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The couple had seemed a bit put off by the visit, but had been fairly cooperative. Still, something about the way Vin had looked at him that night haunted him. Almost as though the boy had seen through the disguise. After only about fifteen minutes the boys had been sent off to get ready for bed. Though it had seemed a bit early to Ezra he had said nothing. JD had looked as though he might put up a fight until his cousin had quickly grabbed his hand and led him to the back bedrooms.
The atmosphere had been tense, but not abnormally so considering the Millers felt they were being judged. Both had been willing to discuss the situation with Vin and the older boys at school that he had been in a fight with and Mr. Johnson had been assured that the situation had been dealt with. Maybe it was his natural distrust of people or gut instinct, but something kept gnawing at the back of Ezras mind the entire visit and at the spur of the moment he asked to use their bathroom. He had been careful to watch exactly where the boys had disappeared to in the back of the house. It had looked like an accident that he barged into the wrong room, but it wasnt. All of the unease, all of the questions and uncertainty that Ezra had felt came crashing down when he had opened the bedroom door. What he had inadvertently seen left this man who had witnessed many of lifes tragedies with terrible indigestion. Vin had been changing into his pajamas and turned when the door was opened. The tiny body looked so frail, but what had caused the normally stoic mans heart to ache was the bruises that littered the front and back of the small boys upper body. Some looked old with the colors fading to a pale yellow, while others held the darkness of being more recent.
Vin had been quick to cover himself with the pajama top, but the look of fear in his big blue eyes was unmistakable. Please, Mister, dont say anything. I was I mean It was all my fault. But I didnt mean to get in trouble. Please. Theyll split us up if they find out.
Ezra had felt his entire resolve melt at those heart wrenching pleas. All the fear, pain, and sadness that was housed within the seven-year-old body was pouring out of those two piercing blue eyes. How could he resist such a request? But, how could he not do something to protect this child and his cousin? A hand on Ezras shoulder had caused him to jump. Turning around quickly he didnt maintain his poker face as well as usual. Mrs. Miller picked up on his shock and discomfort.
Mr. Johnson. Her own voice was shaky as she tried to explain what she was pretty certain the social worker had just seen. Weve talked to the school about the problem and they agreed it might be best just to keep Vin out for the rest of this year. Im a former school teacher and licensed to teach the boys here at home. Glancing in at Vin with pained eyes she spoke softly. Maybe we can finish this in the living room. Closing the door to the boys bedroom she indicated for Ezra to follow her back to the living room.
Mr. Miller was just coming back in from the kitchen and noticed the odd look on his wifes face. Whats wrong?
He saw Vins bruises, Bill. Ruth Miller looked like a woman who was about to fall apart any minute. Collapsing onto the overstuffed living room chair the tears began to fall. Her words were barely discernable amongst the quiet sobs. Those boys been through so much hate to see them separated.
Ezra couldnt say he wasnt moved by the womans obvious display of distress, but the welfare of the boys took precedence. He was gaining a new and greater understanding of social workers at the moment. Being an ATF agent and being shot at for a living was beginning to look a lot less dangerous. Having been shot before he knew how painful it could be, but it paled in comparison to the pain he currently felt within his chest.
I assure you that we all just want what is best for Vin and JD. Those bruises
Those bruises were the result of some ignorant and undisciplined children, Bill Miller was quick to interrupt and explain, but quickly backpedaled on his sudden outburst. Im sorry. Its just that weve already been through this with the other caseworker. Vin has a bit of a history of aggressive behavior, as Im sure youre aware, but we dont believe he is a danger to himself or his cousin, JD. Hed do anything for that boy. Its just that, well, he just seems to find trouble very easily. Its not always his fault and we really want a chance to help him work through his difficulties. Bill Miller hung his head and moved to stare out the front picture window of the couples home. Well do whatever it takes to keep the boys together.
I understand about Vins past, but I thought this had already been taken care of. Those bruises looked fairly new, and there were so many of them. It was taking all of Ezras ability to keep his own emotions under control. The vision of Vins bruised torso was a stark reminder of the whole reason he was here. And he couldnt help but wonder about JD. Was he also hiding injuries? And, JD
No!! The word practically exploded from Ruth Millers lips. The vehement certainty behind it caught Ezra off guard. JD is fine. Never Just as quickly as she had started, she stopped. A look of uncertainty crossed her face. It seemed as if she suddenly realized what she was saying.
What my wife means is Vin would never let anything happen to JD. Thats part of the problem. Hell go to any length to protect his little cousin. Its the reason they ran away that time. But weve worked through all of that. As for the new bruises, something happened at the playground the other day, but Ive spoken with the parents of the children involved. The situation has been taken care of. Plus, weve decided to home school both boys for the rest of the year. Bill Miller seemed to have every angle taken care of. Ruth is a certified teacher and we think it will be for the best, under the circumstances.
Yes, she mentioned that. Ezra could see that this was emotionally trying for the couple, but something still didnt feel right. It was almost as if he was only seeing half of the picture or getting half of the story.
Ruth, Honey. The big policemans voice was soft as he waited for his wife to look up at him. Why dont you go and make some coffee? The distraught woman nodded, then stood up and headed into the kitchen. Bill watched her go with uncertainty. It was now or never. Turning back to their visitor he lowered his voice.
I know youre worried about the boys, but what they really need is some stability. Especially Vin. Hes been passed around for over two years now. Its no wonder the boy is behind in school and a bit angry with all hes had to go through. I think the last straw would be if he were separated from his little cousin. And, Ruth, shes become awfully attached to to those two boys. Its been hard on her since He paused, as if reinforcing himself for the next admission. Ever since our boy died its just been hard on the both of us. Those boys have given her a new life. A new purpose. Theyre good for each other. His voice was full of certainty as he added. Were good for each other.
Ezra couldnt argue with Bill Millers logic. What he had said made sense and seemed to be exactly what the boys, as well as the couple, needed. Of course things wouldnt be perfect, what ever was? But this couple seemed willing to try and give two orphaned boys a home and a sense of belonging. They were willing to try where so many had failed.
So, why didnt he feel better? Why was the hair on the back of his neck still standing on end? Maybe when one had found so little to trust in, so few people to believe in or be believed by, you were just naturally prone to look at things as being too good to be true.
Ill make sure and consider everything before writing my report. Youre right. We all want those boys to have a good home and some stability. Ezra was completely into his character and knew it was time for him to go. Maybe he could visit again, soon. He would really like to talk to the boys alone, but for now hed have to settle for what he had. Its getting late. I really should be going. Getting up to leave, Mr. Miller stuck out his hand. Ezra took the offered hand and shook it with gusto. Its a very nice thing you and your wife are doing for these boys. Theyve both seen so much tragedy. Its nice to see that there really are still kind people willing to go out of their way to see to the needs of others.
It was minute and had he not been looking, he might have missed it, but it was there. A wince. Bill Miller had winced at the agents words. That wince and the bruises on Vins body had haunted him, were still haunting him. So much so that he had gone to the school to talk to the principal. And what he found had disturbed him even more.
Now he sat before his leader with uncertainty. He had nothing solid to go on, it was all supposition. But he couldnt help worrying that something wasnt right in that supposed house of goodness. Everything seemed almost too perfect. The poor couple who had lost their own son now opening their home to two troubled orphans. Why did that image make Ezra cringe instead of rejoice?
Chris voice brought Ezra from his own ponderings. Looking up the southerner realized that everyone was staring at him. How long had he been lost in his own thoughts?
Whats on your mind, brother? Josiah could see the troubled look on his fellow agents face. So far, Ezra had gotten more information about the situation than anyone. Obviously something he had found out wasnt sitting well with the undercover agent.
Putting into place his mask of indifference Ezra began to tell them of his discoveries.
and everything seemed otherwise normal. By the time he finished the mask was cracking a little. He had purposefully not looked at the other men as he told of what he had seen and heard. It was hard enough to keep his own emotions under control when speaking of such things, but to see the look in the others eyes when he spoke of the bruising would have been too much. The silent curses and grunts of disgust said enough.
But Buck had listened to the tale with renewed unease. Despite Ezras lack of emotion, the others had been around him long enough to read between the lines. The voice that interrupted his own told him that he wasnt the only one who felt like something just wasnt right or that their undercover man was holding back.
Sounds like the perfect situation. The perfect home. So, what arent you saying? Chris voice held a clear note of challenge, though the question itself was a good sign. He was listening.
Mr. Larabee, I have spent the better portion of my life reading other people and any given situation. It is a natural ability that has served me well and put me where I am today. It has kept me alive.
Its saved us all once or twice. Josiah couldnt help but add.
Ezra? Chris patience was at an end.
Things are not always as they seem. I started checking around. At first I wasnt even sure what I was looking for. I talked to the school and got the dates of the fight that Vin was involved in. There was only one that the school was aware of, but according to social services the Millers have reported three separate incidents. And some of it doesnt match up with what I was told by the Millers themselves. I called all of the hospital emergency rooms and 24-hour emergency care facilities. I gave them a description of the two boys and Mr. and Mrs. Miller.
Chris felt his gut tighten. He didnt want to hear this. Why had he even asked? Director Travis had been clear that this personal investigation was to be halted immediately and here he was practically encouraging it. Two blue eyes seemed to pop into his head and he knew then exactly why he had asked.
The other four men sat staring at the undercover agent, waiting anxiously for him to relay his findings. Each one was torn between wanting to know and the fear in their guts of what the truth might hold.
So far Ive heard from only one possible. A nurse remembered a man resembling Mr. Millers description with a small boy. It was almost six months ago at one of the small clinics just outside of Denver, but she specifically remembered the quiet little boy with the big blue eyes and a drawl to his voice. The man gave a different name and paid for the bill with cash. It seems young Mr. Tanner had an accident while riding his bicycle, suffering a sprained wrist and numerous bruises.
Buck felt sudden rage boil up within. This was one thing he knew for certain. That lying piece of shit. Jumping up out of his chair, it was all the ladies man could do to keep from putting his fist through the closest wall. Everyones questions at the big mans outburst were quickly answered. Chris, there aint no way that boy got hurt riding his bike. Hell, the boy doesnt even own a bike and wouldnt know how to ride one if he did. And I oughta know cause I asked them about going riding in the park. Vin told me point blank that hed never had a bicycle and hadnt even ridden one before.
Chris didnt like the way this was heading. He didnt like it at all. Running a hand through his short blond hair he turned to stare out the window. Once again his emotions were beginning to toss about within. Hed given Orin his word that this would be taken care of. Of course, Orin hadnt known about Ezras involvement at the time.
Do any of the others remember anything? Nathan could feel his own unease grow. He should have paid more attention, maybe checked further into the boys medical history.
I havent finished speaking with some of them. I just started my search a few days ago and its almost like searching for a proverbial needle in a haystack. Ezra wasnt even sure if there was anything else out there to find, but he had to try.
Sounds like you could use a little help there, brother. Josiahs words were not for Ezra alone as he stared at his leaders back. Maybe we could split up the job and cover more ground.
Sure would help if we had a picture of the boys. Nathan was quick to observe.
Ezra silently slipped two pieces of paper out of the file he had instinctively brought with him to the meeting. It had been a silent gesture noticed by everyone except the teams leader, who still stared out the window.
Chris was losing control of this meeting. He had specifically said that the team was to cease all investigation of this matter. Hadnt he? Technically he hadnt, at least not this time. What if Ezra was right?
No, he had to stop this whole thing right here and now.
No more The direct order he was about to issue died on his lips as he turned around and his eyes locked on the table before him. The sudden fire in his green eyes turned to something softer, almost a glazed shock as they met two big blue eyes staring up at him from the photograph Ezra had laid on the table. Chris felt his blood run cold. The picture was of Vin and JD, obviously hastily taken, probably by some social worker. The boys looked a little younger, but their expressions were unmistakable. While JD looked a bit uncertain, Vin looked terrified. Those pained blue orbs struck straight through to the heart. It was as if they called to him, pleaded with him to help.
The others watched silently, entranced by the sudden change that had overcome their leader. The next words from his mouth did nothing to reassure them that involving Larabee was such a good idea. Each knew his past and now feared the pain this entire situation must be stirring up might be too much for him.
Im losing my mind. Rubbing his hand down his face to try and clear away the feelings of unease that were growing in his gut he gave his final ultimatum. You have the weekend to find out what you can. Quietly! I dont need anyone else chewing Director Travis ear off about rogue ATF agents running around like self-proclaimed social workers. They chew on his ear, he chews on my ass, I Well, I think you gentlemen get the picture. You find anything, you bring it to me first. Is that understood? Darkened green eyes swept the men in the room, daring to be defied.
Travis had told him to keep his team away from the Millers and the two boys, but said nothing about checking out the local hospitals and clinics. Okay, so that was lame, but if they did actually come up with something, then he could worry about what he was going to tell his own boss.
There were murmurs of agreement all around the table and nodding heads. Each man was afraid to say much of anything, lest their sudden short reprieve be just as quickly snatched away. It was game time and four determined agents headed out to make sure that not a moment of this precious weekend would be wasted.
The fifth and final member was too busy questioning his own sanity to even notice. Maybe I should brush up my résumé just in case.
Vin Tanner was a boy who had seen far too much unpleasantness in the seven years he had been on this earth, most of which had occurred within the last three years. But it was the good memories that sustained him and kept that small glimmer of hope alive within.
Even though his memories of his mother were vague he did remember little things, like a certain smell that reminded him of flowers and the soft singing of tunes he didnt know the names of. Most of all, he remembered that she had loved him. A feeling of warmth and safety that he associated with the few memories of the woman who had bore him were all he had left after she had died and left him alone. With a few meager possessions, including a raggedy stuffed monkey and a few clothes, the tiny little boy had been thrust into a new and utterly terrifying environment. Most of the kids that had lived at the county home in Texas were just as lost and scared as Vin, but a few older kids had already grown callous and cruel with what life had thrown at them. And one lonely little boy with shoulder length hair had become an unwitting target of their rage at the world.
In less than a week within that facility all thoughts of safety had been stolen and Vins entire outlook had been changed from one of hope, happiness, and fun, to confusion, sadness, and fear. Nothing would ever be the same, and nothing ever had been. True, a few months had been okay when his mothers sister had come and taken him from the hospital to live in Denver with her and her young son JD. Vin hadnt even known he had a cousin or even been sure what that meant.
But even that short time of security and joy had been stripped from him and now the only thing that stood between his little cousin JD and the same harsh and painful lessons of life was one determined seven-year-old boy. Vin had made a promise to JDs mom to take care of the little five-year-old. It hadnt been easy. They had nearly been separated a couple of times, but the Millers had taken them in. Though JD had still been missing his own mother terribly he had taken to the couple easily. Vin had been more cautious. Too many hard lessons had been learned before, of trusting others only to be disappointed and hurt when that trust was broken.
At first it had seemed that life in the Miller household might not be so bad. But once again things had not been what they seemed, more promises had been broken.
After meeting up with those other men who said they worked for the government, but were sort of like policemen, Vin had almost thought that things would get better. The eyes of their leader had been sad and empty, just like Vin felt, but there had also been something more there. Those eyes had held a concern and gentleness he hadnt felt and seen the like of since his mother.
The little boy in him still dreamed of the green-eyed blond who would come to his and JDs rescue and take them away from all of the bad things. He imagined JD playing with the big man with the mustache, the one with the laughing eyes, that had come to see them and made his little cousin laugh and smile. But the grown-up in him that had seen too many hopes and dreams shattered knew how pointless such thoughts were. It was his job to protect his cousin and so far he had. JD was pretty happy here with the Millers, at least most of the time. Mrs. Miller even treated the younger one of the boys much like he was her own son, doting on him and making him special treats, calling him my precious little one.
It was Friday afternoon and his cousin was making cookies with their foster mother in the kitchen. Vin had slipped off to the tiny bedroom he shared with his cousin to be alone. He loved JD more than anything in the world, but sometimes the constant string of questions and comments that came from the little boy drove him nuts. Quiet meant safe and he liked having a little time to himself. Plus, he had noticed quickly that when the household was happy, things ran smoother if he made himself as scarce as possible.
Standing now in front of the mirror that hung on the back of the door of the bedroom Vin lifted his shirt and stared down at the bruises along his rib cage. They didnt hurt as bad anymore and had begun to turn a greenish yellow. Turning around and looking back over his shoulder he noticed the ones on his back were nearly gone. A small shudder ran through him as he stared at his reflection and the small scars that also reflected back at him. Those had come when he was in Texas and he had never spoken to anyone about them, not even JD. When asked about them he always said he had fallen into a sticker bush, which wasnt untrue, it just wasnt the true reason for all of the scars. Just as quickly as the memories of that time surfaced he closed them off, burying them once more deep inside, like so many other bad memories.
Pulling his shirt back down he was glad that at least the bruises werent quite as noticeable. Besides, he had had worse. He would just have to be more careful from now own and make sure JD was never around when he changed clothes. In fact he had started going into the bathroom and locking the door every time he changed. It always made the younger boy cry when he saw Vins bruises or heard him cry out and moan in his sleep. And that in turn would upset the Millers.
It just didnt seem to Vin like he could do anything right. Schoolwork was hard for him and his teachers had always told him to pay better attention and listen closer. And now with Mrs. Miller teaching them it was no different. He tried. Really he did, but he had gotten behind all of the other kids his age. They would tease and laugh at him and call him stupid. Then there were the bigger boys who picked on him because his hair was kind of long. Not that that was a problem anymore.
Vin had spent an entire day crying alone in the bedroom after Mr. Miller had taken him to have his hair cut, hoping that might help keep the bullies from picking on him. His mother had always loved his hair longer, saying it reminded her of his father who had died before he ever even knew him. Vin had resorted to begging for them not to cut it, but now staring in the mirror he felt the tears again well up at the sight of his extremely shortened hair. Wiping quickly at his nose and eyes with his sleeve he moved to his bed and sat down.
It hadnt even helped. The mean boys continued to tease and push him around and even threaten JD. No matter what he said to the grownups, they never seemed to believe him when he told them it wasnt his fault, so hed stopped trying. Most of the time he just took whatever punishment the older boys handed out, though there were a few times he gave as good as he got. Besides, according to what he had been told more times than he could count, he deserved every bad thing that happened to him.
The boys who had beaten him and tied him up in Texas had said he was a freak with the long hair, and that his mother had died because he was bad. The teachers at school had called him a troublemaker who was too lazy to do his homework. The social workers had said he was a troubled child, which he knew was just another way of saying he was bad. He tried to be good and not get in trouble. Still, no matter how hard he tried it never worked.
He was just so tired of it all. Tired of being passed around. Tired of always getting in trouble. Just plain tired.
He wished sometimes that he could just go be with his Mama. She would hold him and sing to him and make him feel all better. And together they could both pet all of the kitty cats in heaven. But he couldnt, not yet. He had promised to take care of JD. It was his responsibility to look out for the younger boy and make sure he was safe and happy.
No matter what, Vin would make sure that JD would always stay that way. Whatever it took. Lying down on his bed, he clutched his pillow under his head and quietly cried.
Buck was beginning to think they would never find anything else. It was Sunday afternoon and the entire team had spent the weekend visiting every hospital and clinic within the city and surrounding communities. He hadnt even realized there were that many places offering medical assistance. Still, he couldnt believe he wanted to find something. What kind of man was he to hope he found some incriminating evidence against this couple that had willingly taken the two orphan boys into their home?
At first he told himself that he had just been drawn to the two boys for purely selfish reasons. He missed spending time with his godson, whose death had touched him more deeply than most seemed to realize. Adam Larabee had added sunshine to his life that couldnt be matched. Whether it was taking the time to read him a bedtime story or getting in trouble with Sarah over something he had taught the little boy, he missed it all terribly.
But from the moment he had laid eyes on the tight bundle of pure energy that was JD Dunne, he had been hopelessly hooked. The dark headed boy had seemed to take to him right off, talking endlessly about whatever he could think of. It was as if the boy had rejuvenated a part of him he felt had been buried along with Chris family, his family. A part of himself that he hadnt even realized was missing until now.
Vin was different. Quiet and much more sedate, he held a fierce sense of loyalty and responsibility that seemed to temper his natural boyish tendencies. Looking into the boys blue eyes reminded him of his best friend for some reason. There seemed to have been a connection between Chris and the child from the start. Buck couldnt help but wonder if they hadnt seen within each other a kindred spirit of sorts, two souls that had faced the ugliness of life and survived. It seemed odd to think of a seven-year-old that way, but they had learned much about the boy in recent months. His life had been one of trial and hardship.
Now as Buck drove away from yet another dead end, he began to wonder if there wasnt some ulterior motive behind this fascination with these two boys. What did he hope to gain? He could tell himself that he was just trying to look after their welfare, but deep within the recesses of his mind another idea was quietly entertained. Those boys needed to feel safe and loved. And two grown men needed a real reason for living. Something a bit more substantial than the daily grind and brief times of frivolity.
Bucks cell phone rang shrilly, startling him from his thoughts. Wilmington.
It was Josiah. Nathan had found something at one of the clinics he had visited and wanted them all out at Chris ranch to discuss their next move.
JD was scared, more scared than he had been in a long time. Vin had always said that he would take care of him and look after him, but Vin wasnt here. What if Vin went away just like his mother had? The little boy rubbed at his head. It was hurting something fierce, making it hard to think clear. What should I do?
JD had hid just like Vin had told him to and waited until he couldnt wait anymore. Creeping silently from the bedroom he had found Ruth Miller in the living room, crying. She had told him that Vin had run away, but that didnt make sense. Vin wouldnt leave him. Unless Maybe Vin was mad because he disobeyed him and went into the kitchen and broke the bowl and
Mrs. Miller had held him while he cried his heart out. Then she had said she was tired and was going to lie down and he should, too. He had asked again about Vin, but she had just started crying again. After that he had gone back to hide in his room and fallen asleep tucked up underneath the bed, clutching his stuffed dog and sucking his thumb.
When he had awakened it had scared him even more. He wasnt sure how long he had been asleep. Maybe Vin had come back by now. Vin would never leave without him. Moving out of the room he roamed around the house. It was too quiet. Where was everyone? He needed to do something. He needed to tell someone. Not sure how long it had been he stared at the clock, wishing he could tell time. Slipping quietly into Mrs. Millers room he went over to the bed. She was sleeping and Vin always made JD stay quiet when she was sleeping.
But Vin wasnt here. He was all alone and scared. Reaching out carefully he wrapped a little hand around her arm and shook it. Mrs. Miller? Ruth? She had asked JD to call her Ruth and he did sometimes, but Vin always called her Mrs. Miller, no matter what. Please wake up?
Tears welled up in the hazel eyes and began to roll down his chubby cheeks. Vin had run away and left him and now she wouldnt wake up. Everybody left him. Wiping his arm under his nose he looked over at the phone by the bed.
Gotta tell somebody, he said quietly as he ran to the bedroom he and Vin shared.
Remembering the nice man who had taken care of him when Vin was hurt, he knew what he had to do. The big nice man named Buck had visited with them a couple of times and told him to call if he ever needed anything. JD had taken the agent up on the offer a few times but had received a sound scolding from the Millers. Right now he had to risk it. Buck and his friends had found the two boys when they had been lost on the street. Maybe they could help find Vin again and then he wouldnt be alone. Retrieving the grey business card from its hiding place in the toy box JD ran to the phone in the living room and began to dial the number from the card, just like he had been taught in school. He could feel the tears spill from his eyes as he listened to it ring and waited for the voice of the man he trusted to make everything okay again.
+ + + + + + +
So what did you find, brother? Josiah asked the question they all wanted an answer to. Four anxious faces stared at the team medic.
Theres this small clinic down on Brighton on the outskirts of the north side that is known for being a bit seedy, though nothing has ever been proven. It took a few threats and more cash than Id like to admit to, but after talking to one of the nurses I got one of the doctors to admit to Bill Miller being in there just a couple of weeks ago with Vin. The disgust on Nathans face was clearly evident. The nurse said the boy had been beaten up. Some bruised ribs and marks on his arm that were too big to have been made by another child. But this doctor told her not to say anything to anyone. Shes pretty young and afraid. Its a wonder she talked to me at all, but it seems that blue-eyed boy pulls in the ladies better than Buck and without even trying.
Let me guess. Mr. Miller used an assumed moniker? Ezras own disgust was clearly evident in his voice.
Actually, the doctor has known Miller for awhile. Seems theyve had an ongoing arrangement. Miller would warn them of any impending investigations into the clinic if they lost all record of his visits. It had taken all of Nathans resolve not to deck the so-called doctor when he had talked to him. How many more people would make their way in this world by causing pain to one little boy?
That bastard! We gotta get those boys out of that house. Buck was up and ready to storm the Millers.
Calm down, Buck. We cant just go in there and take those boys. Josiah knew he needed to reason with the bighearted ladies man, even when he felt the exact same way. There are proper channels that have to be gone through.
And those proper channels are what put those boys where they are today. Its time somebody really gave a damn about what happens to JD and Vin. Buck was thinking with his heart and not his head.
Everyones eyes turned to their leader, who had been quiet up to that point. The calmness on his face did not match the simmering fire that seemed to burn within his emerald eyes.
I hate to say it, but unless we practically catch them in the act, theres not much we can do. We could tell social services of our suspicions, but were not exactly on their A list right now. Plus, theres too big of a chance theyll split the boys up and He stopped before finishing. How could he even begin to explain how he knew this? I dont think Vin could handle that.
But if hes being beaten Buck was barely containing the fiery rage he felt within. If Vin was being abused, then what about JD? The thought of anyone laying a hand in anger on that sweet innocent child was more than he could deal with. Someone had to protect those boys.
Theres more. Nathans voice broke through the argument like a scythe. The doctor at the clinic said he could smell alcohol on Millers breath that night and his eyes were bloodshot.
It all fits. We got a drunk and an abused child. Surely thats enough. Buck couldnt believe they were still sitting there discussing this.
You and I both know better. Weve seen cases like this before. Chris couldnt believe what was coming out of his own mouth. He felt his friends rage. Damn it. If it was up to him he would have stormed the house already and taken both boys out of there. But that wasnt the answer. It was a temporary fix that would only lead to more problems. This had to be handled carefully. They needed a plan of action.
Bucks cell phone rang, causing the overly tense agent to flinch and interrupting everyones musings. Stepping toward the far side of the room he answered. Wilmington.
The tiny voice that answered him sent cold chills down his spine.
JD? The boys voice held a strangeness, almost as if he was on the verge of tears. At the mere mention of the boys name the others immediately took notice, watching closely for any indication of what was going on. Hey, Little Buddy. Whats wrong? It was a momentous effort to keep his own fears from bleeding through in his voice.
Mr. Buck? Sniff Vin Sniff. Trouble Sniff. cant wake her... Big sniff. Is all alone... Sniff. Is scared. Sob. Is sorry.
The bighearted man felt like someone was sticking an ice pick through his heart with each tearful word. JD, wheres Vin? Who wont wake up? Mrs. Miller? What happened?
A sound like that of a doorbell and someone yelling could just barely be heard and Buck wondered if it was just the TV on in the background or something else.
JD?! JD?! Buck felt his entire body stiffen with fear. Shit!
Whats going on? Chriss voice was low and lethal.
I dont know. It was JD and he was crying. Said something about Vin and being all alone. Something might have happened to Mrs. Miller, said something about not being able to wake her. Then the line went dead. That was all he got out as Chris practically raced out the door. The others followed hotly on his heels.
Chris had tensed when he heard Buck say JDs name into the phone. Something was wrong. He could feel it. Like a pond disturbed by a pebble, the worry rippled out through every man present. All rational thought flew out the window with two words. Vin, and trouble. Come hell or high water he was determined to get to those two boys and make sure they were all right. The fear that he might have waited too late to act was burning a hole through his gut like acid as he and his men raced into the city.
Slamming the blue light onto the dashboard, Buck barely made it into the truck before Chris sped off down the driveway. Josiah and Ezra rode with Nathan as they tried to keep up with their leader, who was without a doubt going straight to the Millers. They couldnt be sure that the call from the frightened little boy had originated from the foster residence, but it was a place to start.
Buck and Ezra were unknowingly at cross purposes as each of them was continuously calling the Millers house, getting only a busy signal.
All manner of thoughts were trying to run rampant in Chriss head and he kept pushing them back. But the only vision he couldnt completely banish was the one from his nightmares of two big blue eyes full of fear. Those same eyes were begging for help.
Please dont let me be too late again.
God help the Millers if those boys were not all right.
The race through the city took longer than expected as they roared down the streets dodging traffic and breaking nearly every traffic law in the book. Finally turning the final corner to the Millers house, each man felt his heart skip a beat and their blood run cold. Flashing blue lights cast an eerie glow around the neighborhood as the growing darkness of night descended upon the city. Two police cars sat in front of the quaint little suburban home.
The sound of screeching tires as the two vehicles came to a stop brought on the attention of the two officers that were standing outside the home. Hands on their weapons, they made to approach the new arrivals with apprehension. With a gruff flash of their badges and grunt of names the five ATF agents pushed past the confused policemen and descended upon the house.
Bill Miller looked up with surprise and a note of fear as five men practically stormed into his home.
Where are they?! Chris Larabee was in no mood to be diplomatic.
I dont know what youre doing here, but right now is not the best time... Miller was immediately on the defensive.
I think it would prove prudent for you to answer Mr. Larabees question. Ezras words were more cordial, but still held an icy overtone that chilled Millers blood. The threat he now faced was clear as he felt what little control he had spiral away.
The tension in the room was thick enough to choke on, forcing one of the other police officers in the room to try and take control of the situation, obviously unaware of who he was dealing with. Noting that the blond seemed to be the leader he addressed Chris. Im sorry, Mr. .
Larabee! Chris Larabee! ATF! And these are my men. The blonds very presence demanded attention, but his voice held an air of authority that was not to be tested. What the hells going on here?
I dont know what business you have here, but the officer continued before being interrupted by suddenly having a large dark headed man with a mustache right in his face.
Where are JD Dunne and Vin Tanner? Buck was normally easygoing, with a naturally jovial personality. Being very passionate served him well with the ladies and made him a friend to many. But that same passion, if harnessed into another direction, could be downright deadly. Any threat to those he cared for would easily unleash the beast within the bighearted agent.
Bill Miller could see that this was getting them absolutely nowhere. He wasnt ready to go up against one of the premier ATF teams in the country and he surely didnt need to alert their suspicions any further. He had enough problems on his hands as it was. This was all getting way out of control and he had to make sure it didnt get worse. Much, much worse.
Look, gentlemen. Im sorry. Its not been a very good day. A sudden idea struck the veteran police officer at the simplicity of it. It was time to change tactics. Actually, I really could use your help. Weve had a situation develop.
It was all Chris could do to keep from reaching out with his bare hands and choking every bit of information out of Miller. With what they had uncovered and now the phone call from a frightened JD, the pieces were falling into place at lightning speed. And the picture that was developing was gut wrenching.
My wife has fallen ill. And Vins missing. Not sure what type of reaction he might get with the revelation, Miller prepared himself for anything. The reaction he got was not quite what he had expected.
Chris felt his insides explode in a white hot rage. Lost blue eyes seared into his mind with blinding intensity. Turning around he stormed back out the door, knowing that if he stayed within reach of this sorry excuse for a human being he might end up in jail.
Buck saw the warning signs. The vein throbbing on Chriss forehead. The darkening of his green eyes to almost black. The clenched and shaking fists at his friends side. Even as incredibly angry as he was himself, he knew it was nothing compared to the blinding rage that now had Larabee in its grip. Some years before that rage might have resulted in some heavy drinking and some broken furniture. It had been a long time since he had seen Chris at this point and knew immediately when Chris walked away that it was the safest thing for all involved. Turning to share a glance with Josiah he made sure the big profiler followed their boss out at a safe distance. Just in case.
Turning back to Miller with his own emotions raging he spat, Tell us what happened.
+ + + + + + +
The story Bill Miller recounted was not a happy one and left more questions than answers. According to Miller, he had been at work when dispatch had alerted him to trouble at home. A neighbor had come by and found JD alone and Ruth Miller unconscious. By the time he had arrived home the place was crawling with police units and a couple of frustrated paramedics. An Amber Alert had been issued for Vin and Ruth Miller had roused, only to sit on the couch nearly hysterical and refusing treatment as she rocked an equally upset JD. Any attempts to get information from the distraught woman had not provided any light on the situation and JD only kept saying that Vin had left him.
After sending JD to his room, despite the strange looks he got, Bill Miller had taken his wife to their bedroom to have some privacy after assuring the paramedics that he had a personal physician coming to take care of his wife and also check the bump on the back of JDs head.
From the bits and pieces of information he could garner from the troubled woman, Vin had become upset and pushed JD down, causing the younger boy to hit his head. So distressed by his own actions Vin had then run out the back door and had not been seen since. Miller had been in the process of getting the officers to help him look for Vin when Larabee and his agents had arrived.
Despite Ezra and Bucks pleas to speak with Ruth and JD, they were refused. Bill had said that the physician had already come and gone after checking them out. The bump on JDs head was minor, but both had been terribly upset and the doctor had prescribed something to help them sleep. He would not allow them to be disturbed.
Finally fed up with the fact that they werent getting anywhere for the moment Ezra decided it was time to go into action. Lets go help look for the wayward waif. Surely finding him should be our highest priority.
I just want to make sure JDs okay first. Buck pleaded. No matter what anyone else said, especially the boys foster father, he wouldnt feel better until he knew for sure JD was alright and they found his cousin safe and sound. Something still felt very wrong, but Ezra was right. They had to find Vin and then get to the bottom of what was going on.
Maybe if I just look in . Bucks final attempt at some sort of compromise was quickly squashed by Miller.
I think Ive made myself clear about your seeing the boys anymore. Its just too confusing for them. Miller was beginning to lose his composure. The worry and fatigue on his face were evident, but the three agents couldnt help but wonder silently if the cause were fear for Vin or concerns of a more selfish nature.
Seems to me that right now you .
Ezra quickly put a hand on Bucks shoulder to head off the building emotional explosion that was pending. I think we would be most useful in rendering our services in the quest for the missing lad. Maybe we should adjourn to the outdoors to further discuss our strategy. The undercover agent was careful to enunciate his words so his fellow agent would understand that he had other things in mind and it was best if they talked further elsewhere, but added simply for clarification. Lets go.
+ + + + + + +
After having to practically pull Buck from the home, the three men joined their two comrades out on the front lawn. Josiah had been questioning the officers outside, having recognized one of them as the son of an old friend. Through their accounts he and Chris had also been filled in on the same story Miller had provided. The information only fueled the blonds rage and worry.
Did you get anything from Mrs. Miller or JD? Knowing Chris was in no mood to waste time Josiah got to the point.
He wouldnt let us see them, Buck managed to get out through his clenched teeth. Started spoutin that nonsense again about not seeing the boys anymore and confusing them. I shoulda done something. Didnt feel right. Buck was scared and angry. Shooting a look of anger at Chris he added. So help me, if hes harmed one hair on either of those boys Ill
Chris saw the look and had been expecting it. Buck blamed him. The man had told him he didnt feel right about the whole situation. They all had. His undercover agent had turned up enough evidence to have those boys pulled from the home. But he had done nothing and worse yet had told them not to. Sure, they had done something this weekend. Actually investigated it some, but now it could prove to be too little too late.
The heavy pain in his chest was nearly unbearable. It felt as if an elephant was sitting on him, cutting off his air and crushing him from the inside out. After so many years now of keeping his emotions under wraps, distancing himself from the pains of the past, present, and future, it was almost a new sensation. To feel so completely helpless was rendering him senseless. He had come outside not only to keep from doing something unmentionable to the likes of one Bill Miller, but to try and rein in the feelings that seemed out of control. Thats how he felt, totally out of control.
Thoughts of JD and Vin, all of the tragedies they had suffered, and his own worst imaginings of what they may have yet suffered since he had met them were flooding his mind. No matter how hard he tried he couldnt get past that day in the supermarket. The look in Vins eyes just before he had been ushered away by his foster mother. In those few seconds when their eyes had met Chris had seen so much. Hope, uncertainty, fear. Yet the emotion that he had been unable to name that day, that had eluded him since, was now clear. It wasnt so much an emotion as it was a question. The reality of it slammed into the black clad leader like a freight train.
How did he miss it? How could he have missed it? For as long as he lived on this earth he would never forget that day and the fact he had turned his back on his instincts and everything he believed in. He had turned his back on a little boy with the most expressive blue eyes he had ever seen. Regret soared through him, reigniting a flame within him long extinguished. Vins blue eyes continuously cut through his mind with one message. One heart-wrenching plea.
Bucks last words hung in the air unfinished as he saw the look on Chris face. The rage had been contained for the moment, but obvious to all. Then something changed. Knowing the leader longer than anyone he saw it, but not fast enough. One second he was there and the next the formerly occupied patch of earth was empty. A black blur flew back into the Millers home.
It had all happened within the blink of an eye, as with a guttural growl of anger and fear, Chris Larabee lost control.
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