MAIN CHARACTERS: Ezra, Seven, OFC
UNIVERSE: ATF Virtual Season (season 1)
DISCLAIMER: I have no rights of ownership with regard to any characters based on those appearing in the TV series "The Magnificent Seven" (even if they now work for the ATF out of Denver - and that idea was Mog's). The character of Lila belongs to the Immortal. The lyrics quoted are, likewise, not mine. However, no profit is made from this undertaking and thus no litigation is really warranted or likely to be successful (for a start, they'd have to find me first!). Furthermore, I would like to express my sincere and fervent gratitude to everyone who has kindly assisted me with this little production and/or graciously allowed me to utilise their creations in it. Without all of your contributions, the offering would have been considerably less satisfying than its current form. Thank you, all!
Written and Directed by Derry
Script Editors and Story Consultants - Dina and Mitzi
Additional Editing - Kim
Technical Advisor - Mitzi
Travel Consultant - Joby
Additional Colorado Information - Gina
Musical Advisor - Greenwoman
Producers - Maggs and Cass
Series Creator and Executive Producer - Mog
References made to previous VS episodes, "The Anniversary" by Cat and "Denver Holiday" by Tidia, and to the non-VS stories, "Rope Enough" by Brandgwen, "Rough Beginnings" by Shawna and "On Second Thought" by the Immortal. Also, some similarities to the TV episode "One Day Out West" may be noted.
"Charlotte's Park" is to Grand County, what "Four Corners" is to Denver, an utterly fictitious subdivision. It does, however, owe something to "Smiggins Rest" which appears in some of TrishA's fanfic.
No casting of specific actors for any of the children's roles.
The Impression That I Get
Written by Barrett/Gittleman
Performed by The Mighty Mighty Bosstones
(EMI Music 1997)
Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)
Written by Billie Joe/Green Day
Performed by Green Day
(WB Music Corp./Green Daze Music 1997)
Written and performed by Paul Simon
(CBS Music 1973)
Accident Waiting to Happen
Written and performed by Billy Bragg
(BMG Music 1991)
The Wild Rover
Performed by Ezra Standish
Hold Onto Me
Written by Nick Smith/Joe Camelleri
Performed by The Black Sorrows
(CBS Music 1988)
Don't Dream It's Over
Written by Neil Finn
Performed by Crowded House
(Mushroom Music/C. Control 1986)
I've never had to knock on wood
But I know someone who has
Which makes me wonder if I could.
It makes me wonder if I ever had to knock on wood
And I'm glad I haven't yet
Because I'm sure it isn't good.
That's the impression that I get.
The driver could barely keeping himself from tapping his hands against the steering wheel, in time to the lively little tune. But he knew that this stemmed more from nervous tension rather than a true enthusiasm for the music.
He felt like he was driving a car that contained some sort of explosive device. Well, in some ways he was. One of his passengers was Lucas James who was certainly a potentially explosive character and one who frequently didn't deserve the rank of sentient being. And all off his passengers were now heavily under the influence of alcohol and other recreational drugs which even further increased their volatility.
It had been, to misuse a cliche, one hell of a party. For him, more Hell than party - watching Lucas and his cohorts, in steadily increasing degrees of inebriation, trying to gyrate in time to a dance beat and simultaneously engage in some of the most unsubtle mating rituals ever conducted within the animal kingdom. And he had to remain a conscientious and sober observer throughout it all.
That was why Stewart James had sent him along. He wanted someone he could trust to keep a level head, keeping an eye on his loose cannon nephew. The heir to the business. God help them all!
And, although he usually objected violently to babysitters, Lucas actually seemed to enjoy the company of the man he had christened "the Colonel". The driver almost sighed. Such were the rewards of an engaging personality. He would far rather be getting more involved with business end of things, instead of getting diverted to deal with the Lucas sideshow.
Still he had to keep in with Lucas if he wanted Stewart James to take him into his confidence. The man was cautious which was why he'd survived in this business for so long.
"Hey, Colonel! Pull over!"
The driver startled slightly at the sound of Lucas' voice.
"Cuz I feel like somethin' t'eat! That supermarket's open. Pull in there."
The driver felt ice run down his spine. Not that supermarket, not in the early hours of a Friday morning! Every fortnight, Dennis Potter did an all-nighter. At this time, there'd probably be just him and one of his young assistants there. And Lucas James was not the sort of customer you'd want to encounter under those circumstances.
"We're almost home. Be better to wait 'til then. You may not know it but I can create a gourmet French toast which would round off the evenin's festivities in suitable style."
"Ha! And here I was thinkin' all y'cooked was chicken! Nah, pull in. I don't wanna wait."
The driver momentarily considered just driving on by, despite his instructions. But the last thing he needed to do now was anger Lucas. And there was no reason for him to cause trouble in the supermarket. Perhaps he could even be prevented from going in.
"Alright, I'll get it for you. You lot can hardly stand at this stage."
"Whaddya mean 'hardly stand'. I can stand alright. And y'don't know what I want. I haven't decided yet. Just pull over and wait in the car. You wait too, Phil. Rhonda and I won't be long."
But even as he pulled over, the driver felt compelled to try and do something to curb Lucas.
"You two behave yourself for the cameras. These places have electronic surveillance and your uncle won't want you appearin' on any news bulletins."
Lucas did actually nod as he laughed and waved a temporary goodbye.
Five minutes seemed like an eternity. Phil wasn't much into conversation but as the driver glanced back at his remaining passenger, he found himself being watched like a hawk. He'd half-formulated a suggestion that he go out and check on them when two shots rang out, followed by the scream of a young woman. The scream stopped abruptly, although there was no more gunfire, and time seemed frozen as Lucas and Rhonda appeared, still giggling uncontrollably.
"What the hell happened?" He finally found his voice, as they climbed into the car.
"Had a little fun with the girl, then the manager came out and started makin' trouble so I shot him. Don't worry though. Got him straight through the heart. He won't be causing any trouble and Rhonda got the surveillance tape." Lucas brandished a dark rectangular object. "And we even got some eggs and bread so you can make some of your famous French toast while we sit back and watch how we came out on camera."
"And the girl?" The driver asked, still in shock at the reported demise of the patriarch of the Potter family.
"Reckon she's too scared to even think straight, let alone say anything. Why, Colonel? D'ya think I should go back and deal with her too?"
"No. You're probably right."
He started the engine again before Lucas could change his mind. Maybe he could salvage one life from this grotesque tragedy. For the briefest of moments, he'd hoped against all the odds that Lucas had misjudged his lethal accuracy. But he knew that it couldn't possibly be the case. A sadist like Lucas would have made sure that the victim was dead. The girl had been incredibly fortunate so far, but the driver knew that he had to get Lucas out of the vicinity to prevent a second murder being committed.
And as he drove, the shock-inspired numbness gradually wore off and the man currently calling himself Eric Sanders was able to contemplate all the repercussions of these events. Not only would he never again hear Dennis Potter's laugh as they sat down to dinner with his family, but also the security of that family unit, the one whose protection Angie relied on, had been ruptured.
This was the sort of violence that he'd thought she'd been rescued from. The gun-totting reprobates of this world were not supposed to be able to touch her anymore. But now one of those loathsome psychopaths (and one that he himself was supposed to be supervising) had shattered the lives of the family she lived with.
He felt an almost overwhelming urge to drop everything and go to them. But he also needed to be able to tell them that the murderer would be brought to justice. And with the way things stood, if someone was going to accomplish that, it would have to be him. No one else would even know where to start.
He was already well ensconced in the lions' den. All he needed to do was keep a cool head and make use of the position he had gained in these people's confidence. Perhaps that might be easier said than done. But he swore to himself, then and there and by everything he'd ever held in reverence, that he would achieve it or die in the attempt.
Buck Wilmington entered the office more than two hours ahead of schedule and immediately fell under the appraising gaze of his immediate superior. Such behaviour was uncommon for Buck, but Chris Larabee was his oldest friend as well as his boss, and he had anticipated it, given the circumstances.
"Hearing won't start for about three hours, Buck. And no, you're not tagging along."
"Oh c'mon, Chris! We gotta let the kid know we're standing behind him."
"We don't need to make him feel like we're hovering over him. He already feels like he's being studied under a microscope. Told me so, himself. And this is just a debriefing."
"It was just a simple mistake, Chris. Coulda happened to any of us."
"Well now, I hear that's not what you said when we first found out his gun was missing."
Buck flinched. He had initially lost his temper with JD. But JD hadn't told him the whole story and, typical of the kid, he'd put selected facts forward in the worst possible light. Well Buck may have reacted badly then, but now he needed to make sure that JD didn't tell the same garbled half-story to the hearing board.
"You're not coming, Buck. Josiah and me will be there. And we'll make sure he's okay."
"Was there some kinda all night party that I missed out on?" They both turned to see Vin Tanner slouching against the doorframe.
Chris looked annoyed. "Has everyone jumped time zones or something? We can handle this! We've handled worse. And the last thing JD needs is the whole team hanging around to hold his hand!"
Vin shrugged. "We all know it's hard on the kid. He thought he was tryin' to help and he felt bad enough to have let his car and gun get stolen. Then to find out they'd been used in a fatal shooting..."
"We know what happened, Vin!"
Two weeks ago, JD had been stopped in his car by a young lad, claiming that his friend had been knocked down by another car. Playing Good Samaritan, he'd gotten out of his car to help. And despite the fact that he locked it behind him, it was stolen while he responded to this decoy.
They found out later that it and his spare gun (locked in the glove compartment) had been used in a drive-by gangland shooting. And in this incident, an innocent bystander, an eleven-year-old boy, had been killed.
JD was understandably upset by the whole business. The kid still sometimes thought in terms of unattainable ideals. He thought he had to be the perfect federal agent and never make mistakes. If he thought that something as tragic as this could be attributed to fault on his part in any way, he'd crucify himself before he even got to the hearing board.
"I'm just sayin' that someone's gotta make him realize he ain't solely responsible for what happened."
"What do you think I'm gonna do? Hell, Vin! Anytime you wanna take over running this outfit, just let me know. I've got plenty of things planned for when I retire."
They were interrupted by a sudden ringing of the phone and Buck picked it up. In the early morning quiet, they could all hear both ends of the conversation quite clearly and all immediately identified the caller's Southern drawl.
"Hey, Ez!" Buck forced a hearty, although obviously surprised, greeting. "Whatcha doing up this early?"
"I'm working, Mr Wilmington. And yourself? I thought that our illustrious leader had volunteered to man the office this morning."
"Yeah, Chris is here too, Ez. I just thought I'd come in early."
"And do what you could to offer support to our young colleague before he faces the hearin' board?"
"Yeah, maybe. But why are you calling so early."
"Well, if you check the police reports from this morning, you'll find there was an incident in the early hours where the manager of an all hours supermarket was shot dead. Manager's name - Dennis I Potter. The surveillance video was stolen from the scene."
This unexpected news had Buck floored. "What? Ez, how do you know all this?"
"I have just attended a special celebratory re-screening of said video in the company of the perpetrator. One Lucas James." Ezra continued to report the morning's events in a calm emotionless voice, as if they held no particular significance to him whatsoever.
But the others knew him better than that. "God! Ez, are you okay?"
There was a pause, as Ezra considered his answer to that. "Physically fine, mentally completely functional and emotionally, well, let's say, still a long way from zero."
Buck felt useless but he had to try and offer some support. "Yeah, well you hang in there, Colonel."
Suddenly Ezra seemed annoyed. "You're not goin' to start usin' that moniker, are you?"
Buck tried to lighten the mood, just a little. "Well, if you're gonna tell people that you've had a military career."
But it didn't work. "I did not! A combination of my ill-considered current pseudonym and the fact that these would be humorists cannot distinguish my accent from a native of Kentucky has led them to insinuate that I might do a nice line in fried chicken."
Buck was really worried now. Ez generally saw through his 'gauche little witticisms' pretty much immediately and usually the undercover agent was quick to play along.
"Yeah, Ez, I know. Just a joke. You sure you're okay?"
Ezra took a deep breath, obviously realizing that he'd let his guard down and his tension show. Then he seemed to decide to let them know exactly where he stood. "I'll be fine but we're going to take these people down. No deals, no devious legal eagle getting them off on a technicality, no excuses of any kind."
"Yeah, Ez, I promise you." Buck understood Ezra's feelings on the matter but if they provoked the undercover agent into becoming reckless, he could end up getting himself killed. "Just keep your head. We'll need you to keep things going at your end."
"Of course." Ezra's voice did seem to relax slightly.
Chris walked over and held his hand out for the phone.
"Ez, are you at the James place now?"
"Right, I'm gonna send someone down to observation point two. If you have to leave that house, make sure you drive and take a route where they can tail you. Otherwise, sit tight and stay frosty."
"Why, Mr Larabee, I thought you knew! I wrote the book on equanimity."
Chris smiled slightly. That was more like the cocky undercover agent they all knew.
"Yeah, well, I want chapter and verse from you on this occasion. Call again only if you're sure it's safe. And someone will be at obs point two within the hour."
"As you command, my liege." Ezra's voice still held that familiar blend of confidence and insolence as he signed off.
Chris turned to the assembled members of his team, now having to formulate responses to two crises.
"Right! Vin, go get Nathan and the two of you head down to obs point two and keep a close eye on Ez. With all that's happened, he still might go Lone Ranger on us. Buck, I want you to go round to the Potters'. Make sure they're alright, tell them we're doing everything we can but don't tell them where Ez is at. There's security to consider and they don't need that kind of worry, anyway."
"And what about JD?" Even with this new crisis, Buck hadn't forgotten his original purpose in coming in to work early.
"Josiah and I will take care of JD. You go take care of that family who's just lost their father."
Buck nodded reluctantly. It wasn't that he would deny that someone should go and offer comfort to the bereaved family. He just wished that he could be in two places at once.
Vin picked up the phone to call Nathan and Buck headed for the door. Just as he reached it, Chris called out to him once more.
"Buck, don't let Angie talk you into giving away anything you shouldn't!"
Buck turned back briefly to give him a half-grin. "C'mon, Chris! You know there isn't a woman alive I can't handle."
Chris frowned at his retreating back. They weren't talking about a woman. They were talking about Angie Velasquez.
Ezra couldn't get the image out of his head. Dennis Potter, the man who had always welcomed him into his home, racing out from his office as Lucas attempted to molest the young woman at the checkout. Dennis had obviously been scared out of his wits but he wasn't going to stand by and let a hooligan like Lucas assault that girl.
Lucas had just drawn his gun and shot him. Ezra tried to blink away the image of Dennis collapsing to the floor, clutching his stomach, and Lucas giggling, as he strode over to his victim and put another bullet through his heart. Thank God, the tape had only recorded the visual images. Ezra didn't think he could have sat quietly through the soundtrack. It had been hard enough to choke down a few mouthfuls of breakfast while the murderer provided a running commentary.
And here he still was, just standing around ineffectually while that murderer continued to celebrate his vile deed. Not doing anything while Gloria and her children were being devastated by the loss of a gentle but valorous husband and father. Doing absolutely nothing while Angie had her world violently torn asunder once more.
Ezra already felt somewhat responsible for Angie's orphaned status. Her mother, Teresa, had been mistress to an arms dealer who had been targeted by Team 7 approximately eighteen months ago. Ezra had befriended both mother and daughter while he was undercover in the organization and, when his cover had been blown, Teresa had sacrificed her own life to save his. And she had made him promise that he would do everything possible to ensure her daughter's security and happiness.
Now, without a father figure in the picture, would the remaining Potter family members be able to keep fostering Angie?
Ezra allowed himself a small rueful smile. It had been quite a battle to get Angie to agree to stay with any foster family, in the first place. When her mother had been killed, she had wanted to remain with Ezra. He had been the only part of the child's world that had not been ripped to shreds.
But he had known that she needed the security of a family. There was no way he would have been able to properly care for her with an occupation such as his. His job meant that he had to disappear for long periods when working undercover. And he knew that was no way to look after a child. And now, his job was preventing him from going to her when she needed him. There were times he seriously considered saying to hell with the job.
He almost jumped when someone called out, "Sanders!"
Such was Ezra's preoccupation, that for a brief moment, he failed to recognize his alias. But then the instincts, that had earned him the reputation as the best undercover agent this side of the Mississippi, kicked in and he turned towards whoever was approaching.
It was Stewart James who strode purposefully towards him, and Ezra mentally prepared himself. Being cordial to people such as Stewart and Lucas James and insinuating himself into their confidence, that was also part of his job. And he couldn't just walk out on the job now. Not until he'd seen Dennis Potter's murderer brought to account for what he'd done. He had every intention of using the position he'd attained within the James organization to its full advantage.
Stewart James stopped two feet away from him and placed his hands on his hips. "Let him off the leash this morning, didn't you?"
Ezra blinked. Even the James family was laying the responsibility for this at his door. Very well, he'd make damn sure he'd remedy the situation.
"No, son. I'm sure you did everything you could. But we've got a hell of a mess on our hands now. He thinks that he's in the clear because they took that tape. It was probably the only thing they did right and Rhonda tells me it was your idea. But the last thing we all need now is him running around town like a loose cannon. So I want you to take them all out of town. Take them up to the lodge at Grand Lake. Now that the ski season is finishing, there'll be less people around up there, and you should be able to keep a low profile."
Ezra nodded. This was an opportunity to take full advantage of.
"You can rely on me, Mr James."
Stewart James regarded him thoughtfully.
"I'm sure I can, son. You seem to be the only one with half a brain in the entire outfit. When you get back, you and I need to have a little chat. Ridiculous waste of talent to leave a young man of your abilities on babysitting duty."
Ezra raised his eyebrows slightly and shared a conspiratorial smile with his supposed employer. Ironic really, exactly what he had been slowly working towards for weeks, suddenly dropped in his lap. It was a bribe of course, an incentive to take good care of the barbarous bloodthirsty nephew.
Inwardly, Ezra's smile grew broader. There was absolutely nothing Stewart James could offer him to make that worth his while. Lucas was going down. Even if Ezra was taken down with him.
Again, the elder James interrupted his thoughts. "All this because some little shopkeeper decided to play hero. Stupid fool! Such things aren't worth dying for."
For some reason, Ezra couldn't resist. "Perhaps, but sometimes I think that if you've never found anythin' that you were prepared to die for, then you've never really found anythin' worth living for either."
The other man's eyes narrowed. "You just keep an eye on Lucas. Keep him safe and you'll find my gratitude most rewarding. But if anything happens to him, I will make sure you understand exactly what it means to have a life not worth living."
"Of course, sir."
James seemed satisfied. "I expect the lot of you to be gone within the hour. Most of what you need will be up at the lodge already and I'll make sure you have enough cash for any expenses. Don't stop at your place or anywhere else. Just get going."
Ezra nodded again to his retreating back and then issued himself a quick mental caution.
He knew that he was walking a tightrope. It wouldn't do to fall before he obtained his objective.
Buck Wilmington arrived at the familiar two-storey house in suburban Four Corners. There was a police car already parked outside. So they had already been invaded by the forces of law enforcement. Would they welcome another representative of it or would they resent the intrusion?
He knocked at the door and was pleased to see that the officer who opened it was an attractive young blonde, even if her expression was icy.
"Can I help you, sir?"
He opted for a suitably subdued smile, in view of the circumstances, and nodded, as he pulled out his ID and handed it to her.
"Name's Buck Wilmington. I'm an agent with the ATF and a family friend."
The female officer turned and called inside. "Gloria, would you be willing to see a Mr Buck Wilmington?"
Within seconds, the grieving widow appeared at the door and gently relieved the officer from her protective guard duty. "It's alright, Polly. Mr Wilmington is a friend. Come in, Buck."
Buck followed her in. Her eyes were red and swollen but she was obviously keeping it together, probably for the sake of the children.
"I take it that Ezra is undercover at the moment?"
Buck was unsure how to respond. He had promised Chris that he wouldn't say anything about Ezra's whereabouts. "What makes you say that?"
She looked back at him with a sad little smile. "If he wasn't, he'd be here with you." Then suddenly fear took a hold of her features. "We're not going to be finding his obituary in the paper again, are we?"
Buck shook his head. He certainly hoped they wouldn't be doing that. But he needed to get the topic of conversation away from Ezra and his current activities.
Gloria Potter seemed to read his mind and she reached over to pat his arm as she assured him, "Don't worry, I won't push you any further than that." Then as an afterthought, she added, "Can't guarantee Angie's behaviour though."
Buck glanced at each of the children as he and Gloria entered the living room. The boy sat on the larger sofa with his sister, her head on his shoulder and his arm around her. Both of them still had tears in their eyes as they looked up to see who the newcomer was.
Buck nodded to them, in greeting. He was impressed by the lad's maturity. Many boys of his age would have shied away from physical displays of emotions like hugging their sister, but this one wasn't ashamed to give her the comfort she needed. Well done, son, already doing a fine job of being the man of the house.
Then Buck looked for the third child, the foster child, the adorable but notorious Angie. She sat on a separate smaller sofa and stared back at him. There were no tears but there was also no movement. She was usually quite a bundle of energy and the stillness, not to mention the silence, seemed unnatural.
He knelt in front of her. "Hi, Angie."
"Hi. Where's Ezra?"
Buck wasn't surprised. It was always the first question.
"He's alright but he couldn't come right now."
Like Gloria, Angie correctly deduced the reason. "He's undercover."
"Well...maybe." Buck decided that he needed to change the subject. "How are you?"
She sighed. "I don't know." Then she looked over at the two Potter children.
They didn't seem to resent Buck focussing his attention on Angie. To them, it was just an accepted fact that the men from the ATF always came to see Angie. And, in their grief, they had instinctively first turned to each other and their mother. Even after more than a year, it seemed that Angie was still something of an outsider.
Angie looked back at Buck. "I don't feel as sad as I should. I should be crying but I'm not." She seemed to find her own reaction more troubling than anything else.
Buck put a hand on her shoulder. "It's alright. Sometimes it's all so much that you can't cry."
Angie shook her head. "It's like it's not really true. It's not like when Mama died and there was all that blood everywhere. I just can't believe that he won't be coming back."
Then she looked up over his shoulder and added, "You should go talk to Gloria. She looks like she's going to cry again."
Buck glanced back. There were indeed new tears forming in Gloria Potter's eyes but she shook her head as he made a move to get up and go to her.
"No, I'm alright. I'd just forgotten the world that she came from."
Buck nodded and turned back to Angie. Sitting with her in this quiet family home, he too could almost forget that the child had spent the majority of her life in a world of crime and violence. It was almost a year and a half since Teresa had been murdered and, while Buck and his colleagues had made sure that Angie was spared the sight of her mother's mutilated body, they hadn't been able to prevent her seeing the blood-covered room that had been left as a signature of Teresa's last stand.
It wasn't hard to see the child's point of view. Although violent criminals had again taken the life of someone close to her, there had been no tangible evidence of it presented to her this time. She understood what they were telling her, but it was hard for her to believe it. She would feel the loss eventually, but it would take time for the reality of it to sink in.
The uniformed officer called Polly looked into the room.
"I was gonna make some coffee. Maybe some hot chocolate for the kids?"
Gloria nodded. "Thanks."
Polly retreated, with what Buck thought was a thoroughly charming smile, and Gloria went to sit between her two children and take them both in her arms.
Buck turned back to Angie and gently lifted her up so that he could sit in the chair with her on his lap.
She looked up at him seriously. "They're gonna get the people who shot Dennis, aren't they? Officer Paget goes quiet every time I ask."
"If Ezra has any say in the matter, they will."
All eyes in the room were suddenly on him. Gloria looked at him disbelievingly.
"They said they didn't know who did it. That the surveillance tape was stolen. And that Nicki Matthews was so terrified that she probably wouldn't remember much. Even when she woke up from all those heavy sedatives they had to give her."
"But Ezra knows who did it," Angie stated with absolute certainty, "He's undercover with those people so he can catch them."
Buck closed his eyes and shook his head. Chris had warned him. Now it was a matter of damage control.
"It needs to be kept a secret, Angie. These are really bad people."
"They always are. Ezra never seems to go undercover with nice people."
"I don't know. After all, he met you when he was undercover."
"But there were really bad people around too." Suddenly, she looked very worried. "He's gonna be alright, isn't he?"
"Yeah, he'll be fine. Just needs to keep his head."
She shook her head. "But if he knows they killed Dennis, it'll make him really angry. And if he does anything stupid, he'll be dead."
Buck futilely searched for something to say to reassure her. It was exactly the same fear that Chris and he shared about the undercover agent's state of mind.
But there was nothing to say but reasonless platitudes. "It'll be alright. He won't do anything stupid."
And, in his own mind, Buck silently pleaded with Ezra not to make a liar of him.
There were times when the rest of his squad found it difficult to believe that Detective Jim Carter was nearly thirty years old.
It wasn't his rather boyish features or the way that his sandy blond hair occasionally flopped into his eyes. After all, his partner, Mike Woodward, was only a few years older and looked almost as young.
And although a rookie, Jim had already proved himself tough enough to deal with even the most violent and vicious crimes. He certainly wasn't a chink in the squad's armor in that regard. He handled the street and any crime scene without the slightest flinch, and he was a very taxing interviewer.
But sometimes, when he'd found an unexpected lead, Jim Carter would bounce into the squad room, boyishly eager to share the find with his friends and colleagues.
This was one of those times.
"Hey, guys! Is it way too early or way too late for Christmas! 'Cuz some kind soul has sent us one hell of a present!"
He was brandishing a video tape in his hand.
"More porn, Jim?" Viv Martin, looked up from the report she was writing, her ebony eyes dancing under raised eyebrows.
"No Vivienne," Jim said, responding to the patronizing tone of the calm, confident black woman with one of his own. "Plenty of violence but no sex. Y'know that store manager that was shot this morning and the surveillance tape stolen?"
He waved the tape in his hand at them.
"That's not it, is it?" Mike asked incredulously.
"Yeah, it virtually came gift wrapped. Shows the whole thing, the guy guns him done in cold blood and there was a note with it."
He handed the paper to his partner. And Mike adjusted his glasses slightly before he read it out, as if he didn't quite believe what he was reading.
"Lucas Barnaby James. Heading for Hermione Lodge, Grand Lake, Colorado. Black Cadillac Coup de Ville, Colorado licence plates, FLJ694."
"What the hell!" Ted Burns, Viv's partner, lifted himself out of his chair to read the note himself, with all the speed that his large frame would allow.
"What did I tell you?" Jim grinned, "We musta been good! Santa's come real early this year."
Ted looked over at him. "Have you shown the boss yet?"
"Just about to."
"Yeah, well, get cracking kid! The murder was committed in our jurisdiction but Santa seems to be saying that he's headed out of the Four Corners area."
"Ted, what's got into you?" Viv looked at her partner in astonishment. There was obviously more to this than bringing down one scumbag murderer.
"This Lucas is the nephew of Stewart James. If the Feds get a whiff of his uncle's involvement they'll muscle in and try to take it away from us. Don't know about you, but I wanna make sure the son of a bitch goes down. He probably thinks the law can't touch him, even on murder, just like his uncle. I don't want the Feds to prove him right by offering him some cushy deal of amnesty to turn snitch."
Viv inwardly sighed. She should have made the connection. Stewart James was a spectre that had haunted Ted since the file on the Rosie Freeman Murder Case closed over five years ago.
Mike grinned. "We've got a crime, a suspect, a description and a destination. The boss'll rubber stamp it. Then I say we saddle up and ride out."
It took everything Jim Carter had not to respond with a "yee-hah".
Josiah Sanchez again looked over at the young man sitting in his passenger seat. Quiet, subdued and his face completely devoid of expression. It was unnatural and it was unnerving.
JD made a face and cast his gaze in Josiah's direction.
"Just wanted to see if you were still here in the car with me or traversing some astral plane."
"Your mind seemed elsewhere."
Josiah sighed. It was a start but it would be nice to get the kid's conversation beyond one syllable at time. Well, he knew what was on JD's mind. Might as well discuss it openly.
"It wasn't your fault, son."
"Oh, yeah? Then whose was it?"
"Well, let's start with whoever pulled the trigger."
"And I gave them that trigger to pull."
"JD, you didn't walk over to them and place a gun in their hand."
"They wanted a gun. They went looking for someone stupid enough to leave one where they could get their hands on it. And they found one. Me."
"It wasn't that way, son, and you know it."
"Josiah, don't try and tell me the way it was. I was there and you weren't." The words were resigned, rather than angry.
Josiah sighed again. He would have much preferred anger.
"It wasn't like you told them you kept a gun in your car, JD"
"Yeah, like that makes a difference."
They had reached the ATF offices and Josiah turned into the parking garage, still unable to think of something to say that would penetrate JD's emotional lassitude. As he pulled into his usual parking spot, he saw Chris Larabee waiting by the door that led upstairs. The man's face looked even more unyielding than usual, his 'going to war' face.
Yep, the whole team was ready to go into battle on JD's behalf. Problem was that the kid himself didn't seem to have any intention of fighting to defend himself.
Chris managed to catch Josiah's gaze as he and JD got out of the car. In that glance, the team leader inquired about JD's state of mind and got a barely perceptible shrug in return.
Right! They'd tried the soft reasonable approach. The kid needed to be brought to his senses before he self-destructed in front of the OPR committee.
Chris fixed the youngest member of his team with one of his most penetrating glares. JD's reaction was not as noticeable as it usually would have been, but at least it was still visibly there.
"JD! Coffee, now!"
It was obviously an order, not an invitation, but JD still made half an effort to decline.
"Don't really "
"Coffee. Now." Chris reiterated the words in menacingly clipped tones and gestured for JD to precede him into the building. The kid looked a little startled. He must have gotten used to them all walking on eggshells around him. Well, that wasn't Chris Larabee's way. And JD had better pull himself together or he wouldn't survive the next five minutes, let alone get to the review board.
"Josiah, go find Travis and tell him that me and JD will meet with him and the review board at 10.00am sharp. Tell them that we stopped along the way to get breakfast or something."
Josiah nodded and, as soon as the elevator doors opened, Chris propelled JD inside. And when the doors had closed behind them, he curtly demanded, "So what are you gonna tell them?"
JD's response was oddly defiant in its apathy. He knew that they all wanted him to say that it wasn't all his fault really. But he was damned if he would lie about any of it. A little kid was dead because of him and he wasn't going to try and get out of that responsibility.
"I'm just gonna answer their questions."
"Right, and one of the first will be 'Agent Dunne, please tell us exactly what happened that day.'"
"Well, I let someone lure me out of my car, steal it and my gun, and use them to kill some one."
"Lure you out of your car? So it was some hooker offering you a special rate because you're so young and pretty?"
"No!" JD stared at him. Chris had to know the details. JD hadn't really been that specific in his original report but Buck had weaseled the information out of him. And he must have then told Chris everything.
"Okay, so tell me what happened? Some one come up and tell you their friend had been knocked down by a car and needed help?"
JD blinked. So, Chris did know. This was his way of getting round JD's guilt. He must think JD was stupid enough to fall for simple reverse psychology. Well, if that was how little they thought of him, they could all go to Hell!
"Yes," he admitted, as he glared back at Chris.
Chris was encouraged by the anger he saw, beginning to take hold in JD "And were you stupid enough to leave the car unlocked or the gun in obvious view?"
"No! But that doesn't change the fact that the gun that was my responsibility was used to kill that little boy."
Chris raised an eyebrow. "That's true. It was your gun that was used but the question is 'Were you negligent?'"
"I'm s'posed to be an ATF agent. The 'F' stands for firearms. What kind of ATF agent can't even look after his own firearm?"
"JD, you were set up. A couple of very slick street hustlers played on your kindness to rob you. Then they used your stuff to commit a crime. You might wanna punish yourself for being human, but I can't afford to let you do that."
Chris felt the hypocrisy of the words even before he uttered them. He daily berated himself for his human failings because those imperfections had cost the lives of his nearest and dearest. So who was he to chastise JD over indulging in a useless guilt trip?
But JD had the sense not to call Chris on his hypocrisy, even though he hadn't quite given up the fight.
"You can't afford it? Since when was this all about you? If I wanna quit, that's my business!"
Oh, a touch of self-pity showing. Chris was more than willing to twist the knife, if he got through to JD in the end.
"Ready to run as soon as the going gets tough? For three years, you've yapped at the heels of me and the other guys like some little puppy. Demanding that we treat you like a man and don't baby you. Now when you have to face some of the harsh realities of this world, you wanna run and hide. We all thought you had more guts than that, JD."
"Easy for you to say!" JD turned to face his boss full on (even if the disparity in height still had him at a disadvantage), his hands clenching into fists by his sides.
"Easy, is it? You think you're the only one who's ever made a mistake? The only one who's had to live with the consequences of not being able to know everything that was gonna happen? You oughta be thanking your lucky stars, JD, not wailing about the injustice of it all!"
"I'm not wailing " JD's voice trailed off. Did Chris really see what he was doing as running away in self-pity? That wasn't what it was about! "I just wanna take full responsibility for what I did."
Chris stared at him intensely. There was no anger left in his gaze but it still bored into JD's brain.
"Then take full responsibility for what you both did and did not do. You did leave your car but for what seemed like a good reason. You didn't leave the car unlocked or the gun where it could easily be seen. If you make this all seem worse than it actually is, the review board will believe you. And then, I'm gonna lose a member of my team for nothing and that will be your fault."
JD's jaw dropped open just as the elevator reached its destination and the doors opened behind him. He was just trying to do the right thing, same as always, but it seemed that all he was achieving was one screw-up after another.
Chris laid a firm reassuring hand on his shoulder, turning him around to guide him out the door.
"Come on, JD. Time for coffee. You're gonna tell the truth and nothing but the truth. But let's go through it, one step at a time."