Part I

DISCLAIMER: See disclaimer on index page.

Carol Pahl

Part I

"The socks. Take them off, too. You can keep the boxers." The man sneered at the young ATF agent. "Don't want you pulling any more surprises out of your pockets."

"It's over forty miles to any town, Harper." JD stood tall, dressed in only his gray knit underwear. Somehow a simple assignment turned ugly and he was about to become the 'expendable commodity'. How could the fifty-five year old DEA agent believe he could get away with murder? "Larabee will find me," the young man spoke with conviction.

"Too bad that he'll only find your bones, boy. Just the way it is, Dunne. Leave the clothes and get going. You've got a long, hot walk ahead of you. I'll be watching you at all times." Lester Harper held up the rifle equipped with a powerful scope. "Maybe I'll get a bit of sympathy and put you out of your misery." He pulled the gun up and aimed at the young man's chest and started to squeeze the trigger.

JD took an involuntary step backwards and futilely glanced around the orderly campsite, looking for anything he could use as a weapon against the mad man.

“Hah, you’re wasting my time.” Harper dropped the barrel toward the ground. “I'd rather let nature take its course. The sun will dry you out in no time and the scavengers can pick your bones clean. I ought to pull your teeth and send them anonymously to the high and mighty Chris Larabee. They wouldn’t even be able to identify you using dental records.”

“You sound awful certain this plan of yours is going to work. Use those explosives and every crime will lead back to you.” JD stated.

“You’re wasting your breath. I saw you enter the code. Every bar code is legal and registered.”

JD forced a smile, hoping to plant the seed of doubt in his adversary’s mind. He shook his head negatively. “I never added my personal signature, I used a generic one.”

“Why you lying little son of a…” Before finishing the curse Harper swung the gunstock in a wide arc, catching the young agent in the side of the head. JD fell in a heap on the ground; a small cloud of dust rose around him. “Don’t matter none, boy. I’ll be long gone before they figure out you ratted on me.”

He grabbed JD’s clothes and stuffed them into the saddlebag. In a few minutes he packed up the gear and loaded it onto JD’s mount. Checking the campsite for any stray items, he saw the canteen hidden by a small bush. After taking a long draw of the tepid water, he grabbed the strap and swung the metal receptacle into the granite boulder. A small shower sprinkled the arid soil. He stomped the split aluminum container into a flat saucer and hung it from the small brush.

“Happy trails, Agent Dunne. See you in hell.” Harper mounted his horse and kicked the large animal into a comfortable canter. A copse of trees beckoned him as the sun rose overhead. Dunne wouldn’t be able to take a step in any direction without him seeing the movement. Once the young man died, he’d return and redress the body. Too bad the boy went bad, Larabee, he laughed to himself. Dunne’ll take the fall for the loss of them explosives and no one can connect me to that.

+ + + + + + +

Chris Larabee sat at his desk, rubbing his temples. He’d give anything for a normal day of taking down the criminal element than having to fill out forms and file reports. Who thought up all this crap anyhow? After each confrontation every agent completed a ton of paperwork and then he, as team leader, was expected to review each and every one before approving it.

Team 7, one of the most successful ATF teams in the country, also racked up its share of disciplinary reprimands. This last case garnered no exception. Highly motivated individuals, the men on his team took cues from their team leader. Now he sat at his desk justifying their success with endless reports. Chris returned to Denver before the others to get a head start on the paperwork following their latest case while the men enjoyed a few days in Washington, D.C., recovering from various injuries and receiving commendation awards from the Bureau office. The four agents were due to report to work Monday, but the quiet emanating from the outer office drove Larabee to distraction. Though his agents performed exceptionally in the field, their unorthodox office behavior gained a notorious reputation for their pranks. Buck and JD would get the antics rolling and before long Vin or Ezra added to the clamor. Josiah and Nathan quietly went about their tasks, adding additional comments or quips when necessary. Yep, couldn’t beat a noisy office for getting professional work completed.

The phone’s shrill ring brought the contemplating man out of his reverie and back to the tasks at hand. “Larabee.”

“Good afternoon, Mr. Larabee. I’m Ethel Steavens, from the Federal Accounting and Veri-forms office in Chicago. I need to speak with you about a transmission made by one of your men. Could you give me your Telemat number so I can verify your identity?” The older woman’s voice sounded tired, like she was bored with her job.

Chris punched the pound key and his identification number into the keypad. A few beeps and squawks later the annoying voice returned. “Thank you, Agent Larabee. Earlier this morning we received a verification transmission from Agent Dunne. He is from your office, correct?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Chris’s mind began to churn out disturbing details that didn’t bode well for JD’s well being.

“He sent the bar-code registrations of a large shipment of certificate classified explosives. Everything appeared fine until the last verification. He used the generic code from the manual rather than his personal ID. I need to know if he mistyped the code or if someone else attempted to manipulate the procedure.”

“What type of materials did he declare?”

“I’m not at liberty to discuss that over the phone, Agent Larabee, but if you want to log onto the ECDD, I’ll make the transmission form available. Is Mr. Dunne available to confirm or collaborate the data?”

“No ma’am, he isn’t. I’ll look at the data and get back to you as soon as possible.” Chris set the receiver down and turned to his computer. In a few minutes he looked at the information. Everything seemed correct. Why would JD use the wrong ID code at the end of the transmission? He knew it would send red flags out to every ATF office and mark the contraband as improperly registered. JD wouldn’t make a simple mistake like that without good reason. The pounding in Chris’s head beat louder and his gut tightened. Had trouble found JD again?

+ + + + + + +

The noon sun beat down mercilessly on the unprotected, pale skin of the young man turning the untanned flesh on his belly a brilliant pink. The pain intensified and reached the unconscious brainstem. JD tried to open his eyes but quickly shut them. He shifted his body and rolled over onto his knees. He felt like his mouth was full of cotton. Opening his eyes again he waited for the ground to stop rolling. Gradually the roar in his skull diminished and he looked at his surroundings.

Was Harper gone or just waiting to shoot him? The former campsite seemed deserted. The man did a through job of erasing his existence, brushing away the slight depressions left in the shifting desert soil. Only the destroyed canteen hung tantalizingly, swaying in the gentle breeze, mocking the man’s need for water.

JD reached up and touched his injured cheek. Dried blood mixed with dirt and sand crystals clung to his cheek where the gunstock split the skin over the bone. His eye swelled shut. He pulled himself behind the one large boulder. A small amount of shade protected him from the relentless solar rays. How could such a simple mission turn into a cat and mouse game, where one of the combatants must die?

Taking a deep breath, JD tried to calm the panic rising in his gut. Rushing off half-cocked into the desert would waste precious energy and time he couldn’t afford to loose.

He remembered a story about a man whose vehicle broke down in the middle of the desert. The man attempted to walk for help rather than stay with the crippled car. The search team found the car; they didn’t find the man before the scavengers consumed most of the body. If he’d stayed with the car, he had protection from the sun. The vehicle offered a larger target for search and rescue. The road led to civilization while the desert offered a painful death.

JD didn’t possess access to any of those options. Gazing into the distance, he tried to remember how far he and Harper rode before setting up their camp. Where had they watered the horses? What could he use to protect himself from the sun? Too many questions crowded into his mind but answers refused to complete them. He needed water, food, and shelter if he was to survive until help could reach him.

Where was the traitorous DEA agent? Dancing mirage waves blurred JD’s vision but he caught the slight flash of sunlight reflecting off something metal. Harper must be watching him from the trees up the hill. Did he have the rifle aimed at the young agent’s heart, watching him struggle to devise a strategy?

The dry desert air pulled moisture from him with each breath he took. The rays cooked his skin. The sharp rocks littering the ground would chew his feet into ribbons before he could walk a mile. Within 36 hours he’d be dead if he couldn’t find water. He’d already lost a couple of hours but he wasn’t about to roll over and give into Harper’s dementia. Another grove beckoned from the opposite direction. Could he run and avoid the bullet waiting to kill him? Sitting here baking meant giving up. He wasn’t ready to die. He’d told Chris he could handle this job, even though no one would be watching his back.

+ + + + + + +

The nightmare began two days ago. A simple request came from another agency, which was nothing new. The Drug Enforcement Agency needed an ATF agent on a planned drug raid in central Wyoming. DEA agent Lester Harper personally visited Team 7’s office in Denver and met with Chris Larabee.

“Larabee, we need to borrow one of your men. Simple case, really. We know this group is transferring a large amount of meth and crack, using the sparsely populated hills southwest of Casper. We got word they might also be trafficking in explosives. We need ATF to verify the trail of these arms. Got to figure a way to stop their distribution. Certainly you’ve got an agent here you could spare for a few days, week at the most.”

Chris, just returned from the east coast, wanted to decline the request but he didn’t have a justifiable reason to say no. He left Buck in the hospital and Nathan, Josiah and Vin finishing the last case. Ezra wouldn’t return from his European vacation for another week leaving himself and JD Dunne as the only available agents. Dunne, recovering from a bad case of strep throat, held down the home office while the other men worked in Virginia.

Harper waited, watching the brooding face of Chris Larabee, before he added, “Needs to be someone who can ride a horse, too. Them fellas are up in the mountains, near the continental divide. You ever hear of South Pass? On the old Oregon Trail? Now them drug boys are using the pass to move contraband cross this continent.”

“Let me discuss this with one of my agents and I’ll get back to you.”

“Heck of a way to run an agency, Larabee, asking them if they want this job or that. We don’t have much time before getting up there and in place before the whole case blows. Got to roll this afternoon. Your man won’t have to do much. Heck, he won’t even be anywhere near the raid. Word is the explosives are stored in a trailer; nowhere close to the dealers. While the rest of my team’s got them distracted we’ll go in and your man will change the verification code. Just need him ‘cause it’s got ta be ATF.”

Larabee’s dark eyes stared at the man’s puffy face, burning a seed of doubt between his eyes. “I said I’ll discuss it with my man and get back to you.” His voice almost a whisper he added, “Go get some lunch. I’ll talk to you later.”

"Chris, you know this is the only way to figure out their plan."

"I don't know, J..."

"I can do this, " JD interrupted, "I'm the only one who can...and you know it."

Damn kid is too smart for his own good. But he's right. Chris looked away briefly, gathering his swirling thoughts. After a long moment's pause, he returned his gaze to JD, staring intently into the kid's hazel eyes and imparting his patented "look". . .the one that told JD that Chris was deadly serious and that he'd better pay close attention to what the Seven's leader was about to say, "It's dangerous."

"I know."

"You won't have anyone to watch your back."

"I know."

"All right," sighing, Chris looked at the young man before him, so full of life and brimming with confidence. Chris knew that this was going to be tough on all of them, especially Buck. And JD? Despite the kid's emphatic claims that he understood the risks, Chris also knew this would be hardest on him. . .and what made it even worse, was. . .that he'd be on his own.

+ + + + + + +

“Excuse me, Chris.” Ezra Standish stood in the open doorway. “Didn’t expect to find anyone in the office this afternoon.”

The dapper undercover agent waited for his boss’s invitation before entering the inner office. His face revealed a golden tan and he wore casual beige slacks and a polo shirt, definitely not dressed for work.

“How was your vacation, Ezra?” Chris looked up and smiled, genuinely pleased to have him back.

“The coast of Spain was glorious but I preferred the French Rivera cuisine. Mother and I made the obligatory rounds.” He paused and smiled at the memories. “It’s good to be back in Denver away from all those peacocks! Where are my colleagues?”

“They,” he pointed at the empty outer office, “are getting a little R&R after our assistance with a case in Virginia. Buck should get out of the hospital today. I expect Nathan and Josiah to fly back tonight. Vin and Buck will get back sometime Saturday or Sunday depending on how Buck’s feeling. Everyone’s to report in on Monday morning. I came back early to get started on the paperwork.”

“And?” Ezra raised his eyebrows before glancing at the one desk littered with fast food toys and an occasional comic book.

“Oh, yeah. JD didn’t go with us. He was down with an infection and the doctor wouldn’t let him fly 'cause of the antibiotic, so he held down the office for me. He’s up in Wyoming helping with a DEA raid.”

“By himself? Buck doesn’t know, does he?”

“Nope. The kid said he could do this. He already felt bad about not helping take down the Gonzales cartel last week. Buck, coming in injured, he’s going to be madder than a stepped on rattler.”

The ringing of the phone interrupted the conversation and Ezra turned to leave. “Wait a minute, Standish. Let me get this. I need to ask you something.”

Chris answered the phone, surprised to hear a familiar yet annoying, tired voice on the other end. “Mr. Larabee, is your agent back yet? Someone just tried to overwrite this morning’s transmissions. These things can’t be randomly changed without the proper identifications. Otherwise why would any of this be necessary anyway?”

”No ma’am. He’s still in Wyoming.”

”Oh, that’s right. That’s where the transmission originated. I’m going to have to nullify this whole batch and it’s his fault for not doing it right the first time. Tell him when he gets back he’ll have to resubmit the whole thing again. And I mean everything will need to be reentered. Every barcode, every manufacturing code, everything. Right now that entire shipment has no certification. And you can tell him for me that I am not appreciative of him messing up my day!”

Ezra noticed the worried creases on Chris’s brow as the older man returned the receiver to its cradle. “Something wrong with Mr. Dunne?”

“When it comes to computers or electronics, have you known the boy to make a mistake, even an minor one?”

“No. He may enter himself into some situations without a lot of thought, heart first, brain last, but with digital media the boy’s a genius. Are you suspecting he may experience some nuisance?”

“You got somewhere you need to be?” Chris’s genuine concern for JD’s well being struck Ezra’s heart. He’d learned early that the leader’s hunches were accurate deductions of the situations.

“I’m at your disposal, sir.”

“See what you can find out about Lester Harper. He’s the agent for the DEA, the one that borrowed JD. I’ve got a few calls to make.”

+ + + + + + +

JD’s shade from the boulder shrunk as the sun journeyed across the afternoon sky. The bright glare burned through his swollen eyelid and he could taste the desert grit in mouth. He glanced around the rock again, wanting to confirm Harper’s whereabouts. The sun reflected off the gun’s scope. Yep, the guy still watched him. JD knew the man possessed a sharp shooting talent. Harper shot and killed the guard of the semi-trailer holding the explosives, shooting at a range almost equivalent to the distance of Vin’s expertise.

Knowing the lack of water would only make him weaker, now would be the best time to run for the far bluff. Trees needed a dependable source of water. At the last second he grabbed the smashed canteen. It couldn’t hold water but it might prove useful for something else. He slipped the strap over his head and started running, crouched low to the ground. The hours of inactivity and lack of water stiffened his muscles. He felt his legs cramping. A small pile of boulders offered a hiding place and would give him a chance to rest before heading toward the grove. JD pushed himself up the first rock, ignoring the cuts in the bottoms of his feet. Small drops of blood smeared across the exposed rock but the young man kept climbing, looking for a hiding place. A small pool of water reflected the sunlight into his eyes before he saw the tank. Was it a mirage? He dropped down and put his cracked lips into the moisture. He could almost feel the water flowing straight through him into his muscles. When he couldn’t suck any more moisture from the small depression he laid his injured cheek into the remaining moisture, hoping to wash away some of the dirt and dried blood.

Were there more of these small pools of water scattered amidst the rocks? He stood up looking for another puddle when he heard the pop of the rifle. Scrambling over the top of the nearest boulder, he felt the sharp sting crease his thigh. Adrenaline coursed through him as he pulled himself up and immediately dropped down behind the rock, using it to barricade against more bullets. Blood ran down his bare leg and tickled his knee. He squeezed the cut closed with his hands, trying to stem the flow of precious moisture. Nathan’s lectures on first aid replayed themselves in his mind. Pressure, keep it clean. Where was an emergency medical technician when you needed one? He took the canteen strap off the damaged metal and tied it around the gaping wound.

Peeking over the edge of the massive rock, he watched Harper ride his horse toward the hiding place. JD sought refuge from the other man. The rocks sat in a jumbled pile, like a giant just dropped a handful of pebbles. Small opening offered relief from the relentless sun but were any of the spaces large enough to hide him? He licked his chapped lips and immediately regretted the action as his tongue rubbed the rough, peeling skin. JD pulled himself along with his arms, trying to keep out of Harper’s line of sight. He dropped down between two rocks and crawled into a tiny cave formed by three of the large stones. A fourth rock formed a small shelf. He wedged himself behind the stone and waited. The rocks cooled his tender skin but the wound in his thigh and his cut feet sent excruciating pain through his body.

“Where ya hiding boy? I’ll find you, ya know I will. Come out now, ya hear. I need you to put in them codes again. You do that and I’ll give you a horse and a head start.”

Had JD heard him right? He tried to fix the verification codes? An agent couldn’t do that without a reauthorization number. It’d be like starting all over. Each bar code would have to be scanned into the system again and all code numbers re-entered. Red flags everywhere.

“Get out here now, you fool. No one will save your sorry hide. Hell, they don’t even know we’re out here. DEA’s off chasing ghosts while you and me captured the real prize.”

Why was Harper telling him all this? JD tried to stop his rapid breathing as he heard boots scraping the rocks near his hiding spot. He tried to make himself invisible behind the rock as Harper kneeled down at the opening. Was the man good at tracking, too? Would he see the drops of blood in the sand or the places where JD’s hand smeared red on the rough granite?

“Better come out now or that hole’ll be your tomb.”

JD felt the metal barrel press into his shoulder. Gingerly he climbed out of the cramped space into the bizarre gaze of the other man.

“Ain’t no way you can out run your destiny. You and your foolishness are costing me. Get your skinny backside down off these rocks. We got to go back to the trailer and fix what you messed up. Believe me boy, you try a trick like that again and I’ll flay you where you stand.

“Water.” The small amount of water from the pool washed the dirt out of his mouth but he ached for more.

“I’ll give ya a drink when we get back to the horse. Now move.”

Reaching his mount, Harper removed the canteen from the saddle horn while keeping the gun trained on the near naked man. He removed the top and took a long drink before tossing the near empty container at JD. Eagerly he tipped the precious water toward his mouth only to be rewarded with a small swallow.

“Guess it was emptier than I figured.” Harper laughed at JD’s crestfallen expression. He pulled a rope out of the saddlebag and tied it around JD’s hands. “Horse can’t carry us both. We’ll go get the other one then ride back to the trailer. Keep up or I’ll drag you.”

As the two men arrived at new campsite, JD looked for more water. Harper yanked the rope before the ATF agent reached the shaded water containers. He grabbed JD’s long hair and propelled him toward the other animal. “Mount up. Ain’t got time to saddle him.” He pushed JD onto the horse. The younger man wrapped his sore fingers into the animal’s mane and kicked the animal into a slow trot, having no choice but to follow the rogue agent.

The horse’s coarse hair rubbed JD’s wounded leg and the sun continued to bake his exposed skin. His head pounded and he felt the strength drain from his limbs. A rough stubble covered his face but he could feel his nose peeling. A general feeling of lassitude descended on him and the need to sleep over took his mind.

A sudden jerk on the rope brought him awake just before he fell off the horse to the desert floor.

“Get them codes scanned. You will get all this water when you’re finished.” He held up the last canteen and shook it. The sloshing water captured the younger man’s mind until the end of the gun barrel scraped his chest. “You mess up this time and the vultures ain’t even having you for lunch.”

JD grabbed the small PAD and CDD scanner. His mind refused to focus on the job. All he could think about was the sound of the water in the canteen. How could he send for help when he couldn’t think straight?

“Hurry up, Dunne. In another minute I’m taking a swallow of the water and I’ll keep drinking until your finished.”

Unable to swallow, JD returned to pushing buttons and scanning bar codes. Three to go, then two. Finally the last box was entered and scanned. Now all he had to do was connect the satellite phone and enter the last code before he’d get the water. As he handed the device to the other man, Harper tossed the much emptier water bottle into the air, minus its cap. Water showered out of it as JD reached to rescue the precious fluid. A few swallows remained and he drank them greedily.

“OK, now finish this and do it right. No more funny stuff. Don’t know why Larabee puts up with yours and Wilmington’s shenanigans anyway.”

“Why?” JD croaked.

“Why what? Why am I doing this?” He pointed at the hidden trailer holding over five hundred thousand dollars of explosives. “Greed, plain and simple. Seeing them others making all the money and me taking home a measly paycheck each month, it ain’t fair. Didn’t you want a piece of the action?”

JD shook his weary head no.

“But of course not. Why would you? Hell, Chris Larabee garners all the glory. Someday you’ll understand, boy. Someday some snot nosed brat will use you for a stepping-stone and leave you to clean up the muck. Too bad you hooked up with the likes of Larabee and Wilmington. You’ll always be one of the seven, never be your own man. Or get your own glory. That man Standish on your team, now he’s got the right idea, playing both sides. He’s got government permission to steal and cheat and gain all the glory he can round up.”

“More?” JD held out the empty container.

“Sorry, kid. If’n you’d done this right the first time you might have walked half way to Lander by now. Mount up kid. You’ve got a date to keep.”

“Who?” Harper stood behind the weary agent and pushed him onto the black horse.

“Always asking questions, ain’t ya. Come on.” He pulled on the rope still tied to JD’s wrists and steered his own mount toward the new campsite. Half the way there they stopped. Untying JD’s hands Harper snaked the rope around the horse’s neck. “Sorry son. You ain’t gonna see no tomorrows.” Aching all over, JD barely looked up when Lester’s hand shoved him off the horse before riding away leading JD’s mount.

Am I in hell? No sweat cooled his parched hide. Pinching his skin left little mounds that held no elasticity. He itched and his tongue swelled filling his dry mouth. The arid air drained him of energy. He sat in the dry soil unable to move. In the distance the two horses changed into specks before vanishing.

The sun began its daily descent behind the distant mountain peaks. JD needed to do something but couldn’t remember what it was. Falling asleep would be so easy. He could lay his head on his arms and sleep until someone or something or…he couldn’t remember. Later…after a nap. He’d try to think of it later.

Continued in Part 2

Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Index

February 2001