Disclaimer: The Magnificent Seven do not belong to me.
Archivist's Note: This fic was previously hosted on another website and was moved to blackraptor in September 2006.
So light we were, so right we were, so fair faith shone,
And the way was laid so certainly, that, when I'd gone,
What dumb thing looked up at you? Was it something heard,
Or a sudden cry, that meekly and without a word
You broke the faith, and strangely, weakly, slipped apart.
You gave in -- you, the proud of heart, unbowed of heart!
Was this, friend, the end of all that we could do?
And have you found the best for you, the rest for you?
Did you learn so suddenly (and I not by!)
Some whispered story, that stole the glory from the sky,
And ended all the splendid dream, and made you go
So dully from the fight we know, the light we know?
Desertion by Rupert Brooke
Maria had already heard about the bust which the agents were bringing into processing. Team 7 had been the key in the operation. The group had gained much notoriety in the processing unit of the federal building. Each of the young women were enchanted with the seven men. Truth be told if Maria wasn't happily married to her Allen, she'd be drooling too. Even their leader, Agent Chris Larabee, who was always ominous in black was intriguing. He had already come in to discuss how he wanted the interrogations of the criminals to proceed, and when he left, Maria wanted to know what made the man so driven, but it would have to wait for another day.
The well dressed agent came in first. Ezra pushed an equally fashionable man in handcuffs in front of him to the desk where Maria was working.
"Agent Standish, this guy has a better wardrobe than you," Maria exclaimed. She was always amazed at the agent's clothes and all of the clerks wanted to take a peek at his expense account.
Ezra looked at his prisoner in disgust, his green eyes flashing, "Armani suit, Ferragammo loafers. All quite passe." He gestured to his own meticulously cut Brioni suit and Gucci shoes.
"Agent Larabee said put him in interrogation room two," the clerk laughed, but she sobered up when Buck roughly shoved the next criminal forward. Agent Wilmington was usually the most congenial, always flirting with the clerks. In fact he had dated many of the single clerks since he had been assigned to the Denver office. Maria could not recollect a time when she had seen such silent rage in the man. There was no mischievous glint in his eyes today. The perpetrator winced as his arm hit the desk.
The long haired man turned around and only Maria heard, "ease up, Buck."
The agent gave him a hard look. Maria could feel the tension, and wanted to remove it as quickly as possible, "Interrogation room five," she said, and watched as Buck pulled the back of the man's suede jacket and propelled him forward.
Chris stood outside the door of the interrogation room. He had left him stewing in there long enough, and Larabee knew how much he hated small spaces. Chris swiped his card through the magnetic scanner and the door opened with a loud buzz.
There in front of him was seated his best friend. Vin's brown suede jacket was resting behind him on a chair, leaving Tanner wearing a gray long sleeve t-shirt and well-worn jeans. Chris hadn't seen him in two weeks, and he silently evaluated the marksman in front of him, and thought about the nightmare they suddenly had found themselves in.
Vin stood up, giving Chris time to silently look him over, but concern was etched in his blue eyes, and finally Tanner broke the silence.
"How's the kid?"
Chris shook his head and took the seat opposite Vin, "He's still unconscious."
Tanner gripped the edge of the table and sat back down. "No one was supposed to get hurt," Vin whispered, looking at his friend for comfort, and to ease some of the guilt.
"What happened Vin?" The marksman did not answer, he was lost momentarily in his own thoughts. But, Chris needed answers. He needed to know his team was not falling apart. He needed to know he had not been wrong about Vin. He pressed Tanner further, "Did your friend make you an offer?"
Tanner snapped his eyes up to meet Chris. "My friend?" The words came out forcefully, Vin got up and began to pace the room. He did not understand what Chris was talking about.
Chris watched his friend, knowing he felt like a caged animal. Larabee ran a hand through his blonde hair trying to remove the doubt creeping into his brain. Vin was acting like a guilty man. He sighed,
"All I know is, you go in undercover and then JD goes in to check on you and now he's hurt. I need to know what happened," Chris said, knowing the full impact of what he had said would anger his agent.
Tanner wanted to explode. In a controlled voice he asked Chris, "And you think I've gone bad?" Vin couldn't even look at his friend, finally he understood. He looked up to the ceiling, shaking his head. "Damn it, Chris you were there two weeks ago when this all started."
2 WEEKS EARLIER:...
Seated in the conference room around the dark wooden table sat the seven ATF agents. Ezra pulled the jacket of his suit down as he stood up to inform the group of his latest information. He already told Chris Larabee, the leader, what his informant had told him, and the lead agent wanted to form a plan with the other members of the group.
Chris opened up the meeting. "Seems as though Dominic Cuoco Jr. is looking for an assassin." Larabee always got right to the point.
Buck snickered, "Did they run out of made men?"
Ezra cleared his throat and glared at Buck to be silent. Wilmington motioned for Standish to continue.
"We know Dom Junior, heir apparent to the Cuoco family," the room darkened and a slide of a man with slicked back hair, and olive colored skin, appeared on the screen in the back of the room, "is looking for someone not connected to the Family. Dom Senior," another slide came up, with a short, plump man, "gave him the family's import/export business to cut his teeth on, while Senior runs the rest of the empire." Another slide of both men appeared, and Ezra was just about to move when Vin stood up.
"Ezra, hold up," Tanner went to the back of the room to study the slide. He pointed to a man in the corner of the frame. "Who's that?" All the men squinted to view what Vin had seen. The group knew he always saw things they missed.
"I believe that is Dominic Junior's enforcer, Eli Guiseppe." Ezra said finally, joining Vin in the back of the room to get a closer look.
"You know him?" Chris asked, wondering where in Vin's past he had met this man. He was the sharpshooter's best friend, and even though they could read each other's thoughts at times, he still knew there was an air of mystery and darkness which surrounded the marksman.
Tanner looked at each man as if he were judging them, with a look to Larabee he seemed to have made up his mind. "He was in my unit in special ops." He didn't talk about his army days, first of all since most of the missions were black ops and therefore classified, but secondly the army had left a bad taste in his mouth. He did not want to relive his tour.
"What can you tell us about him?" Nathan asked. He as well as the others knew very little about Vin's past and this was a strange occasion where Vin actually divulged some information.
The sharpshooter sat back down and made himself comfortable in one of the overstuffed office chairs, giving him time to sort what information to give his friends. "Joey, that's what the unit called him, was the strategic planner, and he was good at what he did." He added, "We got along okay. He did his job and I did mine."
Ezra was beaming as he sat back down in his chair, opposite Vin, "This is most fortuitous. We need someone to go in undercover," Standish focussed his green eyes directly at Tanner.
"Ezra, I thought you were the undercover man?" JD inquired, confused as to why Standish was not jumping at the chance to help take down a major mob figure.
The group snickered. Buck tried to control his choking laughter and was finally able to tell JD,
"We thought his last dealings with the Cuoco family were gonna end up with him wearing cement shoes."
JD was still puzzled, and waited for one of the members of the team to fill in the rest of the story.
Ezra finally stammered out, "I should have known that a woman who wears Dolce and Gabbana would be the daughter of a mob boss." The agent intently focussed on an piece of lint on his dark jacket while he thought about Bianca Corelli Couco.
He had met her at Kiki's, a popular bar for the posh set. She was beautiful and stylish. Her short, black hair accenting her large brown eyes. They struck up a conversation, and she gave her name as Bianca Corelli, Corelli he found out later was her mother's maiden name. He introduced himself as Ezra Simpson. They ended up at her place for what he believed would be a one night stand. It was a one night stand which stretched into a week. By the end of the week she wanted him to meet her father, some capital of industry in the import/export business. Ezra remembered all of Maude's lessons, especially the one, 'have friends in high places.' He was supposed to meet them at Massimo's, a small Italian eatery after work. He told her he was involved with the bonds market. He parked the Jag and saw Bianca through the glass window, sitting next to a man the FBI had been after for years, Dominic Cuoco. He left quickly, thinking the man was probably going to call a hit on him for standing up his daughter and himself, and any chances of him being involved in taking down the Cuoco family had disintegrated. Of course disintegration was actually preferable compared to the scathing he received from Chris, which ended with,
"in the future Ezra, think with your brains and not Ezra Junior."
Ezra could still hear Buck chuckling. He controlled himself momentarily to pass on advice to JD, "See kid, the lesson you need to remember is never pursue a lady wearing fancy clothes." At that point Buck's mustache began to twitch and he started laughing again.
JD felt his face split open with a huge grin. It wasn't often that Ezra got embarrassed, and Dunne along with the rest of the men were enjoying themselves at his expense.
"Needless to say, due to Bianca Cuoco's amorous attentions, I am not available at this juncture." Standish glared at the men, who were composing themselves. "But Agent Tanner has a past relationship with Mister Guiseppe, and the qualifications required."
Chris looked down momentarily at the information in front of him. He had to make the decision on whether or not to send Tanner into one of the fiercest crime families. The Cuoco family had moved from New York in the seventies. They believed the climate in Colorado would better for them weather and criminal activities wise. They settled in the Four Corners district, when it was a small community, and built a huge compound on acres of land. The family was involved with gambling, prostitution and arms dealings. All the federal agencies had tried to bring them down, but to no avail. The Cuoco family ran a tight ship. This had been their first lead. However, Chris did not want to lose his best friend, and he would be asking him to take a huge risk. Luckily Vin had already decided.
"Chris, I can do it." Vin looked directly at his leader giving him a slight nod.
"We need to know who he wants to kill," Chris said to Vin, "and the bonus would be any information on the Cuoco family's arms dealings."
"Understood," Vin said, getting up from the table as did the other men.
"Maybe the Cuoco family will fatten you up Vin," Buck threw a fake punch at Vin, which he easily sidestepped, "with all that Italian food and all."
Ezra immediately went to meet with Luca "The Snake" Mertolo, his informant. It had taken awhile for Ezra, or as he was known to those who frequented Cafe Giacomo, Ernesto Standi, to find a weak link in the Cuoco family. Finally he found Mister Mertolo, a minor soldier in the family loyal to young Dominic. Ezra had him convinced with a couple of Italian words and a New York accent that he was a paesano. Snake was not as Buck would have put it, 'the sharpest knife in the draw', but this was Ezra's only connection to the Cuoco family. Most of the time it was inconsequential information, but during their last meeting, even Luca knew he had said too much and swore Ezra to secrecy.
Standish sauntered into Giacomo's. The dimly lit dive, was nearly empty in the early afternoon hours, except for Luca at a corner table. He received his orders at the bar, usually he was forgotten though by the rest of the family. The bartender nodded to him, and prepared Ezra's usual, an espresso with Sambuca, which he brought to the table as Ezra sat down next to The Snake.
"Come sta Luca?" Standish said to the diminutive young man.
"Not too bad Ernesto," he took another sip of his wine. "Keeping out of trouble."
"Listen, Luca, about the other day. . . ." Ezra looked into the beady dark eyes to prompt the other man's memory.
Mertolo shook his head, "whatcha talking about?"
"About Junior needing some assistance. . ." Ezra said slowly.
Luca's beady eyes went wide, "Shhhhhh, Ernesto I told you to forget about it. Not for nothing, but I can get into a lot of trouble!" Mertolo rambled on, "I don't want to get into trouble. Boss says I'm supposed to stay out of the way and keep quiet."
Standish smiled at The Snake. "No, me," Ezra gestured to himself. "I would never want to get you in trouble Luca. I know someone who can do the job."
Mertolo leaned in closer to Ezra. His wine breath wafting around him as he spoke. "Oh yeah," he leaned back in his chair. "I don't wanna know about it."
"He's a friend of Eli Guiseppe. You'd be doing Joey a favor," Ezra knew this would be the hook for Luca, a chance to get into the boss's good graces. "The family would give you the attention you deserve."
Luca tapped his finger against his teeth. "What's the guy's name?"
Ezra knew he had him. "Vin Tanner," Ezra pretended to be thinking about fabricating a story on the spot for Luca. "Say, you overheard a conversation about a freelancer who was in town." Standish slipped The Snake a piece of paper with a phone number. "I took the liberty of acquiring his contact number."
Mertolo seized the paper and nodded. "You wait right here. I need to make a phone call," Luca walked into the back room. Ezra sat enjoying his espresso. He hated to use The Snake, but this seemed to be the only chance to bring down the Cuoco crime family. Ezra made a mental note to himself to make sure nothing would happen to Luca.
The Snake came back, his small form, puffed with pride. "Okay, the Boss says," Luca whispered to himself as if trying to say the word verbatim, "he's proud of me. He's gonna call the guy and set up a meeting for tomorrow morning, 10am, at Simmons Park, no guns and he comes alone."
"Bene," Ezra drained the last of the espresso and threw a ten down on the table. "Glad I was able to help you Luca. Don't forget about me when you are running your own territory."
"Yep, I'm going places," The Snake said as he put his arms behind his head as he built castles in the sky.
Standish exited the elevators, and found Chris, Vin and Josiah talking in the hallway between their offices. Ezra knew there was a smile plastered on his face. He waited for someone to say something about the phone call. They smiled back at him and exasperated he blurted out,
Vin leaned against the wall and drawled lazily, "Joey called. The meeting is for tomorrow at 10 am."
Chris looked at Standish, "Good job, Ezra."
Ezra had to smile back, it wasn't often Larabee offered praise, which made it all the more meaningful. "Actually we owe gratitude to my informant, The Snake."
Vin nodded as did Josiah. Chris clenched his fists and gritted out,
"The Snake?" You trusted a guy named Snake?" Larabee took a threatening step toward Standish. The well dressed man backed up and Sanchez stepped in between the two so Ezra would have a chance to explain.
"Seems as though Mister Mertolo has a tattoo of a snake, hence the name," Ezra felt like he needed to continue as Chris was trying to get around Josiah. "He is legitimate, he is the nephew of Dominic Senior's favorite aunt. He likes to converse, especially over a bottle of wine. Snake was originally nervous about setting up the meeting, but when he heard Vin and Joey were friends he quickly arranged the rendezvous, thus leading to the phone call."
Tanner had watched the proceedings and hadn't swept the smile off his face. He touched Chris's arm, "It's okay pard, I don't think Ezra is trying to get me killed."
"Surely, Agent Larabee, you do not believe I would jeopardize the life of a fellow agent?" Ezra said feigning offense at Larabee's intentions. Standish knew Chris was nervous about having his best friend go undercover. Even Ezra was a little worried, but he wasn't going to let Vin down. Standish would do anything to insure the safety of the quiet man, who he had grown fond of.
Tanner sensed the anxiety in the air. "Nah, Ez, Chris just doesn't like nicknames," Vin smirked at Chris, "remember when that guy called him a cowboy?" They all laughed, and the tension dissipated for the moment.
The next day Vin kept feeling Chris's eyes following him. He knew Larabee was worried, especially when he blew up at Ezra over the informant. Even last night when they went to the local saloon, Chris kept saying there was still time for him to back out. Vin assured him he would be careful and was secretly happy he was the only one going in. It was one thing to risk your life, another to have to worry about the life of someone you care about.
The rest of the team was bustling around him, enjoying some good-natured bantering to expel the nervous energy in the air.
Sanchez handed him a chain with a medal attached.
"Thanks Josiah, who is it?" Vin said fingering the charm.
Josiah laughed, "Someone all of us should carry with us." Vin was still puzzled. "Saint Jude, the patron saint of lost causes."
"Agent Sanchez are you insinuating we are lost causes?" Ezra asked with his poker face.
"Not 'we' Ezra," Nathan commented, "just you."
Josiah shook his head and explained to Vin, "The medal is a tracker. When you want to warn us that something is going to happen, press it." Vin slipped the cool metal around his neck, and tucked it into his denim shirt.
"And we'll be there to arrest you," JD said, as he patted Vin on the back. Tanner would have to be arrested with the real criminals so his cover would not be blown. Vin had a feeling Dunne was going to be enjoying himself on that day, trying to get the quiet agent back for all the pratical jokes he had played on the young man.
Larabee checked his watch. He had been doing that frequently as if counting down the minutes before his friend disappeared. "Let's go pards," Chris said, leading the way to the elevator.
Vin took a last look around the office, a feeling of dread came upon him which he quickly shook off. He joined his friends waiting for him on the elevator.
When they reached the garage Chris went over the directions once again. Vin would be going in without a wire because the Couco family would be scanning him, so there would be no support for the sharpshooter if things went sour.
"We'll give you a head start, and then we'll set out and watch from a distance to make sure everything goes okay."
"Got it," Vin looked at all the men. All their faces grim and filled with concern. None of them knew after this point what would happen, and how Vin would fair. He paused when he reached Chris.
"You be careful, cowboy," Larabee said, in a hushed tone.
Vin grinned, "Don't call me cowboy," and walked away from his friends to his Jeep.
Vin parked the Jeep and began walking to the park. From the distance he saw Eli Guiseppe was already there. The man hadn't changed much. He was about 6'2", a built man with a thick neck. His black hair was cut short, the same military style he sported all those years ago.
When he reached him Tanner stretched his hand out, which Joey firmly grasped.
"Joey, it's been a long time." Vin said, with a smile.
"Vin Tanner, always wondered what happened to you." Joey commented, looking over his friend with his flat brown eyes.
"Same here," Vin circled Joey, sizing him up the same way the enforcer had just done. Joey just smiled at him and shook his head. The request had been that Vin come unarmed, although he still carried a knife in his boot, but from the evident bulge in Joey's suit jacket, he was not following the same rules.
He then took out a gold lighter and lit a cigarette. The lighter closed with a clink, and he continued, "So this is your line of work now?"
"Yep, what can I say, I am good at what I do," Tanner said with a cocky attitude behind his words. It was the same attitude he had perfected during his stint with special ops.
Joey chuckled, "With our training you either become a cop or you get a job that pays the bills."
Vin laughed at the comment. Joey didn't realize how right he was.
The enforcer's face turned serious. The same face he would put on when he was telling the men about an upcoming mission. "I believe you have certain qualities which my employer has need of. You were the best sniper, and you were always quiet."
He slowly took another drag on his cigarette, "How much?"
Vin looked Joey right in the eye without blinking. "One hundred thousand now, placed in a Swiss bank account and one hundred thousand upon completion."
The enforcer threw the cigarette down and stamped it out with his tie-up leather shoes. He jutted out his chin, "You worth it?"
Vin let a lazy smile develop on his face. "I think you already know the answer to that Joey." Tanner handed Eli a card which contained his Swiss Bank account number. Ezra had set up the account for him.
Eli nodded, and hooted as if he was remembering past missions. "I need to tell you, this is on a need to know basis. I'll tell you who the hit is when my employer is ready."
"That's not how I work." Vin didn't like the fact this investigation was going to be totally out of his control. He was hoping for more information, but on the other hand Joey was the best strategic planner he had ever met, and the man took only minimal chances.
Joey shrugged his shoulders. "You have fifteen minutes to decide. If you want the job then get into that limo over there." He pointed to a black stretch limo parked near the swing set.
As much as he felt uncomfortable with the situation, Vin knew he had to take the opportunity. This was a chance to maybe get some guns off the street or in the least weaken a crime family. "Don't need it. It'd be a pleasure to work with you again Joey."
Tanner and Guiseppe walked over to the awaiting limousine. They walked in silence, which Joey interrupted,
"What are you doing with all that money? Cause you sure aren't spending it on clothes." Vin looked at what he was wearing, a suede jacket, jeans and denim shirt. Not the attire of a man who made two hundred thousand per job.
Ezra had wanted him to wear a fancy suit, but it just wasn't Vin's style. Especially the pink shirts Standish like to choose. He had already prepared an answer. "Investing for my retirement."
Joey laughed. Just before they reached the limo, the enforcer stopped Vin. "You cross me and your dead."
"Don't plan to do that," Vin drawled, "I plan to be alive to enjoy all my money."
Eli gave him a hard stare and nodded. A large man, wearing a dark suit exited the driver's side door and opened the rear passenger door. Joey nodded to the man. He stopped Vin, and patted him down. He then took out a scanning device ran it along Vin's clothes.
"He's clean," the man said to the occupant of the vehicle.
"Nice to know you trust me after all these years." Tanner glared at Guiseppe.
He smiled at Vin, and dropped his eyes to Tanner's boot. "I let you keep the knife." He stepped inside the limo as did Vin.
Seated across from the marksman was one of the most powerful men in the United States.
"Vin Tanner, my employer, Dominic Cuoco, Junior."
The interior of the limousine was a dark gray leather. Wood paneling accented the doors, and a mini bar was set up with a crystal decanter and seven glasses. Junior thrust his thick hand out to Vin. Tanner grasped it firmly, and felt the pinky ring which the mobster wore pinch his skin. Vin coughed as the aroma of Dominic's overwhelming cologne hit his throat. Unlike Ezra, who wore cologne every day, this man was into over kill. In his other hand languished a crystal glass filled with a brown liquid.
"Vin Tanner, Eli vouched for you." Dominic slapped Vin's leg, "He said you were the man for this particular assignment." Junior was about forty years old, he looked similar to his father. The same olive skin, and since the last picture had been taken, was gaining his father's girth. Although Junior tried to hide it by wearing a pin-striped suit.
"I won't let you down Mister Couco," Tanner looked straight into the small eyes of the crime lord. Vin figured he had better show the man some sign of respect. This was an unusual situation for the Cuoco family, hiring someone from outside, and Vin wanted to make sure they trusted him.
Dominic turned to his enforcer seated next to him, "I like this guy already." Junior pointed to his own eyes. "He looked me right in the eyes. Vin, do you want a drink?"
Vin shook his head. He felt the driver step on the gas, and heard the tires throw dirt, the gravel flying into the air as they left the playground, with a bump they dropped down from the curb and were on the road. Funny, Vin could still feel Chris's eyes following him.
Dominic continued, "We had you checked out of course, you've done a lot of work out of the country." Tanner nodded. "Seems like you have never missed your mark."
Chris had made quite the docier on Vin. He had Tanner involved in most of the assassinations in third world countries. He eliminated Vin Tanner's existence in the ATF, and the sharpshooter had become Vin Tanner, freelance assassin.
"He's the best," Joey ran his fingers down the lapel of his suit jacket. "After me of course."
Junior patted Joey's cheek, "That's what I like about you Eli, you're so humble." Dominic pointed his thumb at Vin, "you tell him the rules?"
"Rules are: you stay at the family compound, no weapons and someone has to be with you at all times," he rose an eyebrow waiting for Vin to challenge him.
"Is this a job or a prison?" Vin also crooked an eyebrow up. The sharpshooter always had to test the boundaries which people set. Growing up in foster homes Vin needed to know what you could get away with before you were punished.
"Vin, Vin, Vin, you wound me," Joey put a hand to his chest. "You know me, I need to have control over a situation. I can't believe you forgot."
Vin grumbled back to the enforcer, "I don't have to like it."
Dominic Junior listened to the repartee. "I am a very hospitable host Mister Tanner I can assure you." Vin momentarily thought he was sitting across from a sincere man, not the ruthless individual he knew Dominic Junior was. Dominic eyed him over and then snapped his fingers. Eli leaned in, and Junior whispered in his ear. Vin listened. They were speaking Italian, Vin knew Spanish and could only make out a few words which did not make any sense.
Joey pulled out his cell phone. A feeling of dread came through Vin. He thought they had made him, his eyes looked around the limo for a way to escape.
"Mister Cuoco has a guest coming. . ."
"A size 32," Dominic added.
For a mad moment Tanner believed they were taking a coffin measurement. The cologne must really be getting to him, he thought. He chuckled as Guiseppe relayed his orders.
"Size 32," Joey continued saying into the mouth piece. "Medium top," Eli shook his head at Vin, "casual. No, like jeans and t-shirts."
"See Vin," Junior folded his hands calmly in his lap, "you think of this as a working vacation," he leaned comfortably back into the leather interior. As if meeting a sniper and inviting him into your home was all in a day's work for him.
The marksman made himself recline back into the seat also. Sure, thought Vin, a vacation. He considered Nettie's ranch a vacation, this he considered hell.
Vin looked out the window, watching the city shrink in the background and the road change into two lanes instead of the highway. On one side there was a wall of tall pine trees, the opposite side was wilderness. This was part of the land the Cuoco family owned. Vin thought how nice it would be to bring Diablo up here to run free. Chris had promised to keep an eye on his horse while he was undercover. All the same, Vin was sorely missing him, and the freedom he felt when he went riding. The vehicle slowed down and made a smooth right turn to a large, metal gate, guarded by two men in dark suits and gold rimmed sun glasses holding rifles. The driver rolled down his tinted window, the men nodded to him and opened the gate. The driveway was long and winding, and minutes passed before Vin saw the house. The house, was a huge mansion. Six columns stood stately in the front. The traditional, brick Colonial home had green ivy creeping up the front attesting to the amount of years the Couco family had been in residence. A well manicured lawn stretched a far distance. As they pulled into the circular driveway in front of the mansion Tanner saw the clear domed structure which contained a pool in the back, directly behind the house. The car came to a halt and the door was opened. Vin exited. Two men were posted at the entrance to the house, and another two men posted on either side of the car door. Eli came out next and looked around and then Dominic exited last. Junior turned to Vin who was taking in his current surroundings.
"Mister Tanner, it has been a pleasure." He stretched out his hand which Vin shook. "I look forward to working with you," he nodded to Joey, "Eli will help you settle in."
Joey gestured the two men at the mansion's stained glass doors to come forward. They escorted Dominic Junior into the house.
Eli slapped Vin on the back. "Vin, I'd like you to meet your shadows for you stay here. This is Frankie," Eli pointed to a large man with a crooked nose. "And this guy is Tony," the other large man had droopy eyes which made his face look long. "They are going to show you to your room," he turned to Frankie and whispered in his ear, in Italian once more so Vin found it difficult to understand. "I have to see to some business, but I'll see you later."
Eli began walking away, but Vin stepped quickly in front of him to block his path. "Joey, I'm gonna need some more information to prepare." Tanner gestured to the guards, "this is not how I work."
"Vin, this is going to be the easiest money you ever made," Eli grinned. "I'll plan everything, all you need to do is shoot, and then disappear."
"Okay, Joey," Vin got out of the enforcer's way. He didn't want to push Eli. Vin remembered Joey could become crazy in an instant when he was pushed too far. Tanner thought back to a mission which Joey had planned in great detail. It hadn't gone as expected. Eli snapped and had lashed out at his men. They ended up giving him his space for a few hours to control himself, but not before he had busted one of his fellow soldiers' ribs. He apologized afterwards, but Tanner had remembered the incident. "For now, " Vin added before being led away by Frankie. The other guard stepped in behind the sharpshooter.
The three walked in silence away from the house to the garage, a five car garage also built in brick. The large doors were closed, so Vin could not see the vehicles hidden inside. On the side of the building there was a wooden staircase. The three made their way up in single file, the second floor was split in half by a hallway. Frankie opened the door on the left, and gestured for Vin to go in first. Tanner found himself in a room which was double the size of his apartment. It was set up to be all open with no walls delineating the rooms except the bathroom. There was a kitchen with a heavy wood table, next a living room with an ottoman set and entertainment center, then a full size bed, with another door leading to the bathroom. The room was decorated in soothing beige and browns.
"The Boss told me to tell you that there are clothes in the closet." Frankie said, and pulled out a phone from his already bulging jacket. "He says you probably want to make a phone call to check your finances." The crooked nosed man turned the cellular on and handed it to Vin.
This was truly like a prison thought Vin, only one phone call. Vin looked around the room and noticed there was no phone in the apartment. Tanner dialed the number of the Swiss Bank and checked the account. Sure enough one hundred thousand dollars had been deposited.
"Thanks," Vin handed the phone back to Frankie.
"One of us will be outside here if you need anything," both Frankie and Tony headed towards the door. "Oh," Frankie added, "We eat lunch and dinner in the kitchen with the rest of the men. You can have breakfast in here if you want."
Tony finally said something, actually more liked mumbled. "We'll come and get you. I talked to Assunta and she's making manicotti." He looked over Vin, "you know what that is right?"
With Vin's long chestnut hair and blue eyes, he obviously did not look Italian. He had to grin at Tony. "Yep, I'll look forward to it."
After a week Vin had settled into a routine. In the morning he would work out at the gym in the house, and then take a swim. It was nice to have a pool available, and the swim always cleared his mind if only for a moment. In the afternoon he practiced his karate. He ran through all the katas he knew, over twenty now. He had learned them as he drifted from town to town after the service. He usually found some sort of dojo in each town, and was able to work out there and pick up new skills. The imaginary fighting sequence helped him to focus. Each move was performed precisely with control and power behind it as if he was really being attacked, and had to defend himself. All in all, thought Vin, at least by the time this was over he would be in great shape.
Mealtimes he shared with the "boys." They were a sociable bunch, and mostly talked about food and sports in Vin's presence. Tanner had kept to himself during the meals, learning about Italian delicacies and soccer. The marksman couldn't wait to impress Ezra. Standish was always surprised by the quiet agent, and secretly Vin enjoyed throwing him off balance. Ezra never expected Vin would enjoy and have knowledge of poetry, and now cuisine. On occasion Joey joined them, when he wasn't behind closed doors with Dominic Junior. Eli had also added another rule, Vin was to keep out of sight when Dominic Junior's kids were around. Junior had two children, a fifteen year old boy and thirteen year old girl. Supposedly they knew nothing of the family business, although Vin thought they probably had their suspicions. He found kids to be astute, judging from his experience with Los Lobos, the watch gang he had formed with some of the neighborhood kids in Purgatorio. The "boys" had informed him The Boss had a soft spot for the kids. Vin found it hard to believe that the Joey he knew in the old days, had a 'soft spot' for anyone.
At night, after dinner he usually joined Eli on a walk around the compound. Joey liked to make sure his men were in place around the perimeters. Vin also got to take in the defenses, and tried to find the weaknesses of the compound. Unfortunately Tanner could not find any. During these nightly outings Joey informed Vin. Specifically, Dominic Senior was away on business, but would be returning soon. The infamous Bianca was in Miami visiting friends. Too bad, Vin thought, the sharpshooter really wanted to meet the woman who had caused Ezra so much trouble. It was on one of these cool nights, Vin was reviewing all he had learned. He still wasn't any closer to finding who the hit was on or any information on the Cuoco family's arms dealings.
"Did I loose you?" Eli was lighting another cigarette, the glowing flames illuminating his flat features momentarily.
Vin inhaled the night air deeply. The smell of pine mingled with the acrid cigarette smoke bringing him back to the conversation. "No, just enjoying the quiet of the evening."
Joey coughed after he took a drag on his cigarette. "These things will kill ya." He exhaled the smoke in a fluid stream from his nose.
Vin shook his head. "With our training, I can't believe you're smoking." The sharpshooter had never gotten into smoking cigarettes. In Purgatorio, where Vin had spent part of his youth, smoking was a favorite pass time. In the beginning he just never had the money to pay for the habit, and later on he just didn't see how people found smoking relaxing.
Eli chuckled, "You think in my line of work I'm gonna need to be able to hold my breath underwater for over four minutes?"
"Don't know, just saying I'm surprised." Joey seemed relaxed tonight. Usually in the evenings he was agitated and didn't talk much. Vin decided to take the chance and see if Eli would divulge anything. "Can't believe you are playing second banana. Didn't think it was your style."
Joey flicked some ash off his cigarette. "Me, not for long. Moving up in the business."
Vin pressed further, maybe this will lead to the name of the mark. "Oh yeah?"
Eli halted and flicked his cigarette away into the dewy grass. He watched it go out and then turned to face Vin. "You know, after this job you're going to have to disappear for a bit."
"Yep," Right back to my job, I hope, thought Tanner.
Joey put his hand on Vin's shoulder. Tanner eyed the hand suspiciously. When people invaded his space uninvited it made him uncomfortable. "According to the Family's rules, you're a made man." Joey squeezed Vin's shoulder, "If you want a job, then you'll have one with me."
Joey removed his hand. But still Vin felt its weight there. Tanner was getting edgy and tense. He was used to short undercover stints, and usually with one of the other guys. This assignment was taking too long. "I'm a freelancer," he finally replied, "I like to work for myself."
Eli started walking again. "Don't knock having some support, Vin. Especially the support of the Cuoco family."
"I'll think about it." He already had a family. What he wouldn't do to have Buck and JD making fools out of themselves right now to break his mood. He missed his morning discussions with Chris over strong coffee. Josiah was always readily available for some calming advice. Nathan would be making sure everyone was healthy. Ezra would remind the whole team about their poor manners. Vin couldn't believe it, he was actually starting to depend on other people. He had always taken care of himself. He wasn't sure if he liked the feeling.
The team was reviewing the preliminary information on their next case; a series of arsons in the Denver area. Around the conference room table were Ezra, Buck, JD, Josiah and Nathan. Chris was seated at the head of the table. One chair, to the right of Chris, stood empty. It was taking the team longer than usual to review the information in the folders in front of them. Their attention was not on the case at hand, but on their undercover friend. Larabee reread the same page again,
"Buck and JD, you can interview the witnesses. Josiah and Nathan contact Maryland about the forensic evidence and review the results. Ezra, you and Vin. . ."
Buck cleared his throat. The other men looked at Chris, knowing his mind had wandered to where it usually went during the last two weeks.
Chris ran his hand through his hair. "Damn it!" He pounded his fist on the table. The folder in front of him jumped in response. "It's been two weeks!" Larabee had been worried. Other than knowing Vin was in the compound, they had received no further news. Hidden surveillance cameras had been placed on the main road. Vin had not left Cuoco property.
"Actually it's only been thirteen days," Ezra said as he continued to write out his notes, his Mont Blanc pen gliding effortlessly over the paper. He felt Chris's glare without even having to look up. "It is not unusual for an undercover assignment to be lengthy." Ezra had been on undercover assignments for months when he was with the FBI. The longer undercover jobs were burdensome. There was a tendency to lose yourself, the part you had taken on would become reality. The edges would blur. Ezra stopped writing, in fact it was because of his protracted assignment with the gambling syndicate that he found himself with the seven in the ATF. The Bureau started to believe he had gone bad.
"I'm sure he's fine," Nathan interrupted. "He knows how to take care of himself." Nathan thought of all the ways Vin had surprised them with his resourcefulness. Nathan figured it came from his military training. Jackson himself had picked up much from the Rangers. Tanner had been involved in many special ops missions which were classified, and therefore he never spoke much about his military past.
"It takes time," Sanchez stated. He thought back to the medal he had given to Tanner. He could only hope Saint Jude would provide some divine protection for Vin.
JD felt the mood in the room darken. He forced a grin on his face and joked, "Probably catching up with his old friend Eli." No one laughed. They all felt the loss keenly. It just wasn't the same. They tried to keep up with their normal routine, and even went to the saloon, but they were all on egg shells waiting for the tracker signal to go off. Chris had it with him at all times, it probably made him feel better to have some sort of connection. For JD it reminded him that Vin was not here with them.
Wilmington looked at all the men, making eye contact with each one so they knew he was going to say something important. "I think it's time for the pizza plan."
They all groaned. Whenever they needed to find out some information in a hurry, Buck decided the pizza plan was the only solution. He had even procured a pizza warmer bag, and a plastic sign which hooked up above the window so he looked authentic. The other men didn't know if it was the pizza they usually ate afterward or the pretty girls at the pizzeria where they ordered the pizza which made Buck love the plan. They all remembered the last time they had used the plan. The arm's dealer ended up being allergic to tomatoes. Wilmington had been lucky he was able to talk himself out of the situation.
Nathan broke the news to the easygoing agent, "Sorry Buck, but don't you think you are a bit too old to be a delivery person?" The rest of the team nodded in agreement. They had promised each other the pizza man would be retired.
Ezra explained further, "They are usually high school or college students." He didn't feel Buck had comprehended what he was saying. "If a forty year old man came to deliver my pizza, I think I would question his sanity concerning career choices."
Buck rose from his seat and leaned over the table towards Ezra. "Forty! You take that back!" Ezra leaned his chair further back, crossed his arms and grinned at Wilmington.
"I can do it," JD stood up and volunteered. He was lucky for once his youthful appearance would be of assistance not a hindrance. He would get to see Vin.
Chris was taking in the scene in front of him. He would love to hear some word on Vin, just to know he was alive would help alleviate some of the nightmares the leader had been having. Nightmares in which he would find a bloodied Vin, and his best friend would tell him, "You shouldn't have let me go in. . ."
He looked at JD, so eager for the opportunity.
Buck stopped trying to get at Ezra, and turned to Larabee. "You gonna let him do it?"
Chris addressed JD. "As long as your careful, we'll give it a try."
"Yes!" Dunne held out his hand to Buck, and wiggled his fingers as if wanting money from his friend.
Wilmington swatted the fingers away, surprised at Chris's decision. "JD, we have a petty cash fund to pay for the pizzas. What do you think- you are going out with Casey, and hitting me up to pay for the date?"
The other men laughed at Buck's comment. The relationship Buck had with JD fluctuated between father and son and brother like.
"I can't deliver pizzas on a motorcycle." JD said, rolling his eyes. "Those heat bags aren't that good." Still struggling to keep a straight face, he added on, "Plus your truck fits the part, even though you don't."
Buck tossed the keys to his friend. "You better take care of her." It was an old beat up truck, but it was well known Buck was extremely fond of the vehicle.
"Yeah, yeah, Dad," JD snickered and walked out with the others.
Wilmington and Larabee stayed momentarily behind. Buck watched the young agent leave, talking animatedly with the rest of the team. "You think he'll be okay?"
Chris collected his papers and returned them into the folder. "I don't think they'll even let him through the gate, the way they have that place guarded." He got up and placed a hand on Buck's shoulder.
"I hope you're right." Buck's smile returned to his face. "I'll go place the order."
Chris chuckled, "No anchovies this time."
It was only six o'clock, but the smell of the pepperoni pizzas was making JD's stomach grumble. He saw the opening in the pine hedges up ahead. He pulled in and was greeted by two of the Cuoco guards with rifles.
One of the men came up to the car, pulled the mouth piece of his headset away, and knocked on the door. JD rolled down the window.
"You lost?" He was asked by the wiry man.
The young agent shrugged his shoulders, and adjusted his newsboy cap. He turned to the passenger seat and picked up the receipt taped to the top of the warmer bag. "No, I have a pizza delivery for D. Couco." He sounded out the last name as if it was the first time he was saying it.
The wiry guard looked at the slip and shook his head. "No one ordered pizza here, kid." He was backing away from the truck and was just about to gesture for JD to back up and be on his way when he was interrupted by the other guard, a stocky, large man.
He also pulled his mouth piece away. "You don't think Niki ordered the pizzas?"
The wiry man put down his hand, and seemed to be thinking. "I thought the Boss talked to those kids after the Chinese food thing last month."
The burly man laughed. "Cosmo, you know the Boss and those kids." Cosmo nodded his head. "He let's them get away with everything."
JD intruded on the discussion, "Excuse me, but I got them here in a half an hour, so they aren't going to be free." The two guards stared at each other. "Is someone going to pay me?"
"You got any money on you?" Cosmo asked the burly sentry.
"Just Franklins and Grants," came the quick reply. "Send him up to the house," the stocky guard suggested.
Cosmo looked to the gate and back at JD. He made his decision. "Listen kid, you drive up the road, pull around back and they'll pay for the pizzas."
The other guard hit a button and the ominous gate slowly opened.
JD shifted the truck into gear, and waved to the sentry. "Thanks Mister!"
This plan was working out great, the young agent thought. Better than whenever Buck used it. JD tried to quell the anticipation growing in him as he drove down the winding driveway. He knew the guys thought he wouldn't have a chance, but he just knew he was going to see Vin. Would they be surprised when he reported back. The team was waiting for him at the main road, just before road became Cuoco property. Up ahead he spied an out-cropping of tall maple trees. He pulled the Chevy off the road, and slipped it behind the trees. The maples hid the truck from view of the driveway. JD had decided to walk the rest of the route to the house, this would actually give him a chance to investigate. He zipped up his jacket, the air was getting chilly as it turned to night, and grabbed the pizzas. Chris had said to be careful, and that was what he was doing.
Vin was just finishing up his dinner with the 'boys.' On tonight's menu was gnocchi and chicken marsala. Buck was right, all the Italian food was making him gain weight. The cook had taken it upon herself to fatten him up.
"Do you want more?" Assunta, the short, plump, gray-haired, cook came around the table with her pot ready to add to Vin's plate.
He shook his head and patted his stomach. "No, ma'am. That was more than enough."
She pressed on. This woman did not take no for an answer. "More gnocchi?"
"No, ma'am, really. It was delicious. I couldn't eat another bite." He was looking at the other men for support, but they had suddenly found their plates extremely interesting.
Assunta smiled at Vin, raising her eyebrows. "A little more chicken." She put the pot down, and speared the meat already on the table with a fork.
"Thank you, ma'am...uh, but...No. I'm *real* full."
Assunta smiled as she put another piece of chicken onto Vin's plate. "You just take a little more. You are a growing boy."
Tanner glanced wearily at the huge piece of chicken breast the woman slid before him. He did his best to sound sincere, but the 'Thank you, ma'am' was weak, to say the least. Vin couldn't help but notice the other men at the table suppressing their wicked smiles, they each had been in his position but had learned early on that *no one* said 'no' to Assunta. Of course he wasn't up to unbuttoning the top button of his pants like the other men, to relieve the pressure of their full stomachs. If only the ATF could come and raid this place during meal times, the mobsters wouldn't even be able to get off their chairs. The white, wooden, kitchen door swung open. Eli came in and was greeted by the plump cook who kissed each cheek, and went to get a dish for the enforcer. She handed a plate of the red sauced gnocchi,
Joey kissed her back, and quickly wolfed down the heavy pasta. He already knew it was just easier to eat than to argue with the cook. He gestured to Vin to follow him, before Assunta had a chance to put some chicken on another plate for Eli. It was time for one of their walks, Vin was happy to leave his piece of chicken behind.
It was a brisk night, and Tanner was enjoying the fresh air. It was helping him to digest the heavy meal. Eli questioned him,
"Are you enjoying the Cuoco family's hospitality?"
"Yep, but don't know if I can take two more weeks of it. You may have to order me some more clothes." The band on Vin's jeans was pressing against his skin. He liked his pants loose against his waist.
Joey chuckled, "Assunta's cooking will do that to you. She likes her men hardy." The enforcer put his arms up to show Tanner his larger physique.
Vin laughed in return. She would have a long way to go with him. Hopefully, he would not be here long and she would not get the opportunity.
"Tanner, about the job. . ." The sharpshooter stopped walking. Finally some information about the hit. Eli was about to continue but closed his mouth, his face formed into a frown and his eyes focussed on a spot over Vin's shoulder. "What the hell?"
Vin turned around. He wanted to groan when he saw Buck's beat up Chevy with the pizza sign over the passenger side door. He thought that plan was history. He could not believe Chris agreed to this. What are they thinking? Damn, so close, and now this!
The two men quickly made their way to the abandoned truck. Eli walked around the Chevy, Vin looked inside.
"Somebody's delivering pizza," Vin added an explanation, "Probably thought the house was closer."
Eli stopped pacing around the truck, and crossed his arms, as if to keep his emotions from spilling out. Slowly he gritted out to Tanner, "With Assunta do you think we order take out?"
"Look, you go that way," Vin pointed to the driveway leading to the house. "I'll check out over there," he pointed to the grassy area away from the path.
Eli stalked away. Vin listened as the footsteps became quieter. Once the enforcer was out of sight he picked up his pace. He had noticed the tracks, and began to follow them. It had been easy to suggest to Joey to go the other way. The man had been caught off guard by the truck. He didn't like surprises, and didn't know how to deal with them when they arose. The truck being there was not part of his plan. Vin had to find Buck first. He recognized the gleam in the enforcer's eyes. Joey was going to erupt, and Buck would be at the receiving end. Tanner crouched down to check the sneaker tracks again. He looked up and saw something hiding behind a tree. It was JD. The young agent had seen Vin coming. He looked around before running towards him, pizzas in tow.
Tanner was stunned. He couldn't believe Larabee had sent in the young man. "JD, we got to get you out of here." Vin ushered JD to start walking quickly. "I'm fine." He continued to fill Dunne in, "I think the job will be going down soon." The faster he was able to get JD to the truck and off the property the better he would feel.
"Great, we've all been worried." JD lengthened his step to keep up with Vin. "I'm glad I got a chance to see you."
"You shouldn't have come," Vin shook his head. The sharpshooter was glad to see a friendly face, but he wished they hadn't taken the risk. He didn't want anyone to get hurt on account of him, especially JD. He spent alot of time with Dunne. He was kind of like a kid brother in a way. JD always listened intently to Vin, even though Tanner knew the young agent was book smart, he still had a lot to learn. Vin was street smart and had found an eager pupil in JD.
"I don't think the others thought I would be able to get in," JD replied. Vin swept a hand across his forehead. He really shouldn't have been able to get in, dumb luck that may get them killed had struck. Vin could see the truck a few feet ahead. He would get JD back in the truck, past the gates, hopefully before Joey came back. Sure, this was all going to work out, thought Vin, as he felt a shiver up his spine. Tanner stopped dead in his tracks when he heard the enforcer's voice,
"What did you find Vin?"
Joey was walking back up the driveway. He hadn't walked all the way down to the house. Vin and JD turned slowly. Tanner squeezed his arm to keep quiet. "Just some kid delivering some pizza. I'm taking him back to his truck."
Eli yelled out to Vin, "Bring him here, I want to talk to him."
Vin nudged JD to walk towards the truck. "Don't worry. Like I said he got lost, didn't know the house was so set back." Vin did not want Eli near Dunne. He just wanted him safely away from the compound.
The sharpshooter heard the unmistakable sound of a gun cocking. Reflexively, he pushed JD off balance, causing Dunne to hit the pavement hard. The pizzas flew out of his hands. His head making an audible thump against the driveway. Vin surppressed the shout that wanted to escape from him, and bent down to check on JD. He was unconscious. Vin leaned down and felt JD's warm breath exit his mouth. Blood trickled down the right side of the young agent's still face. The bullet had grazed him. On the back of his head a large knot was already forming where Dunne had connected with the pavement. Eli was sauntering up to check his handy work. Vin had to think quickly. He used the blood of the head wound and smeared it around JD's temple, making the wound look more serious than it was. With his still bloodied hand he broke the chain which he had been wearing with the Saint Jude charm and set off the signal. He slipped it in JD's jacket pocket, and stood up to meet Eli.
Vin clenched his bloody hand by his side. "He's as good as dead."
Joey prodded the pale form of JD with his loafered foot. Vin wanted to scream at the indignity his young friend was being subjected to, with all the blood smeared across his forehead, he did look at death's door. Vin only hoped there was no serious damage and Eli fell for the ruse. He gritted out, "Lay off Joey."
"You don't give the orders around here Tanner," Vin did not notice the shiny object Eli swiftly brought across his left arm, but he felt the pain of the knife as it slashed through his skin. Vin's bloodied hand covered the gash in his left bicep. His blood mingling with JD's. "Don't forget that."
At that moment the four men he had left in the kitchen ran up to them. Frankie, one of Vin's shadows, spoke up first. "Boss, we heard the shot. What happened?"
"Uninvited guest," he quickly explained. "He's been dealt with."
The men looked from the young man on the ground to Vin's bleeding arm, trying to figure out what had occurred. Eli did not offer any further explanations to the mobsters.
In the dark, Vin could see Joey's brown eyes looking toward the gate area menacingly. "Cosmo and Peppe at the gate tonight?"
They all nodded, recognizing that the monotone quality of his voice meant Eli was angry. Finally Tony, Vin's other guard and a man of few words asked Eli for instructions, "Communion or Confirmation?"
Eli waved his hand. "Communion. You guys I trust can take care of it." Joey answered looking over the men with a cold stare. They nodded knowing exactly how to proceed. "I am going to have a 'talk' with the gate guards."
Vin's mind was reeling. A communion meant they wanted to get rid of the body. He couldn't let that happen, he had to give the team some sort of chance to get to the young man. "Wait a second." Eli stopped and glared at Vin. He cocked an eyebrow as if to warn Tanner he was risking another injury. "He's a kid. Someone will start looking for him."
"So?" Eli said impatiently, eager to talk to the men at the gate.
Vin met the enforcer's glare, and made his voice coldly say, "Dump him and the car in Purgatorio. When they find him they'll think it was gang related."
Eli smiled at Tanner, obviously liking the idea. "They are always trying to kill each other down there." He pointed to the body of the young agent. "Unfortunate casualty caught in the cross fire." Eli snapped his fingers to get the attention of his men. "You guys got that? They'll think he got lost when they find him."
"You got it boss," Tony said as took some plastic gloves out of his pocket.
Eli turned his back, and yelled out to Vin, "Good thinking, clean yourself up and we'll talk later."
Vin wanted to vomit. Somehow he had patched it up with Eli, and hoped he had bought the kid some time. He had to trust JD being an ATF agent, could handle himself if he woke up, and the rest of the team would come through.
He watched as Bruno, one of the other men, brought out a plastic sheet, and laid it over the upholstery of Buck's Chevy. Tony picked up Dunne's body effortlessly, and deposited it in the plastic covered area. JD's lifeless form was buckled into the passenger side, and his newsboy hat was set on top of his head covering the head injury. Tanner watched the scene unfold in front of him. Helpless to assist his friend without putting Dunne's life in more danger. Bruno got in the driver's side, and started the engine.
Vin felt a tap on the shoulder. It was Frankie. "You need to go back to your room and clean up." Vin took another glance at his friend, who looked like a relaxed passenger, as he was driven away. Tanner closed his eyes, willing himself to keep under control and allowed himself to be lead away by his shadow.