An Innocent Man

by Angie

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+ + + + + + +

Dr. Fullerton was as frustrated as Chris. They had tried three different sessions of hypnosis without being able to get past the mental block. He could get up to Wyn being pulled from his arms before he was overcome and passed out.

The team rode up to Devonshire on Saturday to visit Chris. The doctor was disappointed that they could not help him to remember. The six of them sat in one of the gardens going over the evidence from Spencer. Buck pulled a package out from under his jacket and handed it to Larabee.

The Fed-Ex box had the office address on it and a return address in Atlantic City. Chris opened the end of the package and stuck his trembling hand inside. The leather jacket spilled out of the box onto his lap. The single sheet of linen stationary floated to the ground as the blank gaze returned to the hazel eyes.

“Go get the doctor!” Buck hissed at JD as he knelt beside Chris.

Dr. Fullerton raced thru the hallways behind the young ATF agent. They reached the garden and he fell to his knees before his patient. Larabee’s hands were twisted into the jacket and his breathing was rapid and shallow. The doctor brought out his pen and caught the sunlight and flashed it into the unblinking eyes.

“Tell me what you see. Let your mind relax and just tell me what you see. Try to remain detached from what you see. Is Wyn with you?”

“Yes. She’s curled up against my chest. My jacket is around her shoulders.” Chris’s voice was barely a whisper but it was filled with fury.

“What else do you see? What do you feel?” The doctor was excited. This was as far as they ever made it before Chris cried out and collapsed.

“Cold. Cool air. Wyn! They took her from the car!” Larabee’s hands clenched tighter in the leather jacket and his breathing quickened.

“Calm down. Take a deep breath. You are an observer only. No one can harm you.”

Buck clasped Chris by the shoulders as he looked at the frightened faces of the rest of the team. Josiah had a grip on Vin as the tracker’s breathing matched the blond and he was shaking violently. Nathan was checking his pulse and staring at the doctor with concern blazing from his dark eyes.

“There are four of them. Four. They … stuck me … with something.” His hand went to his shoulder and squeezed. “I couldn’t … reach her. They were laughing. One … yelling at me. He hit her! Stop him!”

With that cry, Chris jumped to his feet only to be pulled back by Buck and JD. The doctor sat back on his heels, panting as he watched his patient. Larabee had his face buried in Wilmington’s side as his hands still clutched the jacket. Vin shrugged off the restraining hands to reach out to the blond.

“Take it easy, cowboy. You’re getting there. Take it easy.”

They took Chris back to his room and the doctor had him sedated.

After everyone had calmed down, Buck steered them to their vehicles for the drive back to Denver. They spent the night at the ranch. On Sunday, they took the horses out. Vin had driven in and brought Mickey out for the day. JD saddled Chaucer for her to ride.

They had a bar-b-que and spent the afternoon together. An impromptu game of football struck up on the lawn while the food was cooking. Mickey caught the ball and was immediately tackled by Vin. She went down giggling as his hands tickled her until she let go of the ball. He immediately grabbed up the ball and ran a touchdown. Evers scowled with her hands on her hips as she watched the Texan doing his TD dance.

After the bar-b-que was over, Vin drove Mickey home. She invited him in for a nightcap and they ended up in her bed together. As she cuddled up to his bare chest afterwards, he sighed.

“You know, I don’t usually get involved with people I work with. This could complicate things for the team.”

“They’ll never know. This doesn’t have to go any farther. I wasn’t planning for this to be an ongoing thing between us.”

Vin’s eyes widened slightly and he tensed under her.

“I didn’t mean it that way. It’s just that I don’t normally fall into bed with just anyone. Intimacy is special to me.”

Green-gold eyes stared up from his chest and she drew her fingers in slow circles on his ribs. Shifting her weight onto his hips, she nibbled at his lips before rolling off the bed. She slipped into the bathroom.

+ + + + + + +

The police cruiser stopped in front of the jail in Spencer and Taylor Cottman was pulled from the back seat. Sheriff Wilhelm shoved the young man into a cell and slammed the door. The deputy sat at the desk staring at the prisoner.

Across the road, Seth and Johnny watched as Taylor was taken into the jail. Fielder put the car in gear and drove away. He was still in trouble with his father about the dead girl that was found in the barn. The sheriff and deputy had questioned everyone without luck. Mr. Fielder had done some very fast talking to keep from being arrested for allowing the party in the first place. He had forbidden his son from having any more parties on the property.

+ + + + + + +

Jeff Franklin was scheduled to be released from the hospital that afternoon. He was both excited and saddened at the prospect. His parents had moved his bedroom from the second floor of their home to the dining room and built ramps so he could get in and out of the house. The physical therapist had worked with him on transferring himself from his chair to his bed and to the commode and such.

His mother and father arrived to pick him up from the hospital for the long drive home. On the way, they told him of the death of the high school girl at the Fielder’s place over the weekend. When they arrived home, his family had a small welcome home party for him. Jeff tired easily and quickly and was forced to rest for a couple of hours.

Johnny Lightner entered the Franklin house on the pretense of using the bathroom. He made his way to Jeff’s bedroom. Standing over the hospital bed, he stared down at his friend. The wheelchair sat at the side of the bed. On the walls, the pictures of the high school football team and their second string quarterback hang in wooden frames.

“Johnny! What are you doing in here? Jeff needs to rest and you shouldn’t bother him!”

Jeff’s aunt Libby stood in the doorway with her hands on her hips and scowled at the young man standing at the foot of the hospital bed. Slowly, Johnny turned and left the room. The matronly woman drew a blanket up closer around her nephew before slipping back outside.

+ + + + + + +

The FBI agents agreed not to press charges against Maude if Ezra would help them to catch Malcolm and his mob connections. The former ATF agent willingly agreed. A plan was carefully laid out for him. Jeannie would be at his table to supervise the setup. Other agents would be brought in so that no innocent gambler lost money while the sting was happening.

When everything was in place, Ezra was allowed to leave the casino. He drove to the safe house where he had left his mother and Malcolm. Sitting across the table from the two of them, he explained that he had come up with a plan. He spent the rest of the night teaching the hopelessly inept man the signals that he would be using. Before retiring to bed, he pulled Maude aside and issued an ultimatum of his own.

“When he has paid his debt to the mob, I want out! I will not help you any more. You have taken my job and my life from me. If I am caught in this plan with Malcolm I will go to jail. It isn’t right, Mother.”

“Ezra, darling, I only want the best for you. That government job simply isn’t the best you can do with your life. Those men were going to get you killed one of these days!”

“Those men were my friends, Mother! They would have given their lives for me. Can you honestly tell me you’ve ever had a friend who would do that for you? Those six men were more of a family to me than you ever were.”

Maude’s eyes widened in horror at his words.

“How sharper than a serpent’s tooth to have a thankless child!”

“What have I to be thankful for, Mother? The cons you took me on as a child? The relatives you dumped me on when you were tired of me? You’ve twisted my mind until I can’t even share my feelings with another person without feeling guilty.”

Walking away, Ezra left his mother weeping softly. He collapsed onto the unfamiliar bed and struggled for hours before falling asleep.

+ + + + + + +

Chris paced the grounds wearing the leather jacket. He was practically exhausted. The past few nights, he had not slept more that a few hours at a time in between the rounds of nightmares. He had managed not to cry out when he wakened and thereby managed to avoid getting more drugs pumped into his system. The frustration he was feeling at his inability to remember was building. He pushed himself to the very edge as he tried to remember.

“Mr. Larabee, you have group therapy now. Please report to the lounge.” The orderly stood balanced on the balls of his feet as if he expected trouble and he got it.

The fist that struck the orderly sent him into an empty table. Suddenly, three other orderlies pounced upon the patient, wrestling him to the ground. A nurse raced over with an injection of a sedative and pumped it into Larabee’s hip. When he lay passively, two of the orderlies returned him to his room and placed him in hard restraints.

+ + + + + + +

Vin approached Michaela and invited her to a party at one of the youth centers in Purgatorio where he volunteered. It was Tanner’s pet project. He worked so hard at trying to help the young people find alternatives to joining the gangs and killing each other. He persuaded some of the local merchants to donate products and got permission to use one of the school gyms to hold the events.

The party was in full swing when the two ATF agents arrived. The music was so loud that Mickey could feel her clothing vibrating. The center of the floor was a constantly shifting mass of teenaged flesh. Around the perimeter of the room, food and snacks lay on tables and sodas floated in wading pools filled with ice.

The sharpshooter was warmly greeted by several of the young people. It was easy for Mickey to see that they looked up to him. He danced with several of the girls as he made his way across the floor to the snack tables. Several of the older teens approached the auburn haired woman and invited her to dance. She moved onto the floor and was immediately swept into the moving human carpet.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra flexed his fingers as he prepared to begin working that night. As soon as he reached his table, several women joined him to play blackjack. He kept a watchful eye for Malcolm to show up. His stepfather was supposed to arrive when he was on his first break. Jeannie and the other agents would join him at his table as soon as the man appeared at the table. The pit boss hovered around his table all evening.

As he was returning from his break, Malcolm was waiting for him. He signaled the pit boss and Jeannie. The pit boss steered him to another table, leaving the other man dealing at his table. His stepfather took up the corner stool and ringers filled the remaining stools.

+ + + + + + +

Buck and JD sat watching movies as they waited for Vin to return from the party he had taken their new undercover agent to at the high school. The sharpshooter had invited the kid to come along but was turned down. The youngest member of the team just wasn’t into the same music as the teenagers of Purgatorio.

The two older members of the team were enjoying a pleasant evening at an art show at the museum. Rain and Mary Travis made the pair into a foursome and provided an interesting counterpoint to any discussion. They rounded the corner of the main floor and ran into Orin and Evie Travis.

While the three women exchanged pleasantries, Orin pulled the men aside for a more serious talk.

“I have been getting steady updates on Larabee’s case from Agent Kinder. He has indicated that there has been another strangulation murder in Spencer. A high school girl was found in a barn after a party. They have sent the body to the lab to check it for evidence. Who ever is killing these women isn’t smart enough to stop when his scapegoat isn’t there to take the fall. We’ll get him one of these days.”

“From your lips to God’s ears, Judge.” Josiah said softly.

“How is Chris doing?”

Nathan launched into an explanation of the results of the hypnosis and the reaction to the receipt of the leather jacket that Ezra had retrieved.

“Agent Standish retrieved the jacket? Where did he find it?” The judge was very interested in the actions of the team’s former undercover agent.

“He found the driver of the car that we were looking for in connection to the bank robbery in Knoxville. He had been picked up in some little community outside of Atlanta. After the body of Judge Cross was found in the trunk of Cottman’s car, an APB was issued and the kid was located and turned over to Sheriff Wilhelm.”

+ + + + + + +

As the party in the school was coming to an end, Vin began to miss Michaela. He slipped out of the gym and moved to the upper bleachers to search for her. Almost an hour later, the crowd had thinned to the point where he could be certain that Evers was not on the dance floor. He began to get a nagging feeling in the pit of his stomach as he sought familiar faces.

“Lupe! Have you seen the woman I came in with tonight? I haven’t seen her in a while.”

The girl shook her head ‘no’ and shuffled back into the crowd.

“Keto, Jason, have you seen the woman I came in with tonight?”

The older of the two young men nodded and pointed toward the boy’s locker room.

“She went in there with some of the other guys a couple of hours ago.”

+ + + + + + +

By the time Ezra took his second break, Malcolm was up over three thousand dollars. He had followed every one of the signals his stepson gave him and the others deliberately played poorly. Jeannie continued to flirt playfully with Standish to keep the mark from realizing that he was being set up.

Malcolm left when Ezra took his break. The pit boss caught Standish going into the employee break room and gave him a reassuring nod. Jeannie slid into a chair at his side and rested her chin on her hand. She jiggled her foot in the air as she watched him try to eat his meal.

“Does my choice of food interest you in some way? If it’s all the same to you, I would prefer to eat alone.”

“I’m sorry. I wanted to let you know that you’re doing that man a favor. If he doesn’t cooperate with us, he is likely to be killed by them as an example to the next poor soul who gets in over his head.”

“I really don’t care for Malcolm. My only concern is for my mother. She is involved with this man, emotionally and financially. I find it difficult to believe that she could be so blind as to have been taken in by him.”

+ + + + + + +

Tanner charged into the boy’s locker room and flipped on the lights. He heard the sounds of tennis shoes moving across the concrete floor. The smell of illegal drugs was thick in the air as he walked the rows of lockers looking for the missing agent. A locker slammed, causing Vin to hurry to the end of the room.

As he reached the last row of lockers, he saw her. Michaela was bound and gagged and being held at gunpoint by several angry looking young men. He held his hands out from his sides as he settled back on the balls of his feet. His mind automatically processed the odds of being able to safely rescue his teammate without getting either of them killed.

A sound from behind him caused Vin to flinch. Out of the edge of his peripheral vision he saw the other gun pointed at his head. His eyes darted to Mickey’s face before he put up his hands in a show of surrender. He was shoved closer to the female agent before he was knocked to his knees. His hands were roughly pulled behind his back and tightly lashed together. A towel was tied around his eyes and he was gagged.

+ + + + + + +

Chris angrily fought against the restraints as soon as the sedative wore off. The rage he had been keeping bottled up over the past few days exploded into a frenzied struggle. In between bouts of trying to extricate himself from the accursed straps he noticed that they had removed all the items he had acquired with his ‘participation points.’ The team picture was gone as was his leather jacket and the quilt Buck had brought him from home. Bitter tears burned in his eyes as he felt himself slipping back into the wall of silence.

Doctor Fullerton entered the room on the 3-east corridor and stared down at his patient. The man had fought against the restraints until his wrists and ankles were raw. He had been building up to the breaking point for the past few days while the doctor waited.

“Mr. Larabee, it would seem that you have suffered a setback. We have removed all you personal items from your room and you will have to earn them back. I have also modified your medication schedule. If you continue to be disruptive, you will be placed in a lockdown ward. Would you care to explain to me why you felt it necessary to accost the orderly?”

“I didn’t feel like going to group. Not being able to remember is making me crazy, no pun intended. They’ve had other people strangled in an identical fashion and I’m not even there! A blind man could see that I didn’t do it! Why can’t I remember?”

A nurse entered the room with a syringe and looked to Dr. Fullerton for confirmation. At his nod, she approached the patient and prepared to give him the injection.

Chris struggled to lie still as the needle bit into his flesh. The darkness descended upon him and the silence enveloped him again. Adam’s smiling face appeared in his mind’s eye. His breathing remained rigid and tight even as the sedative pulled him down.

+ + + + + + +

It was warm in the place where Vin opened his eyes. He was still blindfolded and bound to someone else. As he raised his head, he heard laughter. The body at his back jumped and he realized that it was Michaela. An unusual clicking sound filled the air and he felt the chain that was wrapped around his ribs tighten.

“We want you to stop filling the young ones minds with your nonsense! You keep telling them that they have a choice other than to join the gangs. Your interference is getting them killed! We want you to leave them alone!”

“They don’t have to die! The gangs are what’s killing them! They don’t have to be in a gang! If they stay in school and get an education they can get out of the crab bucket they’re living in around here!”

A flying fist struck Vin in the ribs followed by a 2X4 striking his thigh. The clicking sound started again and the chain tightened further. He realized that they were being lifted off of their feet by the tightening chain.

After their captors tormented Vin a while longer they left, leaving the helpless duo hanging several inches from the floor. The chain was cutting cruelly into their ribs and making normal breathing nearly impossible.

“Mickey, you all right?”

A harshly drawn breath sounded followed by a raspy voice. “Yeah, for the moment. Got any idea how to get out of this?”

“I’m thinking on it.”

+ + + + + + +

Josiah was just unlocking the door to his house when his cell phone rang.


“Josiah, it’s Buck. Listen, I hate to bother you but did you happen to hear which school was hosting that party Vin was going to tonight? He was supposed to have been home over an hour ago and I can’t get an answer on his cell phone.”

“Yeah, Garver School over on 82nd, he was with Michaela Evers wasn’t he?”

“I already thought of that, no answer on her phone either. I’m a little worried, Josiah. He thinks those kids won’t hurt him because he’s trying to help them but …”

“How about I meet you there in about 45 minutes.”

“See you there.”

+ + + + + + +

Vin rubbed the back of his head against the chain trying to dislodge the blindfold. He was beginning to worry because Mickey’s breathing sounded really labored. Finally, the towel loosened and slid down his face. In the dim light he could see that they were in the auto shop. The chain they were imprisoned by was the one they used to pull the engines from the cars.

Trying to turn them around so he could survey the rest of the room, he felt the chain tighten and heard Mickey cry out.

“Sorry. I won’t try that again. We’re in the auto shop.”

“Can we expect anyone to come looking for us before Monday?” The words sounded forced and there was pain in the tone of voice.

“Dunno. Buck and JD were expecting me back at the ranch tonight but they knew I was picking you up so …”

“Great. Just great.”


The duo lapsed into silence.

+ + + + + + +

By the end of his shift, Ezra was tired. He found himself looking forward to getting some much-deserved sleep. He left the casino and took the elevator to the hotel room he had taken earlier in the day. Without even bothering to shower, the exhausted man collapsed onto the bed and dropped into a deep sleep.

+ + + + + + +

Buck and JD arrived at the school to find Josiah waiting for them. There were no cars on the parking lot of the school. In the eerie silence of the shadow of the building, the three men stealthily approached the doors. Everything was locked up tight. They circled the building, checking every door and looking in every window.

“Maybe we should swing by Michaela’s place and see if his jeep is over there?” JD offered.

“Maybe you’re right, kid.” Buck said as he stared at the building. He had a feeling that it would be a waste of time but he had no better suggestion.

+ + + + + + +

Chris was struggling to breathe. He thrashed under the blanket and tossed it to the floor. His wrists burned where the restraints had rubbed raw patches, but for some reason the leather now felt like steel links. He rubbed his face against his pillow as if trying to rub something from his eyes.

Dr. Fullerton shifted on the chair and studied his patient. Mr. Larabee had been deeply asleep for several hours following the sedative. Now he was struggling against the restraints again. The patient’s breathing was labored, as if he were fighting to draw his breath. When the hazel eyes sprang open, the doctor moved to the edge of the bed.

“The high school auto shop.” The words were a whisper on the lips of the blond man.

“What? Say that again, Chris? What shop?” Dr. Fullerton leaned over the man so he could hear his words.

“High school auto shop. Help Vin. Please?”

Fullerton was startled to see the hazel eyes pleading with him. It was that same look he had seen in the eyes of the ATF agent before when Larabee had zoned out. He was sensing something that wasn’t in the room.

+ + + + + + +

After driving past the duplex that Agent Evers was renting, the three agents found themselves on the parking lot of the school again. As they were debating whether or not to phone someone to come down and unlock the building, Buck’s cell phone rang.


“Agent Wilmington, this is Dr. Fullerton from Devonshire? I hope I didn’t waken you.”

“No, doctor, you didn’t. Is something wrong? Is it Chris?”

Both JD and Josiah surged forward at hearing only the one side of the phone call. The younger agent’s dark eyes were now wide with concern.

“Chris is all right, but he’s agitated about something. He keeps saying ‘auto shop’ and ‘high school’ over and over. He’s really worked up about it. He also said help Vin.”

“Thanks doc! I’ll get back to you!”

The other two men’s eyes widened in surprise as Buck shoved the cell phone back into his pocket and proceeded to smash the glass out of the front door of the school. The alarms went off immediately as he jerked the door open and barreled inside.

“Buck, what just happened?” Josiah asked breathlessly as he ran behind the agitated agent.

“That was Chris’s doctor. Chris said that Vin is in the auto shop.”

The trio raced thru the darkened building toward the back of the school.

The loud ringing of the alarm startled Vin and he jerked his head up, tightening the chain around his chest. Mickey groaned in pain and hissed softly. She arched her head back against Vin’s shoulder in an attempt to draw a deeper breath.

An explosive thud echoed in the cavernous room as the trio of agents burst into the auto shop. JD hit the light switches on the wall, flooding the room with garish light. Buck and Josiah immediately ran to where their friends hung from the chain.

Josiah took hold of them around their waists and lifted them slightly as Buck raced to lower the chain. JD already had his cell phone out calling for an ambulance. As soon as the pressure was taken off of the chain Mickey began to whimper softly.

Unhooking the chains and unwrapping them from around the pair, Buck took Mickey into his arms and eased her to the floor. Josiah lowered Vin to the floor and immediately began to loosen the chains wrapped around the sharpshooter’s wrists.

In the high windows, the blue and red lights danced on the glass. Sirens sounded mutely over the alarm still ringing in the halls.

Michaela panted as soon as the chains were removed and Buck eased her onto her back on the floor. She felt a large, trembling hand easing the blindfold from her eyes. Her green-gold eyes watered as the overhead lights hit them and she turned away.

JD called from the doorway to the policemen and paramedics who were running down the hall. He was startled to see the police pointing their guns at him.

“Uhh, Buck, I think we got trouble.”

The officer shoved JD into the wall and began to frisk him. Even as the officer’s hand closed on the gun in the shoulder holster, JD was trying to explain.

“We’re ATF agents! Let him go!” Buck’s voice was laced with anger.

A short time later, Vin and Michaela were on their way to the hospital. The police apologized profusely for manhandling JD. The entire team assembled at Denver General to wait for their friends to be treated and released. Both had extensive bruising but no broken bones. After dropping Mickey at home, the question that had been rolling around in Tanner’s head finally rolled free.

“How did you know where to find us?”

“Dr. Fullerton called and told us that Chris was all worked up about you. He told the doctor where you were and the doctor called me.”

Vin felt a warm feeling surge thru him as he realized that the former team leader had probably saved both their lives.

+ + + + + + +

The bedside phone rang at just before eight the next morning. Bleary eyed, Ezra reached out to silence the offending racket.


“Ezra dear? Did I wake you?”

“Mother. My work shift ended at one in the morning, what do you think?”

“You don’t have to take that tone with me, Ezra Standish, I just wanted to thank you for helping Malcolm. He said that the awful man he owes money to has agreed to give him an extension if he can continue to make the payments. You are working again tonight aren’t you, darling?”

“Yes Mother, I will be working again tonight. Tell Malcolm to come at the same time and I will take care of him just as I did last night.”

“You are a dear, dear boy. I will let you return to your slumber then, dear.”

“Good night, Mother.”

+ + + + + + +

Jeff Franklin awoke to the smell of breakfast cooking in the kitchen. He carefully pulled himself out of bed and into the wheelchair. His mother would help him to dress after he had eaten. Rolling the chair into the kitchen, he raised his chin to accept a kiss from his mother. She set a plate on the table and poured him a glass of orange juice. Next to the plate, she put his medicine.

“Are you sure you’re up to going out today? I know that Seth and Johnny said they would take good care of you but you only got out of the hospital a few days ago.”

“I’ll be fine mom. I have to get out of the house. We’re just going for a drive.”

+ + + + + + +

Taylor Cottman looked over at the deputy. He had been sitting in the jail for several days and the only time he had been out was to go to his arraignment hearing. Judge Hornbeck ordered him held without bail until his trial. He thought that some of his friends might come and visit him but he had not seen anyone except the sheriff and deputy.

+ + + + + + +

Seth’s car sailed over the tops of the hills. Johnny, sitting in the back seat, laughed as he popped the tab on another can of beer. Jeff had turned down the brews that they offered to him because of the medicine he was taking for the pain in his back. The trio ended up at he sports field behind the high school.

+ + + + + + +

The team arrived at the Devonshire facility before lunchtime. Dr. Long met them at the security gate and tried to turn them away.

“We just want to see him! Dr. Fullerton called me last night and said that Chris was agitated about something. We need to see him!”

“I’m sorry, you should have called and I could have told you that he won’t be allowed visitors for a while. He has to earn enough participation points. As long as he refuses to go to group and participate, he will not get any special privileges. We had to remove all of his personal effects from his room. He isn’t making any progress.”

Only the firm, restraining hand of Josiah on his shoulder kept Buck from acting on his anger. JD and Vin sighed sadly as Nathan pulled them around toward the door. The five men walked dejectedly back to the suburban and climbed inside. If they had only looked up, they would have seen the sad face of their former leader as he stared down at the vehicle. They would not have been able to see, from the distance, the tears that rolled from the hazel eyes.

+ + + + + + +

The silence was foreboding as it prevented Larabee from responding. His voice echoed off of the walls in his mind as he screamed his rage. The silence was protecting him from getting hurt physically but it was holding him a psychological prisoner. The only outward show of his emotions was the tightly clenched fist as he watched his friends drive off and leave him.

+ + + + + + +

Judge Travis read over the report from Agent Kinder. They had found identical hairs on four of the strangled people. The body of the girl pulled from the river had no physical evidence except for the similarity in the shape and size of the bruises on her neck. If only they had a suspect to match the hairs to they would be able to close several cases at the same time.

The second report was a list of the names of the people who attended the party at the Fielder’s barn where the last dead girl was found. He forwarded the file to JD to cross reference with the list of suspects on the white board in their conference room.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra showered and dressed for work. He ate a light meal before going down to work. He got his drawer and headed out onto the floor. The pit boss nodded to him as he passed and Jeannie was already at his table. He sighed as he tried to let go of the tension he felt building up in his shoulders. The alarms in his head were sounding softly but he forced himself to ignore them for the moment.

He noticed his stepfather at one of the other tables before he took his first break. It was hard to cover the look of anger that he felt at the inept man’s attempt to win on his own talents. After he returned from his break Malcolm was at his table and the other ringers took their places. To Ezra’s dismay, the arrogant man raised the bets to the table maximum trying to get more money than he had gotten the night before. Jeannie nodded as she caught Standish’s eye for him to let the man win. By the time the second break came, the suddenly ‘lucky’ man was up nearly ten thousand dollars.

+ + + + + + +

When he returned home that afternoon, Jeff Franklin was exhausted. His aunt Libby had brought him a treat on her way home from the diner that afternoon. He followed his nose to the warm apple pie on the kitchen table. Rolling his chair over to the sink counter, he got himself a plate and dug in.

+ + + + + + +

The lawyer entered the cell and sat on the bunk next to Taylor. They had court the next day. Joseph Smalls had been following up on the events in Spencer ever since the ATF agent had been convicted. He had gotten copies of the autopsies on the judge and the girl from the barn. He had also reviewed the deaths that the ATF agents had brought before the court as proof that Mr. Larabee was innocent.

The more information he reviewed, the more he believed that the ATF agent was innocent. He was very close to finding the truth if he could just make the proper connections. Shoving his thoughts aside, he addressed the young man seated next to him.

“Mr. Cottman, you have been accused of killing a judge. Anything you can tell me that might help me to prove your innocence would be appreciated. Do you have any proof of your whereabouts for the past two weeks?”

“For most of that time, I was locked up in that Atlanta jail. They held me for over a week so that ATF agent could come and question me about the leather jacket I was wearing. Before that, I was working in a little bar, trying to keep my head down and my nose clean. Look, I’m not proud of what we tried to do at that bank but I swear to you that we never meant to hurt anyone. We just wanted the money and to get out. They offered me a cut of the money in exchange for the use of my car.”

“So you can prove that you were in custody for the last, what, ten days? And do you know anyone at the bar who can vouch for your presence before that?”

“Yeah, the other bartender. We hung around together for a few days before I got picked up. His name is Tony Frocks. I got his phone number in my wallet.”

+ + + + + + +

Ezra awoke in the hotel room feeling desperately, achingly lonely. Pulling the cell phone from his pocket he made a phone call to the Devonshire Facility. Talking to Chris’s doctor only deepened the feeling of melancholy. The fact that Larabee had suffered from such a major setback was daunting. Helpless rage boiled up in him as he paced in the confines of the hotel room. He was beginning to develop a working understanding of Vin Tanner’s dislike of being confined.

He dialed the phone again. It rang only twice before he hung it up.

+ + + + + + +

“That’s odd.”

“What is?”

“Ezra’s cell number just came up on my phone.”

Buck looked at JD’s phone to see for himself before shrugging his shoulders.

JD walked out of the break room and sat at his desk staring at the number on the LED. Casting a quick glance over his shoulder to be sure he wasn’t being watched, he dialed the number and waited anxiously.

+ + + + + + +

Almost as soon as he lifted his hand from the phone on the nightstand, it rang. He was tempted to let it go unanswered but he couldn’t. Picking up the phone, he opened it and lifted it to his ear without speaking.

“Ezra? Are you okay? Talk to me. Please?”

“It is good to hear your voice. How are the other members of the team? Buck and Vin?”

“We’re good, Ezra. We miss you. Chaucer misses you. He’s been kinda off his feed. I actually have to hand feed him to get him to take anything. Are you coming back soon? I think he’d do better if you were here.”

“You will pull him thru. Be firm with him, he respects a firm hand. Have Vin work with him if he’s willing, Chaucer respects him. How is your new undercover agent working out?”

“Oh, she’s okay, I guess. She’s not you, though.”

“I appreciate your loyalty, JD. I have to go now. I have things to do before I go to work today. I will check back with you in a few days.”

He hung up the phone feeling drained but happier than he had in several days.

+ + + + + + +

The lawyer acquired the necessary documentation to prove that Cottman had indeed been incarcerated for ten days. He then made contact with the man who confirmed that the young man had been working and hanging out in the town and had not been gone for any period of time long enough to have returned to Spencer and killed anyone. The man was willing to testify on Cottman’s behalf.

The trial before Judge Hornbeck was short and sweet. Because they could prove that Taylor had been in police custody during the time the judge was killed, the case was dismissed. If the ATF agents wanted to make something of his having the leather jacket he would have to catch him again.

Upon leaving the courthouse, Taylor was immediately grabbed up by Seth and Johnny to go out to celebrate. The three young men ended up at the bar drinking into the night.

+ + + + + + +

Libby brought Jeff a late lunch and the news of the trial that morning. She could see that her nephew was troubled by something that he was keeping inside. She had tried repeatedly to get him to share it with her without success. She had prayed for and with the boy several times.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra arrived on the floor and scowled to see his stepfather already waiting at his table. The pit boss and Jeannie were also hovering around the table. He shook his head at the audacity of the greedy man. Smiling at the ladies as he moved thru the room, he took his position at the table and began his shift.

Unfortunately for Malcolm, Ezra was not at his best. He deliberately miscued him a time or two when he had put down large bets. Jeannie actually laughed when the surly man grumbled and ordered another drink. By the time he took his first break, the man was thoroughly soused and only up a few hundred dollars.

“What are you doing?” Jeannie hissed at him once they were safely in the employee lounge. “You are supposed to be helping him win!”

“Won’t it look just a little suspicious if he constantly wins at my table? He took ten thousand dollars last night. If he doesn’t slow down, he will draw attention to himself and to us. Someone is bound to notice.”

“The FBI wants to make this thing move along as quickly as possible. If he gets bigger payoffs, then maybe we can trace the money back to the man at the top. We need for this to work. You said that you wanted your mother kept in the clear in this so you have to work with us.”

A heavily burdened sigh left his lips as he rested his hands on his forehead, he was developing a splitting headache. The situation was spinning out of control and he had a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach that it was not going to end well. He looked back up at the woman and nodded.

“Okay, I’ll feed him everything I can.”

+ + + + + + +

The stars were visible outside of his window. Chris had dragged his bed across the floor so he could look out while he lay in bed. The wall of silence was complete. He couldn’t get out if he wanted to. The images of his son and wife had become almost painful. He wanted to scream and cry out, he wanted to go to group so he could earn back the precious picture and jacket. He wanted to see Vin, he needed to see Vin.

+ + + + + + +

Tanner lay in the deck chair staring up at the stars. The anguish that washed over him in waves left him feeling raw. His bond with Chris was so strong at times that it left him feeling dizzy and sick to his stomach. The despair was nearly crippling him, striking at times with such intensity that it was like a physical blow.

“I wish I knew what to do, Chris.” He whispered over the tightening in his throat.

+ + + + + + +

It was a couple of days before Seth and Johnny returned to visit with Jeff. They took him out with them for another drive. Their conversation turned once or twice to Taylor Cottman who had fled the town as soon he had awakened after his hangover. Seth glared darkly at Jeff in the rear view mirror each time he brought it up.

+ + + + + + +

The team met at the office to review the next case. The judge had assigned them to investigate the sale of guns around the high school. JD and Mickey were going undercover in the school. Dunne was going in as a student and Evers as the new gym teacher. Buck and Josiah were going to bust the kid in front of a large group of students to set him up as a rebel. Vin was also going to hang out around the school and harass the young agent.

They started the very next day. JD showed up at the school in a typical ‘burn out’ style. He rode in on his dirt bike and made a loud entrance. The kid managed to bump into and glare at several of the staff on his way into the building. He was late to his classes and made generally smart assed answers to any question he was asked. By lunchtime, he had garnered the attention of the ‘out’ crowd.

Standing in the girl’s locker room, Mickey was transported back to her own high school days. She had been highly athletic, competing in track and playing soccer for her school. Her mother had wanted her to take gymnastics and had finally convinced her to give it a try. She had enjoyed the class and it had come in handy when she had gone thru the ATF academy self-defense lessons.

The class started, she had 49 students in her third period. Most of the kids did not dress out for gym. Only half even attempted to participate. When Mickey announced calisthenics, a loud voice called from the back of the room.

“What’s that? Are you sure you can say that in mixed company?”

“Okay, will the person with the big mouth kindly join me at the front of the class?”

JD slowly made his way to the front of the room. He stood before the teacher, shoulders slouched and hands in his pockets. His hat was pulled down low on his face. Mickey looked him up and down with her hands on her hips.

“Kindly remove your hat and stand up straight. Take your hands out of your pockets.”

“What if I don’t?” He cast a sideways glance at her.

“Then you can run laps. In fact, I’ll make you a deal, if any one of you can run longer than I can, you don’t have to participate in my class. But if I run longer than you, then you have to dress out for class and participate.”

The class picked up the challenge. Mickey set a brisk pace in the front of the group and ran the laps. Before half the class period was over, two thirds of the kids were sitting along the wall cheering for their classmates. JD was keeping to the middle the pack. Mickey picked up the pace, forcing the kids to an all out run. Several of them dropped out before one round. As the final minutes of the class were ticking down, there were only two students left. Pouring on an extra burst of speed, the woman forced the two remaining students to drop out. Just as the bell rang, she announced to the class.

“I expect every one of you dressed out and ready to participate tomorrow.”

At the end of the day, Josiah and Buck rousted JD as he was coming out of the building. They shoved him up against a car and frisked him. They searched his book bag, by dumping it on the ground. Even as the young agent protested, they shoved him around a few times for good measure. As he was walking toward his bike, a couple of young men approached him. Vin hurried to them, talking fast and trying to persuade them away from the ‘trouble maker.’

+ + + + + + +

On his day off, Ezra went to spend some time with Maude. He had helped Malcolm to get over 25 thousand dollars over the last few days. The whole situation didn’t sit well with him but he was between the proverbial rock and hard place. He had agreed with the FBI agent to help and he had to protect his mother. When this was all over, he reasoned, he wouldn’t owe her any more.

They arrived at the restaurant and were immediately seated. Ezra kept looking around the large dimly lit room as if expecting trouble. He was distracted and unable to keep track of his mother’s banal conversation. She at least had the good sense not to complain about her accommodations. They shared an excellent meal together before he took her back to the safe house. He realized that the FBI had probably tailed Malcolm and knew exactly where he was staying so there was no point in moving her. She probably wouldn’t believe him if he told her anyway.

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