An Innocent Man

by Angie

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+ + + + + + +

Josiah and Nathan had ordered pizza. They waited eagerly for the explanation of what had happened while they were in Knoxville. Buck was too tightly wound to say anything when he first arrived at the ranch. He poured himself a large glass of whiskey and drank it as fast as he could. The burning sensation caused a deep shuddering in his body as he stared at the stone fireplace. Vin and JD sat, waiting for the older agent to speak.

“Buck? Can you talk about it?” Josiah’s voice was tender.

“He acted like he didn’t recognize us. He kept looking at the gate. His eyes were … burning from the inside. Then Vin went blank.”

Nathan turned suddenly to study the young agent. “What do you mean ‘blank’?”

“Like Chris, his eyes went blank. JD called my name and I saw …”

JD picked up the thread of the conversation. “Vin’s eyes went blank like Chris. Buck shook him out of it and he said that Chris was in agony. That he was smothering or something. He said Chris was worried about someone. He was expecting someone else with us.”

“He’s looking for Ezra. I felt it in his mind. He’s scared because we lost Ezra.” Vin’s voice was somewhere between awed and horrified.

“What made you decide to let them use the ECT?” Nathan wanted to drag them back to what he needed to know.

“The doctor said he didn’t need our blessing. The commitment order gives him the right to treat Chris as he sees fit. He assured me that it wouldn’t hurt him. I stayed with him right up to the last minute. I couldn’t watch them do it to him.” The anguish in Buck’s voice brought JD to his side.

“I watched it, Buck. His hand trembled for a second, his expression never changed.”

Wilmington wrapped an arm around the kid and sighed. “Thanks, I needed to know that. He spoke to me afterwards. He knew who I was.”

Nathan digested that important bit of information. It was a good sign. It meant that maybe they could draw him out of the shell. All they had to do was find the guilty party. He waited for Buck to collapse into the recliner before briefing them on what they had found in Knoxville. They were still waiting for the results from the lab.

Josiah dropped Nathan at his place before going home. The eldest member of Team 7 was weary. The flight to and from Knoxville had taken a lot out of him. The week separated from the team had been hard. The constant worry about Chris was like an open wound.

+ + + + + + +

The judge’s body was thoroughly checked for evidence. The lab technician made pictures and measurements of the bruises around Cross’s neck. He removed the bullet from the body and sent it off to ballistics. They found a couple of hairs on the body.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra stared at the man across the desk from him with disdain. He had answered all of the man’s nosy questions. He was dangerously close to losing his temper. Maude had told him that this was a done deal and yet the manager of the casino wanted him to jump thru hoops.

“Mistah Garalucci, either you want me or you don’t. Either way, I’m not here to tell you about my exploits with the ATF. The information is private and classified. Now, if you have any questions about my qualifications to deal in your casino, I will answer them, if not, I’m leaving.”

“You’re hired. Report to HR for the paperwork. You can start on the six to one shift tonight. Monday’s are slow so you won’t have any trouble getting back into the swing.”

The green eyes were passive as Ezra stood to shake hands with the manager. He walked down the hall and entered the HR office. An hour later he had his casino ID and an employee handbook in his hand. He returned to his mother’s apartment. He had spent the past week chasing down leads. One of his friends in the FBI office in Atlanta had contacted him to tell him that the Cottman kid had something that he needed to see.

+ + + + + + +

“Your car needs a tune up. If I’m to get around in the city, I need something reliable, Mother.” He made no attempt to hide his bitterness.

“Now, son, is that any way to talk to your darling mother? I will have your beloved Jag brought from Denver if you wish. Or we can go out and you can pick out whatever you want from the dealer’s lot.”

“Not now Mother, I’m going to take a nap. I have to work tonight from six to one. Before I go to work though, I expect you to fill me in on exactly what you have in mind for me.”

+ + + + + + +

Monday morning when Team 7 assembled in their offices, there was a stranger waiting for them. Judge Travis escorted the woman into the conference room and took a seat at the head of the table. Six pairs of eyes studied the woman before Orin spoke.

“Gentlemen, allow me to introduce Michaela Evers. She’s been transferred here from the Phoenix office. She’ll be taking the place of Agent Standish. You’ll find her bio in your folders. Your next assignment is also in there. We received a tip that a shipment of guns is coming down from Montana. We traced them thru Casper and Cheyenne, Wyoming and they should arrive here any day now. You have all the information available to us at the moment. Our contact on the inside is Jose Ramirez and we have already set him up with Agent Evers photo and address. He will contact her when he arrives. I will leave you to get acquainted and check back tomorrow.”

As soon as Travis left the room, all eyes turned to Buck.

“Okay. Well, Agent Evers, I’m Buck Wilmington, leader of Team 7. This is our resident profiler, Josiah Sanchez, sharpshooter, Vin Tanner, computer and electronics expert, JD Dunne, and Nathan Jackson, explosives and team medic. You’ll want to give him your blood type and any pertinent medical information.”

Michaela studied the faces of the men around the table. She knew that they had taken a bad hit with the loss of both their original team leader and their undercover agent. The judge had briefed her extensively on them and she had read their bios.

Buck studied the bio in the folder. The woman was recruited out of college by the FBI. She held a BA in criminal science and a masters in psychology. He chuckled to see that she had minored in drama. She carried a very high score on marksmanship and had a black belt in karate. It was a very well rounded profile.

He raised his eyes to study the woman herself. She was tiny, standing just 5’5” and weighing only 110 pounds according to her bio. Her auburn hair held a slight tint of red and when she looked directly at him, Buck was startled to see green-gold eyes.

After a couple of minutes of awkward silence, Michaela came to her feet.

“I’m pleased to meet all of you. Judge Travis has filled me in on the situation here. I know I’ve got some pretty big shoes to fill. I just want you to know that I am proud to be considered worthy to work with such a highly decorated team.”

“Allow me to be the first to welcome you to the team.” Josiah stood and offered her his hand.

Once the ice was broken, the others also found their voices and welcomed the woman. They spent the next half hour reviewing the file on the gun shipment that was headed their way. It was awkward and uncomfortable for the younger members of the team. JD and Vin shied away from the woman like she carried the plague. They slipped out of the conference room together and Buck followed them into the men’s room.

“A woman! Can you believe that! How in the world are we supposed to work with a woman? Jeez! What is the judge thinking?”

“Calm down, JD. The judge wouldn’t have picked her unless she was the best.”

“He should have let Buck have some say in the matter! He is the leader now, isn’t he? They let Chris hand pick all of us, Buck just got stuck with her!”

Wilmington rounded the wall and stood quietly, watching the two young agents. Vin was the first to realize that they were not alone and his gaze rested squarely on their leader.

“Okay, I realize that this is going to be hard for us but we have to do our jobs. Let’s at least give her a chance. According to the bio, she’s the best the judge could find.”

“Yeah, Buck, that’s all well and good. But who gets stuck with her? I don’t want her watching my back! I mean, suppose she gets PMS or something?”

Buck chuckled. “Come on, let’s get back to work.”

The three men left the restroom and came face to face with Agent Evers. The two younger men back peddled at the sight of the woman.

“I’ll meet you in the gym in half an hour, Agent Dunne. When I’m thru mopping the floor with your ass, maybe you’ll have a little respect!”

The woman turned and headed for the elevators. Buck turned to face the two young agents. He shook his head as he took in the chagrined look on JD’s face.

“I hope you can walk with your foot in your mouth, JD.”

“Walk where? You don’t think I’m actually going to the gym to fight with her do you?”

“I not only think you are going, we’re all going to watch.”

Michaela was sitting on the floor stretching her hamstrings when the team showed up. She was wearing her ATF sweats and had braided her hair. Her green-gold eyes flashed with anger as she glared at JD and Vin.

“Do you want to box or hand to hand?” Her voice was cold with challenge.

“I don’t want to fight with you Miss Evers. I didn’t mean for you to overhear what I said.” The kid was clearly trying to talk his way out of this.

“But I did hear it! So let’s just get it all on the table at one time! You don’t think I can get your back? Step in here and let me show you just how chauvinistic that remark really is.”

JD changed into his sweats and walked to the mat like a condemned man to the electric chair. He sat on the floor and went thru a few quick stretches. Donning the safety helmet, he moved to the center of the mats and took up a defensive crouch.

In only took about fifteen minutes for Michaela to demonstrate that she was more than capable to defend herself. She had tossed JD around the mats like a rag doll. Although the two were evenly matched in height, she was lightning fast and agile. The kid never laid a hand on her.

JD slunk over and offered his hand to the woman. He had been whipped and he knew it.

“I’m sorry, Ma’am. You can get my back anytime.”

“Thanks, JD. You fought a good fight, too.”

After showering, the team went back to the conference room. By the end of the week, they would have made progress toward becoming a team again.

+ + + + + + +

Sitting across the supper table from Maude, Ezra leveled a glare at her.

“You have to be kidding, Mother! If I am caught doing what you’re proposing, I could go to jail for a very long time!”

“Now, Ezra dear, don’t be so dramatic. I’m only suggesting that you throw him a couple of hands a night. He says it’s like eating an elephant, one small bite at a time.”

“Mother, I will not assist you in your endeavor to steal from that casino! What you are asking me to do is patently illegal! This isn’t like the innocent cons you used to run when I was a kid. You would have been better off to have bankrolled me to play at the casino, not to work there.”

“Ezra, dear, this is important to me. Malcolm wants to look like a player but he just doesn’t have the skill that you have. I promised him that I would help him! It’s the only thing he wants! I just want him to be happy!”

Malcolm was Maude’s current husband. A playboy, or so he fancied himself, the man was hopelessly inept at cards. All the months of losing at the casino had left the man deeply embarrassed and in debt to the mob. What his mother hadn’t told him was that she had actually been threatened by one of their enforcers, she was terrified.

+ + + + + + +

Buck called the hospital before they left the office that evening. Dr. Long told them that Chris was still talking. They were talking him thru the events in Spencer. He was making progress toward dealing with the verdict.

“When can we see him, Doctor?”

“Give us until the weekend. I need to work him thru the issues. He’s dealing with the loss of his family all over again. He’s doing well in individual therapy and we’re starting him on group therapy tomorrow.”

“Thanks, Dr. Long. I’ll call again tomorrow evening. Can we bring him anything or send him anything?”

“Not yet, Mr. Wilmington. We work on a reward system here, he has to build up enough participation points before he can have anything extra. I’ll let you know.”

+ + + + + + +

Ezra glared at his reflection in the mirror. The jacket they wanted him to wear was horrendous! The cut was all wrong. The lay of the material was pathetic. He tugged at the sleeves once more before clipping his ID badge to the lapel and moving onto the floor. The pit boss slid silently to his elbow and followed him to his table.

After about an hour, the pit boss moved away from the table. Ezra loosened up and began to enjoy himself. Before his first break, he had a table full of ladies, flirting and giggling as they lost money to him. The manager caught him during his break to praise him for the wonderful job he was doing.

+ + + + + + +

Jeff Franklin dug into the pie that his aunt sent for him. Everyday, his aunt sent something special for him to eat. He still hadn’t seen any of his friends. He called Seth in the afternoon, but the conversation was short and stilted. The young man began to wonder what there would be for him when he returned to Spencer in his wheelchair.

+ + + + + + +

The doctor prescribed pain pills and antibiotics. Taylor Cottman had gotten beaten in his cell that afternoon. He had a fractured jaw and a minor scalp laceration. When he returned to his cell, his bunkmate had been moved.

+ + + + + + +

Johnny bought Seth another beer. They had been shooting pool at the bar all afternoon. The whole town was buzzing with the news that Judge Cross was dead. They had issued an APB for Taylor Cottman. Lightner was hopeful that they wouldn’t find the owner of the car because Taylor was one of only two people who might betray his dark secret.

+ + + + + + +

Chris lay staring at the pattern of light reflected on the ceiling. He had awakened in Hell and he didn’t know how to get out. Dr. Fullerton told him that he had been found guilty of murder and that he had been committed to the facility for an undefined term. He had already been here for two weeks. The doctor had not been able to tell him how he came to be committed to this particular facility. The orders were sealed. Judge Travis had hinted that he knew how it had happened, but had not admitted to the doctor who exactly had made the arrangements.

‘Ezra. I know he has something to do with this.’ He ran everything thru his mind over and over. Somehow, he knew that the southerner had pulled the strings that had put him here. Chris had begged the doctor to be allowed to call Orin but had been told that he hadn’t earned enough participation points.

+ + + + + + +

By ten that night, Ezra had a crowd standing around his table. The six chairs were filled and there were at least four women waiting for their chance to sit at his table. He was smiling and flirting shamelessly with the ladies while he charmed them out of their money. One young woman, in particular, had managed to touch his hand several times over the past hour. He smiled at her again as she split her cards and doubled her bet.

+ + + + + + +

Buck arrived early to the office the next morning. He wanted to be there when everyone arrived. To his surprise, Agent Evers was already there. She had made coffee and was sitting in one chair with her feet resting in another. Across her lap was the Phoenix paper and on the table lay the New York Times crossword puzzle, neatly completed in ink.

“Good morning!”

“Morning! I couldn’t sleep so I came in early. I didn’t know what the protocol was for the coffee, but I made a pot.”

“Who ever arrives first usually makes the coffee. If it’s JD or Vin, you’ll want to be very careful, they make it so strong that it will take the paint off of your car.”

A smile lit her face as she considered what he’d said.

It was Wednesday afternoon before Evers got the call she had been expecting. Ramirez had arrived with the shipment of guns and was looking to make contact with his ‘girlfriend.’ They set up their date at a little bar on the outskirts of Denver. Vin and Buck were going in early to provide backup for Michaela. JD was in the surveillance van and Nathan and Josiah were in the tracking vehicle.

+ + + + + + +

The apartment was quiet when Ezra awoke that morning. He showered and dressed before going in search of coffee. Delight showed in his eyes as he saw the espresso machine on the kitchen counter. After a double espresso, he felt more alert and went in search of the newspaper.

As he was reading over the paper he heard the familiar chirp of his cell phone. He had almost let the battery on the phone go dead but plugged it in at the last minute. Laying the paper on the coffee table, he reached for the charger and looked at the caller ID. ‘Travis, Orin’ he read and opened the phone.


“Orin Travis. How are you doing, Agent Standish?”

“Shouldn’t that be Mr. Standish? I did tender my resignation a couple of weeks ago.”

“I don’t want to go into that right now, Ezra. I just thought you should know that Chris is improving. He’s finally starting to come out of his shell. The team is still following up on leads on the side. They found the body of Judge Cross in a landfill in Spencer.”

“That’s unfortunate. Somehow they’ll find a way to blame that on Mr. Larabee, too.”

“I doubt that. Ezra, I just want you to know that your job is still here if you want it. The team misses you. Buck said that Chris knew you had left when they saw him. He was pretty upset about it.”

The silence on the other end was filled with static as Ezra considered Orin’s words. He didn’t have anything to say. He had made a deal for Chris and he had to stick with it.

“Tell him that I am well and I will visit when I have an opportunity. I will try to write and explain it to him as soon as he is ready to deal with everything. I have to go now, Orin. Thanks for calling.”

He hung up the phone and put it back in the charger. After picking up the newspaper, he found that he couldn’t concentrate. Folding the paper, he powered up his laptop computer and began to do some research. He was relieved that the judge hadn’t cancelled his computer access as he entered the ATF database and began pulling up names.

+ + + + + + +

Michaela sat at the bar nursing her drink. Buck was making time with one of the barmaids. Vin was shooting pool with another man. All three agents were wired to send but only the men were wired to receive from the van.

The two men entered the bar and Ramirez immediately made for Evers. She slid off the barstool and wrapped herself around Jose. After a long, passionate kiss, Michaela looked over his shoulder to the other man.

“Jose, you didn’t tell me you were bringing company, I was hoping we would have a private dinner and a little cuddle time while you are here.”

“Mickey, meet Calvin. We’re making good time on our route so he said it would be okay to stop and see you for a couple of hours. There isn’t time for a cuddle, but we can have a couple of drinks together.”

“Calvin, nice to meet you! I appreciate that you let Jose stop while he’s in town, we see so little of him since he’s taken up driving. Would you like a drink?”

The plan was for Michaela to keep them busy while the other two put a tag on the truck. They had to get proof that the guns were in the truck before they could move on it. The judge also wanted to know who was at the top of the crew that was shipping the guns across the country.

+ + + + + + +

After his group therapy session, Chris earned enough participation points to make a phone call. He agonized over whom to call. His first instinct was to call Ezra but he didn’t know how to get in touch with the southerner since he had resigned. His next instinct was to call Buck but he didn’t have anything to say to his friend just yet. He finally decided to call Orin.


“Orin? It’s Chris.”

“How are you doing, son?” The relief in the older man’s voice was evident.

“Not good. What in the Hell is happening down there? Why did you let Ezra go? The team needs him! We worked too hard to get him into the team to lose him now!”

“I’m sorry, Chris. He’s a grown man and I can’t tell him what to do. He felt that he might live longer if he went into business with Maude.”

“She’s blackmailing him, isn’t she? That’s the only reason he would give up a job he loves. What is she blackmailing him with? You have to find out what it is and neutralize it. That’s the only way to get him back.”

“I already know what it is. I can’t neutralize it, Chris.”

“It’s because of me isn’t it? She pulled the strings that got me committed instead of sent to prison, didn’t she? This place reeks of something she would have her hands into. He gave up his life so I could be closer to the guys, didn’t he?”

“He made his decision, based on what he felt was in the best interest of the team. It was important to him that you be safe and close to the others.”

“He’s just showing the greater love.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Greater love has no man than he would sacrifice himself for another. He had the pull to get me into this place and sold his soul to the devil to do it. Do you know where he is?”

“Dealing cards at a casino in Atlantic City. I spoke with him earlier today.”

“Oh God! She’s setting him up for something. Orin, you have to stop him! She’ll sacrifice him for whatever scam she’s running! You can’t let her do that to him!”

“What can I do, Chris? He’s a grown man.”

“Lean on him, Orin. Get him back! I need him!”

Chris was filled with rage and conflicting emotions as he sat in the dining room that evening. He had a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. Ezra would do whatever his mother told him to do as long as she held all the cards. He would almost have preferred to go to prison than to know that one of his friends was making that kind of sacrifice because of him.

+ + + + + + +

The second week went much the same as the first. Ezra’s table was surrounded by women, three and four deep. He charmed and flirted his way thru to his first break. The pit boss met him again to tell him how pleased they were with his work. When he returned from his break, the woman from last night was there again. She oozed charm and flirted shamelessly with him as she played.

When he returned from his break, Malcolm was at his table. He stared hard at his stepson as he placed his chips on the table. At the other end of the table, the woman from before leaned on the table and leered seductively. Ezra dealt the cards and smiled.

By the time his second break came, Malcolm was up a couple of hundred dollars. The woman, Jeannie, was up almost a thousand. As Ezra sat in the employee lounge, he considered what his mother had asked him to do. He shook his head at the thought of cheating at cards so that his stepfather could win.

Returning to the table, he was relieved to see that Malcolm had moved to another table. Jeannie was still at his table when he got back and she proceeded to win and lose a few hundred dollars over the course of the rest of his shift. She pressed a card into his hand at the end of the evening with her phone number on it.

+ + + + + + +

Michaela and Jose continued to play the amorous lovers while Cal sipped his drinks at the bar. Vin eventually approached and invited Cal to shoot a game of pool with him. Buck got word from JD that the truck had a GPS tag on it so that they could track it. He signaled to the rest of his team so that they could begin to extricate themselves. Vin quickly lost the pool game he was playing and Buck made a pass at Mickey so that Jose could pick a fight with him.

Cal pulled Jose off of the mustached man and shoved him toward the door. Mickey pressed a quick kiss on her ‘boyfriend’s’ lips before he slipped away. After they were certain that the truck was truly gone, the three agents returned to the office to discuss the evening. The tracking signal was loud and clear and they would try to set up a roadblock to justify searching the vehicle.

+ + + + + + +

The party in the Fielder’s barn was in full swing. The kegs sat in large trashcans filled with ice. The stereo system cranked out music at a volume that was almost uncomfortable. Kids from all over the county were drinking and dancing. Seth had gotten hold of a bottle of Ecstasy and was passing it out to the girls at the party. Johnny was drinking and dancing with several of the high school girls.

+ + + + + + +

Team 7 went over the plan once again. They would set up a sobriety checkpoint and Jose would try to get Cal to drink so that they would fail the test. That would give them a reason to search the truck and impound it and the weapons.

+ + + + + + +

The bedroom door burst open and the lights came on suddenly. Malcolm jerked Ezra out of his bed and slammed his fist into the startled man’s stomach. After slamming around the room and into several pieces of furniture in the room, his stepfather began to shout.

“You didn’t do what she told you! You were supposed to help me win! I needed the money! They’re going to hurt her!”

The green eyes burst open and filled with horror.

“Mother? Who’s going to hurt Mother? What are you talking about?”

Malcolm’s hands tightened on Ezra’s nightshirt. He drew back his fist and prepared to throw another punch. His eyes were filled with fear and anger. He finally shoved the younger man away from him and raced out of the room to answer the phone.

After pulling on his wrapper, Ezra ran to the living room to hear only one side of the conversation. As soon as Malcolm hung up the phone he grabbed his stepson and shoved him toward his room.

“She’s in the hospital! We have to go! Come on, get dressed.”

A half hour later, Malcolm and Ezra stood over Maude in her hospital room. She wasn’t badly hurt, thankfully. The doctor said that they would release her after breakfast. She had a slight concussion.

After the doctor left the room, Maude’s blue eyes opened and she looked up at her husband and her son. Tears glistened in the corners of her eyes as she reached for one of each of their hands. For the first time in his life, Ezra saw fear in his mother’s eyes.

+ + + + + + +

Seth opened the door to the corncrib and stuck his head inside. He had been looking for Beth and someone said she had gone in that direction with someone. In the small, dark room he saw a couple in the act of copulation. Quickly closing the door, he moved to the next crib. In the lighted circle of his flashlight, he saw her legs. Climbing into the crib, he crept up on the unmoving body.

Johnny sat on the trunk of the car smoking a joint in the moonlight. The music from the barn was still vibrating pleasantly on his clothes. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted a couple engaging in serious foreplay. As he watched the girl pull off his sweater, he caught a glimpse of her bellybutton ring, so much like the one Wyn wore.

+ + + + + + +

Team 7 met at the office again that morning. Judge Travis met with them to review what had happened the night before. He also wanted to let them know that he had spoken to Chris the night before. Without giving all the details, he confirmed to Buck that Larabee was concerned about Ezra.

“What am I supposed to do about that, Judge? He’s a grown man!”

“I’m just telling you what he’s feeling. He’s concerned for the team.”

“The team will go on just fine without him! You’ve already replaced him! Why all the sudden concern for Ezra anyway? I didn’t think you especially cared for him!”

“You owe him, Agent Wilmington. You owe him more than you know. When all of this is over, you and I are going to sit down and talk about Agent Standish!”

Travis walked out of Chris’s office, leaving Buck sitting behind the desk with his mouth hanging open. The door slammed and the blind rattled for several seconds. Four pairs of eyes followed the back of the angry director as he entered the elevator. Only one person looked to the door that had been slammed. Vin silently got up and headed for the door.

“What was that all about?”

“Ezra. The judge says I owe him, we owe him, and we don’t know what for. I can’t get over the feeling that there is more going on here than meets the eye.”

After Vin left the office, Buck logged on to his computer and began pulling up files. He spent the rest of the afternoon researching his question. When Josiah knocked on the door later, he found the team leader staring in disbelief at the computer screen.

“What’cha looking at boss?”

“A deal with the devil, Josiah.” Buck switched off the computer and stood up to head out with the others.

+ + + + + + +

Vin and Michaela returned to the bar to meet Jose and Cal. The sharpshooter struck up another game of pool with Cal and bought him several drinks. By the time the two men left the bar, both were drunk. Vin radioed to the surveillance van and the chase car to tell them to get ready.

Buck sat in the chase car with Josiah.

“What did you mean about a deal with the devil?”

“Someone pulled strings to get Chris sent to Devonshire. Who do we know with those kinds of contacts? Who would do something like that and not tell anyone about it?”

“Ezra? You think he had something to do with it?”

“I’m sure of it. What I can’t figure out is why he left.”

A couple of hours later, the agents stood on the edge of the highway as the sobriety checkpoint was in full operation. They moved forward to help the state patrol with the checks. The truck was only a quarter of a mile from the line.

+ + + + + + +

Maude was discharged from the hospital a few hours later. Malcolm and Ezra supported her as she stepped from the wheelchair and into the car. Ezra took the car keys and drove the car away from the hospital. He headed away from the apartment and took them to a safe house he had arranged thru Judge Travis while he was waiting for his mother to be discharged.

“Ezra, darling, what are we doing here? The doctor said I should go home and rest. What is this place?”

“It’s a safe house, Mother. You and Malcolm are staying here until I find the people who hurt you. I don’t want you calling anyone while you’re here. Is that clear?”

“But you don’t know these people, son. They won’t hesitate to hurt you if they don’t get their money. That’s why I wanted you to have the job at the casino.”

“We’ll talk about this later, Mother. Now, you will be all right here for a couple of days. I will be in touch.”

Ezra drove away from the safe house, leaving his mother and stepfather. When his cell phone rang, he pulled it from his pocket.


“Ezra, that guy you have us holding, Cottman? We just got an APB on him from Spencer, Tennessee. His car was found with a dead judge in the trunk. We can only keep him here another day or two and then we will have to turn him over.”

“Got it. Thanks, Linc. I appreciate you doing this for me. That kid knows something and I need to get him to talk. I’ll be there in two hours.”

+ + + + + + +

Calvin saw the line of brake lights and tried to get off of the highway. The four ATF pace cars prevented him from changing lanes. Jose pretended to panic as he realized that they were headed into a sobriety checkpoint. As they got closer to the state troopers, Calvin pulled a gun and prepared to shoot his way out.

Ramirez keyed the code into his pager that would tell his team that the man in the truck was armed. They didn’t want any deaths among the highway patrol. He tried to talk the other man out of shooting at the police.

“They’ll kill us, man! And for what? We didn’t do anything wrong! We’re just the drivers! Someone will bail us out, won’t they? They won’t want us to talk!”

Cal shoved the gun into the crack in the seat and nodded curtly. He hoped that they weren’t checking every vehicle and that maybe they could get thru without being stopped. It appeared that they were only checking every other or every third car.

+ + + + + + +

Deputy Davis ran into the diner. Sheriff Wilhelm was just finishing his lunch.

“Sheriff, we got another dead girl. They found her in a corncrib at the Fielder’s barn. Seth and his friends had a party last night. Kids from all over the county were there.”

Wilhelm dropped a ten on the counter and ran out of the diner following the deputy. At the Fielder’s barn, the coroner was already preparing to move the body into a body bag. The FBI agent that had been assigned to Spencer had already taken the pictures.

The sheriff knelt beside the dead girl. She could only have been about 16 or 17. Her eyes were open and her expression was frozen in shock. Around her neck was the same bruising that had been on Wyn.

+ + + + + + +

Buck drew his windbreaker more tightly around his Kevlar vest and approached the truck. He waived the vehicle to the shoulder as Josiah approached with portable scales. The plan was to fool Calvin into thinking that they were just going to check their weight and driving records. He took a deep breath as he waived the driver down from the cab.

“You have your driving records, sir? I need to see them. Can you step right over here, please?” Shining the flashlight onto the paperwork, Buck pretended to study the tiny, cramped writing. “Have you been drinking, sir?”

Calvin was suddenly bathed in sweat. He looked around at the four or five other people who were taking field sobriety tests on the shoulder of the highway.

“No, of course not! It’s against the law to drink and drive!” Cal protested.

“Would you mind stepping over here and taking a little test for me?” Wilmington took hold of the man’s arm and began to steer him gently away from the traffic. Josiah fell into step alongside of the panicked driver with a smile.

Fifteen minutes later, Calvin was sitting in the back of a police cruiser while Team 7 searched the back of the truck. They recovered six cases of handguns. Buck and Josiah removed the cases for Nathan and Vin to load them into the waiting van.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra walked into the holding area and looked at Taylor Cottman. The young man had been beaten by his cellmate and still had the bruises to show for it. He didn’t look quite as cocky now as he had at first. The young man actually flinched when the southerner walked around behind him.

The guard handed something thru the bars and Ezra took it in his hands as if it were a gift from God. He turned to face the young man and held out the object.

“Just tell me how you came to be in possession of this jacket. You see, there is an APB out for you over in Spencer. They are going to pin the murder of Judge Cross on you. His dead, strangled, shot body was found in the trunk of your car. That will get you the death penalty.”

Cottman’s eyes widened in horror as he looked at Ezra. He looked from the leather jacket back to the man pacing angrily along the other side of the holding area. His knees bounced uncontrollably under the table as he looked around.

“What are you talking about? I didn’t kill Judge Cross. I haven’t seen my car since the bank robbery in Knoxville! Farnam brought the jacket and the gun! I don’t even know where they came from! You gotta help me, mister!”

Ezra’s hand clenched on the leather jacket as the helpless frustration welled up in him. He snatched the jacket from the back of the chair and stormed out of the holding area. As he passed the desk, he slammed his hands on the counter.

“Send him to Spencer. He can’t help me.” Struggling to hold back an emotional display, he stormed out of the jail and into his mother’s car.

+ + + + + + +

Dr. Fullerton agreed to hypnotize Larabee in an attempt to get past the block he had in his mind. He had been able to remember everything up to Wyn being pulled from his arms. At that point his mind simply refused to deal with what he’d seen and he passed out.

It had been three weeks! Chris was desperate to remember whatever was buried in his mind. The doctor had allowed him to keep the picture of the team in his room. He had pleaded with the man to do whatever was necessary to clear his mental block.

The doctor sat in front of Larabee and studied the hazel eyes. He had given the patient a drug to lower his resistance to the procedure. The first time he had tried to hypnotize Chris had failed because he could not let himself relax enough to relinquish control. The mild opium derivative would relax the mental barriers. After checking the breathing and pulse, the doctor began.

+ + + + + + +

The casino was crowded when Ezra took his place at the table. He was surprised to see Jeannie at his table again. He took a deep breath as he let the stress of the day slide out of his mind. Before going to work that evening, he had Fed-ex’d Chris’s jacket to the office with a note to Buck detailing where he had gotten it.

By the time his break came, Ezra noticed that the pit boss was watching him. When he reached the employee lounge, there were several strangers waiting for him. He looked around the room and noticed that the woman, Jeannie had also followed him into the room. His internal alarm began to sound as he stood just inside the door.

“Come in and sit down, Agent Standish. We have a few questions for you.”

“There must be some mistake. I don’t work for the ATF any more.” He protested as the woman led him to a chair and guided him into it.

“That’s unfortunate because you probably could have used their pull. You have been accused of cheating at the table and defrauding the casino out of a considerable amount of money.”

The green eyes widened as he shook his head. His heart began to race and he felt the sweat break on his brow. This was nearly as bad as the accusations that had been made against him while he was with the FBI.

“There has to be a mistake. I-I’ve been dealing well. The pit boss and the manager both told me so themselves. No one has taken more than a thousand from the table while I was dealing! You’ve got the tapes, certainly they will clear this up.”

“Do you know a man named Malcolm Fiengold?” One of the men asked.

“I know a Malcolm Von Haulken. He is my mother’s husband.” Ezra’s mind raced as he tried to figure out how Maude could have gotten mixed up in this mess.

“Is this the man?” A picture of his stepfather was shoved across the table.

“Yes, that’s him.”

“And you deny that you took the job here to help him defraud the casino out of money?”

“Yes! I most definitely deny it! My mother asked me to deal him winning cards and I refused! I told her that she would have been better off to have bankrolled me to play. I can win without cheating!”

He turned on the woman, Jeannie.

“You were at my table. You know I didn’t deal him anything illegal!”

“Where is your stepfather now?”

“I left him with Maude at a safe house until I could figure out who had tried to hurt her.”

“Someone tried to hurt your mother?”

“Yes. You can check with the local hospital if you don’t believe me!”

“Would you be willing to help us capture Von Haulken?”

“As long as my mother goes free.”

+ + + + + + +

Team 7 met at the saloon on Friday night to celebrate the successful bust. Vin and JD were busy with a game of killer foosball at one of the corner tables while Josiah and Nathan indulged in a game of pool. Buck sat at the table watching Michaela. She was smiling at the other ATF agents at nearby tables. A barely touched drink rested between her hands.

“You don’t have to sit here with me if you don’t want to, you know. We just get together here to blow off steam.”

“No, it’s fine. I just don’t drink much. Upsets my stomach. So, tell me about the guy I replaced. The judge didn’t tell me much.”

“Not much to tell. He was the best. He’d jump into anything, head first. Took a few too many chances for Chris but he got the job done.”

“Hey, Mickey, come on! You gotta try this! You can’t be a real member of the team until you play killer foosball with us!” JD goaded the new undercover agent.

Mickey threw back her head and laughed. She slid out of the booth and followed the young agent to the table. Buck got up to watch as she whipped both Vin and JD at the game. Peals of hysterical laughter caused more agents to encircle the tables and an all out war ensued. By the time they left the saloon that night, Mickey had made a place for herself.

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