Glass crunched underfoot as the surviving suspects were led away to waiting patrol cars. Only one of the arms smugglers had evaded capture, it was a good bust. The seven ATF agents behind the arrests stared at each other in mild disbelief. None of them had so much as a skinned knee when the smoke had cleared. In the storied history of "The Magnificent Seven," as their team was unofficially called, they had never completed a case without at least one team member being seriously hurt. It didn't seem…right.
Before they could fully overcome their collective unease, shots rang out and Vin Tanner stared down at two new holes in his shirt. As the team's sniper, he seldom wore a vest. Blood seeped into his shirtfront.
The shooter was one of the presumed dead suspects. He was certainly dead following the hail of bullets from the Seven's guns. Tanner slid to the pavement after he finished firing, his six friends performing the ritual life-saving techniques that had, by now, become second nature to them.
None of them would dare admit it to themselves, but Vin's wounds added the kind of closure to the case that merely filing reports ever never could. The hospital vigil was their version of a post-bust get-together. As the paramedics took over and loaded their fallen comrade into the ambulance, the remaining six men exchanged looks and nods and headed off for their various forms of transportation. In the case of Chris Larabee, team leader, that was the ambulance. He always rode with his best friend when the man was shot, stabbed, or otherwise injured. It was expected of him.
As the ATF team headed away from the sprawling crime scene, annoyed Denver PD officers began to draft a petition. In their eyes, since the ATF made the mess, the ATF could damn well clean it up.
Tanner had been in surgery for over an hour, and the men who haunted the waiting room were growing restless. Upon arrival, they had found their favorite chairs being used by a group of FBI agents, men who likewise had a team member in surgery. Their bank robbery suspect had not been particularly cooperative.
The few remaining chairs were claimed by Denver PD members, who also had a co-worker in the midst of surgery. It had been a very bad day for local law enforcement.
The ATF agents thus stood in a anxious huddle in the center of the room, some occasionally wandering the halls. Ezra Standish had found a way, he hoped, to thin out the crowd a bit. He conferred briefly with Buck Wilmington, who had been Larabee's best friend before being usurped by Tanner. Buck nodded and approached the fearless, albeit distraught, leader.
"Chris. Think someone ought to call Miss Nettie? She has the right to know." Buck watched the most feared man in Denver throw a dirty look Standish's way before he continued. "I can make the call, if you want."
"Damn it, Buck. You know Miss Nettie will want to come, and you know that she had her license pulled after all those speeding tickets. That means some one will have to fetch her. That means me, doesn't it?" He sneered at his men. "Fine. But Buck, you're going with me."
"Sure thing, pard. I spend too much time in hospitals as it is." Buck grabbed his coat and headed down the hallway.
Chris fixed Ezra with a cold glare. "You know how many times you're gonna have to rewrite your report? Kiss your days off goodbye, Standish." He glanced at the other men under his command. "You have my cell phone number." With that, he turned to follow Buck to the elevator.
Ezra turned to look at one of the FBI agents. The man grinned and offered Ezra his seat, heading to the cafeteria to buy them both a cup of coffee. Sometimes having Larabee as a boss worked to the southerner's advantage. The ATF leader's presence made some people uncomfortable.
"I'm telling you, it ain't right." Buck shook his head to emphasize his words.
"You do it to JD whenever he's hurt." Chris argued. "What's the difference?"
"JD's just a kid. Hell, he don't look old enough to be an agent, for God's sake." Buck slammed his hand against the dashboard of Chris' truck. "Every time you brush Vin's hair off his face I get chills. It ain't right."
Larabee stared at the road ahead. They were halfway to Nettie Wells ranch, but he was no longer convinced Buck would survive the trip.
"And the hand holding. Hell, Chris. If I didn't know you spent so much time with whores I'd think you and Vin were in love or something." Buck stared at his friend's profile, trying to gauge his reaction to his words.
Chris felt the words hit him like a tidal wave. Did he love Vin? Did that explain the connection between them? More than once he'd caught himself staring at the younger man's jean-clad backside. Was he attracted to the man? He turned to look at Buck, fear and loathing etched on his features.
Buck realized what Chris' expression meant, and found himself staring back in equal horror. His oldest friend was….
The bull had strayed out onto the road and into Larabee's path. After the collision, the truck veered off the pavement and encountered a large tree. In the ensuing silence, a cell phone began to ring.
"No answer." JD licked his lips nervously.
"Son, that doesn't necessarily mean something has happened to them." Josiah Sanchez, the steadying force of the team, tried to reassure the young man.
Dunne wouldn't be reassured. "The only time Chris doesn't answer his phone is when he's been hurt or is about to hurt someone else. They're in trouble, Josiah. I can feel it."
The gentle giant sighed in surrender. "Nathan? Would you like to come with me?" Sanchez shrugged into his jacket.
Nathan Jackson looked up from reading an article in last month's JAMA. "Sure. I'm not doing much good here, and if they are in trouble…." Nathan was the agent with the most medical training, and having to wait while the "real" doctors worked on Vin was frustrating in the extreme. On more than one occasion, he rued his lack of a medical degree. Coat in hand, he followed Sanchez into the corridor.
The paramedics closed the doors behind the two injured motorists, happy to be on their way and away from the two healthy ATF agents and their threatening demeanor. The vehicle slowly moved onto the highway before turning on lights, siren, and speeding away into the distance.
Staring down at the dead bull. Josiah couldn't stop a sad smile form forming. "You know, it seems kind of appropriate for those two."
Nathan was staring at Chris' destroyed truck. It was a miracle that the men had survived the crash. Chris had chest and leg injuries, and was barely conscious. Buck had leg injuries as well, and an apparent head wound. He hadn't regained consciousness yet. Both men were in pretty bad shape. The truck was terminal.
Sighing in unison, the two men headed back to Josiah's car to begin the long drive back to the hospital
JD lowered the cell phone. "Nathan says they're both hurt bad. Maybe real bad. Buck hit his head on something." Tears formed in the youngest team member's eyes. Buck was like a brother to him. Sometimes more like a mother, but JD didn't mind.
Soon after Nathan and Josiah had departed, the Denver PD men had been told their fellow officer was out of surgery and being moved to ICU. That freed up four chairs, and Agents Dunne and Standish now sat side by side. The coffee-bearing FBI agent had gratefully reclaimed his seat. JD slumped, in his.
"I'm sure Mr. Jackson and the paramedics have done everything possible to help our two comrades-in-arms. May I suggest that excessive worrying will be of help to no one?"
The doors flew open as paramedics wheeled the pair of gurneys into the emergency room. Rapidly relaying the men's respective conditions, the two medics waited just long enough to reclaim their gurneys before returning to their ambulance. Night was falling, and that meant the busy part of their shift.
Their radios crackled as the driver turned on the ignition. "Rescue Three. Multiple gunshot victims…."
Tanner's surgery finally at an end, the two waiting ATF agents departed the lounge, wishing the FBI group the best of luck. Their man had been in surgery for over six hours. Vin's ordeal had only clocked in at two and a half.
Without discussing it, both JD and Ezra knew they were headed for the emergency room waiting area. Chris and Buck would be arriving soon, if they hadn't already.
"I don't believe it." The senior paramedic shook his head as he caught a glimpse of the two gunshot victims. "Guess it just isn't their night."
His partner winced as he recognized the faces of the two ATF agents. "That's an understatement." The two victims had both been shot in the torso, several times each, and were leaking quite visibly.
The medics worked hard and fast, loading the victims onto the same gurneys so recently vacated by their friends and partners. As the siren began its wail, the junior paramedic at the wheel spoke up. "OK, we handle four, and Gonzalez had one earlier…is there some sort of anti-ATF crusade I haven't heard about?"
Before JD or Ezra realized that Josiah and Nathan were late in returning, the paramedics rushed the missing men into the ER. Even then the two men might not have known, but for the looks thrown their way by the rescue workers. Exchanging glances, the two agents moved to get a closer look at the latest arrivals.
"Jesus, Ez. I don't believe it. What the hell happened to them?"
"If I were to hazard a guess, I would say that our friends have been shot." Standish replied, bitterly.
"I can see that, I meant…you know what I meant." Dunne watched as the doctors worked frantically on the their teammates.
"I did indeed. It was a rhetorical question. However, when one of them regains consciousness, I will be delighted to learn who is responsible for…this." Standish narrowed his eyes and, for a moment, appeared more dangerous than Chris Larabee could ever hope to be. "I'm going to visit the vending machines, is there anything I can bring you?" Ezra needed to walk, and to get away from the carnage in the ER.
"Thanks, Ez. Maybe a Snicker's?" It had been a long time since JD had eaten anything.
"A Snicker's it is." Ezra slowly wandered away.
"OK, let's get him into surgery. Excuse me, son." The ER doctor moved JD aside as the gurney bearing Nathan Jackson was wheeled toward the elevator. Josiah had already been taken upstairs and was already under the knife.
That left Ezra. The southerner had gone to buy JD a candy bar. It had seemed such a safe and simple task, that JD had been horribly shocked when Standish had been wheeled into the ER, bleeding and unconscious. The nurse who had heard the noise and found the injured man had told JD that, apparently, Ezra had been hitting and shaking the vending machine in order to get the candy bar to drop, and the machine had fallen forward, crushing the man beneath its mass. Only a plastic chair had saved Standish's life--it had kept the full weight of the machine off the agent's supine body.
As it was, doctors feared Ezra could have internal injuries, as well as a severe concussion.
JD was lost. All his friends were on death's door, and he was awash in insurance forms. Josiah had filled out Vin's, but that left five new forms. He was quickly developing writer's cramp. It was as he was finishing the last of the forms, Josiah's, that all hell broke loose in the ER.
"I want to know where those bastards went, and I want to know NOW!" A wild-eyed man ran into JD's view, carrying a hunting rifle. "Where are those damned ATF guys?"
Despite their best efforts, nearly all the ER staff glanced toward Dunne. Laying aside the clipboard, JD slowly rose to his feet. The man was watching him closely, so drawing his gun was not an immediate option. Not a good one, at least.
"You're ATF?" Disbelief was plain in the man's voice and in his expression.
"Agent JD Dunne. What is this about?" JD tried to sound older than his twenty-three years.
"Bull." Glaring at JD, the barrel of the man's gun began to rise.
"I assure you sir, I am a federal agent." JD attempted to keep his voice calm, but he wasn't sure it was working. He swallowed. "Why don't you lower your weapon and we can talk about what is bothering you." JD had no idea how to handle the situation. He badly missed having Josiah present, to talk the man down.
"What's bothering me? What's bothering me is that you damned people killed my prize bull, that's what's bothering me." The man's eyes grew dark. "Now it's my turn." He pulled the trigger.
The bullet passed through JD's body, embedding itself in the wall behind him. He watched as security wrestled the gun away from the shooter, watched as a doctor started to move in his direction, and then JD had to sit down. As the darkness settled, Dunne guiltily realized he'd bled all over the insurance forms.
Three Days Later:
Larabee glanced over at the sleeping form of his roommate. Vin Tanner looked so much younger as he slept, he seemed closer to JD's age than his own. The way his hair framed his face. The tanned, albeit scarred, skin. The long lean body…
Growling to himself, Chris cursed Buck Wilmington. Now he'd never be able to look at Vin again without wondering. Without wondering a good many things, actually. Such as whether Vin ever "wondered" about him. Maybe he'd transfer Vin off the team. He'd have to think about it for a while.
The ringing of his cell phone dammed up his stream of thought..
"Hey Chris, how're you and Vin doin'?" Buck's cheerful voice grated against Chris' raw nerves. "I've been teaching the runt here the proper way to charm a nurse."
"Let JD be, Buck. That bullet nicked his heart. We almost lost him."
"Hell, pard. We almost lost all of us, this time. Ezra's takin' bets on who gets set free when. You want in on the action?"
"How's Ez doing?" Chris answered the question with one of his own.
"Complaining, mostly. He's the only one of us who's able to get out of bed, so I don't see what he's got to complain about. Broken arm, concussion, a few splintered ribs…hell, he's damned near healthy!" Buck laughed.
"And Nathan and Josiah get out of ICU today. Any word on who shot them?" Chris ached to track down the assailants, but then Chris ached, period.
"You won't believe it."
"From what Josiah said, he was passing a slow-moving van and he recognized the passenger." Buck paused for dramatic effect. "Ochoa."
Ochoa had been the arms smuggler that had managed to escape during the take-down of the smuggling ring, the event that had started the cascade of injuries..
"You're right, Buck. I don't believe it." Chris sighed. "And he recognized Josiah and Nathan?"
"Yep. Opened up on 'em. Josiah thinks he saw an Uzi." Buck's voice held the promise of things to come, bad things. "There's an APB out, of course. So when do we go after the asshole?"
Chris smiled and closed his eyes. "I'm thinking we should wait until we get out of the hospital."
"Guess that'd be best. Damn. Battery's goin'. Talk to you later, give Vin my love.' Buck laughed as he ended the call.
Placing the phone on the bedside table, Larabee made a silent vow--'When I get better, I'm gonna kill him.' He leaned back into his pillow, hoping to fall back to sleep before the pain medication wore off. It was not to be.
"Larabee?" The door to his room opened, revealing one of Chris' least favorite individuals. Jordan Fitzgerald was the man AD Travis sent whenever an agent was under suspicion of misconduct. Fitzgerald was the ATF's version of IAD.
"Fitz." Chris smiled. He knew Fitzgerald hated when he called him that. "What can I not do for you?"
Clearing his throat, the investigator approached the foot of Chris' bed, glancing briefly at Tanner. "The man who shot your friend, you returned fire and killed him, do you remember?"
"Wilmington had the head injury. I remember just fine. It was a good shoot, so what's the problem?" Chris shifted uncomfortably. He glared at the dour man. The pain medication was indeed wearing off. He needed a pill. He needed several.
"Good. Well, yes. It would have been good, had the ME not recovered twenty-five bullets from the body of the late Mr. Salazar. Bullets that came from seven different weapons." Fitzgerald sat down in the bedside chair and smiled warmly. "We need to discuss your team's penchant for excessive violence…."