August 1998, a Tuesday
The morning sun sparkled off the nearby lake. The Tuesday morning crowd was thin, most people at work or away on vacation, so the seven-member ATF covert operations team had no trouble finding an open volleyball net that had been set up along the lakeshore.
Nathan carefully laid out a thick beach towel, then slowly lowered himself down to stretch out while the others watched, ready to help if he needed them to. The sun-warm sand radiated just enough heat to ease his still-aching muscles. Jackson was still recovering from a recent automobile crash that had occurred during chase of several gun-runners. As a result, the handsome black man had volunteered to act as their line judge, sparing himself the exertion of a game and still escaping the office walls he had been staring at while he "rested" with desk duty per his doctor's orders.
A coin toss determined who the three-person teams would be Vin, JD and Ezra against Chris, Josiah and Buck.
Having lost the coin toss to pick his teammates, Chris opted for the side of the court that put the sun to his and his teammates' backs a small advantage he knew, but he was going to need all the help he could get.
Vin and the other two men slipped on their sunglasses and positioned themselves to receive the serve, a pounding blow from Chris that knifed over the top of the net.
Ezra moved gracefully under the ball, popping it up so JD could slap it back over the net, just outside of the reach of the three men.
Tanner grinned. "Slow as a pack 'a hounds with colds," he chastised the older men.
"Just serve the damn ball," Chris growled, tossing the ball to Vin.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Forty minutes later, the game was one point away from a win. Chris wiped the sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand and waited for the inevitable. His green eyes studied JD as the younger man prepared to serve the final blow. With his dark sunglasses on, Larabee couldn't see the younger man's eyes, or where he was focusing the serve. And Vin and Ezra weren't any help either. Ezra had his game face on, and Vin was focused on his opponents, using the same intense, single-minded stare he employed when peering through his sniper's scope at a doomed target. And that was exactly how Chris felt, doomed.
Larabee sighed. Damn, he hated losing.
JD tossed the ball into the air, preparing to serve. He struck the ball, sending it streaking just over the top of the net. Chris lunged, managing to get under the ball and popping it up to Buck, who set the ball. Josiah spiked it back over the net.
But Vin was there, blocking the ball and reflecting it back with bullet-like speed that had to be appreciated. Chris and Buck both lunged for it, but neither of them could reach the ball in time. It slammed into the sand and bounced away.
"Yes!" JD cried, slapping Vin's waiting palms.
"Gentlemen, I do believe that's the game!" Ezra nearly crowed.
The ball, which they had rented, was rolling toward the water, prompting Chris to chase after it before it was lost and they had to pay for it. He jogged along, grinning at several shapely young women who flashed him inviting smiles. He knew they had been watching the game, and was glad to see that his loss hadn't tarnished his image too severely.
Reaching the ball, Chris bent over and scooped it up in one fluid motion. Close by a young man was loudly carping at his female companion as they walked along. The girl, a young blonde, shrank back, her chin tucked into her shoulder, her eyes averted. She was scared.
Chris straightened slowly, his gaze automatically sweeping over the man. He was several years older than the girl, maybe twenty-five or twenty-six, and in good shape in an amateur athlete kind of way and with spending money, if the two gold rings, Rolex, diamond-stud earring and designer swim trunks he was wearing were any indication.
The woman glanced up briefly, large amber-colored eyes meeting Larabee's for a brief moment. Definitely scared, he thought.
Chris' jaw tightened and he squeezed the volleyball between his hands. A year ago he would have walked away, but that was before Team Seven, before he had met Vin, who, somehow, had managed to lure him back into the land of the living. He couldn't just walk away this time.
"What the hell are you lookin' at?" the man demanded, his gaze whipping from the girl to Chris and back again.
Larabee knew the question was directed at the girl, but he couldn't stop himself from replying, "Why don't you tell me?"
'Rich Boy,' as Chris immediately tagged him, straightened and turned. A cold, pale blue gaze swept over Larabee and he snorted softly, dismissing the agent. "Get the hell outta here, old man," he said, turning back to the girl.
She quickly looked away again, a soft sob escaping her throat. Rich Boy grabbed her arm and she squealed softly as his angry grip pinched the soft tissue near her underarm. Going slightly limp, she waited for the blow she knew was coming.
"Hey," Larabee snapped, his anger flaring, "I think you better leave the lady alone."
"Fuck off, asshole," the man snarled, not bothering to look at Chris. He drew his hand back, but his wrist was immediately snared in a vice-like grip. He took a step back and spun, anger and surprise on his well-tanned face.
Larabee released him, reining in his desire to flatten the man with a swift knife-hand blow to the throat. "I said, leave the lady alone," he repeated, his voice hard and determined.
Watching the muscles along Rich Boy's jaw twitch with anger, Chris dropped into a slight crouch that was invisible to anyone but another operator. He was ready in case Rich Boy charged or attacked. But the man's gaze slipped past Chris, resting briefly on each of the team members who now stood in a semi-circle just behind Larabee.
The man snorted. "Stackin' the odds a little, aren't ya, Hoss?"
"Nope," Chris said and grinned slightly. "They're just here to pick up the trash when I get done."
Rich Boy gave a brief, barking laugh and shook his head. "Who the hell do you think you are, G.I. Jane?"
"More like Rambo," JD replied.
The man smiled, but the half-feral expression disappeared immediately when Buck instructed the young woman to "Come over here, sweetheart."
He reached out, grabbing her arm as she started to obey, not allowing her to move. "Where the hell do you think you're goin', slut?"
The girl immediately looked down, drawing into herself like a shell-less turtle trying to escape danger.
Chris took a step closer, his eyes flashing. "You don't have to put up with this," he said softly. "There are places you can go, people who can help you."
She looked up just far enough to see Chris' face through the curtain of her blonde hair. Her voice was pitched just above a whisper. "Please"
"Please, what?" Rich Boy demanded, giving her a rough shake. "You're not goin' anywhere, bitch."
"Mister, I wouldn't do that again if I was you," Buck growled, advancing on the man with deadly intent.
Chris reached out, stopping Wilmington with a hand on his arm. "We won't hurt you," he said, his attention completely focused on the girl. "If you want to leave, you can. We'll help you."
"Look, I don't know who the hell you people think you are, but she's not goin' anywhere. Now, get the hell away from me before I"
"Before y' what?" Vin hissed, blue eyes narrowing menacingly. "Hit a defenseless woman again?"
The man drew himself up, but his bluster and confidence began to melt under the deadly appraisal of the seven men nearly surrounding him. "She's mine," he hissed.
"You don't own her," Nathan snapped, then looked at the girl again, adding, "Nobody does. There's a place not far from here," he continued, addressing the girl. "They help women like you. We can take you there. You'll be safe. I promise."
The man squeezed her arm harder, causing the girl's knees to buckle slightly. She stumbled back a step and squealed, but stayed on her feet. "You'll never be safe," he hissed lowly. "I'll find you, I swear it, and then you'll wish you were dead."
"Come on," Chris said, extending his hand to the girl. He needed to get her away from Rich Boy before he lost what little control he had left and beat the man to a bloody pulp. Or Buck or Vin beat him to it.
"Marty, please," she begged softly, "you're hurting me."
"I'll show you what real pain is if you think you can just"
"Mister, I'm runnin' out of patience," Buck hissed, muscles along his jaws twitching. "You let her go. Now."
"Better listen to the man, son," Josiah added.
JD grinned. "Cops are probably on their way by now, too. Looks like you're drawing quite a crowd. Probably see it all on the six o'clock news."
Marty glanced around, realizing for the first time that everyone within twenty yards in either direction was now watching the confrontation. Cops he didn't need. He shoved the girl toward Chris, who caught her before she could fall. "You're mine, Jilly," he snarled at her. "I'll find you, and you'll"
Buck took another step closer to the man, putting him about a foot short of being in the man's face. "The only thing you're gonna find around here is trouble, sport. Remember that."
Taking a step back, Marty reached down and grabbed his dark silk jacket from the ground and then fished a set of car keys on an Armani keychain out of his pocket. With one last look at the girl he snapped, "Bitch. Worthless fuckin' whore!"
"Get out of here," Larabee said, his voice low and hard. "Now."
Kicking the ball Larabee had dropped, sending it into the lake, Rich Boy stormed away. "I'll find you, Jilly!" he called back over his shoulder. "I will find you!"
The girl watched him leave, breaking into deep, wracking sobs. Nathan slipped a comforting arm around her shoulders and led her back to the parking lot where their cars were.
Peace House, home of the Longmont Coalition for Women in Crisis
Raine handed the girl a tissue. "Now, let's start easy, okay? I'm Raine, and you are ?"
"Jill," the girl sniffed. "Jill Tammany."
"Well, Jill, you're safe here."
She shook her head. "I'll never be safe. Marty'll find me. He'll kill me. I know it. He'll kill me."
The sad expression on Raine's face said clearly that she had heard this story far too many times before. "Well, not while you're here," she assured Jill. "Where did you meet this Marty?"
Jill shrugged. "I ran away," was her whispered reply. "Three years ago I was living on the streets, in Hollywood. Marty saw me He brought me to Denver "
Raine reached out, resting her hand on the young woman's shoulder reassuringly. "Go on, sweetheart. He found you in Hollywood, and brought you here?"
She looked up at the pretty young black woman, her large blue eyes rounded with fear and hope. "I've done some stupid thing Really stupid."
Raine smiled thinly. "We all have, Jill."
She sighed heavily. "But I don't think I can fix this."
"Why don't you tell me about it, and then we'll see if we can't decide what to do."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Some time later Raine escorted Jill to the shelter that occupied the rear area of the large former church building. Nancy, one of the long-time volunteers, took over, leading Jill up to a small but comfortable room on the second floor. Raine watched the eighteen-year-old go and shook her head sadly. Jill's story was nothing she hadn't heard many times before, but for some reason her tale of sexual abuse at home, trepidation about living on the streets, and her eventual descent into the drug/porn scene haunted the woman. Maybe it was the lingering innocence that still clung to the girl like a weak aura. In any case, she was grateful that Nathan and the others had brought her to the shelter.
"Hey, you," a voice barked. "I wanna talk to you!"
Raine turned. She knew immediately that the man littering her shelter was Martin Biggs. Has to be a name he made up, she decided, recognizing the man Chris had described as 'Rich Boy.'
"Can I help you?" she asked, trying to sound civil.
"My girlfriend, I want to see her."
"No, you need to leave," she said, turning away.
"I said, I came for my girlfriend," Marty snarled, taking a step closer.
Raine's eyes narrowed and she turned back slowly. "You listen to me, you will not cause trouble here," she stated matter-of-factly.
Biggs snorted. "Yeah, bitch? What do you have, an army hiding in there?"
A smile curled the corners of her lips. "I don't need an army, I've got friends, lots of 'em, and one of 'em has already called the cops. The substation's right around the corner "
Biggs glanced around nervously.
Raine took a step closer to the man. "You are not welcome here. And because you came in acting like a jackass, Judge Duont's gonna give Jill a restraining order, so if I see you here again, I'll have you arrested. You understand me?"
Biggs drew himself up, but he took a step back. "You tell Jilly I'll be back. She can't stay in here forever."
"If I were you, I'd go find yourself another pigeon. Jill's finished with your life."
Biggs snorted and smiled. "Yeah, right."
"You better leave now," she told him, dark eyes flashing with anger.
He nodded. "Fine, I'm outta here, bitch. But I will be back."
"No," she countered, "you won't." Watching him go, she waited, then nodded to the three women she knew would be watching her. "Terri, call the Judge."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Outside Peace House, Marty Biggs cursed and kicked the front tire of his sleek black Jaguar. "Little bitch," he hissed. "And those fuckin' assholes at the lake Who the hell do they think they are, anyway?"
He stopped, a plan beginning to take shape in his mind. With a sharp smile he climbed into his car and headed back to the lake. He parked and tossed his silk jacket onto the passenger seat before locking the doors and heading over to a collection of small stores that lined one side of the parking lot.
Not spotting any of the men who had taken Jilly away from him, Biggs went in and took a seat at the Snack Shack counter, staring out the restaurant's windows to the lake beyond. He ordered a burger, fries and a coke.
As he was cramming the last three fries into his mouth, a young man came into the burger joint and sat down a couple of seats away from Biggs. He glanced over at him a couple of times, annoying the man.
"Something on your mind," Marty growled at the man.
The guy shook his head. "Naw, sorry, man."
"Good. Then stop lookin' at me."
The guy nodded and glanced away. But a few moments later, he was looking again. "It's just that I saw you this morning you know, with those agents."
Biggs sucked once more on his straw, finishing the soda, then pulled a ten out of his pocket and slapped it on top of his check as he stood. He glowered down at the younger man. "Agents?"
The guy nodded. "Yeah I see 'em out here playing volleyball sometimes. My girlfriend works here. She said they're ATF agents."
"You know their names?"
He shook his head. "But Nina might. They eat in here a lot."
"Not yet, but you could ask Mandy, too," he said, pointing to the young woman who was carrying out an order for a couple in the booth by the door.
Biggs nodded and then scooped up his money and his check and walked over to the cash register. When Mandy came over to ring him up, he asked, "You, uh, see what happened with me and those agents this morning?"
She nodded, looking a little frightened.
He smiled at her, trying to set her at ease. "Yeah, I was being a real prick. Look, I, uh, just wanted to tell them I was sorry, you know? Do you know their names? The blond guy"
"That's Chris. And the one who has longer hair is Vin. JD's the youngest one," the girl said, her eyes filling with that particular doe-like quality that only a teenager could manage.
"Yeah, Chris and Vin and JD, huh? Great. I appreciate it," he said, his eyes narrowing slightly. Marty smiled at the girl and turned on the charm. "I guess you're a real expert on the folks who come out here, huh?"
She grinned and shrugged, tucking a stray strand of dyed blonde hair behind her ear. "I guess. I work out here over the summer. A lot of people come to lay out along the lake. And they usually come in here to eat. Food's good and the prices are pretty good, too."
Biggs nodded, walking her back to the counter and sitting down. He flashed her a winning smile and hiked his eyebrows slightly. "Yeah? I'm new to the area, but, uh, I can tell I'm gonna like this place already."
The girl blushed slightly, but smiled, enjoying his flirtation. "It looked like they were pretty mad at you this morning ?"
"Yeah, I guess they were. I was being pretty stupid," he admitted, running his hand over his short black hair. "But I didn't get a chance to get their names. They were busy, playing volleyball."
She nodded. "Yeah, they play a lot. They're getting better, too."
"Oh, yeah? Well, I guess I might be able to catch them and apologize then. Wouldn't want a bunch of federal agents mad at me, y'know?"
She smiled and nodded. "They're real nice."
"What's the rest of their names?" he asked her, then added quickly with a smile, "and what's yours?"
"I'm Mandy," she said, dipping her head slightly as her cheeks turned rosy.
"That's a pretty name," he crooned.
"My mom's a Barry Manilow fan."
"Look, uh, why don't you get me a shake, huh? Chocolate?"
"Okay," she said. "Oh, and Nate, that's the black guy. I think it's Ezra who dresses really nice Oh, and Josiah, Joshua, something like that, he's the older man. You know, the big one with kinda silvery hair? And Buck's JD's friend. He's always flirting with us."
"Nate, Ezra, Buck and Joshua," he repeated. "Great. Now, how about that shake? Are you in college?"
She giggled, moving off to fix the drink. "I'll be a junior in high school next year."
"Wow, you look a lot older," he lied, nodding to himself and leaning back in his seat. "How often do they come down to play volleyball?" A few more compliments and a little time, and he would have all the information he needed from Mandy.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Over the next week Marty hung around the federal building downtown, keeping a low profile and watching the comings and goings of the team, spotting a schedule almost immediately. They arrived early in casual street clothes, then, around 7:30 they headed across the street to a small café across from the Starbucks for breakfast, this time all of them wearing suits. He figured they probably worked out first, then showered and changed before going over to grab breakfast. He had checked out the lobby of the federal building, reading over the list of organizations and the floors they could be found on. The ATF offices were on the eleventh floor, the employees' gym on the third.
After breakfast they headed back to the building and disappeared for the rest of the day, although one or two of them usually headed over to the Starbucks around mid-morning to pick up drinks. They often carried back extras for their friends.
After work, they changed back into their casual clothes and usually headed for a bar, J. Watson's, which wasn't too far away. After a drink, they split up, heading to their homes.
He had followed the blond, Chris Larabee, he now knew, out to a ranch in the foothills once.
On Tuesday they were back out at the lake, playing volleyball except for the black guy, Nate, who sat and watched. Given the way the man moved, Marty guessed he was nursing some broken ribs. And, after they were done, they stopped to eat lunch at the Snack Shack before taking off, heading in different directions.
Biggs watched them go, knowing he had enough now. He would take care of these clowns, and then he would find Jilly and show her who really called the shots.
The following Tuesday
The teenager in the Snack Shack's kitchen looked up from where he stood at the counter, wrist-deep making the day's quota of tuna salad and said, "Uh, we're not open yet."
Marty smiled his best "buddy" smile and nodded. "Yeah, I know. I, uh, need your help."
"Help?" the boy echoed, giving the man a mildly curious look. "What for? I've gotta get this tuna fixed before we open."
"Well, I guess I should've said I need a favor."
"What are you talking about?" the kid asked, glancing down at the large knife he used to dice the celery and calculating how fast he could snatch it up if he needed to defend himself. Maybe this guy was some kind of stalker or something.
Marty moved closer and dropped his voice, inviting the kid into his confidence. "This is a little embarrassing," he admitted, chuckling softly. "You know the seven guys who play volleyball out here on Tuesdays?"
The kid shrugged. "I don't know 'em, but they eat in here sometimes."
"Well, Chris He's one of them, the blond. He's an old friend of mine. We went to high school and college together." He studied the boy's face, noting that he was relaxing and getting interested. "And, well, I've just moved back to town and ol' Chris thought it'd be funny as hell to play a prank on me. He, uh, gave the movers who were hauling my stuff the address for the city dump."
The kid's eyes widened. "Oh, man, that really sucks! Did they dump it? Your stuff, I mean?"
Marty shook his head. "Naw, they called me, but I had to smooth things over and give 'em a big tip since they had to drive all the way back across town to my place."
The boy laughed. "That was a pretty good one."
"Yeah, well, back in high school ol' Chris and I used to play pranks on each other all the time. I was hoping you might, uh, help me get even for that one." He wagged his eyebrows conspiratorially.
"Get even?" the boy asked, his earlier fear forgotten. "How? What could I do?"
Marty leaned closer, his voice dropping even further as he pulled a small glass vial out of his shirt pocket. Inside was a pale, cream-colored powder. "This."
"Oh, it's jus a harmless chemical, but it, uh " He glanced around, making sure they were alone and hooking the boy completely. He continued in a whisper, "It makes your piss turn bright green. Neon, man. Unbelievable."
"You're shittin' me!" the kid said.
Marty knew he'd picked the right story to appeal to the boy's adolescent sensibilities. He raised his index finger to his lips. "Shh. Yeah, I'm telling you the truth. It's perfectly harmless, but that's the side-effect if you eat it."
"What're you gonna do with it?"
"I want you to slip it into Chris' food."
"Me?" the boy asked, hesitation leaping into his eyes.
"Like I said, it's perfectly safe," Marty reassured him. He unscrewed the cap and dipped the tip of his little finger into the powder, then touched it to the tip of his tongue. "See? That's why it takes this much to do the job."
"Yeah, but if I get caught putting something in somebody's food I could get fired."
"If you get caught, I'll cover for you," Biggs assured him. "I promise. And Chris will, too. I just want to pay him back for that trick, man. I mean, if I let this slide, he and his friends are gonna give me a rash of shit, you know what I mean? Ol' Vin, and Nate, and JD and Ezra, they're playin' tricks on each other all the time."
"All the time."
The boy nodded and shrugged. "Okay, I guess. It's really safe?"
"Absolutely," Marty lied. "All you have to do is put it in his food or his drink. You can even mix it into a hamburger patty before you cook it."
Marty nodded. "So, you game?"
The boy looked down. "Uh, yeah, I guess "
"Great!" Marty said, slapping the kid on the back and then fishing into his pocket and pulling out a thickly stuffed money clip. "Tell you what. I'll even pay you to help me out here."
The boy's head snapped up. "Pay me?"
Biggs handed the boy a hundred dollar bill. "You bet. But you have to keep this our little secret. If Chris gets wind of this beforehand I know he'll"
"Oh, I won't tell anybody," the kid assured him, shoving the money into his pocket. "I swear."
"I really appreciate this, man," Marty said sincerely, handing the vial to the boy. "Now, let me remind you what Chris looks like, just so you don't accidentally scare the hell out of an innocent guy, or one of his friends "
JD pulled the door to the Snack Shack open, holding it while the others entered. The group took the big booth in one of the back corners and settled in.
From the kitchen the boy saw them enter and grinned. "Boy, is that guy gonna be surprised," he said softly to himself. "Green piss " He shook his head, chuckling softly. "He'll probably think he's got AIDs or something."
Several hours later
After lunch the seven member team drifted off to pursue their own tasks, but they met up again in the late afternoon, out at Chris' ranch so they could discuss their next assignment over a potluck dinner.
Josiah disappeared into the kitchen to put the finishing touches in his chili and fix the salad. Nathan and Ezra dropped off their contributions in the kitchen, and then settled in on the deck to read and monitor the cooking steaks Chris had provided. Buck and JD also dropped off their additions to the meal, and then settled down in front of the television to challenge each other to a series of raucous video game battles.
Vin went to work on his motorcycle outside, after making sure dessert was safely tucked away. He wasn't far away from the deck, so he could enjoy the aroma of the barbecuing steaks and keep an eye on Nathan and Ezra so they didn't let them burn.
And Chris headed for his in-home office and the stack of paperwork that was still waiting for him, grinning slightly when he overheard some Buck's and JD's comments to one another as they played. With a sigh he sat down, opened the file sitting on the top of the four-inch stack and turned on his computer.
About an hour later the neatly typed words wavered on the page he was checking over before he signed it, undulating like some kind of weird print-eel in a sea of white. Chris blinked, trying to dispel the effect, but the words began to twist and spin, resolving themselves into images he had hoped to forget.
The burned out hull of his car where Sarah and Adam had died Robert Seiler's victims their mutilated bodies Bosnia
The sounds of automatic weapons fire and grenade explosions erupted in his mind, transporting him back to the mountains where he was fighting for his life. Pressing his hands solidly against the top of the desk, Chris shook his head, muttering, "This is not Bosnia."
Laughter from Buck and JD echoed into the small office, transformed into the barked orders of the Serbian soldiers pursuing him.
"No," Chris hissed. "We made it out. Everyone came home. I'm not in Bosnia."
Another peal of laughter reached Larabee's ears as the rat-at-tat of gunfire. Pushing his chair back from his desk, the former Navy SEAL pulled in on himself, wrapping his arms tightly around his chest and rocking forward and back as a fine film of sweat broke out across his chest, back and face. His gaze darted around the room, watching in horror as the walls, file cabinets and other pieces of furniture bent and curled into trees, shadows and the silhouettes of enemy soldiers slowly stalking him.
Chris threw himself out of the chair, diving for the cover his desk offered from the nightmarish images. They were closing in on him, stalking him, hunting him.
Reaching up, he touched the cold metal surface of the desk and immediately jerked his hand away. Looking down at his palm, all Chris could see was blood. He looked at the floor, finding McAdams lying twisted and dead on the ground. The man's face transformed into Vin's face.
"No," he mewed roughly, scrambling back away from the oozing body. He bumped into his chair and scrambled around again with a soft gasp.
Buck also lay on the ground, staring up at him through dead, accusing eyes. "You killed us," the corpse hissed. "We never had a chance."
Chris sucked in a breath and crawled toward the door, trying to escape the clawing chill and stench of death that threatened to overpower him. He had killed them. He had killed them all.
He stopped short, the sound of voices freezing him in the shadows on the floor. The enemy was out there, lying in wait to ambush him. He turned back, crawling on his elbows and belly to his desk. Hiding behind it, he nervously rifled through the drawers until he found what he knew was there the M9.
Clutching the gun in his hand, he crawled back to the doorway and looked out into the hallway. He didn't see the familiar furniture; he saw trees, the remains of bombed walls, and enemy soldiers, moving in the shadows. He squeezed the butt of the weapon tighter and slowly crawled out of the office. His gaze flickered from the two soldiers sitting along the remains of a wall to a third who stood guard nearby. In all three cases the outlines of the soldier's bodies contorted in wholly unnatural ways, making them look more like the demons Robert Seiler painted than men. He shifted into a crouch and moved farther down the hall.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~* ~ * ~ *
Well, they were tied, two games apiece. This last game would determine who had bragging rights for the night. But before he beat JD again, Buck knew he was going to need a soda. He stood and turned, planning to head for the kitchen.
"Chris?" Buck asked, his eyes going wide when he spotted the man.
Larabee sprang to his feet, the gun coming up.
"Mr. Larabee!" Ezra snapped, redirecting the weapon's aim from Buck and a dumbfounded JD to him as he stepped through the sliding glass door that opened onto the deck.
"Easy, stud, easy," Buck said, taking a half-step away from JD, his hands coming up and away from his body in a placating, I'm unarmed gesture.
"Don't move," Chris hissed, his gaze springing from Buck to JD to Ezra and back again. He repeated the order in Serbian, causing Buck's eyes to round with surprise.
"Chris?" Josiah tried, his voice pitched low and calm as he stepped up behind Ezra. "What's going on?"
In his mind, Chris saw weapons in the hands of each of the men, although their faces were nothing but misty shadows, just like they had been that night in Bosnia, absent of features and compassion. His hands started to shake and it was hard to draw a breath. He began to pant, silently praying he didn't pass out. That would be sure death.
"Chris," Ezra said, inching forward, his hands held well clear of his body. "What's going on? Are you injured?"
In Larabee's mind Ezra's outstretched hands appeared to be hefting a rifle so he could shoot him. Without thinking, Chris squeezed the trigger on the M9.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin, bending over his motorcycle, snapped straight when he heard the weapon's report echo inside the house, followed by several loud verbal exchanges.
Without conscious thought, he bent over, drawing the Glock from his ankle holster and moving to the side of the house. Being careful to stay outside the possible fire zone through the front door, Tanner positioned himself to enter the house the way he had in thousands of training exercises.
Taking a deep breath, he reached out and grabbed the doorknob. With one swift jerk, Vin yanked the door open, immediately buttonhooking rolling around the door frame to the right and pressing himself tightly against the inside wall. When there was no reaction from inside, he moved swiftly but cautiously out of the entryway toward the living room, his weapon at the ready.
Before he risked looking into the room, he paused, listening.
"Chris, whoa, just take it easy," Buck pleaded. "Please. It's just us Buck and JD, Nathan and Josiah, Ezra we're not going to hurt you."
Tanner's brow wrinkled. What the hell's goin' on? Needing to know, he edged closer, then risked a glance around the wall. What he saw froze him in place.
Chris was standing in the middle of the room, his old M9 raised and moving jerkily from Buck to Josiah and back again. Ezra lay on the floor, blood pooling beneath his right shoulder. The injured man's eyes were open, and his pain-filled gaze met Vin's, silently asking him for his help. The sniper nodded once.
He leveled the Glock on Larabee and swallowed hard. As he inched forward he could feel the sweat breaking out on his scalp and running down his temples and the back of his neck. His hands trembled once.
God Almighty Don't make me kill you, Chris. Please
Buck's gaze slipped past Larabee to pin Vin, stopping his forward movement. "Chris, listen to me, please, we're not in Bosnia. We're home. This is the ranch You're not in the Teams any more, stud. You remember the Denver PD The ATF? Team Seven, remember. That's who we are."
Larabee squeezed the butt of the M9 tighter, wishing he understood the language the soldier was speaking better, but they had only been taught a few phrases.
When Buck started to bend down, saying, "You're safe, Chris. We're not going to hurt you," Chris jabbed the gun at him, snapping, "Stand up! Keep your hands up!" The last part he repeated in Serbian as well.
Vin's mind raced. Okay, so Chris thought he was back on some back ops mission in Bosnia, a mission that had obviously disintegrated into a complete disaster.
The sniper blinked to clear the sweat that clung to his eyelashes and forced a deep, steadying breath. "Hey, Cowboy," he said in his soft Texas drawl as he silently prayed he could get through to the man, "I've got your six, Chris."
Larabee dropped into a slight crouch and turned slightly, his aim refocusing on the sniper. Intelligently the others remained frozen in place until Chris' attention was completely focused on Vin.
Tanner's finger tightened ever so slightly on the trigger of the Glock, but he didn't fire. He couldn't. This man was his friend, his best friend, not a target. His throat tightened in the fraction of a second it took Larabee to decide not to kill him.
Recognition sparked in the man's green eyes and he cocked his head slightly to the side. "Vin?" Chris said thickly, a confused expression flashing across his face, followed closely by profound relief. He immediately swung back to cover the others, but they were no longer standing where he had left them.
Nathan and Josiah had squatted down to check on Ezra. Nathan, stripping off his t-shirt and using it to apply pressure to the shoulder wounds, was stanching some of the blood flow.
Chris saw them and growled, "Stand up," as he gestured at the pair with the M9. "Now." A nervous chuckle cleared his lips. "That really you, Vin?"
swallowing hard, Tanner lowered his weapon, but keeping it ready. "Yeah, Cowboy, it's me. What's goin' on?"
"You're not here You're you're dead," Chris whispered, shaking his head slightly. "You're dead. I saw you."
Vin moved a little closer, shifting so he was in Larabee's peripheral vision, then he moved out farther, inching closer to Buck and JD. He offered Larabee a cocky grin. "Hell, Chris, y' know I ain't that easy t' kill." He noted the moisture that collected in Larabee's eyes, the friendship it represented reinforcing his resolve to end the standoff without anyone else getting hurt. He simply could not kill the man. But if he went for a disabling shot, and Chris got off a shot, he might cost one of the others their life.
Chris nodded. "Everyone comes home," he said softly. "I thought I was going to have to leave you there, Denny. I really did."
"What d' y' got here?" Vin asked, his gaze shifting to Buck and JD. They were scared, but they wouldn't do anything to escalate the situation, that much he knew for a fact.
Chris' attention refocused on the two men. "Enemy soldiers. They were trying to find me, kill me. We don't have time to take prisoners, Denny. We've got to"
"I'll secure 'em," Vin said, moving forward slowly, his weapon up and trained on Buck, who swallowed once and met his eyes. He understood what Tanner was doing, but that didn't mean he felt good about having a pair of guns trained on him.
"Careful," Chris cautioned, shaking his head to chase the vertigo away. "They're armed."
"Roger that. It's under control," Vin said, moving closer. "Come on," he said, taking hold of Buck's arm. He gestured at JD with the Glock, urging him out of the large open room and toward the open sliding glass door.
Staring down at Ezra, Chris swallowed hard, wondering why his stomach was suddenly rebelling. He didn't know this man. And he was safe now. Denny was there. All he had to do was watch the injured man. The sniper would take care of the others.
Making sure to keeping himself between Chris and his other teammates, Vin escorted each of them out onto the deck and out of Chris' line of sight.
"See if you can get Ezra out here," Nathan said. "He's bleeding pretty bad."
"I'll call for an ambulance," Josiah said softly.
Buck reached out and grabbed Vin's arm. "Be careful, Junior. He's back in Bosnia. We lost damn near an entire squad on that mission."
Without replying, Vin turned and headed back to join Larabee. Stepping into the room, he said, "They won't be causin' us any more trouble."
Chris' eyes widened. "There were no shots," he snapped, the M9 coming up to center on Tanner's chest.
"Easy, Cowboy," he replied, his sweat-dampened grip tightening on the Glock. "I didn't want t' give away our position. I used m' knife. They're not gonna give us any more trouble. That's a promise."
"Good good " Chris said, trailing off as he nodded. He swayed on his feet and took a step back to steady himself. The gun dropped, dangling loosely in the man's grasp. "This one I think he's still alive "
Knowing that he had to distract Larabee, Vin grabbed onto the first idea that popped into his head. "Y' hit, Chris?" he asked, moving closer, a concerned expression on his face. "Y' don't look so good," he added truthfully.
Chris took several steps back, then leaned against the table in the corner of the room. "I don't think so " he said, trailing off as the room bucked like a boat caught in a storm.
"Y' sure are," Vin lied. "Come on, we gotta get the hell outta here."
Larabee nodded, allowing Vin to ease him to his feet. "Get out of here," he repeated, swaying again as the room spun and dipped. His head snapped up. "We-We can't. We can't. Denny. Denny's out there. Everyone comes home, Vin, everyone."
"Take it easy, pard," Vin said, stepping up alongside the man. "We'll find him, but first I gotta get a look at that wound."
"Yeah. Come on, we're gonna need some cover." With a gentle but insistent touch, Tanner maneuvered Chris back into his office and had him sit on the small couch. "Give me your weapon," he said firmly.
"I'm empty, Cowboy. I just wanna make sure nobody sneaks up on us, that's all."
Chris studied the man, watching him set his "empty" weapon aside. "We're low on ammo They're closin' in."
Vin held out his hand. "I'll keep an eye out. They ain't gettin' past me."
Larabee hesitated for a moment, but then handed Tanner the gun. "I killed Denny," he said, his voice choked. "God, I didn't mean to I didn't mean to, Vin."
"Easy, Chris," the sniper soothed, setting the M9 aside and having the man lean back on the couch. He glanced out the doorway, knowing that in the living room, they would be moving Ezra to safety. "We'll be okay here until our guys can come get us."
"You contacted Tommy?" Chris asked him, his voice slurred and thick. He squeezed his eyes shut, willing the haunting images away. "We missed our check-in radio "
"Radio was okay. I made the call. Help's on the way."
"Buck? Is Buck with him?"
"Yeah, Buck's fine. They're comin' t' get us."
"We have to find Denny," Chris said, trying to sit up. "I can't leave"
Vin reached out and pushed him back down. "You're not goin' anywhere with that injury. Y' won't be helpin' anyone if y' get yourself killed. He knows where the rally point is. He'll meet us there."
Chris' eyes widened and his unfocused gaze frantically sought out Vin's. "You have to find him."
The sniper's jaw muscles twitched. He couldn't leave Larabee alone; there was no telling what he might do. A light tap across the room caught his attention and he glanced through the doorway again. Buck signaled: Time to go.
"They're here!" Chris snapped, lunging for the M9.
Vin reacted instantly, apprehending Chris in a firm but gentle chokehold before he reached the weapon.
"Vin!" the man cried, his arms flailing. "What're you doing?"
"Sorry, Cowboy," Tanner said softly as he applied just enough pressure to render the man unconscious. Please, Lord, don't let me hurt him. "Nathan!"
Jackson stopped just inside the doorway to the small office. "Is he?"
"Get those paramedics in here!"
"They're working on Ezra," he said. "There's another ambulance on the way. I'll see if it's here."
A few moments later, Larabee moaned, fighting weakly against Vin's grip. "Whoa, easy, Chris. Hear that?" he asked, silently praying that the man bought his story.
"Serbs. They're gettin' closer," Chris gasped, groping again for the weapon he had surrendered.
"No, it's our ride, Cowboy. Time t' make tracks." Reaching out, Vin took Larabee's arm and helped him to stand. Chris swayed and his knees started to buckle, but the sniper's tight grip kept him on his feet. "Come on, everybody's at the rally point; they're just waitin' on us."
Chris met Vin's concerned gaze. "I killed you. You're dead "
"Hang in there, Chris," Tanner said, pulling his friend's arm over his shoulder and wrapping his own arm around Larabee's middle. Then, half-dragging and half-carrying the blond, he headed for the waiting ambulance.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Outside, two paramedics worked over Ezra. Two others were moving toward the door with Nathan. When they spotted the pair they rushed forward to help Vin.
Nathan stopped, his gaze shifting between Ezra and Chris. Josiah hovered near Ezra, occasionally asking the paramedics questions. He decided to stay with Vin and Chris.
The medics reached the pair, one of them asking, "Your friend here says he's high on something."
"I think so," Vin said. "He's hallucinatin'."
"Okay, maybe you better move back," the medic said.
Tanner shook his head as he felt Larabee tense, trying to focus on the paramedics. "Easy, Cowboy," he said. "They're our guys."
"Yep," Vin, said, waving the man off, "medics. Just a little more and then they can get a look at you, fix you up good as new."
Escorting Chris to the rear of the second ambulance, they passed the stretcher where Standish lay. Larabee pulled himself up. "Ezra?"
"See, I told ya we all made it. He'll be okay, Chris, but we've gotta get the hell out of Dodge."
Larabee turned to meet Tanner's concerned gaze. Was it over? Were they safe? If Vin said they were, then it must be true. He trusted Tanner, with his life. Chris nodded, and then he collapsed into the sniper's grasp, unconscious.
Vin stalked down the hospital hallway, three nurses and two visitors scampering to clear a path for him. When he reached the Emergency waiting room he stopped. Buck was stretched out on one of the two peach-colored sofas, sleeping. Across the room an older Hispanic man sat, his eyes closed, his lips moving in silent prayer as a rosary slipped through his fingers.
Tanner took a deep breath and forced himself to relax. He briefly considered waking Buck, but changed his mind. There wasn't anything worth telling him anyway.
Turning, he headed back down the hall to the triage area, finding Nathan leaning against the wall outside of a treatment room. "Any news?" he asked him.
Jackson shook his head. "They told me I should wait in the waiting room. The doctor will talk to us as soon as they know something. I was just too tired to move."
"Shit," Tanner sighed. "What's takin' 'em so damn long?"
Nathan offered the man a small smile. "They'll be all right "
Vin shot him a look that clearly indicated he wasn't so sure about that.
"You're a better actor than I expected."
A flash of confusion crossed Vin's face, followed by realization. He grinned. "Just like playin' cowboys and Indians. What the hell happened back there?"
He shrugged, pushing off the wall and heading back down the hall to the waiting room. Vin fell into step beside him.
"He had t' be drugged; nothing else makes sense. I know Chris didn't snap," Vin said as they entered the room.
"I agree, but how? Where?" Josiah asked from where he was leaning up against a wall, waiting for his cup of machine coffee to fill.
"We all ate at the Snack Shack," Vin said, frowning. "If that's the source, it couldn't be random."
Nathan nodded his agreement with that assessment. "That's what I was thinking, too. Someone put something in Chris' food, or his drink But why?"
Vin twisted his neck from side to side, trying to ease the tension knotting the muscles and making his head hurt. Someone owed them, and he planned to collect in spades.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Nathan sipped on a cup of tepid coffee as he watched the images flickering on the screen of the small television in the waiting room. CNN was running reports on the ongoing battle between the Clinton White House and Ken Starr not that he cared about the latest allegations, but it passed the time. The volume was off so some of the others could sleep. Across the room Vin sat, staring down the hall. The old Hispanic man who had been there earlier had been met by a doctor, who had led him off. The smile on the man's face told Jackson the news he had been given was good. He just hoped they would be as lucky.
He glanced down at his watch. Almost two hours had passed since they had arrived at the hospital. Beyond the windows, the late afternoon sun was turning the smog a deeper shade of orange. He reached up and rubbed the back of his neck, wishing someone would hurry up and give them some news. Much longer and he wasn't going to be able to stop Vin from assaulting the nurses' station.
He saw Tanner spring out of his chair and sat his cup down, going over to join him as an older Asian man in pale green scrubs and a white labcoat walked up to join them. He extended his hand to Nathan first, then to Vin as he said, "I'm Alan Yuduki. Mr. Standish is in recovery now, and he's doing fine. I'm confident he'll make a full recovery, with a little help from our Physical Therapy technicians."
Nathan and Vin exchanged relieved glances, both men sighing with relief.
"When can we see him?" Jackson asked the physician.
Dr. Yuduki thought for a moment. "He should be in his room in an hour or so. I don't know how awake he'll be, but you can see him then. Check with the nurses' station on the third floor to see which room he's been assigned to. You can wait there for him if you'd like."
"Thanks, Doc," Vin said. "Do you know anything about our other friend? Chris Larabee? He was brought at the same time as Ezra and we ain't heard a damn thing."
Yuduki shook his head. "I'm afraid not. Check with Helen," he suggested, nodding down the hall to the nurses' station. "She can tell you who his treating physician is and you can have the doctor paged."
The doctor left as Buck sat up and swung around to sit on the couch. "Any news?" he asked, rolling his shoulders to work out the kinks.
The pair walked over to join him, waking up the others as well.
"Vin can fill you in," Nathan said. "I'm going to go see what I can find out from Helen."
Vin dropped down to sit next to Buck. "Ezra's outta surgery. He's gonna be fine. We can see him in an hour or so when he's in his room. They said t' check with the nurses on the third floor, and we could wait for him in his room."
"Where's Nate going?" Josiah asked him.
"Find out what's up with Chris."
"No word?" Buck questioned.
"Is that a bad sign?" JD asked them.
"Hell if I know," Vin said with a sigh.
The men all looked up and then stood when Nathan returned a few moments later. A young woman accompanied him, wearing the doctor's traditional white coat over a pair of well-worn blue jeans and a long sleeve purple t-shirt. With short brown hair, large brown eyes, and light brown skin, she looked more like a college student than a doctor.
Vin met Nathan's gaze. "How's Chris?"
The woman answered for him. "Not well at the moment, but I think he'll be all right. If you'll come with me, I'll explain somewhere a little more comfortable."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The name on the plaque next to the door read Dr. Elena Rojas. She opened the door, allowing them to enter before stepping in behind them and closing the door. Walking around to sit at her desk, she offered them a reassuring smile before saying, "Here's what we know at the moment. Mr. Larabee ingested an unknown chemical compound; we're chasing the structure down now, but I'm relatively confident that we're going to find that it's Psikadelic, a new designer drug. We've been seeing overdose cases for the last six months and he's reacting the same way as our other patients."
"But he's going to be okay, right?" Buck asked her.
Dr. Rojas leaned back in her chair. "I think so. We're trying to clear the compound from his system now. The biggest danger with this stuff is the possibility of kidney damage, so we've got him on dialysis to spare his kidneys the trauma. You brought him in quickly; that's a real plus. The drug didn't have much time to do damage to his organs."
"What's this Psika-shit?" Vin asked her.
The physician met the sniper's intense gaze. "Think of it as a kind of LSD clone, although it doesn't act or bind the same way LSD does in the body. Same hallucinatory effect, though. So, bad trips and the added bonus of heart and kidney damage with repeated usage or an overdose, which this was in Mr. Larabee's case."
"Who comes up with this stuff?" Buck asked, shaking his head.
"People who want to make money and don't care if they have repeat customers," Nathan offered.
Dr. Rojas nodded. "I'm afraid you're all to right. Lots of kids are trying this stuff for the high, and they don't seem to heed the warning when their friends drop over dead."
"Then Chris was lucky," JD said softly.
"Very," Rojas agreed. "The fact that you got him here so quickly saved his life. We're going to keep him here for a few days. Once we clear his system of the drug, we'll run some tests to be sure there was no permanent damage done to his heart or kidneys. And one of our psychiatrists will check him over, too. In a few cases we've seen permanent psychosis develop after a single large overdose like this one."
"And if everything looks right, how soon will he be released?" Josiah asked her.
The doctor thought for a moment. "I'd say within three to five days, depending on the results, and a couple of follow-up visits. However, I don't want to make it sound as if everything's fine. Mr. Larabee is dealing with shock at the moment. We're doing all we can to keep him stabilized, but we're not out of the woods yet. The next twelve to eighteen hours will tell us how it's going to go."
"Can we see him?" Vin asked her.
"Normally we allow visitors at any time, but in this case I'm afraid I can't. The lab where we have him right now just isn't set up to handle visitors. Maybe tomorrow morning? When we can get him into ICU or a regular room, depending on how things go. Why don't you stop by around nine and have me paged."
The men all nodded, but they didn't look happy about her answer.
The doctor dipped her head and looked up again, an apologetic expression on her face. "And I'm afraid we had to report this to the police. It's the law and were required to comply."
"That's all right," Josiah told her. "We'd all like to find out who gave him the drugs."
"Because there's no way in hell he took 'em himself," Vin added, wanting her to understand that.
She nodded. "This wasn't a standard overdose," she told them. "It was twice what we're used to seeing in those cases. So we assumed that his food or drink had been spiked."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Ezra heard the commotion as his teammates entered the small private room, passing his nurse on her way out. "Gentlemen," he called weakly, waving them over. "How is Mr. Larabee?"
"As well as can be expected," Nathan replied when he reached the man's bedside. "We'll know more tomorrow."
"How are you feelin', brother?"
"At the moment, Mr. Sanchez, I feel absolutely nothing at all," the undercover man admitted with a lopsided grin. He lifted a small white button attached to his IV line. "Free legal drugs," he told them, adding, "and I've been a bit overindulgent."
"Man, he's flying high," Buck said with a knowing smile. "That stuff's all right for a day or two."
"Perhaps even three," Ezra replied.
"The doctor said you're gonna be good as new," JD told him.
"I am very glad to hear that," Ezra said, blinking owlishly. "Does anyone know what the devil happened?"
"Chris was drugged," Vin told him. "Some new designer crap that's like LSD."
"The Snack Shack," Buck explained. "Had to be."
"Lunch " Ezra said, his eyes dropping closed. "That reminds me of a time in Monaco " He drifted off to sleep.
Nathan grinned. "That mans full of stories."
"Full of something," JD agreed, grinning.
At least they knew one member of their "family" was going to be all right, and they could concentrate on worrying about the other. And finding whoever had done this to Chris, and Ezra.
Federal Building, Offices of Team Seven
Sitting around the large oak table that occupied the center of the conference room, the remaining five members of Team Seven sipped on coffee and bounced ideas off each other about who might have targeted Chris.
"Maybe it's someone from his past," Nathan offered. "He was a cop and God knows that line of work can generate some grudges."
"Not t' mention our present line 'a work," Vin added.
"Travis would've let us know if anyone had escaped custody, or been released," JD said.
"That guy " Vin said, spinning a large bullet through his fingers and nodding to himself. He looked up, meeting the other's confused expressions. " from the lake a coupla weeks ago. Y' know, the one with the girlfriend."
Recognition registered on their faces.
"It's possible," Josiah said. "He certainly had the money. And he looked slimy enough to be a dealer."
"And he had a reason," Nathan added. "He looked real unhappy about losing that girl."
"Not that I blame him," Buck added, "she was real pretty. And way too good for the likes of him."
"Is she still at Peace House?" Josiah asked Nathan.
"One way to find out," he said, setting his cup down with a sharp bang. "Let's go see."
Raine smiled brightly when she saw the men, but the expression quickly faded when she noticed the serious expressions they all wore. "What's wrong?"
"Raine, is that girl we brought in a while back still here?" Nathan asked her.
"Jill?" she asked, nodding. "Yes, she is, but"
"We need to talk to her," Buck said. "Her boyfriend might've tried to kill Chris."
After Nathan explained what had happened, and their conclusions, Raine gave her fiancé a hug and sighed, puffing her cheeks. "I'll go get her, but she's still pretty fragile, so go easy with her, okay?"
"We'll be gentle," Buck said with a serious nod.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Jill wiped her eyes with a small pink handkerchief and nodded. "Marty's been dealing for a long time, since he was a kid, he said. He and a couple other guys started selling Psikadelic five, maybe six months ago. They got it from some guy in California when we went to Disneyland."
Raine reached out and gently squeezed her shoulder. "Do you know where Marty is, Jill?"
She shook her head. "We were between places when you brought me here. That's why he was so mad. He wanted me to do another video so we could cover the first and last months' rent on a condo he found in Evergreen. He said I owed it to him. He spent all our money in LA, buying that stuff, but it's getting harder to sell. People have died and the kids here are more scared to try it; some of them, anyway."
"Why didn't you go to the police?" Buck asked her.
"I was scared," she said, wiping away fresh tears. "You don't know Marty. He's He's mean. He hurt" A sob cut her off.
"Easy," Josiah soothed. "You're safe now. He's not going to hurt you any more."
She nodded, meeting Buck's eyes. "I wanted to, but I was too scared." She looked away, finally meeting Vin's gaze. "Is your friend all right?"
"He will be," he told her.
"But I can't say the same 'bout Marty," Buck added.
"How 'bout this? Can y' tell us where ol' Marty likes t' hang out?" Vin asked her, his voice a soft rasp.
Jill nodded. "I can tell you the kinds of places we used to go, back in LA."
"That would be great," Josiah told her. "We really appreciate your help. It takes a lot of courage."
She looked up at him, her expression grateful. "Well, he liked sports bars a lot "
Before heading out to see if they could find Biggs, the teammates stopped by the hospital, dropping in on Ezra first. The man was sleeping soundly, so they left him alone and headed to the nurses' station to have Dr. Rojas paged.
The physician arrived a few minutes later, a smile on her face. "Good news," she said to greet them. "Mr. Larabee's out of danger and recovering nicely. We'll be moving him to a private room later today."
All of the agents allowed themselves to breathe again.
"Can we see him?" Buck asked her.
"Certainly. He was sleeping the last time I checked in on him, but you can wake him up for a few minutes. He's one floor up, in ICU. Just ask one of the nurses up there to point you in the right direction."
"Thank you, Doctor," Buck said.
"He's quite the fighter," she said, and Buck glanced over at Vin, knowing the younger man had been responsible for giving Chris back a large part of the determination. "All of the tests we've run so far indicate that there was no lasting organ damage. Dr. Whitman will probably run a few more tests tomorrow. Once that's done, and I see another set of positive tests, I think we can send him home."
"Is Whitman the psychiatrist?" Josiah asked her.
Dr. Rojas nodded. "Like I said, it's just a precaution."
"Don't know if Chris is gonna see it that way," Buck said, the corners of his lips curling up into a grin.
Vin's eyebrows peaked and fell. "I don't know; it might do him some good."
"Let's go say hello," JD said.
Buck extended his hand to the physician. "Many thanks, Doc."
"My pleasure," Rojas replied.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
When they found Chris was still sound asleep the men decided not to disturb him. At Vin's suggestion, Nathan and JD agreed to stay at the hospital and keep an eye on the two injured men. None of them thought Biggs would make another attempt on Chris' life, but it wouldn't hurt to be careful. Besides, Nathan was still sore and leaving him at the hospital meant he would get some much needed rest himself.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Four hours later, Buck, Josiah and Vin left the last of Biggs' possible new hangouts.
The three men climbed into Josiah's grayish-black Suburban, the big man maneuvering into traffic while Vin used his cell phone to call Nathan.
"Hey, Nate," Tanner said. "How's everybody doin'?"
"Hold on a sec," he said. "Got a surprise for you."
Vin waited, knowing what was coming, but smiling nonetheless when Chris' voice echoed over the phone, asking, "You find him yet?"
Tanner flashed the phone at Buck in the back seat, mouthing, "It's Chris."
The ladies' man nodded with a grin.
Turning his attention back to the conversation, he said, "Not yet. Seems like ol' Marty dropped out 'a sight a couple 'a days ago. How y' doin'?"
"I feel like I went ten rounds with a pissed off, hungry grizzly. I wanna find this guy and"
"Y' ain't the only one," Tanner assured him. "We're gonna swing by 'n' pick JD up, head back to the office. Maybe he can find something that'll tell us where Biggs' disappeared to in the computer."
"From what I've heard, Ezra will thank you for getting him the hell out of here."
"Any word on when they're gonna let y' go?"
"Dr. Rojas stopped by a little while ago. She said day after tomorrow, if all the tests look good."
"Okay, y' rest, old man. We'll see y' in a little while."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
After a brief visit with Ezra and Chris, Buck agreed to stay with Chris, Nathan moving over to keep Ezra company. The remaining three agents headed back to their office.
The phone was ringing as they entered, and JD sprinted ahead to scoop it up. "Yeah, hello?"
"Who is this?" he asked.
"J-Jill. Marty's here. I'm scared."
"Okay, just stay put. We're on the way. Stay put." He hung up, immediately heading back toward the door. "That was Jill. Biggs' at Peace House, and she's scare to death."
Josiah and Vin exchanged worried glances. Where was Raine?
Josiah parked a block away from Peace House, the three agents working their way carefully but swiftly to the building from three different directions.
Vin reached the converted church first. Leaning back against the side of the building, he said into the lip-mike he wore, "One, in place."
A few moments later JD's voice stated, "Two in place."
"Three," Josiah said, panting slightly.
"On my mark," Vin said. "One two three "
They each slipped into the building through three separate doors, conducting a quick search. Josiah found one of the volunteers at the back of the building with the other women and children who were staying at the shelter. He instructed her to get the people out and away from the building, and covered their exit while that happened. Then he moved on.
JD found no one as he moved through several small offices, two classrooms, a playroom and a library.
Vin, on the other hand, located Biggs in the chapel, along with Raine, Jill and another woman he recognized as a volunteer from other visits. Standing just outside the room, he could hear Raine trying to talk Biggs into putting his gun down, but the dealer wasn't buying. He used the radio to signal the others and then waited for them to join him.
Raine continued to reason with the man, but Biggs was slowly growing more and more agitated.
"Sounds drunk, or maybe stoned," Josiah said softly next to Tanner's ear.
The sniper nodded and held up a flash bang grenade. The other two nodded. He pointed to himself, then JD, indicating that they would go in first and second. Josiah would secure the hallway and keep anyone else who might still be in the building out of the line of fire.
They inched closer to the door. Vin tossed in the grenade. The three women and Biggs all screamed.
Knowing Biggs' ears would be ringing, and that he would be blinded due to the quickfire chain of explosions and blinding light, Vin rolled into the room and to the right, so low he might have been sitting down, his weapon held high and stiff-armed. JD rolled through the door to the left just behind him.
Biggs squinted through eyes streaming with tears, catching a glimpse of the movement. "Stop!" he screamed, clutching Jill closer. He had turned the young woman into a shield, holding her against his chest, his left arm under her left arm and snugged tightly across her breasts. The muzzle of his Browning was pressed tightly against her head. "Stop or I'll kill her!" he cried.
"Hurt her and you're dead," JD snapped back. "Drop your gun and put your hands up. Now!"
Biggs stared through the tears. JD and Vin had their weapons turned on him, and a big man was in the hallway, covering them. He stared down the black openings at the front of the two gun barrels and cursed under his breath. "No!" he yelled. "You put down your weapons. Now! Then back out of here."
"Marty," Raine said calmly. "I want you to listen to me. These people are federal agents, and very well trained. They can kill you where you stand before you can pull that trigger. Please, put the gun down. No one has to die here."
"No!" Biggs shrieked, looking at the woman. "Tell 'em to leave!"
"Can't do that," Vin rasped. "Put the gun down and let the girl go."
"It's not gonna happen," Biggs hissed. "She's mine, and I keep what's mine!"
Josiah stepped closer to the door, a taunting expression on his face. "Not man enough to find another one? Is that it?" he asked Biggs.
"Fucker!" Biggs snapped, grinding the gun harder against Jill's head. She whimpered and pulled at his arm, but he gave her a hard jerk and she went limp, tears streaming down her face.
"I'll bet you're not a man at all," Josiah continued, inching farther across the room, away from Raine and the volunteer. As he moved, so too did Vin, positioning himself for a clear shot on the other side.
The muzzle of Biggs' gun left Jill's head, sweeping across in an arc to aim at Josiah.
Vin's weapon spoke once, like the slam of a door, and Biggs jumped back, the gun flying from his hand as he hit the wall and slid down into a broken heap.
JD and Vin both moved in, Tanner grabbing the Browning, Dunne checking Biggs. "Call an ambulance," he said and the volunteer immediately scampered for the phone.
Raine crouched down next to Biggs to do what she could. She guessed that the wound wasn't life threatening and looked up at Vin. "Damn nice shot."
The sniper grinned. "I aim to please, ma'am. I'm just sorry it had t' happen here."
She glanced over his shoulder, watching Josiah escort Jill away. "Sometimes you have to fight for peace, Vin."
"Amen t' that," he replied.
Two days later
Vin sat in Larabee's Ram, parked right behind Josiah's Suburban, waiting while Buck, Nathan and JD collected Chris and Ezra. He grinned, remembering the phone conversation with Larabee the night before.
The hospital had seen fit to place the two men in the same room for the last two days of their recuperation, and Ezra's stories were wearing thin something about a high stakes poker game and a Romanian diplomat.
Tanner shook his head, grateful he hadn't been the one confined with a chatty Ezra Standish. If he had been, Vin was certain he'd be on his way to jail for manslaughter justifiable, of course instead of out to Larabee's ranch.
The automatic doors slid open and the five men exited. Ezra looked as good as new, with the exception of the sling that still cradled his arm. He was smiling and talking. Chris, however, still looked tired and pale. Vin watched him squint against the brightness of the morning sun, then reach up to rub his temple briefly. Must be one helluva headache, he concluded.
He waited while Buck and JD headed to the parking lot. Nathan climbed into the back of the Suburban, Ezra into the front passenger seat.
Chris slid into the passenger seat next to Tanner.
"How y' feelin'?" Vin asked him.
"Better," Larabee said. "But my head feels like a flash-bang went off inside."
"I'll be sure not t' make any sudden stops," Vin promised.
"I'd appreciate it," Chris replied, gingerly pulling his seatbelt across his chest and clicking it into place.
Back at the ranch, Buck, JD and Vin gathered in the living room, the healthy members of the team again reassuring themselves that Chris was going to be all right before heading off on their assigned tasks. Buck volunteered for coffee detail, heading into the kitchen to make a pot. JD ducked out while the coffee brewed to pick up a half-dozen fresh-baked cinnamon rolls from a shop not far away. And, in the kitchen, Vin arranged the medications Larabee had been sent home with so he'd be sure to receive his pills at the appropriate times, and in the appropriate dosages.
Buck passed by on his way to get a spoon, muttering something about "anal retentive," but Tanner ignored him.
At Standish's apartment, Josiah and Nathan were doing the same for the injured undercover man.
Once JD returned the rolls, they and the coffee were quickly dispensed.
After several bites passed in comfortable silence, Chris cleared his throat and said, "I want to apologize for what happened. I honestly never meant to hurt anyone."
"Hey, stud, Ezra's gonna be as good as new," Buck replied. "And it's not like you were in your right mind at the time."
"Yeah, you were out of his mind all right," JD said.
"Gee, thanks," Chris replied dryly. "Look . I'm just trying to say I'm sorry for putting you all though that."
"We all know that, hoss," Buck said. "And don't worry, we still love you."
"Appreciate that," Chris grumbled, blushing slightly. "But if I ever have to share a room with Ezra again "
"I'll just shoot y' myself and spare ya the sufferin'," Vin finished.
The group broke into laughter.
Later that afternoon
Chris sat behind his desk, the files neatly rearranged from where he'd shoved them onto the floor while in the throes of his return to Bosnia. He nodded to himself. Cleaning up the office had felt like cleaning up his life. He'd put all the pieces back where they belonged. It really was over.
Except for one small detail.
He turned the Glock over in his hands. The M9 was back in his drawer where it belonged, but the Glock was the one piece that was still out of place. He set the weapon down and started to stand, but the man he was about to go looking for walked by.
"Vin," he called.
Tanner stopped and returned to the doorway. "Yeah, Cowboy?"
"Can you spare a minute?"
"Sure," he said, stepping inside. "What's up?"
Chris picked up the Glock and handed it to him. Vin accepted it with a nod and a thin smile.
Leaning back in his chair, Chris asked softly, "Would you have done it?"
The younger man considered the question a moment and then shrugged. "This time? No. If there's a next time can't answer that."
Chris frowned slightly. "I'm not sure I like that answer."
"Not sure I do either," Vin admitted, meeting Larabee's appraising gaze, "but that's the truth."
Another shrug and Vin dipped his head. "Part 'a my job is turnin' human beings into targets I couldn't do it t' you." He looked back up again, meeting Chris' eyes. "Could you?"
Larabee thought a moment, then grinned. "I don't know."
"Well, then, guess we're even."
Chris nodded. How could you kill a friend? He felt a chill snake down his back, and he silently prayed none of them ever had to answer that question.
Author's Note: This story first appeared in the Mag 7 zine, Let's Ride #8, published by Neon RainBow Press, Cinda Gillilan and Jody Norman, editors. When we all decided to post the stories that have appeared in the issues of Let's Ride that are more than two years old, we opted to use a generic pen name because, while Erica Michaels is the primary author of this story, she had so much help from the other folks writing for the press that it just made sense to consider the story to be written by the Neon RainBow Press Collective! Resistance was futile. So, thanks to the whole Neon Gang Dori Adams, Sierra Chaves, Dana Ely, Michelle Fortado, Patricia Grace, Deyna Greywolf, Erica Michaels, Nina Talbot, Kasey Tucker, Rebecca Wright, and Lorin and Mary Fallon Zane. Story lasted edited 10-17-2006. Art by Shiloh (firstname.lastname@example.org)