An Innocent Man

by Angie

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All of Team 7 plus the Travis’s got together at the jail for supper that evening. Libby had made a pot of chicken and dumplings and sent it to the jail upon seeing the suburban arrive back in town. She also made up a large batch of the baked apples especially for Vin. Perry had laughed at the older woman as she explained that she had developed a very soft spot for those men who were so dedicated to each other.

Conversations were stilted in spite of the wonderful food and the fact that they were all together. Since Judge Cross was still missing, they wondered if the trial would go forward or be postponed until he turned up. Orin said that Wayman was set to fight a postponement in the hope of getting Chris out until the situation was resolved. Deputy Davis bent the rules and allowed them to stay until nearly ten that night.

Mary Travis and Nathan were the only ones who got any real rest that night. The rest of the team and Judge Travis lay awake long into the night replaying the events of the past few weeks. All of them were seriously worried that they wouldn’t be taking Chris with them when they left the town of Spencer.

Chris sat on the edge of the bunk shaking and wringing with sweat. He couldn’t even close his eyes with out seeing the images again. He found himself slipping to his knees and folding his hands. He hadn’t really prayed since before Sarah died and he found himself at a loss for words. As the tears rolled down his cheeks he prayed the only thing he could remember.

‘Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. Angels watch over me through the night and wake me with the morning light. Amen.’

It was the prayer he had said with his son before he went to sleep. Thinking about Adam caused a fresh course of tears and deep, gut-wrenching sobs. He pulled the pillow into his arms and pressed his face into it as he cried out to Sarah to help him get thru this.

Perry stood just out of sight of the anguished ATF agent. He had been awakened by the cry that had brought Larabee out of his slumber. Now, as he stood watching, the sobs that came from the cell made him regret his job for the first time in his life. He didn’t want to be the one to take that man to the courthouse.

The diner was crowded that morning as Team 7 made their way inside. Libby had set aside a corner of the room for them and had coffee waiting for them as soon as they pulled up outside. Buck and Josiah carefully shielded Vin from any hostile glances. Nathan supported JD as he was still limping slightly on his sprained ankle. The judge and Ezra escorted Mary to the tables. They ordered their meals and retreated into silence as they looked at the people who brazenly stared at them.

Perry allowed Chris to shower and shave before court. Charles Wayman showed up at the jail to ride over with his client. The two of them sat in silence as Larabee poked at the meal that had been sent from the diner. At fifteen before nine, the deputy approached the cell.

“I have to handcuff you for the ride over to the courthouse, Chris. I’m sorry.”

“I know, kid, you’re just doing your job. Where is the Sheriff this morning?”

He tried to keep calm as he offered his hands behind his back. As soon as the cool metal touched his wrist his stomach tightened and he tried to pull away. The lawyer rested a hand on his shoulder and held him in place as the other hand was secured.

Charles Wayman had seen a lot of frightened people in his years as a defense attorney but he didn’t often see the combination of fear and dread that poured from the hazel eyes of his client. As soon as he had felt the handcuffs he had begun to tremble. Wayman put a hand firmly on Larabee’s arm as he led him out of the cell. The man seemed to have lost the will to navigate on his own and merely moved when guided.

Sheriff Wilhelm had been waiting at the courthouse for the ATF agents to arrive. He had brought a special locker from the jail to hold the guns he knew he would have to confiscate from them. It had almost become a problem when the mustached agent refused to surrender his weapon. It had taken a direct order from Judge Travis to get the gun out of its holster and still the man refused to hand it over.

“Agent Wilmington, surrender the weapon so we can go into the courtroom. You know you can’t take a loaded gun into a court proceeding. Give it up. Buck, I mean it. Consider it an order.”

Sapphire blue eyes burned with rage as Wilmington surrendered his weapon, not to the sheriff, but to the judge before walking away. The next man in the line was Vin and he too handed his weapon to the judge before glaring at the sheriff.

The rest of his men surrendered their guns to the sheriff without incident. Afterward, Travis looked at the sheriff and shook his head.

“Allow me to apologize for my men. They should have more respect for the local authorities. I will speak to them tonight. You won’t have any problem after this.”

“Don’t be too hard on them, Judge Travis, they are only protecting their own. Over the past few weeks, I’ve come to respect your team a lot.”

The courtroom was packed by the time Team 7 arrived. Buck moved immediately to the front row behind the defense table and glared at the people who were seated there. For a few tense moments, it looked as if the spectators might have protested but after seeing the determined look on the mustached face, they relented and moved.

Deputy Davis and Charles Wayman guided Chris into the courtroom between them. Larabee continued to move as if without will and bumped into the table when Perry released his arm to reach for the key to the handcuffs. Vin came to his feet and called out to him.

“Chris, are you all right?” The Texan could feel the emotion radiating from the team leader and the haunted, confused look in the hazel eyes was not reassuring.

Wayman guided Chris around the table and turned him so that the Deputy could remove the handcuffs. The lawyer tightened his grip as he felt the shudder that passed thru Larabee as his hand was released. He tried to intercede when Tanner reached over the wall that separated the two of them.

“Chris! What happened?” Vin gripped the blond man by the arm and stared into his eyes for a minute. The attorney tried to remove the hand only to have Larabee jerk his left hand against the confining handcuff as he tried to prevent Wayman from touching Tanner.

The tense moment was shattered by Judge Travis as he stepped into the fray. With a firm look at Vin, he eased the hand off of Chris’s arm. He guided Larabee into the chair and squeezed the tight shoulders as he moved to take the seat on the left side of the table. As soon as the judge moved out of the way, Tanner leaned forward and put his hand on Chris’s shoulder. A shaking right hand moved to touch the Texan’s hand before Nathan pulled the young agent back against the bench.

Judge Hornbeck entered the room and everyone came to their feet. As soon as he sat down, the room full of people dropped as if marionettes with their strings cut. The gavel banged a couple of times and the room went silent.

“I am obviously not Judge Cross. This case will be continued until such time as the Judge returns. The defendant is ordered held until such time as we are able to proceed.”

Wayman came to his feet immediately. “Objection, your Honor. My client has already been held for three weeks. We are ready to move forward with the case today. If you are going to postpone the trial then we respectfully wish for the defendant to be released on bail.”

The prosecutor didn’t even bother to stand as he launched his protest. “Your Honor, the man is accused of the brutal rape and strangulation murder of a young woman. Judge Cross was very clear on the subject of bail in this case.”

Wayman didn’t miss a beat. “Your Honor, we have proceeded in good faith. We waived the opportunity to put the bail matter before a higher court only because we had been assured that the case would go forward today. If we are not going to begin the trial today then I require that you consider bail or I shall be forced to take my protest to the state level.”

“I don’t know how they do things in Colorado, your Honor, but I wouldn’t think that Mr. Wayman’s protest carries much weight here in Tennessee. The people do not want an accused murderer walking around free to commit more murders.”

“That’s funny, your Honor, I thought Tennessee was part of the United States of America where a man is presumed innocent until proven guilty. Christopher Larabee is a decorated member of one of the most prestigious ATF teams in the country. My client has been denied his presumption of innocence.”

Judge Hornbeck glared at the defense table and the line of darkly dressed men behind it. He knew that the jury pool was already assembled and that he could let them proceed with the jury selection if he had to but he didn’t want to. His gaze rested on the man sitting to the left of the defendant. He knew that the Colorado judge had friends in high places.

“Is the prosecution ready to proceed with jury selection?” Upon getting a nod from the prosecutor, Hornbeck came to a decision. “Very well, we will proceed with the selection of the jury today. Will that satisfy you Mr. Wayman?”

“Yes, your Honor.” Wayman grimaced inside, the man had neatly called his bluff.

The judge had to order several rows of the benches cleared for the jury pool to be brought in. He would have preferred to clear the defense side and force the ATF agents to move but still didn’t want to antagonize Travis.

The jury selection took most of the rest of the day as the attorneys nitpicked at each other over challenges and disqualifications. At one point, Josiah leaned forward and grabbed Wayman by the shoulder.

“See the man in the third row over there with the blue blazer? I had a run in with him at the diner a couple of weeks ago. He already has his mind made up about it, he was loud mouthing about Chris getting what he deserved.”

The man was moved to the witness box and both attorneys went thru the routine questions. The prosecutor seemed to not have a problem with the man. He gestured for Wayman to ask his questions.

“Mr. Langden, do you have any opinion about this case one way or the other? No? What if I told you that some of those men in the front row will be called as witnesses, do you recognize any of those men? No? Are you certain? Mr. Sanchez, Mr. Tanner, will you please stand up? Take a good look, Mr. Langden. Are you sure you wouldn’t like to change some of your answers?”

The prosecutor raised his pen. “Your Honor, does Mr. Wayman have a point to make?”

“Your Honor, Mr. Sanchez and Mr. Tanner had a confrontation with the juror a couple of weeks ago. I was merely trying to obtain an honest answer from him.”

“Is that true Mr. Langden? Did you have a confrontation with one of those men?”

“We were just talking at the diner and that big fellow came over and told us to keep our voices down. It’s a free country! I couldn’t even voice my opinion!”

“Thank you, Mr. Langden, you may go.”

Finally, after a brief lunch break, the jury was paneled at two o’clock. Judge Hornbeck had met with the Sheriff and knew that they still had no idea where Judge Cross was. He had to make a decision.

“We’ll hear opening remarks at nine in the morning. If Judge Cross returns, he will sit the case, if not, I will hear it. We’re adjourned.”

Deputy Davis moved toward the table and urged Chris to his feet. He reached down and released the handcuff from the eyebolt in the table. As soon as his hand was freed from the table, Larabee turned and reached for Vin.

Perry stepped in between the two men. He evenly met the Larabee glare as he spoke softly while pushing them apart.

“We have to go back to the jail. You can see them there. Turn around and let me put the cuff on and we’ll get going.” He felt the coil of rage and fear building again as he firmly guided the right hand into the loose cuff.

The team assembled in the jail with the lawyer. Nathan asked and was allowed into the cell with Chris. He waived a hand in front of the unseeing hazel eyes. The blonds pulse and breathing were normal but his eyes were glazed, there was no recognition in their depths. He snapped his fingers sharply in front of the blank stare.

Chris had stumbled upon the safe place by accident as he knelt sobbing beside the bunk the night before. He found that if he focused hard enough on Adam that he could hold off the despair that was threatening to overwhelm him. In his mind he replayed every image he held of his son. By holding on to that little bit of joy he was able to stave off the fear. He didn’t realize that it left him somewhat vacant in his gaze.

The sharply snapped fingers broke him out of his reverie and he blinked in surprise at Nathan. His eyes quickly circled the room and then back to the man who knelt before him.

“What happened? The last thing I remember is Perry telling me that we were going to the courthouse. What time is it?”

“You don’t remember being in the courtroom? The jury selection? Anything?”

Chris shook his head. “It’s all blank. Just like when Wyn was killed.”

Nathan left the cell and approached the Judge and Wayman. “I’m worried about him. He doesn’t remember being in the courtroom today. I’m afraid the stress of this is too much.”

“Unfortunately, Hornbeck called our bluff. We have to move forward with this. Is there anything we can do to help him?”

“I don’t know. Maybe Vin could coax him out of his reverie. If we could leave them together for a few minutes before he had to be in the courtroom. They have a connection between them that is beyond understanding. If anyone could snap him out of it, it would be Vin.”

“I’ll speak to the Sheriff. He might be willing to let them ride over together. If it’s all right with you, Charles.”

The team ate supper together before they retired to the motel for the night. They were all restless and frustrated but no one more than Buck. The man paced in the room until his temper exploded and he began to rant at them.

“This is ridiculous! We can’t just let this farce go on! You have to do something, Judge Travis! Pull some strings, call someone higher up the food chain! You can’t let them put him on trial like this. If he did do it, something is wrong! He needs help not to be locked up like that! You said it yourself, Nathan, the stress is too much! It’s post traumatic shock or something!”

Josiah stood up and tried to calm Wilmington. The gentle hand that came to rest on his shoulder was shrugged off roughly. Two pairs of blue eyes locked and the battle of wills began. Finally, another hand touched both men.

“Mr. Wilmington, perhaps if you and I went for a drive? I find that I am feeling somewhat claustrophobic at the moment. A drive in the night air will be beneficial to both of us.”

The urging quality of the southerner’s voice severed the blue lasers coming from Buck’s eyes and he turned and followed Ezra out of the room.

“I would not have bet on that.” Vin’s voice rang quietly from the corner.

“The Lord works in mysterious ways, Brother Vin.”

The two men rode in silence for several minutes. Ezra said nothing as he navigated the gentle hills and curves of the back roads. The country air blew thru the car. Gradually, the tension left Buck’s shoulders and he let himself relax against the seat. After the first deep sigh, Standish spoke.

“I’ve been pulling in some favors. Buck, if he is found guilty, I can arrange for him to be close to Denver. One of Mother’s husbands is a close friend of Ruth Ginsberg. If he is found guilty, he will not go to a prison, but to a hospital.”

The relief that he felt was immediate and powerful. He had been torturing his mind with images of Chris in some awful hellhole in another state. The thought of him being far away was becoming unbearable. He reached out and clasped a hand on Ezra’s shoulder.

“Let’s stop some place and have a drink. I need something that will burn all the way down. Hell, I could probably go for several drinks. It will help me sleep.”

The only place to get a drink in Spencer was the bar where it all began. Ezra pulled into the parking lot and parked the car. Both men got out and went inside. Striding up to the bar, the southerner ordered the most expensive bottle of liquor on the shelf. The bartender set down the bottle and two glasses.

Johnny came out of the restroom and froze in his tracks. Standing at the bar were two of the ATF agents! Seth came out behind him and shoved him out of the way.

“What’s wrong with you, Johnny? Get the hell out of the way! I got a game to finish!”

Ezra looked up from the bar and studied the young man. His face was familiar to him. He poured another shot from the bottle and picked it up as he stared at the kid. He couldn’t place him but he knew that he had seen him before tonight.

Following the direction of the southerner’s gaze, Buck studied the kid. He made a big show of being casual as he moved back to the pool table with his friend. He kept turning his face away from the bar.

“Do you know that kid?”

“He is familiar, Mr. Wilmington. I cannot place where I have seen him but he is familiar. It will come to me eventually. He does have a most unusual gait.”

The two agents continued to pour shots from the bottle until they were both pleasantly buzzed. They dug thru their pockets for quarters and fed the jukebox. When none of the women in the place would dance with him, Buck danced by himself. By the time they had finished the bottle, both agents were ready for bed. Laughing uproariously at something only the two of them could understand, the agents staggered out of the bar and back to the rental car.

All the motel rooms were dark except for one and Buck figured that was the room the others had left for them. Opening the door, he staggered into the nearest bed and passed out. Ezra noticed JD on the floor between the beds and stepped carefully over the kid before collapsing onto the other bed and passing out.

They were awakened in the morning by JD belting out songs in the shower. Ezra opened his eyes and winced.

“By the inordinate amount of light in the room, I will hazard to guess that it is morning?”

From the other side of the room, a groan of pain was followed by the squeak of Buck’s body rolling over on the bed.

“I had forgotten what he sounds like in the morning.”

Following a large dose of Tylenol and a shower, both men were marginally better. The team gathered at the diner and had breakfast before dropping Vin at the jail. Perry had agreed to allow him to ride in the car with Chris to the jail as long as he didn’t bring his sidearm.

Dr. Flowers had prescribed a mild sedative for Chris to see if it would improve his concentration in the morning. Larabee had slept for several hours before being wakened by the nightmare again. Perry found him pacing when he came out of the interrogation room where he had a cot set up for himself.

Just after Chris finished his breakfast, Vin arrived. Perry let him into the cell and went to move the car closer to the door.

“Hey, cowboy, how are you feeling this morning? Did you get any sleep last night?”

“Some. I’m a little better, I think. How are the others?”

“Ezra and Buck got drunk last night, they’re hung over this morning.”

The deputy came into the room and approached the cell. In his hand he held handcuffs. The hazel eyes started to glaze and Vin shook him by the arm.

“Hey, stay with me, cowboy! I need you to be focused today!”

Vin held out his hand and Perry placed the cuffs in his hand. He took Chris by the arm and closed the handcuff on his wrist. Larabee reached back with his other hand and allowed the cuff to close on it as well. The Texan pressed his forehead against Chris’s while resting both hands on his shoulders.

The difference in the prisoner was striking. Chris followed Vin out of the cell and allowed Perry to put him into the car. He kept up a conversation with Tanner on the short drive to the courthouse.

“I can’t believe Josiah let them go out like that last night. Buck shouldn’t be drinking. What if one of the locals had started something with them at the bar? Tell Josiah and Nathan to keep the team together, you hear me Vin? Never mind, I’ll tell them.”

Charles Wayman met them in the parking garage and walked with them to the courtroom. As soon as he was secured to the table, he turned and began to chastise the two older members of the team for allowing Ezra and Buck to get drunk.

A few moments later, Judge Hornbeck took the bench.

“As Judge Cross is still missing, we will begin with opening statements.”

The prosecutor came to his feet and strode out to the open area in front of the jury box. He consulted his notes for a moment before he began.

“You are going to hear testimony about how that man brutally raped and murdered young Wynsome Lightner three weeks ago. I am going to show you photos and put up witnesses who will tell you what happened in the hours preceding her death. You will hear testimony about how that man has drunken blackouts. You will hear how he has a history of brutal attacks on people, even his best friend. When all the testimony has been heard, you will have no doubt but that this man is just what I say he is, a cold blooded murderer.”

Charles Wayman came to his feet. He tossed a puzzled look at the prosecutor before beginning his opening speech.

“He used a very interesting phrase toward the end of his speech. Did you notice it? He said you would have no doubt. That is a very important part of the law as it pertains to this case. Doubt. I intend to create doubt in your minds. I intend to show you the problems with their evidence and with their reasoning. Keep in mind; before you can convict this decorated member of one of the most prestigious ATF teams in the United States, you must believe him guilty beyond a doubt. I intend to create doubt.”

The morning’s testimony was brutal. Large photos of Wyn were placed on tripods in front of the judge’s podium. The bartender testified that the two ATF agents were in the bar and that he had watched them leave. He testified that then the blond agent had returned and escorted Wyn out to his car. He never saw her again.

Charles stood and asked only one question. “Did you see him do anything that might indicate that he would hurt Wyn?”

The bartender responded that it looked more like he was in love with her.

Willy testified that he had watched Chris and Wyn dance before ending up necking in a booth in the corner for an hour or more while Vin played pool. He also testified to Chris returning and leaving with Wyn.

Charles asked the same question.

Willy replied that he seemed attracted to her.

The most damaging and hurtful testimony came from Deputy Davis.

“Can you tell us what happened on the morning in question?”

“I got a call that a strange car was parked up near Forder Lake. I arrived and found a 2002 Dodge Neon parked near the lake. Upon closer investigation, I found a man unconscious in the back seat of the car. I noticed that the trunk was not latched and I opened it and found the woman’s body. After determining that the woman was dead, I approached the man in the car. I opened the door and pulled him out of the car. The man behaved as if drunk or drugged. I handcuffed him and put him in the back of my cruiser.”

“And then what happened?”

Perry went on to explain about calling for the sheriff. He explained about questioning the men at the jail. He told how Chris had asked for an attorney. He told how the motel clerk had verified that Tanner had been at the motel all night.

Charles stood and asked to reserve the right to recall the Deputy to testify at a later time.

After the deputy testified, the judge called for a lunch break.

The afternoon testimony was even more damaging. It came in the form of the police reports from three years ago when Chris had been arrested repeatedly for bar fights in Denver. Charles objected strenuously to the introduction of the reports in the judge’s chambers after the lunch break.

The prosecutor read the reports into the record. The report about Buck’s injuries was the last thing read into the record before the judge called for the end of the day.

The team assembled again at the jail. Chris and Buck raged and complained about the records of Buck’s hospitalization being used. Charles tried to calm Wilmington so that he could prepare his testimony for the next day. They expected the prosecution to be finished early the next morning.

Charles sat down with Buck and explained that he would begin by having him explain the reason for Chris’s drinking. They would then cover his life before the death of his family and then cover the exemplary record he had since the formation of Team 7. He also intended to introduce the information about Miller having Chris’s gun and the similar strangulation murder of the woman in Oakdale.

Pacing in his cell after the others left for the night, Chris replayed the night of Wyn’s death in his mind. The last clear image in his mind was of her face as she lay against his chest, smiling. A brief gust of cool air touched his mind but he couldn’t grasp the images long enough to fit them together. The longer he tried to remember, the greater the feeling of anguish and loss. He finally snatched up the paper cup with the sedative that the doctor had left for him.

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JD opened the files from the lab and read thru them. The evidence from the woman murdered in Maryville was contaminated and useless. It would take several days to try to match the blood from the robbery to the other evidence. After sharing the information with the others, the team settled into their rooms to try to get some sleep.

As the team assembled at the diner the next morning, Buck was a nervous wreck. He drank most of a pot of coffee by himself and only picked at his food. Vin was also nervous. Charles would put him on the stand after Buck. Libby slipped a bowl in front of the Texan with a wink and a smile. He dug into the warm apples after wrapping an arm around the woman’s waist in gratitude.

After dropping Vin at the jail, the others went to the courthouse. Standing on the steps in front of the building was a knot of young people. Seth Fielder stood out from the group as he glared malevolently at the agents as they approached. Willy stood with his arm around an older woman who was sobbing; Josiah identified her to the judge with a whisper.

“That’s Mrs. Lightner.”

Another glare followed the men from the group of locals. Ezra nudged Buck and looked back over his shoulder. The young man pulled his head down and jostled to get behind one of the other men.

“Isn’t that the kid from the bar the other night?”

Buck nodded as the judge pulled him toward the building.

Vin entered the cell and studied Chris for a minute. It had not been a good night. The dark circles were prominent on the blonds face. The two men stood staring at each other. No words were exchanged, no words were necessary.

The deputy handed the handcuffs to Vin and left to move the car. When he looked up next, the two men were coming out of the jail together. He rushed to open the door and put Chris inside before anyone saw them and complained about the obviously lax procedure.

The sheriff collected the weapons from the ATF agents as they filed into the building. The mustached agent handed over his gun without complaint. He also offered his hand to the sheriff.

“I want to apologize for yesterday.”

“No apology needed, Agent Wilmington. If it were one of my friends, I would do the same thing.”

Vin was already in the courtroom when the others arrived. He and Chris were talking softly over the wall. Charles and Judge Travis were going over notes on the corner of the table. The rest of the team filed in and sat down in the front row. No one had even dared to sit there.

Judge Hornbeck entered the courtroom and quickly started the day. The prosecutor took a few minutes to review the police reports. He had put up a poster board with a list of the arrests that culminated in the hospitalization of Agent Wilmington. He then rested his case.

Charles called Buck to the stand. Josiah squeezed the tense shoulder before Wilmington made it to his feet. JD flashed a confident smile and got his hair ruffled for his effort.

“Agent Wilmington, will you tell the court how long you have been acquainted with Agent Larabee?”

“We’ve known each other for about 16 years.”

“Can you tell the court what happened the month before all of these arrests began to show up on Agent Larabee’s record?”

“His wife and son were killed in a fire.”

“What was Agent Larabee’s reaction to their deaths?”

“He was devastated. I was afraid that he might commit suicide for a while. Then he began drinking to numb the pain.”

“Now as I look at the arrests listed here, no charges were actually filed against Larabee. Can you explain this to me?”

“He was arrested and booked on the charges. The owners refused to press the charges and so they were dropped. They understood that he was in pain.”

“Prior to the death of his family, had Larabee ever been in an altercation in a bar?”

“No. He occasionally had a beer with the guys but he never got out of control and he always went home early to be with his wife and son.”

As he answered the question, Buck looked over at Chris. The hazel eyes shone with trust and tears as the words were spoken.

“What about the night he assaulted you in the tavern?”

“A trucker started the fight. Chris was just sitting in the booth getting bombed. The bartender called me as soon as it looked like trouble was starting. The trucker had already started on Chris when I got there. I don’t think Chris even realized it was me he’d hit until later.”

“You were hospitalized after that incident?”

“Yeah, I woke up in the hospital.”

“You refused to press charges? You were reprimanded for using your position to try to shelter Larabee, weren’t you?”

“He’s my friend! He’d just lost everything that meant anything to him! I would do it all over again. He’d do it for me in a heartbeat. And yeah, they did reprimand me for going to the tavern instead of calling for another unit or backup.”

“What about after you were released from the hospital?”

“I picked him up from the jail and took him back to my place for a few days. He had dried out and taken a good look at what he was doing to himself. We went to the cemetery and he promised Sarah and me that he would never let it happen again. And it hasn’t!”

“Tell me how you came to be working together at the ATF.”

“Judge Travis selected Chris to lead the team and told him to pick anyone he wanted. He called me and I was glad to work with him again.”

“Your team has a pretty outstanding record doesn’t it?”

The prosecutor raised his pen. “Objection. His team’s record is not pertinent to the case.”


“Nothing further.”

The prosecutor picked up a sheaf of papers and approached the witness stand. He eyed the mustached man for a minute.

“Will you tell the court the nature of your injuries after you were assaulted by your friend?”

“I had a couple of cracked ribs and some stitches.”

“That’s not the way I read it in the files the hospital sent me. You had a concussion and a fractured jaw. You were in surgery to have glass from the jukebox removed from your back.”

“Yeah, well it wasn’t that bad.”

“How much did you pay the owner of the Tip Top Tavern not to press charges?”

“I didn’t pay him not to press charges, I paid for the damages. Chris paid me back.”

“How convenient. How many others did you pay off to keep him out of trouble?”

“He paid for the damages.”

“So you say. So your friend beat you so badly that you were hospitalized and he didn’t know it was you that he was hitting. Isn’t it just possible that he had one of these ‘episodes’ the night he killed Miss Lightner?”

“No, he didn’t, he wouldn’t!”

“So you say. But you weren’t there that night, were you?”

The prosecutor sat down without waiting for an answer. Wayman stood quickly.

“Redirect?” When the judge nodded, he approached Buck. “When you were shown the pictures of Miss Lightner, what was your first response?”

“That he couldn’t have killed her because she looked like Sarah.”

“Sarah Larabee, his wife?”

“Yes. She looked just like Sarah did when they first met.”

Charles walked over to one of the blown up photos of Wyn and replaced it with a picture of Sarah and Adam taken only a few weeks before their deaths. It sat right next to the only color photo of Wyn. On the other side of the photo of Wyn, he placed a picture of Chris and Sarah taken at their wedding reception. No one in the courtroom missed the agonized expression that covered the face of the accused man before he lowered his head to rest on his arm.

“Can you identify the woman in this photo, Agent Wilmington?”

“That’s Sarah and Adam Larabee. It’s the last professional photo made of them before their deaths.”

“And this one?”

“That was taken at their wedding reception.”

“Thank you, nothing further.”

As Charles made his way to the table and Buck left the witness stand, a soft murmur went thru the courtroom as the people compared the face of the young Sarah Larabee to that of Wynsome Lightner. The resemblance was striking.

The judge let the sound continue for a minute before banging the gavel and restoring order. He then nodded at Wayman to call his next witness.

Vin stood on shaky legs as his name was called. He stared at Buck as they passed each other. He looked long and hard at Chris before he took the stand.

“Agent Tanner, can you tell me what happened on the night in question?”

“We stopped here in Spencer for the night. We went down to the bar to have a drink and unwind after the long drive. I started playing pool with one of the locals. The girl was at the jukebox when I noticed her. She went over and sat down by Chris. After a while they started dancing. I didn’t notice when it happened but they ended up on a booth together. It was after midnight when I got him to leave with me. When we got to the motel, he took the car keys from me and went back to the bar. I didn’t see him again until the next morning when they dragged me out of the motel and up to that lake.”

“How much had Agent Larabee had to drink, in your estimation?”

“Not much, a few beers.”

“Did he appear to be blacked out or unaware of his surroundings?”

“Not at all. He just wanted to go back and spend time with the girl.”

“Was he angry at all? Did he seem like he wanted to hurt her or anyone else?”

“No! He just wanted to spend time with the girl.”

Charles sat back down and the prosecutor got up and approached the stand.

“How long have you known Agent Larabee?”

“Going on two years now.”

“So you didn’t know him when he was drinking and busting up bars in Denver?”

“No, I wasn’t working with him then.”

“So you wouldn’t know if he was having an ‘episode’ of his drunken rage?”

“He wasn’t drunk! And he wasn’t in any kind of rage! He was enjoying himself with the girl. He wouldn’t have hurt her! Chris isn’t like that!”

“So you say.”

The prosecutor sat down and Charles stood.

“Redirect. Have you ever seen Agent Larabee drunk enough to hit a woman?”


The judge called for a lunch break. Wayman caught Ezra and told him that he was putting him on the stand next to talk about the recovery of Chris’s gun and the subsequent investigation. Buck scowled about the decision.

“Why couldn’t you ask me or Vin about that?”

“Because Agent Standish is better able to explain the situation without an emotional show that would devalue his testimony. The prosecutor set both of you up to look questionable in your testimony. I want Ezra to charm them right out of their chairs and not get ruffled on cross-examination. He’s going to come out brutally on this evidence because of the doubt it creates.”

“And my somewhat tenuous beginning with the team does not allow him to paint me as a man who would lie to protect Chris.”

After seeing the puzzled look on Vin’s face, Ezra explained.

“The fact that I was not exactly the exemplary agent when I joined the team and the fact that Mr. Larabee has placed reprimands in my file mean that I won’t lie to protect him. Judge Travis has been trying to keep my file away from them to pique their curiosity. They won’t be able to assassinate my relationship with Chris because they have been led to believe that there isn’t one to begin with.”

Buck boiled it down to its simplest form. “They think that you don’t like him.”


The courtroom was quiet as Charles called Ezra to the stand.

“Agent Standish, how long have you known Agent Larabee?”

“Just over 18 months.”

“Have you ever known him to be drunk enough to hit a woman?”


“Can you tell me the results of your investigation into the recovery of Agent Larabee’s service weapon?”

The prosecutor jumped to his feet. “Objection, relevance?”

Charles turned to the judge. “I am attempting to show that someone else was at the lake when Miss Lightner was killed. The fact that the agent’s weapon was not recovered at the scene is completely relevant.”

“I’ll allow it.”

Ezra continued. “Judge Travis was contacted by a member of the FBI in Knoxville and told that Agent Larabee’s weapon had been recovered from a man killed during the commission of a bank robbery. Part of the team was dispatched to Knoxville to aid in the investigation. We were advised that there were at least three other accomplices who escaped. There was a vague description of a car and one of the accomplices was identified as Ernie Miller, a recluse who lived in the hills around the town.”

“And were you able to question Mr. Miller as to how his friend came to be in possession of the weapon?”

“No. He was killed during a shoot out. He had taken one of our team as a hostage. We continued our investigation by following a lead to the town of Maryville. The dead man, Fanger, had a receipt from a gas station there. We spoke to the sheriff there and confirmed that they were with Miller and another man named Cottman. We got a description of the car and the plate number. We are still looking for Cottman and the car.”

“Nothing further.”

The prosecutor pounced on Ezra. “You must owe Agent Larabee a lot, he got you out of a sticky situation in Atlanta, didn’t he?”

“I didn’t ask to be transferred.”

“But he did transfer you to Denver and get you out of trouble in Atlanta?”

“Objection, asked and answered and relevance.” Charles called quickly.

“Your Honor, I am merely attempting to demonstrate the connection and the gratitude this agent must feel to his superior. I think the jury should know that these men would lie to protect one of their own.”

“I’ll allow it.”

“Yes the transfer got me out of trouble in Atlanta but it didn’t solve all the world’s problems. Mr. Larabee and I have not had the easiest working relationship. He has, in fact, reprimanded me several times.”

The look on the prosecutor’s face showed that he clearly was not pleased with that bit of information. Charles wrote on his note pad and slid it across the table. ‘Got him’ it said.

“So you have been running down leads trying to connect Agent Larabee’s gun to this group of men in Knoxville, were you successful?”

“No, we weren’t able to connect the gun to anyone here in Spencer but the fact that the gun was recovered on someone else means that someone else had to be at the lake. In fact, the leads that we trailed included another strangulation murder in Oakdale.”

The prosecutor nearly exploded as he whirled on Ezra.

“Your Honor, I would ask that the last remark be stricken from the record and the jury instructed to disregard it in their consideration. He is attempting to create doubt by bringing up this unrelated crime.”

Charles stood. “Your Honor, the fact that another, similar murder occurred only a short distance from Spencer would seem to indicate that there may have been someone else at the lake and that person may have murdered Miss Lightner.”

Judge Hornbeck glared at Wayman before announcing that they would argue the point in his chamber. When they were assembled in chambers, the prosecutor began to make his impassioned argument.

“Your Honor, they are attempting to manufacture doubt. They have no proof that there was anyone else at the lake that night.”

“We might have if your sheriff hadn’t released the rental car without having it dusted for prints. We are entitled to show that there could have been someone else there who could have committed the crime. You have to disprove it.”

The judge glared at both men.

“You will not turn my courtroom into a circus! Do you have any proof that the murder in Oakdale is in any way connected to the murder here?”

“We are still waiting for the results of the forensic investigation. Your Honor, if the prosecution was allowed to read all of Agent Larabee’s prior arrests into the record under ‘prior bad acts’ then we should be allowed to argue that there may have been someone else at the scene. We should have some of the DNA results tomorrow.”

“Do you intend to put up DNA evidence?”

“Only in the simplest terms, your Honor.”

“Then I’ll allow it pending the connection with the DNA evidence. If you don’t connect all the dots tomorrow, I’ll instruct the jury to disregard it.”

When they rejoined the courtroom, Charles spoke first.

“Redirect? Agent Standish, can you explain the similarities between the murder in Oakdale and the one here in Spencer?”

“The dead girl in Oakdale was manually strangled in the same manner as Miss Lightner. No fluids were found in the body, indicating that he used a condom, which could also explain why only Agent Larabee’s DNA was found in Miss Lightner. The body in Oakdale was also covered in bruises similar to the ones shown in those photos.”

“And what did you reason from the similarities?”

“Objection, your Honor, the jury should be allowed to make their own conclusions.”

“I am merely asking an Agent with several years of experience with both the FBI and the ATF to make a comparison between the cases.”


“Nothing further.”

The judge dismissed the jury and everyone gathered at the jail to go over the case. Ezra was not happy with the way his testimony had gone.

“I don’t think you represented our relationship in either a favorable or unfavorable light. What was the purpose of that line of questioning? I would have thought you would have objected to his bringing up my work in Atlanta.”

“Agent Standish, I intended to sew doubt. Agent Wilmington and Agent Tanner were painted with the same brush. They would say or do anything to protect Larabee. You have nothing to lose in his conviction. He has reprimanded you. They may believe you because of the things the prosecutor brought up. That is what I’m aiming for.”

Buck called the lab to see if they had any results. He grabbed JD and they went back to the motel for the laptop. Some of the results had been sent via E-mail.

“The blood from the restaurant is of the same type as the hairs found on Lightner. They are asking if we can get samples from her male relatives.”

Charles raised his eyebrows and sighed. “It would be asking a lot. We don’t have a solid connection to demonstrate the need. I don’t see how we could get them to agree.”

“But if the blood type isn’t the same as Chris’s, doesn’t that prove that he didn’t do it?” JD asked hopefully.

“Only that he didn’t commit the robbery at the restaurant. We need to connect the dead girl in Oakdale to Lightner, that’s the only way to create a large amount of doubt.”

Judge Travis called a friend at the lab in Washington and asked them to go over the body of the dead clerk again to see if there might be anything that would connect her to the girl in Spencer.

It was a long, long night for the team. Buck and Vin paced in their room well into the night. Ezra finally struck up a card game to try to take their mind off of the situation for a little while. It was nearly four in the morning before the three of them slept.

The phone rang early in the morning and Josiah snatched it off the hook before the first ring ended.

“Sanchez. Um-hmm, are you sure? Yeah, I appreciate it. Thank you.”

As soon as he reached out to replace the handset, JD and Nathan spoke at the same time.

“Did they find something?”

Josiah sat up and rubbed his face. “Get everyone together.”

Fifteen minutes later, they were all gathered in one room, Mary still in her pajamas and bathrobe. All faces looked expectantly at the older man.

“The lab found a single hair on the dead girl from Oakdale. It matches the ones found on Lightner and is the same blood type as the person who tried to rob the restaurant. Short of finding the guy who was shot in the restaurant, it’s all we’re going to get on short notice.”

They had to scramble to find a place to print the lab reports for the jury to review. Judge Travis and Mary went to get the printing finished while Charles worked with Josiah to prepare him to present the information to the jury.

By the time everyone arrived at the courthouse, they were brimming with hope. Mary passed the folder to Charles as she took her seat. Sitting on her right was Vin and on her left was Buck and she took both of their hands and gave them a firm squeeze.

Josiah took the stand and Charles began to question him. The reports were distributed and explained. It took only a few minutes. As soon as Wayman sat down, the prosecutor spoke.

“Can you identify the person who killed the woman in Oakdale? Can you say for certain that he is the person who killed Miss Lightner? You can’t can you? A few hairs that could have come from a male relative of Miss Lightner is all you have?”

When the prosecutor finally paused to draw a breath, Josiah answered.

“We still can’t identify the man who killed Miss Lightner but we have proof that he killed that girl in Oakdale while Chris was in jail here in Spencer. He is also likely to be the person who was shot in the restaurant outside of Oakdale. As soon as we find the person who was shot in that restaurant, you’ll have the killer.”

“So you say. Nothing further.”

Judge Hornbeck looked at Wayman.

“Defense rests.”

“Prosecution will make its closing statement after the lunch break.”

When court reconvened after lunch, the prosecutor wasted no time making his point. He came to his feet and began to rearrange the photos of the crime scene.

“Ladies and gentlemen, Wynsome Faye Lightner is dead. She was last seen in the company of that man, Christopher Larabee. Her nude, lifeless body was found in the trunk of his rental car. She had been brutally raped, beaten and strangled to death. Mr. Larabee has offered no testimony to contradict the facts as we have presented them. He was found at the scene, unconscious, either hung over or drugged according to the arresting officer. You have heard how he has been known to have drunken blackouts and drunken rages. He even attacked his best friend so brutally that he was hospitalized for a week.”

“You have heard them saying that someone else was there. We have only their word for it. They have not identified the mystery person. They are trying to muddle the picture, to confuse you so that you will ignore the facts. The facts are simple. He was the last one to be seen with Wynsome Lightner. He was found with her dead body. He killed her. Don’t let them confuse you with their smoke screens. It’s an old magician’s trick; they are showing you their lab reports with one hand to distract you from the facts in the other hand. He killed her.”

Charles Wayman consulted his notes briefly before coming to his feet.

“When I made my opening statement I told you what I was going to do. The statute as it pertains to a murder charge is clear. You must find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. You are all reasonable people. Wynsome Lightner was one of your own. And as damnable as these photos are to my case, they are not the whole story.”

Wayman bent down and picked up the pictures that the prosecutor had removed. The pictures of Sarah and Adam and of Sarah and Chris were replaced on the tripods.

“You heard about Agent Larabee’s drunken blackouts and rages. Let me take you back for a minute to what he was going thru. His wife, the woman he loved with all of his heart, was killed. Burned in a horrible fire. His son, the apple of his eye, was killed. Everything that he loved in the world was gone. Sure he was in a rage! Who among us wouldn’t be? He’s human, he sought relief from his pain in the numbing effect of alcohol. Look at her face, ladies and gentlemen. Wynsome Lightner resembled Sarah Larabee so much that for a few brief moments in his life, he had her back! He could not have harmed her, he wanted to love her!”

Wayman moved back toward the defense table, drawing the jury’s attention to the line of men sitting behind Larabee.

“He made the mistake of injuring his best friend. At that point, he made a promise before God and the spirit of his dead wife that he would never let that happen again. And he’s kept that promise. In the years since Christopher Larabee has lead an exemplary life. He has worked to protect and defend the citizens of the United States as a member of an elite ATF team. He has earned the respect of the men you see seated behind him.”

Stepping closer to the jury, Charles lowered his voice dramatically.

“The fact that Chris did not testify cannot be held against him. I have told you that he didn’t do it. His friends have told you that he didn’t do it. The evidence we have offered tells you that he didn’t do it. His service weapon was taken from the rental car by the person who killed Wynsome Lightner. Reasonable doubt, ladies and gentlemen, that’s what it all comes down to today. If you believe with all your heart that he killed her then you must find him guilty, but if you have even the slightest doubt you must find him not guilty. This is America, the country that Christopher Larabee works and offers his life to defend and in America a man is innocent unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. You are all reasonable people.”

The judge read the statutes pertaining to the charge and sent the jury off to deliberate. Chris and the others returned to the jail to wait for word of a verdict.

The tension in the jailhouse was so thick that you could almost see it in the air. Chris and Vin sat, side by side, on the bunk in the cell. Buck paced. Josiah sat with his hands folded as he offered every prayer he could think of. JD sat staring at the screen of his laptop, unable to focus on the information he had called up. Nathan and Ezra sat near the sheriff’s desk, playing cards. Judge Travis and Mary sat with Wayman staring silently at the folder on the table. The sheriff and deputy sat at the other desk, staring at the clock as the hands slowly marked the passage of time.

The phone rang at 5:20 that evening and the sheriff snatched up the receiver before it had even finished ringing. He spoke to the caller and then offered the phone to Wayman.

“Charles Wayman. I see. Thank you.” He turned to the many pairs of eyes now focused solidly on him. “They sent the jury home for the night. They’ll resume deliberation in the morning.”

Chris slumped back against the wall. He was only just holding himself together and only for Vin’s sake. Bitter tears stung in his eyes as he fought to control his breathing as his hands clenched into fists.

The Texan’s voice intruded on his despair. “Hang on, Chris. Don’t give up. It’s a good thing that they haven’t decided right away, right? That means they have doubts! It’s going to be all right.”

Nathan and Ezra left the jail for the diner to get supper. Libby had everything ready by the time they arrived. She didn’t ask any questions, the looks on the faces of the two agents told her everything she needed to know.

The somber group picked at their food. Even JD, who normally was ravenous, barely touched his meal. Wayman left after the phone call and returned to the motel. Each of the team took a turn sitting beside Chris in the cell trying to draw him out with little success. With each passing hour, the team leader grew more withdrawn and subdued.

At ten o’clock, the sheriff told them they had to go. He caught Josiah by the arm and told him that one of them could stay if they wanted. Without hesitating for an instant, Sanchez grabbed Vin and whispered into his ear. The pale blue eyes burned brightly as they looked up at him.

“Seriously? I can stay with him?”

Sheriff Wilhelm nodded. Vin shook the man’s hand vigorously before returning to the cell and calling brightly to Chris.

“You got a bunk mate for the night, cowboy, what about that?”

The blond head came up slightly and nodded. The others crowded at the door as they watched the two friends in the cell before leaving. By silent agreement, the rest of the team crowded around a table in one of the rooms and played cards until well after midnight.

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