Chris entered the same saloon that Buck and Vin had entered earlier. People looked up briefly before returning their attention to their drinks. The light in the room glowed a soft yellow, and the mirror behind the bar reflected very little except the bartender's back. Chris grabbed a stool and seated himself at a table with his back to the wall. He watched everyone in the room, looking for the one man that helped destroy his life. The black and white mug shot of Fowler was tucked safely in his shirt pocket.
Chris ordered a beer and watched the actions between patrons. He could feel the tension in the air without having to ask about it. Everyone chose to remain quiet about Fowler for some reason. Maybe he'd threatened them, paid them, or maybe he was more than just a murderer...but a blackmailer as well. Chris looked at the construction in the room, noticing how the support beams were attached to the roof railings, and how the frames of the windows and doors fit against the walls.
The saloon had at one time been a barn.
It had been a long time since Chris had enough time to work with his hands...since he'd helped Adam with his tree house. On many levels he missed it. The way the hammer fit in his grip, the way his forearms burned while using the screwdriver, or how his thumbs looked after missing the head of the nail with the hammer.
That had been stolen from him.
Memories are all he had left of his family...those and a few trinkets. He'd never build anything with his son again, and he'd never help his wife tear down the living room wall and put in a bay window. It wasn't the work he was missing...it was his family. Slowly he looked up toward the door and watched as Buck moved across the floor. Nobody followed him in, and for that Chris was thankful.
Buck grabbed a chair and seated himself at the table. He didn't say anything, just looked around the interior of the saloon, deciding what to do next. He knew Chris' temper, and he know how to push him...but for some reason he didn't think all those times before would come in handy now...
"I can't leave here without something," Chris admitted, looking at the chrome on the barstools.
"Don't expect you to," Buck added. "There're six of us who'll follow you to the ends of the earth if we have to. You've got the best instinct of anyone I've ever met, and you know people...almost as good as Ezra. Whatever you want us to do...we'll do." He paused. "I'll talk to Ez...find out what's got him spooked about goin' under."
"Don't," Chris stopped him. "I'll talk to him." He ran his fingers through his hair and looked at the people in the room, documenting their faces. "If Ella wanted to kill my family...why didn't she want to see me dead? She never came to me after they died...it was as if she was watching."
"You think she still is?"
"She could be...butI just don't know." Chris ran his fingers through his hair. "A contract killing would imply Ella wanted it done for personal gain...but she didn't gain anything from it."
"You're single," Buck answered. "Unless you consider yourself married to the job?"
Chris shook his head. "She wanted it done for a reason, Buck."
"How much logic does a sociopath have?"
"Enough to have me concerned." Chris tapped the table with his fingers. He leaned forward so he could talk softer. "I think he's here, and I think he's watching us...all of us. He's waiting for me to make the right move and then he'll pounce...like a damned cat."
Buck's brow furrowed: "What do you want to do?"
"Let him pouncejust be ready for it." He leaned back in his seat and continued to study the patrons.
"Again, what do you want to do?"
"I want to keep asking questions...force him out."
"Think that's smart?"
"Yeah," Chris responded, taking a drink from his beer. He stood up and headed for the bar. He looked at everyone that met his eyes, he wasn't scared, and he was here to find answers. "You," he said, pointing toward the bartender.
The older man looked up and met Chris' eyes. "What?" he asked roughly.
Chris pulled the black and white photograph from his pocket and laid it across the smooth surface. "You know him?"
"No," the bartender responded, without looking at the image.
Chris smiled and reached across and grabbed the shorter man by the caller of his shirt and pulled him over the bar. "You want to look at the image...or eat it?"
"You need some help there, Blake?" someone asked.
"No," he responded, looking at cold green eyes. "I can handle it." He took the image and looked at the figure within it. "He comes in here once in a while...the daytime manager would know 'im better than me."
"You'll do fine," Chris said, pulling Blake toward the table in the back where Buck was still sitting.
Buck held out a chair and watched as the bartender was forced into the seat. He looked scared, and he wise to be.
"When does he come in here?" Chris asked simply, uncomplicated. He wanted simple, and uncomplicated answers.
"Friday nights usually...when he's in town. He's got a bad handall scarred up cuz he got it caught in a garbage disposal or somethin'...he's a southpaw cuz of it. He drinks vodka on the rocks and smokes Vantage 100s. He's clean, don't like dirt... Harley, the closer, always pisses in his glass cuz he's such an ass."
"Thought you said you didn't know much about him?" Chris asked, happy with his results.
"I said the daytime manager knows 'im better, an' he does. Fowler ain't a man to fuck with. 'S far as I know, he a vampire, sleeps all day and lives at night"
"You keep contradicting yourself," Chris pointed out, looking hard at the man's movements and actions.
"I don't want to be in the middle of this...whatever it is." He turned and looked at his patrons. "He finds out I talked, I'll end up dead...or worse." He turned his attention back to Chris. "He stays in room 11 at the motel...it's always that room, and he always orders in from Chuck-wagon Pizza"
"How do you know all this?" Buck asked, slightly suspicious.
"This is a small town, if you shit here...someone knows about it."
"Why's he leave town?" Chris asked, wanting to know more.
"Does it matter... He'll kill ya just as soon as look at ya..." Blake stood up and nervously looked around the room. "I done what I can...leave me out of it." He turned and headed back to the bar, wanting to get on with his life.
"Fowler own this town?" Buck asked sarcastically.
"Seems like it," Chris responded, getting to his feet. He grabbed his jacket off the back of his chair and slipped it on. "Let's go talk to the motel manager and find out what he knows."
"What about the others?"
"Chuck-wagon Pizza looks promising."
The establishment was far from anything anyone would find in a larger city. The entrance door was made out of old wood and supposed to have looked like the tailgate from an old wagon. Tables made from wagon wheels, glass, and railroad ties littered the eating hall with chairs of every style resting beneath. Photographs of horses and wagons hung from the walls as well as old harnesses and wagon parts. The bathroom doors were labeled with 'menfolk' and 'womenfolk'.
Ezra raised an eyebrow as he observed the décor. It was a far cry from his favorite Italian eatery in Denver, but at least it was clean...or seemed to be. The waiters wore old style aprons, cowboy boots, and jeans...plaid seemed to be in abundance as well... Buck would love it here, he sighed.
JD and Vin had already ordered a pizza...The Maximum...made to feed a whole crew. Josiah and Nathan couldn't believe the size of it...and both men's stomachs growled in response. Tomato sauce, cheese, olives, mushrooms, hamburger, Canadian bacon, pineapple, and everything imaginable was placed on top of the monstrosity.
It was simply a heart attack in disguise.
"What do you want to drink?" JD called back to Ezra, who stood in the center of the room.
"I'm fine, JD, thank you." He turned and looked at the plaques that held the names of employees of the month. It seemed like a lot for such a small town. "Mistah Tannah," Ezra said softly when Vin stepped up beside him.
"Find somthin' interestin'?" he asked, taking note of the plaques on the wall.
"I'm not quite sure," Ezra said softly, looking carefully at the names.
"Hey!" Vin called, motioning toward one of the waiters. "How long's this place been in business?"
The young man shrugged: "Since I was a kid," came the typical 'unanswered' answer.
Ezra raised an eyebrow: "Clears that up," he muttered. He looked at names closely. "How many people do you know with the name Cletus?"
"None," Vin choked. "Sounds too much like clitoris."
Ezra closed his eyes and shook his head. "You've got to stay away from Wilmington, Vin...he's wearing on you."
"Hell, Ezra, it's scientifically been proven that men think about sex a million times a minute...I'm just tryin' to fill my quota," he said with a grin. "What's got you so spooked?" His question took a serious turn.
"Nothing I can't handle...I assure you." Ezra focused his attention toward the names on the wall. "States here that a Cletus Anderson was employee of the month, January 1978."
Ezra raised an eyebrow. "Perhaps he has family here?"
Vin grinned: "Maybe."
Cletus Fowler was a man that everyone had heard of, but knew nothing about. Where he grew up, who his parents were, or where he went to school? He seemed to just...exist. He had a name and a reputation...but that was all. However, Cletus Anderson, son of Phyllis and Drew, had been a quiet, shy boy who had spent most of his time at the local library. His parents had passes away in a fire when he was a senior in high school...though he decided to graduate; he disappeared soon afterward without a word to anyone.
Like most things in life, time changes everything. The way someone can look, act, and respond to situations. Cletus Anderson had been short, thin, and had long dark hair. He'd been known for his temper and uncanny ability to do impressions. Cletus Fowler, though he wasn't a tall man, was heavier set, had light brown hair and a beard and mustache. He'd had an accident involving his hand, no one knew how or why...just that he wore a black glove over his right hand to hide its deformity.
Chris stood on the edge of the property, looking at the burned out remains of what used to be the Anderson household. Nothing had been rebuilt on the spot, and kids had rummaged through the property over the years. They didn't leave much.
Like most small towns, stories surrounded the fire. Some town members believed it had been an electrical short, others believed Cletus had killed his family, and some believed Phyllis had tried to kill them all. Despite how tragic the fire had been, individuals liked to talk and the stories usually outlasted the truth.
"When the fire department was able to investigate the cause..." Nancy said, placing her hands on her hips just over her gun belt, "...they didn't find anything significant to believe it was arson."
"What'd they rule it as?" Chris asked, keeping his eyes on the remains.
Chris rolled his eyes and turned toward his vehicle. "Where was the boy? Why wasn't he in the house...if the fire occurred at three in the morning?"
Nancy shrugged: "It stated in the report that he was out with a girlfriend." She grabbed her notebook and started flipping through the pages, having already done the research. "The girlfriend was Amy Jarms...she died a few years ago from alcohol poisoning. However, she does have a daughter...Amanda."
"She here in town?"
"Yeah, she's working at the pharmacy."
"Who's her father?" Chris asked, despite having the feeling of who it was.
"Don't know," Nancy replied, moving toward her vehicle. "If you go and talk to her...keep your attitude in check. She's not much for foul language or tempers." She smiled as she spoke.
"Thanks for the warning," Chris responded, slipping into JD's Extera.
Ezra sat in the records department reading over old police files and newspaper clippings. Eaton was a football town, and everyone came out to support the players...everyone else: chess club, debate club, basketball, they usually got left behind. Nothing of significant value happened here...except petty theft, DWIs, a few domestics, and...on the rare occasion, arson. He took a drink of coffee and documented the names of assailants and victims. Cletus Fowler was never mentioned but Cletus Anderson had a tendency to admire the spotlight. He'd enjoyed making a name for himself in the most unconventional manner. Though he was known as being quiet, he'd been a leader of his Boy Scout Troop, 4-H club, and star of his track team.
Then, in 1980, he disappeared, having left Eaton for no apparent reason. Any records of a Cletus Anderson were either missing or...had simply never existed past 1979. Ezra knew without a doubt that Anderson and Fowler was the same person. But why had he changed his name? Was he running from someone or something? And what made him turn to contract killing?
Ezra leaned back in his seat and ran his hand over his face, praying for more strength. Chris needed answers, and Ezra knew how those questions could eat at a man until he died. Ezra knew that a man on the run wouldn't willingly return home, unless something brought him back.
So the question was what?
What would bring a man like Fowler back to a town like Eaton?
Ezra sat himself upright and continued to read through the newspaper clippings. On the night of April 3rd 1975 a house fire took the lives of Cletus Anderson's parents. The cause of the fire was never resolved. Ezra found it strange that Cletus hadn't been home at the time of the fire, but apparently he had an alibi.
Amy Jarms collaborated that alibi according to the sheriff at the time, Larry Schoonover. Talking to the former law officer would be impossible, considering he had passed away from cancer some 13 years ago. Everything seemed to lead to a dead end.
There had to be a link somewhere, it was just a matter of finding it. Nobody was so good that they never left a sign at the scene of a crime. Even officers that knew the system inside and out, couldn't mastermind the perfect crime.
Neither could Fowler.
Ezra took another sip from his coffee cup and noticed for the first time that it had cooled considerably. Slowly, and efficiently, he sorted the last few files and took copies of the information. He wasn't sure if he'd find anything of value in the records, but he wasn't willing to not to at least try. Besides, birth records, obituaries, and marriage announcements sometimes lead to somewhere.
Amanda Jarms wasn't what Chris was expecting. Granted, he didn't think she'd be Colorado's next beauty queen, but he didn't think he'd get the Hell's Angels biker chick either. Amanda was short, stocky, had long black hair that she kept tied in a ponytail, and a tattoo in the shape of a spider crawling up her neck. Her make-up was thinif she wore any at all, and her eyes looked too old for someone so young. The white pharmacy coat she wore did little to hide her past...however, Chris doubted she wanted it hid.
"You look like a cop," she said, standing firmly behind the counter. "What'd he do?"
Chris furrowed his brow, looking hard at her. "Who?"
"My son," she answered with a knowing tone.
"I'm not here about your son," Chris responded. "I'm here about your father." He watched her reaction and was surprised to see her face remain as still as Ezra's could.
"How do you know 'im?" she asked flatly.
"Does it matter?" he responded, refusing to back down.
"No," she replied, "I guess it don't." She looked around the small department, making sure she wasn't being watched. "I don't know 'im all that well. Just came 'round a few times when my ma was still livin'. He's a mean sonofabitch and hates people in general. Last time I seen 'im he was doin' some whore up on second. He ain't human...and I ain't glad to call 'im my father...matter of fact, I don't. You can find 'im at the Old Time Tavern just out'ta town a ways. He usually stays there a week or so 'fore makin' an appearance here to pick up his mail."
"Thought you said you didn't know him too well?"
"Don't," she responded coldly. "But I watch out for my son...I don't want no Cletus Fowleror whatever he's callin' himself these days, hangin' around my boy." Her eyes turned angry and threatening. "I'd rather see my son dead that within an arms reach of that SOB."
Chris nodded, having a better understand of whom he was hunting. "You said, The Old Time Tavern?"
"Yeah," she answered. "You won't miss itit's got an old plastic bull out front with the fuck painted on the side in red."
Chris nodded, okay, he thought, remembering something about Amanda not liking foul language...
The door to the pharmacy opened and an elderly man walked through with a broad smile. "How the hell are you doin', sugar?" he asked in good humor.
"Now I've told you about usin' language in this store, Jimmy." She greeted with a smile.
"Well shit, if I'd know you were goin' to be such a bitch about it I'da turned on the charm."
Chris raised an eyebrow and quietly left, not wanting to understand what had just happened.
Chris entered his motel room and looked up into the faces of his men. Buck and Vin were both finishing their dinner: cold sandwiches from the only deli in town. JD worked on his computer, trying to find some connection between Fowler and the phone numbers on his bill, to Ella Gains. Josiah and Nathan helped Ezra finish filing over the information he'd received from the local library and the sheriff's department.
Though it was busy work, they hadn't accomplished much.
"Fowler has a daughter," Chris said flatly. "She told me he hangs out at 'The Old Time Tavern'. It's just out of town a ways."
JD rolled his eyes and shut the top of his computer, so much for all of his hard work.
"I don't want to go in together," Chris said, having already mapped out his plan. "We'll go in separately"
Vin looked hard at Chris as he spoke, seeing and hearing the revengenot a plan to take Fowler in.
Buck saw the same thing.
"You call Harowitz?" Vin asked.
Chris met Vin's blue eyes and shook his head. "I'll call her when we take him in."
"Is that what you plan to do?" Vin challenged. He'd stand by Chris' decision, no matter what it was, but Vin wouldn't allow him to walk into a situation he couldn't control. Vin saw himself as a better friend than that.
Reluctantly, Chris nodded. "Yeah, but I'll need all of you there to help me keep my word."
Soft chuckles escaped from nervous mouths, but as one unit, everyone stood up and quickly put on their flak jackets. It was difficult to disguise them, due to their size, under shirts and light vests. So, sweaters, sweat shirts, and heavy jackets were donned.
Vin zipped up his leather bomber jacket to mid chest. The old coat had served him well over the years and it showed. The elbows had been worn down to three different shades of brown, and the side pockets had obviously held too many items. Vin would keep the old coat for the rest of his life. It held too many memories for him to just toss away. Chris had interviewed him in this coat...the interview that had changed his life for the better. Vin counted the rounds in his weapon and carefully positioned it in the holster in the small of his back; easy to reach, and easy to conceal.
Buck was more familiar with Chris' determination than anyone in the room. He knew that look and that voice. He also knew, despite the fact, Chris would do the right thingno matter what it was. Buck velcroed the Kevlar jacket into place and then slipped on his Miami Dolphins jacket. It's puffy sleeves and full body not only looked natural, hiding the bullet proof vest, but it also made Buck appear heavy set... Not someone to mess with.
Josiah said a quick prayer, putting his faith in his God and his brothers. His gut was telling him something was going to happen, but his mind kept telling him it was too easy...much too easy. Unless Fowler wanted to be found? Josiah pulled at his heavy sweatshirt, hiding the faint lines of the Kevlar vest. He was sure nobody would be able to see it, but he had to make sure. No mistakes, that was the one thing Chris asked for on a bust, and that was one thing Josiah was willing to do.
Nathan thought about calling Rain, but he decided against it. She'd be able to hear the worry in his voice, and he didn't want to frighten her. He knew she understood that his job was dangerous, and at times, life threatening, but he didn't want to concern her anymore than she already was. She had three tiny babies to worry about...three tiny infants that would one day know the things that their parents taught them. The things they hand down. Nathan had every intention of teaching his sons how to throw a ball, how to run and tackle an opponent. He wanted to teach his daughter about safety around boys, how to defend herself, and how to be strong. Most importantly, he wanted to teach his children about the things he'd learned from his parents, and his grandparents. Nathan shook his head and slipped his heavy sweater over his vest. He then placed his weapon on his right hip, hoping and praying he wouldn't have to use it.
Ezra knew without a doubt that things were about to come to ahead. He was familiar with Chris' determination, and Buck's prowess in knowing his friend. As the undercover agent, Ezra knew how to read people, more so than anyone could read him. He also knew that they were all walking a very fine line when it came to following the law. Fowler wouldn't willingly give a confession, not in a manner that would be accepted in a court of law. Carefully, Ezra placed the audio recorder into his pant's pocket. His dark green sweater covered his arms and hung just below his belt, hiding his weapon. It was going to be interesting to see how this played out...if nothing else.
JD buttoned his sailor jacket and rubbed uncomfortably at the safety vest beneath it. He wasn't sure what was going to happen, but he was sure that he was ready for it. He admired Chris, and for that he'd do whatever he was asked. Besides, Buck seemed to know what to do, and that was just as important. He looked hard at the others and saw trepidation, worry, concern, readiness, willingness, and devotion. In truth, that's all they needed. JD knew, without a doubt that things were going to work out.
They had to.
Chris checked the rounds in his weapon and he looked hard at each of his men. "Okay, this is what I want you to do..."
The Old Time Tavern was hard to miss, and Amanda hadn't exaggerated at all. In the parking lot out front, stood an old plastic bull that had, at one time, been painted black, but was now covered with graffiti; the word 'fuck' being the predominant identifying mark. Everything from old trucks to motorcycles were parked in the lot. The building looked to have been modeled after a historic saloon. Even the wood seemed aged and weary. However, it was the flashing lights in the windows advertising beer choices that let everyone know they were still in the 21st century.
The plan was simple: move in, take a seat at tables in all corners of the rooms...and wait. If Cletus Fowler was there, then he'd notice Chris right away...they were all sure of that. If he wasn't there, someone might be watching for him, but that's not what they were planning on.
Buck looked over and met Vin's eyes for a brief moment. "We need a confession if we're goin' to get a conviction out of him... Won't work any other way." He knew the sharpshooter understood what he was asking.
Vin nodded. He already knew that.
"He'll confess," Ezra said from the backseat. "However, I doubt the courts will see it as voluntary."
Buck looked over at the next vehicle, the one filled with Josiah, Nathan, and Chris. "You know we're goin' to break the law tonight?" He returned his gaze to his fellow teammates.
"I can doctor up the confession so it doesn't seem like he was under duress at the time"
"You know what you're sayin', JD?" Buck looked hard at the kid.
"Yeah, I do. But it's just us four that has to know... All we need is for him to admit what he's donewe can arrest him and let Deputy Harowitz bring him to justice. It'll be easy." JD tried to relax, but he couldn't. He knew what he was doing was wrong. As hard as it was to break the law this time for the right reasons, or at least it seemed like the right reasons, how hard would it be for him the next time? Would there be a next time?
"It ain't easy, JD," Vin scolded. He knew the risks, and he knew what they were about to sacrifice. "If Fowler is there, I doubt he'll live through the night...not the way Chris was lookin' earlier. Josiah an' Nate are big and strong enough to pull Chris' off the bastard if they have to...but it'll be up to the rest of us to nail the SOB to the wall."
"What if he doesn't talk?" JD asked, knowing the others would already have something planned.
"A dying declaration," Ezra answered. "It would at least put a name and face on the man that killed Chris' family...it's up to us to make sure he acknowledges what he's done."
"What if he doesn't say anything...?" JD pushed.
"He doesn't have to," Ezra replied, turning knowing eyes toward his friend and comrade. "It's all part of the game." He gently slapped the kid's shoulder and got out of the truck. He'd be the first to enter the saloon, perhaps mingle with some pool players.
The others would bide their time and enter the saloon slowly.
Customers entered and left the saloon without much effort. There wasn't a specific 'type' when it came to the establishment's patrons, everyone from businessmen to laborers came to drink, chat, and relax. It was easy to see how the faces got lost in crowds. Everyone looked like one another. Chris sat near the rear of the saloon with his back to the wall. He watched and studied everyone's movements...even his own men's. Ezra played pool with a group near the far wall. He chatted, stuck up all sorts of conversations, and got to know more about the locals than he ever wanted to. He looked like he'd been born with a pool cue in his hand. Chris shook his head: he probably had been. Buck and JD sat together 'watching' the basketball game. They'd been drinking the same beer for over an hour, but nobody asked them any questions. Josiah and Nathan sat in a far booth speaking, looking as though they were college professors discussing an important subject...it was a little odd, considering there wasn't a college close by. Vin, the only one that 'truly' blended, sat with his feet kicked up on a tabletop. He watched from a distance, learning who the threats were, and watching for Fowler.
Ezra laid his money on the table and looked at his opponent. "You game?" he asked with a smile.
The man looked at the stranger with a critical eye... "I ain't got no money to bet," he said bluntly, looking curiously into the distance.
Ezra shrugged his shoulders and started pulling the balls out of the side pockets of the pool table. He noted the long knife under the man's shirt...and the heaviness of his left foothe was packing a gun in an ankle holster. He was somebody's henchmen.
"I'll bet my car," he said, licking his dry lips. He wanted to play...he wanted to win.
"I already have an automobile, thank you," Ezra replied calmly, placing the balls carefully at the end of the table.
The man bit his lip and looked hard at the ground. He knew the risks, but the desire to playto bet, outweighed his common sense. He reached up and grabbed a necklace from around his neck and tossed it onto the green felted tabletop. "That's worth three hundred at least," he said desperately. "I can get more."
Ezra paused and looked at the item, knowing its value, but feeling as though it had belonged to someone else at one time. "You'd better get more," he replied with a sinister grin. Carefully, he folded his wad of cash and replaced it into his pocket...just waiting for the fish to bite.
The man's fingers clasped tightly around his pool cue and he stormed from the small space, seeking cash. He disappeared into the shadows, not going unnoticed by Chris, or his men. Ezra knew the look and demeanor because he'd seen it many times before. Greed was as menacing as any motive for personal gain...no matter the cost. Carefully, Ezra placed the pool cue over his thumb and under his index finger, enjoying the sheer feel of it. He could hear others in the background talking, laughing, and drinking. He knew without looking that his opponent had gone to discuss his finances with his mysterious keeper who'd hidden himself in the darkness of the corner.
Heavy footsteps sounded from behind and Ezra looked up, not concentrating on the man before him.
The man smiled evilly: "How much is your life worth?" he asked confidently. "Because I think that's a right fine bet."
Ezra raised his eyebrows: "That's your wager?"
The stranger all but growled. "Yeah," he answered.
"No," Ezra replied, shaking his head. "Why don't you have your dandy come over here and place his wager for you...or is he just as gutless."
The man pressed his lips together, then, without warning, he slammed his pool cue over his knee, causing the wood to snap, crack, and splinter. "You want to say that again?"
Ezra had taken a step back and looked at the monster that stood before him. With condescending eyes, a grin appeared on his face and his dimpled grin turned determined.
Chris sighed; Ezra could find a fight at a church picnic. He watched, hoping something would come of it...something productive.
Josiah and Nathan watched from a distance, knowing it wasn't the time to get involved.
But it would be.
The saloon had quieted and everyone had turned their gazes to the two men. Some didn't stick around; hearing the pool cue snap, they left. Others waited in bated breath for that drink that would quench their bloody thirst.
Tensions were high.
Ezra stood his ground, looking at the guerilla of a mancontemplating his reaction. "I asked: is your dandy just as gutless?" He smiled, not noticing his teammates squeeze their eyes shut or shake their heads in disbelief. He didn't want to cause a fight, but he always seemed to end up in the middle of them.
Like a volcano on the verge of exploding, the stranger blew. He reached down and grabbed the edge of the pool table and in one fluid motion he tossed it back, as though it didn't weigh a pound. His neck expanded and his veins pulsated as he reached for his antagonizor.
Ezra, being more resourceful than most men, grabbed a ball and flung it at his assailant. The sickening sound of glass hitting flesh echoed for only a brief moment before the tavern exploded in activity. Chairs were upturned, tables broken and used as weapons, while windows and jars continued to shatter.
Nobody called the police...too afraid to.
People yelled and screamed, many sought safety while others desired the fight. The bartender took a position under the counter and drank the house's best whisky. He only worked there; he had no intention of getting killed trying to protect it.
Chris clobbered the drunk who'd come after him with a table leg. This wasn't his plan. He was supposed to wait, and Fowler would make his presence known...then it would happen. He could find peace with his past...he could put his family to rest. He swung out again and his fist connected with a strong jaw. His opponent went flying backwards, landing limply on a pile of bodies. Chris looked up and found Josiah and Nathan working side by side, trying to clear the bodies away from JD and Ezra...both men were outweighed and it was showing. Buck twisted and turned, trying to avoid oncoming punches, on occasion he'd fail. By morning he'd have a few bruises. Vin fought for all he was worth, but found himself being overrun with fists, clubs, and bodies. He was going to kill Ezra for this.
The deafening sound of a gun firing filled the air and everyone stopped in mid-action. Chris and the others watched as Nathan's body was violently flung backwards. He hit the wall and slipped lifelessly to the floor. Josiah jumped up and rushed for his friend, fearing the worst. Chris, Buck, and Vin all pulled their weapons and ordered everyone to remain where they were. Ezra had pulled his weapon and was checking the room for the suspect. His heart clenched when he noticed the smoking gun within the hand of the pool player he'd been fighting with.
Josiah reached out and ripped Nathan's jacket open, looking for the blood, looking for a sign of life.
"JOSIAH?" Chris shouted anxiously.
The big man took a deep breath and sighed when Nathan moved his hand to his chest. "He's okay..." he smiled, "...he's okay." Carefully, he helped the team's medic sit up.
"I can't die," Nathan gasped, searching for the hole that should have been in his chest. "The babies...Rain." He looked up and met Josiah's eyes, tears of fear forming along his eyelids. "She's going to kill me," he coughed. He continued to mutter about college tuitions, wedding costs, and school supplies.
Josiah smiled in relief, allowing his features to relax and his heart to swell with release. " You're fine, Brother... It hit your vest."
"What in the hell happened?" Deputy Harowitz yelled, stepping into the wreckage. She placed her hands on her hips and looked critically at the ATF agents. "John Bonner," she said sternly, turning her attention to the man with the shocked expression on his face. "You fire that weapon?"
The big man looked up at the deputy and nodded. He'd fired the weapon. He let the heavy gun fall from his grasp and hit the floor with a thump. Nancy moved forward and cuffed his hands behind his back and then quickly read him his rights. "The rest of you..." she looked at the agents, "...stay here." She moved toward the door with her detainee. "I'll need statements from everyone in here in regards to the shooting."
"What about the tavern?" the bartender asked, appearing for the first time since the fight.
"What about it, Dale?" she asked, challenging him. "If you'd wanted help in keeping the place together, you should have called me when it started." Nancy left the tavern, shaking her head.
Vin wiped blood away from his chin, smearing it below his bottom lip. He kept his weapon steady on the crowd, ready for anything. He looked toward Nathan, relieved that he hadn't been shot. Josiah had helped him sit up and was now tending his bruised, if not broken, ribs. The medic seemed to be thinking about other things, not caring what was happening around him...as he should be. Chris continued to run his fingers through his hair, his frustration was reaching a boiling point, and someone was going to feel the heat. JD breathed hard, trying to gather his wits. A shiny red cheek glistened in the dim light, and would later embrace colorful bruising. Buck looked hard around the room, looking for any kind of a threat. His weapon remained out, but no longer pointed at anyone. He looked toward Chris, and noticed his anxiety. Ezra remained standing near the destroyed pool table, appearing confused, regretful, and disbelieving.
"Is everyone all right?" Chris asked, keeping his voice steady and strong. He looked at all his men, waiting for their reactions. "Nathan?" he questioned, pushing the medic just enough to get a satisfying response.
Nathan nodded slowly; grimacing while comprehending the pain he was in.
Sheriff Harowitz reentered the saloon and took a long look around. "Mike, you and the boys go wait out by the truck," she motioned with her hand for the men to leave, and they did so immediately. "Anyone of you leave the premises without my permission, I'll arrest you for leaving the scene of a crime." She waited until the patrons left the tavern and then looked hard at the seven remaining. "How in the HELL am I supposed to turn a blind eye to this?"
"I'll pay for it," Chris snapped angrily.
"No shit!" Nancy responded harshly. She paused, looking at the injured agent. "I called the paramedics, they should be here shortly."
"I don't need"
"Shut up, Nathan," Vin replied, a grin appeared on his face. It was about time the medic had to tolerate some of his own medicine. "Won't be all bad."
Nancy shook her head and pointed toward the door, silently ordering everyone out. "What about Dale?" she asked, looking at Chris.
"What about him?"
"If I charge him with attempted murder you'll have a load of shit to deal with in a few months." She crossed her arms over her chest and looked hard at the blonde.
"He assaulted a federal officer," Chris replied, frustrated with the situation.
"I'll pin assault with a deadly weapon on him...you make sure this is cleared up, otherwise the city of Eaton will be suing the BATF." As intimidating as Chris' 'look' could get, Nancy's was a close match.
Chris returned the gaze and nodded in understanding. He wouldn't push the issue, despite the severity of it. "We'll get it taken care of," he replied, looking toward his men.
Josiah helped Nathan outside, while Buck and JD followed. Nobody knew what to say...things were complicated enough. Nancy turned bluntly and headed out after them, more for the safety of the saloon patrons waiting for her than the agents.
Chris turned an accusatory gaze toward Ezra...though he saw the regret in his agent's eyes his anger outweighed his feelings. "What in the hell were you thinking?"
Ezra clenched his jaw and waited for the tongue-lashing he knew he deserved. What was he doing...? He'd almost gotten Nathan killed. "I'll pay for the damages"
"It's not about that, Ezra!" Chris snapped, glancing around the now empty room. Thankfully, the others had left. "What's goin' on with you?"
"Someone was bating him... I know it," Ezra yelled back, feeling the need to defend his actions, despite knowing he'd been wrong.
The muscles in Chris' jaw clenched and he frustratingly scratched his chin. "If this were a case..." he paused, looking hard at his undercover agent, "...I'd suspend you."
Yes, Ezra thought, and by all rights he should have. Not knowing where to look, the Southerner moved his eyes downward. "I thought it would be productive."
"Go outside and help collect statements."
Ezra nodded and quickly left, not understanding his own actions.
Vin stepped up beside the undercover agent and cleared his throat. "Chris still pissed?" he asked softly, not wanting to sound threatening.
Ezra chuckled: "Putting it mildly," he answered softly.
"You all right?"
Ezra smiled tightly and nodded. "Fine," he responded simply, heading toward Deputy Harowitz to help her finish reports.
"Shit!" Chris yelled, kicking out at a broken table. His world was crashing down and he had no way of controlling it. This wasn't Ezra's fault...he was the convenient one to blame. The fight hadn't been necessary, and ultimately it was destined, Chris knew that when he walked in. He was asking a lot of his men to be here...solving an old case on their own time, but damn if he didn't need answers. Ezra only did what he had because he felt the need to.
"There was a time when you would have killed a man for something like that...even a friend." The voice wasn't deep, but it wasn't soft either. He moved around the bar and pulled out a cigarette, carefully holding it with his glove covered hand. His arrogance echoed as he leaned confidently against the counter.
Chris stood, in shock, looking at the man that had stolen his life from him...murdered his wife and son...destroyed what he cherished most. "You're under arrest," he said, clenching his fists, not knowing what else to say.
"For what?" Fowler asked, knowing the man standing in front of him didn't have any evidence. "What could you possibly have in order to arrest me?"
His smug appearance crawled under Chris' skin and he averted his eyes for a moment. "How much?" he asked, looking hard at the murderer. "How much did she pay you to kill my family?"
"You really should have let this go...dropped it when you had the chance," Fowler sighed, pouring himself a shot of whiskey.
Chris clenched his jaw, feeling his muscles clench and teeth yearn for relief. He needed a confession...he needed at least that.
"Do you like Eaton? It's a nice place, but...don't forget who your friends are." He smiled and downed his shot. "First woman I ever laid was in the behind the bleachers as a football game...here, in this shit hole town. You know how hard it was for me to get through school my senior year?" He shook his head. "How could you...Mr. Perfect?"
Chris' stomach turned and he wasn't sure what to say or do...he needed proof...he had to get proof.
"After my parents were..." he grinned maliciously, "...killed, in that horrible fire, I had to make arrangements for myself you see." Fowler stood up straight and poured himself another drink.
"All this for money?" Chris asked in disbelief.
"No...but then I'm not quite sure what you're asking."
Chris ran his fingers through his hair and listened as vehicles started driving away. He could see taillights through the windows and deep down inside, he smiled.
"People like you, Larabee, have it easy. You lost your wife and son and suddenly, everyone's your friend. You've got a good career, good friendsbrothers in essence, and a position within the ATF... Wow, I'd say you have it made."
Chris didn't need to hear anything more. He lunged for Fowler, pushing him over the bar. The sound of glass being smashed under boot heels echoed softly as Chris moved toward the killer.
"You'll lose everything for this," Fowler warned, wiping his lip free of blood. "You can't prove shit!"
Ezra, Buck, and JD stepped back into the tavern, leery of their actions. They looked up when Vin entered behind them.
"Fowler dead yet?" Vin asked, knowing it was only a matter of time. He couldn't see over the bar, but he could hear the reverberation of skin and flesh hitting bone. He noted Buck's shake of the head. "Josiah went with Nathan to the emergency room...Deputy Harowitz took 'Brutus' to the station. Everybody's gone."
"The fewer people that know...the better," Buck said.
"Welcome to the other side, gentlemen," Ezra replied. He moved forward and grabbed a stool, sitting it upright, and then taking a seat. He grabbed the only two remaining shot glasses off the counter and picked up the whiskey bottle that had been lying on its side. The neck had been broken off, but it was still pourable...at least for Ezra.
"JD," Buck said, keeping his eyes on his e friend. "Check the place for mics or cameras...keep your prints clear."
JD nodded and started off, knowing what to look for and how to deal with it...after all, he was the best. He knew what was happening, but he still wasn't sure how far things would go. However, he knew his place in it...and his responsibility.
Vin reached out and took the extra shot glass and downed the hardy liquor. He pressed his lips together as it burned a path down his throat. It hit his empty stomach with a thud and immediately his blood warmed. "Think we should stop him?" he asked.
Ezra shook his head and watched and listened to the brutality behind the bar. "Do you honestly think we could?"
Suddenly Fowler was thrown up onto the bar. His face bloodied, but his eyes continued with their contempt and the man fought on. "You'll never get a conviction out of me!!" he yelled, kicking his opponent in the ribs.
Chris was pushed back into the already broken mirror and grasped his torso painfully.
Ezra smiled and toasted Vin with his next shot and sent Fowler a wink before gulping it down. "We all know you killed Mr. Larabee's family...and I'd be a fool not to bet that you haven't killed more." He pulled out his small recorder and placed it on the counter top. "I would suggest, in regards to 'current events' that you simply tell us what happened?"
Buck cocked and eyebrow and shook his head. If Ezra were anymore cocky, he'd be a giant dick.
Fowler looked at the man with a look of disbelief. "I wouldn't admit to killing anyone, much less Chris Larabee's family!"
"Who in the hell do you think you are?" Chris raged, but was quickly pulled back by Buck's strong arms.
"Who do you think I am?" Fowler returned, carefully slipping off the bar. "Whoever killed your family, probably did it to spite you...hell, maybe you sentenced your family to death when you married the woman." He slowly moved toward the door, acting as though nobody would notice. It was JD's unmoving form that prevented him from leaving...or trying to. "Cletus Fowler," he stood proud, "don't know who the hell you're talking about." He grinned, knowing they hadn't gotten what they'd come for.
"Did you get it?" Chris asked, looking at Ezra with a smile.
"Got it," the Southerner replied, safely tucking the recorder into his pocket.
"You don't have shit," Fowler accused. "You're just trying to get me to talk...well it's not going to happen." He turned suddenly and swung at JD who hadn't been expecting the fist.
JD yelped and reached for his jaw as he fell back against the wall. Angry with himself for being so stupid, he reacted quickly and regained his feet. He charged Fowler, helping Vin take the man down. All three men went down in a heap. Bodies landed with a thump and the leg of a table broke off. Fowler groaned as the two agents rolled off of him. The sharp end of the table leg poked through the lower half of his abdomen.
"I need help," he pleaded, weakly grasping at the wooden steak. "Call an ambulance...please," he cried. It was hard to breath.
Vin stood up and looked at the man, and then he looked to Chris who could only look in hatred at the man on the floor.
The man had killed his family.
Fowler was dying.
JD stood up on shaky legs and turned pleading eyes toward his coworkers. He didn't know what to do. Buck stood beside Chris, waiting for his decision. Ezra remained seated at the bar with his face toward the mirror, downing another shot. Vin waited...
"We can't just let him die," JD said softly, looking at the slowly fading murderer.
"P....pl...please," Fowler whispered, letting his hand fall to the floor with a soft thump.
"We can't," JD muttered, knowing now that was the plan.
Chris rushed forward and slapped the ground near Fowler's head. "WHY?" he yelled. There was no remorse in his eyes. "Why'd she have my family killed!?" he yelled again.
Fowler smiled evilly: "Because she could," he answered, before turning his eyes upward toward the ceiling.
Chris reached down and grabbed the murderer by the collar of his shirt and was about to pull him violently off the table stake, but strong arms pulled him away before he could do further damage.
"Chris!" Buck yelled, aiding Vin in his restrictive hold. "He's dead!"
The blonde shrugged himself away from his men and violently ran his fingers through his hair. It was over...at least a very large portion of it was. He looked at the faces of his men and saw what he'd done. Vin stood strong and understanding...knowing something had changed. He would never utter a word about tonight, but it would haunt him for the rest of his life. Buck knew more about the situation than any of them, but he too wore the eyes of a man that had committed an unforgivable sin. He'd take this to his grave, and in many ways, he'd mourn the loss of his old self. JD...JD stood with his back to the wall. He was a man just like the others, only now he shared their secret... Now, he was a part of it. He looked up and met Chris' eyes and nodded, he'd do what he had to because he was a part of them...bound with an unbreakable bond. Ezra half stood and half sat on the bar stool looking at the dead man. His face was emotionless as always...the eyes of a man who'd seen too much. He nodded to Chris in understanding.
Nobody would ever know about this.
"I'll get the plastic," JD said, heading out to the truck.
"We'll clean it up," Buck said, looking around the tavern, "make it look like we were tryin' to pick up after the fight."
"What about the blood?" Vin asked, pointing to the spot that was growing. He was a cop, he knew the risks of being discovered...no crime was perfect.
"Coke and chlorine," Ezra answered. "It's in the box with the plastic." JD would bring it all in.
"Buck and I will dispose of the body...I don't want the rest of you knowing where it's at," he didn't want them involved, "the rest of you stay here and help clean the place up... I'm sure Nancy called the Tavern owner and informed them of them of the situation...so expect some company tonight." He stepped forward when JD entered the tavern with a box in his arms. Chris looked at Buck and got that old familiar nod.
They had started this together, and they'd finish it together.
Coats were removed and sleeves rolled up and the next step was in progress...it was just a matter of surviving the night.
Chris entered the sheriff's department with four of his men. They'd been up all night working and were feeling the effects of what had transpired. Like the good agents they were, they'd burned the clothing they'd had on the night before...leaving any and all evidence behind. He was surprised to see Nathan and Josiah sitting in the office speaking with Nancy...
Something was up.
"What's going on?" Chris asked, opening the door to the deputy's office.
"You tell me, Larabee?" Nancy sighed, leaning back in her seat. "Tom Keifer says he drove by the tavern last night and noticed you all there, and when I went by...nothing. Place is clean."
"Trying to minimize payment for our unfortunate dispute that was caused over a game of billiards," Ezra answered, taking a position near the wall. He wished she had a sofa. He leaned his head back and closed his eyes.
"How're you feelin', Nate?" Buck asked, looking at the uncomfortable medic.
"Next time y'all decide it'd be fun to check out hell," he said, looking at his friends, "I'm goin' home to sleep with my wife...which is where I should be."
"At home or sleepin' with your wife?" Buck teased.
Nathan rolled his eyes and returned his attention to Nancy.
"I apologize for not joining you last night, brothers. But it seems Brother Nathan has a weak stomach when it comes to pain medication."
Ezra snickered, never moving from his 'comfortable' position.
Nancy ignored them all and continued her discussion, "Richard Owens owns that tavern and he and his insurance agent are going to assess the damages done to it today at two this afternoon. I'll have them write you up a report so you can make arrangements for payment." She tossed her pencil onto her desk. "How much longer are you all going to be here?" Her face was hard as she asked...tired of the situation.
"We'll be gone tomorrow morning," Chris answered.
Nancy leaned forward in her seat, having not expected that response. "Did you find Fowler?"
"Yeah," came the hefty reply. Chris tossed a small cassette player onto the desk and waited.
"What's this?" she asked in curiosity.
"A confession," Buck answered.
Nancy grabbed the player and pressed play.
The voice rang out over the speaker with the sounds of glasses clanging together and...a basketball game. "I, Cletus Fowler, admit to killing Chris Larabee's family..." the tape went on for a few moments and the sound of patrons enjoying their time in the saloon echoed and then the sounds of a fight. Suddenly, it went dead.
JD was the master.
JD was the best.
"So where's Fowler?" Nancy skeptically asked.
Chris cleared his throat and began; "He confessed in the back of the saloon...nobody else saw us except my men. After he confided, I motioned toward my agents, letting them know I had what I needed so an arrest could be made, but the fight broke out and we lost him in the confusion."
Nancy turned knowing eyes to the man. "Inconvenient," she muttered, sliding back in her chair while looking at the men around her. "I'll get a warrant out for his arrest..." she looked hard at Chris, "...in your 'professional opinion', do you think we'll ever see him again?"
Chris returned her gaze: "Hard to tell."
"I figured as much." She pulled her chair forward and grabbed some files on her desk. "Get out of here...you all look like shit."
Chris slapped Buck on the shoulder and waited until his men left the room. "We won't be back" he said, looking at the deputy.
"Good" Nancy replied, keeping her eyes on her job.
Chris looked at the insurance assessment and his head nearly exploded. $6500. " I told you to start a scuffle, Ezra, not world war three!"
Ezra lifted his finger off his chest in acknowledgment but didn't say anything. He was too comfortable on Chris' bed.
Buck kicked his feet up onto the table and rested his back in his chair. "What do you want to do next?" he asked, knowing they had to think about the future...about Ella. Would she come after Chris?
"Go home, sleep through the weekend...and go to work on Monday," he answered softly, pulling the curtain back on the window and looked out.
Vin stepped out of the shower with a towel wrapped around his waist, his hair dripped onto his shoulders. He reached out and pulled on the jeans he'd had lying over the back of the chair Buck was sitting in.
The ladies man sat up and chuckled. "You need to get some sun on that pasty white skin, Tanner."
"You're one to talk," Vin responded, slipping his jeans on. "I don't know 'bout y'all, but I need a burger."
"I'll go with you," JD offered. He could stand a Coke, preferably a large one. "Anyone else need anything?" he asked, looking around the room. He took their orders and then headed out the door with Vin.
Nathan stood up, carefully bracing his sore ribs with his arm. He was confused about their demeanor, but maybe he shouldn't have been. He thought he knew what had transpired, but the team chose to keep him in the dark...to protect he and his family. "I'm going to go call Rain and let her know I'll be home in the morning." He started for the door and paused. "You all going to be okay?"
Chris nodded, pulling his checkbook out of his organizer. "Go call her...I'm sure she's worried."
Nathan smiled and headed out.
Josiah stood up and grabbed a glass of water from the sink. He knew what the plans had been...if it came to that, and obviously it had. "I'm called way by particular business. But I leave my character behind me," he sighed heavily, "The School for Scandal, II."
Ezra chuckled from the bed, not bothering to open his eyes. "Another quote, Mr. Sanchez. Surely you jest?"
"I'm not going to ask what happened," Josiah said softly, "and I can't expect to know what it was like." He folded his fingers together in his lap. "But if you need an ear...don't hesitate to ask."
"Thanks, Josiah," Buck whispered. He looked up and met Chris' gaze knowing none of them would ever talk about it.
Ezra sat up and ran his hand over his face and then through his hair.
"Goin' somewhere, Ezra?" Buck asked.
"Next door to get some sleep," he answered, getting to his feet.
"Still early yet," Buck teased.
Ezra rolled his eyes and left, not bothering to wait for the food.
"There's somethin' eatin' at him," Buck said, watching as the door closed.
"Yeah," Chris agreed. "All we can do is be there when it explodes."
"You think he will?" Josiah asked, leaning back in his seat.
Chris smiled in understanding to the question, and from the experience of being there. "Yes... I want to head out early. Nathan needs to get home to his family, and the rest of you need to get some rest."
"What about Ella?" Buck pushed, knowing what his longest friend was thinking about.
"What about her?" He shrugged.
"Will she come for you?" Josiah asked.
"I doubt it," came the flat answer. He seated himself on his bed and felt the comfort for the first time. The long hours of the past day hit him suddenly and as a result his shoulders slumped. "I heard Nathan...after he'd been hit." He ran his fingers trough his hair. He'd heard the concern of a father and the unspoken dreams that a man saw for his future. "Did I hand death down to my family?" He looked up and met Josiah and Buck's eyes. "Was that their fate...because of me?"
"Don't blame yourself for the sins of another," Josiah said softly.
"Easier said than done."
Josiah stood up and gently slapped Chris' shoulder before he grasped the doorknob. "We're all behind you, Brother." He smiled and left.
Buck stood up and flopped down on the other double bed; letting his feet hang over the end. "All things considered...I think we did the right thing."
"Did we?" Chris challenged.
"Ain't nobody goin' to miss that man."
Chris stood up and headed for the bathroom. "Do you think that's what Fowler thought when he killed my family...? Or what Ella thought, after they died?" He opened the bathroom door. Its hinges squeaking momentarily before it clicked shut.
Buck lay on the bed with his fingers behind his head, looking toward the ceiling. He knew what Chris had said, and he understood it. Murder was not meant to be easy...if it were...they'd be no different than the sociopaths on death row, pleasantly awaiting their execution dates. They pleasantly awaited because they had convinced themselves that the date would never come. Buck and the rest of them would fear that phone call, which notice in the paper that Fowler had been found and an investigation was underway. Hopefully, it would never come.
But no murder was perfect.
Clues were always available to find to those who knew where to look.
And someone was always willing to look.
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