+ + + + + + +
It was nearly two by the time they had finished lunch and as Vin sat in the passenger seat of Larabee's truck he found that despite his best efforts, he was hardly able to keep his eyes open anymore. Before Tanner knew it, Larabee had stopped the truck outside Vin's apartment in Purgatorio.
"Let's go, cowboy," Chris said as he opened the passenger door.
"This doesn't look like ATF headquarters," Vin said climbing out.
"You really going to try and argue with me on this?"
Vin gripped the edge of the door as he waited for his vision to clear. He waved Chris away, too tired to start a battle.
"I'll see you tomorrow," he said as he made his way to the door. He started to look back, only to find that Chris was still alongside him.
"What now?" he asked, stopping.
"Unless the rats in this building are big enough to ride, I'm thinking you could use a hand getting to the third floor," Chris explained.
Vin eyed him for a moment.
"Are you really this way with all your men or am I special?" he asked as Chris held the door open for him.
"I prefer to think of you as 'differently abled,'" Chris said with a smile.
Back in Tanner's apartment, Chris made a quick reconnaissance of the place while Vin used the bathroom. There wasn't much to see, but a long leather case next to Tanner's bed caught his attention. Chris unzipped the case and pulled out the rifle, whistling softly to himself.
"Emerson 990," Vin said behind him. Chris jumped and looked at the marshall guiltily.
"Sorry, I " he said laying the rifle on the bed.
"It's o.k.," Vin said. "Professional curiosity, right?" He picked the gun up, clicked open the chamber, locked it back and looked down the site, then handed it to Larabee.
"I've had it a long time," he said with a shrug.
"Don't leave home without it, huh?" Chris asked examining the rifle.
"Something like that," Vin said.
"I don't pretend to know a lot about long-distance rifles like this," Chris admitted. "But I have heard 'E- 9' whispered with awe among a couple sharpshooters I know with an almost religious fervor."
"I haven't fired anything better," Vin said.
Chris looked at him for a moment, then back at the rifle.
"Spoken like someone who's owned a few rifles in his time," Chris said, glancing back at Tanner questioningly. "And knows how to shoot," he added.
Vin flashed the quick smile again but said nothing. Instead he headed into the kitchen where Chris heard the distinct rattle of pills and then water running into a glass.
+ + + + + + +
"So what was that all about?" Alejandro Molto hissed into his private line.
"Bad timing. I checked. It was just a squad heading back to base," said Davis.
"And the cycle?" asked Molto.
"A little baggage I seem to have brought back from Houston unnoticed," Davis answered with irritation.
"You know the guy?"
"Yeah. Koros' partner," Davis answered.
"What? I don't have enough trouble with local law - now I got U.S. Marshalls on my tail?"
"Don't worry about him," said Davis. "He's a hothead. Even his own people don't want to deal with him. In fact, I've got a little something going already to assure me he'll be plenty busy with his own affairs to be too concerned about ours."
"But if he's here he's working with the locals," Molto answered. "And I've had enough contact with them. The last time it cost me a pretty penny to buy my way out. I'm calling this all off."
"I don't think so, Molto," Davis said testily. "I've got my own money tied up in it now. I've got the product - I'm ready to deliver."
There was a pause on the other end of the line - a heavy sigh.
"How are you going to make this Houston problem go away?" asked Molto.
"Easy," Davis answered. "Just ask Bobby Anelli."
+ + + + + + +
Chris Larabee sat at his desk reading the transcripts from wiretaps Tanner had included in his box of evidence. He glanced at the clock on the wall - 6 p.m. He heard a faint rustling outside his office and looked up as Buck swung in the doorway.
"Me and J.D. are it - and we're headed home now," he said, finishing a can of Coke. "We're thinking of stopping by Tanner's on the way."
"Since when is Purgatorio 'on the way' to your place?" Chris asked.
"Since I figure I owe him an apology face-to-face," said Buck.
"He giving you a hard time?"
"No. But I figure just 'cause he's being straight about it doesn't mean I can just drop it. I screwed up. I owe him an
apology," Buck answered. He began to duck back out of the office when Chris called to him.
"Hey Buck?" he said, waiting for Wilmington's face to appear around the door again. "He's got an Emerson 990 in the bedroom. He tells you he needs to get a sweater you better get your butt out the door."
He ducked, laughing, as the empty Coke can came sailing past him.
Larabee turned back to his desk, took out his keys and unlocked the bottom drawer of the desk. He pulled out the manila file Travis had dropped off earlier in the day. United States Government - U.S. Marshall Enforcement -Houston Office was stamped across the top; on the side: TANNER, VINCENT. Chris turned to the back of the folder and started to read.
+ + + + + + +
"Pizza delivery," came a shout at the door.
Vin startled awake from his spot on the sofa. He peered at his watch - 6:30 p.m.
"Hey Vin?" came the familiar chirp he'd come to recognize as J.D. "We got supper."
Tanner got up slowly - he was at least beginning to learn to do that after a few more bouts of nausea - and made his way to the door.
"Who's we?" he asked, opening it.
He looked at the pizza boxes in front of him, then up at the man holding them.
"Him and the shit-for-brains that landed you in the ER," Buck said. "I don't figure a pizza makes up for that, but you can eat while I try to convince you to give me a chance to find something that does."
Vin stared at him, then at J.D., then at the pizza.
"If you brought beer with that I'll consider it," Vin said.
"With those happy tabs you've been poppin' like candy?" Buck said, shaking his head. "You're the one with the death wish, remember? I might take on Nate, but I ain't takin' on Nate and Larabee for no one -not even you, kid."
"We brought Coke, though," J.D. said hopefully, dangling a six-pack in front of him.
Vin allowed them a smile. He took the Coke.
"Hell," he swore, backing away from the door to let them in. "Ain't there no one on your team willin' to stand up to Larabee?"
"We're just waitin' for a Deliverer, Vin," Buck said entering. "Maybe you're it."
+ + + + + + +
Chris Larabee heard the elevator doors open at the end of the hall. He rubbed his eyes and glanced at his watch, surprised to see it was almost 7:30 p.m. He'd been sitting there reading Vin Tanner's personnel file for over an hour.
"Interesting reading?" asked Orrin Travis as he entered Chris' office and took a seat.
Chris whistled softly.
"You see this before you assigned us to his case?" Chris asked.
"Why do you ask?" Travis countered.
Chris shook his head as he thumbed through some of the pages, then squinted up at Travis suspiciously.
"I got all the team I need, Orrin," he said.
Travis looked back in surprise.
"What do you mean?"
"You know damn well what I mean," said Chris. "He's another lost-cause misfit you're trying to get me to take in under my wing. I've already got five of those - I don't need any more."
"You picked Wilmington," Orrin reminded him. "And J.D.'s hardly a lost cause. He was top of his class."
"In the desk-jockey courses," Chris agreed. "But we both know he'd never have ended up with me based on his initial standings in range and under-fire unless someone was pulling strings."
"No problem with Tanner there," said Travis.
"That's about the only place there's no problem," Chris said wryly.
"Look, I don't even know why we're discussing this," Travis said, standing. "He's got a job. He's only here on loan."
"So why go to all the trouble of getting me his PF?" Chris asked.
Travis shrugged. "I thought maybe it would help smooth things over a bit. Let you know where the kid's coming from."
"Uh-huh," Chris said, nodding. "Sure."
Orrin leaned across the desk, pulled out a sheet and tapped it.
"You read that?" he asked.
"Yeah, I read it," Chris answered. "Military mumbo- jumbo. Special-ops Contra surveillance shit. I saw the E-9 in his apartment - I know he's a sharpshooter."
Travis shrugged again and headed towards the door. He paused and looked back.
"Did you see the dates on that service record?"
Chris looked down at the sheet again, then glanced back to the personal information sheet and did some quick calculating.
"He was 19?" he said softly, reading the assignment sheet again. He looked back up suddenly at Orrin's retreating form.
"No, Orrin," he shouted after him, shaking his head. "Damn it, I got all the team I need. Orrin? I got my team!"
+ + + + + + +
The pounding on the door woke Vin again - only this time it was 6 a.m. and there was no friendly voice accompanying it.
"What's going on?" Vin called as he pulled on a sweatshirt and pants.
"Federal agents - open up," came the terse reply.
Vin stumbled groggily to the door, wiping his right hand across his face as he undid the lock.
The door came open with a rush and he was spun and forced face-down on the sofa before he knew what was happening.
"Vincent Tanner? You're under arrest," a voice said above him as he heard the familiar click of handcuffs being opened.
"Arrest? What's the charge?" he asked back through gritted teeth, his head pounding.
"How the hell do I handcuff a guy with a cast?" another voice asked, irritated.
"Illegal possession of firearms," the first voice said.
"Hey, wait," Vin protested. "I'm a U.S. Marshall - I've got a permit."
"Seriously, Akers, how the hell do I do this?" came the second voice again.
"You got a permit for those half-dozen AKAs in your Houston apartment?" the first voice - Akers - asked.
"AKAs? What the hell " his voice broke off into a groan as he felt rough hands wrap the cuff chain around his casted wrist and clamp the cuff back onto a link in the chain.
"Like that, Penroy," Akers said, hauling Vin to his feet.
"Wait a minute," Vin said struggling to get his balance. "I don't know what you're talking about. I've been here the past week. If there's something in my apartment in Houston I "
"Save it for the chief, Tanner," Akers said as he hauled him to the door. "All I'm supposed to do is bring in a dirty cop."
+ + + + + + +
The phone at Larabee's house rang as he stepped out of the shower. He slid across the floor to pick it up.
"Yeah," he said, tersely, towling off. He stopped abruptly at hearing the tense voice on the other end of the line.
"Chris?" It was Orrin. "We got trouble."
"What's wrong?" Chris asked, sitting down.
"The Feds picked up Vin Tanner this morning on an illegal firearms charge."
"For the E-9?"
"What?" asked Orrin, confused. "No, no, for some AKAs in his Houston apartment."
Chris stumbled about pulling on clothes, balancing the phone on his shoulder.
"What's that all about?" he asked. "Did you know he was under investigation in Houston?"
"No, of course not. And I don't think he was. I don't like the smell of this, Chris," Orrin said.
"He at Fed headquarters now?" Chris asked, strapping on his shoulder holster and looking for his car keys.
"Yes. I got a call about 15 minutes ago," Travis answered. "Tanner's not talking to anyone - refused his call. He's digging in, Chris. He figures he's on his own."
"So you figured you'd call the cavalry?"
"Do you think he's guilty?"
Chris sighed as he closed the door behind him and headed to his truck.
"No. Don't ask me why, but no, I don't," he said as he climbed behind the wheel. "If those guns are in his apartment, someone else put 'em there. He was set up."
"He's not going to be easy to help," Orrin warned.
"Tell me something I don't know," Chris grumbled. "Like maybe who set him up?"
"You're the cavalry, Larabee. I'm just the bugler."
"Yeah, well, you can blow it out " Chris said as the line clicked dead. He shook his head as he started dialing the phone.
"Standish?" Larabee said into the phone as he heard the familiar Southern drawl answer.
"Mr. Larabee? To what do I owe this "
"We got a situation. Tanner's been arrested on an illegal firearms charge. He's with the Feds now, I'm shut up and listen," he ordered as Ezra sputtered denial and outrage. "I'm picking you up to go meet the good marshall. Orrin says he's not talking - but maybe he'll talk to you."
"Yes, yes, of course, I "
"Call Buck, tell him what happened, have him and J.D. do some checking on the paper trail for this arrest - get what you can out of Houston. Have Buck call - he talks 'good ol' boy' with the best of them. Maybe he can get something out of a marshall."
"Call Buck - yes, good idea, he "
"I'll call Josiah, fill him in. I need him to contact the legal department."
"Nathan?" Ezra asked.
"Have him go to Vin's apartment, pick up his prescription, talk to Vin's doctor. I don't know what the deal is on allowing meds in Federal lock-up."
"You don't think they'd deny him "
"I'm not taking chances. Call Nathan," Chris interrupted. "I'm at your place in 15 minutes."
Chris punched off the phone and started to dial Sanchez. I wonder if I could get a nice little security guard job somewhere, he thought as he drove.
+ + + + + + +
An hour later Chris and Ezra sat in a visitor's room at FBI headquarters. The security door on the other side of the bulletproof glass opened and a federal guard walked in. He leaned in close to the glass as the two agents waited.
"He's refusing to come," the guard said with a shrug. "We told him who you were, but he ain't budging."
"Did you tell him Ezra Standish was here as well. That he's concerned " Ezra began.
"I told him there were two ATF agents here to see him. I didn't get any names," the guard said.
"Could you please try one more time - give him my name," Ezra asked.
"Look, I'm not his babysitter - he's a dirty cop in here on " the guard argued.
"Innocent until proven guilty, I believe is the phrase," said Standish testily.
"I'll give him one more try - what's the name again?" the guard agreed reluctantly.
"Standish. Ezra Standish."
"This isn't going to work," Chris said as the guard left. "He's too damn stubborn for his own good. He's gonna sit in there and wait while they put a noose around his neck rather than take a chance on us again."
"Care to wager, Mr. Larabee?" Ezra asked.
"You really think your name is going to be some magic key?" Chris asked.
"Mr. Tanner is not a stupid man, contrary to the image he seems eager to portray. He gave us all another chance when, frankly, none of us would've been comfortable putting our trust on the line again. This charge is following him from his hometown. I think even Mr. Tanner, despite a stubbornness that rivals your own, Mr. Larabee, realizes he is now a man without a country, as it were. And despite any feelings he may have to the contrary, he needs us. Or least, he needs what we have," said Ezra.
"Trust," Chris sighed.
Both men looked up as the door opened again. This time two federal guards led a clumsily handcuffed Vin Tanner into the room and seated him in a chair opposite the two agents. Chris felt a slow anger rising in him as he looked the young man over. It was obvious the kid was in pain. His shoulder was cocked back awkwardly because of the cuff around his casted wrist. Vin was moving his head gingerly - his eyes betraying evidence of a powerful headache.
"Are the cuffs really necessary?" he asked as the guards stepped back.
"You got two minutes," one of the guards said, ignoring him.
"You can tell he's " Chris started.
"Mr. Larabee, let's not waste our time," Ezra admonished him, then turned back to Vin.
"Marshall? Give us some names - some kind of lead. Who do we look for? What contact would Mr. Davis have in Houston? Who expressed insufficient grief at the loss of your former partner? Who besides Davis would have a grudge against you?" Ezra drilled quickly.
Vin looked confused.
"What do you mean?" he asked. "I thought you were lookin' for something from me on Davis and Molto?"
Ezra swallowed hard.
"We are here to ascertain who would have been in the position to assist Agent Davis in setting up this outrageous accusation leveled against you," Ezra explained.
Vin blinked, staring at Ezra, then at Chris for confirmation.
"Well what the hell did you think we were going to do? Sit back and watch you get railroaded by some two-bit gun runner?" Chris asked.
"I thought " Vin stammered. "I mean, I didn't think you'd How do you know I didn't do it?"
"We're wasting time, Mr. Tanner. Names," Ezra said anxiously, opening his notebook.
"I I don't know - all I had was Davis and Molto. That's all I got from Andy. He was onto Davis and he "
"How did he get onto Davis?" asked Chris. "What tipped him off? I mean, you're in Houston, Davis is here in Denver "
"Davis came to Houston. He was hooking up with someone there. I think Andy was onto the Houston buyer when he discovered Davis and " Vin said, thinking out loud.
"And what?" Ezra prodded.
"I remember him saying something about some old business in Denver. Something that wasn't really the way it seemed. How if he could get Davis, he could clear that matter up, too. But he never mentioned any names," Vin finished.
"I've got Buck and J.D. talking to the marshalls in Houston," Chris explained. "See what they can come up with. I talked to Josiah about legal representation for you so keep your mouth shut just like you're doing until we get someone here for you."
"I don't " Vin started.
"You said you had a couple guys in Houston you trusted. Who can we talk to that can help us out down there?" Chris continued.
"Jerry Neal, Kip Dunning," Vin answered automatically.
Chris nodded as Ezra jotted the names down in his book.
"Time's up," said one of the guards as they came forward to flank Vin.
"You keep your head low in there, Vin," Chris said, feeling his concern for the young marshall rising. "I've got Nathan working on your meds," he said as the guards pulled Tanner roughly to his feet.
Vin looked at them, still with a bewildered expression.
"They all believe in you, Vin," Ezra explained. "You trusted us - we trust you. That's the way it's supposed to work."
Ezra and Chris watched as Tanner was led wordlessly out the door. Ezra flinched as the door lock buzzed shut.
"You were right, Ezra -your name is magic," Chris said quietly.
"It's going to take more than magic to get him out of here," Ezra said with a sigh. "It's going to take a miracle."
+ + + + + + +
Back at ATF headquarters, Larabee's Unit was buzzing. Every agent was on the phone or clicking furiously away at a computer. Bits of information drifted between the men as each worked on his own lead.
"When can I get a flight to Houston?"
"We want a man who's not going to be afraid to stand up to the FBI on this one. Don't give me some lightweight legal eagle, I want "
"Casey? How can I get into the U.S. Marshall's office files in Houston? Of course it's legal "
"I'll bring the doctor's orders and the meds over in 15 minutes - and either I see him or I bring in Dr. Monroe with a court order. Which do you want?"
Chris felt a confidence he knew wasn't warranted as he strode through the office with Standish at his heels. Everything was being done that could be done. That felt good. But he knew they were a long way from clearing Vin Tanner's name. And after seeing Tanner led away, handcuffed, confused, in pain, he found he was as anxious to get the marshall free as if he were one of his own men.
Ezra broke off to hand a slip of paper with the names of the Houston marshalls on it to Buck as the agent hung up his phone.
"I've got a flight to Houston at 11 a.m.," Buck said, turning to Ezra.
"Here are the men you should talk to when you get there," Standish said. "Vin trusts them."
"How's he doing?" Buck asked as J.D. leaned back in his chair to hear the answer.
"Confused and uncertain as to our efforts to prove his innocence," Ezra answered, irritated.
"The kid's a tough sell. But we'll show him, right Ez?" Buck said, slapping Standish on the shoulder.
"How'd he look?" Nate asked, joining them.
"Like a kid who should be in a hospital bed rather than a cell," Chris said, coming up behind Ezra.
"I'm on my way down there now, Chris," Nate said, grabbing his jacket. "I've got approval to give him a quick check-up, give him his meds."
"Thanks, Nate. Josiah?" Chris asked as Nathan headed towards the elevator.
"We've got Troy Middleton," Sanchez answered with a grin.
"How the hell did you manage that?" Chris asked, obviously impressed.
"Man loves a challenge - especially when it's against the Feds. He's a little scary that way, but "
"I'll take him," Chris said smiling. "Buck, I hear you're off to Houston - you got the names?"
Buck nodded, holding up the piece of paper from Ezra.
"You use your own judgement on those guys," Chris said. "They don't smell right to you, you find your own contacts. Vin may think he can trust 'em, but someone set him up out there."
"J.D.? Show me and Ezra what you've got," Chris said as the two agents pulled up chairs alongside the young man.
Buck headed home to pack a bag and Josiah went back to Vin's box. He wasn't through digging.
+ + + + + + +
By noon Chris was even more convinced of Vin's innocence. Irregularities in procedure, holes in evidence trails, and the speed with which Vin came under suspicion within his own headquarters was enough to start him on a slow boil. He hit meltdown when Nathan returned and asked if Tanner had had a black eye when he and Ezra had met with him earlier.
Larabee charged to his feet, sending his chair crashing behind him. His face turned crimson, his eyes blazing fire.
"Josiah!" he shouted, grabbing his coat as he headed towards the elevator. "Have Middleton meet me at the Fed's and find me a viable transfer option to some other holding facility."
"I guess not," Nathan said to the others as the elevator doors closed.
+ + + + + + +
Chris was under full steam by the time he reached the Information Desk in the Denver branch of the FBI. He was told Troy Middleton was already there, and was in the division chief's office. He got to the office in time to hear Troy's chilling baritone.
" removed to a facility of our choosing."
"I don't know who you think you are " Chief Abrams began.
"I'm quite certain I'm legal counsel representing U.S. Marshall Vincent Ulysses Tanner who has been charged with the possession of illegal firearms. Legal counsel -engaged by your own ATF division; representing a U.S. Marshall - holding several commendations from both the United States Special Operations Forces and the Federal Marshall's Office; who has been charged - not accused - with possession of firearms that no one in your office has even seen yet," Middleton said icily. "And now I have been informed that officers under your jurisdiction have appointed themselves judge, jury and executioner on his behalf, and, acting under some misguided dedication to the bluecoated brotherhood have exacted their own brand of corporal punishment on a wounded federal marshall war hero. Which of the many legal directives you've ignored concerning his arrest, detention, and criminal processing would you like me to cite?" Middleton remained planted squarely in front of the chief's desk. "Anything to add, Agent Larabee?" he asked without turning.
"It sounds like you've covered it pretty well," Chris said, still seething. "Although I feel obliged to say if we experience any delays in obtaining a facility transfer I'll be back here with five more ATF agents that'll make Troy, here, look like Bill Cosby."
Abrams was fuming - and, Chris was pleased to see - just a little nervous.
"I suppose I can expect a call from Travis on this, too?" the chief asked through gritted teeth.
"He hasn't yet been apprised of this latest development," said Middleton. "But I assure you I'll take no time in relaying the information if our progress here is impeded in any way."
Middleton placed the transfer order he had been holding on Abrams' desk, indicating the space requiring the chief's signature. Abrams signed.
"I'll see my client now," Middleton said, placing the paper in his briefcase. He headed towards the door. "Mr. Larabee will arrange a transfer to the facility he's chosen."
"I'm going with you," Chris said.
"You've already seen Tanner this morning," Abrams' argued.
Middleton paused at the door.
"You're not going to make me turn around and present my lecture on client rights and privileges, are you Chief?" he asked, waiting. "Thank God," he said after a brief silence. "Even I find it tedious."
Chris would've found it hard to keep from smiling at that one if he hadn't been using every bit of energy he possessed to keep his anger in check.
"I'll be back with the facility order," Chris said instead, and followed Troy out the door.
+ + + + + + +
This time Chris found himself in a secured room - no glass partitions - seated next to Troy who had spread several papers on the small desk at which he was seated.
"Thanks for taking this on, Troy," Chris said. "It can't be a popular case for you."
"On the contrary," Middleton said, waving him away. "I love it. How often do you get to play tough with the FBI?"
Chris smiled slightly.
"You sure you're not getting yourself in trouble?" he asked.
Middleton looked up at him sharply.
"I was assured by Agent Sanchez that you - all of you - were convinced of his innocence. Has that changed?" he asked.
"No. On the contrary - I believe in it more than ever. Still, there's a lot of evidence "
"I've known Josiah for a long time," Troy interrupted. "If he's convinced your man is innocent - and if the men he works with believe in him too - then I know we'll get the proof we need. And when that time comes, Mr. Larabee, I will so enjoy rubbing the FBI's collective nose in it."
The door opened and Vin was led in - this time, to Chris' relief, minus the handcuffs. But his blood boiled at the site of the livid bruise that surrounded Tanner's right eye.
"I believe my client is entitled to legal visitation without guard presence?" Middleton said, eyeing the guard coldly.
"That same rule hold for dirty cops?" the guard said, resting his hand on his revolver.
Troy glanced down at the weapon, then back up at the guard.
"You're left-handed, Officer " he said, peering at the name badge. "Cannon." He glanced back at Vin - turned his chin to see the bruised eye more clearly - then looked meaningfully back at the guard.
Cannon licked his lips nervously, getting the point.
"I'll be outside," he said.
"I would hope so," Troy said, as the man pulled the door closed behind him.
"Shit, Vin, I'll kill the bastard," Chris said shaking his head. He put a hand on Tanner's shoulder and led him to a chair. "You hurt anywhere else?"
"I'm fine," Vin said, easing himself gently into the chair.
"Nate got you your meds - that working out?" he asked.
Vin nodded. He eyed Troy with interest.
"Troy Middleton," the man said, offering a hand. "I'm your legal counsel."
"The best there is, Vin," Chris added.
"I've been assured by Agent Larabee and his team that your innocence is undeniable. They are gathering the evidence, I - at this point - am making the FBI nervous about their hasty actions - and reactions," Troy explained, eyeing the door contemptuously. "Our first step is to have you transferred to another facility. That's already in action."
Chris glanced at his watch.
"Buck's probably arriving in Denver right about now. He's got the two names you gave Ezra," said Chris. "J.D.'s found a real administrative mess surrounding your arrest. I wouldn't be surprised if Troy gets you out on a technicality by tomorrow."
"I didn't do it, Chris," Vin said quietly.
"Do you think I'd be doing all this if I didn't believe that?" Chris asked.
"I don't want to get out on some 'technicality,'" said Vin. "I want my name cleared."
"It will be, Marshall," Troy assured him. "In the meantime, though, we want to make sure you're still alive to see that day. So - shall we start at the beginning?"
Troy pulled his papers together and began asking Vin questions, jotting down details. Chris sat quietly and watched the man in action. He watched Vin, too, and wondered at how young he suddenly looked. Here - in trouble that was beyond his control - he saw the kid who had spent his life at the mercy of outside forces - foster parents, social workers, the army, the government - it was amazing he hadn't turned into a Davis or a Molto. How did this kid who spent so much time in the throes of violence and injustice end up working for the law?
A soft knock on the door told them their time was up. Troy stood and shook Vin's hand again.
"Well - we've all got our assignments. I'll take care of getting you released, Mr. Larabee and his crew will take care of clearing your name. And you - my friend," he said with a sincerity Chris appreciated, "Take care of yourself."
"Thanks," Vin said simply.
"You need anything?" Chris asked in turn.
"I got more than I ever expected already," Vin said honestly.
The guard entered and took Vin by the arm, leading him out.
"Vin?" Chris called after him. "Every once in a while this team stuff comes in handy, huh?"
The shadow of a smile crept across Vin's face.
"There's a first time for everything, Larabee."
+ + + + + + +
Buck knocked on the apartment door -24B the man had said. He pulled out his badge as he heard the lock being thrown.
"You Wilmington?" Kip Dunning asked as he opened the door.
"Buck Wilmington, ATF," he said, holding up his shield.
"Come on in," Kip said, throwing the door open. Another man rose to meet them.
"This is Jerry Neal," Kip said, introducing them.
"Thanks for coming to see us," Jerry said, shaking hands.
"Hey, thank you for seeing me," Buck said, taking a seat in the small living room. "Out-of-town agent seeking friends of accused dirty cop is a hard role to play."
"Not in this room," Kip said, offering him a beer.
"Well, I stopped by your office earlier this afternoon. Wasn't too popular there. Seems the general consensus is Tanner's guilty," said Buck, reaching for the beer.
Kip pulled it back.
"You believe them?" he asked.
"Seems to be a lot of evidence," Buck answered carefully.
Kip put the beer back on the counter, pulled open his shirt and pointed to an ugly scar beginning just below his sternum and disappearing below his belt.
"Three years ago he carried me five miles with a bullet in his leg after I got knifed in the Colorado foothills," he buttoned up the shirt and nodded towards Jerry Neal. "Turned down a promotion 'cause Jerry was next in line with his wife pregnant with twins." He picked up the beer and offered it to Buck again.
"We pass the test? Or do you really expect us to believe you flew all the way here to investigate this charge against Vin 'cause you think maybe he is guilty?"
"Let's try this again," he said, taking the beer. "Hello, boys, Buck Wilmington. How the hell do we get the kid outta this mess?"
Two hours and three orders of ribs later, Buck knew more about Vin Tanner, but nothing new to help his case.
"The problem is, see, Vin represents everything the brass hates," Kip explained. "Long hair, loner, hot rod - he bends the rules, freelances, takes chances, all the stuff that drives 'em crazy. Then he solves the case, gets the bad guys, saves a little old lady's life and they gotta pat him on the back and give him a medal."
Buck laughed, despite the situation.
"You should've seen him with my boss," he said, nodding. "Two of 'em locked horns right outta the gate. Only difference is, my boss was a Vin Tanner ten years ago - still is every third Wednesday - so eventually he just had to like the guy."
"'Ol Vin missed that lecture on first impressions," he said.
"Well, hell, he comes into our backyard with an accusation against one of our cops - you gotta know any cop is going to bristle when IAB's looking at their unit," Buck explained.
"Yeah," Kip agreed. "Hey -whatever happened with that other IAB investigation? The guy Andy was talking about?"
"What guy? Davis?" Buck asked.
"No, no, the other guy," Kip said. "Something Andy thought Davis was involved in."
"Vin never mentioned anything to us," Buck said.
"Jerry - you remember?" Kip asked, turning to his friend. "Andy was talking about some old IAB business. Something about a dirty cop."
"Yeah, I remember him talking about it," Jerry agreed. "But I thought he dropped it. I guess I figured it was a dead end since Vin never said anything about it after Andy got killed."
"Maybe Andy never told Vin," Kip said. "He just mentioned it to us in passing the day before he died. Just a minute." Kip got up and went into the bedroom. He came back with a notebook.
"Don't ask me why I wrote this down," he said, paging through the book. "Near the end there Andy was doing some scary shit. He was on a fast train to promotion city and getting careless. I think something inside made me wait, here it is."
Kip scanned down a page in the book, his finger coming to rest on a name.
"You know some guy named Bobby Anelli?"
+ + + + + + +
"Bingo," Josiah said, reading a report from IAB. He gathered up the file and headed into Chris' office. J.D. and Ezra followed close behind, seeing the urgency in the older agent.
"What's up?" Chris asked.
"One odd piece of paper jammed here in this IAB file," Josiah said. "Looks like the copy of a copy of an arrest report. It was folded over and stuck between two other stapled pieces of paper."
He offered the sheet to Chris who read it silently.
"What?" J.D. asked impatiently.
The phone rang on Chris' desk and Standish picked it up as Chris continued to read.
"Sounds like something Vin mentioned to me and Ezra this morning," Chris said, still scanning the sheet.
"What?" J.D. asked again.
"Mr. Wilmington?" Ezra said into the phone. "Yes, we're all here, what "
Chris looked up at Josiah.
"So Vin's supposed to go down the same way, huh?" he asked Sanchez.
Josiah nodded solemnly.
"The same way as who?" J.D. asked, exasperated.
Ezra looked to Chris. They both spoke at the same time.
+ + + + + + +
Larabee's ATF team sat around their conference table at 10 a.m. the next day, this time focusing their attention on the Anelli investigation. Josiah had already been tapped to talk to the ex-cop and had set up a meeting for the afternoon. Buck had come in on the red-eye and sat gulping hot coffee to get himself up to speed. Chris was going over additional assignments when the door to the Ready Room opened and Troy Middleton stepped inside.
"Well, I regret having killed a tree for nothing," Middleton said. "But I am certain the tree that gave its life for the hundred or so pages of facility transfer orders that are now irrelevant would have been glad to do so for Truth, Justice and the American Way."
He stepped aside to allow a bruised and exhausted - but obviously relieved - Vin Tanner to enter the room.
"Vin!" Buck shouted, sputtering a mouthful of coffee.
"Troy - you're a miracle worker," said Ezra, standing to shake his hand.
"I assure you - no divine intervention was involved. Merely the common ineptitude of today's law enforcement personnel," Troy said dryly.
"I'm inclined to let that go under the circumstances," Chris said, with a wry smile.
"He's in your custody for 48 hours, Mr. Larabee," Middleton said. "That's the best I could do. You need proof by then that he's completely innocent of all charges, or, and I quote," he said with disgust, "my 'butt will be in a sling.'"
"We'll do it," J.D. promised.
"Ah, the eternal optimism of youth," Troy said, bowing to them all as he turned to leave.
Vin stopped him with a hand on his arm.
"Thanks again, for everything" he said, taking Troy's hand.
"Mr. Tanner," Middleton said, nodding. "One more piece of advice." He looked back at the men in the room. "A man tends to miss the signposts of the future when he's continually living in the past." He looked Vin up and down appraisingly. "You seem to me to be intelligent enough to know a good thing when you see it. This," he said gesturing about the room. "Is a good thing."
+ + + + + + +
Josiah sat across from Bobby Anelli and waited. It was obvious why Chris had picked him for this task - the ex-cop was angry and bitter. He didn't need a glad-handing Buck Wilmington, a condescending Ezra Standish, an optimistic J.D., an impatient Chris Larabee, or Nathan Jackson - who had more experience with injustice than Anelli did. He needed a father confessor and a man of infinite patience. Josiah Sanchez fit both descriptions to a T.
"I heard that marshall got out with some fancy lawyer," Anelli said, stubbing out his fourth cigarette in half an hour. "No one hooked me up with Middleton when they found that coke in my car."
"That's between you and your team," Josiah said honestly. "If you were on our team we would've done the same thing we did for Vin."
"Yeah. Well. What do you need me for then? You got your team right?" he asked sarcastically.
"You know why we need you. Because you have evidence on Davis, don't you?" Josiah said calmly.
Anelli shot a sideways glance at Josiah as he tapped out another cigarette. "What makes you think that?"
Josiah looked about him at the filthy, smoke-filled apartment. Dirty dishes lined the counter and filled the sink. The shades were drawn and stained with nicotine. A partially unraveled afghan was flung across the sofa Anelli sat on. The television droned on unnoticed in the corner - a newscaster speaking through a steady blizzard of poor reception.
"Because you're living in a state of suspended animation here," Josiah said. "Life stopped for you the day they took your shield - destroyed your life. And now you've been waiting for someone to realize you hold the key - to come crawling back to you for help."
"You're here, aren't you?" Anelli said with disdain.
"I'm here for Vin Tanner," Josiah said.
"So what's the difference between me and him? We're both dirty cops according to them."
"The difference is, if Vin Tanner had something - anything - that would clear you, he'd risk his name, his reputation, his life to do it," Josiah said evenly. "You, on the other hand, have nothing to lose -possibly something to gain - and prefer to drown in a sea of bitterness."
"Tanner doesn't even know me," Anelli argued.
Josiah held his gaze with eyes that reached deep into Bobby Anelli's soul.
+ + + + + + +
Chris Larabee pulled into his driveway and turned off the engine. He looked across at Tanner who was sound asleep in the passenger seat.
"We're home," he said, nudging the young man gently.
Vin blinked sleepily and stretched in his seat. He peered out the front window of the truck as he undid his seatbelt.
"Wow," he said quietly, getting out of the car. "This is all yours?"
Chris smiled at Tanner's boyish enthusiasm.
"Everything inside the fence," he acknowledged, leading Vin to the house. "There's a shooting range, corral and stable out back."
"Horses?" Vin asked.
"Just two right now. I'm thinking of looking at an Appaloosa I saw for sale last week, but I'm not sure I can afford it," Chris explained.
They walked into the house and Chris gestured down the hall to the left.
"You're in there," he said, indicating the guest bedroom.
Vin hitched his duffel bag over his shoulder as he glanced down the hall, then looked back to Chris.
"Everything you did today " he started to say.
"Dinner's in 20 minutes. Nothing fancy," Chris interrupted. "Unpack that rifle of yours. I'd like to take a crack at it out back."
Vin opened his mouth to say something else, but Larabee was already in the kitchen opening the refrigerator, getting out pots and pans. Tanner shook his head and disappeared down the hall.
Chris heard his guest walk away and smiled to himself. The kid probably didn't know which end was up right now -given everything that had happened in the past 48 hours. One thing was sure -he was beginning to realize Larabee and his team were on his side and as Middleton had said, that was a good thing.
Finally, the confidence Chris had felt yesterday morning seemed warranted. The information Josiah had brought back from his meeting with Bobby Anelli would go a long way in clearing up the mess Mike Davis had made in the department. Hopefully it would hang him, too. Strangely enough, in the midst of all the business with Anelli, Molto, Davis, Middleton, the Houston office, the only real question that continued to plague him was what would happen after the case was closed.
Chris warmed up chili and put some garlic bread in the oven. He reached for two beers from the fridge, then remembering Vin was still on painkillers, put them back and hauled out two sodas instead.
Did he even want to broach the subject of inviting Vin Tanner to join his ATF team? Would the kid even be interested? He figured the rest of the guys would be o.k. with it -they had all seemed to take to Vin. But Tanner was subdued right now - out on a limb he was afraid would break. Once he felt secure again, could Chris handle him? Did he even want to try to handle him?
"What you thinkin' about so hard?" Vin asked, startling Chris so badly he dropped the spoon he had been holding into the chili pot.
"Make some noise, huh?" Chris said, fishing out the spoon.
Vin laughed - a welcome sound.
"Sorry," he apologized with a grin. He held up the rifle. "Which way?"
Chris checked the timer on his bread, turned down the chili and wiped his hands on a towel as he ushered Vin towards the back door.
Vin loaded the E-9 and handed it to Chris. There were three permanent targets posted at various intervals. Chris aimed at the second one and fired hitting the target just left of center. He shook his head.
"Always pull to the left," he said, examining the rifle. "Been my problem since ROTC."
"Not bad, though," Vin said, nodding towards the target. "Get him in the heart or just left of the heart - guy still goes down."
Chris handed the rifle back to Vin.
"O.K. hotshot," he said, pointing to the farthest target. "Show me what you can do."
Vin took the rifle, loaded it, and drew it up close to his shoulder. He rested the site on his cast between his thumb and forefinger.
"And don't give me any shit about you're having a bum wing. I expect " he started to say when the shot was fired scoring a perfect bulls-eye in the farthest target. Chris whistled appreciatively, then eyed Vin closely.
"How much farther can you hit that bulls-eye, Vin?" he asked quietly.
Vin judged the distance, looked down at the rifle in his hands, then squinted back up at Chris.
"Twenty, maybe thirty yards on a still day," he said with a shrug.
Chris looked at him. The kid wasn't bragging, just stating a simple fact. Yet that simple fact harbored echoes of orders followed and assignments faced that sent a chill up Larabee's spine. He searched Vin's eyes - tired, bruised, ageless - and unflinchingly confident in his ability to kill from a city rooftop, a wooded tree stand, or a jungle sniper's nest. Vin held the stare for only a moment.
"Can I see the horses?" he asked with a shyness that sent Chris' thoughts spinning 180 degrees -seeing Tanner now as a kid possessing a kid's fascination with all things equine.
"Sure," Chris smiled, then glanced down at his watch. "After supper," he added, "or we're going to have burnt bread. Come on."
+ + + + + + +
In the cool twilight of the stable, Chris threw a blanket and saddle over the black and then another set over his chestnut mare. He hitched the girdle on both of them, figuring Vin wouldn't be able to cinch it with just one hand. He gave the rest of the tack to Tanner.
"Watch me and do the same," he said, sorting out bridle and reins.
Vin took the equipment gingerly and watched Chris carefully, mirroring his actions exactly - if a little hesitantly - with the horse beside him.
"Good," Chris said, as they worked. It would've been easy enough for him to equip both horses, but he sensed Vin's need to understand as much about this new situation as possible. He would want to control the animal, not just "ride" him, and Chris could appreciate that.
He did run a quick check over Vin's work to be sure, then got up into the saddle and indicated Vin should do the same.
"We'll start out with an easy walk," Chris explained, guiding them out of the coral. "As you feel more comfortable let me know and we'll pick it up a bit."
Vin nodded and guided his horse to follow alongside Chris, gradually feeling the natural rhythm of the horse's movements beneath him.
Within half an hour Chris had picked their gait up from a walk, to a cantor, to a trot and could see Vin itching to lead the horse into a gallop. He shook his head in amazement - the kid was a natural - and it made him actually laugh to see how much pleasure this new experience was affording the young marshall.
"You think you can handle a gallop?" Chris called to him, knowing the answer.
"Watch me!" Vin shouted back in delight as he spurred his horse onward.
Chris laughed as he watched Tanner speed away, then felt a wave of nostalgia wash over him - memories of teaching another, much-younger boy, the joy of riding for the first time.
Larabee gave Vin another 20 minutes, then called him in. Nathan would probably kill him for allowing the kid up on a horse with a cast and a concussion, but Chris knew Vin was more than just physically damaged. Mentally, he needed the freedom only being at one with an animal like Cisco could bring.
"You looked pretty good out there, Vin," he said as he reined his horse into the corral. "You sure this was your first time on a horse?"
"Positive," Vin said, glowing. He slid down off the animal and leaned against it, resting his head against Cisco's powerful neck, his eyes closed, stroking the forelock gently with his fingers.
"Your son must have loved being a kid here," he breathed quietly as he heard Chris approach him from behind.
Chris stopped short, his breath catching in his throat. He swallowed hard, unable to speak.
Vin turned to him, suddenly embarrassed.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to " he began.
"No, it's alright," Chris assured him.
"I never apologized for what I said that first day, I'm sorry, I was an idiot."
"You apologized," Chris said.
"No, not for that. There's no way to apologize for that."
Chris shook his head. Tanner meant the reference to April 23rd - the day his wife and son were killed by a car bomb meant for him.
"Your life hasn't exactly been a bed of roses either," Chris acknowledged. At the time, he had wanted to rip Tanner's throat out for what he had implied. Now, he saw in Vin a man jealous of the few years Adam had known - a few years of precious life compared to the many years of emptiness and betrayal he had faced. The father instincts that remained in Chris Larabee from those years he had had with Adam surfaced violently within him, and he found himself wishing he could've been there for Vin Tanner - cared for him the way a father should.
Vin looked up at Chris - saw the intense emotions that lay just beneath the surface -emotions that somehow involved him - and was suddenly uncomfortable.
"Is this where you offer me a LifeSaver?" he asked.
The question - and the mischievous grin that accompanied it - broke him from his reverie and made him smile again. The kid was a kaleidoscope of human emotions.
"Come on - let's get these two brushed down and head inside. I need a beer," Chris said, pulling off the saddle and blanket. "And you can have a glass of water with your happy pill."
"How about I skip the pill and join you in a beer?" Vin offered.
Chris laughed, then groaned as he hoisted the saddle over the stable door.
"Maybe I'll skip the beer and join you in a happy pill."
+ + + + + + +
Within 24 hours, Larabee and his team felt they had collected enough evidence to close in on Mike Davis and Alejandro Molto. Bobby Anelli had given them a name in Houston - Avery Beeman - and Buck was working with Jerry and Kip to come up with evidence the guy had framed Vin. The name had come as little surprise to either of the marshalls who said they'd be happy to bring "the little weasel" down.
Ezra had not been with the ATF yet the last time they had had dealings with Molto, and the low profile he maintained at ATF headquarters had kept him out of Davis' realm. He had quickly become the inside man, putting pressure on Molto to hook him up with a local dealer. After the debacle with Davis on the first meeting, Molto seemed eager to have a partner in the deal. All they needed now was to have Ezra meet Molto and Davis in the same room together with the firearms to seal the case. A meeting they were working to schedule for the next night.
"How sure are you of Molto?" Chris asked Ezra.
"I would endeavor to say he is as fond of me as if I were family," Ezra assured him.
"And you like the place?" Larabee asked Buck of the warehouse they were planning on using for the meet.
"It looks good. We haven't used it before, which will make Molto feel good since he's still a little nervous around here," Wilmington explained.
"What about the paperwork? I don't want any of this going bad on some technicality," Larabee said, turning to Josiah.
"I ran everything past Troy last night, just to be sure," Josiah answered.
"He approve?" Chris asked.
"His mouth was actually watering at the prospect," grinned Josiah.
"Good. That's good," Chris said nodding. "All we need then is to set up positions for tomorrow night." He turned towards Ezra.
"You're in the middle of this Standish - you okay with that?" he asked.
"I'll be in good hands with my guardian angels in attendance," Ezra answered, smiling at the others.
"Where am I?" asked Vin.
"You're not going," Chris answered.
"Do you want me in the van?" Buck wanted to know.
"What do you mean I'm not going?" Vin asked hotly.
"No, I've got a place for you with Josiah," Larabee answered Buck, then turned to Vin. "What are you going to do with a cast on your arm?"
"What about me?" J.D. asked, sitting between Chris and Vin.
"The same thing I'd do without a cast on my arm," Vin insisted, ignoring the young agent.
"Forget it," Chris said again. "You're with me, J.D."
"You've seen me shoot," Vin interrupted again, this time leaning past J.D. to get into Chris' face.
"We've got back-up with Garrison on the outside," Chris told his men, turning away from Vin.
"Hey - I said you've seen me shoot with this on," Vin said, louder this time as he waved his cast at Chris.
"I heard you," Chris answered, his temper beginning to flare. "Nathan? Did you talk to Orrin?"
"Five minutes ago - he's nervous," Nathan answered.
"Then what's the problem? I'm going," Vin said, standing.
"I imagine he is," Chris said to Nathan. He turned once more to Vin. "No, you're not going."
"Like hell " Vin shouted, slamming his good hand on the table.
Chris got up angrily and headed towards the door.
"My office - now," he said, not waiting for Vin to follow. Tanner spun on his heel and charged out the door behind him.
"Wagers, gentlemen?" Ezra asked as the five remaining agents sat quietly around the table.
"Not on your life, Ez," Buck said shaking his head.
+ + + + + + +
"What the hell was that all about?" Chris shouted as soon as Vin had entered his office. He walked behind the marshall and slammed the door closed.
"I was about to ask you the same question," Vin said. "This has been my case from the beginning. What makes you think "
"The fact that you're out of lock-up on a prayer and a promise," Chris answered angrily.
"All the more reason," Vin shot back. "You think I'm just gonna sit here and twiddle my thumbs while your team "
"What do you think you're going to do that we can't?" Chris asked.
"What I do best - cover the inside man from above," Vin answered. "You honestly say you got a man can do that better than me?"
Chris paused. Vin knew he had him - and smiled.
Larabee clenched his jaw - he hated having to admit Tanner was right. He didn't have a man who could shoot as well as Vin - even with a bad arm. Hell, he hadn't even seen a man who could shoot as well - and any good leader would want as much protection for his inside man as he could get.
"You go where I say and you stay where I say," Chris said finally. "You remember you're part of a team or so help me "
"You won't be sorry," Vin assured him, smiling. Chris watched as he bolted back out the door.
"I already am," he muttered to himself.
+ + + + + + +
The team spent the next day tying up any loose ends they could find. Buck and Vin had both spoken with Kip Dunning who assured them he and Jerry were ready to roll on Beeman as soon as they got the word that the ATF had shut down Davis and Molto.
Now Chris drove Vin to the warehouse two hours before the meet so he could get in position. Buck and Josiah would come back with Chris and J.D. in an hour. Ezra was having dinner with Molto and Nathan would be outside in the surveillance van running tape.
"Who's this Beeman?" Chris asked Vin.
"A little pencil-pusher down in the evidence cage," Vin said with disgust. "Washed out of the program - got a job in clerical instead. Always makes life difficult for the marshalls. I'm not surprised he's the one involved in this all. He gets over on the marshalls and makes some money in the bargain."
They drove in silence until they arrived at the warehouse. Vin grabbed his rifle case from behind the seat and opened the door.
"Hey?" Chris said, stopping him. A cold feeling of an unfamiliar fear swept through him as he glanced at the young agent.
"I know, I know," Vin said. "I'm part of a team- I'm part of a team-I'm part of "
"Just keep your rifle up and your head down, hot shot," Chris admonished him.
Vin winked at him.
"This is where I shine, Chris," he said. "It's what I was born to do." He hitched the rifle over his shoulder and disappeared into the shadows.