The Circle


Rating: PG 13

Disclaimer:  I  do not own or profit from the use of the Magnificent Seven characters. Thank you to MOG for the creation of the ATF.

Comments:  I should begin by saying this is not an original idea, and there will be astute people who know where I got the idea.  Thank you to MOG for betaing and being 'picky.' Thank you to my friends who kept prompting me to finish this. This is my strange holiday gift to all.

Archivist's Note:   This fic was previously hosted on another website and was moved to blackraptor in September 2006.

"Whoa, look at the view."  JD exclaimed as they entered the condominium. The luxurious home overlooked Seattle's Puget Sound. Enormous bay windows wrapped around the room, affording views of the Olympics to the west and Mt. Rainier to the south.

"Yeah, and you can see The Mountain today." A tall gentleman came forward, holding a glass of red wine. He stretched his hand towards JD. "I'm Chaz, Sharon's assistant."

"Nice to meet you." Dunne accepted the handshake then deferred to Ezra to complete the introductions.

"Eric and my assistant, Jason." Standish nodded, and looked past Chaz throughout the room of gathered guests. "And where is the lovely hostess?"

"Right here," the tall blonde came forward, placed her drink down on the nearest table and grasped Ezra's hand with two hands.  "I'm glad you could make it.  How was the flight?"

Standish hooked her arm. "The flight was fine. But I think it would be very lax of the hostess if she didn't mingle." Ezra nodded at JD and Chaz  then escorted Sharon towards another group of gathered men.

JD stuffed his hand in his pocket and rocked on his feet. He smiled at Chaz. "So how long have you been doing this?" The instant the question was out of his mouth  Dunne wanted to kick himself. What was he thinking? It was like asking, "So how long have you been a criminal?" The young agent thanked God he wasn't miked, he'd never be able to live that one down if ever it became team knowledge.

This was hardly his first u.c. assignment. Granted, the others had been few and far between and this role, like the others, was  tailored to his own personal specialties; but no one else on Larabee's team could have fit the bill as Standish's personal techie. A case begun in Denver spawned connections to Washington State gun smugglers, so Ezra was a buyer and JD became his assistant, a technical wizard who'd hacked and breaked his way into numerous government agencies and foreign banks.

"I've been with Sharon for two years." Chaz gestured for a waiter with a tray of drinks. He chose a martini for himself and handed JD one too.

"Thanks," Dunne replied as he ate the olive, then looked around for a place to put the toothpick. A nearby ashtray seemed the best choice.

"How about you?"  The tall, olive skinned man asked as he sipped his drink with relish.

"Me?" JD shrugged his shoulders.  "I've been associated with Eric for awhile." Dunne grinned as he added,  "Hell, he's like family."

Chaz laughed at his own amusing thought before looking over at JD, deciding to share it. "I don't know. Sharon's a little young to be my mom, and she's too pretty to be my sister."

Dunne chuckled as he gazed at the lovely blonde.

Chaz finished his martini and waved the waiter over to pick up the empty glass. "But I know what you mean. I don't have any family anymore. Pops died when I was a kid."

JD gave up his half empty glass, not liking the bitter liquid. "Yeah, my Mom died awhile ago too. It was just the two of us." The young ATF agent wondered if he should share his personal information. All his training led him to the conclusion it is easier to remember the truth than a lie. The moments ticked by and Dunne nodded at Standish who seemed engrossed in a conversation with two other men.

Chaz glanced around the room. "Hey, there's some girls here I think you should meet."  Sharon's partner grabbed JD's arm and introduced him to two attractive young women.

They spent the next hour pretty much 'shooting the shit' before the girls had to leave for a previous engagement. Dunne was trying to kid himself into thinking they were college students.  Chaz ruined that idea.

"You want me to set something up for you?"  The tall man asked, as he waved to the escorts.

JD shook his head. As much as he would like to get into undercover work, he just couldn't cross that line. But, Ezra didn't have any issues. Standish tapped Dunne on the shoulder gesturing it was time to leave.

Sharon slipped next to him and placed her arm around his waist. "Darling, dinner this evening?"

The undercover agent caressed her neck. "Yes, Campagne."

"My favorite," she purred. "See you at 8," Sharon added before walking away to talk to the few remaining guests.

"Listen, here's my card." Chaz placed the card in JD's hand.  "If you want to see Seattle's night life-I can arrange it-anything you want." He clapped Dunne on the shoulder.

The young ATF agent tucked the card in his coat pocket. "Thanks, I'll keep it in mind."

Ezra and JD exited the party. Standish smiled as they entered the rented Mercedes. "That went well," the Southerner commented. The twosome began to review the guests at the party.

JD and Ezra had adjoining rooms at the Four Seasons. After reviewing their notes and contacting the team in Denver, Standish decided to freshen up for his date with Sharon. Ezra exited the marble tub and wiped the mirror only to have it quickly fog up again.

He had taken a very hot shower to work out the knots in his back.  No matter how relaxed the southerner looked, he always had to be prepared. This usually resulted in a back pain.  Ezra donned the hotel's terry cloth bathrobe and opened the door so the steam could escape.

Dunne was sitting on the corner of Standish's bed. "I don't know Ez. Is this such a good idea?" JD was continuing the conversation they had before he entered the shower.

Ezra opened the closet and set out a suit. He then opened the armoire and removed two shirts and three ties, placing them around the suit. "To be a good undercover agent you have to associate with the criminals. They have to believe you are one of them."  He explained as he chose the light green colored Zegna shirt and the Gucci tie.

JD shook his head as he watched Ezra calmly decide his attire for the evening. "Yeah, but you could be going into a dangerous situation without backup."

"That's my risk to take." Standish returned to the bathroom and unpacked his shaving kit.  "I would never ask you." Ezra smiled at the concern of the young ATF agent. Standish popped his head out of the door.  "But, I don't think Ms. Demairs is that dangerous."

Dunne laughed and made his way through the internal doors into his own room.  "Buck's going to be drooling over the surveillance pictures."

Standish closed the bathroom door and began to prepare for his evening with the lovely illegal arms dealer. Sharon was someone to, as JD had said, 'drool over.'

Within an hour the sun was setting and Standish was ready. He picked up the keys to the Mercedes and softly knocked on the slightly ajar door of the adjoining room. JD was sitting at the table going over some of the computer equipment he had brought with him. "Why don't you watch some violent, gruesome movie with no apparent plot and order room service." Standish grinned. "Eating on china may be a real treat for you."  Every time the southerner had a meal at the CDC it was either on a paper plate or a paper napkin.  Standish handed him the menu.

"Very funny!" JD replied as he snatched the menu.  He glanced at it quickly, as he picked up the phone.   "Have a good time." Dunne covered the phone.  "Don't do anything that Buck would do."

Ezra shook his head. "I want her to like me." He opened the door and gave Dunne the two- finger salute.  "Stay out of trouble."

JD mouthed the words, "You too," as he placed his order.

JD dipped another French fry in the puddle of ketchup he had made. It was the best hamburger and fries he had ever had. He thought about ordering another one as he changed the channel once more, settling on watching Better Off Dead for a few minutes before tossing the remote on the other side of the double bed in frustration.

His jacket lay near him.  Dunne licked his fingers, careful not to stain anything with ketchup. He pulled the card from the pocket. "Charles Rumio, exporter of fine goods," JD read the card out loud.  He placed it by the phone and stared at it for a moment before returning his attention to the John Cusack movie.  "What the hell. It may help the case." JD picked up the phone and dialed Chaz's number with visions of acclamation dancing in his head.

"Hey, yeah," JD replied when Chaz recognized his voice.  "I'm kinda bored." Dunne said as he looked around the room.  "That'll be great."

JD was going to meet Chaz in a half an hour at the Westin Hotel. They'd start there for drinks and then see where the night would take them.  Dunne looked down to check out what he was wearing—jeans and a turtleneck. It seemed fine. The young agent grabbed the hotel stationary and wrote a quick note:

Went out with Chaz.

He walked out of the hotel and made his way to the Westin.  It was an overcast sky, so he didn't even try to look for the mountain. As he entered the hotel he wiped off the mist, clinging to his hair and clothes.  The bar was to the right and Chaz waved him in.

"Buddy, have a drink and then I'm taking you somewhere special."  Chaz said laughingly as he drank his scotch and water and gestured for the bartender to come and take an order.

JD shrugged his shoulders, and started to laugh too. It sounded like he was in for a fun evening. "Sam Adams," he placed his order.

They stayed there for an hour before Chaz looked at his watch. "Jesus, we'll miss the big event. Come on." He  threw some money on the bar to cover the tab.  The valet had left his BMW Z3 convertible at the front of the hotel. They slipped in and JD just had a moment to put on his seatbelt before they screeched out of the parking lot.

"WOOHOO!" Dunne yelled out, feeling the wind carrying his hair as they raced down the highway. They took a sharp turnoff and JD held on tight as he slid against the leather seat.

They drove on with the radio hollering dance music in their wake. Houses became more distant, and they entered a more commercial area. "What is this place?" JD asked as he noticed the luxury vehicles surrounding the dilapidated warehouse. Chaz pulled in beside a Bentley.

Dunne got out of the car and looked around.  He heard the roar and laughter of a crowd inside.

"You're gonna love this." Chaz slapped JD on the back and ushered him to the warehouse door, guarded by two men in suits.  There was a quick nod between Chaz and the guards. The door was slid open revealing well-dressed women and suited men milling about while a large crowd gathered around a fenced in area, blocking JD's view.

Chaz craned his neck and smiled. "Cool we made it.  Guthrie, the Champion, is up next." JD's new friend smiled and waved to some people as he guided Dunne into the crowd. "He hasn't been defeated in over 20 fights."

"Fights?" JD asked trying to control the squeak appearing in his voice.  They sat down on folding chairs lined up into somewhat neat rows.   Wildly, he looked at the ringed area in front of him.  Chain link fence surrounded a twenty by thirty-foot area.  There was no padding on the floor, just the cement. Dunne swallowed. He was in the wrong place.

The next fight was announced. A young man walked into the ring, his head bowed. He kept looking back and shaking his head. Dressed in a white tank top and jeans he looked younger than JD. "Chaz, that kid looks scared."

Chaz smiled and was about to answer as the champion was announced. The crowd stood up and was in a frenzy.  "Wouldn't you?"  JD's escort replied as he pointed to the large man entering the ring with his hands waving in the air.

The fight started slowly with the Champion, Guthrie preening and taunting his opponent. The scared kid kept nervously glancing at the crowd.  There seemed to be resignation setting into his face and instead of staying away from Guthrie he stepped forward.  The Champion nodded and the fight ensued.

Guthrie seemed to let the young man get a few punches in before picking up and throwing him on the floor like a rag doll.  The kid was able to get up on all fours before Guthrie came at him again and kicked him twice, his body jumping each time.

Dunne lurched forward into the woman who sat ahead of him. She gave him a dirty look before diverting her attention back to the battle. "Is he going to be okay?" Dunne asked Chaz.

"Oh yeeaaaah," Chaz replied not looking at his friend.  "He'll be just fine."

And for a moment the kid was as he rolled away from his attacker. He used the chain link fence to drag himself to a standing position. He was able to dodge the Champion as the large man charged at him and landed in the chain link fence, but only for a moment.

Guthrie wiped his face; there was a little trickle of blood on his lip from the fence. He licked it away and walked slowly to the kid.  The young man howled for someone to help him.  "PLEASE!"

Dunne tried to make his way forward to the fence, but he was hemmed in on all sides.  JD yelled out, "NO!" But the chanting crowd absorbed his cry. Then there was a deafening silence punctuated by the crack of the kid's neck being broken.

'Oh my God, oh my God, Oh my God.'  JD knew he was breathing hard. He swallowed, calming himself. He was a federal officer of the law and a crime, a murder, had been committed in front of him. He began to back away from Chaz, who didn't seem to notice. Chaz was caught up in the bloodlust, as was the rest of the crowd. They were hugging each other and toasting with champagne.  JD looked around and was able to push through the crowd to what seemed liked an exit.

He took deep gulping breaths of the darkened night air. JD took out his cellphone and dialed 911. An operator immediately answered and Dunne identified himself as a federal officer.

"I'll connect you to the nearest office, sir." She replied.

"No, don't put me on fuckin' hold!" JD yelled into the phone. He bit his lip.  "Please pick up, pick up. . ."

He didn't sense someone behind him until it was too late and the young agent walked into the punch. His phone scattered to the ground and was stepped on by another man.  Dunne scampered to his feet but dropped to the ground again as his attacker kicked at his knee.  The other man picked him up by his hair until JD was standing.

Dunne blinked, trying to focus.  "That kid is dead."   JD's words sounded slurred and heavy to his ears.

His attackers replied with laughter. "Don't worry he'll have company soon." Another blow hit JD in the midsection, while he felt something crash on his neck. He buckled to the ground remembering to cover his head.

JD tried to turn over, managing to come to his side so he could face one of the assailants. "ATF, I'm an  ATF agent. . ."  Dunne squeezed his eyes shut feeling the pain wrack his battered body. He hoped he had done the right thing, all he had left was the protection of his badge.

"Oh shit. . ." was the last thing the young ATF agent heard as he succumbed to blackness.

Ezra sat down heavily in the mauve colored chair.  He bent forward and cradled his head in his hands. What the hell happened? The southerner exhaled and pulled his phone from the inside jacket pocket.  Standish scratched in between the phone's numbers before deciding to place the call. The nurses had shown him to the lounge and told him he could make the phone call from there only. Cellphones were harmful to cardiac patients.

The phone was answered on the second ring, "Larabee."

"Chris," Ezra started then his mouth went dry. "JD's been hurt." Standish closed his eyes and rushed through the explanation so he didn't have to relive the moment he saw Dunne in the hospital. "JD went out with one of the suspects. I don't know what happened except when I came back to the hotel room, he was missing and I started to make some phone calls. We're at  Haborview."

There was a long pause and Standish knew the team leader was gathering his thoughts. "How is he?" Chris asked.

"I don't know." Ezra's eyes darted to the intensive care unit.  They had just settled Dunne in after the surgery to repair internal bleeding and remove his spleen. He had yet to awaken.  "It looks bad, real bad."

There was an exhale and Larabee then responded. "Ezra, we'll be there as soon as possible."

Standish closed the phone. All calls would go directly into voice mail. The southerner walked back into the ICU and sat down across from JD. He took out the note again and meticulously folded the corners down into minute triangles. What had JD been thinking?  Chaz was a dangerous man, not a friend. True, Ezra had set an example by going out with Sharon, but he knew where he was going and didn't leave an obscure note.

"Where did you go? Where's Chaz Rumio? And what happened?"  Standish stood up and looked at the patient, seeing if the slumbering form would provide some answers.  JD was slightly propped up on the pillows. His torso and arms were left bare except for the white bandage wrapped around his midsection.  The bruising on his exposed areas were vivid purples and black punctuated by the reds of broken blood vessels.  Ezra wanted to be out looking as he saw what seemed to be a shoeprint tattooed on Dunne's chest.

But, he was left keeping watch until the others arrived. Ezra was responsible to carry on alone –and he didn't know if he was up to the task to see a young man broken and beaten.

Standish tried not to let himself sleep. He caught himself dozing as he read one of the tattered magazines left at the nurse's station.  Immediately, the southerner sat up straight in his chair. He glanced at JD and then stood up to check on him.   There had been no change in the young man's condition.

The sun would be up soon and Ezra walked over to the window. Time was working against them; leads were growing cold in the night air.  Turning his wrist he noticed the time. The team would be there soon. Standish pushed his hair back into place and brushed off his rumpled suit. As he straightened his tie he heard Buck heralding the team's arrival. Wilmington was questioning the nurse on duty.

"We're here for John Dunne. How is he? Where is he? Is he going to be okay?"

By experience Ezra knew the night shift nurses were usually frazzled and not up to a repartee with the family of the patient. They never got used to working the odd hours when their body was telling them to sleep.  It was the best time to sneak out of the hospital.  "Buck, we're right here." Ezra stepped out into the hallway.

Wilmington rushed over first and brushed by Standish with a nod. The rest of the team hung back in the doorway.

"You look like shit." Chris commented, staring past the southerner toward JD. "How's the kid?"

Ezra turned and rested his back against the wall. He closed his eyes. "Perhaps Agent Jackson would be more competent to explain." Standish licked his lips and told them what he knew. "From what the doctors told me he has contusions, and they removed his spleen in surgery.  They have made him comfortable and now it's up to him to wake up." The southerner opened his eyes and looked back at the patient.

"How did this happen?" Chris asked, putting a hand on his neck.

Standish pulled the note from his pocket and flattened it before handing it to Larabee. "I was with Sharon DeLuce at the time."

Chris read the note and passed it to Josiah. "So he went out with her assistant?"

The southerner nodded and looked at the leader steadily, ready to defend his actions.

"Why would he do that?" Nathan uttered as he flipped through the chart.

"Damn impressionable kid." Buck replied as he sat by JD's bedside. He adjusted the white sheet and blanket.

Ezra clenched his fists. It had been a grueling 24 hours. The southerner recalled telling Dunne to stay in the hotel room.  Standish assumed risk only for himself.  It was never a case of 'do what I do.' "This is why I like to work alone."

Vin stepped forward, his brows knitted together. Tanner had been standing next to Josiah in the crowded doorway. "He's a man, Buck, not a boy. He made his own decision, ain't no one forcin' him."

Before Wilmington could answer, Larabee interrupted. "Can it." Chris grabbed Ezra's elbow and pulled him out into the hallway with Vin and Josiah following. Larabee let go of Standish's elbow.

Ezra wiped down the imaginary creases in his sleeve, using the few seconds to compose himself. "I 'd like the opportunity to discuss matters with Ms. DeLuce."

Chris sighed and then looked at his watch.  Standish crossed his arms. He was going to be belligerent about this, whether or not he received the leader's blessings he was going to pay a visit to the lovely Sharon.

Larabee must have sensed the obstinate nature of his agent or perhaps he knew his men too well. "Fine, just take Josiah and Vin with you." Chris stopped Ezra's retort. "They're a little more refreshed. You find out anything, you follow up on it and you let me know."

Standish was quiet in the backseat of the rented sports utility vehicle. Luckily, Josiah and Vin understood the need for him to gather his thoughts. When they pulled up to Sharon's condominium complex Standish didn't wait for the car to come to a complete stop. He jumped out and marched to the front doors.

"Ez, wait a minute." Tanner jogged up to southerner and grabbed his arm.

Ezra pulled his arm away and Vin held his hands back.

Josiah came up the path and shook his head. "Calm down, Ezra."

"You're not helping JD by going in there half cocked." Tanner added and crossed his arms.

Frustrated, and knowing he was letting his emotions get the better of him, Ezra paced a few steps. "Gentlemen," he said as he opened the door for the two men.

As Josiah passed he patted the undercover agent on the shoulder.

Vin had already shown his badge and requested Ms. DeLuce not be warned of their impending arrival.

Standish calmly walked over to the elevator. He pushed the button once then looked up waiting for the numbers to decrease.  The car seemed to be stuck so Ezra pushed the button again, and then another time.

"Ez, you push that button again and I'm goin' to f***in' shoot your hand off." Vin drawled.

Standish unbuttoned his jacket and placed his hands in his pocket. Not turning around he replied, "Point taken, Agent Tanner."

The elevator finally appeared and began the climb to the 20th floor. Josiah hummed what seemed like an endless spiritual. Standish wondered why Tanner didn't threaten Sanchez with physical harm.

Ezra knew he was running on a reserved pool of adrenaline. He had been up all night wracked with guilt and concern, watching and hoping as JD took each breath. The southerner was angry and he knew who was going to take the brunt of his venom. In fact he thought about it all night.

The door of the condo was slightly ajar. And the three of them went for their weapons until they saw a piece of luggage being set down through the opening. Ezra pushed the door open farther. "Going somewhere, my dear?"

Sharon jumped back, startled. She quickly recovered, and clasped her hands together in a gesture of innocence. "Yes, called out of town."

Standish stepped inside, as did Tanner and Sanchez, causing the woman to retreat into her living room. "Wouldn't have anything to do with your associate causing physical harm to my associate?"

She didn't answer at first; instead she went over to the mini bar and poured water from a pitcher. "Who? Chaz? No, no, no." Sharon pointed to the other glasses. Standish could not believe the audacity of the woman.  The southerner knew from experience, this was a woman used to having her own way. Ezra strode over to the blonde and gripped her wrist.

Sharon struggled to hold onto the glass and pull her arm away. Ezra pulled her back to him and wrapped an arm around her waist to restrain her.

Josiah broke the red haze, which seemed to cover his eyes. "Brother," he paused, waiting for the southerner's attention. Ezra looked over and nodded. "I think Ms. DeLuce is in a more accommodating mood. Why don't you escort her to the couch?"

Standish looked down at his hand and quickly let go. He had left a red-ring mark. The loss of control scared the undercover agent.  He blamed it on the lack of sleep and was glad Chris sent Vin and Josiah with him. The southerner gestured for the arms dealer to be seated.

Vin and Josiah sat down next to Ezra.  Sharon was not looking at the trio; instead she rubbed her wrist.  Tanner leaned forward to ask. "Where is he?"

Ezra picked up the crystal paperweight on the coffee table before them. "These are my other associates," Josiah crossed his arms in front of him in a sign of stubbornness, while Vin grinned menacingly.  "Who are very concerned about  our injured friend."

Sharon settled back in the cream colored sofa and crossed her legs seductively so her skirt hiked up to the top of her thighs.

Vin shook his head. "Lady, let's not play around. You know you're in a heap of shit."

"I don't know anything." Sharon stood up and pulled her raincoat off of the overstuffed chair. "Chaz said the feds were on to us and to get out." She placed the coat over her arm.

Josiah stood up and blocked her exit. "ATF, you're under arrest. . ."

"For what? Dinner?" She laughed and tried to side step the large agent. "Smells like entrapment."

"Actually smells like cheap perfume and fear." Ezra replied as he put the paperweight back on the coffee table. "We were thinking accessory to murder." Standish and Tanner stood up, while Sanchez began to read the woman her rights.

She paled, and her eyes darted around the room.

The southerner knew the woman was going through her options and what the logical conclusion would be.

Sharon licked her lips. "Look, I can help you. Tell you where to find Chaz."

"He hasn't left yet?" Josiah stopped Mirandizing the woman for a moment.

"No, he's involved with some other things." Sharon waved her hands in front of her." –stuff I don't know about." Sharon placed the raincoat back on the chair. "But, I know some places he likes to frequent."

"I suggest you write it down." Standish took a pen from his inside pocket.  "And write down where you'll be staying."

Ezra rubbed a hand against the stubble he felt on his chin as they left the condo. His eyes felt grainy, yet he felt invigorated with the leads.

Tanner pulled out his cell phone. "We're coming back there-we got some info." Tanner placed an arm around Standish's shoulder.  "Just need to drop Ez off at the hotel first."

Standish agreed. "I just need a moment to freshen up."  He patted the creases of his Prada jacket looking forward to a change of clothes.

"Ez, you look like shit." Vin shook his head and backed the southerner against the SUV. "Ya need some rest."

Standish opened the door and climbed in the back seat. "I relaxed all night in the hospital." He explained as Tanner threw his hands up.

"We've been there." Josiah replied as he buckled his seatbelt. He turned around to face the undercover agent. "There's no rest when you're worried."

Ezra knew it was futile to waste his energy against his adamant friends.  He closed his eyes, "When you find him . . ."

Josiah marveled at how quickly Team 7 mobilized. In less than 24 hours they were already following leads. Nathan and Ezra were checking out some locations as were Josiah and Vin.

Sanchez and Tanner secured a corner spot in the bar at Axis, the non-alcoholic drinks in front of them sat relatively untouched. A quiet flash of their badges assured them a good, vantage point from which to watch the patrons of the posing bar, where singles came to flaunt their poreless  skin and designer duds and scan the room for a match. By two in the morning, Josiah knew Chaz was not coming to this particular venue.

"Time to call it a night, Brother." Sanchez said as he drained his drink and placed the empty glass on the table.

Tanner nodded and tossed a twenty dollar bill on the table. "Let's stop by the hospital first," The Texan suggested as they went out into the night. "Wait, a minute, " Vin stopped suddenly. Josiah snorted as he had almost walked into the lanky man.  Tanner gestured to the group of teenagers huddled in the shadows of a nearby streetlight.

Sanchez smiled. "Helping the lost lambs?"

"It's always the street kids who know the shit." Some of the kids had already left as they saw the approaching adults. "Hey."

One of the boys stepped forward, looking back at the others before confronting the two ATF agents. "What do you want?"

"Some information," Vin began to explain, looking the teenager in the eye and leaving his hands in the open so they knew he meant them no harm.

Josiah pulled a picture of Chaz from his pocket and showed the young man. "Our friend was almost killed. He was with this man."

The kid glanced at the picture and another of the boys stepped forward to take a look too. Josiah watched as the others neared, protecting the two who were momentarily distracted.

"Have you seen him?" Vin prompted.

Both the boys shook their heads. "Nah, doesn't look familiar." The others nodded, agreeing with their leaders.

Tanner nodded, went into his pocket and handed the first young man a few bills. "Go to McDonald's."

Josiah smiled. "Good night." Under his breath he gave a soft prayer for the lost children. "May God keep you safe." Sanchez's heart felt heavy as they walked away. The teens looked so hollow.   The world was not kind if it could accept the weariness in the eyes of a fifteen- year old. Josiah placed his hands in his pocket wanting to turn over any of his cash to the teens.  Vin caught his hand.

"I gave'em enough." Tanner stated.

Josiah shook his head knowing it could never be enough. Sanchez  wondered how the sharpshooter before him was able to come so far with a past based on the street.

Footsteps caught up to them quickly. The agents turned around and saw the first boy. Josiah and Vin walked closer to him and made up the distance.

The young man looked up and down the street. "Are you a cop or something?" He said  in a whisper.

Tanner shrugged his shoulders. "Yeah, why?"

Josiah felt overwhelmed by the need to comfort the young man. He reached out his hand. "Son, we can help you."

The boy took a step back and stiffened, looking at the two men apprehensively.

Tanner stepped in front of Sanchez.  The large agent was puzzled, not understanding what he had done wrong. He stayed back and listened, deferring to the experience of the sharpshooter.

The teen crossed his arms in front of him, then nervously pushed back a curly dark lock of hair, which had fallen forward. "Some friends of ours are missing."

Vin nodded. "Cops doin' anything about it?'

The curly headed boy shook his head and dropped his arms in defeat. "They don't give a damn."

Tanner looked around at the other teens waiting by the post. Some of the ones who had run off had returned. "We'll look into it." Vin opened his jacket and pulled out a business card, careful to show the teen what he was doing. "What's your name?"

"Trey," the teen answered while looking back at his friends.

"Vin," the sharpshooter nodded and held out the white paper.  "Here's my card. You have any problems, call."

Trey took the card and stuffed it in his pocket.  Josiah and Vin watched him walk away.  Tanner gestured it was time for them to leave. "You mind headin' to the local PD?" Vin asked as he sat in the passenger seat of the rental.

Sanchez buckled himself in and started the engine. "No, I'm just getting my second wind." Josiah pulled away and headed toward the police station he had seen when they had driven to the bar. "Think he'll call you?" The large agent asked, wondering if they would ever see the young man again.

"Hell, no," Vin sighed, as he looked out the window.  "See, there's a catch if someone is too nice to you on the street." Tanner reached for the radio. "You're no one's son when you're livin' out here, Josiah."

Vin didn't like to explain.  It led to too many words and nothing being said. His life experiences were his own.  He couldn't talk to Josiah about it, not when his past was passing before him so vividly. Vin tried to push the door closed in his mind. He had to help these kids, not relive his nightmares.

The police station was quiet for the early hour of the morning. Both Josiah and Vin pulled out their badges and brought them to the sergeant in charge at the front desk.

"How can I help you?"  Replied the officer. Tanner scanned his name tag-Sergeant McSheffrey.

Vin crossed his arms and got straight to the point. "We've heard some street kids are missin'."

McSheffrey leaned back in his chair. "Isn't that out of your jurisdiction, fellas?" Although they were all supposed to be part of the same brotherhood of law enforcement, there was always a problem with co-operation. Locals didn't want the Staties involved and Staties didn't want Feds stepping on their toes.

Josiah glanced over at Vin.  The sharpshooter shrugged his shoulders as if saying, 'same idiots, different day.' "It may be part of our case."  Sanchez smiled.

The officer looked at the two men and must have decided his life would be less complicated if he just co-operated. "Well, a kid was brought in." McSheffrey flipped through the log in front of him.  "He's in the morgue."

Tanner turned in anger and started to walk away. The hallway on the left looked like it would lead somewhere, as long as it was away from the asshole at the desk. Vin continued on his mental tirade, keeping tightlipped so nothing spilled out.

Josiah followed behind and  the sharpshooter heard him ask directions.

McSheffrey answered. "Yep, and to the left. Coroner's on duty."

Tanner stopped once he reached the door leading to the offices of the medical examiner.  He leaned against the wall, waiting for Josiah. They entered together.  "ATF agents Sanchez and Tanner, Sergeant McSheffrey said a  body of a young man was brought in?"

A harried older man was leaning over a desk and waved them forward. "Yep, just preparing for the autopsy."  The white-haired man gestured for them to follow him. "These kids, get into trouble when they should have stayed home."

Tanner glanced down at the two- tone linoleum floor. "Sometimes home isn't safe either." He replied in low voice.  He remembered all too well. There comes a point where you think you're going to die if you stay another day at a place that is supposed to be safe.

The coroner pushed the door open and there lay the body.  The medical examiner was running through a list, however it all seemed like inconsequential buzzing. "Male Caucasian, late teens, trauma. . ."

The sharpshooter took a tentative step forward.  All the legal and medical talk didn’t mean anything when there was a young kid lying on a slab battered and bruised. A thin sheet covered the lower part of the body. Vin stiffened at the cruel coldness. The dead boy would never be warm.

Tanner stuffed his hands in his pockets to stop from reaching out and comforting the hollow shell.  The blood had been wiped way, leaving only congealed lines along the swollen face. The marks covering the kid's body jolted memories for the younger agent. Vin shook his head and tried to focus on the conversation between Josiah and the coroner. 'Get a grip, Tanner." He whispered.

"No ID, a couple of homemade tattoos," the examiner explained. "There was bleeding from both ears, face shows multiple lacerations. Torso read like a training guide for abrasions, contusions and lacerations. Blunt force trauma, guys. Unofficial, bird's eye report just between me and you....the kid was beat to death." The examiner was explaining.  "This is the second this week. . ."

Tanner's mind whispered to him. 'Was this  boy's mama watching as her son was killed?'  And Vin had to think of him as an orphan 'cause no kin would send their blood away or push them to live on the streets when they could be warm with a roof over their head and food in their bellies.

The sharpshooter sensed the large agent next to him.  Vin closed his eyes for a moment. 'I care what happened to you. You wanted a chance at a good life and never reckoned you wouldn't have a chance to make things better.  Josiah'll pray for you and call you a lost soul. But you're not lost or scared or hungry anymore.'

Vin swallowed. "Life should have been easier for him."

Sanchez sighed and squeezed Tanner's shoulder, turned him away from the body and towards the door. "Can we have a copy of the pictures?" Josiah asked, then explained to the sharpshooter. "We'll have Nate take a look at them."

The coroner agreed. "I'll send them as soon as they are developed."

As they left the room, Vin picked up the pace, greedily wanting fresh air as soon as possible.  Once outside he took a couple of deep breaths and leaned against the railing outside of the station. He resolved to find the people responsible for putting those kids in the morgue.

Josiah continued down a few more steps and then stopped. "I hope I'm wrong. Didn't think it happened anymore. . ." Sanchez was lost in the  thought. As he focussed, he turned around and came up a few steps. "I've seen a lot of stuff in my day. . ."

Vin jogged down so they were on the same step.  They continued down the wide cement stairs to the vehicle. "What?"

"Underground fighting," Sanchez replied placing his hands on the hood of the car. "Same marks were on JD, too."

Vin opened the door and gripped the doorjamb tightly. Tanner concentrated on uncurling his fingers.  There was too much silence between the two agents. Suddenly, there was pressure to say the right thing or give too much away. Vin cleared his throat. "We better tell Chris."

"Ahh, f*ck," Chris said as he heard the knock on his door.  He swung his feet over the side of the bed. He had fallen asleep wearing his jeans and didn't even make it under the covers.

 He heard Vin say, "Chris, we need to talk."

Larabee wiped a hand down his face and opened the door. "For once I want people at my door at 3 am with good news," he announced, as he gestured for the two agents to step inside.

Vin sat down on the only chair, he pushed the clothes off it and made himself comfortable.

Josiah smiled and sat on the corner of the bed. "Would it help if we said it with a smile?"

"No, but a chaser may help." Chris replied as he yawned and propped himself up against the bureau, the only remaining piece of furniture.

"We think we know what happened to JD." Vin replied as he straightened up in the chair. "How is he?"

Larabee shook his head and looked down for a moment.  The  doctors talked in high percentages, but it didn't seem right to be doing a silent vigil over an exuberant young man. "The same, Buck is with him now."

Josiah sighed, "That boy will pull through." His statement seemed like an order to God.

Vin crossed his leg then uncrossed it. "Street kids have been dissapperin'" Tanner ran a hand through his hair.

"We followed it up and Chris," The large agent looked up to the blond leader.  "We think there is an underground fighting ring."

Larabee sank heavily against the bureau and felt it move back slightly. He lessened his weight. "And JD ended up in the middle of it?"

Tanner purposefully placed his hands against his knees. "The other kids ended up dead."

Chris  stepped away from the furniture and walked towards the door, his back faced his men.  JD was damn lucky to be alive. He closed his eyes for a moment in silent thanks.   As leader he had to focus on what was the best plan of action.  "Okay, Josiah, I want you and Nathan to investigate the underground fighting angle with or without the help of the local PD." Larabee turned around and Sanchez nodded.  "Vin, I still want you and Ezra on surveillance, seems like the perp is the key to everything."

"We'll take care of it." Tanner replied as he stood. Sanchez patted Larabee on the shoulder.

Chris escorted them to the door. "Look at that, I can still get in, what, another 2 hours, unless Ezra, Buck or Nathan come knocking on my door. . ."

Vin stuck his head in the hallway. "Looks like the coast is clear." He chuckled dryly.

The leader shook his head. "Get some rest, both of you."

Chris watched them enter their rooms then softly closed the door. He glanced at the digital clock at his bedside as he slipped into bed. He watched as the colon in the middle blinked, separating the 3 and the 10. After the clock changed to 3 and 20, Larabee decided sleep was futile. "What the hell did we just get into?"

Ezra carefully picked up the Yodel wrapper with two fingers and placed it on Vin's side of the late model Ford Sedan.  The southerner looked at his hands then sighed.  "Stakeouts are completely overrated."

Tanner wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He chuckled as he put the binoculars down. "Glad to see you're yourself again."

Ezra shook his head and took the binoculars. He glanced down to make sure the junk food remnants were not lingering on the lenses. "Myself? Has Agent Wilmington been telling those alien abduction stories?" Standish tried to deflect the line of questioning. He measured his words-the length, the tone and the speed.

Everyday since the incident he reminded himself he was not to blame. Yet, the guilt still lingered. Ezra did admit going to the hospital room somehow made him feel better. It was there the southerner knew he was blameless-the team treated the undercover agent the same as always. And Standish was looking for the indiscernible difference. There was none. Wilmington had even moved a chair for Standish closer to the bed. To watch JD breath effortlessly in and out was calming.

"Ya know what I mean." Vin opened a bottle of IBC Root Beer. Ezra had insisted he would take care of the refreshments. However, the sharpshooter found the southerner's choices lacking, and brought with him a grocery bag of his own selections. "You were kinda a loose cannon."

Ezra didn't turn to face Vin. He was appalled at his treatment of Sharon. "I admit I did lose my center," he replied.  Ezra toyed with the strap on the lenses for a moment. Standish did not want to confess how easy it would have been to cross that line should it have led to answers.

He knit his brow, noticing how he had coiled the strap up. He shook his head and concentrated on the task at hand. They were following another lead on Chaz. Josiah and Nathan were at another equally vile spot across town. The local police were serving as backup with Chris co-ordinating.

"You're doin' better?" Vin said after taking a gulp of the soda. Tanner looked at the label curiously, then took another drink. The longhaired agent gestured for Ezra to return the binoculars.

Standish passed them over, then turned to look out the window again. "I'd be better if our young friend would wake up."

"He will, Ez." Vin sighed, dropping the lenses away from his eyes for a moment. "He will." Tanner kept his blue gaze level. Standish nodded in acceptance of the truth he had to believe in-JD would be fine, and life as usual would move forward with a few more scars on his psyche.

Ezra traced a box with his fingers along the steamed glass as he watched the entrance to the Rendezvous. "I have no idea how this place stays in business." The southerner commented. "It all depends on the location. . ."Standish noticed the sharpshooter leaning forward then wiping the window with his hand.

"Any sign of the miserable son-of-a-bitch?" Ezra narrowed his eyes trying to see more clearly the figures in the distance.

"Huh?" Vin replied distractedly. "Ahhh, just some kids, wait. . ." Tanner adjusted the zoom. "There's our man."  Vin had handed back the lenses and clearly there was Chaz.

Ezra's hand immediately found the door handle.  He was so close now.  Standish should have known the man was slippery. Chaz was not fit to shine JD's shoes. . .Ezra pulled the knob.

Vin reached over and promptly closed the door. "Wait a min, Ez." Tanner pushed down the lock. "Let me go check out the scene."

Standish massaged his knuckles and took in a deep breath, silently exhaling through his nose. "You're right."

Vin grinned, placing a communication wire in his pocket. "Can you say that again?"

Having gathered his thought, Ezra  dialed Chris's number to inform him of the situation. The sharpshooter's question caught him off guard. "What?"

"You're right." Tanner said as he opened the door. "Kinda like the sound of it."

Standish shook his head and covered the phone's mouthpiece. "I'll watch your back."