The Man in the Mirror

by Nancy W.

Warning: Major bad language alert!

Grammar Police Warning: I realize that there may be some incorrect noun useage in parts, but, it was just easier to read it without all the 'he said' 'he did' stuff. Don't smack me. LOL

Jurisprudence Alert: It's fan fic. Some of the courtroom stuff may not be 100% accurate for all jurisdictions. I hope that doesn't throw anyone completely out of the story.

Sap Warning: If you find this sappy, well, it's based on an actual event and what can I say? Sometimes, life... saps.

Courtroom of Judge Orin Travis
"Ladies and gentlemen... before I pass sentence on this young man, he has asked to address the court. Mr. Tanner, I would like to remind you to keep your comments brief. Any outbursts of any kind will result in your removal from this courtroom, is that understood?"

Judge Orin Travis noted that the seventeen-year-old sitting beside his Ivy League attorney hardly looked like the belligerent, cocky, and apparently unrepentant teen who had appeared before his bench just two weeks before. His hair was still long and scraggly, but, he'd washed it and made an attempt to comb it out. The shadow of peach-fuzz stubble was gone, and the torn jeans and stained teeshirt had been replaced with khaki slacks and a blue dress shirt, with a tie that was clearly knotted by someone who didn't quite know how to do it. The worn sneakers were still there, but overall, the improvement was noticeable, and somewhat of a surprise. Travis wondered just what kind of game this kid thought he was playing. Whatever it was, he was too old and too savvy to fall for it. Those big blue eyes might fool a lot of other juvenile court judges - in fact, judging from his record of dismissals, they probably had - but, he knew from sad experience that pretty faces sometimes hid the coldest of hearts.

Two weeks before

He was in deep shit this time. This wasn't shoplifting batteries for the Gameboy he stole. It wasn't hotwiring a car to make a beer run with Eli Joe. It wasn't spraying graffiti on school buses or piling dog poop on a sleeping homeless person. Nope. Grand theft auto. Armed robbery. Assault. Attempted kidnapping. Possession of a controlled substance with intent to sell. Felony child abuse. He'd arrived in the big time. Although, he thought the felony child abuse charge was bogus. Spoiled little fucking brat - put her on the streets with no one who gave a damn if she had food, or clothes or a warm place to sleep, and the little shit would learn real quick what 'abuse' really was. Besides, it wasn't like him and Eli Joe fucking knew the little shit was in the backseat. Fucking tinted windows. Bet her daddy was sorry he selected that option package now. That, and the fucking childproof locks. If it hadn't been for the damn child-proof locks... well, it almost made him laugh at the irony. The damn things were there to protect the kid. Ha ha. The joke was on them.

Besides, the whole thing was Eli Joe's idea, and where was the motherfucker now? In Mexico with his nana, that's where. Hiding out and probably getting fat on her chili beans and tortillas. Damn, that old witch did make a mean pot of frijoles. But, Vin Tanner didn't have a nana to run to... he hadn't had a ma since he was five, and if he ever had a father, he'd like to know who the sonofabitch was so he could track him down and beat the crap out of him. All he had were some wuss-ass foster parents who left money squirreled away all over the house and then expected him not to help himself. Dumb-ass fucks. They had tried to 'tame' him, like he was some kind of stray dog. Bought him fancy clothes, sent him to an expensive school - where he made Ds and Fs because homework sucked. Hell, school sucked. Except for English. He liked poems and stuff. He'd never tell anyone that, though. He especially liked Shakespeare. That was why he stole a copy of his Compleat Works from the school library. Hell, it wasn't like anyone else was ever going to read it. But then, 'daddy' decided he should do some 'chores' to earn enough money to pay for it. 'Chores' - like he was fucking Timmy on fucking Lassie. What a joke.

That was when him and Eli decided they'd head out to Mexico. But, even with the money he stole from his foster parents, and what Eli Joe managed to get hocking his little sister's violin, they were still short the price of two tickets to El Paso, because the violin turned out to be cheap piece of crap. Never would have known that from the way Rosella played it. That kid had some awesome talent. Too bad she'd probably end up getting knocked up at 15 like half the other girls in her neighborhood. Fuck it all, anyway.

Him and Eli Joe were gonna hitchhike to El Paso, but, then, some dick-for-brains redneck left the keys in his rust-bucket pickup truck while he went into a convenience store to pay for his gas. They just about peed themselves picturing the look on his face when he walked back out to the pump and saw air where his truck used to be. Fucking loser. The best part was, they found a loaded rifle and a couple of six-packs in a cooler behind the seat, and a nice, fat bag of pot in the glove compartment. They drove a few miles out of the city and were busy sharing a joint and taking care of those six packs when they spotted the late model black and chrome Dodge Ram cruising down the deserted highway with an overweight, balding guy behind the wheel, thinking he was so cool in his designer sunglasses and polo shirt. Yeah, that Ram looked like some sweet ride compared to the junk heap they were driving.

"I got an idea," Eli Joe said. And it seemed like a good plan - force the guy off the road and make him hand over the keys. His cell phone, too. By the time he got help and the limp-dick cops had filled out all the paperwork, him and Eli would be halfway to El Paso.

The first part was easy... Vin had pulled up alongside the truck as Eli Joe hung out the passenger window aiming the rifle at the bastard's head. When the dumb shit glanced sideways and saw the gun trained on him, well, he didn't have to be forced off the road at all. The shithead instinctively jerked the steering wheel and the passenger side tires dropped off the pavement and bogged the truck down in sand. Him and Eli Joe moved quickly, figuring the truck probably had 4-wheel drive and they didn't want to give the guy time to get moving again.

Eli Joe jumped out with the rifle and ran up to the driver's window. The guy tried to roll the window up, but Eli Joe smashed it in with the rifle butt. "Get out, motherfucker!" he shouted. "Get out now, or I'll fucking kill you!"

Vin had run over to the passenger side, and was trying to get the door open, but it was locked. He found a chunk of concrete and smashed it open, but couldn't find the release when he reached inside.

Meanwhile the truck's owner was babbling hysterically - Vin wasn't really listening - something about his wife and kid.

"Do what he says!" he shouted at the guy. He just wanted the dumb shit to move so him and Eli Joe could get the hell out of there.

"Please.... take the truck..." the driver pleaded. "Just let me get my family..."

"MOVE, FUCKER!" Eli Joe shouted, and then clubbed the man viciously in the face with the rifle butt. Vin was leaning into the cab, still trying to get the door open, when he'd looked right into the eyes of a woman in the back seat. She clutched a little girl close to her, sobbing and frantically trying to open the doors. But, the truck had those locks that kept kids from opening the doors from the inside, and problem was, the mom couldn't open them, either.

The driver slumped back in his seat, stunned by the blow from Eli Joe's gun. Somehow, Eli Joe got the door open and pulled him out, throwing him to the pavement. Eli Joe cocked the rifle, but it was heavy and he was drunk and stoned so he was having trouble aiming it. Didn't matter - Vin wasn't going to have any of that shit. He ran to the other side of the truck and pushed Eli Joe sideways. "Dude, what the fuck are you doing?!" he yelled. "We just need the fuckin' truck! We ain't doin' murder."  Eli Joe shot him an angry glare and Vin grabbed the rifle, then turned it on his cohort to show he meant business. He expected to do jail time, eventually, but not life, and not the needle. No fucking way. He'd shoot Eli Joe where he stood if he had to, and Eli Joe knew it. He turned his attention back to his victim.

"Give me the keys!" he shouted at the man, ripping the sunglasses from the his face.

Blood gushed from the wound on the driver's head as he tried to rise to his hands and knees. "Please... my family..."

From the other side of the car, the woman shrieked, "Dennis, for God's sake, give him the keys!"

Vin didn't know how she'd gotten out of the truck, but both she and the kid were now standing on the shoulder. The kid's leg was bleeding, and he realized they must have crawled out through the window he broke. The woman was short and chunky - God knew how she had managed that trick. From the looks of it, she had hit the ground face first. The kid was too scared to even cry. Been there, done that, know the feeling. Get over it.

The driver handed over his keys. "Your phones, too," Vin reminded. He walked over to the woman and held out his hand expectantly. She clutched the child close. "It's in my purse," she sobbed, nodding her head towards the backseat. He didn't bother going through the purse. He'd do that later. Might be something else in there they could use.

Vin went back to the old truck and grabbed their backpacks, flinging them into the back of the Ram. He popped open the glove compartment and shoved the bag of marijuana into the leg pocket of his pants. Eli Joe had unlocked the Ram's doors by then, and he hopped into passenger seat. Even with the truck shifted to 4-wheel drive, it took a few seconds to get it out of the sand. That was just long enough for them to realize they had seriously underestimated the owner of the truck. Vin would later learn he was an off-duty cop, and worse, he was packing in an ankle holster. As Eli Joe swung the car back onto the pavement, Vin was dimly aware of the woman screaming, "Dennis, NO!" and the kid screaming "Daddy!"

What he was most aware of, though, was that there was a bloody guy standing beside the driver's side of the truck with a gun pointed at them. "SHIT! FUCK!" he exclaimed, and raised his left arm to shield his head. Eli Joe, though, that dumb motherfucker just stomped his foot down on the gas even as the guy opened fire on them. The gun must have been a small caliber, because the bullet that hit him on the left side of his chest glanced off his ribs and didn't penetrate his chest. It hurt like a sonofabitch, though. Eli Joe was hit by a piece of flying glass when the rear view mirror shattered.

Vin remembered the following moments as complete chaos. The woman screaming at her husband, the kid wailing, the lancing pain in his side. Eli Joe had hit the brakes and tried to grab the rifle, while Vin wondered if the idiot shooting at them had stopped to think what would happen if he ran out of bullets without taking the two of them down. "I'm gonna KILL those motherfuckers!" Eli Joe spat.

Vin tightened his grip on the rifle barrel, refusing to let Eli Joe take the weapon from him. "Forget it... let's get outa here. NOW!"

Later, down the road, they laughed about it all. As luck had it, the people in the truck were on their way back from buying groceries or something, and there was plenty of food, a couple of 2-liter Cokes, and some beer in the truck, so they didn't have to stop for anything. 12 miles out of El Paso, they drove off the interstate, smoked another joint, and used charcoal lighter fluid to set fire to thirty pounds of beans in a cloth bag. In minutes, the whole truck was ablaze. After they watched it burn up, they headed back to the highway and hitched a ride into town.

It was at the border crossing that everything went to hell. Eli Joe called his nana in Juarez, and told her to come and get him. El Paso and Juarez were basically the same city, just in two different countries. She would be there in a matter of minutes. The blood from the wound on his side wasn't visible on his black teeshirt, but, the fabric was sticking to the wound and it fucking hurt like hell. He went into the men's room to clean up, and when he came out, Eli Joe was nowhere to be seen. Neither was his backpack, which had everything he owned in it. Motherfucker. He was going to fucking kill that piece of shit.

He still had the pot, so he figured he could sell it off and get some cash. He found a bunch of kids on a street corner and was about to strike up a deal when one of the ass-wipes slapped a pair of cuffs on him, shoved a Texas Ranger badge in his face, and started reciting his rights. He knew he was screwed.

+ + + + + + +

He'd spent his seventeenth birthday in jail. Even at that, it had beat the fuck out of some birthdays he'd had. His foster dad had brought him a bag of home made chocolate chip cookies and some Chinese take-out, and they played a couple of games of chess, which they both sucked at. It would have been a fucking family picnic, except his foster mom had told him she would not visit him in jail, ever, and they did not want Damien to see him behind bars. Damien was their own kid, six years old, and the dumb little shit practically worshipped at his feet. Damien thought Vin Tanner was the coolest person ever, always wanting to do what he did, and be like him. Little turd loved having a big brother. What the hell kind of people named their kid after the devil? Didn't they see that movie? Shitheads. Damien drew him a picture, though. It was supposed to be when the two of them went to the Zoom-a-Rama to ride go-carts. It looked like a bunch of scribbles with wheels. Little shit couldn't draw for crap. He asked for some tape so he could hang it in his cell, but they wouldn't give him any. Maybe they figured he'd dig a hole behind it, like the guy in Shawshank Redemption. Dumb fucks.

Anyhow, here he was in court, again, facing yet another judge. His foster parents had hired some wise-ass lawyer who had managed to get him remanded to juvie, even though he could have been tried as an adult. Damn lawyer was probably earning fifty bucks a minute, so that was the least he could do.

His only satisfaction was that Eli Joe had a warrant out on him now, and so he was stuck in Mexico. The cocksucker didn't even speak Spanish, and when his nana got sick of him, where was he gonna go then? Fuck you, Eli Joe.

The judge wasn't the only person he would be facing today. He was aware that behind him, the seats were filling up with people. His foster parents would be there. His caseworker, Nettie Wells, would be there. And, the family from the truck would be there. Everyone would get to tell their story about how rotten Vin Tanner was. Like a spoiled onion - you could peel away the layers, but the inside was just as bad as the outside. Why did they even bother? Shit.

+ + + + + + +

The testimony dragged on and on and on and on. He got to tell his life story on the stand, and he made damn sure to sound as pitiful and wounded as he could. How his mama had died when he was 5, and then how he'd gone into a string of foster homes. Some were not so bad, but he only talked about the ones that were nothing more than a place to sleep.

He'd run away from the last one, after his foster 'mom' busted a beer bottle on his head for not loading up the dishwasher the right way. He had put up his hand to defend himself and had popped the fucking bitch in the eye, and she called Social Services to come and get him. It really was an accident - if he had hit her on purpose, her fucking rotten teeth would have been coming out her ears - but after that, he had to go to therapy for his 'anger issues.' Stupid. Who the fuck wouldn't be angry at having no kin, no real home, and nothing of his own but a couple of pairs of worn-out jeans and a ratty hand-me-down jacket? He saw what other kids had. What the fuck did they do to deserve it? Not damn fucking shit, that's what.

He wrote a poem as part of his "therapy." Sappy piece of crap about how it felt to be scared and alone at night, and knowing there was no one to chase the monster out from under the bed or out of the closet - just lying there waiting for it to jump out and eat the meat off your bones. The shrink had shown it to a friend of his, an English professor at the university. Him and his wife - or, as the old fart would insist - His wife and he - had applied to be his foster parents.

Glenn and Linda McNabb were a couple of retro hippies who actually thought he was redeemable, that he had 'potential.' He'd been diagnosed with dyslexia when he was 8 or 9, so after that, no one had really expected him to do shit in school, and that was just fine with him. But, the McNabbs, they had to go and put him in some tutoring program at the university. Would have been a total fucking waste, except he did finally learn how to read. Really read, not just hope he recognized the words on the page so he could say them aloud, without really understanding their meaning. He still couldn't spell for crap, but, that's what computers were for. They gave him audiobooks of the high school reading list, so he wouldn't look like a complete asshole who didn't know shit when they pulled some strings and got him into some fancy-ass private school. At least there he didn't have other kids laughing at his crappy clothes, because they wore uniforms and everyone looked fucking stupid.

His caseworker, Nettie Wells, had been all for this crap, so he went along with it, because you don't want to piss off your caseworker. He'd learned that early on. He had written a poem for her, too, 'A Hero's Heart.' That old bat actually liked him for some reason, but she'd told him straight out that there were not that many families willing to take older foster kids, and that he shouldn't screw up this thing with the McNabbs. He wondered what she thought of him now. Like he gave a fuck.

Glen McNabb took the stand and described him as 'troubled.' That was a fucking understatement - although he was a bit surprised when 'daddy' revealed that they knew he was stealing from them, knew he was hanging out with Eli Joe when he said he was at the gym or library, knew he thought they were a couple of suckers for taking him in.

Okay, that last part was a cheap shot. He'd never thought they were suckers. But, what kind of dumb fucks trusted a kid like him with their money, and their house? Hell, they'd let him get a driver's license and had let him drive their car a few times. And for Christ's sake, even their kid? They had left him alone with Damien lots of times. How fucking stupid was that? He could have been some kind of sex pervert for all they knew.

Except, there was the video tapes. Daddy-kins apologized to him before showing it to the court. Those motherfuckers had hidden a camera on top of a book shelf in the den, and had filmed him alone with Damien. Playing with Legos or some other dumb ass thing, because they didn't allow video games and the TV had all the good channels blocked. The worst thing on it was them tipping the couch over playing pirates. Well, what did they fucking expect? Damien was just a little shit.

"Despite what he's done," McNabb said, "I still believe there is a good boy in there somewhere. It's as though he's built a wall around himself... Someone just has to find a way to get through it. I thought maybe my wife and I... our family... could make a difference. I'm sorry that we didn't."

Well, now what the hell was he supposed to think about that? Fuck it, anyway.

Then came the part that really sucked, when they put that cop on the stand. Tafoya was his name. Dennis Tafoya. His wife was Gloria and the kid's name was Melissa. Melissa had big eyes and dark, curly hair. Everyone was going to think he was a bastard who abused her. Fuck. He didn't do nothing to that little shit. Not a goddamn thing. What kind of motherfucker beats up a kid? Like he didn't know - there had been enough of them in his life, that was for sure. He was no fucking child abuser, but these dumb fucks were going to think that because he was charged with abusing this Melissa brat when he never touched her. Well, shit on all of them.

"I don't remember pulling my gun. I guess I was kind of dazed."

"If there wasn't blood in my eyes, my aim would have been better."

"I thought that we - me, my wife, and my little girl - I thought we were going to die."

Yeah, well if Eli Joe had his way, you would have. Although, he figured as rotten as Eli Joe was, maybe he wouldn't have killed the kid. Maybe.

At least his lawyer got a turn at the guy.

"Mr. Tafoya.... at any time, did my client threaten you?"

"He didn't have to," Tafoya scoffed bitterly.

"Is it not true that, at one point, my client stopped Eli Joe Chavez from shooting you?"

"What does he want, a medal?" was Tafoya's reply.

Judge Travis thumped his gavel. "Mr. Tafoya, please reply to the question."

"Yes," Tafoya said reluctantly. "He grabbed the rifle away from him."

"Do you think Mr. Chavez intended to shoot you with that rifle?"

"Yes. Yes, I do."

And he would have, too. I stopped him. I saved your fucking ass.

Next came endless crap about how the guy had been put on desk duty while he underwent counseling. How his wife was afraid to leave the house alone now. How the kid had nightmares and refused to ride in the car with the windows closed, no matter how cold it was.

The wife took the stand, and spent half the time blubbering her eyes out, about how traumatized she had been. Blah blah blah.

Just when he thought he'd blow his lunch if he had to listen to one more word, they recessed for the day.

He was being led out of court by a deputy when his foster dad met them in the hall. "Can we have a minute?" he asked the deputy.

The deputy nodded, but kept his arm tightly on Vin's bicep.

"Vin... I don't know if this is a good idea, but Damien doesn't understand all this. He thinks...."

"VIN!" a little voice yelled from down the hallway.

Aw hell! Why the fuck had they brought the kid here?

Damien's little legs closed the distance between them in no time, and suddenly a pair of little arms were wrapped around his waist. Nothing he could do about it. His hands had been cuffed together for trip back to the jail, so returning the gesture was out of the question.

He squatted down to eye-level with Damien, shrugging off the Deputy's hand, which instantly went to his gun and rested there, threateningly.

"Hey, rugrat, what's up?" he said to the little boy.

Damien looked down at his wrists. "Are those handcuffs?" he asked in awe.

"Yup, 'fraid so."

"Can I see them?"

He held up his wrists, his cheeks flushing. It was fucking damn hot in there or something.

Damien's big hazel eyes looked soulful. "Do they hurt?"

"Nah, they don't hurt."

Small arms encircled his neck, almost throwing him off balance. "I don't want you to go to jail, Vin," Damien's voice broke into a sob. "I want you to come home!" Then, he was crying for real.

Crying for him. Damn, little kids were so fucking dumb sometimes.

Damien's father picked him up and the Deputy jerked him to his feet. "Time to go."

He stared at the parquet tiles on the floor. He didn't want to look into Damien's eyes.

"'Bye, Vin," Damien sniffed.

"Yeah," he said softly, and then turned and tried to smile at the little brat. "See ya around, rugrat."

As he was lead away, they passed the one-way mirror that allowed people to see out of the courtroom, but prevented anyone from seeing in. His foster dad had brought him clothes to wear to court, and his lawyer had told him to shave and wash and comb his hair, but fuck that shit. He'd wear whatever the hell he wanted and look however he liked. What he saw now in the mirror was a skinny, unkempt kid in ratty jeans and a dirty, faded teeshirt. A little piece of crap who was never going to amount to shit.

Behind the reflection was Damien, his head on his father's shoulders, still crying.

+ + + + + + +

Having the cop and his wife on the stand was bad enough, but he couldn't believe it when their asshole attorney made that little kid get up there. Made her tell about how she was asleep in the back seat of the truck, and her mother shaking her awake. How she heard 'mean voices' and then saw the 'bad man' hit her daddy. When she told about his face being all bloody, she looked like she wanted to cry, but she didn't. Tough little brat.

"What happened after that, Melissa?"

"Another bad man broke the window and tried to come in."

"Were you scared?"

"I was real scared. I thought he was going to shoot us."

"Then what happened?"

"The man went away, and my  mommy pushed me out the window. A broken piece was cutting my leg, and I yelled, but she kept pushing me."

"You hurt your leg?"


"Can you show us?"

The kid stepped from behind the witness stand and rolled up the leg of her pink jeans. A jagged scar ran down the length of her calf. It was the kind of scar that would never go away. All her life, she'd see it and remember. He ran his fingers over the spot where a pink scar had formed on his own chest, and thought of how close Tafoya had come to doing some serious damage. He couldn't blame the shithead, not really. Hell, Melissa was the same age as Damien. Fuck, if that had been Damien in the car, and he'd been that fat cop, him and Eli Joe would have each gotten a bullet through the ear. He could do it, too. When he was 10, he'd been placed with the Beverly Hillbillies - bunch of trailer trash losers - but the guy had taught him to shoot, and he never, ever missed.

"Let the record show that this injury required seventy-one sutures," the lawyer said.

Jesus H. Christ, why don't you just shove my fuckin' nose in it?

"Melissa, do you see the bad men here today?"

"One of them."

"Can you show us?"

A small finger pointed directly at him. Big, brown eyes stared directly into his. He looked away, seeing his reflection in the polished mahogany of the judge's bench. A fucked up little piece of crap who was probably going to jail because that was where he belonged.

Melissa - that little shit kept looking at him.

"Do you have something you'd like to say to Mr. Tanner?" the lawyer asked her.

Vin looked up, surprised anyone cared about a kid's opinion. Surprised the court allowed her to stare at him like that. Why the fuck didn't his lawyer object?

"No," Melissa sighed. "I just guess his mama never told him not to do those bad things."

That's a fucking lie! She was a good ma. She took care of me right. She loved me....

He saw himself again, this time in the glass surface of the defense table.

He wondered what his ma would think if she could see him now.

Courtroom of Judge Orin Travis

The young man stepped forward, eyes cast downward. The prosecution hadn't been able to make the armed robbery, kidnapping or assault charges stick, and the felony child abuse had been reduced to child endangerment, but possession with intent, and the grand theft auto - especially since it involved a carjacking - were enough to send him away for a good long time, and he knew it.

"I jus' wanna say..." He cleared his throat. "I just wanna say... that... I'm sorry for what I done." Hesitantly, he raised his head, until finally, he was staring directly at the court. Travis couldn't be sure, but he thought he actually detected a note of sincerity.

"I wanna apologize to Miz Nettie, and to my foster parents for bein' so much trouble. I know you all tried to do right by me, an' I jus' blew it off like some dumb-a... dumb jerk. I ain't gonna say I don't deserve this, 'cause the fact is, I reckon I do.

"Most of all, I want to apologize to the Tafoya family. Ain't nothin' I can say to make up for what I done. Ain't no way I can ever make it right." He sniffed and wiped at his eyes. If he was putting on an act, it was a damn good one.

"I just want you to know..." he looked directly at the Tafoyas. ".... that I'm sorry for what I done ta ya... I mean that.... I'm sorry."

Dennis and Gloria Tafoya stared at him, their eyes cold, their faces expressionless.

Melissa, seated between them, glanced at them both, then looked directly at Tanner. "It's okay," she said. "I'm not mad at you anymore."

Tanner stared at her for a long moment, trying to find his voice. When he did, it was little more than a whisper. "Th... thanks."

He hung his head, and returned to his seat.

Melissa looked about her uncertainly, not sure if she'd done or said something wrong. Travis looked directly at her. "You are quite the young lady," he smiled reassuringly.

She smiled back.

Vin Tanner's shoulders sagged, his head bent so low it almost touched the table in front of him. Travis couldn't be sure, but it looked as though, just maybe, the 'wall' Glen McNabb had spoken of had actually been breached and was crumbling right before his eyes. Time would tell.

"Vin Tanner, in just 8 short months, you are legally going to be a man. I know that your life has not been an easy one, but, that is not, and never will be, an excuse for you to inflict suffering and harm on others. I know for a fact that Nettie Wells has done everything she can for you, trying to find placements for you that were at least safe. I know the McNabbs believed in your potential, and tried to help you live up to it. You cannot look back and say that you never had a chance. They were your chance, and you did not avail yourself of the opportunities they offered. This little girl..." He indicated Melissa. "... has forgiven you when you have no right to expect anything but contempt. That, too, should count for something.

"What I am trying to say is, the man that you will become is now entirely in your own hands, Vin Tanner. Your fate is, and will be, of your own making from here on out. Do you understand that?"

"Yes, your honor."

"I hereby sentence you to five years in the custody of the state of Texas. You will be transferred from here to the Clearwater Minimum Security Correctional Facility where you will remain until your 19th birthday. While there, you will complete your high school diploma. While there, you will get counseling for any substance abuse issues you may have. You will get counseling for any psychosocial issues you may have. While there, you will work in one of the prison shops and what money you earn will be paid to the Tafoyas in restitution. Furthermore, you will cooperate in these efforts one hundred percent. At that time, if you have complied with all of these terms, you will be released and your record will be sealed. If you fail to comply with any of these terms, you will be remanded to the Texas State Penitentiary to there serve the remainder of your time. Do you understand this sentence as it has been handed down?"

"Yes, your honor," the young man said softly. "I do."

Seven Years Later

Chris Larabee tossed the resume casually towards District Attorney Orin Travis. "He looks like a fucking GQ model."

"You read GQ?" Travis stared over the rims of his glasses.

"You know what I mean, Judge. I already got one pretty boy with Ezra. I need someone who can handle himself in a tactical situation."

Travis picked up the file. "One thing I have learned is never to be fooled by a pretty face. Look at his record... Ex-Army Ranger, trained sniper, spotless military record, got his college diploma while still on active duty - that must have taken considerable effort and determination."

"Says here he has a learning disability."

"A slight one - one that he has worked hard to overcome. His college degree is for real. I checked it out."

"He has a bachelor's degree in History," Larabee snorted.

Travis glared at him. "So do I."

"Okay, what the hell... he can't be any worse than the 18-year-old kid with the basket-weaving degree from Harvard."

"He's 20 and it's a Master's in computer science from MIT."

"Okay, okay!" Larabee raised his hands in resignation. "I'll interview this Tanner kid. The brainiac, too. What the hell."

+ + + + + + +

Waiting sucked. What if this Chris Larabee didn't want him on his team? He was hand-picking his agents, after all. Some kind of special task force with the ATF. There wasn't going to be any room for slackers. What if he took one look and rejected him on the spot, without giving him a chance to prove himself?

Well, so what if he did? It wasn't like this was his only option. He'd heard back from the Texas Rangers and the New Mexico State Police, too. But damn, "Federal Agent" - he liked the sound of that.

What the hell was he thinking applying for this job? Vin Tanner, a federal-fucking-agent? Nettie would fall backwards in her rocking chair. If she ever sat down in one to begin with. He'd have to call her, whether he made it or not. He owed her that much. Old biddy had never given up on him, even when he was behind bars.

Glen and Linda McNabb hadn't, either. They were still in touch - he owed them, too. Hell, if it wasn't for them, he would have been tried as an adult, and then probably would have been killed or worse in prison. If it hadn't been for them, he would have never learned to... well... learn. And Damien - little shit was 13 now, and still worshipped at his feet. Still wanted to do everything he did and be like him. Federal agent - that beat the hell out of barbed wire and an orange jumpsuit as far as 'role model' went.

Glen had sent him a newspaper clipping about Melissa Tafoya. She'd won some kind of science fair award, so he figured he hadn't managed to completely screw her life up, and he was glad for that. Someday, maybe he'd tell her what he had only recently admitted to himself - that he probably never would have lived up to his sentence agreement with Travis had it not been for him hearing her words over and over again in his head. That little voice saying, "I'm not mad at you." What the fuck had he done to deserve that? Hell if he'd ever know. He was one damn lucky sonofabitch. Even if he blew this interview and didn't get this job, he'd still be one damn lucky sonofabitch. He could live with disappointment. He had long since figured out that the world didn't owe him a squat, especially considering how things could have turned out. Hell, Eli Joe had ended up serving a 30-year sentence for manslaughter. That could have just as easily been him.

He glanced at the guy next to him. Some geeky-looking kid with black hair falling over his eyes and a suit right off the rack at JC Penney's.

Right. Like he should talk.

"Vin Tanner." He held out his hand.

"John Dunne... they call me JD."

"Here for an interview?"

"Yeah, with Chris Larabee. I hear he's taking only the best. I'm kinda nervous."

"Ain't you a little young?" Kid looked about 15 - and he was a little shit, too.


Honest enough. Not quick to take offense. Had to admire that.

The door opened. He was expecting a receptionist or something, but it was Larabee himself. He recognized him from the personnel photos at the security desk.

"Tanner!" he said, unsmiling.

"Good luck," the kid whispered.

"Yeah, you, too."

+ + + + + + +

He was totally screwed.

He knew he'd be interviewed by not only Larabee, but the other members of his team.

What he hadn't expected was to come face to face with Orin Travis again after all these years.

Utterly and completely screwed.

"Sit down, Tanner," Larabee gestured towards a chair. He introduced everyone. Standish with the fancy suit. Older guy, Sanchez. Black guy, Jackson. Tall guy with a mustache, Wilmington. And, Orin Travis.

Aw hell, might as well get it out in the open. "You remember me, Judge? We... uh... met before."

Travis scratched his chin thoughtfully, "Hmmmm..... have we? .... I'm sure it will come to me." Their eyes locked. "I never forget a face."


Screwed, screwed, screwed.

But, then, Travis winked at him and said nothing. Abso-fucking-lutely nothing.

He didn't get it.

"Okay, let's get started," Larabee moved on. "It says here that you qualified for the US Olympic rifle team..."

Their images were reflected in the room's glass partition. Five ATF agents, a federal judge and Vin Tanner, still a bit scruffy and looking not-quite-right in a coat and tie.

This time, though, he was able to look back at man in the mirror.

The End