This is my first crack at ATF. I know someone, somewhere, invented the idea that Vin used to be a federal marshal, so I did borrow that idea, but the situation and attending characters are my own so far as I know.
As per usual: don't know much about medicine, don't know much about motorcycles, don't know much about guns, but I do know they're a necessary part of writing ATF. So please excuse errors due to lack of knowledge. I'm from Milwaukee, so the bike had to be a Harley, I completely made up the name of the rifle, and the medical part is a total shot in the dark (K-girl has mentioned that Vin shouldn't be riding a horse with his injuries, but what the hey.) I also hate writing the police stuff because I have no idea how that works, so I kept it to a minimum but it still probably doesn't make sense under close scrutiny. So please don't scrutinize closely.
Thanks, K-girl, for giving the Emerson your approval.
Oh, and by the way, the character of Troy Middleton was written with Dennis Haysbert (aka Dr. Theodore Morris), from "Now and Again," in mind.
Size: Approx. 180K
Larabee hated this. Hated everything about it. Working with IAB to sniff out one of their own on the word of some renegade U.S. Marshall.
He'd done his homework for this meeting. Agent Mike Davis was a little rough around the edges, but most agents felt he did good work and he was generally well-liked. He knew Davis had burned IAB on one of their own which made him a natural target for the rat squad as far as Larabee was concerned. Hell, he had cheered the man himself for tagging Anelli in a little sting operation Davis happened to have spearheaded on his own time. Sure, he'd heard rumors - and Davis wasn't necessarily his type of agent - but he had no doubt his own team had their detractors within the bureau, too.
IAB had a tough job - one he grudgingly admitted had to be done - but putting cops under a microscope wasn't what Larabee was in business for.
And yet, here he sat, waiting on a U.S. Marshall -some kid with a chip on his shoulder dealing out frontier justice like a throwback Wyatt Earp. One foot in and one foot out of his own department for being a loose canon. Larabee had enough trouble riding herd on his own posse of hotheads - he didn't need some stranger stirring up more.
"He's late," Larabee growled at his boss.
"He'll be here," Travis assured him. "He's as anxious as we are to get this taken care of."
"Who says I'm anxious about it?" Larabee asked. "I could give a damn about IAB. Far as I'm concerned, they can handle Davis on their own if they think he's dirty."
"State office says he's responsible for the death of one of their marshalls," Travis countered.
"Oh, wait, let me guess," Larabee sneered. "The dead guy was Marshall No-Show's partner, right? This just gets better and better. Now I got some renegade marshall with a chip on his shoulder AND a personal vendetta."
"Seems to me a guy like you'd appreciate his need to see this through. I've covered the tails of half the men in your squad on several such incidents as I recall," said Travis, pointedly.
"I know the guys in my crew - I'd trust them, have trusted them with my life," Larabee answered. "I don't know this guy for shi "
The door swung open to reveal a lean, long-haired blond sporting a two-day's growth of beard and a brown bomber jacket that looked like it had survived Pearl Harbor -barely.
"Vin Tanner, U.S. Marshall," he said. "Now you know me. Let's get to work."
+ + + + + + +
Two hours later Tanner had presented his case - wire taps, photos, undercover work - all pointing towards a guilty Special Agent Davis. Larabee had to admit the kid had done his homework, too. It didn't look good for Davis. But there was a lot of inference, circumstantial evidence and just plain guess-work that left him unwilling to throw his lot in with this scruffy-looking teenager against one of their own.
"Nothing here's gonna stand up in court," Larabee said finally, tossing several grainy black-and-white photos back to Tanner.
"I think that's why we're meetin' here, Larabee," Tanner answered with disdain. "Tryin' to put together a case that will."
"And we're getting pulled in on this case why, exactly?" Larabee asked. "You think he's dirty, talk to IAB. You want him for killing your partner, talk to the FBI. In case everyone here's forgot, ATF stands for Alcohol, Tobac "
"He killed my partner 'cause Andy stumbled onto his illegal firearms deal," Tanner said icily. "Ain't that what the 'F' stands for? Or maybe it stands for "
"You see him kill your partner?" Larabee challenged.
"You know I didn't."
"You see these illegal firearms? Know who Davis is supposed to be working with?"
"I told you, that's why I'm wastin' my time talkin' to you," Tanner seethed. "Goin' through the damn proper channels instead of handlin' it on my own."
"So I'm pulling my men off the Maxwell deal to chase after one of our own on the word of Marshall Dillon, here "
"Forget it," Tanner spat. He rose angrily knocking over his chair as he gathered together his papers.
"Marshall Tanner, please," Travis said, putting a hand on the man's arm to detain him.
Tanner shrugged the hand off violently as he continued to the door.
"I don't need to put up with this shit," he said. "I'll handle it alone. Tends to work out that way best anyhow."
"Isn't that how you ended up on probation with the state office to begin with?" Larabee asked, arching an eyebrow.
Tanner stopped dead. He turned on his heel, trembling with rage, and Larabee was surprised at the chill he felt as he met the eyes of the younger man. This kid could be dangerous.
"You wanna play show-and-tell, Larabee? 'Cause I'm game." The man was suddenly calm, deadly calm, as he held Larabee's gaze. "My turn, right? Do I start with the ex- hippy-turned pop-psychologist who got the pass-over when the poor little rich kid took a dive off the west central bridge? Or the ladies' man who seems to stay one step ahead of a sexual harassment charge? Or the ex-CIA agent who maybe played both sides in the Rozelli matter? And where exactly were you the night of April 23rd?"
Larabee saw red and stood, lunging across the table to grab the collar of the leather jacket in a steel fist.
"Shut the hell up, Tanner," he raged.
"I thought you wanted to play hardball, Larabee," Tanner shouted back. "You like to pitch but you can't take a hit."
"Get him out of here Orrin before I tear him apart," Larabee threatened.
"Enough," Travis ordered, pushing himself between the two men. Both were breathing heavily, squaring off against each other like caged lions, pacing their turf.
Travis pointed a finger at Larabee, then at Tanner.
"Enough," he repeated. "I didn't call for this action. It got shoved to me at the end of a ten-foot pole by some higher-up wearing asbestos gloves and a HAZMAT suit. But it's mine, see? And I'm not getting bumped back to desk sergeant five years from retirement because you two want to butt heads for stud rights - got it?"
Travis took $50 out of his wallet and threw it on the table. He glanced at his watch.
"It's 6 p.m.," Orrin said as he grabbed his coat to leave. "Get your crew together and hash this out over a few beers and a pizza, or a few beers and a couple of shots, or a couple of shots and a fist fight - I don't care how - but get it settled by morning and come to my office with a plan you can both agree on."
There was no answer from Tanner or Larabee.
"I'll take that as a 'Yes Sir,'" Travis said as the door fell shut behind him.
+ + + + + + +
By 7 p.m. four of the six ATF agents were sitting at a booth at Inez' - a solitary chair pulled up at the end of the table remained vacant.
"He know the address?" Buck asked impatiently, glancing at his watch for the third time.
Larabee took a swig of beer, the muscles of his jaw twitching.
"He has trouble telling time," he answered. "Apparently there's our time and U.S. Marshall Tanner time."
"He really got to you, didn't he?" asked Buck with some amusement. "Damn - he must be somethin' to get you this steamed, this fast."
"You fancy this IAB mission, Buck?" Chris shot back.
"Hell no, but I seem to recall you havin' a bad taste about Davis once or twice yourself -called him a sneaky little SOB if I remember correctly. Now this kid comes breezin' into town, rufflin' your feathers and you think Davis is Mr. Clean?"
"The kid's got a bad attitude - he's trouble - and I got more than my share of trouble with you," Larabee answered with a sneer.
"I think he's here," said Josiah, looking over Chris' shoulder to the door where he saw a young man talking to Inez who nodded towards their booth.
Larabee didn't turn around. He bristled as he heard the scuff of engineer boots on the hardwood floor, looked up when they stopped at his table.
"I was outta line," Tanner said simply.
Chris Larabee took in the young man before him. He could tell at once that the confession came hard, but was sincere, and that there wouldn't be any more of an apology forthcoming. For the second time that day he took a look at Vin Tanner - only this time it was a close look.
Tanner was no kid. Young yes, but a kid? His face was drawn, tired. Dark circles lay just beneath the surface of a dirty tan that looked to be years in the making. He needed a shave and a shower, and probably a good week's worth of sleep. He stood with a slight slouch, as if the weight of the world rested on his spare frame. His jaw was clenched as tight as Larabee's - he was contrite but unyielding. He was a young kid from the old school - broke the rules when he had to, willing to face the consequences.
The jacket was worn, but well-cared for. A clean T-shirt replaced the collared JC Penney special he had worn to the meeting with Travis, but the blue jeans were the same. The scuffed metal toecaps on the engineer boots screamed Harley-Davidson.
Larabee's eyes traveled back to face Tanner. Old eyes - they'd seen a lot. Tired eyes -defiant, honest, and maybe just a little - lost?
"Yeah, well," Chris answered, nudging the empty chair back from the booth as an invitation. "You were just following me."
Vin Tanner looked at the proffered chair. Larabee watched him glance up at the four pairs of eyes that followed him as he sat heavily, obviously uncomfortable at being the object of their scrutiny.
Chris looked at his men, then back at Tanner. He had to give the kid credit. It took guts to meet him here, on his own turf, facing down four presumably hostile ATF agents alone. A brief twinge of sympathy spurred him on to make introductions around the table. Buck Wilmington, Ezra Standish, Josiah Sanchez. J.D. was taking a night class and Nathan had plans with his wife, Chris explained. Tanner nodded when he had finished, shifted slightly in his chair, cleared his throat.
Inez appeared silently with another glass and Larabee poured the marshall a beer from the pitcher on the table. Vin nodded his thanks and took a long pull. Again he shifted, coughed.
"I didn't ask for this," Tanner said finally, looking down into his beer. "It's my case, my business."
"A private little war?" Chris asked, pouring himself another.
Tanner's head shot up defiantly.
"You tellin' me it'd be any different here? Some scumball takes out one of your crew you ain't gonna put the book on the shelf 'til you see the guy pay?"
"I won't say a rule or two might not get bent along the way, but that's what works with a team - we give each other balance," Chris explained. "You go out on your own, lose your balance, it's a long fall."
"I don't need to be worryin' about anyone gettin' in my way, either," Vin answered back. "I go down, I ain't takin' anyone with me."
"Now that sounds more like a death-wish to me," said Chris.
Buck watched the exchange with growing fascination. He was hard- pressed to explain why he was finding himself caring about the guy, but he did. He didn't like IAB anymore than Larabee, didn't like someone coming in upsetting the applecart, but there was something about Tanner that reminded him of
"Well I ain't you, Larabee," Tanner said. "I ain't used to working with a team, and I don't need your help nailin' Davis. You boys want to take a pass on this and let me handle the business, I'll tell Travis you cooperated 100% and get the hell outta your backyard."
"No deal, Tanner," Chris said. His earlier sympathy had dissipated and he was beginning to feel his temper rise again at the kid's stubbornness. "My name's on the ticket now - so now we do it my way."
"I knew this wouldn't work," Tanner said, pushing his chair away from the table. "I knew all you'd care about is your own tail. I want justice for Andy it's gonna be on me..."
"Liar," came the soft southern tone of Ezra Standish. The word, spoken nearly in a whisper, stunned Tanner to silence with the force of a bullet to the heart.
"You purport to be his friend, his partner, his avenger. You present a subterfuge of righteous indignation at his death, a "holy grail" you seek to obtain in honor of his memory. But in the recesses of your heart, it has ceased to be about him entirely. Tell me, Marshall Tanner. Tell me you haven't embraced this cause more as a personal vendetta against a justice system you've come to disdain, than as vengeance for a slain comrade."
"The hell you know " Tanner stuttered, then stopped, swallowing hard.
"I think he knows a hell of a lot," said Buck finally. "In fact, I know he knows a hell of a lot 'cause I didn't understand half of them words, but I understood enough to know he came pretty damn close to the target on you, kid."
Tanner was exhausted, confused. What had happened here? One moment he knew he wanted to leave. Hell, Larabee was ready to see him to the door himself. Then Standish opens his mouth and suddenly he's not sure what he wants, only that he can't leave until he figures it out.
"Maybe Capt. Travis was a little premature in setting up a meeting here tonight. I think cooler heads might prevail in the daylight," suggested Josiah.
"Our office, 8 a.m.," Chris said, rising. "I'll introduce you to the rest of the guys. Then we'll take a look at what you've got, have J.D. run some checks for us, do a little digging, get ourselves a plan to take back to Travis."
Buck shot a glance at Chris. He knew his friend all too well. Larabee had been just as close to popping as the kid. Now, all of a sudden, he's looking to work things out? Maybe Larabee finally realized that looking at Tanner was too much like looking in a mirror.
"I'll be there," Vin said, reaching for the last of his beer.
Chris stood, looking the kid up and down one more time.
"You got a place to stay? Wash up?" he asked.
Tanner flashed an easy smile that surprised Chris. He didn't think the marshall used it very often.
"I offend you, Larabee?" he asked, scratching a bristled chin. "Yeah - found me a place to rent cheap a couple blocks south of here."
"In Purgatorio?" Buck asked incredulously. "Chris is right. You do have a death-wish."
"I'm looking to get in with a dirty cop and an arms buyer. You want me to stay at the Hilton?" Vin asked.
"Buck's right," Chris said. "You've got yourself in the worst spot in town. I'll help you find "
"I'm fine. I told you - I can take care of myself," Tanner answered. He headed out the door past the bar.
"That's 8 o'clock our time, Tanner," Chris called after him, shaking his head.
The marshall kept walking, raising a hand in acknowledgement.
"By the prickling of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes," said Ezra.
Chris looked back at his men who grinned at Standish and each other, then turned troubled eyes back to the door as he heard the roar of a Harley V-ROD racing off into the night.
+ + + + + + +
U.S. Marshall Vin Tanner sat in a chair outside Chris Larabee's office. The pretty brunette at the front desk had directed him to "Larabee's Unit" where he now waited with a cardboard box filled with evidence he had collected against Agent Mike Davis. His heel tapped nervously against the institutional linoleum floor, bouncing his leg against the blue plastic bucket chair in which he sat.
"You're early," came a voice from the end of the hall. Tanner looked up as Chris Larabee strode towards him, sorting out his office key as he approached.
"Didn't want to be late," Tanner said, flashing the quick smile Larabee had caught the first glimpse of the night before.
"Come on in," Chris said, opening his office door and ushering Tanner inside. "The rest of the boys will be in shortly."
Larabee pulled a chair out in front of his desk, then moved behind it to power up his computer and unlock his desk. He nodded towards the box Tanner held.
"That your case?" he asked.
"You saw the best of it yesterday," Vin said. "I brought in everything I had, though, in case I had stuff your guys might get more out of. Fresh pair of eyes, you know?"
"It happens," Chris shrugged. "Get too close to a case "
"Yeah," Vin agreed, glancing down at the box. "Too personal," he said, looking up at Chris with the admission.
"Standish hit a nerve I take it," Chris said as he sat down, pulling himself in to his desk.
"Where the hell did he come from anyway?" Vin asked, shaking his head. "Talks like a damn encyclopedia - can't understand a word he says."
Chris allowed a slight smile himself.
"Oh, I don't know - seems you understood pretty well," he said. "And you know where he came from, right?" he added with a slight edge to his voice.
Tanner looked away guiltily.
"Like I said, I got outta line. I was hot. I been hittin' stone walls ever since Andy went down. No suit wanted to give me an ear about this. Didn't want to look at a cop sideways. I could hardly believe it when I finally got the green light to meet with ATF. Then I get here just to have one more admin tell me I ain't got a case " he shrugged.
Larabee raised an eyebrow.
"Admin? Me?" he said incredulously. "The guys would love to hear that."
"Yeah, well, I can see you got a different thing goin' here than most admins," Vin admitted. "Trouble is I just don't usually seem to hit it off with the brass."
Chris leaned forward, resting his arms on his desk.
"Just exactly how much trouble are you in back home?" he asked pointedly.
Tanner's eyes flashed the familiar defiance Chris was beginning to anticipate - and grudgingly admire -before he visibly fought to regain his composure.
"Like I said last night -I got trouble with 'teams.' Been burned once too often on 'em. I like working alone," Vin answered.
"So you and Andy?"
"Yeah, well. Like your man said. Maybe it ain't so personal. But he was a good cop. A clean cop. I don't need to have lived in the man's pocket to want to see his murderer go down. Especially if it's someone that's supposed to be on my side."
"You going to be able to work on a team long enough to get that done?" asked Chris. "'Cause I'll tell you now - these guys'll put it on the line for you, but they gotta know the feeling is mutual."
"I can respect that," said Vin. "It ain't like I'm some anti-social Rambo mercenary, but "
"Trust comes hard," Chris said, anticipating where Vin was going. He saw by the look of relief in the man's face that he had pegged it good.
"Hey Chief," said Buck Wilmington as he swung into the doorway. "Oh - hey Marshall - you're early."
"It's called 'knocking'," said Larabee with a glare.
Buck smiled at Tanner, rolled his eyes and cocked his head toward Larabee with a look that said it was an old complaint.
"Ready Room at 8:15?" Wilmington asked.
"Standish in yet?" Chris countered.
"Make it 8:30 then," Chris sighed. "I'll go over some more ground with the marshall here until then so we don't waste anyone's time."
Buck disappeared out the door as Chris turned back to Vin.
"So what else is in the box?"
+ + + + + + +
A half-hour later Larabee's unit - and one edgy U.S. Marshall - were in the Ready Room in varying stages of preparedness. Tanner sat at the end of the table fingering a can of Coke as his eyes traveled over Larabee's men. There was Sanchez, seated across from him, reading the newspaper with a bottle of Evian at his side. Standish was sipping an espresso from Starbucks as he checked the calendar of his electronic organizer. He had nodded to Vin when he entered the room, his eyes betraying a sense of understanding - of seeming to know where Vin had come from, and where he was trying to go.
Standing around the coffeepot was Buck Wilmington and some kid who looked fresh out of college - or maybe even high school, he thought. He had heard Wilmington call out 'J.D.' when the kid entered the room, which meant the tall African American talking to Chris would be Nathan Jackson, the EMT.
He hated teams, he reminded himself. Yet this group had a different feeling than most units he had worked with. An eclectic group, but somehow the odd parts made up a solid whole. He wasn't ready to trade PIN numbers with anyone yet, but he felt that maybe he could safely lower a shield or two.
"Alright guys," Chris said finally. "Settle in. J.D., Nathan, this is U.S. Marshall Vincent Tanner. Marshall, J.D. Dunne and Nathan Jackson."
"Vin," Tanner said, nodding to them both as they shook hands.
"Texas, right?" asked J.D.
"Yeah, Houston," Vin answered.
"Vin's partner Andy Koros stumbled on a heavy arms deal between a buyer out of Houston that looks to have been set up by one of our own - Mike Davis," Chris explained. "He's got the go-ahead from Houston and our IAB to look into it. We're here because he's one of ours and because another buy arranged by Davis might be going down with a Denver local -Alejandro Molto."
"Alex!" Buck said with a grin. "Is that old crocodile still around? I thought he went up five years ago."
"Came right back down on a botched Miranda," Chris said. "Obviously it wasn't one of ours, right?"
"No, boss - "Read 'em From the Card Wilmington, that's me," Buck answered with a salute.
"Vin's got a line on a meet between Davis and Molto tomorrow night. We're tailing it," Chris said.
"I'm tailing it," Vin corrected him.
"Unit, Vin, remember? You're part of a team whether you like it or not," Chris answered.
"Hell, Larabee, who d'ya think is gonna get closer? Me on a bike or six guys in a van?" Vin challenged.
"Nate and I are back in a van, way back. You got Buck and Ezra closer in a car."
"That's even better," Vin said sarcastically. "Three vehicles in the middle of Purgatorio at 10 p.m. No one'll suspect a thing."
"I thought we were straight on this Tanner. My name's on the ticket, I'm driving."
Vin met Larabee's glare across the table. The tightness in his throat that had started to ease at the beginning of this meeting was back with a force that threatened to choke him. This whole thing was gonna blow up in his face - he could feel it. He'd felt it before.
"You're wired, you call the shots when we get there," Chris said, relenting. He could see the past exchange hadn't gone down well at all with the marshall, knew how he'd feel himself in Tanner's place, and offered the only bone he was willing to share.
"Yeah," Vin said reluctantly. "On those terms. I call the shots at the meet."
Chris let out a breath.
"We'll spend the day going over the evidence Vin brought," he said. "Josiah and J.D. - check with IAB, see what they have. The rest will meet back here tonight at 9 p.m. for positions."
+ + + + + + +
By 1 p.m., Vin found himself in front of a vending machine in the central cafeteria playing Russian Roulette with the bargain shelf.
"There's an Italian restaurant of relatively stable repute across the street," came the Southern lilt of Ezra Standish. "A far cry from Roma but less likely to be breeding a new bioculture than the fare you're currently perusing."
Vin shook his head.
"Damn, Standish, you do got a mouthful of words," he said in amazement, then looked back at the row of plastic doors before him. "I reckon I got enough natural parasites in my gut to fight off anything growin' on that tuna sandwich."
"Your choice," Ezra said bowing. "But the suggestion included a credit card-carrying dining companion."
Vin looked back at him, his head cocked slightly. Ezra could almost see the wheels turning in the kid's mind - could almost see his offer being measured against a list of checks and balances. He smiled when he saw the outcome register to the good in Tanner's eyes.
"Yeah, o.k.," Vin agreed. "But you're gonna have to notch it down a peg or two if you want any conversation. I got kicked out of Harvard."
Vin munched hungrily on a stuffed-crust special at Gino's while Ezra watched in amazement, picking gingerly through a plate of linguine with clams. Vin looked up to see the agent's plate had been barely touched.
"I thought you said this was a good place to eat?" asked Vin, pointing to Ezra's order.
"I said it was reputed to be relatively stable," Ezra corrected him. "My definition of 'a good place to eat' does not include dining establishments which employ paper napkins and powdered cheese in a shaker."
Vin took another bite, then glanced up thoughtfully at Standish.
"You don't pull any punches, do you Standish?" he asked finally.
Ezra took a drink of ice water and brushed a napkin across his lips disdainfully.
"If you're referring to the other evening " he began.
"You nailed me hard," Vin admitted.
"I assure you - it was not my intent to offend - or 'nail you' as you put it. I merely felt it to be to the advantage of all of us if we began this admittedly distasteful venture with all cards clearly on the table."
"You knew me - what? Five minutes?" asked Vin. "And you came up with that?"
"Was I wrong?"
"No - you know you weren't. That's the point. How'd you know so fast?"
Ezra eyed him lazily.
"If you're implying that I am familiar with the attitude and therefore prone to distinguish it in others "
"Standish - GED, remember?" Vin reminded him.
Ezra laughed, but the smile faded quickly as he looked Vin squarely in the eye.
"It's a common reflex in those of us unaccustomed to familiarity," he said quietly.
Vin let out a sigh of exasperation.
"Trust comes hard for us," Ezra said simply. "We see people like Chris, Buck, J.D. - the camaraderie they share -and we feel guilty for not being able to give ourselves over to that level of trust. So we kid ourselves, and others, into thinking that our loyalties are to the men and not the mission. Because being bound by honor, trust, and brotherhood is regarded more highly than dedication to duty, and appears to come so easily to them."
Vin had stopped eating, working hard to follow everything Standish was saying.
"I suspect we have, too often, been betrayed by human frailties, my friend," Ezra concluded.
Tanner sat back in the booth. Ezra saw years of hurt and betrayal in the eyes across the table. As much as Standish had trouble with the issue of trust, he could see the concept was even more alien to the marshall. The words he had spoken had gone deep, and the glimpse into Tanner's soul they had afforded Ezra was more painful than he would have imagined in one so young.
Vin sat in a reverie of silence, lost in another time. Slowly he came to himself and looked at Ezra, saw the kindred spirit Standish had revealed himself to be that first night. Ezra could almost feel the weight of the question as it formed in Tanner's mind.
"You trust 'em?" he asked.
Ezra searched his soul, intent on providing the kid with an honest answer - an answer he found with little surprise that he believed with all his heart.
"With my life."
+ + + + + + +
Vin sat on his bike in the dark stillness of the alley. He had Molto in sight - waiting in a black Chrysler that sat not ten feet away. Vin had stationed himself in the alley a good hour before the car had pulled up - was certain he remained unseen behind the dumpster. He raised his hand, cupped it in front of his face and around the mike that was clipped to the side of his helmet.
"Anything?" he whispered.
"I got two kids getting physical in a beat-up Ford and a regular finishing off a bottle of MD 20/20 behind the Quick-Mart," came a voice inside his helmet he recognized as Wilmington's.
"Nothing here," said Larabee. "Maybe Davis got tipped off?"
"I'm not goin' anywhere," Vin answered. He'd wait until dawn before he called this off and risked missing a chance to prove Davis was dirty.
"I didn't say "
"Got a grey two-door coupe, no plates, headed your way, Vin," Buck broke in suddenly.
"Bingo," Vin whispered, pulling the infrared 35mm from his jacket and adjusting the lens. "My call Larabee," Vin reminded the team leader.
"My call, my call," Larabee muttered off-mike. "I'm regretting this already."
"Easy, chief," Nathan said, putting a hand on Larabee's shoulder. "We're not the only ones who know how to run a stakeout, remember?"
"We're the only ones over 18," Chris answered.
"Come on, Chris. Just because he wouldn't make the casting call for "Thirysomething" doesn't mean he's a kid. You gonna try to tell me he hasn't had more experience down and dirty than any of us?" Nathan asked.
"He's no probie, I'll give you that," Chris admitted. "But damn he's cocky. He "
"Damn!" came a shout on the radio -Tanner. Larabee heard the Harley scream into action, heard Buck and Ezra shout simultaneously as the rented Mazda gunned to life as well.
"Talk to me!" Chris demanded as Nathan put the van in gear.
"I thought you cleared this area!" Vin shouted above the roar of the bike. "Some beat car just cruised through - Molto jumped. I'm tailing the coupe - headed west on Commerce, crossing Edison."
"Got him," Ezra said, taking the mike over from Buck.
"I'm gonna try to cut him off on Taylor," Buck said.
"Stick with Vin," Ezra countered. "We don't want to "
But Buck had already turned off from Tanner and was racing down an alley.
"Vin?" Chris called, anxious for an update.
"Shit - I don't know. Ain't Buck on my tail? Curry - just crossed Curry, I think," Tanner said as he followed carefully behind the coupe, desperate for one look at the driver without revealing his own identity. "He's gonna hit the bridge in a half a mile, I can "
The transmission cut with a squeal and curse from Tanner. Chris shot a glance at Nathan who floored the van.
"Buck? Ezra?" he shouted into the mike. "Where's Tanner? What happened?"
The radio sat stubbornly in excruciating silence as Nathan drove furiously towards the last coordinates they'd received near Fremont bridge.
"Buck?" Chris called again.
The mike hissed and clicked as Wilmington's voice, taught with emotion, broke the silence.
"Get us an ambulance."
+ + + + + + +
Nate pulled the van up alongside the wreck in the middle of the street. The Mazda's back end was totaled, both front doors standing open. Larabee searched for his men, took a breath when he saw both Wilmington and Standish -then swore when he made out the prone body of Vin Tanner lying unmoving between them.
"What the hell happened?" he demanded.
"It's on me, Chris," Buck said in anguish. "I thought I could cut off the coupe - do an end around. I lost Tanner - came out of a blind alley - next thing I know he's ramming us. Damn, Chris " he choked.
Nathan pulled his kit from the back of the van and moved in beside Ezra who knelt beside the marshall, his hand resting lightly on Tanner's shoulder.
"I didn't move him," he said to Nate's questioning look. "I thought maybe "
"You thought right," Nathan assured him. "He out since impact?"
"He hasn't moved, made a sound, since I got to him," Ezra reported.
The four men tensed as a siren wailed in the distance.
"Nate?" Chris asked hesitantly.
"I don't want to move him until I get a C-collar and a backboard," Jackson said. "I'd say we're talking a concussion at the least." Nathan's nimble hands floated over Tanner's limbs, gently probing for broken bones.
"I told him he could trust us," Ezra said numbly as he stared down at Tanner, his hand still gripping the marshall's shoulder.
"What?" asked Chris.
Ezra looked up at him, stricken, words failing him.
"Nothing," he said, shaking his head. "You wouldn't understand."
+ + + + + + +
Chris paced the waiting room, glancing repeatedly at the clock above the door. Buck sat at a table, a cold cup of coffee before him. Nathan had been allowed in the exam room. Ezra had reluctantly agreed to stay on-site and sort out the details of removing vehicles, filling out accident reports, talking to the street cops. Chris knew Standish was shaken badly - apparently there had been a connection made somewhere between Ezra and Vin - but he was more concerned about Buck right now. His friend was taking sole responsibility for the accident. Chris respected him for that, but felt Tanner might've been too focused on following the coupe to concentrate on where he was heading, how he was driving.
"He's gonna be pissed," Buck muttered miserably. "Ezra told me to stay with him but I had to play Starsky and Hutch. And Ezra? Man, even he's not speaking to me right now."
"Yeah," Chris sighed. He wished he could've come up with something more comforting to say, but what the hell? They both knew Tanner would blame them for this - would insist he had been right in wanting to handle it alone.
A doctor strode toward them with Nathan at his heels. He shook Chris' hand, introduced himself as Dr. Monroe, and gestured to the empty chairs at Buck's table.
"He's lucky," the doctor said falling heavily into the chair. "Nathan was right in his initial assessment - you've got a concussion going here, but other than that, the worst we've got is a broken left wrist and a few cracked ribs."
"He come to yet?" asked Buck.
"You don't want to know," Nathan answered shaking his head.
"Shit," Buck swore. "What the hell am I going to say to him?"
"How long is he here?" Chris asked, leaving the question unanswered for now.
"Couple days," Dr. Monroe answered. "We'll want to keep him under observation - make sure nothing's scrambled. I have to say I was surprised when they told me it was a bike accident. He's got a few road burns on his left hip and thigh, but no blood loss. An accident like that with some of these rocket- jocks wearing nothing but shorts and a T-shirt would've left him skinned alive."
"Can we see him?" Chris asked.
"They're getting him a room now," Nathan said. "You might want to give him a little while to cool down."
"It's gonna get any better tomorrow?" Chris asked sarcastically.
"Well, it couldn't get much worse," Nathan answered.
"Doc?" Chris asked Monroe again.
Monroe spread his hands out before him as he stood.
"I've got no medical reason to keep you away from him," he answered, looking around the table at them. "Unless it's going to result in more work for my ER." He smiled with a shake of his head and headed out the door. "Check with the nurses' station for his room number," he called as he left the room.
"Buck, why don't you head back to the scene - check on Ezra - patch things up with him. I'll stay and talk to Tanner," Chris said.
"Chris, I " Buck stammered.
"I know, Buck. I'll do what I can. You try and get your head around this. Don't let it mess us up down the line, right?"
"Yeah, right," Buck agreed slowly. "But you'll tell him I mean Damn, Chris, I really like the kid, you know?"
"I'll give you a call later," Chris said, resting a hand on Wilmington's shoulder. He watched his friend walk dejectedly out the door.
"So how close to nuclear fission are we talking here?" Chris asked Nathan.
"What do you think, Chris? This is exactly what he was afraid of. His meet is blown, maybe his cover as well, and he's in a hospital bed with a headache the size of Denver."
"He should've given us more of a heads-up," Chris said defensively.
"He did as much as he could've, Chris, not knowing the city - not expecting to have to know it tailing a guy at night in a ride that wasn't supposed to happen. You go in there with that line of defense he's going to run for sure," Nathan chastised.
Larabee sighed heavily. He had to agree with Jackson. Just saying it out loud here, with his own man, had left a bad taste in his mouth.
"I'll throw myself on the mercy of the court," Chris promised reluctantly.
"Better," Nathan said with a smile as they headed towards the nurses' station. He stopped at the door, a hand on Chris' arm as his smile faded to concern.
"And Chris?" he started uneasily. "I was in there during the exam. You should " he stopped, biting his lip.
"What, Nate?" Chris asked concerned.
"He's not my patient, but it still probably isn't right to "
"What?" Chris prodded.
"Alright - let's say I'm not stepping out of bounds telling you this kid's familiar with ERs -and I'm talking about more than just a career in law enforcement."
Larabee looked hard at Jackson, reading volumes between the lines by looking in the soulful eyes of his unit's 'healer.'
"So what now," Chris said shrugging his shoulders, "I'm supposed to apologize to him for blowing his bust and for the fact that life dealt him a bad hand?"
"Cut it out, Chris," Jackson said, his eyes flashing an anger that surprised Larabee. "I'm saying when you go in there, you bear in mind it takes a hell of a lot of tough living to make a kid that young, that experienced. You're set to go in there ready to take on an equal like Buck or Ezra when what you've really got in that bed is a J.D. without a safety net. He talks ten years older and a hundred years more experienced than he is - and that eats at you 'cause you figure he hasn't earned the right to meet you at your level. And what I'm telling you is he's reaching back to your level, Chris. He hit tough-as-nails when you were still driving your dad's Buick to frat night with a cheerleader in the front seat and a quarter barrel in the back."
Chris' jaw was taught, his fists clenched. If he had had a dressing down like this from anyone else he would've already been swinging. But coming from Jackson it had taken him completely off guard. Nathan was always the calm in the eye of the storm - the level head. Hearing a tirade like this from the man, even when it was directed at him - especially when it was directed at him - left him paralyzed in thought and action.
"Understood," he said simply. He turned to the nurse on desk and asked for the room number of Vin Tanner. She wrote it out on a slip of paper and handed it to him. Chris turned back to Nathan.
"301," he read from the slip, crushing it in his hand. "Apocalypse Now."
+ + + + + + +
Chris saw Nathan off, then called Josiah to fill him in on the evening's debacle. To his credit, Sanchez offered to face Vin first, but Chris declined. Then he called Buck - he and Ezra were straight, Wilmington had said, but it was obvious Standish was still very shaken by what had happened. His last call was to J.D. who'd already spoken with Buck and was running Davis' vehicle registration and checking his assignment schedule for the night. They'd lost a big battle tonight, but the war was still on.
Larabee knocked quietly on the door of 301. He didn't wait for an invitation.
"Get out," rasped Tanner.
"Not going to happen, Marshall," Chris said, as he pulled a chair close to the bed. An IV dripped rhythmically into a needle that disappeared under gauze taped to the back of Tanner's right hand which rested gingerly across his heavily taped chest. His left was covered up and around the thumb and back up to the elbow in a cast. The eyes that had slid open briefly to ascertain the identity of his intruder had closed again as if even that movement had required too much energy.
"We screwed up," Chris said.
There was no response.
"Buck's blaming himself, eating himself up with guilt over this. Ezra's so shaken he's hardly talking. I got J.D. and Josiah working on "
"Tell Buck to forget it," Vin said without opening his eyes.
"That's not likely," Chris answered, surprised at the comment but grateful for the response - for any response.
"Tell him to forget it," Vin repeated.
"I have to admit I'm surprised," Chris said carefully. "Nathan had me thinking I'd need a flak jacket to survive this."
The bloodshot eyes slid open again, squinting against even the faint bed light that was the room's only illumination. Chris noticed and reached up to turn it off.
"I'd appreciate it if you could send someone over with my stuff," Tanner said. "I'll want my evidence back."
Chris' eyes narrowed and he leaned in closer.
"And I would do that because ?"
"Because it's a professional courtesy."
"You're going to be able to go through it more efficiently here than we would back at the office?" Chris asked, knowing full well where this was heading and trying to keep his temper in check.
"You had your shot - you missed. I'll do it my way now," Vin answered.
"State office might not agree with you," Chris said evenly.
"We'll see," Vin said, his eyes closing again.
The door opened and Chris turned abruptly, catching the night nurse by surprise.
"Oh," she said, "I'm sorry - I didn't expect anyone I'm going to hang a new IV for Mr. Tanner. He needs to rest when he can - we'll have to wake him periodically during the first 24 hours following the concussion."
"I'll see you tomorrow," Chris said, frustrated, as he opened the door to leave.
"Not if I see you first," Tanner answered as the door closed behind him.
+ + + + + + +
The usual bustle and morning banter of the Ready Room was replaced by a morgue-like atmosphere heavy with silence. Chris nodded as each of his men entered and somberly slid into chairs around the table. Standish came in last looking exhausted - his emotions obviously being held in check with tremendous effort.
"Alright," Chris said finally. "Round two. We got our bell rung good first time out, but that changes now."
"You call the hospital this morning?" asked Buck.
"Not yet. I wanted to meet first -give him something positive to think on while he's laid up. So let's go over what we've got and what we need to get back on track," Chris answered.
"Davis drives a Camry, but we had to figure he wouldn't have shown up in his own car," J.D. offered. "He was scheduled off last night so there's no help there."
"Nothing," Ezra said quietly.
"I got a tip confirming that Molto's looking to buy," Josiah said. "But Vin already identified him at the scene, so "
"Nada," Ezra muttered.
"What about the shipment?" Chris asked, ignoring him. "Anything come in recently?"
"We're checking the docks, but after we took down D'Amico we lost a lot of our regular contacts. It's going to take time to build up new ones," said Nathan.
"Alright, Standish - just how do you figure that's helping us here?" Larabee exploded. "You're ticked off that things went wrong? We all are. But I got men here trying to find me answers so I don't have to go back to Tanner empty handed. You want to help us turn this case around and help him get his man or not - because I don't need any dead weight on this."
"It's not about getting the man!" Ezra shouted, standing with fists on the table before him. "That's what you don't get, Larabee. It's not about getting the man. It's about trust. He trusted us to help him - to back him up - to follow his lead. He'll get Davis - alone or with our questionable assistance - but any chance we had of giving him a team to believe in is gone. I realize the concept eludes your back- slapping, good-old-boy brotherhood, but for some men, the act of placing faith in anyone beyond the face in the mirror is a near- Olympic feat. Marshall Tanner attempted that with us - and the fact that we failed him so miserably exceeds the confines of the job, gentlemen. It has ramifications beyond your understanding."
The tension in the room was broken by a knock on the door. Nathan rose quietly to answer it, taking a piece of paper from their receptionist.
"Shit," he swore as he read. Buck, J.D. and Josiah looked at Nathan while Standish and Larabee remained locked in silent confrontation. Jackson broke the standoff by handing the paper to Chris who read it silently. He looked across at Standish.
"Well that's just great," he said, defeated.
"What?" asked Josiah.
"Dr. Monroe called. He wants to know what idiot helped Marshall Tanner sign himself out this morning," Chris said, throwing the note on the table.
Ezra stared back at him unflinchingly.
+ + + + + + +
Vin Tanner sat on the landing halfway up to his rented third-floor walkup, his head resting painfully in his right hand, his left cradled awkwardly on his lap.
"Well, I'll give you credit - you got farther than I thought you would," said a voice from the lower landing. "'Course you're still behind on points when you total up the stupidity column."
"Aw, hell, Larabee - leave me alone," muttered Vin. He raised his head carefully and brushed a shaky hand through sweat- soaked hair.
"I've seen healthier DOAs," Chris said mounting the stairs to the second landing. He crouched down across from Vin.
"You think you can make it to your apartment or should I call an ambulance?" he asked.
"I got a choice?" Vin countered.
"Hospitals aren't my first choice either," Chris acknowledged. "You let me help you to your room, get some meds into you, I won't tell Mom."
Tanner looked up at him, allowed the faintest of smiles.
"Deal," he said simply.
Larabee helped the marshall to his feet, surprised by how light he was. What was it about this kid that made him seem 10 years older and 10 times bigger than he really was? By the time they had made it to Tanner's apartment, Vin was shaking so badly he couldn't get the key in the lock. Chris took it from him, opened the door, and eased him onto the first piece of furniture - hell, the only piece of furniture he saw.
"What'd they give you?" he asked, reaching for a water glass on the kitchen sink.
Vin sat exhausted on the overstuffed and badly worn sofa, his eyes squeezed shut, a sheen of sweat covering his face. He reached into his jeans pocket with his right hand and pulled out a crumpled prescription.
"Shit," Larabee swore. "When were you going to get this filled?" he asked, reading the order for a high-dose painkiller he recalled from a bullet wound he had taken three years ago.
"I was afraid I was gonna puke in the cab. I didn't want to risk making an extra stop," Vin admitted, too sick now to care what Larabee thought anymore.
Chris shook his head.
"You've got a drugstore on the corner. I'll go get this filled," he said heading out the door. He stopped and turned back.
"Don't go anywhere," he ordered, then saw it was unnecessary. Tanner was fast asleep.
+ + + + + + +
When he woke, Vin Tanner took a moment to realize where he was. He found himself lying on his sofa, boots off, the blanket from his bed draped over him.
"Here," said a voice, startling him.
He struggled to focus on the hand that held two white pills out to him. He put them in his mouth, chasing them down with a glass of water that magically appeared in the hand that had held the pills moments ago.
"You want to sit up?" the voice asked.
Vin began to push weakly against the back of the sofa when strong hands guided him into a sitting position. Larabee.
"What time is it?" Vin asked, looking at the casted wrist where his watch would've been.
"Almost four," said Chris.
"Shit - how long was I out?"
"Well, let's see. I got word of your AWOL at about 9 a.m. this morning. Took me about an hour to find your place - nice little fixer-upper by the way. We spent a good half hour getting you up the last flight of stairs and onto your curb-side special here," he said patting the sofa. "I spent an hour waiting for the local pharmacist to approve this nice little cocktail the doctor mixed up for you. So I'd say for the past four hours it's just been me and the cockroaches listening to you snore."
"You didn't have to stay," Vin said defensively. Chris could almost see the shields going up.
"The guys are keeping me up-to-date," Chris said, nodding towards his cell phone on the kitchen counter. "It's what we do when we have a man down."
Vin was rubbing his hand across sleep-filled eyes, then stopped cold at the last sentence. He looked up at Larabee.
"What's that mean, now?" he asked evenly. "I give you some slack, don't get ballistic when you take the blame for last night and all of a sudden I'm one of yours?"
"Look, all I meant "
"No, I know what you meant," Vin sneered. "Admit you're wrong, hold his hand, tell him you care - a stinkin' Hallmark moment - and all is forgiven, right?"
"This is still our case -we're still committed to it," Chris said. "I'm here to see you don't go off half-cocked 'cause things got screwed up last night."
"You don't think I can handle this on my own?" Vin challenged, suddenly enraged.
"Look, son, I didn't say that," Chris said, struggling to remain calm. "I said you don't have to handle it on your own."
"I've been taking care of business on my own long before this and I don't need you or your kind tellin' me any different."
"My kind?" Chris scoffed. "You don't know anything about me."
"I know all I need to know. You're one of those macho control freaks with his own 'crack team' of chosen few who thinks he can earn a man's trust by callin' him 'son.' Well I ain't lookin' to be controlled by anyone, so far all I got outta your 'crack team' is a trip to the ER, and I sure as hell ain't your son."
Larabee held Tanner's steely gaze with his own, letting the last angry outburst hang heavily in the air between them. He found himself fighting to maintain his anger - and losing. The last words from Tanner were filled with so much anger, so much betrayal, so much pain, it cut him to the quick. Words from Nathan, from Ezra, swam in his memory - he's reaching back to your level -the act of placing faith in anyone beyond the face in the mirror is a near- Olympic feat. This was what Ezra was talking about. Tanner was angry the meet had gone sour -angry he had landed in the ER - but mostly, he was angry he had allowed himself to believe in someone other than himself - and gotten burned for it one more time.
"What's your story, Vin?" he asked suddenly, taking Tanner off guard. The kid had been prepared for a fight. It was obvious the question threw him.
"I'm lookin' for a dirty cop " he answered.
"No," Chris interrupted. "Before the dirty cop. Before the one-man crusade against evil. Before the marshall's badge. That much anger needs time to ferment."
"What is this?" Vin asked, "Some kind of Dr. Phil therapy? You lookin' for an episode of 'This is Your Life'?"
"Cut it out," Chris ordered. "I'm not looking for the self-pity version. I want the straight shit. You're no kid - you've jammed that down my throat since you arrived. So quit acting like one now. You came into my backyard with a chip on your shoulder the size of Gibraltor and it didn't come from the job. You've been carrying it so long you can't even stand up straight anymore."
"I don't need this " Vin said, struggling to stand up.
Chris pushed him back easily with one hand, the action sending a wave of pain and nausea through Tanner that left his head reeling.
"What do you need, Tanner? A doctor? A confessor? A father- figure?" Chris asked. "All I'm looking to be is a fellow cop - maybe a friend if you'd give the mere idea of it half a chance. You don't want me? Fine. Give Ezra a call. He's bleeding all over my conference table for you and I'm just trying to find out why."
"Shit," Vin swore as he felt the bile rise in his throat. "I'm gonna be sick."
Chris reached for a wastebasket spilling its contents of scrap paper and tissue on the floor and held it under Tanner's chin as he began to heave.
"Easy," Chris said. "You got it?" he asked, leaving the basket on Vin's lap. He went into the bathroom and ran cold water over a washcloth.
Larabee came back to Vin, trading the cloth for the wastebasket. He emptied it into the toilet, then returned with a glass of water. Vin laid his head back against the sofa, the cloth draped over his eyes. Chris took his right hand and placed the glass of water in it. Tanner took a small sip and held it out until Chris took it back and put it on the table. Vin let out a long, shuddering sigh. He was tired of the battle.
"What do you want to know, Larabee?" he asked quietly, bitterly. "You want to know about the orphanage - the foster homes? You want to hear about belt buckles and cigarettes? Street life and gang initiations? Pick a story in the paper and slap my name on it."
Chris sat down across from Tanner, his hand rubbing the back of his neck.
"I guess I don't need details," he said resignedly. "Like you say - pick one troubled kid's story out of the paper and you can put a hundred names to it. That's the hell of it."
"Growing up - I never knew a single person I could trust," Vin said. "On the job? Maybe two or three." He removed the cloth from his eyes and looked at Chris.
"You want to know the real hell of it?" he asked. "Andy wasn't even one of them."
"So why the crusade?" asked Chris.
"Like I said. He was a good cop - a little too ambitious for me - but a good cop nonetheless. And Mike Davis is a dirty one. Somewhere along the line the good guys have got to win. Somewhere along the line I've got to find some reason for having put up with all the crap I've been dealt. Some reason why I shouldn't have just given up the fight years ago."
Tanner put the cloth back over his eyes and eased himself down until he was lying on the sofa. Chris studied him for a moment, choosing his words carefully.
"Last night - the things that went wrong," he began, "They went wrong because procedure wasn't followed, communication wasn't maintained, adrenaline won over good sense." Chris placed a tentative hand on Vin's shoulder. "But there wasn't a man out there who didn't want to see it done. I've got five men back at the office worried about you - about this case. Whether you want to believe it or not, whether you're ready to accept it or not, you're part of that team. Fact is, you run out on us now and I've got no team. Ezra's ready to bail if I look at him sideways, Buck's wallowing in a sea of guilt, J.D.'s worried about Buck, Nathan's going to ream me out for not giving you a one-way ticket back to the ER, and Josiah's probably already intoned the spirits of half the tribes of the Native American population on behalf of your troubled soul."
A long minute ticked by. Finally, Vin lifted a corner of the cloth from one eye which squinted out at Chris.
"8 a.m., right?" he asked.
Chris smiled in spite of himself.
"I'll get a couple extra wastebaskets for your desk."
+ + + + + + +
"You're crazy, you know that, right?" Nathan shouted at Chris across the table. It was 8:15 a.m. and all his agents were seated around the conference table. Six agents - minus one U.S. Marshall. "You should've taken him straight back to General."
"It was a judgement call, Nathan. I didn't want him to take off on me again. This way at least I'll know where he is," said Chris.
"Yeah - passed out on the floor in the men's room - wiped out in the middle of the street on that damn bike - dead he'll be easy to find," Jackson said sarcastically.
"Bike's in the shop," Tanner said as he walked into the room - obviously avoiding any fast moves. "I took a cab." He sat down in a vacant chair, then looked carefully up at Chris. "Sorry I'm late."
"You take your pills this morning?" Larabee asked.
Vin pulled a bottle out of his coat pocket and shook it.
"Got a Coke around here?" he asked.
Four hours later the carton of material Vin had brought to Chris the day before had been sorted, shuffled, and resorted into piles covering the conference table. Each man had their area of expertise; each man had a pile of evidence to sift through.
Larabee wanted to get back on the right track with the assignment - and with Marshall Tanner -and he was pushing. It wasn't until he had started to propose one more theory which was met by an exasperated sigh from Nathan that he looked to where the angry med- tech was nodding.
Vin was sitting far back in his chair, his eyes closed. His left arm was resting heavily on the table, his right hand tenderly massaging the bandaged ribs. He looked like hell, and he needed a break. They probably all did.
"Shelve that," he said in the middle of his thought. "Get some lunch, take a walk, let this go for a while. We all need some air."
A general chorus of agreement echoed through the room as the men made their way out the door of the conference room before their leader changed his mind. All except Vin.
"You do that for me?" Vin asked, eyes closed.
"Yeah, I did it for you. And for them, too," Chris said honestly. "You look like hell, by the way."
Vin shook out a few more pills from the orange plastic bottle and swallowed them with the last of his second Coke.
"How many is that?" Chris asked.
"You counting?" Vin answered.
"Should I be?"
"Not unless you're planning to adopt me," Vin smiled.
"Come on," Chris said, shaking his head as he helped him to his feet. "I'm buying."