Disclaimer: The Magnificent Seven is owned by MGM. Without A Trace is owned by Jerry Bruckheimer Television and CBS Productions. No profit was made. Only respect intended.
Notes: Vin Tanner and Martin Fitzgerald are the main characters in this ATF Magnificent Seven crossover with Without A Trace. Special thanks go to Dusty and Julie for their beta work.
"This is some of the latest photo enhancement software," explained Agent James Mackeroy. Mack, as he insisted JD call him, had been going on for about half an hour explaining all the various technical equipment the FBI used to help solve crimes that fell within their purview. Not that JD minded; he loved this sort of stuff. It was interesting to see how another federal agency approached an investigation. He even got the chance to compare who had the better equipment, which so far was pretty even.
While he enjoyed the tour, JD was well aware that he was being granted far more access than the average visiting ATF agent. Ever since he'd walked into the Manhattan FBI offices it had been made obvious that they were hoping to woo him away from the ATF. It might have been tempting if he hadn't belonged to Team Seven, but JD and the men he worked with had become a family over the past year. There simply weren't enough tech gadgets in the world to lure him away from the Seven.
"Hey, Mack," an older stocky, dark haired Agent entered the room. "I've got some possible footage for the Palof case that I need you to go through."
"Right away, sir," Mack quickly returned to business. He was already starting to work on the new data when he remembered the niceties of an introduction. "JD, this is Jack Malone, he runs the Missing Persons Unit. JD is with the ATF, here for some training on the new explosive chemicals database."
Jack nodded to the newcomer, glancing around for his escort. "No offense, but I'm surprised they're letting an ATF agent roam the building unescorted."
"Agent Gilbert as been checking up on me every so often, but I pretty sure she's under orders to give me free rein. It's all part of a much larger plot to seduce me to the dark side of the feds," JD explained, straight faced.
Jack snorted involuntarily at JD's rather lame Star Wars joke. "Really? And how's that going so far?" Jack almost doubted that the kid was old enough to meet Bureau requirements. He must be one hell of a tech genius to be recruited so aggressively.
"Well, I've learned a few new things in the training, and touring through the different departments has been fun, but I'm not likely to be lured here by software. Chris has already given me carte blanche to design any program I want for the needs of our team," JD admitted.
"You get to design your own programs?" envy leaked into Mack's question.
"Design programs, run computer security, occasionally hack," said JD. "And Chris makes sure that I get trained on all the cutting edge technology so I can keep our team one step ahead of the criminals."
"So should I tell Agent Gilbert to give up on recruiting you for the tech department?" asked Mack.
"I said no to that position a year and a half ago. I don't know why they think I'd want it now." JD had to admit it seemed a waste of everyone's time.
"Sounds like you really like being a tech for the ATF," commented Jack. He tapped Mack on the shoulder and pointed at the computers, trying to get his own tech back on focus.
"That's just it," said JD. "Computers are my specialty, but I'm primarily a field agent. None of the other alphabet agencies were willing to offer me a field position. They all wanted to lock me in some office surrounded by computers." Realizing that he'd just described Mack's position he added, "No offense, man."
"None taken," replied Mack. "I like my office surrounded by computers."
Noticing the time, JD pulled out his cell. "I don't want to be in the way of the work you need to do, and my next class will start in another 15 minutes, so I might as well call Agent Gilbert to escort me out of here."
"I'll save you a repeat of the standard recruitment speech and have one of my agents walk you down," Jack offered. JD nodded in thanks, saying a quick goodbye to Mack before following Jack out of the room. "Excuse me Vivian," Jack addressed a shorter black woman talking to a tall slender Hispanic man. "I need to steal Danny for a minute. Danny would you escort JD to the training seminar going on down on the third floor."
"Sure thing, Jack," Danny stepped up and motioned towards the elevator. "Right this way." Danny had traveled three steps before he realized that JD wasn't following him. JD seemed frozen in place, staring just past Vivian's shoulder to another member of their team.
"Holy crap!" said JD.
"Excuse me," asked Jack, puzzled by the young agent's behavior.
JD looked back at Jack, opened his mouth as if to say something and then snapped it shut and marched past Vivian to the six foot, blue eyed agent in the bullpen. JD held out his hand. "Hi, I'm JD Dunne, ATF."
The man's eyes flickered past JD to Jack in question, but when he received only a shrug he returned the greeting. "Martin Fitzgerald, FBI."
"Do you have any family in Texas, maybe by the name of Tanner?" JD asked directly.
The question's topic momentarily caught him off guard, "As far as I know, no. No family in Texas, or any Tanners in the family tree. Why do you ask?"
"You are the spitting image of one of the guys on my team. Seriously, if you had longer hair, a five o'clock shadow and maybe 10 more pounds in muscle mass you would be Vin." JD circled around Martin as though trying to uncover the explanation for his appearance. Then a wicked gleam danced through JD's eyes. "Would it be okay if Agent Fitzgerald was the one to walk me down? There's someone else I'd really like him to meet."
Jack couldn't help but note the way JD was now bouncing with excitement. And here he'd been thinking Danny threw off a lot of restless energy. "Someone else?"
"Yeah, Josiah Sanchez is one of my other teammates. He's here training some of your agents on profiling techniques." JD smiled disarmingly, offering his most encouraging tone. "I know he'd get a kick out of talking to Martin. I just want to borrow him for a few minutes."
Jack suspected JD was planning a bit more than just a basic introduction, but as long as Martin didn't seem to mind, which by his shrug Jack assumed he didn't, things were quiet enough let them slip off for a few minutes. "Go ahead. Take Danny with you too. That way Gilbert can't complain that we were anything less then perfect hosts."
"Awesome," JD grinned infectiously. "Which way were we going again?" he asked Danny. The three agents walked down the hall, Danny and Martin bracketing their shorter ATF counterpart. Jack watched them for just a moment before turning back to Vivian and the case they were working.
+ + + + + + +
"You want me to say, 'Howdy, Josiah,'" clarified Martin. Danny grinned as he listened to the young ATF agent's odd request.
"It will be great, trust me," JD persuaded.
"Howdy, Josiah." Who the heck said 'Howdy' anymore? Wondered Martin.
"Exactly," JD encouraged, "and try to slouch or lean back when you say it?" When Martin complied awkwardly, JD shook his head. "Haven't you done any undercover work?" Danny snickered at Martin's irritated look. JD decided that he'd just have to make do with Martin the way he was. "Give me about ten seconds lead time before you follow me over." JD turned the corner to stroll calmly down the hallway towards a large, salt and pepper haired man in his fifties. He stopped on the far side of the man so that Josiah's attention would be drawn away from Martin and Danny.
When the ten seconds had expired, Martin approached the two with Danny on his heels. Closing he started to catch bits of their conversation. JD seemed to be doing most of the talking while Josiah offered the occasional grunt as he scribbled notes in his folder and sipped from his travel mug.
" . . . But meeting the head of their Missing Persons bureau was totally cool. And you'll never guess the best part," challenged JD.
Josiah looked up at his young coworker, easily noting how excited JD was to share his big news. "So tell me, John Daniel, what was the best part of the Missing Persons bureau?" he asked before sipping more coffee.
"Howdy, Josiah," said Martin, three feet from the profiler.
Josiah spit out coffee, coughing in shock. The stream of hot brew just missed JD, who agilely jumped aside. "Josiah, meet Martin Fitzgerald, FBI," introduced JD.
"Lord help us, there's two of them!" Josiah rose to his full height, setting his papers aside. He took Martin's hand in a firm grip, pumping it three times. His eyes latched on to Martin in an unnerving stare. "I've heard of people running across look-a-likes before, but this resemblance is beyond astounding. May I ask what your birth date is?"
Martin was becoming more and more intrigued by the reactions of the mysterious Vin Tanner's team members. Not seeing any harm in Josiah's question he shared, "I was born on July 7th, thirty-two years ago."
"No way," exclaimed JD. "That's Vin's birthday, too. You two must be twins separated at birth or something."
"Something indeed," agreed Josiah. "Your appearance combined with your identical birth dates does seem to stretch the limits of coincidence."
"Well, maybe we should pull Agent Tanner's file and see for ourselves how alike they look." Danny's curiosity had also been sparked by Josiah's reaction. Now he wondered if there was more than just coincidence at work here, and he could tell Martin was wondering the same thing.
Martin's cell phone rang. "Fitzgerald," he greeted. Listening for a moment, he glanced at Danny to signal the call was work related. "Okay, we'll be there in five minutes." Snapping the cell closed Martin updated Danny, "Palof's brother just came in. Jack wants us to run the interview." Looking to JD and Josiah he suggested, "Maybe we'll see you again before your training classes are done."
"Definitely," said JD. "I really need someone to show me the best places for a night on the town. Josiah's idea of a fun night out is visiting the local houses of worship to debate religion and philosophy with leaders of the faithful."
"There's nothing wrong," insisted Josiah, "with taking some time to answer the big questions."
"Unless you're in 'the city that never sleeps' for the first time in your life," protested JD. "Do you guys see what I have to put up with?" Martin grinned, Danny smirked and Josiah shook his head at the foolishness of youth.
"Have you got a number we can reach you at?" asked Danny.
"Yeah, right here." JD pulled out his wallet and produced a small business card.
Danny did a double take as he accepted the card. The black cardstock had red type and orange decorative scrollwork. "JD Devious, Hacker Extraordinaire, (303)-555-0299." Danny read. "What's this, a sideline to your day job?"
"Naw, that's just left over from an old undercover," explained JD. "They turned out so cool I kept the extras. The number on them routes to my cell phone."
"Excellent. I'll call you later so we can make plans," promised Danny. He found himself studying Martin as they rode the elevator back up to the twelfth floor. "I'm trying to imagine you with long hair and I just can't do it," he teased. When Martin only shook his head distractedly, he asked, "Are you going to be able to keep your mind on the case with the . . ." how best to put this? "Tanner situation floating around?"
"Do I have a choice?" asked Martin. "The missing person's got to come first."
+ + + + + + +
Danny and Martin sat in an interrogation room across a metal table from Mark Palof, younger brother of the missing Matthew Palof. Mark shared his brother's blonde hair and gangly build, but he seemed to lack salt of the Earth values Matthew was known to posses. Slouching in the interrogation chair Mark appeared more focused on biting his finger nails then finding his brother.
"I understand you were just recently released from prison, Mr. Palof," stated Danny.
"Yeah, so?" Mark challenged defensively.
"So I'm wondering where you've been staying since you got out," Danny prodded.
"I've been staying with my older brother Matthew," said Mark.
"And yet," Danny continued, "when your brother never came home last night, you couldn't be bothered to do anything about it. We wouldn't know your brother was missing if his boss hadn't reported his disappearance. Why is that, Mark?"
"I don't know," Mark quibbled. "I figured he's a big boy. He can take care of himself."
"And you didn't think it was the least bit strange that your dependable early to bed, early to rise brother would suddenly not come home; not bother to leave messages for anyone as to where he was going to be?" Martin asked disbelievingly.
"I'm not his babysitter. He doesn't have to have to check in with me," Mark sniped.
"Speaking of check-ins," Danny changed the topic. "You've only been out a week and a half and you've already missed your first check-in with your parole officer." Danny leaned forward and smiled conspiratorially, "I've got to tell you, Mark, that's not a very good way to start your new life of freedom."
"You think that I had something to do with Matt's disappearing just because I'm an ex-con. Where do you get off accusing me?" demanded Mark. "I did my time, paid my debt to society. Hell, I never even hurt anyone."
"You hacked into a small savings and loan computer system and rerouted millions of dollars. Money from almost 1,300 families, that accounted for retirement savings and house payments. Some of those families are still trying to recover financially." Martin reminded the man of his sins. "That sounds pretty hurtful to me."
"Those people . . . they were just numbers on a computer screen, they didn't mean anything to me. Not like Matthew. When things went bad, he stood by me. Never condoned what I'd done, but he visited me in jail and gave me a place to live when I got out. I'd never hurt him." Mark insisted.
"Then maybe you should think about ways you could help us find your brother instead of wasting time," pressured Danny.
"How? I told you I don't know where he is," protested Mark.
"Is there anyone that's been causing problems for your brother; anyone that has a reason to hold a grudge?" asked Martin.
"Matthew is the original nice guy. No one has reason to hold a grudge against him," said Mark. "Even if someone was causing problems, I haven't been out long enough to know about it. His girlfriend's the one you should be asking."
"Actually, we already have someone talking to her," informed Martin.
A light flashed on the wall phone and Danny got up to answer it while Martin continued to write notes. Danny listened in silence for several seconds. Then he hung up and moved back to the table. "What about you?" asked Danny. "Is there anyone you've been hanging around with that would have reason to cause problems for Matthew?"
"I've been avoiding all the other ex-cons just like I'm supposed to," Mark reported dutifully.
"The same way you've been avoiding your parole officer?" Danny tossed back sarcastically.
"I told you I didn't have anything to do with my brother's disappearance," reminded Mark.
"And I asked you if you knew anyone else who did," returned Danny persistently. The suspect turned away, while Martin glanced at his partner and wondered what he'd heard on the phone that caused him to amp up the interrogation. The look in Danny's eye told him he was about to find out. "Tell me, Mark," said Danny, "Would it surprise you to hear that we found Matthew's car?"
"Does that mean you know what happened to my brother?" Mark queried nervously.
"No," admitted Danny, "but the blood we found on the front seat, indicates that whatever happened, it wasn't good."
For the first time Mark looked concerned for the welfare of someone other than himself. "If he's hurt, you've got to do something to find him!"
"What do you think we're doing, Mr. Palof?" Martin's words seemed to remind Mark where he was.
"See here's our problem," started Danny. "Your brother wasn't carjacked because his vehicle would have been sold or sent to a chop shop by now. He wasn't robbed because the police found both his wallet and his cell. We can even rule out any relation to his work since his briefcase was also left in the car untouched. He was apparently the target of a kidnapping despite the fact that he's a middle class worker with little disposable wealth. The only tie Matthew has to any sort of criminal activity is you."
"I didn't hurt my brother!" shouted Mark.
"Then tell us who did," demanded Danny.
"I want a lawyer," declared Mark.
"I thought you wanted to help us find your brother," Martin attempted to salvage the interview.
"You either get me a lawyer or you let me go, because I, I'm not going to sit here and let you accuse me any longer." Mark tried to play the part of the wounded innocent, but his manner better fit a guilty teenager.
"Wait right here, Mr. Palof," instructed Danny. He and Martin left the room, meeting Jack on the other side of the observation window.
"He's lying," declared Danny.
"You think he did something to his brother?" asked Jack. Even through he'd been observing through the one-way mirror he still wanted to hear Danny and Martin's impressions of the suspect.
"I think he knows exactly who took his brother and why. He had no problem saying he didn't do anything, but every time we asked him if he knew who did, he became evasive." Danny leaned back against the wall and folded his arms as he detailed Mark's behavior.
"But Mark was surprised when he heard about the blood in the car." Martin pointed out. "Maybe Matthew wasn't supposed to be hurt."
"Okay," Jack shifted as he started to theorize. "Let's assume that Mark gets out of jail and immediately goes back to his old tricks. Somehow Matthew finds out and threatens to blow the whistle."
"Right," agrees Danny, "Only Mark's partners don't like that idea so they snatch Matthew before he can say anything."
"But Matthew puts up more of a fight than they expected," guessed Martin, "hence the blood. Speaking of which, how much blood did they find in the car?"
"According to the M.E. on the scene, it wasn't enough to be immediately fatal, but definitely enough to require medical treatment. The longer it takes to find him, the greater the chance of infection." Jack knew the information he was imparting put more pressure on everyone to find Matthew Palof as soon as possible.
"That's if whoever took Matthew hasn't already killed him so they can't be identified later." Martin felt he had to point out the grim possibility.
Jack frowned and then shook his head. "Mark seems to at least care about his brother; he's not likely to cooperate with someone who killed Matthew. Let's continue to work the case as an injured-but-alive missing person. Since Mark has lawyered up, spring him. Have him followed, trace his calls, hopefully he'll lead us to Matthew and the kidnappers."
"We've got another one, Jack." Vivian walked into Jack's office through the already open door. It took her just a few seconds to lay out the details of the new case. "Fifteen year old, Ashley Coffer supposedly went to the mall to meet friends and never returned home. Her parents found emails indicating she was actually meeting a boy, but now it looks like the boy was really a thirty-eight year old, John Pendleton. He's got two previous convictions; one for solicitation and one for rape of a minor."
"Sounds like we need to move fast," assessed Jack. "Take Samantha and Elena and run with the case. I'll keep Danny and Martin on Palof for now. If you need more manpower, we may have to get assistance from the locals." It was never easy to work two missing person cases at the same time. That both persons were in imminent danger didn't help. Vivian took the command without hesitation, heading out to organize her team.
Jack got up deciding it was time to see if Danny and Martin were making any progress. He found Martin had whittled down a list of ex-cons that Mark would have known in jail that could be partnered with him now. Danny was checking with the agents following Mark, and reported that after a stop to finally check in with his parole officer, Mark had returned to his brother's home and not left since. After Jack let them know that the girls would be working another case the trio checked in with Mack to see how far he'd gotten with the video footage. With half their team pursuing another case, Mack's help would become much more necessary.
"I've spotted Matthew Palof in the background of an ATM security camera, but he was alone in his car. Then a customer blocks the view for about two and a half minutes, and when we see the car again it's empty." Mack volunteered the information as soon as Jack entered his room. "We might get something better from the boutique next to Palof's car. I'm checking their footage next."
Glancing at one of Mack's secondary screens, a familiar name caught Jack's eye. "What's this stuff over here about JD?"
"Oh, I got curious about the team JD was on and did a little research while I was waiting for the boutique footage to arrive." Mack admitted. His embarrassment at prying into another agent's life quickly gave way to excitement. "You would not believe the people he works with. Josiah Sanchez, the guy's who's here training profilers, has doctorates in Psychiatry and Anthropology, and before that he used to fly medi-vac helicopters in the army. Apparently that's where he met Nathan Jackson the team's doctor and forensic specialist. The team is run by Chris Larabee, a former SEAL team commander and seconded by Buck Willington, another SEAL, who's their demolitions expert. Larabee recruited Ezra Standish, their undercover virtuoso right out of the FBI's Atlanta office. They've got Vin Tanner, a former Delta Force sniper and, of course, JD Dunne, the genius who graduated with duel masters in computer science and law enforcement at only nineteen. For their first case as a unit, they shattered the white supremacist group, Ghosts of the Confederacy. Not six months later they took down the entire Nichols mafia family. Back in Denver, where they're based, other law enforcement agencies started referring to them as the Magnificent Seven, now even the criminals call them that." Mack was clearly impressed with everything he'd learned.
Even though Martin had earlier said that he'd put learning about Tanner aside until their case was solved, he found himself asking, "What else did you learn about Vin Tanner?"
"Tanner, let's see, he turned up at Fort Bliss, with a GED, enlistment papers and the shirt on his back, at age seventeen. He entered the Rangers, moved up to Delta Force a couple years later. Eventually he left the army, and spent a year or two as a bounty hunter before joining Larabee's team." Mack listed the information he'd gleaned from Tanner's file.
Martin hesitated before asking the next question. "Is there a copy of his birth certificate that I could see?"
"Sure, I can pull a copy up." Mack did so even as he noticed Jack look on worriedly, while Danny signaled to let Martin continue. "Here it is."
Martin scanned the document for several seconds before cursing, "Son of a bitch! Pull up mine."
"Yours? You mean your birth certificate?" Mack stammered a bit.
"Pull it up now!" ordered Martin shortly. Mack hurried to obey, thrown off guard by Martin's aggressive tone. The new window opened up and Martin leaned forward, taking control of Mack's computer mouse, arranging the windows so they were side by side. Comparing the two, Martin's shoulders slumped.
"What is it?" asked Danny, knowing that Martin had just discovered something he didn't like.
"Not only do Agent Tanner and I share identical appearances and birth dates, but according to these we were delivered less than twenty minutes apart by the same doctor." Martin pointed to the attending physician lines on both certificates.
"That can't be right," Danny protested. "Tanner was born in Texas, your certificate is from Maryland. The same doctor couldn't have delivered two babies a dozen states apart at almost the same time."
"Unless the certificates were altered," volunteered Jack. "That's not uncommon in cases of adoption and the like." Though it was the most logical answer, he wasn't sure how easy it would be for Martin to accept.
"Yeah, only if I was adopted, no one ever bothered to tell me about it." Martin's face remained locked in a mask of disinterest, but pain leaked into his voice. Silence reigned as the other occupants debated how to best aid Martin.
"I know someone who might be able to help answer a few of your questions," offered a voice from the door. There stood JD with a backpack hooked over one shoulder and Agent Gilbert standing at the other. "I talked to Vin during the lunch break, and he said he'd like to have a face to face with you. He thinks he has some information you might find useful. I've got all the equipment here for a videoconference; I just need a place to set up."
"You can do that in my office," instructed Jack. Martin was clearly uncertain how to proceed for the moment, but Jack was sure that his natural tendency to seek the truth would soon reassert itself. "Danny, please show JD where that is. Agent Gilbert you can return to your regular duties. I suggest you refrain from gossip if you wish to retain your job." Jack hoped the warning would be enough to keep word of Martin's discovery from getting back to his father, Deputy Director Victor Fitzgerald. The last thing Martin needed was Victor's typical wrath and disapproval from on high.
As the tech room vacated, Jack pulled Martin aside, addressing him in a low tone, "We've got two missing persons with solid evidence that both lives are in jeopardy. I can't afford to give you personal time right now, not with the team already split."
Martin nodded his comprehension. "I know. I'm sorry I'm letting my personal life interfere with work. I won't do the videoconference if you don't want me to."
"Go ahead and take twenty or thirty minutes to hear what this Tanner has to say. But remember, when he's done, we still have an injured kidnap victim to find. I need to know that no matter what Tanner tells you, you're going to be able to focus on our case, and do your job." Jack knew he was asking a lot, but an innocent man's life might depend on Martin's ability to cope.
"I promise," Martin agreed, swearing to himself that he'd find a way to keep his word.
"Okay," said Jack, "when you get to my office, send Danny back here to help Mack with the Palof footage." Martin slipped away without another word. Jack noticed Mack had returned to examining video, studiously ignoring the fact that he'd just overheard a fellow agent's life unravel. Leaving the room, Jack muttered, "I just know this day is only going to get worse."
+ + + + + + +
JD was well on his way to finishing the setup for videoconference. Danny listened as JD chatted with someone named Buck through the tiny headset hooked on his ear. Buck was the ATF team's demolition expert if he remembered correctly, and was apparently setting up similar equipment in Denver.
Martin entered Jack's office in a businesslike manner, but Danny knew his partner well enough to read the tension in his frame. "Jack wants you to help Mack go through the last of the video footage."
Danny considered asking if Martin was going to be okay, but decided that would be a stupid question. No one would be okay with suddenly finding out that they were apparently one of twins separated at birth, and that didn't even cover the whole secret adoption thing. "I've got your back, if you need me," Danny promised before exiting.
Martin mustered a weak smile of thanks as his friend departed. At the desk, JD confirmed that everything was ready on his side. Moving around the desk, Martin could see a large man with black hair and a mustache say the same.
The man looked up from the connections he was making, his gaze drifting past JD to Martin. There was a fleeting look of muted surprise, like someone who'd already been given information but was just now coming face to face with its reality. Looking away from the video camera, he said, "We're all set up, Vin. Why don't JD and I give you a bit of privacy to speak with Agent Fitzgerald."
"Now I'll be right outside, so just give a shout if you have any problems with the feed," JD offered. A second later he muttered into his headset, "Give it a rest, Buck. I'm leaving already." He scooped up his backpack and left the room.
When Martin sat down and looked back at the screen, for a moment he felt as though he'd been transported to an episode of the Twilight Zone. JD's earlier description of 'longer hair, five o'clock shadow and maybe 10 more pounds in muscle mass' fit Vin Tanner to a T, but it left out so much, like the relaxed way he slouched in his chair or the searching intelligence of his eyes. Martin knew he should say something, but he was utterly speechless.
"I reckon I ought to start since I know a bit more about our situation than you," Vin began. "First off, I've always known I had a brother. When I was a little feller, saying my bedtime prayers, Mama always included asking God to watch over my brother, Martin. I asked her once where Martin was and she just said, 'He was taken from us,' and started to cry. I figured she meant you were dead and never asked again. She died of pneumonia when I was five, so there really wasn't much chance to revisit the subject."
"A couple months ago I got an itch to know a bit more about where I came from," Vin continued. "It didn't take long before I started noticing a lot of things I didn't like. Official records regarding Mama were almost non-existent. I also saw clear patterns that indicated she was intentionally trying to live 'off the record' the way a lot of criminals do. The last straw was when I learned that the FBI had tagged her Social Security number. At that point I had to consider the possibility that she might have kidnapped me. So I had our Doc, Nathan perform a DNA test. When it came back positive that I was her son, I chose to drop the investigation. Whatever mistakes she might have made before I was born, I didn't want to know about them. In the end, I decided it just wasn't worth sullying my Mama's memory to learn about something that happened over three decades ago. Still, if you've got questions that you figure need answering, I'll help in any way I can."
Even with the typical weaknesses of video feed, Martin was getting a pretty good picture of Vin Tanner. His sun weather face suited his slightly scratchier voice. He was confident, relaxed, and curious, but willing to let Martin set the pace. Which led back to the question: How far did Martin want to go seeking the truth about his past? There was one person Martin was certain was the architect of the web which now entangled him, but his father was unlikely to volunteer information at Martin's request.
"If you don't think you can get the truth from your family, I know someone we can contact that might be able to help." Tanner apparently included mind reading in his repertoire. "A couple weeks after I dropped the investigation, I received a call from the doctor that delivered us. He said that he wanted to talk to me about the circumstances surrounding my birth. I told him I'd already decided to just let it lay, but he offered to keep all of the relevant information, in case I changed my mind later."
"Do you still have the contact information for this doctor?" Martin spoke for the first time. Vin's suddenly warm grin was his answer.
+ + + + + + +
JD examined the photo and notations on the white board, while trying to stay out of senior Special Agent Malone's way.
"Jack, we found something on the video. Look at these photos from the boutique surveillance camera." Danny attached three grainy, black and white pictures to the top of the white board.
"So who's the guy muscling our missing person?" Jack voiced the inevitable question.
"No ID yet," Danny replied.
"Miguel Starkweather," JD informed. He'd glanced at images mostly out of habit. He certainly hadn't expected to recognize one of the men in the picture.
"You know this guy?" demanded Jack.
"Unfortunately," JD confirmed. "He's wanted for kidnapping, extortion, theft, the unlawful detonation of explosives, destruction of property and the attempted murder of a federal agent, namely me."
+ + + + + + +
A rap on the office door was Martin's short warning before it opened, letting JD and Jack in. "I'm sorry to interrupt, but we've got a bit of a situation." JD circled around the desk so he could face the camera. "Vin, I need to talk to Chris."
On the screen Vin turned away to shout, "Hey, Cowboy, get in here, JD needs you!"
A few seconds passed as Vin's boss responded to the summons. Standing behind a seated Martin, Jack got his first glimpse of his agent's doppelganger. He suppressed any reaction as Vin moved back to let a wiry blonde take over the conference.
Green eyes seemed to bore through the screen. "What's up, JD?"
"Chris, they're working a missing persons case, Matthew Palof, and I just identified the last person seen with him as Miguel Starkweather," said JD.
A slight tightening of the skin around Chris's eyes was the only visible reaction. "Buck, start pulling all of our files on Starkweather, including the Coltrane case. Ezra, find the profile you made of Starkweather. Nathan, verify that Coltrane's other lackeys haven't been released on good behavior or some other such stupidity. JD, have you had a chance to fill them in on Starkweather's previous misdeeds?"
"Not yet, I figured they'd want our files right away," explained JD.
"I'll leave that to you. You know the case as well as any of us." Chris directed his gaze past JD. "Agent Malone, I highly recommend you insist your agents start wearing bullet proof vests for the rest of their investigation. Starkweather has shown no hesitancy to kill federal agents and he has a bad habit of showing up where you least expect."
Before Jack had a chance to reply, his boss, Paula Van Doren entered the room. "Jack, I need to talk to you about a case."
"We just got a solid lead on Palof," Jack reported.
"Very good, but I wanted to talk to you about assigning agents to your new case," said Van Doren.
"New case? You mean Ashley Coffer. I've already got half my team tracking her. Vivian's working as lead investigator," Jack informed his supervisor.
"No, I'm talking about John Bryant. He's a banker who never showed for his after lunch meeting. His family is very concerned and I've assured his sister, Congresswoman Brander that I'd put my best people on it," explained Van Doren.
Jack wasn't fooled by his boss's flattery. "It's nice that you think so highly of us, but my team is already stretched thin looking for two missing persons in imminent peril, without adding a banker who may simply be enjoying an extended lunch break. Surely there's someone else you could give that case to."
"I didn't promise the congresswoman someone else, I promised her the best. You're taking this case, Jack. If you don't think your team can handle all three at once then pass off one of the other two," insisted Van Doren. Jack found himself clenching his jaw to hold in the half dozen scathing comments that flooded his mind; most of them regarding her playing politics while lives were at stake.
"Jack," interrupted Martin, "I think Agent Larabee has a suggestion." Martin had seen the displeasure on Larabee's face at Van Doren's casual instruction to pass the Palof investigation off to another less experienced team. He'd also noted JD's small hand signal, followed by Tanner whispering in Larabee's ear, bringing a nod of decision.
"Agent Malone, JD has already finished the training I sent him to New York for. I'll loan him to you for the Palof case. That should help until my team and I arrive," Chris offered. He didn't like loaning out his people, but JD seemed to think well of Malone and catching Starkweather was too good of an opportunity to pass up.
Across the room Van Doren was realizing that she'd interrupted a videoconference. Her first response was to take offense at the idea that someone else would come to New York to take over a case from her office. Reminding her self that diplomacy was what had gotten her to her current position she inquired, "Excuse me, but who are you and your team again?"
"I'm Chris Larabee, ATF Team Seven. We've come up against Starkweather in the past and he currently tops our most wanted list," informed a lean, muscular blonde of about forty.
Van Doren's immediate thought was, 'Great, just what we need, a bunch of ATF cowboys,' but she said, "I appreciate your interest, but it's really not necessary for your team to travel half way across the country. The Bureau can handle this case."
Chris's lips set in a stubborn line. "And you would be?" he asked, pointing out that she had failed to introduce herself.
"Assistant Special Agent in Charge Paula Van Doren," she replied.
"Well, Ms. Van Doren, it's necessary for my team to take any case I decide we should take. What I can't understand is why you're discouraging our assistance when we both heard Special Agent Malone say his team was stretched too thin. Our current mandate states that our agencies should co-operate whenever possible, does it not?" Chris's words flowed on a cool, cutting edge. "I'll be arriving with two of my agents in six hours. If you can't decide to work with us by then, I suggest you just get out of our way." Dismissing Van Doren, Chris refocused on his own agent. "JD, you will vest up and stay sharp."
"Of course," assured JD.
"Agent Malone, I look forward to meeting you later today." Chris accepted Jack's nod of acknowledgement and disappeared.
Vin Tanner moved closer to the camera, "Martin, I'll bring that stuff we were talking about."
"Great, see you soon, Vin," Martin replied. As the connection ended, he had one thought cycling through his brain, 'I have a brother and in a matter of hours I'm going to meet him.'
Across the room more volatile issues were being considered. "I don't see what the problem is," insisted Jack. "You were the one who suggested I pass off one of my cases. This way Larabee gets a shot at someone he's after, and everybody is happy."
"The problem is I don't want a bunch of ATF cowboys telling us how to handle our cases," answered Van Doren.
Back by Jack's desk, JD snorted. "It's a good thing Chris didn't hear her call him a cowboy." At Martin's curious look JD explained, "Chris hates it when people call him cowboy."
"But I thought I heard Vin call him that," said Martin.
JD smiled, "I guess you could say that Vin's the exception to that particular rule."
A few feet away Van Doren continued to display her unease. "You contacted them, Jack. I'm holding you responsible for what happens while they're here." With that she left Jack's office.
Jack rubbed his right temple before turning back to Martin and JD. "Okay, JD give me a quick rundown of your previous case with Miguel Starkweather."
"It didn't start out as a case. Our friend Mary Travis had asked us to help resettle a parolee she was sponsoring. So as a favor we were helping Terry Greer and her daughter Olivia move into an apartment. I was just bringing Olivia back from an ice cream run when I saw Terry and one of my team, Buck, being lead down the sidewalk by five armed men, one of whom had a gun stuck in Buck's side. I ducked into an ally with Olivia and managed to overhear enough to know they wanted her too. We hid her in a safe house while Chris and Vin tracked the group that had kidnapped Buck and Terry. Their trail lead right into the dark side of Purgatory so Vin had to pull out; too many people could have recognized him from his gang."
"Vin used to be in a gang?" asked Martin. He knew it was straying from the main topic, but he couldn't stop himself from grasping every bit of information about Tanner he could find.
"Actually, he's the leader of the Purgatory Pillars," JD rushed on to explain. "See, after his mom died he and his grandpa moved to Purgatory. Kevin Tanner was a retired Texas Ranger who wasn't about to let his grandson get sucked into a street gang. Kevin protected Vin and a couple neighbor kids from the local gangs until he died a decade later. Vin wanted to carry on his grandfather's legacy so when he left the army he set up shop in Purgatory. At first he was just protecting the kids in his apartment building. Then other kids started asking to join. He negotiated a truce between two rival gangs and they eventually merged into his. Now the Pillars control about one-fifth of Purgatory. The only part of Purgatory that has no prostitution, few drugs and one of the lowest crime rates in Denver. Unfortunately, the rest of Purgatory is home to a lot of drug dealers, pimps and rival gangs that aren't too happy about the way Vin cut their business profits and challenged their authority. So anyway, Vin made a strategic retreat while Chris stayed on Buck and Terry. I heard things got a bit dicey when the kidnappers decided they didn't need Buck. Chris had to pick a fight with him and fake his murder in front of a very deadly audience."
"I take it, no one called their bluff?" asked Jack. He couldn't help but be fascinated by the ballsy gamble. Not many people would try something like that without a sound stage, camera crew and bevy of special effects experts to back them up.
"Apparently," said JD with a grin, "Buck makes such a convincing corpse that bums were stripping off his boots and jacket. The leader of the kidnappers, Morgan Coltrane, was so impressed with Chris's killer instinct that he offered Chris a job on the spot."
"So where does Miguel Starkweather come in?" asked Martin.
"Starkweather was Coltrane's lieutenant. Coltrane theoretically ran a security company, but his true income came from breaking into safes, though he was at least smart enough to not rob his own customers. Terry was a safe cracker that Coltrane had worked with before. I guess he expected her to jump at the chance the make some quick money again, but Terry had already lost Olivia to foster care once and she wasn't going to risk it a second time. Coltrane knew Olivia would be the best leverage he could get against Terry, so he sent Starkweather to find her. We're not sure, but we think Starkweather followed Mary to the safe house when she brought some things for Olivia. That night when everyone else fell asleep and I was checking the perimeter, Olivia wandered down to the park across the street."
"She left the safe house?" asked Jack. He understood that Olivia was a child, but her actions were probably the worst thing she could have done.
"Yeah, Josiah still beats himself up over falling asleep on his shift," admitted JD. "I was just clearing the corner of the house when I saw Olivia struggling in Starkweather's arms. I announced my presence and ordered him to release Olivia." JD paused, rubbing his chest unconsciously. "Starkweather tossed Olivia to his sidekick like she was a sack of beans, and then threw something at me. They both took off running and I . . . I couldn't breathe. I didn't realize what had hit me until I looked down and saw a knife handle sticking out of my chest. I managed to fire off a couple rounds after I went down, which at least let the others know something was wrong. While Nathan was patching me up, Coltrane's gang was moving on their target. Ezra managed to track Starkweather and get Olivia back. He signaled to Chris. Chris separated Terry from the rest of the gang and we moved in to take them down. Coltrane was so pissed about having his plans ruined that he tried to run Chris and Terry down with his motorcycle. Chris ended up shooting him right off his bike. As for the rest of Coltrane's gang; one other man died, three were sent to jail, but Starkweather managed to finagle bail and then disappeared."
"Until now," added Jack. JD's story left him wondering how much Mark Palof was involved in his brother Matthew's disappearance. Had he been eager to get involved in Starkweather's scheme or was he as much a victim as Terry had been? Then another thought occurred to him. "Larabee said he was bringing two other agents with him. Doesn't that mean we'll be missing two?"
"Buck and Nathan both have to testify in court. I doubt they'll be done before Thursday," explained JD.
Danny knocked on Jack's open door. "The faxes from JD's team are coming through."
"Well, it looks like it's time to find out what you can do Agent Dunne. You can help Martin and Danny weed through the info and look for what might be relevant to Starkweather's current plans. I'll find out who Vivian can spare to help me look for a tardy banker." His words effectively dismissed the three junior agents. Jack really wasn't looking forward to telling Vivian he was pulling one of the girls off her case. She was going to be very unhappy with him and justifiably so. He wondered how many more lows the day would hit before it was finally over. They had three missing people and right now he didn't know if they'd be able to get more than one of them back alive.
Vin had been staring out the window of the luxury jet for well over an hour. Deciding their friend had spent enough time pondering, Ezra settled into the seat beside the quiet man. With the twist of his wrists and a flourish of hands, a single golden coin appeared at his fingertips. When Vin's only response was to glance out of the corner of his eye inquiringly, Ezra explained, "For your thoughts."
"I thought it was 'a penny for your thoughts' not a dollar," Vin pointed out.
"Inflation," Ezra responded.
Vin grinned at Ezra's dry delivery and accepted the coin. The image of Sacagawea and her child embossed on the metal disk reminded Vin of one of the few pictures he had of his mother. The photo had been taken during a hike more than thirty years before. His mother had been carrying an infant Vin in some sort of backpack contraption while Kevin Tanner stood beside his daughter and grandson. Three generations of Tanners enjoying the outdoors together. What few memories he had of his mother all seemed to involve visiting parks or trekking through the wild, the main exception being his last memory of her in the hospital. She'd made him promise to always remember he was a Tanner. Vin wasn't ashamed to admit that, for better or worse, his whole life had been shaped by the promise he'd made at five years old.
"I remember flipping through channels one day, seeing this show about twins separated at birth," started Vin. "They didn't meet up until they were in their late forties, but there were all these similarities; like they were both in law enforcement, they both married petite blondes, they even liked the same foods." Vin shook his head. "But so much of who I am is wrapped up in Mama and Grandpa, and all the things they taught me." Vin paused; one hand fingering the file folder holding all the information Ezra, Buck and even Nathan had dug up on one Martin Fitzgerald. "Martin's got a socialite mom. His dad is part of the who's who of government power. What could we possibly have in common?" Vin gnawed on his bottom lip. "He went to one of the best universities in the country, his test scores . . ."
"Now stop right there," ordered Ezra. "Test scores are an easily fooled measurement of intelligence. That you were able to earn your GED and gain entrance to college without ever having your dyslexia diagnosed or treated speaks volumes for both your intelligence and fortitude."
"I know," Vin brushed aside Ezra's assurances. "I'm just saying, with so little in common, how are we going to talk to each other?"
"The weather is a classic conversation starter. Or you could always discuss favorite football teams. Perhaps swap case stories." Ezra offered lightly. "Then again you may decide that this Martin isn't the sort of person you want to talk to at all. Just because you might share chromosomes, doesn't mean you'll be instant friends." Ezra tapped the folder on Vin's lap. "Have you read all the material we've gathered yet?"
"Glanced through a bit here and there," Vin muttered. "It kind of feels like I'm invading his privacy."
"Vin, I know you aren't naive enough to assume Fitzgerald hasn't already done a similar search on you. Ten to one says that he's already pumping JD for information about you," Ezra calculated.
"Pumping? Heck, you don't have to do more than say 'hi' to JD to get him talking your ear off," joked Vin.
"True," conceded Ezra, "but guiding that conversation where you want it to go can be another matter all together." His instincts were telling Ezra that something beyond the obvious was bothering Vin, but the occasions where he opened up about his problems were often few and far between. Still, Ezra had not become the man he was without learning how to apply the proper leverage. "So how much longer do you want to banter about before you tell me what's upset you?"
"What makes you think it's anything more than being nervous about meeting Martin?" queried Vin, as he looked away.
Ezra ignored the blatant avoidance tactic. "Because you didn't start tapping your foot and shifting in your seat until after you started to read the dossier we created. And I don't believe for a second that this is about you being intimidated by Martin's education or background. So why don't you tell me what it is that's disturbed you so?"
"You've met him. Victor, I mean. The profile you had on him indicated personal experience." Vin was more confirming what he'd deduced than questioning Ezra. "And it didn't put Victor in a very favorable light."
Ezra hesitated. He wasn't pleased to realize that it was one of his own additions to the file that was worrying Vin, but conversely he couldn't leave Vin unaware of a potential hazard. "It's possible that my own feelings somewhat colored my perceptions of Victor Fitzgerald. I only met him a few times very early in my FBI career, while I was still quite idealistic about our purpose. The confrontations I was having with Mother at the same time probably didn't help matters."
"What's Maude got to do with Martin's father?" asked Vin.
"They share certain characteristics . . ." began Ezra. Then he shook his head and started again. "In many ways Victor is what Maude could have become had she sought political power the way she currently seeks money." That was as accurate and succinct an assessment as he could make.
"You think he's the reason Martin and I were raised separate; the reason Mama died trying to keep us hidden?" Vin's question was barely more than a whisper.
"You would know better than I," said Ezra. "You're the one in possession of Dr. Rittman's safety deposit box contents."
"I decided not to open it yet," explained Vin. "I figure, whatever is in there isn't just about me. Martin's got a right to see it the same time I do."
"Then I guess we'll have to wait a bit longer to learn who is responsible for the way you and your twin were separated," commented Ezra.
Vin nodded, seeming to accept that patience would bring him the knowledge he sought. "I wonder if Martin likes beef jerky?" he asked offhandedly.
"Who knows? Scarier things have happened," replied Ezra.
"There ain't nothing scary about beef jerky," snorted Vin.
"Yes, so you keep telling me. I think I'll stick to sushi, thank you anyway," decided Ezra.
+ + + + + + +
By backtracking some of Coltrane's former interests, JD found a small company that specialized in moving expensive and collectable objects. That eight months ago they'd hired an employee by the name of 'Mike Stark', who just happened to match Miguel Starkweather's description, was enough of a coincidence to warrant a visit.
Secured Movers, CEO, Eric Fogle did not agree with their reasoning. "Mike is an excellent employee. He comes in early, doesn't mind working late. He takes initiative when it comes to problem solving." Fogle was listing the sainted 'Mike's' virtues for the third time since they'd entered his office. "We do very thorough background checks before we even consider hiring a new employee. Mike is not the criminal sort."
"I'm sure you're right Mr. Fogle," Martin appeased the man. "This is probably just a miss-identification. But we really do need to talk to Mike in person so we can clear this matter up."
"Well, I think he should be back from his run in another twenty minutes. He only had a short transport to do today. I expect, when he arrives he'll head to the break room to wait for his next assignment." Mr. Fogle took a drink from his coffee mug before reiterating, "Mike's really not the criminal sort."
A bespectacled secretary walked in with a collection of papers in her hands. "Here is Mr. Stark's personnel file.
Danny intercepted the papers before they reached Mr. Fogle's desk. "Thank you so much, Betty," Danny smiled charmingly at the older woman. "We really appreciate your help." Fogle blustered a bit in the background, but didn't demand Danny give up the papers. Danny handed 'Stark's' application to JD and his references to Martin, keeping the performance review for himself.
Noticing something in the job history section, JD asked, "Is the letter of reference from Safe Shipping written by George Caffry, New Mexico area code (505) 555-1042?"
"Yes," confirmed Martin. Skimming the letter he continued, "George wrote a glowing recommendation."
"Well, George Caffry, a.k.a. Georgie McCaffrey, is a con man with a profitable side business writing very professional recommendations for criminals of all sorts. Starkweather must not have paid very well, since Georgie used a 'recycled' company."
"That's not possible!" protested Mr. Fogle. "I talked to Mr. Caffry. He was very knowledgeable about our business."
"All part of the con," assured Danny. "We'll need to take these with us. The break room is downstairs across the main floor, correct?"
"Um, yes, that's right," muttered Fogle. The pale man seemed to finally be realizing that his employee might not be what he'd thought.
JD lead the way out of the office, which led to a set of open metal stairs overlooking the crate cluttered floor of the small warehouse. He was halfway down, trying to locate the break room door, when his peripheral vision caught a form darting between some large crates. Before he could focus on the figure, sharp explosive gunfire and the whine of metal ricocheting off of metal filled the warehouse. Instinct kicked in, as JD swung his legs over the railing to drop to the cement floor below. Drawing his gun he repeatedly pulled the trigger, sending out a spray of cover fire, to pull attention away from Martin and Danny, and their too exposed position on the stairs. There was a confusing array of screams, shouts and splintering wood, but JD didn't let himself get distracted until two solid thumps landing behind him let him know Danny and Martin had made it to cover. Ducking down, JD turned to check his fellow agents for injuries. Seeing both appeared unscathed, he quipped, "I think Starkweather might have been tipped to our presence."
"You think?" came Danny's sarcastic reply, as he looked for an opponent to target.
Martin radioed their location, "We need immediate assistance. Repeat: Agents under fire."
Checking his ammo, JD cursed. "I'm almost out of bullets," he told the others, wishing he'd brought his back-up gun to New York with him. "Just our luck that Starkweather would come back early today."
"And bring friends," Martin pointed out before he fired two rounds to their left. "I'm guessing there are three guns out there. If we don't move they'll have us in a crossfire soon."
"Agreed," said JD.
Danny, being the closest to the warehouse entrance, slipped quietly to the edge of his cover, taking a quick peek around the corner. The hail of bullets that greeted him was not the welcome he'd been hoping for. "We're not getting out that way!" Danny scrambled back to their island of safety.
"E.T.A. is two minutes," crackled an urgent voice on Martin's cell. JD huddled close to Danny and Martin, firing only to keep their attackers at bay, praying backup would arrive before their bullets ran out.
"I remember you Agent Dunne!" shouted Miguel Starkweather over the sporadic gunfire. Martin signaled that he thought Starkweather's voice was coming from their right. Just as Martin had predicted, the three men were being in circled. "I'm gonna make you pay for messing up my last deal."
"What, driving an eight inch blade into my lung wasn't just recompense?" demanded JD.
"JD, don't tease the wild animals," scolded Danny.
"Especially, when they've got us pinned down in a cross-fire," added Martin.
"Goodbye, Agent Dunne." A reflective missile sailed past JD's head. There was a shattering of glass, and then fire erupted in their midst. JD's eyes watered against the rush of heated air.
Flames spread across the floor, climbing quickly up the wooden crates, and in Danny's case, catching on clothing. A chaotic and creative mix of Spanish and English curses flowed as Danny struggled to remove his burning coat while Martin used his jacket to smother the flames. Knowing their opponents hoped to drive them into the open where they'd be more vulnerable, JD went on the offensive; firing at the two men he saw on the left. A second later he heard Martin firing behind him, but worry about who might be at his back was negated by JD's gun running out of bullets. He dropped the gun and dove for the piece Danny had lost when he'd battled his flaming cloths. JD's fingers latched onto the gun, but his body jerked violently just before he landed. Firing from the ground he saw one opponent fall and the other flee.
"Starkweather's running!" warned Martin. With a shared look the three agents silently agreed to pursue. They moved cautiously through the crates, Danny in the middle, now coatless and armed with his back-up weapon. The sound of an engine starting, had them increasing their pace, but it wasn't enough to prevent Starkweather from pealing away in someone's Camry.
With sirens announcing the arrival of Police, Martin radioed a description of Starkweather's get away vehicle. Soon two police cars were off in pursuit, while a third car came to a stop near the entrance.
"Is anyone hurt?" was the first question from a stout officer.
JD and Martin both looked to the semi-cooked Danny. "Nothing worse then a sunburn here," he assured them.
"I injured another perp in the back of the warehouse," informed JD. "The third shooter fled towards the rear exit. We need to secure the building before we can begin bringing in emergency personnel."
"Let's get to it then," replied the elder cop, grabbing his shotgun out of the car, while his partner pulled out the extra flashlights.
JD quickly lead them to the perp he'd wounded. Bleeding from his side, the criminal was eager to surrender as long as it meant getting medical care. The sweep continued, uncovering several employees hiding in the break room, and two more out back who'd been having a cigarette break when the shoot-out occurred. There was no sign of the third gunman.
Heading back to the front of the building JD heard the ring of his cell phone, though it wasn't coming from his hip. Trotting over to the stairs, he scooped it up off the floor answering, "Agent Dunne . . . Hey Ezra, are you guys in New York already? . . What do you mean? . . Well, we did have a run in with Starkweather . . . No. No one got hurt. Well, I did shoot one of the perps, and Danny got a little singed by a Molotov cocktail . . . What? Chris . . ." JD turned away from the other law enforcement officials gathered, his face containing a mixture of embarrassment and stubborn determination. "I'm not bleeding anywhere. 'No blood, no foul' isn't that what you always say? . . I'm fine! . . Yes, sir . . . understood, sir." JD stared at his cell after the call was terminated. "You'd think I intentionally got into a firefight just to piss him off," he muttered.
"Problems, JD?" asked Martin hesitantly.
JD turned back to his temporary partners. "Chris, Ezra and Vin just landed. They want to meet us at headquarters in forty minutes."
"How'd they cross the country that fast?" Danny wondered aloud.
"Chris is in a mood," replied JD, "so I'm assuming Ezra arranged to borrow his third ex-stepfather's jet."
"We'd better go then," said Martin, happy to turn over clean up to the locals. Chris Larabee didn't seem like the kind of person you wanted to keep waiting.
+ + + + + + +
Martin looked through the ATF Team Seven's file on the Coltrane incident, focusing on Ezra Standish's profile of Miguel Starkweather. They'd been halfway back to the office when they'd received word that Starkweather had escaped pursuit, dumping the stolen Camry about two miles northeast of the shootout. Abandoned coincidently, just a block away from the subway entrance.
The question Martin needed to answer was; now that Starkweather knew they were on to him would he still try to play out whatever criminal enterprise he'd planned or would he cut his losses and dispose of Matthew Palof?
"I think I might have something," said Danny. "Seven months ago Starkweather was part of the Secure Movers work crew that transported about eight million dollars worth of gold to a collector by the name of Claire Hughes."
"What, doesn't she trust Fort Knox?" asked Martin moving closer.
"So where does the connection to Matthew Palof come in?" queried JD from across the conference table.
"Before his hacking got him sent to jail, Matthew's brother Mark created several high tech home security systems, including one for the Hughes family," shared Danny. "He's got to have some sort of pass code or access that Starkweather plans to make use of to get that gold."
"Would it still be any good?" wondered Martin. "If I was going to take possession of something that valuable, I'd upgrade my security."
"Up grade, sure," agreed JD, "but would you really replace the whole security program or just add another layer or two of protection? If Mark wrote the program he might be able to get around any changes that have been added since. It might help if I could see the program he wrote." JD began typing on his laptop. "Still, I wouldn't have credited Starkweather with the patience to wait eight months before making a move."
"The long wait might not have been part of the original plan. Mark Palof was up for parole six months ago, but it got pushed back after a fight with another inmate," informed Martin.
"So Starkweather had no choice but to wait until Mark was finally released." Danny nodded. "It doesn't tell us where Starkweather is, but it does tell us where he might be going."
"Sounds like you're making progress," came a forth voice.
"Jack, I didn't expect to see you back so soon. How's your case going?" asked Martin.
"It's solved. We found our banker in his car, off to the side of the road. He'd slipped into diabetic shock," updated Jack. "He was still holding on when we got him to the hospital. Better yet, I got word from Vivian: She and Elena tracked Ashley Coffer down in Rhode Island. John Pendleton is in jail and Ashley is heading back to her family. Viv said the incident scared Ashley enough to ensure she won't be meeting any more boys via the Internet. We should see Vivian and Elena in a couple more hours."
A slender female agent with long blonde hair walked up beside Jack. "I heard you guys traded bullets with some bad guys," she greeted. "Is everyone okay?"
Danny lifted his left hand to reveal a small white bandage. "Just a couple of second degree burns."
"Sam, this is Agent JD Dunne, on loan from the ATF. He's had a run-in with our kidnapper, Starkweather, before," Jack introduced. "JD, this is one of my agents, Samantha Spade."
JD stood up and offered his hand. "It's a pleasure to meet you ma'am," he greeted with a tip of his head.
Sam's eyebrows rose at being addressed as ma'am, which drew a smile from Martin. But she didn't comment since JD clearly hadn't meant to offend.
Taking a chair Jack brought everyone's attention back to the case. "The Hughes connection is a viable possibility, but we really need to figure out where Starkweather might be holding Matthew Palof. Assuming he hasn't killed him and taken off for safer locales already."
"Well," volunteered Martin, "Standish's profile of Starkweather indicates he's overconfident and unlikely to back down."
"Arrogant," JD added his own insight. "He outsmarted us with the ambush. He won't even consider the possibility that we might be able to turn the situation back on him."
"Unless he's learned from the last time your team arrested him," suggested Danny.
"If Starkweather learned from his mistakes he wouldn't have taken up kidnapping again." JD tapped his pen twice on a notepad before pointing it at Martin and Danny. "Besides, you both heard him during the firefight. Miguel blames me for the failure of their last heist. He wants to beat me personally." JD's eyes flicked to Jack. "We might be able to use that to our advantage."
"Let's leave that thought on the backburner," instructed Jack. "It's never a good idea to encourage the vengeful focus of a criminal." Martin wondered if Jack was thinking of Graham Spaulding. "So far Starkweather has thrown daggers and Molotov cocktails at us. His methods are too unpredictable to start dangling someone as bait. In fact, I'd prefer to have our team at full strength before we try to take him down."
"I think I see some reinforcements coming right now," said JD, smiling across the floor towards the elevator door. The now harried looking Agent Gilbert walked beside a tall slim blonde with an intimidating scowl. Behind them walked a strangely familiar frame carrying a duffel bag, next to a shorter, stylishly dressed man. Martin's breath caught when his eyes locked on the man he was now certain was his brother. Maybe the connection he felt was just his imagination, but he wasn't going to deny it any longer.
Gilbert motioned to Jack's group, which had the blonde cutting across the room towards JD like a heat-seeking missile. Jack noticed that JD's grin had become suddenly nervous, but that didn't stop the young man from stepping forward. "Chris," JD started. "I'd like to introduce the head of the Missing Persons Unit, Jack Malone."
Chris completely ignored Jack, stepping into JD's personal space until he'd backed up two steps. "Where'd you get hit?" Chris demanded.
"Hit?" Jack wondered what the hell Larabee was talking about.
"I'm fine, Chris, really." JD's tone was so unconvincing that Jack was starting to wonder what he'd missed. Danny stood, not liking the way his new young friend was being intimidated.
"Just relax, friend," drawled a Texas accent. Danny found himself face to face with a longhaired clone of his partner. "Chris ain't gonna hurt JD . . ." Vin assured with a teasing glint in his eye, " . . . much."
Chris straightened to his full height, looking down on JD. "Did you just say fine?" JD seemed to realize he'd made a tactical error a second before Chris's hand darted out, poking JD in the side.
"Ouch!" exclaimed JD as he turtled up, just barely maintaining his feet.
Before he'd completely straightened the third man, who'd somehow slid behind JD without anyone noticing, lifted JD's shirt to reveal a dark red, circular bruise decorating his left ribcage. "Why Mr. Dunne," came a thick, Southern drawl, "what a lovely shade of red you're wearing."
Jack couldn't believe what he was seeing. "You took a bullet to your vest and didn't tell us?" demanded Jack, his voice rising.
"We were trapped in a crossfire and Danny's clothing was aflame. There were more important problems then a couple of bruised ribs." JD defended.
"And what's your excuse for afterward? Danny got his hand taken care of," Jack pointed out. "You could have broken ribs or internal bleeding."
"I've had broken ribs before. They hurt more than this. I'm telling you; I'm fine." Though JD was still protesting, the defiance had left his voice.
Ezra spoke in a surprisingly gentle tone, "Would this be the 'fine' of a bruised kidney, sprained wrist and concussion that you received from the Nichols brothers or the 'fine' of the last time you encountered Starkweather and were stumbling around with an eight inch blade buried in your chest?" When JD didn't respond, Chris stepped back returning JD's space.
"Samantha, take Agent Dunne to New York City Health," ordered Jack. "We'll let a doctor decide how extensive his injuries are."
When none of his own team protested the order JD meekly moved to follow Samantha. They'd only taken three steps when Chris called out, "JD, sit rep!" Chris's abbreivated slang demanded a situation report.
JD turned around and looked his team leader in the eyes. "Alpha, alpha." Ezra's eyebrow's shot up. "Titanium pillars." Vin smiled. "Structural rust." Jack's team exchanged looks as each realized that JD was speaking in code.
"Understood," said Chris, his voice calm for the first time since he'd entered the building. "Now go with Agent Spade and DO NOT give the doctors a hard time."
"Yes, sir." JD and Sam walked away.
"See, I told you JD would be fine." Offering his hand to Martin, Vin said, "It's good to finally meet you in person, Little Brother."
"Little Brother?" asked Martin. He tried to keep his tone casual, but it felt like his heart was racing a hundred miles per hour.
"According to our birth certificates, I was born seventeen minutes before you. I reckon that makes me the big brother," explained Vin, his eyes sparking with mischief.
Martin found himself grinning at the humor in Vin's tone, and responding in kind. "Does that mean I get to be the hellion? Because most of the little brothers I knew were trouble making hellions and I think I could have a lot of fun with that."
"Good luck trying to out trouble, Vin," muttered Chris as much to himself as anybody else. Turning to Jack for the first time, he said, "Sorry about the rude entrance, but I felt getting JD squared away took priority over introductions. I'm Chris Larabee. This is Ezra Standish and the man standing beside your agents is Vin Tanner."
Jack shook Chris and Ezra's hands and nodded to Vin. "Not a problem," he allowed. "I'm Jack Malone. The agents across the table are Danny Taylor and Martin Fitzgerald. The agent that left with JD was Samantha Spade, though I believe you already knew that."
Chris grinned at Jack unrepentantly. "I like to know who I'm working with; you live longer that way. I suppose now is as good a time as any to decide command. Though we're members of different agencies, I do technically outrank you." Jack tensed, expecting the all too common turf war. "But as much as I want Starkweather, and I really do want that bastard, I think the safety of the kidnap victim has to come first. This is your town. Missing Persons is your specialty. Having you take charge makes the most sense. For the duration of this investigation you can consider my agents and myself at your disposal."
Jack was momentarily speechless. Van Doren had implied that Larabee was difficult to work with and never allowed anyone else to assume command of joint investigations. "I'm surprised you're willing to give me the lead when we've only just met." Jack knew he shouldn't be looking a gift horse in the mouth, but he wanted to know what Larabee was thinking.
Chris shifted, looking towards Vin. Jack could have sworn that entire conversations were exchanged in that short look. Chris dropped a slim briefcase on the table before looking back at Jack. "I had you checked out. Besides, it's not so much about you as it is about trusting JD's judgment."
"So all of that 'Alpha, titanium, rust' stuff was JD rating my ability to lead this investigation?" At Chris's nod, Jack had to ask, "Are you sure you want to trust the judgment of a guy who wasn't smart enough to tell someone he'd been shot?"
Chris and Vin both chuckled, leaving Ezra to explain. "JD was raised by a poor, single mother who couldn't afford the luxury of health insurance. He learned at an early age that illness and injury were things to be ignored. Everyone on our team has blind spots of one sort or another. We make allowances for each other."
Jack took in what Ezra had just said. "So what's your blind spot than?"
Somewhat surprised that Jack had asked him so directly, Ezra replied, "I'm a gambler."
"And you?" Jack looked to Vin.
Ezra cut in, "Would you believe that there's a small hamlet in the Texas panhandle that is convinced he's a . . ."
"Stop, Ezra," said Vin. "You ain't got to cover for me." Looking towards Jack, Vin took a nervous breath. "I've got a real severe form of dyslexia. Reading's slow for me, and writing is pretty much hit or miss, depending on how tired I am. Back home JD's got my computer all tricked out so I can dictate to it. When we're elsewhere on assignment one of the others usually types up my reports."
Jack could see how much it had cost Vin to reveal his inadequacies, so he acknowledged Vin with a, "We can work with that," and turned to Larabee. "What about you?"
Chris leaned back so he was sitting on the edge of the table. "There are quite a few folks who'd say I've got a death wish. Not long ago they'd have been right, but I recently found some new reasons to keep going." The implications of Chris's comment put the earlier confrontation with JD in a whole new light. Larabee had clearly made his team his family.
"I appreciate your honesty, but I really only see one issue interfering with the investigation." Jack motioned to Martin and Vin. "I know you two probably want to sit down and compare notes, try to figure out what the hell is going on. But I'm going to ask you both to put your personal issues on hold, until this investigation is over."
"Consider it done," was Martin's quick reply.
"Waited this long; reckon I can wait a bit longer, sir," agreed Vin.
"Call him Jack, not sir," Danny and Martin said in unison.
With a small grin, Jack agreed, "What they just said." Looking over the agents assembled Jack started doling out the assignments. "Martin, take Ezra over to the Hughes home and start laying the ground work for a possible sting. And get the program that's running their security system. If the doctors clear JD, we can put him together with Mack to work on it. Danny, we got word from Saint Ann's that the perp JD shoot is stable enough for questioning. Take Vin with you, and find out where Starkweather might be holding up. Chris and I will check out the home address we got for 'Mike Stark' from Secure Movers."
"Is there any chance I might get to question Mark Palof? I'd like to see how involved with Starkweather he is," said Chris.
"He lawyered up when we pulled him in for questioning," Jack admitted, "so anything he says won't be admissible in court, but . . . that doesn't we mean can't make sure he made it home safely."
Chris grinned. "I like the way you think, Jack." Seconds later the Missing Persons department emptied as everyone scattered to follow leads.