YOU doing here? I though no one was allowed off the ranch, not even you.” Linda demanded to know.

“The last time I checked, I worked here.” Kelli smiled. “Ezra was gracious enough to escort me to the doctor’s office this mornin’. I have to drop off my release papers and ‘m hopin’ to steal Vin away for lunch before he sends me home, too.”

“We could wait for you and give you a ride.” Linda offered, not yet ready to go back to her home that now seemed more like a prison.

“No, you two are leaving, please.” Buck insisted.

Colorado time ~ 10:55am MST

Charles “Ghost” Gant had waited all morning for the perfect time to execute his plan. This was it, he raised the weapon to his shoulder, and three light squeezes were all it would take to launch the timed rocket grenades through the windows of the twelfth floor offices of the Federal building. He took a deep breath and held it, counting mentally one…two…three...

Once the three grenades were off, Gant laid the rocket launcher on the roof, walked over to the elevator and hit G. Removing his gloves; he stuffed them into his pocket. He would be out on the street and blended into the crowd before anyone realized what had hit the building across the street. Hailing a taxi, he gave instructions for the cabbie to drive to the airport. Tonight, he had plans to sit on a beach in Mexico with a pretty senorita, and relax.

10:56am MCAT office

Tanner stood at his desk and signed the stack of papers Gunny needed his signature on, while she waited patiently for him to finish.

“Gunny, Wilmington and I will be leaving shortly for California and Standish will be in charge. I want any call from Sanchez transferred to me, no matter where….INCOMING!!!!”

Vin threw himself at Gunny a mere second before the rocket propelled grenade connected with the large solitary window in his office. The two inch glass cracked upon impact and Tanner had barely enough time to tackle the older woman to the floor and cover her with his own body, before the window imploded. A million shards of glass rained down upon the Texan and Gunny, slicing through their clothing and stabbing into their skin, Tanner’s body taking the brunt of the abuse.

The missile burrowed its way through the door, sending chunks of wood flying in all directions. The deadly grenade connected with the floor just inside the office and exploded, peeling back the tiled floor like a giant can opener and sending pieces of it flying in every direction, along with red hot sparks from the fire that had been ignited by the explosion.

The explosion from Tanner’s office had no time to register with the operatives in the other room as the line of windows along one wall shattered inward, sending sharp shards of glass spewing in all directions from two more grenades detonating. Pictures and awards certificates fell off of walls, computer monitors, and personal items slid off of desks as they tipped over throughout the large room. Huge chunks of ceiling fell as the walls caved in around the agents, trapping most of them under piles of debris. The loud noise of destruction gave way to a stunning silence and then alarms began to sound and all hell broke loose in the Federal building.

Travis’ Office ~ 11th floor

JD had just finished delivering the information that Tanner had wanted personally given to the director, and had turned to walk out the door, when he felt the structure give a violent shudder. He reached out a hand to steady himself in the doorway for a moment, pondering whether they had had an earthquake or not, when the building’s alarm system began to go off. Fear coursed through his body when a chunk of the ceiling fell onto the director’s desk and the MCAT agent gazed wide-eyed at the director for a moment in stunned silence.

“What in the hell was that?” Travis shouted at last, having been momentarily shocked by what had occurred.

“Explosions!” JD ran to the stairwell at the other end of the floor and jerked open the door. He darted into the stairwell and started up the steps toward the twelfth floor, saying a silent mantra of, Please God, let them be okay. He arrived on the landing between the eleventh and twelfth floors and stared in disbelief. The whole set of stairs was gone; there was nothing but a gaping hole between the landing and the wall. The door that led into the bullpen from the staircase was splintered into two pieces. JD wildly contemplated an attempt to jump across from the landing, and through the doorway, even though he knew that it was an impossible feat. Then Casey’s face swam before his eyes and reason prevailed over his emotions. As hard as it was for him to turn around and head back down in the direction that he had just come, the young MCAT agent knew that he had to find another way to help his brothers.

Parking lot

It took less than a minute to register with Buck, on what it was that he heard. It had been a long time, but he knew that sound, it was from a RPG. Rocket propelled grenade…He thought he would never have to hear that horrible noise again after he left the service; nevertheless his instincts kicked in and he shoved Linda and Mallory onto the ground behind the nearest car, sheltering them both from harm’s way with his own body. Ezra was a little slower to pick up on what had just happened, but he nevertheless followed Buck’s lead and dragged Kelli down behind the car as well.

A second and third explosion followed the first and Wilmington’s heart raced as he wondered what floor they had been aimed at. Even as he wondered, his head was telling him he already knew the answer to his unasked question. He waited until he was sure that there was no more falling debris before he allowed anyone to move. He signaled to Ezra that he thought it was all right to come out from behind the relative safety of the car and stood up. Several vehicles had damage done to them from the mixture of glass, splintered wood, and cement that covered everything in sight of the part of the parking lot closest to the federal building.

With fearful eyes, Buck glanced up the length of the building and exclaimed, “Dear God!”

Ezra stood up and his green eyes widened with shock as his mind tried to take in the fact that it looked as if the whole twelfth floor was demolished.

Kelli had scrambled to her feet as soon as she felt Ezra’s protective arm fall away from her body while Standish rose into a standing position. Her heart raced with fear as she, too, looked upward and took in the demolished state of the twelfth floor. Vin’s face flashed before her eyes and she let out an agonized, “NO!!!”

The need to help Vin propelled her into a dead run toward the parking garage, determined to get inside the building to find her Texan. She wouldn’t even consider the possibility that Vin was gone. She would know it if her husband was dead.

“Kelli!” Buck sprinted after the redheaded MCAT agent, grabbing her around the waist, and tackling her to the ground. “Kel, you can’t go in there yet!”

“Let me go!” Kelli fought to free herself from Buck’s grasp, shifting out of his hold on her and rising to her feet once again. She started toward the building again, only to have Buck grab her once more in a tighter hold. “Please Buck!” She struggled to get free. “VIN IS IN THERE!”

“I know darlin’, I know. We can’t go in there until we are sure that whatever is exploding has stopped. We’ll do Vin, Nathan, or none of the others any bit of good if we get injured in the process as well.” Buck told her soothingly, trying to ease her out of her panicked state of mind. He shifted his hold on her so that his arms encircled her arms, tightening the hold ever so slightly to prevent her from possibly disabling him with a well-placed hit. Even though Kelli was starting to calm down, he didn’t want to take any chances that she was lulling him into easing his grip on her, so that she could slip out of his grasp and go to her Texan’s side. The wail of sirens could be heard in the near distance. “Do you hear the sirens? Help is on the way, and we’ll get Vin out of there, Kelli, I promise.”

Linda and Mallory stared in disbelief at what used to be the top floor of the building. It now looked as if someone had taken a giant baseball bat and knocked off part of the entire floor. Where the bank of windows had once stood there was nothing but sinister looking holes peering out through the twisted metal frame. Frantic people were pouring from the exits in search of a safer place. Smoke was beginning to cover up the clear blue of the sky.

Ezra snapped out of his momentary shock and pulled out his cell phone to call Barbara at the ranch. When she answered he gave her no time to talk. “Barbara, listen to me, there has been an explosion of some sort at the Federal Building, have Walter and Max help you round up all the children and the ladies. Do not let the children near any television or radios. Screen all calls to the ranch and tell Walter to watch out for reporters. Tell Inez that Buck is here with me, and so are Linda, Mallory and Kelli. I’ll call as soon as I know more and Barbara…I love you.” He closed his phone and mentally listed what needed to be done.

“Standish, what can we do?” Mallory moved into agent mode and was ready to help.

“For now we wait, the building is being evacuated and the fire department will have to work their way up. The best thing that we can do is to stay together and watch for our friends and family to come out.”

”We were just up there, if Vin had not insisted that we leave…” Linda was finally realizing that there was more than one reason why it had been important for them to stay put at the ranch. “Thank God, I left Grace with Inez.”

Kelli had finally stopped struggling to free herself from Buck. He loosened his hold on her and instead of trying to flee toward the building, she found herself unable to move. She held onto him for the strength to stand. Buck’s words had penetrated through her overwhelming fear and she realized that the kind of help that Vin and the others needed was more than she could give. They needed professional help from people who knew how to handle crisis situations like this. All she would do was be a hindrance to them, and that was something that she was unwilling to do. Yet, she couldn’t just stand there and do nothing. So she did the only thing that she could think of to do, she prayed. She prayed for Vin, JD, Nathan, and the rest of the MCAT agents, and anyone else in the building that had been injured in the explosion as silent tears cascaded down her cheeks. Kelli watched with the others as emergency personnel arrived in the form of firefighters, paramedics, homeland security officials, and police officers, to begin assessing the situation and then act upon the commands of their superiors.

California time 10:10 AM

Victor Donner had kept a one sided conversation going for the last thirty minutes. Chris had no idea what the man was up to, all he wanted was for the man to just leave, so he could suffer alone. His head ached, his stomach felt like fire, and listening to the man ramble on was nerve-racking.

“Donner, do you ever shut up?” Chris snapped. “Take your conversation somewhere else.”

“You should enjoy the company while you have it, Agent Larabee. “ Victor glanced down at his Rolex. “It should not be long now. Or should I say Commander Larabee, I do tend to get confused with all those blasted titles. You seem to have quite a bit of confidence in your team. Do you really believe they will come for you?”

“Our unit is the best of the best. They will come and you will pay when they do!’ Chris spat at him.

“You will of course forgive me if I don’t believe you.” Victor laughed. “Look, breaking news. Shall we listen?” He turned up the volume and sat back to enjoy the show.

The newscaster spoke. “We have just received word that the Federal building in downtown Denver, Colorado has been rocked by at least two explosions. We have a reporter on the ground there and we take you there live.”

“Amanda Banks, I am reporting live from the chaotic scene, in Denver Colorado. Details are still a bit sketchy, but we have been able to learn that the damage has been confined to the top floors of the building. Apparently the explosions originated on the twelfth floor that houses a federal law enforcement agency. Officials are being tight lipped about how many may have perished. We cannot confirm yet if anyone on the eleventh or twelfth floors have survived. It appears that most of the people from floors ten down have managed to exit the building with minor to no injuries, except for being in a state of shock. At this time no one has come forth to claim responsibility for this devastating terrorist attack. We hope to have more detailed information for you shortly, but here is a look at our view.” The camera panned to the building to show the outside damage.

“Hmmm, twelfth floor, federal building, Denver … Does that sound familiar Larabee?” Donner gave an exaggerated sigh and stood to leave. “It does not look as if your team will be going anywhere soon…except to the cemetery. Pleasant dreams Agent.” Victor left, but his laughter echoed down the hall.

Chris started at the television screen in disbelief. He felt the gut-wrenching spasms that gripped his insides and denial was all that he could grasp “No…they can’t all be gone….NOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!”

Chapter 42

Mission Viejo, California

Mission Regional was the designated trauma center for south Orange County. As a Level II trauma facility, they were prepared to address the most critical cases immediately and maintained everything necessary to treat life-threatening injuries around the clock. It had taken Josiah only twenty minutes to reach the hospital, after turning over the job of director of the mission to Nancy Harding until Fred Wilcox returned to assume his duties. He had no trouble finding the critical care unit or Deputy Reynolds.

Identification in hand, Sanchez approached the deputy. “Josiah Sanchez, MCAT. I need to see Mr. Cortez and then you are going to tell me everything that you know about what happened to him.”

“This way,” Reynolds opened the door and allowed Sanchez to enter first.

Josiah had tried to prepare himself for what he would find once he arrived in Mission Viejo, and hoped that it was all one big mistake. However there was no denying that the man that lay before him was Raphael Cordova. Swathed in IV lines, tubes and wires, the man looked like death itself. Monitors beeped as the venerator swooshed, and there was a chest tube inserted that drained into a bottle beside the bed. A young nurse was adjusting the IV, and looked over to the intruder.

“May I help you?’

“Agent Josiah Sanchez, I’m here to identify this man. Has he been awake…said anything?

“No, and truthfully he is fortunate just to be alive. What is it?”

“Excuse me?”

“His name, I like to talk to my patients, and it might help him, if I knew his proper name.”

Josiah knew that he would not be leaving his teammate alone and felt it was safe to use his real name. Without hesitation he answered. “Raphael…Cordova. I have orders to keep him under my protection, so I will be staying. If it’s not possible to be in here with him, then I will be right outside the door.”

“It’s for his doctor to decide about you staying in the room. If you’ll wait outside, I will find him as soon as I am finished here.”

Josiah walked back outside and rejoined Deputy Reynolds. “Tell me.”

“My Captain checked out your Special Agent Tanner, and once he was satisfied that you are who you say you are, he sent this over.” The deputy handed him the case file on John Doe.” I was first officer on the scene so if you have any questions after you look at this, I will try to answer them.”

Sanchez opened the folder and began to read, his attention however was diverted by loud yells of outrage from the waiting room. Keeping the door of Cordova’s room in sight, he walked the few steps down the hall to investigate. Several people were gathered around the television that was mounted in the corner of the room. As he watched the newscast and realized what he was seeing his heart felt as if it would burst into pieces.

“Sweet Jesus, No!!” Josiah quickly directed Deputy Reynolds to stand guard at Cordova’s door, while he rushed to reach the outside of the hospital. Cell phone in hand, the first number he tried was Vin’s and … nothing. He dialed again, praying that Buck would answer, but it seemed that all circuits to Denver were busy and a recorded message advised him to try again later.

A feeling of total helplessness washed over Josiah as he saw Mallory’s face and thought about his brothers. For all he knew, he, Justin, and Raphael may be all that was left of MCAT. He began to pray.

Denver Colorado

Buck herded everyone to a safe spot in the parking lot, away from the devastation point, but well within view. Anxiously, he and the others waited for any of their team members to exit the building with the rest of the personnel. Orrin Travis and his administrative secretary, Suzanne Mills, were among one of the groups. Wilmington waited until the director had handed the young woman over to medics to check out, before signaling to the older man.

There was obvious relief in Travis’ eyes as he joined the small group. “Buck… status report.”

“We were out here when the blast occurred sir, so far you are the only one I’ve seen…that.” Buck’s voice choked off.

“Dunne was in my office when it happened, he’s okay. The last I saw of him he was trying to make his way up the stairs to the twelfth floor. Jack Kerrigan will be the Agent in charge of the rescue and investigation. I don’t see how in the hell someone got past our security with a bomb though.” Travis shook his head in disbelief.

“It wasn’t a bomb. It was an RPG, sir. Unless I’m way off it, was fired from that building.” Buck pointed across the street. “I’d be willing to bet that the launcher is still up there too.”

Orrin was astonished. “Rocket propelled grenades, Good Lord.” He took in the stricken look on Kelli’s face, as well as the shell-shocked expressions on Linda and Mallory’s faces. “Buck, take this two-way and connect with Kerrigan. We’ll need a command center and it might as well be right here. It will also be an easy place for our other team members to find once they’re out.” He tried to sound reassuring.

Buck took the radio, but was hesitant to leave Kelli. Sensing his reluctance, the redhead gently pushed him away. “You have a job to do, ‘m okay. I promise I won’t try and do anythin’ foolish, unless I tell you about it first.”

Ezra stepped up to her side, appointing himself Kelli’s overseer until Vin was back with them. “We’ll be fine.”

Wilmington nodded. “If you happen to see Selina Cordova, I need to speak with her.” He picked up the radio and with Travis’ directions, began coordinating with Agent Kerrigan.

Linda came forward and put an arm around her friend’s shoulder, attempting to offer Kelli comfort. “Kel, I am so sorry. If Chris were here…maybe this wouldn’t have happened…I.”

Kelli pushed her back. “Stop it! I don’t want to hear any ‘I’m sorry! Vin is NOT gone! “Fear and anger were responsible for her next words. “You are right about one thing though! If my father was not such a hardheaded sonofabitch and had come home when Vin first ordered him to, this might not have happened! But Chris had to do things HIS way, effectually tyin’ our hands and stoppin’ the team from making the first strike. The whole unit waited on him to come to his senses and now…now it may be too late.”

“You think this is Chris’ fault? What do you mean ordered him home? Where in the hell is Chris?” Linda had a ton of questions. None, though, that anyone was prepared to answer…yet.

Mallory took Linda by the arm and moved her away from Kelli. She kept her own thoughts on the subject to herself. “This is not the time or the place for a screaming match, Linda. All your questions will be answered, but now we should concentrate on getting the team out.”

Kelli stalked off in the other direction, trying to get control of her seething emotions. Ezra fell into step beside Kelli; for once he was at a loss for just the right words to say. Although she had spoken in anger, he could not help but feel that perhaps Kelli was partially correct in what she had said. Would this have happened if they had been free to go after Donner sooner? And just where in the hell was Chris?

On the twelfth floor

Vin coughed, choking on the smoke and debris particles filling his lungs. He struggled to rise, feeling the pinpoint pricks of pain shooting through his limbs, and up onto his torso, from where he imagined he had been cut from the flying glass shards. Those smaller pains were doubled as he twisted into a sitting position on the floor next to Gunny, and he knew from the change in his breathing that he had sustained at least one broken rib. Even though he was in pain, he knew that he should be grateful, that he was still alive.

“Gunny…can you hear me?” he gently reached out and touched two fingers to the older woman’s neck and was relieved to find that her pulse was steady. She, like him, must have been momentarily knocked out from the explosion, and was covered in the fine layer of sheetrock dust.

Even as he felt for a pulse, Gunny stirred and began to cough.

“That’s it…come on, Gunny.” Vin coaxed the older woman.

“W-what happened?” Gunny questioned as she came awake and sat up slowly with his help.

“Rocket propelled grenade.” Vin told her. “Do you think you can stand? We need to get that fire all the way out and clear a pathway into the bullpen so that we can check on the others.”

“I’m alright sir, just got winded.”

Helping each other, the two of them rose to their feet. Gunny, like Vin, seemed to have only sustained multiple minor cuts and abrasions, and was ready to do whatever she could to help him get into the bullpen to find the others.

It didn’t take them long to put out the few sparks of fire still burning around the doorway, since the fire system had been alerted along with the regular alarms, and the sprinkler system had rained heavily down in the bullpen and Vin’s office. They cleared a path of debris out of their way and stumbled over what was left of Gunny’s desk to get to the other agents.

Tanner stood in wild eyed shock at the devastated outer office, fear for his fellow MCAT agents coursing through his body, one specific agent coming foremost to his mind. Kelli! No, she hadn’t arrived at the office with Ezra yet. He ran down a list of the rest of his brothers, remembering that he had sent JD down to Travis’ office, and had asked Buck to escort Mallory and Linda out of the office. Nathan.

“Nathan?” he called out quickly, trying to remember where he had last seen his brother. “Nathan, if you can hear me answer me!”

“Here!” Came a pain filled voice from somewhere to his left. “But I’m afraid I can’t move, my desk decided to sit on me for a change.”

“Keep talkin’, I’m comin’ to you.” Tanner turned toward Jackson's voice, wondering how in the hell any of them had survived.

“Sir, I’ll start looking over here.” Gunny told Vin. “I remember seeing Agents Santos and Ramsey talking near their desks before you called me into your office.”

Tanner nodded his assent and started toward the direction that Nathan’s voice had come from. He worked to remove wreckage out of his way, clearly scanning the debris-laden floor for any signs of movement, or a flash of color that would indicate clothing, or God forbid, even a stray limb that would indicate the positions of any of the other agents. He periodically called out their names as well as he worked, but only silence answered him and that was worrisome.

Closer now to Nathan's desk he could see one of Jackson's legs. "Almost to you Nate, hang on.”

“I’m not going anywhere, Vin."

Nathan’s comment startled a wry laugh out of Vin. Both of Jackson’s legs were visible from this side of the desk and Tanner hoped that the desk hadn’t severed anything. As he began to carefully clear away the rubble around Nathan, he began to breathe easier. While the desk was tilted over onto its side, one section of it had landed on top of a large chunk of the ceiling so that it wasn’t touching the medic’s extremities at all. This puzzled Vin at first, since Nathan had clearly told him he couldn’t move, but as the last of the debris was moved aside so that only the desk and the chunk of ceiling remained, Tanner could make out Jackson’s left arm partially pinned beneath both.

Tanner sucked in a breath. “I’m goin’ to have to do this a little bit at a time, Nathan.”

“Do whatever you have to do, I’ll handle it.”

Vin stood up and scrutinized the task before him. He didn’t think he would have any problem in moving the desk off of Nathan; it was just disposing of it. He took a careful look around the area directly nearby Jackson to make sure that he wouldn’t be heaping anything onto one of the other agents. He moved around the to the other side so that he was standing with his legs on either side of Jackson’s body, placed his hands on the edge of the desk and gave a mighty heave. Nathan let out an agonized scream as the desk went flying backwards and landed on its side. The piece of ceiling was easily disposed of and Jackson let out a groan.

“Where else do you hurt Nathan?” The Texan asked as he crouched down beside Jackson and began to give the medic’s body a look over.

“Everywhere.” Nathan replied with another groan as he moved one leg and then the other, relief flooding over him when they obeyed his commands. He hadn’t known if the reason why he didn’t feel the weight of the desk on him was because his spinal cord had been damaged, or because it had actually been stopped by something else to keep from crushing him. “Except from cuts and abrasions, maybe a cracked rib or two, the only thing broken is my arm.”

“That’s good, Nathan.” Vin told him. “Just rest here while I help Gunny keep lookin’ for the others. Emergency crews should be arrivin’ at any time to give us aide.”

Jackson nodded and Vin stood up, forced back a groan, and went to work moving debris and looking for other members of the team that were trapped beneath the rubble.

“Captain, I’ve found Agents Ramsey and Santos.” Gunny called out.

“What are their conditions?” Tanner called back.

“Ramsey is conscious, but in extreme pain. Santos is out cold with a large knot on the side of her head, but she’s breathing.”

“Help…someone help us.” A male voice called out from somewhere between Gunny and Tanner’s locations.

“Westin?” Tanner called out, recognizing the pain filled voice. “Keep talkin’. Who’s with you?”

“Ross…Captain, he’s hurt real bad…his leg…part of it’s gone.”

Tanner felt his stomach turn at the news, but didn’t let it deter him from getting to his men. “Is he breathin’?”

“Yes…but it’s very shallow.”

“I’m comin’…just try an’ stay calm.” Tanner tried to reassure the younger man. “How about you? Do you hurt anywhere?

“My…my left shoulder…fills as if somethin’ stuck a hot poker in it an’ my hands ache.” Westin replied.

“Vin…” Nathan’s voice filled the room, stronger than what it had a short time before. “You’ve got to get something and make a tourniquet around Ross’ leg…to stop the bleeding or we’re going to lose him before help arrives. If you find the missing limb, wrap it up in case the doctors can save it”

“I’m on it, Nate.”

Tanner reached the two agents at last and found that the area immediately around them wasn’t as filled with wreckage. It didn’t take but one look to realize why. Lying on the floor close to where Ross’s severed foot lay was a spent grenade. He chased down the red-hot wave of anger that flooded over him as he turned to his two agents. Westin leaned against the damaged wall with Ross’ head in his lap. Both agents were covered in the same ashy white substance as he, Nathan and Gunny were. There were telltale flash burns on the two men’s faces, as well as multiple minor cuts and abrasions. Vin struggled out of his shirt, ignoring his own pain, and quickly used it as a tourniquet to stop the bleeding and then he carefully removed Mark’s shirt to use for the severed limb.

Coughing to his right alerted Tanner to the fact of two figures moving slowly toward him, and he gave a sigh of relief as he recognized Pam and Paul. “You, two, okay?”

“I’m sore, but pretty much okay, Captain.” Pam said

“We’re about as okay as we can be after someone blows up a building with us in it.” Roberts told him.

Looking at Anderson, Vin knew that help better arrive soon or Ross was dead.

Command Center

Agent Kerrigan had the command center in place and per Wilmington’s directions, the rocket launcher was found. Confirmation that it was not a bomb did little to lessen the apprehension of those on the ground. It was JD who reported to the emergency personnel that the stairs leading to the twelfth floor were gone. Buck’s blue eyes had filled with moisture as he caught sight of the younger MCAT agent coming out of the garage with a stream of personnel. He waited until JD had given the valuable information to the fire Chief, then reached over and grabbed Dunne in a warm hug. JD had hugged him back just as tightly, oblivious to the gazes on them. Then Wilmington had led the way over to the small group that had been outside of the building when the explosions had occurred where JD was greeted emotionally by all three women and Standish.

Buck returned to the command center where he was informed that Military helicopters were on the way to Denver to assist with the rescue operations, and National Guard troops were on standby, in case they were needed to assist with crowd control. A medical evacuation helicopter was the first to arrive and was now ready to make an attempt to get medics into the damaged area. Blueprints of the twelfth floor were spread out on the hood of a car and Buck pointed out the probable locations of his fellow team members. At least where he thought they would be before the attack. Several medics volunteered to go up and Buck pleaded for a chance to get inside, but in the end, those most experienced with high rise rescues were the only ones allowed to go up.

JD cursed as he tried again to get through to Casey. “Damn circuits are still busy.”

”That’s to be expected; at least Ezra got through to warn them about what was going on before the lines were overloaded.” Buck said as he watched the helicopter lift off.

“Buck, how long will it be before we know…who they can bring out?” Kelli tentatively asked. Every gut feeling she had said that Vin was still alive, because she was positive that somehow she would know if he wasn’t. Besides she knew that Vin would not leave her…not now... not yet…they still had too many memories to make.

“We should know something soon darlin’, hang in there’.”

“I’m tryin’…really, I am.” Kelli told him, fighting the tears that threatened to spill. She was usually far better at keeping her emotions under control in times of crisis, but because Vin was one of the people on the team unaccounted for, she was finding it exceptionally hard to do so now.

Mallory made a point to keep Linda further back and divert her thoughts from all the questions Kelli’s words had stirred up. “I suppose we’ll know soon how everyone is.”

Linda had not given up her quest for information, but had decided that she could wait a while for the answers. “Who all is up there, does anyone know?”

“According to Buck, there were only nine people in the office. The lab was closed. That leaves Greg, Kat, Ross, Mark, Paul, Nathan, Pam, Gunny, and Vin.” Mallory informed her.

“The lab was closed?” Linda thought about it. “Tanner was expecting some kind of trouble wasn’t he?”

“Apparently so, guess that’s why he blew a fuse when we showed up.” Mallory looked up and saw that two of the rescuers had made it inside the building by way of a construction crane that the emergency personnel had commandeered. The ladders on the fire engines couldn’t reach as far up as the twelfth floor. A military helicopter hovered and dropped a basket of medical equipment that could be pulled in, too.

12th floor

Tanner wasn’t sure how long it was before he heard a chopper and the first rescuer slid through one of the holes in the wall and dropped down into the debris-laden bullpen. The man immediately shined a flashlight through the wreckage.

“Hello…Captain Tanner? Anyone, can you hear me?”

Vin, still holding the tourniquet on Ross’ leg, called out to him. “I’m Tanner; over here…I have a man in need of immediate attention.”

The man that was apparently in charge of their rescue directed his men and then carefully made his way over to Tanner.

Placing a hand on Vin’s shoulder the man took in the situation and spoke in a calm voice. “We’ll take it from here sir. How badly are you injured?” The medic went to work on Anderson and began issuing orders to the other rescue workers coming in.

“I’m fine, get the rest of ‘em out before you worry about me.”

Tanner leaned back against a broken desk and gave in to the pain he was feeling. By the grace of God they had all made it this far and he sent up a silent prayer that it stayed that way. His thoughts turned to Kelli and the other family out there waiting for them and the hell they must be going through. Vin could not help but feel that he should have been able to stop this. At this moment he was not exactly sure how, but he did know who was behind this assault, and he vowed that Victor Donner would pay dearly for attacking MCAT on their home ground.

On the ground ~ 12:30 pm MST

On a secure channel rescuers had radioed the information that all nine victims were accounted for. Three had life threatening injuries, the rest were assessed to be in fair condition. Those with critical injuries would be transported out first. The others would follow as soon as possible, all would be life flighted to the hospital in the interest of security.

MCAT had been specifically targeted, that much was obvious. Although the investigators would follow up on every possibility, Travis knew that Tanner had pegged this one right. Victor Donner was somehow behind this and if it took every resource he had, Orrin vowed that the man would pay for attacking his unit.

Knowing the true facts, Orrin Travis had made a hard decision, but one that he felt was required for the safety of his team. He conferred with Kerrigan and made arrangement to carry out what was necessary to pull this off and prepared himself for the difficult task that lay ahead. After discretely informing the unit members on the ground what he planned to do, he sought out a news crew to make his announcement. As far as the world was concerned the MCAT unit had suffered a major loss. Eight agents were listed among the causalities including the senior members of the team. Several non-agents and lab workers however had survived and would soon be transported to an area hospital. He also stressed that he would not be releasing any names of the deceased until all family members had been notified.

Denver ~ Federal Building

Travis gathered his agents and Linda together. He had made arrangements for them to be escorted to Denver Memorial Hospital. “The press will be kept back, but I need all of you out of this area. Lifeflight will be transporting our injured team members to the hospital and the emergency room has a triage set-up and waiting for them. It is imperative that the rest of the world does not know that they have survived. Agent Kerrigan is going to have eight ‘bodies’ taken to the city morgue. We have arranged it that only a handful of people other than ourselves are the only ones that will know that everyone has survived.”

“Can we really pull this off?” Buck was skeptical.

Travis grinned. “We’re gonna try like hell.” Orrin spoke softly as he walked with them to waiting vehicles. “I have two agents on their way to the ranch as we speak. They will inform the wives about our plan and one of them will bring Dr. Jackson to the hospital. Dr Gilford has arranged private rooms for our people and all press will be banned from the hospital. Once we have a more complete assessment on the condition of the injured, I will assign protection to those that stay in the hospital.”

Kelli was anxious to see Vin and find out how serious his injuries were as well as her other teammates. “That is all well and good, but can we go now? The helicopters have already started to transport and one of the choppers should already be there.”

“I’m sorry Kel, I know you are in a hurry, and here I am holding us up talking. Ladies,” Orin opened the door to the waiting Suburban and allowed them to enter.

Denver Memorial Hospital

Private waiting area ~ 2:00 pm

Dr. Robert (Bones) Metfield was waiting for them when they arrived at the hospital. He informed them that Anderson, Santos, Westin and Ramsey had been life flighted in first. Ross and Greg were already in surgery, but he had not heard anything on Katrina or Walton, yet. He also assured Travis that the morgue had instructions to release no information on the eight bodies that were supposed to be there. They all settled in to wait for further news.

Two more choppers had come and gone, but Kelli had yet to see Vin. Since her initial emotional outburst, she had become quiet, drawing behind the wall that kept her feelings from being seen by the outside world. Ezra and Buck both tried, but soon realized that Vin was the only one that was able to break through that defense, once Kelli had raised it.

Linda watched the others. She had a desperate need to ask about Chris, but sensed that she would not like hearing the answers she sought. Watching Kelli she wondered how they had let their friendship drift to an occasional hello, and be so far apart. Unquestionably their relationship was different since they had both married, Kelli was…she was not the same person she was a year ago

Admit it Linda, you have been wrapped up in your own life the last few months, so much in fact that you have neglected that friendship. Nonsense Linda, Kelli understands how hard it has been for you. At least she always did before. Linda tried to remember the last time she and Kelli had just sit and talked about nothing specific.

There was one time last May Linda, right after she and Vin adopted the kids. Then just after Grace was born, this case started…or was it before that? The only conversations y’all have had since then…were when you wanted information. Is it so surprising that she doesn’t want you to comfort her? What happened to all those promises you made about listening? Obviously Kel and the others have had a hell of a lot more to worry about than your need to know and be on the inside of everything. But then again, Kelli knows how I am, and understands. She does not expect me to change. Does she?

A security officer came into the room looking for Buck. “Agent Wilmington, there is an Officer Cordova asking for you. She said you were looking for her.”

“Damn, I almost forgot.” Buck started to get up.

“Sit down Buck, I’ll handle this.” Travis stood and went with the officer. He hated to deliver bad news, but that was part of his job. Once he told Selina about her dad he would bring her into the room with the others until he could arrange to get her to Mission Viejo.

Kelli had seen the look that passed between Buck and Travis. “Buck?”

“With everything going on, I never had the chance to tell you and Ezra. We found out a few minutes before… Raphael is in the hospital in Mission Viejo California. Josiah is with him…Hell, Josiah must have heard the news. I need to try to get hold of him.”

Ezra volunteered. “I will go out the side entrance and try to contact him. Mallory, would you care to accompany me?

“Thanks Ezra, I just plain forgot.” Buck felt awful.

Mallory tried to smile as she stood up to join Standish. “You have been kinda busy Buck; don’t beat yourself up over it.”

JD apologized. “It shouldn’t have been just your responsibility Buck. I should have thought about it, after all I was the one that told Travis.”


Ten minutes later, Ezra and Mallory made their way back to the waiting room. “I was able to reach our brother and he sends his love and prayers. He also is going to contact Justin and for now tell him to stick with our original plan and have him stay under until the warrants are served on Saturday or until he is notified differently.”

Travis returned with Selina in time to overhear that statement. “We may be changing more than a few plans. “Rain is here, she is in with her husband in x-ray now. I also made some phone calls and this is what needs to happen. Selina, I have a driver that will take you to your apartment to allow you to pack a bag, Agent Sanchez you will accompany this young lady to Mission Viejo. That same driver will take you to the ranch to see your children and collect your own clothes. I have a private plane standing by to fly you to California when you are ready.

“Director Travis, would it be possible to call my sister Alicia, and to stop at my dad’s place, he’ll need a few things, too.” Selina asked.

“I believe we can arrange that.” A young man walked into the room. “This is FBI Agent Alex Sandoval; he will escort you and be able to relive Josiah on the protection detail for Agent Cordova. Rooms have been prepaid and reserved for all of you at hotel, near the hospital.” Travis handed Mallory the slip of paper that he had written the hotel information on.” Take care.”

Mallory and Selina left with Agent Sandoval and Orrin turned to the rest of the group in the room. “As of this moment MCAT is on stand-down status, I want everyone to keep a low profile and out of sight out at the ranch. As soon as the agents that are not being admitted join us, everyone will be taken to the Larabee 7 for the night. We will meet there tomorrow morning at ten and reassess the situation. Buck, you will see that the extra guests have a place for the night?”

Buck nodded his head. “No problem, there’s no shortage of rooms on the ranch.”

Linda could not wait any longer. “Director Travis where is Chris?”

Orrin took a deep breath before he answered. “Linda, we don’t know at the moment. The last physical contact we had with him was Sunday night; we also know his whereabouts as of Monday evening. He failed to make a scheduled check-in last night though. We were making plans for Tanner and Wilmington to leave for California this afternoon to try to find him when the attack hit. We will still find him; it may however take longer than we had first hoped. I’m sorry.”

Linda had no time to answer before Dr. Gilford entered the room with updates. “Walton, Montgomery, and Roberts should be joining you all shortly. Ramsey, Ramos, Westin, and Anderson have been admitted under assumed names and Jackson is with his wife in casting. I’m sorry, but I have no further information on their medical conditions at this time.” He turned to Kelli. “Kel, I do however have one other ornery patient that demanded that I come and find you or else. If you’re interested in seeing a slightly beat up Texan that doesn’t mind threatening his doctor, I will be more than happy to take you to him.”

Kelli prayed for strength as she walked with Doctor Gilford the short distance to the examination room. Doc opened the door to allow her to enter before him and she held her breath as she walked inside. There Vin was sitting bare-chested on the side of the bed while a nurse drew blood. Kelli’s eyes quickly swept over him looking for injuries. She knew already that he had a broken rib and she saw several small bandages taped to his body in various locations, a number of visible scrapes, a few first degree burns, and contusions, but it was the vibrancy she saw in his blue eyes that allowed her to breathe again.

Vin watched the play of emotions cross her face while he took in the sight of her. For a short period today, he had thought that he might not see her again. When the nurse completed drawing blood, he extended his arm out silently inviting his wife to join him. Kelli was there in an instant, but hesitated to embrace him because of the numerous injuries. The Texan made that decision for her and drew her into his arms, holding her to him as if he never intended to let go. They held onto another, each drawing strength for the other for a long, long time.

After taking several minutes for a sweet unhurried kiss, Tanner finally broke the silence that surrounded them. “”It would seem baby, that Mistress Fate has been a royal bitch today.”

Chapter 43

Denver Memorial Hospital

Private waiting room

Thursday August 18th ~ 3:00pm MST

The medical reports were not encouraging, Ross Anderson’s leg had been amputated above the knee, Katrina Santos was in a coma, and Greg Ramsey was in critical condition after sustaining serious internal injuries from the blast. Mark Westin had a compound fracture of the left arm, a broken clavicle and shrapnel removed from his right arm had left him with thirty-two stitches to close the wound. He also sustained first degree burns to both hands. All of them were facing a long stay in the hospital.

No amount of arguing would sway Director Travis’ decision. He understood his agents’ desires to stay and stand watch over their teammates, but he was firm in his insistence that they leave the hospital. Paul, Gunny, Pam and Vin were released with less serious injuries, and instructions to watch for signs of concussion. Nathan refused to be admitted after his broken arm had been cast and was determined to stand with the rest of the team.

Orrin was adamant. “All of you will leave now!” He looked at the determined faces around the room. “MCAT took a direct hit today and was the specified target of this attack. Most of you in this room are presumed deceased by the rest of the world and I plan on keeping it that way until I am convinced that the threat to this unit has passed. My order is that you stand down until further notice!”

“With all due respect sir, I request that you reconsider that order.” Tanner spoke for all of them. “Buck, Ezra, JD, Kel, and Mallory were not injured. Pam is okay enough to work communications for us and Paul, Nathan and I may be a mite beat up on, but we are still standin’. Our team may be damaged, but we are not out of the game, and we deserve the chance to search for Chris and take Donner down ourselves.”

Travis was not ready to give in. “I will take your request under advisement, and you will have my decision in the morning. In the meantime ALL of you will be escorted to the ranch and under the protection of Kerrigan’s men for the night. Your rides are waiting for you, and your personal vehicles will be taken care of, end of discussion.”

Nathan knew the director was through talking for now. “Paul, you can stay with us tonight.”

“I will be staying with Max, Pam you are welcome to join us.” Gunny volunteered.

JD was slower to read Travis. “What about Greg, Kat, Mark and Ross, shouldn’t some of us should be here for them?”

“According to the doctors, it is not likely that any of them will be awake tonight, but Bones is staying the night in the staff lounge just in case. They have been admitted under assumed names, I have trusted agents assigned to guard them and I am having their family members brought in by private jet. There is nothing you can do for them, son.” Orrin laid a hand on JD’s shoulder to soften his words. “Trust me to see they are taken care of, go home.”

Tanner was willing to give Travis until morning, and then if he did not agree, he would have to resign and look for Chris on his own. “Pam, Gunny and Linda, you three take the first vehicle. Nathan Rain, and Paul, y’all follow in the second one. Buck, JD and Ezra will ride with me and Kel in the last one. Orrin, we’ll talk later.” Vin nodded to the director and took Kelli’s arm. He had his own plans and would see them through with or without Travis’ blessing.

Mission Viejo, California ~ 5:00pm PST

Travis had called Mallory while she was in route to California and gave her an update on the teams’ condition. Agent Sandoval accompanied Mallory and Selina to the Mission Regional Trauma Center without stopping at the hotel. Although for different reasons, both women were anxious to get to the critical care unit, a father and a husband were there in immediate need of the strength that family love could offer.

Selina rushed in through the double doors a few step ahead of Mallory and Alex. Josiah met her at the door to her father’s room, placing his large hands on her shoulders to offer support to the young woman. “Selina, he’s hanging in there and the doctor said he was slightly improved. He’s not awake yet, but talk to him, your voice is one he needs to hear.” Sanchez opened the door and escorted her in.

Taking Raphael’s hand in her own, she looked back at Josiah with tear filled eyes. “Thanks, I’m just going to stay here a while.”

Mallory was waiting for Josiah, she ached to think about how horrible it must have been for him to watch the news and believe that part of his family was gone in an instant. When the door opened and her husband stepped out, she opened her arms to him and they came together for the comfort they both needed.

Josiah squeezed her harder. “I thought…God Mal…I love you.”

“Love you too, big guy.” She kissed him and then they sat as she began to give him all the details of the day’s roller coaster ride of emotions.

Larabee 7 ~ 5:30 pm MST

The wild bunch had gathered at the Larabee home to wait for the family and team members to arrive. Mallory had filled them in on what she knew when she stopped to tell her children that she was leaving for a few days. Inez assured her that Joanne and Adam would be fine and told her not to worry, just hug Josiah for all of them and take care. Fortunately with Walter and Max’s help, the children had no idea of what had transpire today and saw nothing unusual about having a family dinner planned on a weeknight.

Linda, Gunny and Pam were the first to arrive and Inez met them at the door with baby Grace in her arms. She thought Linda would need to hold her daughter as soon as possible and she was right. “Thanks Inez, you have no idea how much I needed this.” Linda fought back the tears as she hugged Grace with such intensity that the baby grunted in protest.

“Nettie, Barbara and Casey are working on dinner for everyone, so you just relax and spend time with your daughter.” Inez hugged the emotional blond and welcomed Pam while Gunny went over to join Max.

Nathan, Rain and Paul soon joined them and Terrell was thrilled when his dad scooped him up with his one good arm to hug him. With watery eyes Nathan held onto his only child and whispered, “I love you, son.”

“Welcome home Nathan.” Inez smiled at the beauty of the father and son moment. “Paul, please make yourself comfortable, dinner will be ready soon.”

“Dr. Jackson says that you both should get off you feet for a while. “ Rain ordered both men.

Squeals of delight from the children outside as they descended on their fathers, signaled the arrival of the others.

JD hurried inside to find his wife and then the two of them grabbed up Lilah and Daisy for a family hug, giving thanks that they had the chance to spend more time together. Casey released the tears she had held onto all day and allowed her pent up tensions to dissolve. “Welcome home sweetheart, we love you.”

“God, you three are a beautiful sight.” JD had a difficult time letting go. “I love you Casey.” He cupped her cheek and kissed her lightly, and then the girls decided that they wanted daddy to play.

Casey smiled. “They want their daddy, you stay with them and I’ll help finished up dinner…but stay close.”

“Yes ma’am.” JD’s eyes twinkled with amusement as he sent up a prayer of thanks for the special girls in his life.

Inez stepped out the backdoor to see three kids hanging onto her husband. Sarah, Maria, and Caleb were giggling as Buck took turns tickling each one. He looked up, met his wife’s eyes and smiled because he knew she was checking him out for any sign of injury.

“Look there kids, isn’t that the most beautiful women you have ever seen? Buck grinned, telling her he was okay. “How bout I go let her know it. “With the kids cheering him on, he walked over swept Inez off her feet and kissed her passionately, much to the children’s delight. “It’s good to be home darlin’.” When Inez laughed he felt it all the way to his soul. Turning to his young audience, he smiled.” Come on kids, let see about some dinner, I’m starved.”

Tanner had his own hands full with Jason and Andi, and he loved every second of it. This morning he thought his life was coming to an end without the chance to see his family again. Any pain he experienced from lifting them was minor compared to that, and holding onto them was good medicine.

Kelli knew how important it was to Vin to be with the kids, but she did not want him to overdo. Exchanging a look with Ezra she decided to intervene. “Hey, you two want show Uncle Ra where Miss Barbara is?

“Sure, we’ll show him.” Jason said between giggles and laughter.

Andi took Ezra’s hand and tugged, “This way Uncle Ra.”

Vin straightened up barely avoiding an audible groan and then turned to the three agents that had driven them out here. “Y’all are welcome to eat with us and then our security foreman Walter Andrews will show you what we have set-up, It’ll make your job easier.” The Texan took Kelli’s hand and did not look back to see if the agents were following them.


After dinner Walter took Kerrigan’s agents on a tour of the property and helped them set-up for their night duty assignment. Gunny and Pam walked with Max over to her house. Rain insisted that Nathan was going home to rest, they used Rain’s car and Paul drove after promising to meet Tanner in the morning for a team meeting at his house.

Buck sat down next to Vin. “Inez and I thought since we already have Joanne and Adam at the house, we might as well make it a fun night with Jason and Andi too. I know it’s been a tough day and tomorrow don’t promise to be much better but they won’t be far if you need to see them.”

“Hell Buck, your house is a second home for ‘em anyway, and I know where you live.” Vin exhaled wearily. “We’ll have the team meet at my house in the mornin’. I’ve already called Beth Michaels and let her know that Justin is okay and warned her not to talk to nosy reporters. I also placed a few inquiries out there with some people I have contacts with, but you should know…don’t matter what Travis decides, ‘m going after Chris one way or another.”

Placing his hand on Vin’s shoulder, Buck made his position clear. “Not alone you not, when you go, I’m going too.’

“We’ll see what Orrin says first.”

“That’s fine. You and Kel need a ride?”

“No, we’ll say goodnight to the kids and then I think we’ll walk home. I need to work a few things out in my head.” Tanner stood up and joined Kelli and the children. Not surprised to hear that they were fine with staying the night at the Wilmingtons.

Kelli hugged Jason, and then Andi. “We’ll see y’all in the mornin’.” She stood with Vin and watched them leave with the Wilmington bunch.

“Barbara and I are headed over to the house, if you want to ride with us. “Ezra made the offer, but truth being told, the day’s events were catching up to him and Standish needed some time alone with his lady.

Vin shook his head no, “Y’all go on we’ll be there in a bit.” Tanner wanted to go over a few things with JD in Chris’ home office before they left. It was time to see if Dunne’s home version of Cassie could work as well as her now destroyed counterpart that lay in the ruins of what had been the MCAT office.

While you and JD put your heads together ‘m gonna help Nettie with the clean-up in the kitchen so Casey can get the twins ready for bed.” Kelli leaned over and kissed her Texan. “Come find me when you are ready to leave.”


Barbara had kept a close eye on Ezra all evening and decided that he was not as cool and calm as he wanted the rest of the family to believe. She was beginning to read her southerner very well and the more she saw of the ‘real’ Ezra the more she loved him. Over the last couple of weeks he had bared more of his true self to her and had begun to lower the walls of defenses that he had spent a lifetime building. Standing here on the Tanner’s deck watching the stars with the fantastic man beside her it was hard to believe that they had almost lost their chance for a future simply because they could not communicate, when now even unspoken words flowed freely between them.

“Are you listening?” Ezra smiled gently at the woman next to him.

“I…no. I’m sorry.”

“I said, that we should probably be able to move back home by the first of the week. I believe that threat for MCAT is over, but I want to be sure.” Ezra was slower to get the next words out, but what he had on his mind was too important to mess up. He found though that it was becoming easier to be open with Barbara than he had ever believed possible. “Barbara, I realize that is in not normally in your nature to stay in the background, but I appreciate you taking the week off and coming out here with me. Knowing that you were safe has made it easier for me to concentrate on work. It won’t always be this way, it’s just…”

“Ezra, stop, you don’t have to explain. When I agreed to be a part of your life, I also committed myself to trusting you. You said that me being here was important to you and I understand.” Barbara smiled. “There will be times in the future I may ask the same of you when my work is involved. That is what being an ‘us’, means.”

“Us,” Ezra grinned. “I do like the sound of that.” Drawing her close he wrapped his arms around her, inhaling her scent and just enjoying the feel of her close to him. “God, we could have lost so much today.”

“We don’t know how much time any of us have in this life. That’s why it’s important to not waste the time we do have. Although I like being around this wild bunch and have no problem spending time with Kelli and Vin, I will admit that I miss being ‘in the trenches’ every day. But Ezra, I would not trade one minute of the last week out here with you, for a hundred times that anywhere else. I love you Standish, get used to it.”

Tiling her head to look into her eyes, Ezra knew her words were spoken from the heart. “I am indeed a lucky man.” A passionate kiss between them left Barbara with no doubt that this man loved her and his next words made her heart race.” Shall we retire early this evening?” He ran his hand down her sides and was pleased to see her reaction to his touch.

Barbara shivered in anticipation of the lovemaking to come, and smiled up at Ezra with desire etched in her eyes. “Most definitely, love.” Arm in arm they walked to the bedroom, and closed the door, shutting out the rest of the world.


Casey was bathing the twins, and Kelli took over the remainder of the cleaning so Nettie could help her. She had just put the last clean dish away when Vin walked into the kitchen.

Vin was more than ready to get out of the confines of solid walls; he needed to be out in the open. Taking his redhead by the hand he led her toward the door. “Let’s get out of here.”

“We should tell Linda that we are leaving.” Kelli was just as ready as Vin was to go, but she knew she had been harsh with her friend today and wanted to try and smooth things over.

Stepping out the back door into the night air was like taking a breath of fresh air after almost drowning, it was heaven. Vin stilled for a moment and Kelli could physically feel the renewed energy flow through him. As much as she wanted to be alone with him, she forced herself to stop and speak to Linda. “I wanted you to know that we’re going home.”

Linda had been sitting on the deck for a while with Grace. She had not been able to bring herself to be separated from the baby for more than a few minutes since she had been home. Holding Grace was as close as she could get to holding Chris and although she was thankful that no one was killed today, she was too worried about Chris to think about how bad it could have been. Thinking over what she had heard today, had only convinced her that there was a hell of a lot more going on with her Cowboy than was being said. From the angry words Kelli shouted to what Orrin Travis was not saying in his explanation, it all screamed on thing. Chris was in trouble.

In the last year a demented serial killer that sliced skin off like butter had kidnapped Chris, then that madman beat the hell out of him and then he disappeared again when Jack came in the picture. On top of that he almost destroyed himself with pills. I can’t handle much more of this…You shouldn’t have to Linda, Damn it! You have enough money; you and Chris could go anywhere and do anything. Find a good Nanny to stay with Grace and convince Chris to get out from under this madness.

Drawing back from her thoughts, Linda looked over at Vin and Kelli. “Could y’all hang on for a few minutes? We need to talk.”

Tanner leaned against the railing, keeping his wife close. Kelli had sensed Vin’s reluctance and was very much surprised when he agreed. “For a few minutes, what’s on your mind Linda?”

“I’m not good with apologies Vin, as Kelli can attest to, so I’ll just say I’m sorry for being such a pain in the ass the last couple of weeks and leave it at that. That said I do need to know some things. Chris is in trouble. How bad and what are you doing to help him?”

Vin chose his words carefully, deliberately being evasive. “I’m not sure and everythin’ I can.”

“I don’t buy that. I’m not asking for details of your damn case. Hell Vin, you always know what Chris is doing or thinking, don’t expect me to believe that you don’t know now.”

“This time, I don’t know, but I will find him, and I will bring him home.” Vin snapped. “As far as what Chris is thinkin’ I reckon that you’ll have to ask him.”

“You refuse to tell me, fine! But you’re the one that has been in charge and if something happens to Chris, you are the one I’m holding responsible!”

“Linda, you are way out of line!” Kelli was ready to jump to Vin’s defense, but he stopped her.

“As soon as I know anythin’, you’ll know, too.” He straightened up. We’re leavin’, thanks for dinner.’” Not waiting for a reply, Vin turned and led Kelli down the deck stairs.

Linda saw them go with anguish in her heart. Vin always knew what Chris was feeling, always! Why was he saying he didn't know? What was going on? Why did they all feel this need to keep things from her as if she wasn't worth to be told? Hugging Grace closely once again she felt the deep fear that her daughter might be the only thing she had left from Chris and it scared her to death. No matter how much she loved her baby, it was Chris she wanted, needed. She wanted him back, here, with her. She wanted their life together back and to be happy again.


The Tanners walked in silence for a while, giving the Texan time to think. He wasn’t ready to talk to Kelli about how it felt to come so close to losing their life together. Those feeling were still too raw and he needed some time before he could express them. He knew that they both would need to discuss it, but not now. Mentally he took an account of where the team stood. There were five agents in the hospital, one missing, one still undercover, and four more with injuries. Only Josiah, Buck, JD, Mallory, and Ezra were all in one piece, with Kelli just returning to work after recovering from her own attack. Great job Vin, only six healthy agents available to work out of a team of seventeen.

Kelli silently observed the man that that she loved and had almost lost today. The light breeze tousled his long hair and soft moonlight silhouetted his salient profile against the darkness of the night. Vin was a dangerous force to be reckoned with when the situation called for it, and two of his greatest strengths were his deep-rooted sense of justice and his compassionate nature, but those strengths were what had left him vulnerable tonight. She knew that he was trying to find someway to sort out the events that had led up to today’s catastrophe and reconcile with himself how his actions or inactions may had caused pain to people that he cared about. The last four months had been hard on all of them individually. Vin had not only taken on his part, but in the last few weeks he had also carried the weight of responsibly for the entire unit on his shoulders, under difficult circumstances.

“It’s not your fault, you know.” She said softly.

Vin stopped walking and turned to face her. “Maybe Linda is right. I was in charge and I am responsible. Five agents are laying in the hospital, four of ‘em in critical condition because I did not do my job right. Chris is out there somewhere, maybe hurt or…dead… I failed to protect him, too.”

Kelli saw the deep pain in his eyes and could not stand to see him doubt himself. “It’s time for a reality check Tanner. First off, if you had not had the foresight to close the lab and keep some of the agents out of the office, it could have been much worse. You set the protection into motion that has kept their families safe. You insisted on all that extra training that helped Greg, Kat, Pam and me. You could not stop what happened today, but you did shrink the target considerably. Victor Donner is the one that is responsible for all those attacks, and that grenade launch, NOT you!

Second, Chris Larabee is over forty years old, and like it or not, you are NOT responsible for his decision to ignore reasonable orders. You did everything humanly possible to bring him out, even going out to California to try and talk some sense into him. Even you CANNOT help someone that refuses to be helped! You also are NOT responsible for HIS decision to go rouge or what that doctor in Mexico did or HIS decision to take the pills that he knows he is not suppose to take! You are NOT responsible for his still being out there, but you WILL be the one responsible for bringing him home!

Third, Raphael made his own decision to stay with Chris. He knew the risks that his decision could cause him. If you had been in his shoes you would have done the same thing.

Fourth, I could have lost you today, and I refuse to stand here and let you second guess yourself or beat yourself up over the things that transpired that were out of your control! You did what you believed was right to do. That is all that can be expected from any man. It’s time to move forward Vin. Chris needs all of us, and Victor Donner needs to pay for his evil. There are a lot of people dependin’ on your leadership to help them do both those things.”

Standing here listening to Kelli’s outburst did pull Tanner back into reality. Vin cocked an eyebrow and smiling, he shook his head in amazement. His fiery redhead had hit all the right chords during her little tirade and had managed to bring things back into a more balanced perspective. “Reality check over?” he pulled Kelli closer needing to feel the vibrancy of life that flowed though her.

Kelli sighed deeply and leaned into him. “For now,” she spoke quietly. Her tirade over, all she wanted was to be close to Vin, perhaps in a few days she would tell him how scared she had been today, but not tonight.

“Good, let go home, I need to get a good night’s sleep, if ‘m gonna take on the world again tomorrow.” Vin had a firm hold around Kelli’s waist as the walked together up to their house, and he sent up a silent prayer of thanks that they still had a tomorrow.


Over and Over and Over! How many goddamn times are they gonna show it? Chris could not reach the television set, but if he had been able to, it would be smashed to pieces. The handcuffs prevented him from pacing and the sharp pains in his gut made sitting still impossible. All the while the news kept showing those damn pictures from Denver… over and over and over!

Chris Larabee watched the announcement and was convinced that he was in hell. His family, brothers … daughter … team … gone. All this time Larabee all you could see was what was happening to those kids. Did you consider for one minute what might be happening at home? Hell no! Vin tried to tell you, Buck tried to tell you, Raphael…God! He’s dead because he would not leave you out here alone. You should have been there with them. You could have saved them Chris!

Eight agents are listed among the causalities including the senior members of the team.” Orrin’s words echoed through his head Eight agents…senior members of the team…his team…his family…brothers…friends…gone. Chris felt the wave of sickening emotions well up inside him and could not stop the resulting wail of pain that erupted from his soul.

Chapter 44

Friday ~ August 19th

Tanner home ~ 5:00am

The Texan tossed and turned in his sleep as imagines of an injured Chris lost in a maze floated through his dreams. Vin was trying desperately to reach him, but an immovable object barricaded each path he attempted to take. Then the maze would move and he would have to start over again at the beginning, always ending at the same solid wall that stood between him and his brother.

“Vin…Tanner, wake up.” Kelli sat on the side of the bed and gently placed her hand on his shoulder. She had lain awake watching him, and was willing to let him finish the battle he was fighting in his sleep, but when his bandages became soaked with blood she decided to intrude.

Tanner was immediately awake. “Kel, what’s wrong?”

“You’ve thrashed around so much, some of the bandages have pulled loose and your wounds are bleeding. Sit up, and let me see to those cuts, I’ve got fresh gauze, tape, burn cream, and some peroxide.”

“Damn,” Vin cursed at the pain in his ribs as he slowly sat up and tried to shake the frustration of the nightmare that had invaded his sleep.

Now wide-awake, he leaned against the headboard as Kelli began to clean the areas that were bleeding. Watching her, he was aware that she had forced herself to control her emotions and be strong for his sake since yesterday. Tumultuous emotions and fears were there, just below the surface, waiting for her resolve to weaken. Her touch was gentle as she ministered to his wounds, but she still avoided looking into his eyes. Vin knew that she had to come to the realization that the crisis was over and it was okay now to let go. Okay Tanner she was there for you, now it’s time to help your woman deal with her uncertainties.

He was thoroughly enjoying the view her loosely tied silk robe revealed and smiled as he decided the best way to get through to his redhead. “I’ve never had an almost naked nurse work on me before.” Vin slipped his hand inside her robe, leisurely traced his fingertips across bare skin, and grinned roguishly “But it works for me.”

“You are an incorrigible flirt, Tanner.” Kelli winced when she had to pull a stuck piece of tape off his bare skin to replace the last bandage.

A mischievous grin framed his next comment. “That I am baby, but you love me just the same.” The Texan did not miss seeing the beautiful smile his words elicited from his wife. Patiently he waited for his light-hearted teasing to help her to let go of her disciplined control.

Kelli had another quip ready to fire off, but when she looked up and caught sight of the love and concern in Vin’s eyes, her self-imposed control began to crumble. “I know you wouldn’t leave me voluntarily, but…I was scared that you might not have a choice.”

Reaching out, he brushed her hair back from her face with his fingers and spoke softly. “It’s time for another reality check, Kel. Fate and faith have brought us to where we are, and given us one helluva great life. I’ll admit that when that grenade hit yesterday morning’, my faith waived a bit, but we made it baby. We are together, our kids are safe, and we are gonna let go of the fears and doubts that ran rampant yesterday. Today we’re gonna move forward, and trust that fate has many more years planned for us to be together. One way or another we’re going to find Chris safe and bring him home. Donner is going down tomorrow, and then this nightmare case will be over.” Vin drew her into his arms, holding her close. “I don’t know what the future holds, but whatever it is we’ll find out together.”

California ~ 5:00 am

Chris was caught in a collage of memories that took him on a trip through both the heaven and hell of the last ten years of his life. He could see Sarah smile up at him as she presented their new son to him at the hospital. He also saw the fire that consumed them both and could almost feel Buck pulling him away from it. Then the nightmare of that next year reared its ugly head, the despair and grief of that time consumed him and then…

Pictures flashed in his mind of the start of the ATF team. Buck was there with Josiah, Nathan and a young sharpshooter.” Name’s Tanner... Vin Tanner” Chris actually thought he heard Vin’s voice. Then JD and Ezra came along and they became more than a team.... they were brothers and partners. The ranch that he spent so many years alone on became Larabee 7 and marriages, followed by Sarah, Joanne and Maria came along…life was beginning to feel good again…

As the years rolled forward he saw Orrin call him in to his office… team seven is being disbanded… command position…new unit will be called MCAT… a new beginning happening...I’m Linda Dubois, and you are... memories we make will have to sustain the one left behind…Kel and I are getting married…Josiah …we want to name our son Adam …Nathan…our new son…Terrell…JD…my new girls Lilah and Daisy…Kelli…she’s your daughter Chris…I never missed a pill, but we are having a baby…Mrs. Chris Larabee….May I present… Grace Addison Larabee…Full circle.

Memories soon turned into nightmares as chills took over his body The stables are burning…Linda is still inside…GOD, not again…Josiah was shot, he is the hospital…It’s Vin…hit and run, he won’t wake up…Buck was involved in an accident…critical condition…Hypothermia….her temperature is well below normal…Demerol Chris…nectar of the Gods... Withdrawal…you’ll have to go cold turkey… Another explosion…Vin? It’s Ezra, someone rigged the Jag. Jason on the phone…mom needs help…JD is being life flighted to the hospital now… They’re gone Chris, most of your brothers are gone. Explosion at the Federal Building in Denver, eight team members lost…and…

Finally the worst of the evils of the last year paid him a visit to torment his confused mind and add to the convulsions cause by withdrawal... Hired assassin…Lady Ice…we are alike you know…Skins his victims alive…name is Brad Cleaver…rats God, the rats…Paul Madera, mercenary.Philip Deveraux…welcome to hell Larabee….…Jack…I know what you want brother…take it… needle being thrust in his arm... nectar of the Gods.... … Child trafficking, kids being raped and sold to the highest bidder…Raphael shot…Victor Donner…Chris Larabee will rue the day he fucked with my business! Pleasant dreams Agent….

Drenched in sweat and trapped in nightmares of the past, Chris sat up quickly trying to orient himself to his surrounding. The blaring television across the room did nothing to stop the pounding in his head it only made it hurt worse. Looking at the pictures of Denver that flashed across the screen Chris began to sort things out in his scrambled mind and as his thoughts became clearer to him his anger grew.

Damn it Vin, how did you let this happen? All you had to do was take charge and listen, you could have waited for me, but no…you had to push the issue. Maybe I should have realized that you were not ready to lead the team, but I’ll have to live with my mistake. The others had to die for yours! I knew what I was doing and you should have trusted me, if you had…Tanner this entire mess is your fault. What in the hell happened to the famous Tanner instincts? You should have waited Vin…I could have taken Donner down and everyone would have been fine. But you wanted more didn’t you? You wanted the credit for this one and now I see that you wanted my command too. That’s it isn’t it…you sonofabitch! You were after my job! None of this is my fault…their deaths are on your hands Tanner and if you died, I hope you have an eternity in hell to think about that! If you’re still alive, then I’ll find a way to send you there myself!

Larabee felt some better, he had worked it all out in his drugged, confused mind, and he felt like he understood now. One image kept burning in his mind. Vin, taking him down and shouting at him… Vin, who had let it all go to hell.

Costa Mesa, California

Police Department ~ Friday ~ 9:00 am

Chief Blaine had his special officers gather in his office for a little celebration. Billy Ray Hackett took one of the few chairs in the room and made himself at home in it. He leaned back against the wall, long legs stretched out in front of him and his body positioned in a slouch reminiscent to the first day he had entered Blaine's office.

Captain Jeffries took his usual seat next to the Chief’s deck propping his feet up on the windowsill and Shipley leaned against the back wall to keep an eye on the door. Hackett worked to keep himself in check. There was too much riding on the MCAT investigation for him to do anything or say anything that would give his true identity away. So he kept up with the laid-back 'good ole boy' charade and waited to see what it was that Blaine had called him and the others into his office to talk about.

“Well boys, it appears someone did us a big favor in Denver yesterday.” Blain pulled a bottle out of his drawer and slid four glasses across the desktop. “This calls for a toast.”

“Well, alright...celebrating is something I can do anytime of the day." Billy Ray exclaimed, rising up from his seat to pick up one of the glasses that Blaine provided and holding it for his boss to fill.

Filling his glass, the Chief grinned. “You’ve manage to fit in right good around here Hackett. We’ve decided that it’s time to cut you in on some of the extra action.”

Billy Ray felt his heart speed up, even as he gave an abashed smile for the praise from Blaine and said," Is that so?"

“Yep,” Blain filled the other glasses. “But first, a toast, ‘to all them damn MCAT agents, may they rest in hell’.” Blain downed his drink in one gulp, Jefferies and Shipley followed. Hackett was a little slower to move, but joined them all the same.

"MCAT, what the hell is MCAT?" Hackett asked, after he had downed his drink.

Jefferies set his glass down and explained. “A bunch of Federal pains in the ass that tried to come in here and interfere in our business.” He laughed. “But no more, we’re moving full speed ahead on smooth waters.”

"Hot damn, sounds like a good enough reason to celebrate to me!" Billy Ray exclaimed, slapping Jeffries on the back. "The only good Fed is a dead Fed.

Shipley snickered. "Hell, are you sure you ain't kin to the Chief?"

"Not that I recall....but then, who knows?" Hackett said with a Cheshire cat grin in Blaine's direction.

Blaine laughed, too. "Don't matter; you're part of our family now. Boy, how would you like to make 5 g's for a few hours’ work tomorrow?

"Are you shitting me?" Hackett's grin grew wider."5 g's for a couple of hours work?"

"A ... an associate of ours requires some clean-up work to be done. All you need is one piece of hardware and the guts to use it."

"Then I'm your man." Hackett was quick to assure him.

"I figured you would be. We'll meet him at O’Mara warehouse #32 tomorrow morning at nine. All the rubbish should be ready to disappear by noon and then we go to work. Oh, and be sure the piece you bring is clean and disposable."

"You got it."

Billy Ray lazily walked out the door to his desk. His stomach felt as if dinosaurs were playing a game of football inside. But this is what he came here for and no matter how hard it was to pretend he was one of those deplorable bastards in the other room, he was now one of them. He picked up him cell phone and sent out a text message. Tomorrow…they would find out first hand that paybacks were a bitch.

Larabee 7 ~ 10:30 am

Tanner Home

The remaining members of the MCAT team were sitting in Tanner’s den waiting for Orrin Travis to arrive. JD, Buck and Nathan had already had conversations with their respective wives to prepare them for what they hoped would be a team deployment. Barbara knew as well that Ezra was going to go to California, with or without the team. Vin had been on the phone most of the morning obtaining updates on their injured teammates, contacting his sources for information and making contingency plans in the event Travis decided to keep the unit on stand down status.

Looking over the group Vin shook his head and grinned at Buck. “We may have been knocked down, but by the determined look on those faces, I’d say we are a long way from out.”

Buck agreed. “Hell Vin, you know that and I know that, I just hope Travis knows it.”

“Travis knows more than you give him credit for gentlemen.” Orrin spoke from behind them. Seeing the surprised look on Vin’s face, he explained. “Kelli let me in. Are we ready to start?”

Tanner recovered quickly. “We are now.”

This was Orrin’s meeting and he had his own agenda to follow. He had spent most of last night weighing his options and considering the future of his MCAT unit. Following several discussions with himself and a few hours of sleep he had made his decision.

“After checking with several doctors this morning, I can give you an update on our absent team members. Ross Anderson is still listed in critical, but stable condition. His wife is with him and his doctors are optimistic about his recovery. Sadly however his future in law enforcement is questionable at this point in time. His right leg was amputated and he will be required to have several months of physical therapy and then learn to walk again with an artificial leg. Katrina Ramos’ condition is unchanged, she remains in a coma and her doctors say the only thing to do now is to wait and see.

Greg Ramsey suffered massive internal injuries, but his condition has been upgraded from grave to critical. His doctors are cautiously optimistic that he will continue to improve and eventually make a full recovery. Mark Westin is in good condition, but will have limited use of his arms in the next few weeks and his hands need to heal. His doctors do not foresee any permanent damage from the broken arm or clavicle, and he should be back with us soon. Raphael Cordova improved slightly overnight and later today we should have a full update on his immediate prognosis.

Last, but certainly not least Agent Chris Larabee has been listed as officially missing. An APB has been issued to all law enforcement agencies and a toll free number has been set-up for any information that may come in about his location.”

“Isn’t that taking a big risk sir? Some law enforcement agencies may not want Chris to be found.” JD said worriedly.

Travis quickly replied. “It is a risk we have to take. The faster we get a lead on his whereabouts, the better chance we have of finding him alive.”

“Y’all let the man finish before you start askin’ question.” Vin interjected.

“After careful consideration of all that is involved, I have made my decision. This unit is outstanding and I believe all of you have the right to see this case through to the end. We will proceed with our original plan with only a few minor changes. My administrative assistant, Suzanne Mills will be in charge of PR and see to any further arrangement that will be needed for the agents that stay behind and their families. I have also made arrangement for three of Kerrigan’s’ agent to stay as additional protection for your families here at the ranch. Tanner, I realize that most of the MCAT equipment was lost yesterday, if you prepare a list of what you need, I will see that you have it.”

Vin already had a list prepared and passed it to Travis. “I had it ready, just in case.”

Orrin raised a brow. “Just in case, huh? Captain Tanner, are you also prepared to outline specifics on this plan?”

“Yes, sir,” Vin stood and outline the details for tomorrow. “Michaels sent me a message just before you arrived, and we now have a time set for nine in the morning, which means we have to be in place by daybreak. Homeland security agents will be at the docks ready to seize and board the ship to search for illegal contraband and for any sign of Chris. Senator Hansen is under surveillance as we speak and you sir will be executing his arrest warrant at his office in Santa Ana. The rest of you that were originally assigned to this operation will be with me at the warehouse, hopefully before the loaded trucks pull out for the docks. We have good reason to believe that Donner and Zimmerman will be there as well as four members of the Costa Mesa PD.”

Nathan was concerned about where he fit in this plan, and spoke up. “I thought I was supposed to be with homeland security at the dock?”

Vin looked doubtfully at Nathan’s cast. “I’m not sure that is a good idea.”

“I am not gonna be left behind on this one Vin!” Nathan was ready to argue the point if necessary.

“I’m going too.” JD spoke up. “You’re shorthanded and I can do the job.”

“Relax JD, Director Travis said a few changes had to be made and I know that Vin can count.” Kelli looked directly at her husband. “I doubt than any of us will be left behind.” When she and Vin had discussed the issue, they had agreed that whenever possible both of them would not be in the field at the same time. Kelli knew she should not challenge him when it came to work; however, she had no intention of staying in Denver on this one and wanted to make certain that he knew it.

The Texan could think of a number of reason to say no, but not a single one that related to work, Vin’s blue eyes met her gaze and held it. The room fell silent waiting for Tanner to respond. “All available team members will be workin’ this operation. Pam, we need you here on communications, if you’re up to it.”

I’ll manage sir.” Pam answered.

Vin acknowledged her and moved on.Buck, you will team up with Josiah, he will meet us at the hotel, while Mallory stays in Mission Viejo to guard Raphael. Nathan, you will liaison with homeland security at the docks, but as an observer only. Paul, are you well enough to join us?”

“Try and leave without me, sir.” Paul grinned.

“Okay, then you will be with JD. Ezra, you’re with Kelli. Since we are supposed to stay under the press radar, I suggest we leave after dark.”

Travis agreed. “I will make arrangements for us to leave at seven tonight and have the lodging information to you this afternoon. Your equipment will be there for you and your additional back-up from the U.S. Marshals office will be on stand-by in California, waiting for your instructions. Unless, you can think of anything else, I will see all of you tonight.”

“That’ll do it for now. Go home, pack for a minimum two days, and spends a few hours with your families. Meet back here at six to leave for the airfield.” Vin dismissed them and waited until they had all left to speak to his wife.

Kelli was prepared for the coming conversation. “Vin, I’m sorry to put you on the spot in front of everyone. But we didn’t exactly have time to discuss it and I really need to be there…not just to find dad, but...”

“Kel stop.” Vin walked over and placed his hands on her shoulders. “We all need to be there, to find some sort of closure to this damn case. You included, so let it go.” He smiled. “Next time though, give me a little warnin’ so the Captain part of me will be ready for your insubordinate comments.”

Kelli sighed deeply. “I’ll try, but sometime I react first and regret later.”

Tanner laughed. “That, baby, is all too familiar Lar’bee trait. I believe I can handle it.” Drawing her close, Vin flashed a playful grin. “I know I can sure as hell handle you.” The Texan showed her that even injured, how true his words were, leaving her breathless. “Why don’t we talk about it before we go to collect the kids?”

“Sounds like a plan to me, Tanner.”

Santa Anna, California

True to his word Travis had replacement equipment waiting for them and MCAT’s private jet had them touching down in California before nine, pacific time. Two unmarked paneled vans transported the team to Santa Ana where Suzanne had made accommodations for them. She had them booked into a motel that had kitchenette facilities so they would not have to take the chance of being seen in public. Josiah Sanchez was anxiously waiting for them for them to arrive.

Two vans pulled into the motel parking lot and parked in spaces side by side. The MCAT bunch looked a little worse for wear as they climbed out of the two vehicles. Vin had driven the first one with Kelli beside him, and Nathan and Ezra in the back. Buck drove the second van with Travis, Paul, and JD. They climbed out of the vans and gathered into one group as Sanchez appeared out of the dark corridor that led off to one side. His blue eyes traveled over one face and then another of his family members, teammates, and the director, silently saying a prayer of gratitude that they were all alive, and relatively in one piece.

"You are all a sight for sore eyes." he said gruffly, unable to keep the emotion out of his voice.

" an understatement." Vin said calmly. "Battered is even better...”




"Enough..." Travis said, with a smile. “Trust me Josiah; they look a helluva lot better than the office does.”

"As I recall, Director, you had stated previously your desire for us to relocate our unit to a more suitable location," Ezra said, "It was the general consensus that we were being given time to consider your proposal... it is fortuitous that opportunity has presented itself to align with your plans. I find that it is always best in our profession to be adaptable in the worst of circumstances."

Travis glared at the wily southerner. "Sometimes Standish you logic amazes me."

Ezra shrugged his shoulder. "I do try sir."

"We all do." Buck said with a chuckle.

Josiah felt a lightness fill him, despite the seriousness of why they had all gathered at this motel....despite the fact that one of their brothers was missing. He stepped forward and swept Kelli and Vin up in a bear hug that caught both Texans by surprise...not an easy thing to do.

"Watch...the ribs...Josiah." Vin gasped out at the larger man's exuberance.

Sanchez let them go and slapped Buck cheerfully on the back, practically pushing him into Nathan's bad arm. JD was the next brother to be swept up in the larger man's arms and hugged, both Vin and Buck called out, "Turn him loose, Josiah. He's turning blue!"

With a sheepish smile Josiah told JD, "Sorry, brother..."

"It's alright...” Dunne remarked as he took in a deep breath.

Josiah turned toward Ezra who quickly side stepped out of the older man's reach.

“Although I am exceedingly happy to see you brother, don't even consider wrinkling the suit.”

Nathan prepared himself for Josiah's expected hug, turning slightly to avoid his broken arm any further injury. "I'm ready." Jackson grinned as Sanchez threw his arm around his shoulder.

Josiah left no one out of his reunion, and Paul soon found out what a Josiah bear hug really felt like. Sanchez turned to Director Travis who wisely spared himself some sore ribs by asking. “Sanchez, are our rooms ready?"

Slapping the older man on the shoulder Josiah smiled. "It would seem sir that there was a slight communication snafu. We only have two rooms available to us. But don't worry; none of us snore...much."

Ezra barely refrained from letting out an undignified gasp at Sanchez's words. “That’s preposterous! That’s nine of us in two small rooms! Certainly, other arrangements can be made!"

Buck grinned good-naturedly. "Come on, bad can it be? It'll be just like having a sleepover."

Standish cocked and eyebrow at Wilmington. “I don't even want to think about the ramifications of those words."

Vin chuckled, placing an arm around Kelli's shoulders. "You could always sleep in one of the vans...Ezra."

"Mr. Tanner...I do NOT find that in the least bit amusing." Standish told him flatly.

JD grinned. "Yeah Ez, just think, it could have been only one room. Aren’t you the one that said in our profession we must be adaptable to any circumstances?"

"Good Lord, now the youngster listens to me.” Ezra sighed." Lead on."

"All kidding aside,” Tanner spoke up. "We need to go over our plans for tomorrow so that everyone is clear on what their job is. I suggest we take this gathering inside, get the sleeping arrangements situated, and then rehash everything."

Once inside the suite, sleeping arrangements were quickly settled, Josiah and JD took one queen-size bed while Nathan and Paul took the other; a rollaway bed was provided for Travis. In the adjoining room, Buck and Ezra took one side; Vin claimed the other queen-size for him and Kelli.

Orrin provided the blueprints of the warehouse that he had faxed to the motel earlier from the city registrar’s office, and soon everyone was gathered around the table to look over tomorrow’s target. Everyone listened as Tanner laid out his plan for the team and they worked well into the night.

“Takin’ ‘em by surprise is the key to us bein’ successful.”

Chapter 45

Santa Ana, California ~ Saturday August 19th

It was in the predawn hours of the next morning that found the team already working to make their last minute preparations for the raid on the warehouse. Tanner had studied not only the blueprints again, but the intelligence reports on Donner’s warehouse that the U.S. Marshals had done on a past attempt to bust the corrupt man. He found the information adequate enough, but Vin wanted to check out the location himself and take down his own observations. He would not take MCAT into a location that he hadn’t personally checked out. Since he would be maintaining a position on the floor during the entire raid, Coulter went with him. As the other sharpshooter in the unit, she would take this opportunity to scan the warehouse for possible places that she could take up a firing position to cover all of the agents on the ground.  

With Kelli at his side, Tanner left to go scope out the warehouse. He took one of the vans and drove it up to a location that looked down upon warehouse row where Donner’s warehouse was located, and their observations wouldn’t be easily detected. He crouched on the hill and used high tech binoculars to make his observations to Kelli, who jotted them down onto a notepad that she held.

“The warehouse is two stories high as the Marshal’s Intel indicated, but there is only one floor. There are two double doors in the front, large enough for a tractor-trailer rig to maneuver through. In addition to the main entrance, there are three additional entrance/exit locations. One each face the east and west side, and the other is at the back of the buildin’. “Vin dictated to her.

“What do you make of the interior floor plans?” Kelli asked.

Vin peered carefully into the infrared nightscope and adjusted the telephoto lens so that he could get a much better view of the interior of the warehouse, via the cracked windows. “Mostly it’s one large main room with a collection of packagin’ materials that consist of crates, bindin’ ties, some heavy machinery. On the east side of the building there is a set of smaller rooms, which must be offices, and a bathroom…possibly a holdin’ area for their ‘human’ merchandise or our missing brother. “

Kelli jotted down this information as well. “Can you make out how many men are in the facility?”

“There are two heavily armed men, one inside and one outside the front entrance, and one apiece on the interior side of the other doors. Two more thugs are guardin’ one of the rooms an’ I’m guessin’ that means my assumption of there bein’ merchandise in there is true. I can pick out at least five additional men in the main room of the warehouse. That’s twelve men that we are goin’ to have to subdue in any means possible. Donner will most likely have Willis, and at least one or two other men with him. Justin reported that besides him, Blaine will also have two other men with him, officers’ Jeffries and Shipley, So that makes a total of about nineteen or twenty suspects that were goin’ to be up against when we take the warehouse.”

“The odds aren’t great, but they could be far worse.” Kelli stated seriously. Vin passed her the scope so that she could peer through it into the warehouse. She carefully studied the layout of the rafter’s assemblage, noting a couple of places that would make ideal perches for her to provide cover for the agents on the ground. When she was finished, the two MCAT agents maneuvered themselves off of the hillside and back over to the van and climbed in. “A two- to-one ratio, I reckon. Guess all your hand to hand trainin’ is about to pay off.”

“We’ll soon find out.” Tanner remarked as he started the van and headed it back in the direction of the motel where the others were waiting.

Back at the motel

There was an anticipatory air in the motel room, when the Tanners arrived back with their updated information on the warehouse. Vin looked over the assorted MCAT members, and U.S. Marshals that would be backing them up on the raid, his blue eyes steely with resolve.

“First off, do not forget that we have two men in there undercover and a missing agent, you have their pictures, memorize ’em. No one makes a move until I give the go ahead and MCAT will take the lead, y’all Marshals are here to back us up. Make sure your radios and headset are workin’ properly.” Vin was helping Kelli put on her vest as he spoke. “I don’t plan on losin’ any of y’all out there today so double-check everythin’.”

Tanner finished with Kelli’s vest and moved over to the plans on the table. “Gather around everyone." Tanner said to the assorted MCAT agents and U.S. Marshals that would be providing back up for them. “I’m goin' to go over the details of the plans only one more time." Their plan was fairly simple; the agents would hang back out of sight. Justin would text Tanner when all the players were present. Then they would move in, hoping to catch Donner and the others off-guard. “There are four entrances to the single level warehouse. The front entrance is the double door set up that you would see in most warehouses or barns and is the one that Donner, Blain and their people will be arriving at the location through. Three other, single door exits exist. All of them have guards staged on the interior side of them, except for the main door. That door has a second man on the exterior side of it as well. “

He glanced up from the drawing momentarily, to make sure that everyone was following him so far. When he was satisfied that everyone was following, he continued. “The warehouse consists mostly of one large common area that is littered with heavy machinery, crates, packaging materials. Along the east wall, is a row of additional smaller rooms, the largest one is guarded by an additional two guards and is most likely where their ‘human’ merchandise is located. Kelli and I did a count up of the odds that we are goin’ up against and it looks to be like two-to-one with Donner and Blain on the premises with their people. “

“Not bad odds…” Wilmington commented.

“No…” Tanner agreed, “However, these men are not goin’ to settle only for a gun battle. They are all facin’ some serious time for the crimes that they have committed, and stand to lose everything they value. They are goin’ to be lookin’ to do anythin’ and everythin’ that they can to avoid prosecution. So be ready for anythin’.”

“Don’t worry Vin, we can handle ourselves.” JD assured him.

“Even so it will be prudent if we remember all of the extracurricular training that Agent Tanner bull-doggedly insisted that we all take part in.” Standish spoke up, looking at Vin with a wide grin.

Tanner heaved a resigned sigh and shook his head at the sound of laughter around the room. “Y’all laugh, but when this is over we’ll see how you feel about it then.” Turning serious again, Vin began to give orders. “Agents Sanchez and Wilmington, you will be posted at the east side; Agents Dunne and Roberts the west. Agents Coulter and Standish will be comin’ in from the back. I will be kickin’ down the front door with U.S. Marshals, Williams, Majors, Wright, and Philips. Those Marshals’ names I did not call out will be providin’ backup for everyone else on the front line of the raid. Again remember, we have two men undercover in there and possibly a hostage; I do NOT want any of our people down due to friendly fire. When all of the suspects are in place, we will move in on my signal only. Those of you who are comin’ from the sides and back, you will take out anyone who poses a threat and converge on the main part of the buildin’. Is everyone clear on what they are supposed to be doin’?”

There were a round of nods and “Affirmatives”.

“Okay, “Vin said.” Gather up your gear and be geared up to head out in fifteen minutes. Everyone needs to be in position before daybreak. Be prepared for a long wait.”

Warehouse Area 

It did not take long to reach their destination. Experienced team that they were, everyone stealthily moved into their assigned positions and listened for the signal that hopefully would lead them to a conclusion to the nightmarish case that had dogged them for so many months. Before the sun’s rays hit the ground they were ready for whatever lay ahead. The activity around the warehouse increased as the hours passed. Two tractor-trailers pulled into the loading zone and crates began to be loaded by Victor’s crew. Zimmerman and Vance were the first suspects to appear and by eight-thirty Donner had arrived, too.

JD felt the anticipation building inside of him as he and Paul waited on the west side of the building, bodies plastered against the walls to make themselves as invincible as possible in the little walkway between the two warehouses. It was more than the usual rush that he got before a bust, because of all that was riding on this raid. Foremost, in all the brothers’ minds was finding their missing member, Chris Larabee. Regardless of whether or not Larabee had gone rogue and endangered the lives of all of them by his actions, he was family and none of them wanted to discover him dead. Next to finding Larabee, every single MCAT agent wanted some retribution for all the chaos and harm Donner and his cohorts had caused them.

Wilmington and Sanchez were biding their time, hunched down into position along the east wall, listening intently to the sounds of the activity going on inside of the warehouse, especially that of the sentry that was guarding their entrance. They both had to quickly shift out of sight twice, as the door had opened far enough for a stream of brown chewing tobacco to rain down upon the asphalt. As soon as the door was closed again, they would return to their previous positions.

Ezra and Kelli were well concealed by the backdoor. Standish passed the time mentally playing poker, while Coulter relaxed her breathing and concentrated on her rifle. Pushing out thoughts of home, kids, and family to be ready to act when necessary, both of them had only one thing on their minds. Kelli’s focus was to cover her teammates and Ezra’s was to cover his partner.

Vin stood inside the bank of windows within the warehouse adjacent to Donner’s warehouse. He had chosen to utilize the warehouse as a staging point for his entrance position, and those of the U.S. Marshals who would be following him in, while the others fanned out toward the other three doors to cover the other MCAT agents’ backs. He did not worry about his team accidentally shooting one of the Marshals as they came in behind him, because they were all aware of the backup team’s part in the raid.

Tanner had been waiting for just the right moment to spring their trap, and now that the message from Justin came through confirming that all of the players had entered the warehouse, it was time to put their plan into motion. They did not have to worry about the guard on the exterior side of the double doors, his squad’s entrance point, because he had disappeared inside with the others. He radioed the others that the raid was a ‘go’ and led the Marshals across the short distance between the two warehouses, releasing his weapon from its holster, he signaled to Marshals Williams and Majors to grab the two door handles and give them a mighty yank.

Simultaneously, all four doors were wrenched open and the MCAT Agents and U.S. Marshalls converged on the warehouse from all sides, yelling “Federal Agents!" Tanner quickly dispatched one of the guards at the door that was aiming a gun at him, with a shot that disabled the man, and ducked just in time to avoid being hit by the other’s fist. That assailant dropped to the ground from a wound to the neck fired by one of the Marshals. Sanchez and Wilmington had easily taken down their guard, and moved rapidly forward, their focus on taking out the hoods guarding the ‘merchandise’ and ensuring the safety of the victims. JD and Paul were equally efficient in dispatching the man by their door and found themselves almost instantly engaged in hand to hand to combat with a couple of other men.

Standish had fired the shot that took out the guard on their door, and he and Coulter moved forward in the warehouse, Kelli’s eyes scanning the interior for an ideal place in which she could scale the rafters and provide cover for the agents and marshals on the floor. She had just found the ideal spot, when she heard Ezra yell her name. Kelli ducked in time to miss being garroted by a scythe, and found herself in a fight for her life. Standish was likewise occupied with a burly man twice his size. It took a few minutes, but both of them disposed of their immediate threats with practiced defensive moves and as Kelli ascended to her selected perch, Ezra gave her cover to reach it.

Michael Welch after months of pretending to be corrupt FBI agent Vance now had the pleasure of taking down his ‘partner’ Agent Robert Zimmerman. “You are under arrest Zimmerman.” Seeing the stunned look on his face when Michael told him he was under arrest and handcuffed was priceless.

When the doors swung open, Blain’s officers from Costa Mesa thought they would have the advantage in this fight, after all they were lawmen too, and whatever side won they could believably claim their allegiance to. However they were in for a rude awaking. Billy Ray Hackett had let out a loud, "Shit!" as the front doors to the warehouse burst open and Federal Agents rushed in. He dove to the floor, drawing his gun and taking aim at what Blaine assumed was one of the interlopers, but instead Shipley fell to the floor.

Justin got off another shot, nicking Jeffries as the other man dove into Blain and took him down to the ground. Movement to his right made Justin turn in time to see one of the other suspects in the warehouse with a gun pointed at his head. He stared up the muzzle of the gun and saw the man's fingers twitch on the trigger, but the sound of a high-powered weapon echoed through the cavernous warehouse and the man fell forward onto him, dead. Quickly recovering Justin leveled his gun at Blain and said, “Asshole, you are under arrest.”

Kelli let out a breath as she sighted down the scope of her weapon again, watching as Justin pushed the man she had just shot off of him and regain control of the situation.

Across the warehouse Josiah and Buck had their hands full with three of Donner’s men. Sanchez took out two of them when he knocked their heads together, and the third when he shoved the two dazed men into the man wrestling with Buck.

“Thanks Brother Josiah,” Buck grinned and immediately turned to face their next threat.

JD and Paul worked their way through the warehouse, eager to assist their teammates. JD let out a grunt and fell to his knees as he lifted a hand to touch the back of his head, and it came away with blood. As the man who had snuck up on the unsuspecting MCAT agent readied the shovel for another hit, Paul leaped at the man to protect his partner. JD rolled onto the floor in a furious movement and shot his assailant in the chest, before Roberts could reach him.

“You okay?” Paul asked, as he helped JD to his feet.

JD felt his head swim a little as he stood up. “Yeah…Buck always said I had a hard head.”

Roberts chuckled and turned in time to see two men with guns directed at him and JD. He froze in place, and JD paled a little. Both MCAT agents’ lives flashed before their eyes, and then suddenly their two assailants let out cries of pain, and crumpled to the ground to reveal Buck and Josiah standing before them.

“You two looked like you could use a hand.” Wilmington commented.

“I’ve never been happier to see anyone than the two of you.” JD exclaimed, as he and Paul sighed in relief.

“Thank us later when we’re all out of this in one piece.” Wilmington said as the four agents paired off again as the battle continued.

JD took the lead as he and Paul maneuvered their way through the maze of crates, making sure none of the bad guys had taken up shelter there during the battle. He came out on the other end to a sight that froze him in his place and had him instinctively raising his weapon up to fire


Kelli had not hesitated to look for another target and felt her heart sink to her stomach as she caught sight of Vin in hand to hand combat with Donner. The way they were moving made it difficult for her to cover the Texan from her position. Heart pounding and hands steady she waited for her chance to shoot, praying that she would get it. Fear coursed through Kelli as she watched the deadly change of events happening regarding her husband, and she tried desperately to get a clean shot, but couldn’t without the risk of hitting Vin as he charged Donner. A dark headed figure appeared on the floor near where the scene with Donner and Tanner was playing out, and instinctively Kelli maneuvered her gun to target the man. It took a moment for her to realize it was JD, and she said a silent prayer that Dunne had a clean shot at Donner if necessary, because she did not.

Vin swept Donner’s legs out from under him, sending the other man falling hard to the floor. The furious Texan advanced on the other man, eager to unleash more of his wrath onto the man that had been responsible for all the attempts on the lives of his brothers, his wife, and the other MCAT agents. The same man that was responsible for ruining the lives of countless juveniles and damaging scores of others.

As he felt his feet fly out from under him, Donner flailed out with his hands to try and brace his fall, but connected hard with the ground anyway. When he landed, Victor felt the fingers of his right hand graze against something hard and metal. He felt renewed hope that he would see another day fill him as he grabbed up the fallen revolver and brought it up to bear on the charging Texan.

Vin froze in mid lunge, his heart pounding in his chest, and his thoughts on Kelli and their children as he stared down the muzzle of the gun that Donner was holding. He didn’t fear death; he feared leaving Kelli, Jason, and Andi alone. He flinched as he heard the sound of a gun being fired and waited to feel the impact of the bullet plunging into his chest and flinging him backwards onto the cold asphalt floor. The sensation never came. Instead, he watched as a stunned expression came over Donner’s cocky face, and the gun he held clattered to the ground. Donner brought a hand up to touch the widening bloody stain on the front of his shirt, as if not quite believing it was real, before his eyes closed and his head hit asphalt with a resounding thud.

Tanner turned to see an obviously shaken JD standing a few feet away, his gun still aimed at Donner. Vin nodded his appreciation to JD and then accounted for each member of his team as he confirmed that all the suspects were detained. He still had one more piece of business to take care of before he saw Kelli. Striding over to where Justin held onto Blain, Vin propelled himself into the man knocking the Police Chief to the floor of the warehouse. As Tanner drew back his fist he growled. "That redhead agent you so disrespectfully harassed and tried to kill is my wife.”

Blain taunted the Texan. "The bitch deserved everything that she got! Thinking she could come into my town and act like the boys, when all she is, is another piece of tail for the taking!"

The deadly snake that had been coiled up until then, quickly unwound itself and struck, as Tanner's fury was let loose and Blain lost his breath when Vin rammed his fist into his gut. The Texan straightened just as Kelli reached him and he felt her eyes scan over him for any sign of injury. Taking her arm to steer her away from the man writhing in pain on the floor he gave Justin an order. “Get this piece of garbage out of here, Michaels.”

“My pleasure sir,” Justin hauled Blaine to his feet and into the waiting hands of the U.S. Marshals.

“Buck, you take inventory of the suspects and let the Marshals take ‘em downtown. Ezra, you and Josiah get someone to help y’all and open up those trucks, let’s see what Donner was shippin’, look for anythin’ that might tell us where Chris is.” The rest of you make yourselves useful and check out the crates in here. Vin stopped in front of JD. “You okay?”

JD took a look around at all the suspects being hauled off by the Marshals and then set his eyes back on Vin. He had been certain that Donner would shoot the Texan before his own bullet could stop him and for a few moments the fear for his brother’s life had overwhelmed him. The young agent felt good that he had proven his ability to be an asset in the field again and that he had saved Vin’s life at the same time. “Yeah…yeah I’m better than okay.”

“Good work Agent Dunne…and thanks for savin’ my hide. Make sure you have the medic check out that head wound.” The Texan squeezed JD’s shoulder and then pulled out his cell phone to give the go ahead to Travis and Jackson.

The entire team was disappointed not to find any sign of Chris on the premises or in the trucks. However they were gratified to find out that they had saved twenty-four young girls from being transported in one of the containers to a ship waiting to take them to parts unknown. In the law enforcement game this operation would definitely go into the win column for the MCAT Unit.

Santa Ana, California ~ 10:00 am

Orrin Travis stormed into State Senator Bryant Hansen’s office with two U.S. Marshals’ in tow.

Hansen stood up. “Who in the hell are you?”

“Bryant Hansen, you are under arrest for, human trafficking, conspiracy to commit murder, and federal tax evasion for starters. You have the right to remain silent…”

“I know my damn rights and you have made the biggest and last mistake of your career!” Hansen was livid.

Travis grinned. “Tell it to the judge.” He tuned to the man behind him. “Marshal, will you escort this man to the federal building please.” Orrin then stepped aside to allow internal revenue agents to seize the Senator’s financial records and personal files.

Costa Mesa Docks ~ 10:05 am

The moment Nathan received Tanner’s message he gave the go signal. Homeland security agents swarmed the Turkish registered ship and found the Captain, informing him that his vessel was in the processed of being searched. Thirty operatives began on deck, working their way down to the cargo hole. It was a slow process as they checked the identification on each crewmember. Jackson had to stand back and wait, knowing that it could take hours before this task was finished. He did keep the radio frequency open so he could at least monitor the activities.

The radio crackled. “Agent Donavan, this is Conner, I’m in the crew quarters and need a translator for Columbian Spanish.”

Donavan acknowledged. “I’ll find one and send him down to you.”

Nathan wondered what in the hell a Columbian was doing on a Turkish ship. Over an hour later he finally reached Josiah by phone to get all the details and a list of injured from the bust at the warehouse. Jackson heard the disappointment in his Josiah’s voice when he had to tell him that there was no sign of Chris having ever been at the warehouse. He felt the pain when Sanchez told him about the young girls they had rescued and only hoped that they had found all the girls that Donner had planned to ship out. Ending his call and slipping his cell phone in his pocket, he saw one of the senior agents approaching him.

“Agent Jackson, you’re needed below deck, please follow me.”

Having no idea why his presence was requested, Nathan followed the agent into the bowels of the ship to a small area isolated from the crew’s quarters. It was dark, hot and smelly, but as they got closer to the door that was the entryway to their destination Jackson heard several voices inside. One he unmistakably recognized!

Pushing his way through the other agents surrounding the yelling man, he almost collapsed with relief. Chris was alive! That relief was short-lived when he realized that Larabee was out of his head with a fever, combative, and hallucinating. Nathan had seen him like this one other time…when he was going through withdrawal last February.

“Stand back!” Nathan ordered. “Let me handle him. How soon will the paramedics be here?”

“ETA is six minutes, sir” One of the agents answered. “Sir, he has already injured one of our men, with your arm…”

“I said I will handle this, you just get those paramedics here ASAP.”

“I’ll get them down here as quickly as possible.”

Nathan turned his attention to Larabee. Speaking softly he moved closer to him. “Chris…it’s me Nate. Let me see to you, that arm looks kinda bad.”

Chris tried to focus, he recognized that voice, but Nathan was dead. Wasn’t he? “Go away, you’re one of them. Get OUT!”

“One of who Chris?” Nathan was sure that Larabee had recognized his voice, why… and then it hit him. The television meant Chris had heard what happened in Denver and Travis’ statement; Chris didn’t know that any of them had survived. To him he was one of the ghosts, like the ones that had plagued him before when he was recovering. “Chris, please listen to me. I’m here, really here, you need help.”

Breathing heavily, it was becoming more difficult for Chris to stay on his feet. The room was spinning and it was hot. Damn hot! But that voice kept talking. “Nate? You …you made it out?” Stomach cramps had him doubled over in pain, “Nathan I…” Suddenly Chris collapsed.

Jackson rushed over to him and it only took a matter of second to know that Chris needed to be in a hospital. He sat with Chris’ head in his lap and scanned the room, glaring at the other agents that stood around doing nothing. “Don’t just stand there! This man is a federal agent and he needs to get to a hospital, NOW!”

Chapter 46

Mission Regional Trauma Center ~1:00 pm

Mission Viejo, CA

Nathan paced the waiting room, looking up every time the emergency room doors opened. Using his POA that was second to Vin’s, he had given Chris’ doctor a brief background on Larabees’ condition. Jackson also informed him where to find his medical records and the name of the hospital that had recently treated him as Adam Carmichael for the infection in his arm. Then the doctor told him it would be a while and asked him to leave the exam room. So Jackson called Tanner, giving him a preliminary report on Chris and then went to the critical care unit to check on Raphael and to also let Mallory know that Josiah was okay.

Jackson had returned to the emergency room area and watched the clock, waiting to see who would join him first. Nathan was anxious to see how they all had fared physically from the rumble at the warehouse. Vin and Travis had left Santa Ana twenty minutes ago, after booking the prisoners from this morning’s bust, and should be here at any time. The rest of the brothers and team stayed behind to finish up paperwork and would come as soon as possible.


The double doors swung open and Orrin Travis was the first one that appeared, followed closely by Vin and Kelli. Nathan stopped pacing and waved them over to the waiting area, observing them carefully for any new injuries that may have acquired since he had seen them last.

“We’re fine, how’s Chris?” Tanner knew Nathan too well, and was aware of what he was doing.

“The doc is in with him now, the infection in his arm has flared back up and he was dehydrated…” Nathan apprehensively looked over to Travis

Orrin encouraged Jackson to continue. “I’ll take off my Director’s hat Nathan. Just tell us the rest, off the record.”

Nodding, Nathan went on. “Chris is in for a rough time, but like I said on the phone he should come though it physically okay. But he was hallucinating when we found him, and then he began convulsing. I’d say he was in the worst stages of withdrawal by then. I had no choice but to tell his doctor about Chris’ recent problem with the drugs that Jack had given him and…the ones he took himself. I also provided him with the information he needed to get his medical record from Santa Ana and Denver.”

“Nate, ‘m sorry you had to be the one to do it, but if I had been here, I would have done the same.” Vin laid a hand on Jackson’s shoulder. “But I am sure as hell glad you were here and hold the other POA for Chris, otherwise …it could have been made worse by them not knowin’.”

“Whatever he needs, I will make certain that it is available for him,” Orrin added. “ Vin, do what you need to, I’ll finish up at the federal building and send the others over here as soon as their reports are finish, I think it might be best for Director Travis to wait and see Chris tomorrow. If you will excuse me I should also call Linda and let her know that Chris has been found.

Once Travis was gone Kelli asked. “Did he say anythin’ or recognize you?”

“No, he thought I was a ghost, evidently he saw the reports of the blast in Denver and believes we are all dead.” Nathan hated to think about how Chris viewed that in the state he was in. “I don’t think he comprehended what I was telling him, so he probably still thinks that.”

“Has there been any word on Raphael’s condition?” Vin asked, watching the door to the examinations room that Chris was in.

“Mallory said the only thing the doctor would commit to is to say the he has been stabilized.” Nathan shook his head. “From what I was able to find out, it’s a miracle that he is still with us.”

“As soon as I see dad, I’ll go see how Selina is holdin’ up.” Kelli stated. “That is if they let us in to see Chris.”

A few minutes later, Dr. Winters entered the room looking for Nathan. “Agent Jackson, we need to talk.”

“This in Vin Tanner, the one I told you about. He holds the primary POA for Chris and the young lady is Chris’ daughter so you may speak freely.” Nathan introduced them.

“I read Mr. Larabees’ medical file and saw your POA attached, so lets get started. The infection will be fairly easy to control and I see no complications arising from it. My concern is the withdrawal he is going through, from the information I have pieced together, this round is apparently worse than the last one. Mr. Larabee has been experiencing flashbacks and hallucinations. I will get him through this with medication, but I highly recommend that he spend some time in a drug rehabilitation clinic. There are a few close to Denver that I can give you the names of. Do not expect him to be totally coherent for another twenty-four hours or so, but if all goes well he should be you fairly rational by Monday and be released by the middle of next week.

“For the record, he is a material witness and one of our agents will be with him 24/7. When can we see him?” Vin wanted the doctor to understand that they would not leave Chris alone.

“As soon as we have him in a room, I will allow you two minutes each. As for an agent being in the room with him… it might be best to post one outside his door for tonight. Tomorrow we’ll see how he is and then proceed from there. Tonight however will be a rough one and I have a nurse and an orderly staying in his room to make certain he does not harm himself thrashing around. I have also ordered that he be restrained. I realize it sounds harsh, but it is for his own good.” Dr. Winters stood. “I will be coordinating his treatment with Dr. Gilford at Denver Memorial, unless you prefer someone else and I will give you an update before I go off duty tonight.”

“No, Dr. Gilford is fine. Nathan or I will be here until Chris is able to make his own decisions so you can always find one of us.” Vin shook the doctor’s hand and relaxed for the first time today. Chris was alive, and that was what was important. Whatever else he was facing, he had plenty of family to stand with him for as long as he needed.

As promised, within a few minutes the nurse came to show them to Chris’ room. Since Nathan had already seen Chris, he urged Vin and Kelli to go in together to see him. He knew it would be difficult for either of them to witness what he had seen and he really wanted them to be able to support one another.

“Thanks Nate.” Vin pushed the door open. It was hard to see Chris so tormented and strapped into restraints, but without sedation or pain killers there were few other choices available. Leaving him unrestrained was not an option.

Seeing Chris, with his longer hair and beard, oblivious to their presence and fighting his demons, was heartbreaking for Kelli. “Why this way, Dad?” She did not realize she had spoken aloud until she felt Vin tighten his hold on her hand.

Chris? You’re not alone. Vin tried to reach out to his brother, but felt no response. Come on Cowboy, you can do this.

“I’m sorry, but you need to leave now.” The nurse interrupted Vin’s attempt to communicate. “There is a private area across the hall where you may wait, if you want.” She gently urged them both out the door. This was not the first time she had been assigned to a patient that was suffering from withdrawal, but it never became easier to see the effort it had on family members seeing a loved one suffer during drug withdrawal.

Vin and Kelli settled in to wait with Nathan. Words were few and it was not long before the other brothers joined them.

Buck and JD arrived first. “Travis sent you a rental,” he handed Vin the keys. “He said to tell you that he had everything covered at the federal building and not to concern yourself with work for now. Can we see Chris?”

Nathan checked out JD’s head wound before he answered, “This way, but only for two minutes.” He knew that trying to prepare them was useless, it was best to just let them go in and then deal with how they felt afterwards.

JD did not last that long, and Buck had a few unshed tears in his blue eyes when he walked out. He remembered sitting with Chris when he was going through withdrawal before, it wasn’t pretty then, but it was worse now.

Josiah and Ezra made their way in to join the small group that waited. Each took their two minutes with Chris and then returned to the others. The family needed to be united and this was where they all belonged…together.

“I think it might help if we all took a moment for prayer. “Josiah suggested, and watched as they all joined hands. “Heavenly father, as we wait for our brother to return to us, we ask for the strength to stand together in this time of stress, the patience to see us through and peace for Chris in his battle. Amen.”

A chorus of amen followed and silently they settled in to hold their vigil for Chris.

Mission Regional Trauma Center ~ 5:00 pm

Mission Viejo, CA

When Orrin had called all he could tell Linda was that Chris had been found alive and that he was at Mission Regional. He promised to call her with an update as soon as he heard anything more on Chris’ condition. Linda had other plans. She couldn't wait at home, not after all the fears that she would never see him again. She needed to be with him and what's more, she needed to get him back home, with her, where he belonged She immediately called Matt and he arranged to have a private jet fly them both to California. With a little luck they could be at the hospital within three hours. Between Casey and Inez, Grace would be well cared for until her father returned home.

On the plane the blond had time to think about how her husband had ended up in the hospital. Hell, she could not even figure out how they lost him in the first place, but vowed that someone would answer for it. By the time they landed she had worked herself into a state of anger so deep that Matt knew all hell was about to break loose in Mission Viejo.

Linda swept into the hospital like a thunderstorm, demanding to see her husband. Nathan tried to explain that visitors were only allowed a few minutes, and she really should wait, but he would go with her if she insisted. ”Linda, it might be better to wait.”

“No, and I don’t need a baby-sitter.” She huffed and quickly disappeared through the door to Chris’ room while Matt waited for her by the entrance. He leaned against the wall and took in the sight across the hall in the family area. Josiah sat on a couch he shared with Nathan by the window that Vin was leaning back on, with Kelli next to him. Buck walked the floor and JD could not sit still. Ezra sat quietly in a single chair closest to the door. He hoped they were ready to face his sister because she sure as hell had her sites set on them.

When Linda reached her husband’s beside she took his hand and tried to talk to him, but he only gave her unintelligible mumbles in return. Linda was shocked to see Chris restrained, thrashing about and obviously in pain. She asked the nurse that was taking his vital signs why he was so agitated.

“Mr. Larabee is in some pain, but we can’t give him any medicine to relieve it.”

“Why not?” Linda demanded.

“Doctor’s orders, ma’am, you’ll have to talk to him. I’m sorry, but you really should leave now, visitors have only been allowed two minutes each.”

“Oh, I’ll be talking to the doctor and we’ll see about those two minutes!” Linda had thought about this all the way to California. She knew who was responsible for Chris laying in that bed and both Tanner and the doctor were going to get a piece of her mind. Angrily she headed out the door, ready to dig her spurs into whichever man she saw first.

Unfortunately the doctor was nowhere around, but Tanner was still leaning against the windowsill in the waiting area just across from Larabees’ room. Linda passed by Matt and the others as she marched over to stand in front of him. “Tanner you have Chris’ POA! Why in the hell aren’t you insisting they give him something to ease his pain?”

“I can’t do that Linda. I know it’s hard, but believe me that’s the last thing Chris needs right now.” Vin felt badly about it, but he stood firm.

“You stand there and profess to care about him, yet you know he’s suffering and will do nothing to stop it!” Linda was just getting started.

Kelli did not give Vin a chance to answer before she interrupted, hoping to keep Linda’s temper under control. “Draw in your claws Linda until you know all the facts.”

Linda turned on the redhead. “I know that Chris is in pain and I know that no one is doing a damn thing about it! What I don’t understand is why YOU haven’t done anything to help him! Your own father and yet you stand here and do nothing!”

Counting to ten, Kelli tried to reason with the blond. “Look I know you’re upset, we all are, but you’re not helping by standin’ here and yelling about somethin’ you know nothing about.” The words may have been between the two women, but six men now stood listening to each remark intently. Buck clenched his fists and JD was stunned. Nathan stayed silent for now as did Ezra, but they did not like what they were hearing. Josiah patiently observed as Vin straightened to stand behind Kelli and Matt stood by his sister.

“Upset! You’re damn right I’m upset. Chris is in there now because YOUR husband and the rest of this supposed band of brothers cared more about their precious case than they did about protecting him. You should be just as angry as I am. That is YOUR father in there!”

The redhead lost her own battle to remain calm. “I know he’s my father and I care about him as much as you do, but I am not gonna stand here and let you blame my husband or anyone else for his condition! Vin tried to get dad to listen and he refused. Chris is here because of his own doings, and he took another good man down with him that is in the critical care unit fighting for his life!”

“I thought I knew you better Kel. Vin is responsible for Chris being hurt and you are siding with him against the man that has accepted you as his daughter. You’re trying to put the blame an innocent man because Tanner wanted to make points by catching the bad guys. There will always be bad guys; there is only one Chris Larabee! And you’re choosing to defend the man responsible for him being hurt instead of protecting your own flesh and blood!

Kelli took a threatening step forward. “Linda Dubois! You had better climb down off that high horse you’re ridin’ on before I knock you on your ass!

Linda was not about to back down. “My name is LARABEE, legal and proper! Chris chose to give me his name. He wasn’t forced into doing it because of an unintended pregnancy that resulted from a one night stand.”

Vin realized where this was headed and exploded. “THAT’S ENOUGH!” Although for a moment he was tempted to let his volatile redhead tear into the angry blond, he moved quickly in front of his wife to block her forward movements while Matt did the same with Linda. Dubois was not completely certain that Vin would not challenge Linda himself and he could not let that happen. The two men squared off and the tensions rose.

Josiah moved toward Kelli and gently urged her to step back. Addressing Vin and Matt he spoke softly and said. “Whatever it is that you two are thinking… this is the wrong time and the wrong place for it’.”

Matt and Vin met eye to eye and silently agree to tend to family first, and to finish this… later. The Texan steered Kelli to the closest exit and outside the hospital to give her a chance to cool off, while Matt headed his sister in the opposite direction, leaving a few affronted brothers behind.

Josiah was dismayed by this turn of events, but not surprised. Over the last few months a number of highly stressful situations had presented themselves and the strain that had placed on everyone had been tremendous. Any single stress factor could be responsible for a few temporary riffs in relationships, but added all together it was a recipe for disaster.


Tanner had his hands full because Kelli was furious. Once they were outside he let her go and simply stayed with her as she tried to walk off some of her anger. After six blocks she began to slow down and at eight she finally stopped in front of a park and tuned to face him. “You should have let me deck her.”

“I did consider it, but I couldn’t stand the thought of you going to jail for assault.” Tanner knew she was still angry, but at least she was talking and that was a good sign. He reached over and brushed her hair back with his fingers. “Linda crossed way over the line when she attacked you personally.” As he spoke he led her over to a park bench where they could sit and talk.

“I don’t give a damn what she said about me, but I refuse to let her blame you and the others for Chris being where he is. That woman needs a wake-up call! None of y’all deserve to be blamed for what dad did or didn’t do. Hell, you had a full plate set in front of you and had to work it out without Chris’ cooperation and not one of the brothers wanted him to get hurt. Linda should know that.”

Vin had a tough skin and the accusations Linda made about him, he was willing to ignore. However, he was not so tolerant when she had included the others and then Kelli in her rant. He found it not so easy to forgive when his brothers and his wife were being attacked, regardless of the motive behind it. He realized that his wife felt the same way and found it ironic that each of them were angry on the other’s behalf.

Sliding his arm around her shoulders, Tanner decided it was time to redirect that anger and put it on the back burner for a while.” Kel let it go for now, we have other things that need tendin’.” He pulled out his cell phone and dialed home to reach the kids and then handed it over to Kelli. “Talk to ‘em.”

Sitting back he watched the tension diminish in his redhead as she talked to the children. The kids were something that always brought home to each of them what was important. He had no doubt that there were still some rough waters ahead to travel, but he was going to make sure they did not drown in the process.


Matt had managed to calm his sister enough to convince her to talk to the doctor herself. When they returned to the waiting area they received a frosty reception from the brothers and Kelli nor Vin were anywhere in sight. Settling in to wait, it was not long before Dr. Winters made his appearance.

“Mr. Tanner?” The doctor looked around the room for the man that he had spoken to before.

“Nathan stood. “He’s not here at the moment; you’ll have to settle for me.”

“Very well, could we talk in private then?”

Linda spoke up. “I am Mrs. Larabee, and I don’t care what these men have told you. I demand that you do something immediately to relieve my husband’s pain. He needs to be able to rest comfortably.”

Dr. Winters looked to Nathan for permission to tell this woman what was going on. He had read the POA that Mr. Tanner held as well as the one Jackson had showed him and both specifically said that it overrode her rights as a spouse.

“Go ahead and tell her doctor, if you don’t I’ll have to.” Nathan agreed.

“Mrs. Larabee, I made the decision to withhold pain medicine from your husband, no one told me to do so. As for resting comfortably, Mr. Larabee is suffering from withdrawal from narcotics and there is little I can do to stop it. It appears that the worst may be over, but I am afraid that any form of pain relief is out of the question at this time. He also is battling an infection from a previous wound and I have him on antibiotics for that; however my main concern is to see him through withdrawal and then take a look at where we stand.”

Linda was stunned. “Withdrawal? No… you must be mistaken. My husband is not a drug addict!”

“You may call it something else, but he is withdrawing from the misuse of narcotics. I personally talked with Dr. Glass, the doctor that treated him in Santa Ana, and from what he told me, Mr. Larabee has been given Demerol and morphine in addition to a large quantity of pain medications prescribed for him in the last two weeks. Given the history that Agent Jackson provided to me and the symptoms that I observed when he was brought in, I would say that regardless of the circumstances, your husband is again addicted to drugs.”

Dr. Winters continued, and tried to soften his words after seeing the stricken look on the younger woman’s face. “Possibly by tomorrow, he will be more coherent, and you will be able to speak to him, but not tonight. I do however expect him to physically recover quickly.” Turning to the others he nodded. “Gentlemen, I will see you in the morning, I hope you will all take my advice and get some rest. There is nothing you can do here.”

“Thank you doctor,” Nathan shook his hand and watched him walked out the door.

Linda lashed out. “What in the hell did they do to Chris? I know that he would not voluntarily take drugs again. Why didn’t one of you try to get him out if he was in trouble? I thought y’all cared about him!”

Buck snapped back. “Now hold on a minute Linda. We all love and care about Chris, but he was ordered out more than once. Vin and I even came here to California to talk to him face to face and he refused to listen. Josiah tried to reason with him, too. He made his own choices, now we’ll try and help him get past the consequences of those decisions.”

“Well, I don’t believe it! Someone forced those drugs on him! Chris would not do it on his own and he is smart enough to know when it is time to pull out of an operation. I think he was used to solve your damn case, Vin was in charge, if he had wanted Chris out he would have done it. Instead he was left in there at risk, just so MCAT could have a victory!”

“Vin wouldn’t do that anymore that any of us!” JD replied angrily.

Nathan refocused the discussion back to Larabee’s health. “Chris was in bad shape when we found him; he was fevered from the infection and withdrawal, as well as hallucinating. No matter the reason or how it came about, the drugs have had a hold on him and this time it’s gonna take more that holding up at the ranch for ten days to help him.”

“He is going to need all of us to help him and the support of a proper treatment program to come all the way back this time. That is what we should be focused on; the details of how he got here should be secondary to that.” Josiah tried to bring reason back to the conversation.

Linda did not want to hear any of what they had to say. “Where is Director Travis? Maybe he will be willing investigate this entire thing and then we’ll see who is at fault!”

“He had to go back to the Federal building in Santa Ana. We probably won’t see him until morning.” Josiah replied. “Linda maybe…”

“Save it, none of you have anything to say that I wish to hear.” She turned to her brother. “Matt, we’ll go over to our hotel and makes some calls. If Travis isn’t here to listen we’ll find someone that will.”

Ezra watched as brother and sister walked out the door. Shaking his head, he commented. “If I didn't believe that her offensive remarks were springing forth from a well of confusion and fear over the dire circumstances revolving around our ill brother, I would very gladly turn her over my knee and give her a sound spanking for her childish behavior.”

Three of his brothers now wore slightly amused smiles, and a hearty, "Amen to that brother," sounded from Josiah.

Critical Care Unit

Agent Alex Sandoval sat by the door of Raphael Cordova’s room and he saw Agent Tanner, with the woman he knew as Agent Coulter, approaching from the elevator. The more he saw and talked to these MCAT agents the more intrigued he was with the differences from his ridged work environment. He loved being an FBI agent, but he promised himself to look into this MCAT thing more in depth when this assignment was over. He stood and acknowledged the man he had met earlier.

“Sir, ma’am.”

“Relax Sandoval; we just want to look in on Cordova.” Vin patted the younger man on the shoulder and pushed the door open for Kelli. Selina sat by her dad’s bedside, while Mallory sat across the room reading.

Mallory look up from her book. “Hi guys.” She rose and walked over to meet them, giving Vin and Kelli a hug before asking. “How’s Chris?”

“Still the same I’m afraid. How are y’all doing?” Tanner glanced at the machines connected to Raphael.

“The doctor was just in, but let Selina tell you about what he said.” Mallory smiled, she knew the younger woman had been beside herself with worry and any good news was welcome.

Kelli hugged Selina, “So what did he say?”

“Dad’s doing better, he still has a long recovery ahead, but the doctor is finally convinced that he is going to make it.” Selina grinned. “My sister, Alicia is coming in on Tuesday and we may even be able to transfer him to a hospital in Denver by next weekend.”

“That’s the best news I’ve heard in a while. Raphael is tough and a fighter, you hang in there Selina.” Kelli was relieved, and she knew what it meant for Selina and her sister.

“Whatever y’all need, we’ll get. Orrin can make arrangement for transportation and medical help when the time comes.” Vin assured Selina “I’m gonna have Paul and Justin relieve both of you and Sandoval for tonight, go over to the hotel and get some rest.”

“I’ll see to Selina, you take care of Chris.” Mallory would make sure Selina rested if she had to sit on her to do it. “We’ll take off when Justin and Paul get here.”

“See y’all later. “Kelli brushed Raphael’s hand. “Hurry back partner, we miss you.” On the way out Vin stopped to let Sandoval know who would be replacing him for the night and then he and Kelli walked slowly back to the waiting area across from Chris’ room.

Nathan filled them on what Dr. Winters said and Buck, JD and Ezra made sure Vin knew about Linda’s reaction. Vin tried to get them all to go to the hotel for a while with Justin and Paul, while he stayed, but they refused. Eventually he gave in to the fact that they would all be spending the night at the hospital. Josiah reserved his words; instead he tried to think of a way to calm the volcano he saw poised to erupt in the middle of his family.

Chapter 47

Mission Regional Trauma Center~8:00am

Sunday ~ August 20th

Nightmares had been Chris’ constant companions during the night and by morning he had fallen into an exhaust-laden sleep. Dr. Winters looked in on his patient and ordered more tests before he met with the men across the hall. Confident that his charge had passed the worst of the combatant stage of withdrawal, he now had to prepare them for the bouts of depression and denial that was surely to follow.

Sometime in the early morning hours the six brothers had worked out a tentative schedule as to who would stand watch at the hospital for Chris and Raphael and who would go to the hotel to rest. For the present time they agreed to all stay until the doctor gave them a report, while a rested Justin and Paul had relieved Mallory and Agent Sandoval last night. Kelli had urged Selina to go with Mallory to get some much needed sleep, with the promise that she would call if there were any changes in her father’s condition.

Linda and Matt returned, but pointedly sat on the opposite side of the room, keeping themselves separated from the rest of the family to wait, also. Both of them, using every contact that their family had access to, had tried unsuccessfully to find anyone in a higher position that was willing to take on Director Travis. It was as if the very mention of MCAT was enough to automatically insure a hands-off attitude.

Dr. Winters entered the room and shook his head at the sight of the unkempt men he thought he had sent off to rest last night. “I believe I told all of you to go get some sleep, not campout here in the waiting room.”

“You suggested doc, not ordered, there is a difference.” Buck corrected.

“Advised, I believe is the word you used.” Ezra concurred with his brother’s observation.

JD joined in. “I never heard him say that it was an order.”

Josiah grinned at his brother’s antics. You might as well concede doctor. They’re just trying to stay in practice. Their usual target for excuses is in that room.” He nodded toward Chris’ room.

The Doctor tried to conceal a smile and continued. “Mr. Tanner, I have this morning’s test results to share.”

“Excuse me, I expect to be included.” Linda glared at Vin as she stood and walked across the room.

“We’re all listenin’ doc, go on.” Vin ignored Linda and addressed Dr. Winters.

“At the moment Mr. Larabee is finally sleeping. I am convinced that the combative stage of withdrawal is over. This morning’s test show the level of narcotics in his system is almost nil and he is beginning to stabilize. However, this does not mean he is cured, as I said before he will need further treatment once he returns home. The next stage will be bouts with depression, some possible severe along with attempts at disassociating himself from the true facts of the last few weeks. I have ordered that he not be left unattended and you should know he will most likely sleep all day. He needs the rest and I am ordering that he have no visitors until tomorrow morning. That is not a suggestion or advice, but the way it will be…no exceptions. Clears enough?”

“Crystal,” Nathan answered for all of them.

"We'll be more than happy to oblige with your orders, Doctor." Vin said. "On the condition that you remember that we won’t be leavin’ Chris unguarded under any circumstances. One of us will remain outside of his room at all times, even if the rest of us are forced to get some rest." 

“I remember, Agent Tanner. I do suggest however that you not be the one to take the day watch. You look as if you could use some rest yourself.”

Kelli had been quiet, but tended to agree with the doctor. “I’ll see that he gets it, thank you doctor.”

The doctor started to leave and Linda stopped him. “Doctor, what time will you be making your afternoon rounds? I would like to be able to stay with MY husband as soon as possible.”

“I’ll be back by five; I will make MY decision then. Good day.” Dr. Winter exited the room without another word.

Matt asked no one in particular. “Why does Chris need a guard?”

Buck decided to answer. “Chris and Agent Cordova were both injured while undercover. We think we have arrested everyone involved, but until we are certain, we’ll take no chances. Both agents will have 24/7 protection.” He wanted to remind Matt and Linda that Chris was not the only agent involved.

“The other agent…Cordova, he’s okay? Matt had given very little thought to Kelli’s mention of another agent last night, until now.

Nathan answered. “We don’t know yet. He was shot in the chest at close range…he’s still in the critical care unit.”

“I will take the morning watch, while the rest of you go over to the hotel and rest. That means you too Vin.” Ezra directed his remark to Tanner.

“He’s going Ez, thanks.” Kelli gave her husband a looked that dared him to refuse.

“You call me Ezra, if anything changes with Chris or Raphael and that is a direct order not a suggestion.” Vin stated.

“I will, now go, all of you” Ezra shooed them out the door.

“Kel, wait a minute, I need to talk to you.” Linda tried to stop Kelli from leaving.

“We have nothing to discuss Linda. I received your message loud and clear last night.” Kelli walked off with Vin and left the blonde standing in the middle of the room.

Mission Regional Trauma Center ~ 8:00 am Monday

Larabees’ Room

Chris had been awake for about an hour; twenty-four hours of rest had him feeling almost back to normal. When Dr. Winters walked in the room Larabee was beginning to orient himself to the realities of the world again.

“Mr. Larabee, good to have you back with us.”

“Back? … How long? ...Where have I been?” Think damn it, do not let him see how confused you are!

“I realize that things may not be too clear for you, Mr.….”

“Chris… call me Chris.” No more Carmichael no more not being me.

“Chris, what is the last thing that you remember?” Dr. Winters wanted to see how many blanks his patient could fill in.

Imagines flashed through his mind and slowly began to take shape. “Ship …I was on a ship…explosion in Denver …GOD! They all died...but …No, Nathan…Nathan was there he said…Damn!”

“Take it easy Chris. You remember seeing Nathan?” Relieved to see his patient nod, Dr. Winters continued. “That’s good, think about what Agent Jackson told you.”

It was like watching a movie someone else was in, but Larabee did begin to remember Nathan assuring him that they were all still alive and not to worry. “All on them are really alive?” Nathan does not lie, so it must be true.

“You friends are across the hall, as is your wife and daughter. However, before you see them, we need to discuss your condition. Do you know why you are in the hospital?”

“Arm got infected, and…I.” Chris stopped talking as he began to remember. Looking the doctor in the eyes he said firmly. “Pain pills did not put me here…it was that damn doctor in Mexico. I only followed what he said to do.”

Dr. Winters was not surprised that Chris held someone else responsible for his predicament. Admitting a problem with drugs was not easy, most people felt they were confessing to some kind of weakness and that simply was not true. It took a strong man to admit he needed help in handling the effects of narcotics, but it took some a while to figure that out. Blaming anyone besides themselves for whatever happened was common.

“Your infection is under control, a follow-up on antibiotics when you leave here will insure that it stays that way,” The doctor sighed. “The reason you took drugs does not matter, you have been suffering from withdrawal and I highly recommend that you voluntarily go into a rehabilitation program once you get back home. You should be well enough to travel by the middle of the week, but Chris, no more pain meds without supervision from a doctor that knows your history.”

“I know you are doing your job, but no rehab is needed. I will handle this my way when I get back home. Now I would like to see my wife, daughter and friends.”

The doctor knew that Chris was in denial, but there was no prescription to ‘fix’ that problem. He could only hope that after giving it some thought and with family support that his patient would change him mind.

“Very well, I will tell them that you are allowed visitors. “He snapped the chart shut and left.

Waiting Area

Ezra had the early morning watch and had been at the hospital since three. He waited with the brothers that had returned to the hospital to hear what Chris’ doctor had to say before he went to the hotel to claim some sleep. All of them knew they would rest better knowing that Larabee was out of the woods and on the road to being himself again. Linda and Matt were there too, and waited for the same thing, still separated from the others. It seemed that no one was willing to give in on their stand until they heard about Chris.

Orrin Travis was in attendance, giving Vin a rundown of the dispensation of the men they had arrested Saturday. “All of them will be going away for a very long time. As soon as Senator Hansen found out that Donner was dead and his Chief Blain was talking his head off along with Zimmerman, he quit squawking and realized that he was in serious trouble. The U.S. Attorney’s office and the IRS have enough evidence to put him away for life. Willis was able to give confirmed evidence that Donner ordered the attacks on MCAT. I’m just sorry the man is dead; I would have enjoyed seeing him pay for what he did and suffer longer. Unfortunately Gant has disappeared, but the girls you found in the container are in protective custody and most of their families have been located. “

“That’s good to hear sir; at least that part of this nightmare is over.” Vin was relieved to know that Hansen, Willis, Blain, Jefferies. Shipley and Zimmerman were going away for a long time. Knowing that so many juveniles were saved made it easier to justify the toll this case had taken on the unit as a whole, but Tanner could not help but feel that the cost had been too damned high for some of the agents.

“MCAT did good son, by the time everyone finishes talking to try and make their own deals, many more juveniles will be recovered and some of those trafficking routes will be close forever. Homeland Security will level charges against the Captain of the ship. The right people will be in prison for the foreseeable future, thanks to this unit and men like you, Wilmington and Michaels. Even though he was not sanctioned, Cordova will be included in the unit citation for this one; too, he deserves to have a good mark in his file on this case. Michael Vance will get his recognition here in California from the AG.”

“What about Chris?”

Orrin took a deep breath. “I cannot overlook his actions, but you let me worry about Larabee. You just be proud of what MCAT has accomplished.”

Vin wanted to say more, but Dr. Winters walked in and signaled that he wanted to talk to Tanner. The others began to gather round, but the doctor stopped them.

“Just Agent Tanner, first please.”

“Go on Vin, you can tell us when he’s finished.” Buck urged Vin to go with the doctor, not giving Linda an opportunity to protest.

Tanner stepped out into the hall with Dr. Winters. “What is it you can’t say to all of us?”

“Chris is awake and I expect he can go home by the middle of the week. However, he is a man in denial and I wanted you to be aware that until he accepts that he has a problem with addiction, he will continue to have troubles. It will take strong family support to reach him, if he lets you. I have seen enough patients in his situation to clearly read the ones that are ready to accept help and unfortunately he is not one of them, be prepared for anything.”

The Texan thought about what the doctor was saying. Knowing Chris and his independent attitude, it did not surprise him that he would be reluctant to seek help. “I appreciate your candor doctor. We’ll do what we can, but as for me I won’t baby Chris. He will have to make his own decision.”

“That is the only way sometimes, it harder on the people that care about him, but necessary to stand firm. I am going to allow full visitation privileges, if it won’t interfere with your protection detail.”

“That’s fine, we can handle it and if it’s all the same to you that is what you brought me out here to talk about.”

“No problem and good luck. I am afraid you and your family are going to need it.”

Dr. Winters led the way back inside and announced. “I needed to make sure that I would not be interfering with federal procedures before I told you that Chris is allowed visitors. Agent Tanner assured me that it was not a conflict with his protection detail. Keep in mind that Chris needs rest and I will allow all of you to see him. You may stay until visiting hours are over or until he throws you out whichever comes first.”

Linda did not wait to hear anything else the doctor had to say. She turned and immediately went into Chris’ room.

Buck started to protest, but Josiah silenced him. “Let’s give her a few minutes alone with Chris before we all go barging in.”

“Thanks Dr. Winters, we do appreciate what you have done to help Chris.” Nathan shook the doctor’s hand before he continued on his rounds.

Matt wasn’t sure if he should go with Linda or stay, Kelli solved his dilemma. “She’s a big girl Matt, leave her be for now. I have a feelin’ she is going to need you more in the day’s to come. You can wait out here with us, we don’t bite.”

“Much,” Ezra noted.

“Hardly ever, “JD smiled.

“Never on a Sunday though,” Josiah said with a grin.

“Family members are fairly safe,” Buck tried to be serious. “You are family of sorts.”

“If they do I can bandage it for you.” Nathan couldn’t resist throwing that in.

“Unless you plan on trespassing on private property and then I shoot first and bite later.” Vin mumbled and earned himself an elbow in his unbroken rib from Kelli.

Travis stood silently by and smiled, grateful that even after all the mental torment and grief that this case had produced, that his ‘boys’ were still the same.

Larabees’ Room

Linda slipped in the door and went directly over to Chris’ bedside. Tears flowed freely down her cheeks when she looked into those beautiful ‘Larabee green’ eyes and he smiled. Grabbing hold of his hand, she found her voice. “I was scared that I had lost you.”

Chris grinned, “I’m not that easy to lose, babe. I do hope you brought Grace with you, I need to see her.”

“No, I… I wasn’t sure …I didn’t know if you would even be alive when I got here. I thought it was best to leave her with Inez. When Travis called me, all he could confirm was that you were found alive, but he didn’t have details of your condition. You know me, I was not about to sit around and wait for him to call back. Matt arranged for the Dubois family jet to fly us out here immediately. We got in yesterday evening, but your doctor made me wait to see you.”

“Did he tell you why?”

“Chris I know what happened and believe me I let everyone know how I felt about it. Your brothers should have watched out for you and not left you to face a dangerous situation alone. I know what you were forced to do and I am only thankful that it wasn’t worse. None of this was your fault.”

“Damn straight it wasn’t. This op was messed up from the word go, and went downhill from there.” Chris squeezed her hand. “I don’t want you to worry any more about it. I’ll handle things from here.”

“I’m so glad to have you back; things have been so messed up since you left. Vin has taken over the ranch, giving orders, making plans to build things, moving people in our house. Not that I mind JD’s family and Nettie being there, but he didn’t even ask me first. I should be in charge when you are gone not him or Buck or any of them. Sometimes I think we should just let the rest of them have Larabee 7 and find our own place, we can certainly afford it…we could build a new house, even bigger than the one Vin and Kelli built. Then we could…”

“Linda, first things first, after all I’ve seen…I just need to know my daughter is really safe.” After those nightmares you mean, but you cannot tell Linda about them.

Surprised by the request, Linda hesitated. “You should know she and I had words yesterday.”

“I’ll get her straightened out; you just get her in here. Once I see her, then I’ll see the others one by one.”

Reluctantly Linda turned loose of his hand and went out the door. On one hand she was pleased to see Chris back in control, but on the other she did not want him to overdo and have a setback. After all this time you get a few minutes and then he wants his daughters and brothers. You still have to share him with everyone else.

When Linda walked into the waiting room all eyes turned in her direction. “Kel, he wants to see you... by yourself.” After delivering Chris’ message she went back to his room

Kelli looked over to her husband uncertainly. Chris should be anxious to see all of them and surly he would want to grill Travis about the unit. Of course she wanted to see her dad, but she had an uneasy feeling about this. “Vin?”

“Go on Kel, I’ll see him later.” Vin had no idea what Chris was doing, but he would not allow himself to believe that her father would do anything to harm Kelli after the incident the last time he was on drugs.

Pushing open the door, Kelli walked inside and walked over to Chris’ bed. “Hey, welcome back.”

Chris scrutinized his daughter’s appearance, looking for signs of injuries, and then grabbed her hand. “It’s good to be back and now it’s almost perfect. With Linda on one side and you on the other, all I need is Grace to complete my family of girls. But how are you really Kel? I realize that you were put in a bad position and I don’t blame you for any of this. I’m sure you did what you could to make Vin see reason, but I know how hardheaded he can be…” He stopped when Kelli pulled her hand out of his.

“I’m not certain what you are referrin’ to, but you may still be a little mixed up on a few things” Having a confrontation with Chris this soon was not what she wanted to do, and Kelli tried to remain calm. “Dad, I think once you know all of what’s been goin’ on you might think differently. Vin was caught between a rock and a hard place and that left him torn between loyalty to you and responsibility for the entire unit. He did what he had to, but it was not easy for him.”

Shaking his head negatively he said. “No, Vin handled this op all wrong and he is responsible for the mess that came of it. You have to see that Kel and I cannot let him get away with it; he damn near lost the whole unit! For your sake I will do what I can to try and help him stay in law enforcement, but you know he can’t stay with MCAT. He has caused too much damage to even consider keeping him on. Since you are married to him, I will try to keep it civil. You will back me, won't you Kel, you see that it's his fault, don't you?”

“Since when do we have sides, Larabee? I thought we were all on the same side! “Kelli cocked an eyebrow. “Are you saying that Vin is your enemy?”

“Tanner let the power of temporary command go to his head. It clouded his judgment and people got hurt because of it!”

“You left him with no choices while you played at being Superman!

“Do you think it way easy for me to be stuck in Donner’s hell?” Chris snapped.

“You’re the one that decided to stay there, even after Vin , Buck and Josiah told you your life was in danger! The entire unit had to stand back and play defense waiting for you while you played the lone ranger.” Kelli was losing her resolve to remain calm.

“I thought I could count on my daughter to back me, but I guess I was wrong!” Chris yelled.” I had my reasons, justified reasons!”

“I hope your reasons justify Raphael lying in the critical care unit fighting for his life after taking a bullet because he stayed here to cover you backside! Plus all the other injuries sustained because we could not move on Donner as long as you stayed in.”

Chris was struck silent for a minute when he heard that Cordova was still with them. Raphael is alive? What the hell else don’t you know Larabee?”

Linda jumped in. “Kel, you need to back off! Chris is not to blame for any of this! It’s this damn job that is responsible, it forces men like Chris to do things out of the norm to survive.”

“Bullshit Linda.” Chris had choices, he declined to use them! No one forced him to stay or to put those damn pills in his mouth!”

Chris snapped back to the conversation. ”Vin will pay for what he has done and if you stay with him I won’t be able to protect you!”

“I have never expected you to Larabee. You do what you think you have to do, but count me out of it.” Kelli turned and walked out of the room.

Waiting Area

It only took one look at Kelli to know that things had not gone well with Chris. Anger and tension radiated off her like fireworks on the fourth of July. Most of the men in the room knew her well enough to know that trouble was brewing. Matt wisely stepped out of her way as she passed him and JD was no fool either, he gave her plenty of space. Vin was the only one that stood his ground and did not look for cover.

“I need to get out of here for a while!” Kelli grabbed her bag off the chair. “Whoever thinks their brave enough can go next, I’m done!”

Vin touched her shoulder so she would look at him, he saw anger and hurt in her eyes. “Tell me.”

Kelli held her eyes on Vin’s until she could gain some control of her anger. “It’s really simple. Chris is out of his ever lovin’ mind! Somehow he reckons that you are to blame you for everythin’. He expects everyone to takes sides, his or yours.”

Ezra spoke under his breathe. “I bet that set off the Coulter blast.”

“I heard that Ez, and yes I gave him a piece of my mind and then some. I won’t play his silly game!”

Buck looked at Chris’ door. “He really expects us to take sides?”

“That’s what the man said, Buck. Hell, he thinks that I should leave Vin to be a part of his family and that ain’t gonna happen!”

“This should be between me and him, and it will be, but not here. Y’all do what you need to, no hard feelin’s. “Vin did not want his brothers caught in the crossfire between him and Chris. Larabee had picked him to be his scapegoat and that was that. But Vin was just as hardheaded as Larabee and he knew that he would not back down from the challenge. Bring it on Chris, but don’t expect me to go easy on you.

JD shook his head no. “We can’t be expected to take one side or another.”

Nathan agreed. “There shouldn’t be any sides at all. We are supposed to be a team and family.”

“Brothers and Sister, I believe Chris is looking for vindication and a reason not to admit he may have a problem. Like it or not he has chosen Vin to shift the blame to, we’ll have to be patient and hope Chris comes to the realization that he needs professional help to get a handle on this before it destroys him.” Josiah hated to consider it.

Orrin had heard enough, he stood and addressed all of them. “I regret that I find it necessary to pull rank, but I am taking the next turn. It’s time that Chris and I have a serious discussion.” Chris Larabee needed a wake-up call and Director Travis was the man that needed to give it to him.

Chapter 48

Larabees’ Room

Chris was expecting one of the boys, and therefore was surprised to see Orrin Travis walk into the room instead. He hated to get into work related issues so quickly, but maybe it was better this way. He would be out of here in a day or so and wanted to have his life back, including his command of MCAT.

“Orrin, I didn’t realize you were here in California, but it’s good to see you.”

“Chris,” Travis nodded to Linda. “I understand you will be going home in a couple of days. There are a few things that perhaps, we should talk about…in private.”

“Linda and I have no secrets, she can stay.”

“As your friend Chris, I am extremely grateful that you are back with us, but I am also concerned about you. I know that this last year has been hard on you, physically as well as mentally, and the last few months certainly have been taxing emotionally. I want to see you take care of yourself and I sincerely hope that you will listen to your doctors.”

“I’m fine Orrin; all I need to do is get back to Denver and reclaim my life.”

Travis sighed. “As Director Travis, I need to give you this.” Orrin handed him an envelope. “Commander Larabee, you have been relived of duty and will be on suspension status for ninety days. I am sorry it has come to this Chris, but this is my decision and mine alone. Fortunately I have final say-so on the rules of employment for MCAT, if we were any other agency you would have been immediately terminated for your actions. I want you back at the helm of MCAT, but after your rebel attitude during this assignment I must make certain that you are ready for it. Your actions put your life, your partner’s life, and the entire unit at risk. Your requirements for retuning back to work include a re-entry interview with me, mandatory counseling sessions, enrollment into a drug rehabilitation program, and there will be a six month probation period after you resume your duties as MCAT Commander.”

Chris narrowed his eyes. “What did Tanner tell you?”

“Captain Tanner told me nothing. In fact he had fully expected you to come back to MCAT, on your return to Denver. Chris, I don’t need Vin or anyone else to tell me that you need time to get a handle on what life has thrown at you this year. I should never have agreed to let you take this assignment and I fault myself for not realizing that it was too soon after your last ordeal for you to be under on an extended operation. That is why you are only suspended and not fired. Of course whether you agree to accept my terms or not is your decision, but I hope you will take time to seriously think about your future with MCAT.”

Linda had stood quietly aside until now. “Chris did nothing wrong! You should be apologizing to him for abandoning him instead of chastising him.”

Chris squeezed her hand. “I can take care of this.” Turning his attention to the director again he asked. “If I decide to agreed to this, who will be in charge of MCAT in the meantime?”

“I am the Director in charge of MCAT, but I have asked Vin to stay on as acting Commander of the unit until you return. When you meet my requirements we will talk about your future role with MCAT. But in the meantime I need someone that is ready now to hit the ground running. If he declines then I will make other arrangements.”

“Tanner didn’t accept?” Chris was sure Vin would jump at the chance.

“No, not yet. I gave him some time to consider my offer. We have a big job ahead of us to rebuild and reestablish operations and I cannot afford to wait ninety days to do it. I expect to have Tanner’s answer within a few days.”

Nodding his head Larabee answered. “I’ll have to give your requests some serious thought and get back with you.”

“You have ninety days, use it wisely.” Orrin nodded, turned and walked out.

Chris fingered the envelope thoughtfully. He knew that it only confirmed in writing what Travis had told him and truthfully a part of him had expected it .Hell Chris, if you had been in his place you would have ripped some hide off your backside. You didn’t even ask about the condition of your agents did you? … or Raphael? Rebuild…you know nothing about what happened while you were gone or…Damn it! What in the hell have you been thinking about? Why are you so damn angry with Vin? What are you doing Chris?

“Are you even listening to me, Chris?” Linda tried for the third time to get him attention.

‘Sorry…what were you saying?”

“I said screw them, you don’t need MCAT and you don’t need counseling. Travis is so wrong about you.”

“No…no he’s not…Actually considering what I did he is being generous. If I had been him I would have fired me. I expected it.”

“You mean … all of what everyone is saying is true? You could have come home to me? You risked your life against orders?”

Chris deeply sighed. “Yes. But I had my reasons…”

“What reasons are more important than staying alive and being home with me? Grace cried all the time missing her daddy. Do you know what it’s like to have a baby that cries all the time? I couldn’t do anything or go any where without permission like a damn kid! I had to watch Tanner and your brothers take over everything and now I find out that you CHOSE not to be there with me! I am your wife and I thought that was supposed to mean something! ...God! The things I said to Kel and…Did you take those pills voluntarily?” Linda was furious.

“I had my reasons and I knew I could quit taking them anytime I wanted to so…yes!

“I have worried myself half to death about you and been damn miserable in the process! I defended you and your damn job to my family and myself! All the time you could have come home! Instead we are here in a hospital with you going through withdrawal that YOU could have prevented! Any you tell me that you had you reasons…bullshit!

“Linda you are overreacting.”

“Not this time Chris! I sat alone because you said you had to take this assignment. I reluctantly agreed, but then you went back to using drugs again and almost got yourself killed! What about me? I know I rate behind your precious brothers and daughters, but now your job is more important than I am…Hell your damn horse probably rates higher than me! NO MORE! “

“I did what I had to; you just have to understand…”

“NO! I don’t! I have put up with too damn much already. Do you realize all the times since I have known you that you have been injured or missing? Too many damn times to count! I won’t sit by myself and worry about you anymore! I am going back to Denver and the Southern Breeze; at least there I can come first not last!”

“Linda, you don’t mean that. When we get home we’ll work this out.” Chris’ head was beginning to hurt.

“The hell I don’t” Linda grabbed her bag. “I am leaving Chris, you want me then a helluva lot is gonna have to change!” If it were possible to slam the door she would have, but all Chris saw was Linda’s retreat.

He reached over and buzzed for the nurse. “Yes, Mr. Larabee.”

“Will you please put a no visitor sign on my door; I do not want to see anyone else.”

“We’ll take care of it sir.”

Chris turned over and faced the wall. How in the hell did you fuck up your life this way?

Waiting Area

Linda stormed out of Chris’ room only five minutes after Travis had said goodnight to all, and without a word motioned to Matt that they were leaving, A couple of minutes later a nurse stopped by to say that Mr. Larabee had requested no more visitors until further notice. She then went in to check on her patient.

“What do you reckon that’s all about?” Buck asked, but he was not real sure that he wanted to know.

“I recognize the look Linda had on her face and I promise you it ain’t good.” Nathan was afraid to speculate on what Chris may have said to the blond.

Ezra stated the obvious. “It would appear that our dear brother has managed to alienate his most ardent defender.”

“Huh?” JD had no idea what Ezra was talking about

“It means JD, Chris has finally managed to piss Linda off big-time.” Vin explained as he stared at Chris’ door. Okay, it’s you against me Lar’bee, that’s what it is gonna, come down too. But I can wait and pick my own time and place for this battle. We’ll be fighting for your future Cowboy, and you’re not ready yet.

Josiah had been observing all the reactions carefully, especially Vin’s.” Brothers, I do believe that we should batten down the hatches. We are all in for a rough ride.”

Larabee’s room ~ 6:00 am

Tuesday ~ August 22nd

Chris had been having a bad night. In his sleep he was trapped between the lives of Adam Carmichael and Chris Larabee. Waking up in a cold sweat, he shivered and then tried to focus his thoughts. Realistically he knew who he was and where, but his dreams were confused. Sitting up on the side of the hospital bed, he caught sight of the clothes someone Ezra probably had been thoughtful enough to provide for him, while he had slept. Dressing quickly he walked over to the window and watched the sun rise. He was aware that Buck had taken the night watch and was sitting just outside that door. JD, Nathan and Josiah would soon be coming back to the hospital eager to see him too. All he had to do was tell his old friend to come in and then he could have answers the too many questions that swirled though his mind before they arrived.

Do it Chris. How are you ever gonna know if you don’t ask? Buck has known you for over twenty years, hell Larabee. Nothing you have done should surprise or shock him. Vin has shut you out, not that you can blame him and you really need to put the pieces of your broken memories together, so ask Buck. What are you afraid to find out?

Before he could change his mind Chris went over to the door and opened it. Buck was sitting not two feet away from the entrance.

“You gonna sit out there all day or come in here?” Chris snapped more irritated with himself than anything else.

“Well hell stud, I thought you‘d never ask.” Buck grinned as he followed his old friend inside. He knew Larabee well enough that he had expected this move from him sooner or later. Regardless of the adversities Larabee faced, he needed to know details and be in control of himself as well as the environment around him. The pills may have briefly taken that away, but that was only a temporary situation. Tanner understood the way Chris was too, and in the past his forgiving nature has always allowed the blonde to make his amends for his sometime too quick rationalizations, without having to compromise much. Wilmington was afraid that this time the stakes were too high and Vin was not going to make it easy on Chris.

“I was going to call Linda, but she didn’t tell me where she was staying. Do you know?”

Buck hated to be the one to tell him, but hell, somebody had to, “Linda and Matt took their private jet and flew home last night.”

Chris thoughtfully nodded. “She was pretty damn mad when she left here, I’m not surprised. Okay Larabee. First thing on your list when you get home is to patch things up with Linda. Sighing deeply, he prepared himself for the results of his next demand. “Tell me all of it Buck, start with the day I left.”

Wilmington was aware that the request was applied to work related issues. Questions about family would come later. He sat down and suggested that Chris do the same. He began his narration the day after Larabee left and continued to recite only the facts without additional comments to today’s date. Watching the play of reactions across his brother’s face was painful, especially when he recounted the attempted attacks on Kel, Kat, Pam, Mark, and finding Raphael in critical condition listed as a John Doe. By the time he got to the part of retelling the events of the day the MCAT office was destroyed, Buck was experiencing the fears and emotional turmoil of that day again. He had to stop several times to regain his control before finishing .Ending his presentation with the warehouse raid and the subsequent time since that had been spent here in the hospital. Buck leaned back in his chair and waited for Chris to digest all the information and respond.

Larabee has closed his eyes and could picture the events as Buck retold them. Three weeks! How in the hell could you have missed so much? How in the hell had Vin seen them all through it without taking casualties? You sure as hell didn’t help Chris, not with your ‘I’ll do it my way attitude’. Do you really expect him to forgive you for being such an ass this time? Trust you again? You really fucked up thinking those damn pills were your answer! Your team, your best friend, your brothers, you hurt them all. Not to mention the pain you caused your wife and daughters. Hell you broke it all Larabee, now you have to find a way to fix it. But can you and where do you start?

Swallowing hard, Chris found his voice. “Where is everyone now?”

“Nathan, JD, Ezra and Josiah will be here by nine. Kel is staying with Raphael while Selina and Mallory meet her sister at the airport. Vin and Travis have to get together with the U.S. Attorney at the federal building in Santa Ana by eight, Justin and Mallory are going back to Colorado with Travis later this morning; the rest will fly back to Denver this afternoon. Paul volunteered to stay and trade out the watches on Raphael with Agent Sandoval until Cordova can be moved to Denver Memorial, probably this weekend. Josiah and I are staying here until you are released.

Already shaking his head negatively Chris had other plans. “No! Find my doctor and you tell him I’m leaving today. If he refuses…hell, have Ezra do that thing he does to walk out of the hospital against doctor’s order. I am going home.” He knew that the sooner he got home, the sooner he could begin to untangle the mess he had made.

Buck smiled; Chris sounded more like the man he knew and less like the man he had seen the last few weeks. Once he was back in Colorado then he was certain that the family could help him find his way all the way back. “All right! I’ll find the doc and then call Inez so she can tell our son that I am coming home and that we’ll make the football game Friday night after all.” Wilmington stood up and headed for the door.

“Wait a minute Buck. Did you say son?”

Grinning from ear to ear, Buck answered. “Well stud, there were a few other changes while you were gone.” He threw his arm across Chris’ shoulder. “Let me tell you all about ‘em….”

At the hotel ~ 11:00 am

Travis pulled into the parking lot and cut the engine. He and Tanner had concluded all the MCAT business necessary here in California. It was time to look forward. They still had six agents in the hospital to help, time off to arrange for the others, and a new facility for MCAT to put together. “Vin, before you get out, I going to need your answer. The MCAT jet is waiting on me now to fly me back to Denver, and I want to make certain where you stand before I leave. If you agree then there are a few things I want to set up differently.”

Vin knew the question Travis was referring to and had been giving it a lot of thought. Deep down he supposed he had always known the answer; he could not walk off and leave until the unit was operational again. Sighing heavily, he gave Travis the agreement he wanted to hear. “I’ll help get MCAT back on its feet, but I don’t know if Chris and I will be able to work together again. So when he returns…”

Orrin interrupted him. “When Larabee returns things will be slightly different. I am the director of the entire MCAT agency; we live by my rules and mine alone. If I approve it then it’s policy. Chris will be in command of operations the same as now. Along with supervising day -to -day activities in the office as you have been, you will be responsible for all the training. Anytime Chris is out and you have to run the unit you will answer to me and me only. I do not want a repeat of what happened on this case ever again.” Travis pulled a folder out of his briefcase. “This will give you a rundown of what we need to become operational; we’ll discuss it in more detail back in Denver. You’ll note that I am asking for additional personnel to be added.”

Tanner opened the folder and scanned over the information. Travis had indeed given some thought to the events that had occurred during this case. He wanted Josiah to work with a profiling team, JD to set up the computer ops and satellite station, Ezra to further train undercover and negotiation techniques to the unit, Nathan to head the forensics cooperation with the lab and Bones. Buck was now lead investigator and was to put together a bomb squad, and in addition to his other duties. Orrin did not plan on the team ever being shorthanded again. As tempting as it was the Texan, he still hesitated to commit himself past the next three months.

“Orrin, I need to see how things go with Chris before I commit to more.”

“I recognize that possibility, but if you and Chris absolutely cannot work together then I will authorize a second team that will be under your command. I have no intention of MCAT losing you Tanner. Now the unit as a whole will stand down for six weeks with pay, but I can only give you two weeks. You deserve more, but we have too much work to do. You will need to let Sanchez, Wilmington, Standish, Jackson and Dunne know their new responsibilities. You will also find in that folder their new pay scale as well as your own. I do not think anyone will be complaining. However until I will meet with Chris in ninety days, he is to have no dealings with MCAT business. I want him to take care of Larabee first. Understood?”

“I understand sir and I reckon you have yourself a ramrod for a while.” Vin shook the Directors hand. “I’ll have the part of the team that is going home at the airport by four.”

“Take care of them Tanner and I will see you in Denver.”

Vin exited the rental car and then watched Travis drive away. He would do this so Chris would have a shot at getting his command back. As for their relationship, that was yet to be determined. Cowboy, I hate to do this, but I’m gonna shut you out for a while. You need to make your own decision on this one or you will never be free. When you are ready to face some home truths, then we’ll see where you and I end up.

Tanner headed into the hotel and then took the elevator to the third floor, using his room key he pushed to open the door and found that it was locked from the inside.

“If you don’t belong here, you’d best find another room.” A female voiced yelled through the door.

Laughter could be heard from the hallway. “We’ll ma’am, ‘m lookin’ for a little redheaded filly that has the sweetest assets north of the Rio Grande…”

The door swung open, “Get in here Tanner! You plan to for the entire third floor to hear about my assets?”

Kissing Kelli hello, Vin swept her into a hug as his eyes danced with amusement. “Nope… just half the third floor, besides, I could have said as…”

“Vin! “ Kelli swatted his backside as she closed the door and smiled. After all the challenges of the last couple of weeks, along with his many injuries she had been worried about her Texan. “Did you finish your business here?”

The Texan sat on the bed and took off his boots as he answered. “Yep, the rest of it is up to the Federal prosecutors to haggle over. I also checked in with Pam. Ross is stable, Greg’s condition has been upgraded, Mark is doing better, but Kat’s condition is unchanged. They are gonna run some more tests on her, and I thought we’d go see all of ‘em tomorrow mornin’.”

Kelli nodded and sat down next to him. “Of course we will. Raphael is awake and the doctor said he might be able to be transferred to Denver by Saturday. When Selina and Alicia returned from the airport, Mallory said good-bye to Josiah, dropped me off here, and the headed back to the airport to meet Justin and Travis. Selina and Alicia are both staying with their dad, while Alicia’s husband has their kids in Boulder. I told Cordova that you would be by to see him before we left. So…how did it go with Travis?”

Tanner stretched out on the bed and pulled up Kelli beside him. “I told him I’d stay at least ‘til Chris’ ninety days are up. Travis gave me two weeks off before we go to work on the new facility, but most of the rest of the team will be off with pay for six weeks. He also said if Chris and I can’t work together after that, he was willing to set-up a second unit for me to Command, to get me to stay with MCAT. I told him that I would think it over, ‘m not certain that I want a command of my own.” Vin waited for Kelli’s reaction, but she said nothing. “Kel, if that’s a problem we should discuss it now.”

“No…no, I expected you to stay through the rebuilding part…I just…” Kelli kept her head laid on his chest and sighed before continuin’. “I just thought that we could do somethin’ else after that.”

The tone of her voice alerted Vin to the fact that there was a lot more that she was not saying. Tightening his hold on her he was prepared to hear it all. “Tell me, baby.”

“Hell Vin, I almost lost you not once or twice, but three times in less than a month. First with those bastards that Donner sent, then that damn rocket launcher and then I had to watch helplessly in the warehouse…I couldn’t get a clean shot…if JD hadn’t… I don’t know if I want to do this anymore, and I’m not damn sure if my heart can handle you doin’ it.”

Vin kissed the top of her head. “It’s all over Kel, and I have no plans on leavin’ you anytime soon, at least not voluntarily.”

“You better not Tanner ‘cause I would hunt you down and make your life miserable if you did.” She raised her head to look him in the eye.

“You would too.” Tanner laughed and then turned serious. “Kel, you might think about another potential position on the team. Josiah needs to train two more profilers, and he thinks that with your instincts and educational background you would be a good candidate. You would still be in the field on investigations, and have a helluva lot more paper to deal with, but it’s somethin’ to consider.”

That was something that Kelli had not thought about doing, but the idea had possibilities. “I’ll think it over. As longer as you don’t figure out a way to do yourself in from a damn paper cut it might be a good option to keep open.”

“I’ll make a point to watch out for hostile paper.” He grinned. “And as much as I’d love to stay here with you, we need to pack, check out, and get our butts over to the hospital. I want to see Raphael before we leave and then meet with the guys to head home. I’ll wait to see Chris until we’re back on home ground again. We’ll call Max and tell her to let the kids stay up a little later tonight so we can see ‘em before they go to bed.”

“Sounds like a plan to me, Tanner.”

Larabees’ Room ~ 2:00 pm

Nathan and Josiah had spent over an hour trying to convince Larabee to stay in the hospital until the doctor released him, but Chris was adamant about leaving and insisted that Ezra spring him from this damn prison.

Having seen the state that Chris was in on Saturday, Nathan disagreed. “Chris you need…”

“I need to go home Nate! That all I need.” Chris snapped.

Josiah handed Chris an envelope. “I took the liberty of finding some groups you can join when you get back to Denver. The list is in here along with some phone numbers. Don’t make a decision now, but think about it Chris. Sometimes it’s easier to talk to strangers than those closest to you. One of those groups is set-up for law enforcement personnel only. They all have been or are in the same place where you are coming from.”

Chris’ first reaction was to give the damn envelope back to Sanchez. Not a chance in hell will I go. However he did not want to argue about it now so he put the list into the bag Ezra had provided for him. “We’ll see Josiah.”

Ezra walked in with the release papers for Larabee in his hand. “The good doctor disapproved, but I was able to convince him that it was in everyone’s best interest to cooperate.” He handed the release to Chris, along with the antibiotics he would need to continue taking for seven more days.

“What time is Vin supposed to meet us?” JD asked without thinking. He was so used to them all acting as a team, he forgot that Chris and Vin were not on the same playing field at the moment.

“I don’t need Tanner to baby-sit me on the way home.” Chris said irritably.

“Maybe not, but we all need to be on the same airplane to get there.” Buck was not looking forward to this part of Chris’ plan at all. It was definitely going to be a long flight home.


The Tanners spent some time with Raphael and were pleased to see that he was improving. With the promise that they would see him in Denver they walked downstairs to meet JD, Nathan and Ezra. Both of them were now anxious to go home and see their children. What they found waiting though was not what they had expected. Instead of three brothers there were now six, and it appeared that they would all be leaving together.

Vin stepped inside the hallway just as Chris stepped out of his room. The two men met eye to eye, silently assessing the other’s demeanor. There was no mental communication because both of them had effectively shut the other one out. However, it was clear to all those around them that it would take more than a chance meeting in a hospital corridor to settle their differences.

Buck broke the eerie silence. “Chris got released so it seems that we’ll all be going home together.”

"It'll be good to get back home." Kelli commented softly. “It feels like we've been gone for ages already, and it's only been a few days." Taking Vin’s hand she tugged gently, urging him out the door to their waiting rental car.

Ezra cleared his throat, “Chris you can ride with me, Josiah and Buck. Nathan you and JD go with Vin and Kelli. We’ll see y’all at the airport.

“Sounds like a plan.” Chris said, moving off down the hallway ahead of the others.

With one crisis averted, Josiah and Buck were mentally contemplating how to get everyone home to Denver in one piece.


A dark cloud of tension hovered over the small group of family members as they waited just inside the hangar while the MCAT jet was refueled for their upcoming takeoff. Kelli and Vin were united in their silence, standing a little apart from the others, not inviting any interaction at all with Chris. The Texan was not ready to take on an angry Larabee until Chris sorted a few things out in his head. Kelli was ready to do battle, but she had promised Vin that she would wait so all she could do was hold her peace.

The pilot walked over to inform Tanner that they were ready to leave when he was, earning Vin a heated glare from the now suspended Commander. That was another reminder to the blonde that regardless of the reasons, Tanner had HIS job. Chris worked hard to not display his anger, at least outwardly.

Buck noted the exchange and quickly moved to get everyone on board. “All aboard for the Wilmington Express...where every flight is sure to be an experience you'll never forget."

Vin couldn't resist the slight smile that creased his lips at Buck's words, as he and Kelli boarded the plane and took seats together near the back

The others quickly boarded, Buck staying close to Larabee in hopes of defusing any arguments that might arise between him and Tanner during the flight. Larabee was determined not to let Vin off easy, and took a seat across from The Texan, leaving Buck to sit down facing Kelli.

Vin accepted the unvoiced challenge that Chris made in choosing to sit directly across from him, and leveled his eyes on the blonde's face. Two could play at the same game and he wasn't about to let Larabee get away with trying to intimidate him.

Josiah, JD, Nathan and Ezra did not miss the unspoken challenges raging in the back row. Pulling out a deck of cards, Standish spoke loud enough for all of them to hear. “Is anyone in the mood for a game of ‘Oh Hell’.”?

Instead of flying the friendly skies, it appeared that they were in for some major turbulence all the way to Denver.

Chapter 49

Larabee 7 Ranch ~ 8:00 am

Wednesday ~ August 23rd

Chris slammed things around in the kitchen as he made coffee. Coming home to an empty house after a tense flight from California had done nothing to improve his deteriorating mood. Going over to the Southern Breeze to bring his family home had been disastrous. Anger had kept him awake most of the night and the breaking of a new day only marked another twenty-four hours that he had not seen his baby daughter.

Linda’s words still rang in his ears. “NO! You are not going to see Grace! You did not mind leaving me to sit alone when you could have been here with me and now I’ll see how you like being by yourself! You want to see your baby so badly; I suggest you give some serious thought about setting priorities in your future. I am your wife…I expect to come first in your life. That means ahead of your job, your brothers and your ranch!”

I do not put her last! I took this assignment for them…to make the world a safer place for Grace. Are you certain that’s why you did this Larabee? Of course I am! Linda is just being stubborn!

Larabee barely had time to drink half a cup before his first visitor of the day arrived.

“Morning Brother, how are you this great day?” Josiah’s wide grin greeted Chris.

“I told you yesterday. I’m fine! Why are you here so early?”

Undaunted by Chris’ surly attitude Sanchez poured himself a cup of coffee and sat down. “Today is a big day for us. Mal and I are taking Joanne school shopping. Hard to believe she and Sarah will be going to school on Monday. It seems like just yesterday they were both babies. It may only be pre-school, but it’ll sure mark some changes around our house.”

Staring off into the distance, Chris remarked absently. “Yeah they grow up too damn fast.” He was thinking of Grace and the time he was missing with her.

“Jason and Caleb, of course will be starting classes on Monday, too” Josiah laughed. “Buck is already having a fit that two of his children will be out of the house. I think if he could he would be attending with them, just to keep watch over them.”

“Yeah, that sounds like Buck, but you didn’t come over here to talk about school. What’s on your mind, Josiah?”

“I thought that with all the excitement of getting home and all, you might have misplaced the list I gave you yesterday. I brought a copy over for you.” Josiah pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket and laid it on the table.

“Josiah, I know that you think you are helping, but I am fine. I don’t need any counseling, group or otherwise. All I need is my old life back! If Vin…hell, forget it! I am going to have my job and my family back without any damn shrinks digging around in my head!

Sanchez stood up to leave. “Okay Chris, but if you change your mind…”

“I won’t!” Chris took a deep breath. “Hug Joanne for me and I’ll see you later.”

Josiah nodded and walked out the door, leaving a man behind that was deep in thought about his personal situation.


Matt had tried to persuade Linda that her place was at home with her husband. However all of his efforts had failed thus far and he was seeing more of the spoiled little sister that he remembered growing up with and less of the woman that he had hoped was finally maturing. She was planning to manipulate Larabee to come around to her demands and was not above using visits with Grace as blackmail to achieve her goal.

Some things never change little sister. I hope you know what you are doing.


Vin hung up the phone after making his last call before he and Kelli left to make their round of visits at the hospital. He had talked with every non-hospitalized team member and explained what was expected of him or her for the next six weeks. Stressing the point that should any of them decide to take a trip, they were to leave contact information with him. Looking at the stack of notes in front of him, he decided that Gunny was not going to have all that much free time either, if he had to work from home, then she would have to help out, at least part-time.

JD walked in. “Hey Vin, thought I would take care of your request early. Casey and I are taking the girls to the zoo this afternoon. Are you positive you want me to do this?”

“I’m positive JD. Travis made it real clear that Chris was to have no contact with MCAT issues for at least three months. You said that you could disconnect Chris’ access to CASSIE from here. Do it.”

“I can do it from here, but…it just seems strange cutting Chris out of the team this way.”

“Chris has enough on his plate to resolve before he worries about MCAT. I have my orders and you have yours. Make it happen.”

Dunne sat down at Vin’s computer station and within a few minutes had completed his task and was preparing to leave. “It’s done. Holler when you need me to start working on the new systems.”

“I will. Enjoy your time off; with what we have in front of us to accomplish, you won’t have all that much of it. Hug those babies for me and have a good time at the zoo.” Vin walked out with JD.

As JD was leaving, Josiah stopped by. “Josiah, I figured you and Mal would be makin’ up some time with the kids today.” Vin was almost certain he knew the reason Sanchez was here, but he would wait and hear him out.

“Morning Vin. We will be spending the day with the kids, but I had something to check on first.”

“You mean someone don’t you?”

Sanchez did not beat around the bush. “Chris is being stubborn about treatment. Maybe if you…”

“Uh uh, not this time Josiah. If it was just me he endangered, I could forgive that easily, but his recklessness, damn near cost Raphael his life, as well as his own. Not to mention jeopardizin’ the team and disregardin’ his family’s well-bein’.” Vin shook his head. “Maybe we were wrong the last time not to insist that he get professional treatment for his addition, but this time he has no choice. His future and his life may depend on it, but Chris has to be the one to make that decision. You know as well as I do that it won’t work if he doesn’t really want to do it. When he admits that he has a problem with addiction and seeks help to beat its hold him, then and only then will I try to reach out to him.”

Josiah knew that Vin was right. If Chris sought out help for the wrong reasons, he was doomed to fail before he even began. It had to be because he admitted that drugs were a problem for him and always would be. How he got to this point was irrelevant, he had to face that fact or slowly destroy himself and those who loved him.

“Are you okay with that? I know it’s necessary but that does not make it any easier for you or Kel.”

“We have both seen the bad side of drugs Josiah and we understand that to coddle Chris would be worse for him than standin’ firm and lettin’ him be angry with us. Neither of us wants to see him suffer, but this has to end. He needs to break free of the hold those pills have on him to survive. He also has to know that he cannot handle it his way, he’s already proven that his ways don’t work.”

“He is a stubborn man. You realize it could take a while for him to see that.”

“We know it could take a while for him to work through his issues with us, and we’re not goin’ anywhere. When he’s ready to move forward, we’ll be there, but not before, no matter how ugly it gets in the meantime.”

“You need me just yell.” Josiah squeezed Vin’s shoulder and received a nod of agreement. As he left Sanchez could only pray that while using tough love to help Chris, irreparable damage was not done to their unique friendship and brotherhood.


Nathan ended his phone call with Vin. He and Rain lay upon their bed with Terrell in between them sleeping soundly, his small face puckered into a dreamy smile. Nathan couldn't get enough of staring at the tiny little person that he and Rain had created together, and thinking about what the future held for all three of them. This last case had been the hardest on all of MCAT cases to date, and especially difficult for the family members. Jackson realized now that he had been wrong in some of the way he had been thinking regarding race, and the Wilmington's adopting Caleb. He knew that the young boy would have a happy home with Buck and Inez, and the girls and that if he didn't screw up his relationship with that particular brother, he also knew that he could be a positive influence in teaching Caleb about his other heritage.

Rain watched him, as he watched their son. She had come so very close to losing him on this last case that it had frightened her terribly. In more ways than just physically, his mental attitude had changed drastically. The contents of the case and how those poor victims were treated, especially the Asian and African-American children, had brought out a side of her husband she had never seen before. Nathan had started talking of how his brothers didn't really know him, couldn't know him because they weren't African-American, and that he was determined to bring Terrell up being proud of his heritage. She was just as eager to have Terrell know the African-American culture, to be proud of whom he was, because it would carry him through life. But Nathan had been wrong about what he said about his brothers. Race had never been an issue between any of them, and it was wrong for Nathan to inflict it into the close bonds he shared with the other six men.

Nathan felt her gaze upon him and lifted his own off of their son to rest them on her beautiful face. “What?" he said softly.

"I was just wondering which Nathan you are right now? Are you the man that I first fell in love with or the man who seemed to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders?"

Nathan sighed. He knew that this talk was going to come sooner or later, and had hoped for later. "I will admit that I was wrong to say some of the things that I said regarding racism and my brothers. It was unfair of me to take my anger against what was going on in this case out on Buck, and the others. They've never judge me based on the color of my skin, but by my heart, my words, and my actions. I want Josiah and Mallory to remain as our choice for legal guardians for Terrell if anything ever happens to us. "

Rain felt relief fill her at his words. "But...?"

"But...that does not mean that I do not want to learn more about our ancestral heritage. To do that, I want to search for some excusive groups for African-Americans and become active in their causes."

"All right." Rain said softly. "I'm willing to do that with see you through this if it's that important to you. Just promise me that you won't lose sight of the fact that you have six brothers who love you unconditionally, and without regard to race."

"I won't.” Nathan promised her, leaning over their sleeping infant to kiss her.


Ezra turned over in bed and grinned at Barbara. “That was Vin, I am all yours for the next two weeks, unless of course my assistance is needed with Chris.” He pulled her close and nuzzled her neck.

“Barbara practically purred when Ezra held her this way. “How close do we need to be?

Distracted, Ezra had to concentrate on her question. “I…told Vin I would be accessible, but did not set an actual distance. Why?”

Smiling, Barbara trails kisses across his face and whispered, “Hold that thought love, I’ll be right back.” She slipped out of the bed and hurried over to grab her laptop, before retuning to the nest they planned to share today. Quickly typing in some information on her keyboard, Barbara found what she was looking for and showed Standish. “How about this?”

Ezra smiled, she had found a vacation hideaway in the mountains only thirty-five minutes away from Denver. “It is perfect. Are you certain you can take the time away from your caseload though?” Barbara had to put up with a lot when he was working; he needed to be considerate of hers, too.

“I will make the time Ezra, I know how tough it can be for us with both our careers, but if we want it to work we both need to seize the moments we can, when we can. I love you Standish and we will make this work, for both of us. Deal?”

“You Ms. Lindsey have a deal.” Ezra pushed the laptop aside and pulled her back into their love nest. “Starting right now.”


Both JD and Casey had been to the Denver Zoo many times, but seeing it for the first time through the eyes of their twin daughters, made them feel as if they were witnessing everything new again. Daisy and Lilah were dressed alike in matching denim coverall short sets, with Daisy’s shirt being purple and Lilah’s blue. Ruffled hats the same colors as their shirts were fitted onto the dark heads to keep their faces from getting too much sun as the Dunne’s traveled along the marked paths to each exhibit.

What should we see next? The elephants or the lions?” JD asked Casey as he studied the paper map of the zoo they had been given when they had purchased their tickets.

“Lions…you know how Daisy sparks up whenever we put the Lion King movie in the DVD player.” Casey replied, bending over the Lilah’s stroller and pulled out two bottles of apple juice from the diaper bag stored on the back of the double stroller. She handed one to each of the twins as she waited for JD to point out which direction they should take.

“This way…” JD said, pointing to the path that led toward the right. He folded the map back up and tucked it into the pocket of his jeans, as he grabbed hold of one side of the stroller handle, and Casey the other, and together they pushed the twins down the path toward the lion exhibit.

Daisy’s face lit up as soon as they arrived at the enclosure and she caught sight of the big furry cats behind the metal fencing. JD took her out of the stroller and lifted her up, as he moved closer to the fence and watched with fatherly delight at the wondrous expressions that would come over his nine month old daughter’s face.

Casey moved to stand beside him, with Lilah in her arms, and she took delight in watching her husband alternately watch their daughters’ reactions to seeing the lions for the first time. They had been through so much over the course of the past several months, and JD had tempted fate more than once in the process. She knew how important his work was too him, and she would never dream of giving him any ultimatums about choosing between them and his work, no matter what life threw their way, besides, even with a job that would be considered safe, he could be still taken away from her by illness or accident. Life did not come with any guarantees.

Whatever the future held for them, she was certain that they would face together as a family.


Buck decided that he would stop by and check on Chris later this afternoon. Today though, he planned a family day, with him, Inez and the kids. They were going to shop for Caleb and Sarah to prepare them for their first day of school. This last case had been tough, on him and everyone else, but when his looked at his son, he knew that all of what they had been through was worth it. To know that he had a part in saving this boy from a living hell and had the opportunity to love him for the rest of his life made his heart swell with emotion. Someday he would tell Caleb the whole story and maybe he would tell him about Danny’s fate, but not now. Hell, he hadn’t told anyone that he had found Danny, or at least a report on him…it was just too painful to talk about the boy’s death.

“Dad?” Caleb had been hesitant at first to call Buck that, but he was practicing.

“That’s me, son. What do you need? “Buck found it easy to smile when he heard his son call him Dad.

“Could we…I mean do you think…” Caleb was not sure how to ask for something that he wanted.

Pulling him close, Buck hugged him tightly. “You can ask me anything, anytime, it’s okay.”

Caleb nodded and found the courage to ask. “Could I get a Bronco shirt like the one Jason has…so we can both wear them to the game?

“Hey, no son of mine goes to his first Bronco game without an official team shirt.” Buck went over and pulled out a package he had hidden and brought it back over to Caleb. He and Vin had already bought the boys matching shirts two weeks ago. See if this will do? “He grinned as he watched his son tear into the wrapping.

“WOW!” Caleb threw his arms around Buck’s neck, “Thanks dad!”

Inez stood smiling in the doorway and saw the tears in her husband’s eyes. Tears of happiness that she knew would wash away some of the pain this last case had caused her Buck to suffer through. She would wait a few minutes to call the girls to leave. This was a father and son moment that she would savor and she wanted to commit it to her memory.


After making his rounds Josiah went home to his waiting family. He swooped Adam up into a cuddly hug and kissed Mallory tenderly. Joanne was hopping from one foot to the other anxious to begin her big day of school shopping.

“Now can we go Daddy?” Joanne pleaded.

Mallory looked at both her babies and was almost to the point of tears thinking about how big Joanne was now. “Where did the time go?”

Josiah hugged his wife and gently wiped away the one lone tear that had escaped. “It all stored up in our hearts, Mal. Ready to go Mom?”

Watching his family, Josiah was thankful that they had made it thought another grueling case. For a while he believed that this was the one that would finally break the long string of incredible luck they had for beating the odds. Chris still had a hard walk ahead of him and it was bound to affects several relationships, but together, as a family, they would make it. After all they were not called the wild bunch for nothing.

Friday August 25th

Tanner Home

Kelli was furious with Linda for running off with Grace and not staying around to help Chris through a difficult time in his life. On the other hand she was still angry with her dad too. She could forgive his relapse with the drugs as long as he was willing to take the steps needed to prevent it from happening again. However the obstinate stand he had taken against Vin was not so easy to forgive. The rest of the family members were all running interference, and so far the two men had managed to avoid one another. But sooner or later they would have to make form some type of truce, if only for all the kid’s sake.

Today though, she had put aside her anger and taken four giggling little girls for a slumber party. Walter was spending the evening with Max again; it seemed that he was spending a lot of his free time with Max lately. Vin and Buck were at the football game with Jason and Caleb and the boys were going to spend the night at the Wilmington’s when they returned. Sarah, Joanne, Maria and Andi were all at the Tanner home for the night. They had good intentions about staying up all night, but by nine-thirty they were all fast asleep,

Kelli turned on the intercom so she could hear any of the girls if the got up, and slipped out on the patio with some watermelon wine coolers in hand. She set the bottles in a small ice chest along with a couple of bottles of Coors, and then settled in on the deck lounger to wait for Vin.

It was after eleven when Vin entered into their quiet house. Checking on the little girls, he found them all asleep, now all he had to do was locate his bigger baby. It wasn’t difficult; evidently she had fallen asleep on the deck waiting for him. He grabbed a bottle of Coors and let small droplets of cold water from the sides of the bottle drip on his sleeping wife’s throat.

Vin waited for her eyes to open and then grinned. “Miss me baby?”

“Missed you yes, but I could do without the cold shower.” Kelli sat up on the lounger. “There are other ways you could get my attention you know.”

The Texan straddled the lounger and sat behind his redhead, once he was comfortable he drew her back to lay against him. “I reckon them little girls wore you out.” Kelli cuddled up next to him and they both set in to enjoy the beautiful night.

“Not so much, I think it was the three wine coolers that put me to sleep. Tell me about the game. Did Jason enjoy it? What about Caleb? Who won?”

“Denver won; yes Jason loved it and so did Caleb, neither one of ‘em stopped talkin’ all the way home. We now have two future football players in the family and I think Buck and I had better brush up on the game. The Broncos put on a great show, but we spent more time watchin’ the boy’s reactions than we did watchin’ the game. You should have seen ‘em. Both of ‘em had the look of pure delight all over their faces”.

Kelli heard the pride in Vin’s voice when he talked about Jason. She had always known that he would be a great dad and he did not disappoint her. They relaxed in a comfortable silence for a while and her thoughts turned to Chris. Not for the first time, she wondered what her life would have been like if he had been around as her dad when she was growing up. But that was water under the bridge; all she would ever know is what she saw when he was with Grace. Thinking about that situation brought back her feeling of anger again.

The Texan felt her tension. “Let it go Kel. Chris will find his own way and it is up to him to straighten out his problems with Linda.” Vin knew where her thoughts were taking her.

“I know, but I’m not sure who I am angrier with, Linda for taking Grace and leavin’ or Chris for not doing anything to fix it.”

Vin knew that there were no easy answers and the last few months had been difficult for everyone. But Kel had made it through the ugliness this case had produced. It was the thought of Grace being caught in the middle of Chris and Linda’s differences that upset her the most and her patience was wearing thin with both of them. Looking down at his redhead he thought about how far they had both come during the last seventeen months, and each step of the way they had made together. Now they had two beautiful kids and things should be damn near perfect for them. If only Chris would stop being so damn stubborn, it would be.

Tightening his hold on his wife he whispered softly. “Try to be patient a little longer Kel. We’ll wait and see how it plays out, but remember we’ll wait it out together.”

Okay Cowboy, it’s your move, but Larabee patience won’t last forever. Sooner or later all hell is gonna break loose.


September 3rd

Chris had spent the last ten days in hell. He had yet to break through Linda’s defenses and be allowed to see his baby daughter. Every day he had at least two different family members stopping by to ‘check’ on him. Everyone that is except Vin or Kelli. He had not even seen Jason or Andi over the last week and a half either or any of the kids. Not only that, he was shut out of any mentions about MCAT. He didn't know what bothered him more, the fact that he was persona non grata where MCAT was concerned, or the fact that he was being kept away from all of the children. They were treating him as if he was some crazed junkie who couldn't be trusted around children, and Linda's behavior was far worse than anyone else's.

She was his damn wife for Christ's Sake! She had promised to love and honor him, to stand by him in sickness and health, and what had she done at the first time of trouble? Linda had run home to Southern Breeze and taken Grace with her!

What in the hell did they all think he would do? Get so wasted on painkillers that he couldn't remember his own goddamn name? Or worse yet, forget where he had placed Grace? To hell with them Chris, you know you can handle yourself, let them keep the kids away, sooner or later they will all realize that you don’t need any outside help. They are the ones that need to wake up and smell the coffee, not you!

Chris stalked out of his house and headed toward the barn, bent on working out some of his anger by cleaning out the stalls. Or maybe he would just take off on a long ride on Pony. It had been ages since he had ridden his horse, and he was sure that Pony was just as anxious to be out of his confinements as much as he was.

He was nearing the barn, when he caught sight of a small figure standing at the corral, gazing through the fencing at the young foals frolicking inside it. A smile creased Chris' lips and he changed directions from the barn to the corral. He walked up to the corral and folded his hands over the top railing.

Jason had seen his uncle approaching and was torn between being glad to see him and the old fears he had whenever Jack was around. But he was a Tanner now and decided that he would not be afraid and he held his ground.

They sure are a sight, aren't they?" Chris asked his nephew.

"Yeah, they are." Jason said softly. He didn't know what to do. It had been clear since his mom and dad had come home, that something wasn't right between them and his uncle Chris. His Dad had explained that Chris was going through a tough time right now, and that he needed to be left alone to make some hard decisions.

But Jason knew better, no one had to tell him, he had been around Jack too long and seen him make and break promises about not getting sick anymore. Jack always promised…and so had Chris.

Chris turned to look down at Jason and saw the troubled expression on the six-year-old face. "What's wrong?"

“You’re sick again aren’t you?”

“What did you parents tell you Jason?” Chris felt his anger surge and tried to hide it.

"Only that you had some hard decisions to be making." Jason told him honestly.

“Then why do you think I’m sick? Chris was watching the different emotions cross Jason’s face.

“Cause of him… my…Jack…he didn’t think I knew either but I did. Just like I know you meant to keep your promise…but…it’s hard isn’t it? It always comes back.” The disappointment in his voice broke Larabee’s heart.

Chris felt as if someone had just thrown ice water in his face. How could a six- year- old child see so clearly what he had refused to? It always comes back.

It took him a minute to find his voice. He knew that he did not want Jason to see him the same way he remembered Jack. “Sometimes it does, but ...there are ways to stop the sickness from ever coming back.”

“Do you know how to stop it Uncle Chris?” Jason’s blue eyes were filled with hope. Hope that his Uncle Chris could make it stop. He wanted to believe it …he needed to believe it.

Chris realized in that instant that he had only been fooling himself…This addiction was like some monster lurking in the darkness, just waiting for the next opportunity to grab him.

“Yeah... I think I do. It may take some time, but Jason, I will do it. Will you give me a chance to prove it to you?”

Jason threw his arms around his uncle’s neck and Chris held on tight. “I love you Uncle Chris.”

“I love you too, pard.” Chris reluctantly let him go. ”You best run on home, I bet your Mom and Dad are wondering where you are. Don’t worry any more I’ll be fine.” He watched as Jason jumped down and ran toward home.

Chris headed into the house…to make a phone call.


To be continued in MCAT 7: Reconciliations


Chapter 18 poem inspired by © AGC Inc

Chapter 25, original poem

For further information on some of the subjects in Additions and Apprehensions:

Drug Addiction to Opiates

Drug Addiction Recovery

Missing Children

What is Trafficking?

What is being done to halt Trafficking?