MAIN CHARACTERS: Chris, Vin, Ezra
Editor's Note: The original version of this story first appeared in the Mag 7 zine, Let's Ride #10, 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 Michelle Fortado and Erica Michaels are the primary authors of this story, they 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, Dani Martin, Erica Michaels, Karson Raine, Nina Talbot, Kacey Tucker, Rebecca Wright, and Lorin and Mary Fallon Zane. Story lasted edited 6-6-2008. Art by Shiloh(firstname.lastname@example.org)
He knew they were being hunted; he could feel it. He had no idea which direction the attack would come from, but he knew it would come - swiftly and deadly.
He stopped, crouching down, looking again at the tracks they had been following - at least, he thought they were the same tracks; he hoped they were. Above him and his companion the sun shone brightly, but not too hotly in the early-afternoon sky. That meant that they only had a few hours left to find their target... and neutralize him, preferably before he neutralized them.
Turning, he watched as his blond companion knelt, studying the signs a little farther up the trail.
He straightened and walked over to the shade, leaning against a pine tree and drawing a deep breath. Why was he so anxious? The tracks were old. "It appears we have lost the real trail, don't you agree?"
Larabee stood from where he was carefully fingering the tracks he had been examining and checked the weapon he carried, and then looked over at him, becoming aware of his slightly mocking stare. "You find this whole thing funny?"
"Funny? No... But it's obvious we're following old tracks. The ones from two days ago, I'd guess."
Larabee shook his head. "Two hours ago is more like it. These are fresh."
That caused his eyebrows to climb. "I beg to differ, those tracks are old."
Larabee sighed and shook his head sadly. It was obvious the blond was disappointed in him. Lifting his weapon so he was ready, Larabee headed into the trees.
Hurrying to catch up, Ezra fell into step beside his friend. Given the man's cautious expression, he knew Larabee thought the impending attack could occur at any moment. But he was sure those tracks were old... weren't they?
Doubt began to infect his certainty and he lifted the weapon he was carrying and glanced around at the thick woods they were moving through. This was all part of a test, one that the target of their ongoing investigation had arranged for them to participate in. If they passed, they would then be welcomed into Harlan Wilds' inner circle, a feat they had been attempting to achieve for over eight months.
Harlan Mortimer Wilds was a millennialist, a man who believed the arrival of the year 2000 would mark the beginning of the "End Times," provided, of course, Wilds and the others who thought like him were able to overthrow the Zionist controlled government currently in power in Washington DC. And, given the man's careful acquisition of a huge stockpile of weapons, and his training as an industrial chemist, that very same government had decided it might be a good idea if the ATF found out just what Mr. Wilds' ultimate plans might be.
In an effort to carry out that mission, they had tried to gain entrance into Wilds' inner circle through a variety of means. Unfortunately, they had gotten nowhere, until, eight months ago, Larabee had sent in yet another member of Team Seven, and he had made an impression on Wilds - a good one, apparently, since, through him, he and Larabee had managed to make it to this test of their survival skills - expertise Wilds believed every "man" ought to possess.
"Do you really know anything about tracking?" he asked Larabee, or rather Christopher Lawson, as the blond was known to Wilds and his followers. "It seems to me that we could walk for weeks out here and never find him, or he us."
"You keep running off at the mouth like this and I suspect you'd be right," Larabee grumbled, his gaze sweeping over the terrain.
Ezra lowered his voice and continued. "You might not believe this, but I have done things like this before."
"Sure, ya have," Larabee replied, his tone in marked contrast to his words. "Now, would ya shut up and start looking?"
"There is nothing to look at," he grouched. "Those were old tracks; he's no where near here."
"They were fresh," Larabee countered. "He's here... somewhere."
"Would you care to place a wager on that?"
The certainty in the man's voice forced him to grip his weapon a little more tightly. It was true this wasn't exactly what he would call his "element," but he had been forced to endure a few of these kinds of tests over the course of his undercover work. But, he had to admit, Wilds seemed more intent on testing him than Larabee. Perhaps it was simply the fact that Larabee, or Lawson more accurately, looked more the part of a survivalist. As for himself, he knew he would never look as comfortable in denim and flannel as his coworkers did...
An ear-splitting war cry rent the relative silence of the woods and he saw a flash - something diving for Larabee, hitting him and carrying him to the ground even as he yelled, "Look out!"
In a blink of his eyes, Ezra found himself staring at the business end of the weapon held in his adversary's hands.
"Bang!" the attacker barked. "You're dead."
Ezra huffed out a breath and shook his head in amazement. Larabee had been right after all, the tracks had been fresh. He really ought to leave this wilderness stuff to the others. He was clearly at his best in a more... urban setting.
Vin grinned up at him, his eyes dancing with amusement. "What's the matter? Y' lose a bet?"
Ezra shot Tanner - now Vincent Tower - a sheepish look as he said, "Luckily your attack was premature and Mr. Lawson and I had not settled on the exact nature of our wager."
"No need t' use the aliases," Vin told them as he grinned down at Larabee, who was still trying to catch his breath. "Just the three of us out here."
That triggered a glare from the blond. "No one's watchin'... and you..."
"Nailed your ass but good, old man," Vin finished for him.
"Fuck you... Tanner," Chris replied, shoving the man off him.
Vin was on his feet, his hand held out to help Larabee up, but the grin never left his face, and the twinkle never left his eyes.
After a slight hesitation, Chris reached out and grabbed the sniper's hand, letting Vin pull him to his feet. He gasped slightly as he felt a muscle protest the rough treatment of earlier.
Vin frowned. "Y' all right?"
Chris nodded and looked over at Ezra, saying, "What'd I tell you."
Standish shook his head. "Well, Mr. Tanner, it appears you're more talented than I ever suspected," he said, a slight grin on his face.
"How's that?" Tanner asked, already getting the feeling he was walking into something he probably shouldn't.
"Going around and leaving old tracks like that..." Ezra concluded.
Vin grinned back. "Yep, it's tricky all right, but I'm damn good at it."
"Humble, too," Larabee muttered under his breath before adding, "Let's get this over with."
Vin took a couple of steps back, his arms swinging out to his sides in a gesture of surrender - or perhaps martyrdom.
With speed neither man suspected, Larabee snapped his weapon up and pulled the trigger, twice.
Tanner's body shook with the impacts and he groaned, shooting Larabee an annoyed glare before looking down at the two splotches of bright yellow paint that now decorated the front of his shirt. "Y' didn't have to shoot me twice," he said plaintively.
Ezra lifted his weapon and added a burst of bright orange paint to the man's chest.
"Sonuvabitch!" Vin yelped. "That hurts y' know!"
Chris snickered as he started off, saying, "Come on, Rambo, let's go tell Wilds we passed."
"Passed m' ass," Tanner grouched as he trudged after the man. "Next time 'm gonna shoot ya both first... in the ass."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
A few hours later Vin lead the way into a large living room where Wilds waited, along with four of his closest friends. The man rose from his chair to meet them.
Harlan Wilds stood a couple of inches over six feet tall, with broad shoulders and narrow hips. Being an avid runner, he was slender, his general appearance reminding some who saw him of Chuck Connors in his Rifleman days. Wilds had thick, dark hair, although it was beginning to turn silver at the temples. His eyes were light, and an unusual amber color that caught people's attention.
He looked over the three men, his gaze coming to rest on Tanner. "So, Vincent, how did they do?"
"Took 'em a little longer than I expected, but they were able t' tag me."
"Both of them?"
"Yes, sir," Vin replied.
Wilds nodded thoughtfully, then looked the two men over once again. "So, you've been trying to get my attention, gentlemen, and now you have. You see, I value Vincent's opinion, and he tells me you would be valuable additions to my... circle of friends."
"Well, we appreciate that, Mr. Wilds," Chris said.
The man nodded, then asked, "Did you get something to eat?"
"We did, sir, at the common mess," Vin replied, walking over to the wet bar and stepping behind it. He grabbed three glasses from the shelves on the wall and filled them with beer that was on tap. Setting them out, he looked over at Wilds and asked, "I get something for ya, Mr. Wilds?"
"No, thank you, Vincent, I already have a drink." He smiled. "Well, Mr. Lawson, Mr. Styles, since you've... graduated, I'd like to invite you to join me and a few others for a game of poker." Looking over at Vincent, he added, "You, too, Vincent."
Tanner nodded. "Sure."
"We'd be delighted," Ezra replied as he walked over and picked up one of the beers for himself and one for Larabee. Tanner claimed the third. Now this was something he could understand more than running around in the woods, looking at old-looking new tracks.
"This way, then, gentlemen," Wilds said, gesturing to the doorway at the far end of the room. The others in the room, and the three agents, followed him.
"We're real honored y' asked us along t' your poker game, Mr. Wilds," Vin said as they stepped into a room that had been specifically set up to host these games. The four men took seats at the table.
Wilds turned to look at the undercover agents. "I think you'll enjoy yourselves. I play with a real nice group of people; your kind of people."
Which Larabee knew meant that the others all shared Wilds' twisted version of reality. He sat down first, Vin and Ezra taking the remaining two empty seats that were left at the table.
Larabee recognized Wilds right-hand man, Dennis Bishop. Bishop was a former Green Beret and a well-known weapons expert who lead pro-gun rallies and shooting workshops all over the West and Midwest. Chris thought the other men looked familiar, but he wasn't exactly sure who they were. Maybe Ezra or Vin might recognize them. He knew Standish would be getting covert pictures of the men as they played. If they didn't find out who they were over the course of the game, the others would be able to track them down later using the images.
As they all settled, a woman swept into the room. Like her husband, Marybeth Wilds had thick red-brown hair that was just beginning to show the first hints of silver. Her clothing reminded Larabee of the styles Mrs. Anderson wore when he'd watched reruns of Leave it to Beaver while growing up. Her hazel eyes were merry, though, and she smiled easily.
"Good evening, gentlemen," she greeted them. "I baked a couple of pies this afternoon, so I need to know if you'd prefer apple or peach."
The men seated at the table each told her their preferences, and she smiled and left them to begin their game, promising to return shortly with their desserts.
Within minutes chips had been purchased, cards were being dealt out and the game began...
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
"Your bet, Judge," Wilds said as he leaned back in his chair.
The stern-looking man weighed his hand carefully and then shook his head. "I'm out."
"To you, Sheriff," Wilds said.
Chris shifted slightly in his seat, remembering who the "Judge" was - Daniel Peters, retired superior court jurist. They had known Wilds' connections within the powerful in the state were influential, but he'd had no idea they would be so open about their association with Wilds. Luckily, Peters had retired from the bench before Travis had recruited him to create Team Seven or their cover might have already been blown.
The sheriff, a clean-cut, efficient-looking man in his mid-forties glanced around the table, taking a quick inventory of the expressions of the other players.
"I'll see you, Harlan, and raise you five." He tossed in his chips.
"Mr. Lawson?" Wilds asked.
Chris offered a sly grin as he said, "Well, I don't believe I'd care to take on the sheriff. I'm out, too."
Ezra shot Larabee a less than approving glance, but remained silent.
"Yep," Vin agreed, "sounds like he's got a fist full 'a trouble there. I fold."
"Mr. Styles?" Wild asked.
"By me," Ezra replied.
"By me, too," the man replied, looking disappointed.
"And me as well, Andrew," Wilds added. "It looks like you win the first pot of the night."
The sheriff broke into a warm smile as he raked the chips in. He glanced at the three newcomers and added, "Boys, I think I'm going to like having you around - seems to have brought me a little luck for a change."
Before any of them could reply, Mrs. Wilds returned, pushing a small serving cart that held the slices of pie, several coffee mugs and a silver urn filled with coffee. "So, who won the first hand?" she asked them.
"Sheriff Reeves," Wilds replied.
"First time for everything," the man added with a grin.
An older man stepped into the room and asked, "Would anyone like another drink?"
Peters nodded. "Another whiskey, Jennings. Thank you."
The others all declined and the man left to fetch the judge his drink.
Marybeth Wilds set the slices out on a sideboard, along with the coffee mugs, coffee and condiments. "Boys, you can come and help yourselves whenever you're ready."
Wilds stood and walked over to the woman, giving her a kiss on the cheek. "Smells wonderful, Mother."
She smiled back at him, then returned to the serving cart and pushed it out.
The men stood, fetching their pie and coffee, which they carried back to the table. When they were seated again, Wilds looked to another of the men and said, "Your deal, Matthew."
A small man, Matthew Helms, began to deal. Ezra knew Helms was a banker, the CFO for one of the largest state branches.
Conversation began slowly, but then picked up, although it was mostly speculation on the damage Y2K might yield and the Republican prospects for the upcoming elections in the state.
Nothing overtly threatening was discussed, but then Chris hadn't expected the men to open up in front of them this soon, but he was glad they had. Maybe they would be able to determine Wilds' target sooner rather than later.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The sun had set several hours ago, but the game continued, each of the men winning a few of the larger pots over the course of the evening so that the chips were about evenly distributed, although Ezra and Judge Peters were slightly ahead of the others and Dennis Bishop lagged slightly behind.
The bartender, Jennings, and Marybeth Wilds came in at regular intervals to provide them with fresh drinks and other goodies.
Checking his latest hand, Chris shook his head and said, "Afraid I'm going to have to let you take it, Judge."
Peters smiled and scooped the pile of chips over to him. "Well, it appears you boys are luckier hunting than at poker."
"If a little slow," Wilds added with a chuckle.
"Man wants people who can track and hunt, we do our best," Chris replied.
"What else do you gentlemen do?" Helms asked.
"Sir?" Ezra questioned.
"When you're not hunting," the banker clarified.
"Ah," Larabee replied, "well, that depends... on what needs to be done. We're... flexible."
The men chuckled.
"That's good to hear," Peters replied. "You never know what you might be called upon to do in a time of need."
"Well, from what Tower here tells me, you boys are good at about everything," Bishop added, sounding a little less excited about the men than the others.
"Gentlemen," Wilds interrupted, "are we here to talk or to play poker? I believe it's your deal, Mr. Styles."
"I believe you're right, Mr. Wilds," Ezra replied smoothly, accepting the deck from Harlan. He started to shuffle the cards, saying, "Let's play a little five card"
Ezra stopped, a frown appearing on his face.
"Something wrong?" the sheriff asked.
Ezra shuffled the cards again and then intuitively weighed the deck in the palm of his hand. His frown grew deeper.
"What is it?" Wilds asked, his expression half-curious and half-annoyed over the delay.
"Sir, I'm very sorry to have to say this, but this deck, it feels... a little short," Ezra said.
The players exchanged looks, none of them overly grave, but all of them clearly interested.
"If you gentlemen wouldn't mind?" Ezra asked, glancing around at the men at the table.
"Go ahead, Ethan," Vin put in.
Ezra quickly began to run a fast count, ending with, "...forty-nine, fifty, fifty-one..." And he was out of cards.
The men exchanged looks again, and this time their expressions were more serious.
Marybeth Wilds stepped into the room at that moment, stopping at the table and asking, "Is there something wrong, boys?"
"It seems our deck is a card short," Harlan told her. "Nothing you need to concern yourself about, Mother."
She smiled at him, then bent over and checked under the table. She squatted down and reached under it. Standing, she placed a card on the table, asking, "Is this the one that's missing?"
The men looked at the ace of hearts, no one knowing just what to say.
"It was right there under the table," she said brightly. "Didn't anyone look?"
"Under any particular chair?" Judge Peters asked her.
She frowned slightly as she looked around the table only to find the men's expressions coldly expectant. "Well, no, not really. It was in the middle, really."
"Card could have been there for a while," Judge Peter allowed, beginning to dismiss the incident.
"No," Helms said, shaking his head, "I remember that card being played about ten minutes ago."
"Might've fallen on the floor on the last shuffle," Harlan offered with a dismissive shrug.
"Or someone could have dumped it there when the deck turned up light," Sheriff Reeves countered.
"Now, boys, this is just a friendly game of cards," Wilds scolded them.
"Least we thought it was," Chris added, checking each of the men in turn and trying to decide who he thought might be ballsy enough to try and cheat in this company.
"Well, even if someone was cheating," Ezra said into the silence that followed Larabee's comment, "they aren't doing a very good job at it, given that we all have about the same amount of chips as when we started."
That broke the tension at the table and the men chuckled, but they still eyed each other a little suspiciously, an undercurrent the ATF agents didn't quite understand flowing around them.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
As the three agents walked back to the cabin they were sharing on Wilds' property, Larabee quietly asked Ezra, "You see who it was?"
"No, I didn't," Standish replied. "If someone was cheating - and I'm not convinced anyone actually was - I didn't see any signs of it until I felt the deck come up short. It is possible, I suppose, that it was simply an accident."
"Judge Peters was the only one who won enough to make cheating worthwhile," Larabee commented.
"I've known people who have to cheat in order to stay even," Ezra countered.
"Maybe so," Vin replied, "but did you get the feelin' we were missin' something back there?"
Chris nodded. "There's more going on here than Wilds building himself an army to fight for the End Times."
"If that is the case," Ezra said softly, "we need to discover what. We cannot prepare for what we don't know is coming."
The other two nodded their agreement, but the question was... how?
"Wilds wants me t' take you boys out again tomorrow, work on your trackin' skills," Vin said. "Also wants all of us to do some explosives training with Bishop."
"Wonderful," Ezra replied with a sigh. Before they reached their cabin, which they were sure was bugged, he passed on what he knew about the banker, Matthew Helms, and Chris did the same concerning Judge Peters.
Vin added that Andrew Reeves was the local sheriff, and that he'd turned a blind eye to the weapons Wilds was known to be stockpiling on his estate. Being one of Wilds' supporters, the reason for that oversight was no longer an open question.
Once at the cabin they were careful to use their aliases as they prepared for sleep, each of the men retiring to one of the small bedrooms in the building to get some much-needed rest.
Vin, however, sat up for a couple more hours, looking over some local maps and planning his route for the following day... He was going to make this one a real challenge for Chris. And then he was going to shoot the man right in the butt - or at least wish he could...
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The "hunt" the following day went much the same as the one the day before. Chris and Ezra did pretty good, managing to track Vin through the woods, but the former bounty-hunter was still able to get the drop on them. Only the need to keep up the front for Wilds kept Tanner from splattering both men with paintballs, but he was sure to gloat before they each fired on him.
They retuned to the main compound where they were met by Dennis Bishop.
"You boys are back early today," he said, his eyes narrowing suspiciously.
Vin jerked his head to indicate the two men following him. "Gettin' quicker finally," he told the man.
"Afternoon, boys," Marybeth Wilds greeted them as she crossed the grounds, coming from the barn. "You look hungry, would you like to come in for some sandwiches?"
"We'd love to, ma'am," Vin replied, "but we got some more trainin' planned for today."
Bishop shook his head. "Harlan's called it off," he said. "You might as well go get something to eat. But stick around; I got a feelin' Harlan's going to want to talk to you boys later." And with that said, Bishop walked off.
"Will Mr. Wilds be back soon, ma'am?" Vin asked Marybeth as they followed her back to the main house.
"I'm not sure. He's gone over to see Judge Peters' widow."
The news left all three agents looking surprised.
"His widow?" Ezra questioned.
Marybeth nodded sadly. "Yes, I'm afraid so. Andrew called us first thing this morning. Seems poor Daniel was killed last night, on his way into his home. Shot in the back."
The three agents exchanged looks.
"That is terrible," Ezra said, shaking his head sadly.
"Yes, it is," Mrs. Wilds replied, nodding. "And poor Anna, she loved Daniel to death." She paused, turning her own words over in her mind. "Oh dear, that didn't sound quite right, did it? But you boys know what I meant, don't you?"
"Yes, ma'am," Vin replied, stepping up to open the back door for her.
"Did you know Anna and Daniel had been married for over thirty years?"
"No, ma'am," Vin replied, following her inside and letting the door fall closed before Ezra could step up.
"You say he was shot going into his home?" Chris asked her. "You mean after he left the poker game?"
Marybeth nodded. "Yes. Strange, isn't it? You can be with someone one moment, and everything is fine, and, before you know it, everything has changed."
"Would you like some help makin' those sandwiches, ma'am?" Vin asked the woman, who had paused in the center of her kitchen, her gaze turned inward and appearing more than a little lost.
She blinked and shook her head slightly as if she were chasing her thoughts away. For a moment she looked confused as to the men's presence, then she brightened and said, "Oh no, that's a woman's work, Vincent. Why don't you take the others into the salon and get yourselves a drink while I fix something for you. It won't take but a minute."
"Yes, ma'am, if you're sure," Vin replied. He liked the woman, but worried that she wasn't quite all there. But it had been her immediate acceptance of him that had helped win him his position in Wilds' "inner circle."
"Oh yes, very sure. You go on now, dear, leave the kitchen duty to me."
The three men left, Vin leading them through the house to the salon where the wet bar sat. Jennings was there, polishing the bartop with a clean towel.
"Can I get you gentlemen something?" the older man asked, although his tone was anything but friendly.
"Beer," Vin replied, "one for each of us."
The man filled three glasses and set them out for the men, who took them and sat down on the stools lined up in front of the bar.
"Y' hear about the Judge?" Vin asked the man and Jennings nodded, but he didn't elaborate.
"You don't think it might've had something to do with that missing card last night, do you?" Chris asked casually.
"I doubt that, sir," the bartender replied. "Judge Peters has been a good friend of the Wilds for many years."
"Perhaps it was one of the many criminals he helped put behind bars," Ezra suggested.
"More than likely, sir," Jennings agreed. "Everyone knows he stood for the true American way; earned him more than a few enemies among the lesser races and the godless liberals. It's a shame, a crying shame, that we've let this country sink so far that a good man can't even make it into his own home without being cut down by his enemies." The man set his towel down and left them.
Chris looked over at Vin, who just sighed softly and took another sip of his beer. Ezra nodded his agreement with the sniper's sentiment.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The three ATF agents stood with Dennis Bishop, Harlan and Marybeth Wilds, Jennings, and the other men they had met since "joining" Wilds' organization, listening as the last of the eulogies was given.
Then the pastor stepped up and began his portion of the service, concluding with, "Forasmuch as it hath pleased Almighty God, in his wise providence, to take out of this world the soul of our deceased brother, we therefore commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust..."
A short while later the mourners were gathered in the small parking lot of the cemetery. "Real nice send off," Chris remarked drolly as he and Vin and Ezra hung back slightly, watching the others. Wilds' other "recruits" quickly piled into trucks and SUVs and headed away, but since they had been "promoted," they were able to remain behind without raising any suspicions.
"Kind of gives y' something t' look forward to," Vin added dryly.
Ezra rolled his eyes and walked over to join the Wilds. Harlan was standing with his arm wrapped around his wife's shoulders.
"Such a senseless killing," Marybeth was saying. "No rhyme or reason. Everybody loved the Judge."
"Somebody didn't," Sheriff Reeves commented.
"Any leads?" Harlan asked the lawman.
Reeves shook his head. "No, not yet, and I guess I better be getting back to my office." He tipped his hat to Marybeth. "Good to see you, ma'am."
"We don't see enough of you, Sheriff. Let's get together real soon, all right?"
"Yes, ma'am, let's do that." He nodded to the rest of them and left. The others took that as a signal and they all began to disperse.
Wilds turned to Bishop and said, "Dennis, get Vincent and his friends started on memorizing the layouts," before turning back to his wife and escorting her away.
Dennis waited until the couple was gone, then turned to the agents and said, "Well boys, looks like Mr. Wilds has decided to let you in on a few more of our plans."
"I take it that means we won't be spending our afternoon traipsing through the woods again," Ezra replied.
"Nope," Bishop said. "We got some floor plans ya need to get familiar with, and then I'll take you out to where we have a couple of mock-up buildings set up. Time you boys started learning the ropes and earning your keep."
"Mock-up buildings?" Chris questioned.
"You'll see when we get there," the man replied. "You just follow me back to the compound and we'll get started."
Chris nodded, but he was a little annoyed. He'd been hoping to meet and talk with Josiah, who was presently hanging around in the office of the cemetery - to find a plot for his ailing mother - waiting to see if the blond could find a way to talk to him. But it looked like today was a bust. Well, maybe tomorrow...
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Matthew Helms left the grocery store, pushing a cart in front of him. It was half full of plastic bags loaded down with the week's shopping. This was normally his wife's chore, but she was away, visiting her mother in Grand Junction. The older woman had suffered a minor stroke three days before and his wife had insisted she drive over to see how she was doing.
He muttered under his breath as he reached the car and had to fish into his pocket for his keys. A man like him ought not to be doing women's work. It just wasn't right.
He pulled the keys out of his pocket and went to unlock his door when a single shot rang out across the parking lot.
Helms took a step back and turned to his right, a surprised expression on his face. A moment later he collapsed, falling into his cart and turning it over. He and the groceries hit the pavement.
A woman walking past looked down and, seeing that Helms had been shot, screamed.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
For the second time in a week, the three ATF agents found themselves at the small local cemetery, listening as the pastor recited, "Forasmuch as it hath pleased Almighty God, in his w wise providence, to take out of this world the soul of our deceased brother, we therefore commit his body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust..."
Silence accompanied the mourners as they left the graveyard, returning to the parking lot. There were a few news trucks parked across the street and Sheriff Reeves excused himself and crossed over to address the press.
Wilds watched him go, a slightly thoughtful expression on his face.
"A touching service, Reverend," Marybeth said, slipping her arm though the man's as he walked up to join them.
"Thank you, Mrs. Wilds. I seem to be getting a great deal of practice of late," he replied as they passed Harlan and the others.
"You have any idea who might be behind this?" Chris asked Wilds as he stepped up alongside him.
"No," Wilds replied, "but I damn well intend to find out." Wilds looked away from the sheriff and met Larabee's eyes. "Don't you worry, Lawson, the situation's under control."
"Two men dead inside of a week isn't my idea of 'under control,'" Chris replied.
"Mr. Lawson," Wilds responded, his voice going cold, "getting worked up over this unfortunate coincidence isn't going to help matters. You want to do something productive, get back to the compound and continue your training. The time is nearly at hand, and I plan to launch us on the greatest journey mankind has ever taken."
"Might help if we knew what we were trainin' for," Vin added, his tone soft and non-threatening.
Still, Wilds shot Tanner a hot look. "You've been told all you need to know for the moment, Vincent. When the time's right, you will hear the rest, I promise. You four are going to be the sergeants in my army of God."
Vin nodded, backing down like the good-little-follower he was supposed to be. "Yes, sir. We'll do what y' say."
Wilds looked at the three men, waiting to see if "Lawson" and "Styles" had anything to add, but they followed Vincent's lead and fell silent as well. "Good," he said, nodding. "Find Dennis and meet me back at the house."
"Yes, sir," Vin replied.
They watched Harlan walk over and collect his wife from the minister, the couple heading to their car and driving away.
The three men looked around for Bishop, but he was nowhere in sight.
"Guess we can head back without him," Chris said, starting over to the Jeep they were using. He stopped short when he saw Buck standing near a headstone, looking down at the flowers he had obviously just placed near the headstone.
"Then again," Ezra said, "perhaps we ought to look for Mr. Bishop once more."
Chris nodded. "Yeah, okay."
They split up, seemingly looking for Bishop. Before long Chris was standing near the edge of the parking lot. Buck passed him, then stopped and bent down to retie a shoelace. "Same gun that killed Peters killed Helms," he said. "They think it's a Remington 700."
"Got plenty of those out at Wilds' place."
"Watch your backs," Buck said, then stood and walked away.
Chris waited for a moment more, then headed over to the Jeep. He whistled and gave Vin and Ezra a "round 'em up" gesture when they looked up. They quickly joined him and climbed into the Jeep, heading back to Wilds' compound without Bishop.
As he drove, Chris could see Ezra in the rearview mirror. "What?" he finally asked the man, Standish's pensive expression piquing his curiosity.
Ezra's head came up and he met Larabee's gaze in the glass. "I was just thinking..."
"That's gotten us into trouble more 'n once," Vin said dryly.
Ezra shot the man an annoyed look. "Hear me out," he said. "There has to be, what, twenty-five or thirty men we've seen at Wilds' compound, most of them like us - peons in training who don't really know anything about what Wilds is really planning."
"And?" Chris asked.
"Doesn't it strike you as odd that two of the men we've met who do, theoretically, know something have ended up dead?"
"Sure it's odd," Vin replied. "What did Buck have t' say?" he asked Chris.
"Both men were killed by a Remington 700."
Vin sighed. "That ain't much help."
"Except to tell us that it most certainly has something to do with Wilds," Standish offered.
The three men fell silent, each feeling the apprehension as they sank deeper into a plot they didn't fully understand and had little control over.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The three ATF agents left the Wilds' house two hours later no closer to understanding what they were preparing for than when they had entered. It seemed only Wilds, Bishop and maybe Sheriff Reeves knew the actual target or targets. And now they were on their way out to the mock-up buildings again to run through another drill.
As they walked, Ezra said quietly, "I've been thinking... Judge Peters and Mr. Helms had only one thing in common."
"Yeah, their support of Harlan Wilds," Chris finished.
"There's one more thing," Vin said, picking up on what Ezra was suggesting.
Chris shot Tanner a look. "What?"
"They were both in that poker game," Standish supplied.
Vin nodded. "Both in the same game, an' both dead."
Chris frowned. They were right, but it was his job to play devil's advocate. "They also live up here, do business with the same people, attend the same church, and probably a whole lot of other things we don't know about."
"Might be right," Vin admitted.
"You don't sound convinced," Ezra interjected.
"I'm not," Vin replied.
Reaching the building, which was really nothing more than wooden frames set up to simulate walls. Buck and the others had been trying to locate the actual building using the drawings Chris and the others had passed along to him, but so far they hadn't had any luck finding it.
Breaking up, the three men began going through the motions that had almost become second nature to them. They entered the "building" at two locations. Three individuals they suspected might be guards were symbolically taken down, then they moved deeper into the building, carefully setting six explosive charges in key locations before exiting the building, carrying the "bodies" out with them.
They stood, waiting to see if the wired dummy bombs would go off as planned. Three minutes later, six loud pops sounded simultaneously, indicating that all had gone according to Wilds' plan.
Vin checked his watch. "Well, that's almost a full minute faster than the last time. One more and we'll be a full minute ahead of what Wilds wants."
"Then I guess we better get to it," Chris replied, starting off.
Vin, who had been standing next to Larabee, took a step forward, then slumped and fell over onto the ground.
Chris jerked to a stop with surprise. "Vin?"
Ezra hurried over from where he had taken refuge under the shady boughs of a tree. "What happened? What's wrong?" he asked, looking from Vin to Chris and back again.
Larabee knelt down beside Vin, the gun he wore at his waist now in his hand as he surveyed the terrain and Tanner almost simultaneously. In the distance, he heard the growl of an engine turning over.
Holstering his weapon, Chris turned his full attention to Vin, who was lying face-down and obviously unconscious. Then he saw the blood that was pooling under the man's cheek.
"Help me turn him over," Chris snapped at Standish.
"Is that wise?" Ezra asked, maneuvering into position to help. "Perhaps we ought to call for an ambulance."
Chris ignored the comment, his heart racing as he carefully turned the younger man over. The right side of his head and face were bloody.
"Oh good Lord," Ezra breathed, watching as Larabee reached out and felt Vin's neck for a pulse.
"He's alive," Chris managed, his voice tight with fear. "Get back to the compound. Call for an ambulance."
Ezra nodded and was gone, moving faster than Larabee had ever seen him.
"Vin?" Chris called. "Come on, Vin, can you hear me?"
The sniper moaned softly, his eyes beginning to move sluggishly under his closed eyelids.
"That's it, come on, Vin," Larabee urged. "Wake up, buddy." But that soft moan was all he was able to get from the man, no matter how hard he tried.
"Damn it," he hissed under his breath.
Reaching into his back pocket, Chris pulled a clean handkerchief free and pressed it against Vin's head, hoping to stop the flow of blood. The move prompted a soft whimper from the injured man. "Easy, Vin, easy, I'm just trying to get the bleeding stopped. You listen to me, okay? I want you to hang on. You hear me? You hang in there. You're going to be fine..." He reached out and gripped Tanner's arm tightly. "I don't want to lose you, Vin. Just remember that, okay?"
He swallowed hard and forced himself to stay calm and keep the pressure on the bleeding wound. It was better than worrying over the possible results of a head shot if Tanner survived.
A few minutes later he heard Ezra coming back. The man stumbled to a stop, the sweat dripping off his face. "They're on the way."
Larabee nodded and said a silent prayer that they would get there in time.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Ezra looked up as Chris passed by him, pacing across the small waiting room at the local hospital. He could tell from the blank, emotionless expression that Larabee wore that the man was barely holding it together. He felt like he ought to say something, offer some words of encouragement, or hope, but, for the life of him, he couldn't think of a single thing to say that wasn't-
He was immediately on his feet as a physician entered the room, dressed in pale green scrubs. He was younger than Ezra expected. In fact, he looked like he ought to be in college, attending classes and frat parties, not making life and death decisions concerning someone's health. But what really struck him was the slight smile on the man's face. Why in the world would he be smiling at a time like this?
The doctor stopped and asked, "Mr. Lawson and Mr. Styles?"
Ezra nodded and Chris stopped pacing, turning to face the man and saying, "I'm Lawson; how's Vin?"
"Mr. Tower is stable. Why don't you come with me and we'll talk on the way to his room."
The two men nodded and they started out of the waiting room, the doctor saying, "I'm Tim Granger, Mr. Tower's attending. The bullet just creased his head - took a tiny bit of bone with it, too. Basically, it came as close to killing him as any case I'd ever care to see."
"Creased?" Chris repeated, feeling his heart beginning to beat again.
Dr. Granger nodded. "There's no fracture of the skull, so he'll probably regain consciousness in the next twenty-four hours or so. Of course, it might be longer. We'll just have to wait and see. In the meantime, we'll be keeping a close eye on him in case there's any swelling."
"Was there a concussion?" Ezra asked.
"We're not sure at this time. All his tests look good, though, so if there is, it's mild. The angle the bullet was traveling in was literally tangent to the surface of his skull. If the structure of his cranium had been slightly different, it probably would have penetrated his brain and killed him. As it was, it just shaved off about two millimeters of bone over a three centimeter path. You might as well call it an act of God as far as I'm concerned."
"Well, thank God for that," Ezra said as they reached a room on the same floor.
Just before they entered Vin's room, Harlan Wilds turned a corner and walked up to join them. "Gentlemen, I just heard. How is he?"
The doctor smiled and said, "Mr. Tower is a very lucky man. I think he'll be fine." Wilds' surprised expression prompted him to add, "It was only a graze."
"Well, we must thank God for that," Harlan said. "Anything you need to do, Doctor, just go ahead and do it. I'll make sure the bill is paid," he added.
Dr. Granger nodded. "I'll let admitting know." He stopped Chris from entering the room with a hand on his arm. "I'd like you to keep the visits short once he wakes up, but, until then, if you'd like to sit with him, that's fine. Just keep it quiet. He might be a little sensitive to sensory stimulation for a while."
"I'll leave you boys to sit with Vincent," Harlan said to Chris and Ezra. "Afraid I've never been the comforting sort. But remember, we still have work that needs to get done. I'm sure Vincent wouldn't want what happened to him to derail all that we've been working for."
Chris ground his teeth to keep from telling the man what he could do with his plans right there on the spot. He had a job to do, but his main concern at the moment was Vin's wellbeing.
Ezra, seeing muscles along Larabee's jaw begin to jump said smoothly, "We appreciate what you told the doctor, Mr. Wilds."
"What, getting that boy fixed up? Don't be ridiculous. I like Vincent, I want to do everything I can to help him." Wilds looked away, a man who was clearly uncomfortable with sentiment.
"I'm sure everything will be just fine," Ezra replied.
"I hope so, Victor," Harlan replied. "Vincent is a good man - I need more just like him. I'll have Marybeth come sit with him so you boys can get back to work. She needs something to keep her busy anyway. Until then, you stay here with Vincent, make sure he's treated right."
"Thank you," Chris managed, then turned and entered the room, followed by Dr. Granger. Ezra remained out in the hall with Wilds, hoping he might be able to get the man to talk more about his ultimate plans, but Harlan was just as closed-mouthed as he had been.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
In the room, Chris found Vin lying on a narrow bed, guardrails raised on both sides, and various machines monitoring his condition. Chris swallowed hard and walked over to the bedside, the doctor right beside him.
Vin's head was wrapped with bandages, the right side of his face showing some bruising.
"Best thing you can probably do for him is talk to him," the doctor said, "or read to him if you can't carry on a one-sided conversation. Some of the experts think it might encourage patients to wake up sooner. Do you have any questions?"
Chris thought for a moment, then shook his head. "No, not right now."
"I'll leave you here, then. If you do have any questions, or if any issues come up, you can ask one of the nurses to have me paged."
Chris nodded, saying, "Thank you, Doctor," as he stuck his hand out.
Granger took it and shook it. "You're very welcome, Mr. Lawson. I really do think everything will be fine. We just have to wait until he wakes up to be sure, but there's no reason for concern at this point."
The doctor turned and left, Chris waiting until he stepped past the door and turned, disappearing, before he walked around to the far side of the bed so he could see the door into the room. He wanted to be careful should Wilds decide to come in.
Then, leaning over, he rested his hand on Tanner's arm and said quietly, "Hey, Vin, I'm here. The doctor says you're doing great so far. You just need to wake up so they can see how well you're doing... So I want you to wake up as soon as you can, okay?"
There was no response from Vin, but Chris knew the man had heard him. He wasn't sure how he knew, he just did, and it gave him greater comfort than he'd expected. It didn't feel like Tanner was gone, just unconscious, or asleep, a condition he would wake from soon. Or at least he hoped that it would be soon.
Catching sight of movement, he glanced up, watching as Ezra stepped into the room and walked over to join him on the other side of the bed.
"Well, I suppose at least one of our questions has been answered by this," Standish said quietly, looking down at Vin.
"And what would that be?" Larabee inquired.
"Everyone who was in attendance at that poker game is clearly in danger."
Larabee nodded. He'd been thinking the very same thing while he waited for news on Vin's condition. But he couldn't come up with a reason why a little cheating at poker was leading to the murders of men in Wilds' organization. It made no sense. If they just knew what it was, exactly, that Wilds had planned for the New Year's launch of his personal Armageddon they might be able to figure it out. But then again, maybe it had nothing at all to do with that, in which case, they were well and truly fucked.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Back at Wilds' compound, Harlan and Sheriff Reeves sat in Wilds' library, each man sipping on a cup of coffee Marybeth had brought them before heading out for the hospital.
"Harlan, I hate to say it, but it all has to be tied to that poker game," Reeves said. "This game was different, you know."
"What, the missing card?" Harlan questioned and Reeves nodded. "I don't put much stock in that."
"Could be you've had a card-sharp in your crowd all this time."
"A card-sharp? Judge Peters? Helms? No," Wilds replied, shaking his head, "there's never been anyone who's won consistently enough for that to make sense."
"All right then," Reeves replied, "but there was one other difference in the game this week."
"Yes, I know. Vincent's friends..."
Reeves nodded. "That was, what, Tower's third game?"
Wilds nodded, letting the sheriff know he had remembered correctly. "But it was Styles who noticed the deck was light," he pointed out.
The sheriff sighed, frowning slightly, and then said, "Maybe because he knew? Maybe he'd already put that card down there where Marybeth found it."
"But why?" Wilds questioned.
"I don't know," the lawman replied, "but this has to have something to do with that game. Hell, you think there's any chance they might be feds?"
"No, I don't, but I also agree with you, Andy - that these deaths seem to have something to do with that game," Wilds said. He sighed heavily and thought for a bit before he added, "I just don't believe Vincent would betray us, but... They still don't know what their target is..."
"I hate to say it, but it might be best if we called it off, Harlan."
"No," Wilds snapped, his eyes flashing. "No. This is too important. The final battle must be enjoined. Our Lord is waiting for us to pave the way for His return. And I have no intention of disappointing Him."
Reeves looked down at his coffee cup, the fervor in his eyes no where near as powerful as that in Wilds'. "I just don't like it, Harlan. Things keep going the way they have been, it's going to be you or me who's next. I mean, think about it. Matt and Judge Peters, they're dead, but Tower is just hurt. And he was out there with Styles and Lawson when it happened. Maybe they suckered him. Maybe the feds decided it would be easier to just take us out, one by one, than bring us in. It would save them the trouble of a trial..."
Wilds looked at the man, his lips pursed as he thought. "Dennis was in that game, too."
Reeves nodded, but added, "Dennis has been with us for a long time. He's committed."
Wilds fell silent again, thinking. "I just can't believe Vincent is involved. Besides, they wouldn't shoot one of their own..."
"That mean you think Lawson and Styles might be the feds?" the sheriff asked him.
"I hope not, but I think we have to at least entertain the possibility."
Reeves nodded. He didn't like it, but it was the safest course of action as far as he was concerned. He'd do some digging into the men's backgrounds, see what he could turn up. His first check had come back clean, but there was no use taking any chances, not when they were so close to their goals.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Marybeth stood in Vin's room, watching as Chris continued to read to the injured man. When he reached the end of the newspaper article on the Broncos, he set the paper aside and stood. Moving to the bedside, he reached out and gave Vin's arm a squeeze, saying, "Well, I guess I better get out of here. Ethan and I are going to find out who did this to you, I promise."
"Mr. Lawson," Marybeth said, "please, don't go yet."
Chris frowned slightly at the woman. She had been there for about an hour, staying in the background, giving him some feeling of privacy as he sat with Vin, mostly reading to him. Looking up to meet her eyes he said, "Ma'am, I'm not good at sitting around when one of my friends has been hurt."
"But you might be next," she said, her tone clearly worried.
"Then it's better if I can find the man responsible before he finds me."
"But Vincent needs you," she told him, walking to Vin's bedside. "He's more restless when you're not here. He even calls for you sometimes."
Chris looked down at Vin, silently hoping that the injured man limited himself to calling for him by his first name. He ran his hand along Tanner's arm. "I'll be back - soon," he said to both Vin and Marybeth.
"Well, all right, but if I can't talk you out of going, I'll ask you, please, be careful. I'd hate to see anyone else get hurt. There's been far too much death already. Harlan needs you, all of you. He knows what needs to be done, but he can't do it alone."
"I'll be careful," he promised her.
"Where are you going?" she asked as he started to the door.
"Ethan and I are going to go out to where Vincent got hit. Maybe we can find something that can tell us who's behind these shootings."
"I hope you can, Mr. Lawson. I'm so afraid Harlan might get hurt. He has a destiny to fulfill, you know."
"Yeah," Larabee replied, "so he tells me."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
"Jennings, you're making a mistake," Harlan told his assistant. The man had come in to see him as soon as Reeves had left. "Running never solves anything. You have a responsibility to your family, and to our cause."
"Sir, I'm no good to them, or to you, if I'm dead," the older man replied, clearly frightened.
"Where will you go?"
"Sir, I'm very sorry, but I don't believe I should tell anyone. I only wanted to tell you that I was leaving so you wouldn't worry and think something had happened to me when I disappeared."
"Jennings, we're so close to the End Times, so close to meeting our Lord. I want you here, with us, when He comes in His glory to begin His reign."
"I know you do, sir, and I want to be here as well. I wish I could stay, could be a part of this glorious mission, but I cannot. When these shootings are cleared up I'm sure it will be covered in the papers, and when it is, I swear to you, sir, I will return if the end has not already begun."
"I'm sorry, sir. I truly am. You know I support all you're doing to ensure the victory of our Lord, but" He broke off, shaking his head sadly. "I'm sorry." And with that the man turned and left Wilds' office.
Harlan watched him go, an equally sad expression on his face.
The Next Day
Marybeth stood at the graveside, dabbing at her eyes with a hankie. Across the grave stood Arlo Jennings' wife and his three adult children, along with their spouses and children.
"...we therefore commit his body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust..." the minister intoned.
A short while later she stood with her husband, Dennis Bishop and Sheriff Reeves in the parking lot. "Surely you must have some ideas," she said to the lawman. "I mean, it just cannot go on like this. There's only Dennis, Harlan, Mr. Lawson and Mr. Styles left."
"And me," Reeves reminded her.
"That's right. Andy was in that poker game, too," Harlan said.
"And the only progress I seem to be making is narrowing the list of suspects with each killing," Reeves said as Lawson and Styles walked over to join them.
"If the killer was someone who was in the game," Dennis said.
"For the time being I'm assuming that the killer is one of us gathered right here," Reeves said, but he was looking at Chris and Ezra.
"But why?" Marybeth asked, looking around at the men. "We're all friends here, we're all working for the glory of God."
The men exchanged glances of mutual discomfort, but no one said anything.
Later that day
Marybeth sat in Vin's room, speaking quietly, telling the still-unconscious man all about Arlo Jenning's funeral. From time to time Vin moaned softly, but he didn't wake.
When she noticed that his face was beaded with perspiration, she rose, going into the small bathroom off the room and wetting a washcloth, which she took back to the bedside, using it to wipe Vin's face.
He groaned again, louder this time, then slowly blinked his eyes open, calling, "Chris?"
"Shh, Vincent, it's all right. Mr. Lawson isn't here at the moment."
"Who?" Vin asked, his forehead furrowing as he tried to think past the pounding agony inside his skull.
"Mr. Lawson, Chris, your friend," she clarified, looking worriedly at the man.
"Chris..." he called again, his eyes closing.
"Oh no, please, don't go back to sleep."
"Lar'bee," he breathed, knowing he ought to be worried about the blond, but not able to remember why.
"Oh, dear. Oh, no. Please, don't go back to sleep," she said, but it was already too late, Vin was unconscious again. She reached for the call button and pressed it.
A short while later
Marybeth stood in the hallway outside of Vin's room, craning her neck, trying to see what the doctor was doing to the younger man. She chewed worriedly on her lower lip as she continued to watch.
She jumped and turned to see Dennis Bishop coming up to her. "You frightened me," she said, frowning slightly at the man.
"I'm sorry," he said, "but I had to see you."
"To try and talk things out," he replied.
"Dennis, we don't have anything to talk out. I thought I made that clear to you before."
"But things have changed, Marybeth. The rate we're going, I could be dead tomorrow."
She looked worried again and resumed chewing on her bottom lip, then she brightened. "Vincent woke up. Isn't that wonderful? His friends will be happy, won't they?"
"Marybeth, did you hear me, I said I might be the next one to get himself shot. I want"
"Yes, I know. It's terrible, so terrible - all the shootings, those poor men... And poor Vincent, he was in such pain, you know... so much pain. Poor darling... He's so beautiful, isn't he? So kind and polite..."
"Marybeth, I need you," he said, reaching out to take hold of her hands.
She looked up then, shaking her head. "No. No, I'm sorry, but I have to stay here with Vincent. I have to take care of him. Harlan told me to take care of him."
"But I need you too, Marybeth. What if I get killed tonight?"
Her eyes rounded. "Oh no. Oh, Dennis... Maybe you should leave," she said, reaching up to tenderly caress his cheek. "Now, before you get hurt or killed."
"I don't run away from things, Marybeth, especially things I love. That's why we have to talk, get things straightened out between us."
"Oh, Dennis, it is straightened out. There isn't anything more for us to talk about. I have to take care of Vincent now." She started to turn away, seeing the doctor moving away from Vin's bedside.
Dennis took hold of her arms and said, "And I say there is, damn it."
She whimpered softly.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Chris and Ezra turned the corner in the hospital, heading toward Vin's room. Larabee's mind was on the call he'd received from Dr. Granger, letting him know that Vin had finally woken up. Ezra, however, spotted Mrs. Wilds and Dennis Bishop in the hallway and he reached out, grabbing Larabee's arm and alerting him.
Chris looked up and saw the pair standing, face to face, Dennis talking intently to the woman. Then she pulled away from him, shaking her head, and hurried into Vin's room. Dennis stormed off in the opposite direction of the two men.
"What do you think that was all about?" Ezra asked.
"Hell if I know, but we'd better find out," Larabee replied, immediately adding, "Later. Right now I just want to see how Vin's doing."
Ezra nodded, following the blond into the room.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
"Doctor?" Larabee said as he walked into the room.
Dr. Granger looked up from where he was writing in Vin's chart and smiled. "Hello, gentlemen. Well, he woke up and seems to be doing rather well. He's not staying awake for very long, but that's to be expected."
Chris nodded, moving to the bedside and looking down at the man.
"I have to go check on a patient in recovery, but you're welcome to stay here. If he wakes up, keep the visit to five minutes."
Larabee nodded his understanding, and after the doctor had left, he reached out and rested his hand on Vin's shoulder. "Vin?" he called softly.
Ezra stepped up next to him as Vin's eyes blinked three times and opened. He looked up at the two men, looking confused for a moment, then he smiled drunkenly and said, "Hell, never thought I'd be glad t' see two Larabee's scowlin' down at me." He reached up and rubbed his eyes, then looked again. "That's better."
"Asshole," Larabee said, but he kept his voice soft. "How are you feeling?"
"Head hurts like hell," Tanner replied. "Y' figure out what's goin' on?"
"Not yet," Chris told him. "Nathan and Josiah are here, keepin' an eye on you."
Vin nodded ever so slightly. "Someone else's been in m' room, too."
"Mrs. Wilds," Ezra told him. "She's been sitting with you, reading to you and the like. And her husband has picked up your bill."
Vin grunted, but he didn't look like he was too happy about that. "Sleepy," he said, his eyes dropping closed. A moment later he was asleep again.
Harlan Wilds scowled as he looked from Lawson to Styles. "Back out into the woods...? Why is it that I don't think you're going back out there to practice?" he asked them.
"No?" Chris replied.
"No," Wilds replied, his expression becoming more stern.
Marybeth, who was standing close by, hurried over, saying, "Oh, boys, please, don't set yourselves up to get shot at, please."
"Mrs. Wilds," Ezra replied, "a man would have to be insane to hope to meet up with a serial killer."
"That's right, he would," Harlan interjected, his expression thoughtful as he considered the two men. "Unless of course he was a federal agent, and he was here to kill us off, one by one."
"You checked us out, Mr. Wilds, you know we aren't feds," Chris half-growled at the man. "Vincent is still lying in the hospital, more dead than alive."
"Yes, I know," Wilds replied. "And I'll admit that fact is all that's kept me from locking you two in your cabin and keeping you there until the final battle has begun."
"Mr. Wilds," Ezra said, trying to sooth the man's concerns, "I assure you, we are still committed to seeing that happen, but it's far past the time you told us exactly what part we'll be playing in the Lord's plan."
Wilds hesitated for a moment, but then he nodded. "Come into the library, boys." Then he looked at his wife and said, "Sweetheart, would you find Dennis and send him in to join us?"
She suddenly looked uncomfortable, and dropped her gaze. "But, Harlan, I- I'm supposed to go to the hospital... Vincent might wake up again, and he'll need someone to read to him."
Wilds frowned slightly, but he nodded. "Yes... Yes, of course. You tell Vincent I'm hoping he'll be back on his feet in time to join us, will you?"
She smiled up at her husband. "Oh, I will, darling. I'm sure he will be, too. He's such a nice young man." Turning, she headed away, humming to herself.
Wilds turned back to Chris and Ezra. "Gentlemen, this way," he said and led the way inside. He still wasn't completely sure he could trust the two men, but he was quickly running out of options. "Wait here, I'll go find Dennis..."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Later, after their talk, Dennis Bishop took the two men out to the mock-up building. "All right, boys, this'll be your last opportunity to practice, you ready?"
"Yeah," Larabee replied, watching the man and remembering what he and Ezra had seen at the hospital the day before.
"Good," Bishop said, grinning slightly. "All right, you have sixteen minutes to get in, set the explosives, and get out."
The men nodded and quickly grabbed their gym bags and headed into the structure. When they were finished, a full minute and ten seconds ahead of schedule, Bishop congratulated them, saying, "You boys have risen to the situation, that's for sure." Then he grinned and asked, "So, you want to see if you can stay clear of me up in the hills?"
"You're going to hunt us?" Larabee asked him, looking more than a little suspicious.
Bishop shrugged. "I'll even give you a twenty minute head start."
"A head start?" Ezra echoed.
Bishop shrugged again. "Makes it a little more interesting for me." His gaze shifted between the two men. "Vincent seemed to think you're ready to go, but there's only one way to find out - see if you can get past me."
"Well, they do say practice makes perfect," Standish replied and they climbed into Bishop's truck for the drive up to the forest land Wilds owned.
As they bumped along the dirt road, Chris asked, "So, how long have you know the Wilds?"
Bishop shot him a look that was impossible to read. "Few years now," he replied. "Worked my way up in Wilds' army for God."
"That must have been... grueling," Ezra offered, hoping to get the man talking.
Bishop glanced at the men again. "Man's right about the End Times, that was all I needed to know. We've got a job to do, we have to be willing to do whatever it takes. Hell, I've even took a bullet in a practice exercise."
"Ouch," Ezra responded.
The man chuffed out a laugh. "Wasn't much; Marybeth took care of it."
"I didn't realize she was a nurse," was Larabee's reply.
"I guess," Bishop said, suddenly uncomfortable with the conversation.
Chris and Ezra exchanged glances, but they let the subject drop.
A few minutes later they were at the trailhead and ready to go.
"You sure we need to waste time on this?" Chris asked.
Dennis glanced down at this watch. "The clock is ticking, boys..."
Larabee and Standish headed into the woods, both men feeling like targets had been painted on their backs.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
In the woods, Ezra paused to check the signs he saw, hoping he was reading them correctly. Vin had tried to show him what to look for, but he just wasn't sure he was seeing things the way the man wanted him to see them. He consulted his map, and, after determining the direction he thought he needed to go, continued on.
A single shot had him diving to the ground just a few minutes later. He lay, motionless for a moment, then suddenly rolled over and scanned the surrounding area before scrambling for cover.
Two shots struck the ground at his feet and Standish lunged and dove behind a large boulder that jutted up out of the ground. Tossing the paint gun he was carrying aside, he reached for the Glock he carried in a holster at his waist.
Slowly, breathlessly, he peered around the side of the large rock.
Another shot rang out, carving a crease into the stone close to his head.
Ezra ducked back once more. Knowing he had to find the shooter's position, Standish pulled the baseball cap he was wearing from his head and put it on his foot, extending it to the far side of the rock while aiming his weapon to the near side. He wasn't his usual picture of grace, but, with luck...
Standish extended his foot a little farther in order to expose a little of the cap while he readied himself on the other side of the rock to observe.
A moment later there was a flash from the shooter's rifle and Ezra had the man's position fixed. He aimed and fired.
Ezra tried to fire again, but again, nothing happened.
Another blast came from the hillside, a bullet digging into the boulder, narrowing missing Standish's head for a second time.
The agent ducked back behind his shelter. "Damn it," he hissed.
He waited for a moment, then chanced another peek. A figure, too far away to identify, moved deftly from rock to rock on the hillside above him.
Ezra could see it was a man, but he wasn't sure if it was Larabee, or Bishop, or the mysterious shooter. He crouched down, trying to find better cover.
Then, a moment later, three shots dug into the ground near him.
Standish scurried back into the recesses of a rocky outcrop a short distance away, hoping it might offer him more protection than the boulder.
More shots rang out and Standish bolted, zigzagging from rock to rock, bullets cutting up the terrain all around him. But no matter where he sought refuge, the shots continued to follow him. It was like whoever it was firing on him was playing with him - like a cat with a mouse.
Finally, the undercover man came upon a crevice in a clump of rocks and trees. He squeezed into it, pulling a large loose rock into place behind him to conceal the opening. Then he lay there, waiting, his heart racing.
Before too long he heard footsteps moving slowly, deliberately, in his direction. Ezra peered out a narrow crack, but all he could see were a pair of legs. Whoever it was, he was dressed in the same black fatigues that he, Larabee and Bishop were wearing. It could be any of Wilds' people for that matter.
Standish reached up and rubbed the sweat off his face, his trembling hand telling him the helplessness he felt was beginning to show. He froze, though, when he heard the footsteps drawing closer.
Through the narrow aperture Ezra saw the barrel of a rifle being carried by the shooter. And then whoever it was stopped right in front of the agent's hiding place.
Ezra held his breath, pressing himself as tightly into the shadows as he could, remembering how he'd seen Vin disappear into shadows. He was sure the shooter would see him when he saw the man lean closer and he was able to finally see the face of the shooter: Dennis Bishop.
Bishop rested his hand on the large rock Ezra had pulled in front of the crevice. It appeared to be a natural part of the landscape and he leaned on it, then turned slowly, looking around to scan the area. Somewhere in the distance both men heard Larabee calling, "Styles! Styles, you hear me?!"
Bishop cursed softly and moved off, keeping his rifle ready in case Chris showed-up before he was away.
Ezra stayed right where he was, finally allowing himself to breathe. He waited for a few more moments, then pushed the rock aside and crawled out and stood carefully. When there was no gunfire, he started off in the direction he had heard Chris coming from, hoping Bishop wasn't now on the hunt for the man. He located Larabee several minutes later.
"You all right?" Chris asked as soon as he saw him.
Ezra nodded, his heart still pounding inside his chest like a runaway train. "It was Bishop. He's our shooter."
Larabee scowled, immediately glancing around, his weapon held ready in his hands. "Let's get the hell out of here."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The two agents arrived at Sheriff Reeves' office nearly an hour later and walked in. A deputy seated at the front desk looked up.
"Reeves here?" Larabee asked.
"No, not at the moment," the woman sitting behind the desk replied, her eyes narrowing suspiciously.
"When will he be back?" the blond asked her.
"Depends. Can I help you?"
"Rather wait and talk to Reeves."
"Suit yourself," she said with a shrug, then gestured to the chairs along the wall.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
"I've got it!" JD called, holding up a piece of paper and fluttering it at the other men in the office.
Buck and Josiah quickly joined the younger agent at his desk. "Helen Abernathy," Dunne announced. "She works at Peabody's, a bar and grille up there. She and Bishop lived together for six months right before he joined up with Wilds."
Buck grinned. "Well, guess it's time for me to go have a talk with the lady."
"Hope she knows where they can find Bishop," JD said. "Ezra's just lucky he's not in the hospital right alongside Vin."
Josiah nodded. He looked at Buck and said, "Be careful, brother."
The ladies' man nodded. "I will. JD, you come with me, just in case." He looked at the big profiler. "You going back to the hospital?"
He nodded. "I'll give Nathan a break. Let me know what you find out."
"Will do," Buck replied. "If Chris is right about what he and Ezra saw in the hospital, maybe Bishop's out to destroy Wilds so he can get to Marybeth."
"Wouldn't be the first time a man killed for the love of a woman," Josiah agreed.
Several hours later
Buck took a table close to the bar and waited. A pretty young women turned, and, seeing him, walked over to join him.
"Hi, I'm Helen, what can I get for you?"
"Well, hello, Helen," Buck said, turning on his best smile. "I'll have a beer to start - whatever you've got on tap."
She grinned and left to get him his drink. When she returned she set it down in front of him, asking, "Anything else I can get for you?"
"Could be," Buck replied. "You still Dennis Bishop's girl?"
"Dennis Bishop? Goodbye." She turned and started away.
"Hey, wait," Buck said and she stopped and turned back to look at him, her expression half-annoyed, half-worried.
The ladies' man smiled at her. "That was what I was hoping you'd say. Why don't you have a seat, sweetheart..."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
JD shook his head as he watched Buck escort the woman into a fancy hotel room. He adjusted one of the dials on the equipment he was using and listened in on the unfolding conversation.
"I heard you and Dennis were once pretty close," Buck said.
"What's with you? I keep getting off the subject of Dennis Bishop and you keep bringing it b"
The sound of two people kissing replaced the conversation and JD shook his head and sighed. Then Buck's voice returned, saying, "I've got to be honest with you. I liked you right away, but that's not the only reason I brought you here."
"I knew you had a second reason," she purred seductively.
JD could hear the sound of another passionate kiss and then, "There's a third reason," Buck said.
JD heard the woman sigh heavily, an echo of his own reaction.
"Marybeth Wilds," Buck said, "I want to know whether or not Dennis Bishop and Marybeth Wilds ever had anything to do with each other."
"No more than any two people having a love affair," she replied off-handedly.
JD's eyes widened. He hadn't expected the woman to be that blunt, or so absolutely sure.
"You're sure about that?" Buck asked her.
"If you aren't going to believe me, then why'd you ask? Ask anyone around these parts, everybody knew about it."
"Oh, I believe you, darlin'," Buck said.
"Poor woman," Helen added.
"What do you mean?" he responded.
JD heard Helen sigh again. "It's just... Well, everybody knows Mrs. Wilds is a little... off, if you know what I mean?"
"Never met the woman," Buck replied.
"Yeah, well, she's... simple, I guess. She's got a good heart, but sometimes she doesn't really know what she ought to do... or what she shouldn't."
"I see," Buck said, and the sounds of more kissing took over.
JD rolled his eyes and waited to see if there was anymore conversation, but he doubted there would be. They had what they wanted. Well, he did anyway.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Josiah arrived at the hospital and walked in wearing a clerical collar. He headed straight for Vin's room where he found the man asleep. That wasn't unusual. Vin was still sleeping for the majority of the day. Usually Mrs. Wilds was sitting with him when he arrived, though, but this time it was Nathan who was in Tanner's room.
"Afternoon, brother," he greeted. "How's he doing?"
Nathan, dressed as an orderly, looked up and smiled. "He's doing good, real good. He was awake just a few minutes ago and his headache wasn't as bad as usual so he was able to keep some water and jell-o down."
"Very good," Josiah agreed, walking to the bedside and reaching out to press his palm to Vin's forehead.
"He stayed awake for almost an hour, too," Nathan added, finishing up with his chores in the room. He moved over to stand next to Josiah, and, keeping an eye on the door, said quietly, "Something weird is going on, though." Josiah frowned, prompting him to continue. "I caught Mrs. Wilds in here earlier, givin' Vin a sponge bath."
"A what?" Josiah asked, certain he couldn't have heard what he thought he had.
"A sponge bath... all of him."
That rounded the big profiler's eyes. "Okay, that is... weird," he agreed. "Creepy weird."
"Tell me about it. That woman gives me the heebie-jeebies," Nathan admitted. "I asked the nurses what they had asked her to do, and that wasn't on the list."
"Maybe I should spend more time here with him, keep an eye on the missus."
Nathan nodded. "Might be a good idea. I'd hate for Vin to wake up to that, you know what I mean?"
Josiah nodded. "Talk about a nightmare..."
Nathan snorted softly. "She was talking to him like he was a baby. It was..."
"Yeah," Josiah agreed with a shudder.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Chris and Ezra stood as Sheriff Reeves stepped into the waiting area outside his office.
"Boys," he greeted them. "Heard you were looking for me; what's on your minds?"
"The murders," Standish said. "I know who's responsible."
Reeves jerked his head in the direction of his office. "Why don't you step into my office and we'll have a talk."
The three men filed into the small office, Chris and Ezra taking seats on the far side of Reeves' desk. The sheriff dropped into his chair with an audible sigh, then said, "So, you have a hunch, do you?"
"No, I know for a fact. He tried to kill me today. It was only Dame Fortune who saved me," Ezra explained.
"All right, don't keep me in suspense, who is it?" Reeves growled at the man, his eyes narrowing slightly.
"Dennis Bishop," Standish told him.
Reeves' eyes rounded with obvious surprise. He looked at Chris. "Lawson, you see this too?"
Chris shook his head. "No, just heard the gunshots."
Reeves looked back at Ezra. "Dennis Bishop is the killer, that's your story, Styles?"
"He tried to gun me down in cold blood," the undercover man asserted. "It not a story, it's a hard fact."
Reeves sighed heavily and leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms over his chest. "You sure that's the story you want to stick to?"
"Yes," was Standish's immediate reply. "I had a very clear view of the man who tried to hunt me down and kill me. It was Dennis Bishop, no one else."
"Hmm... Well, I might believe you, if it wasn't for one thing..."
"What would that be?" Larabee demanded.
"I was just out looking into the shooting of one more of the poker players," the sheriff told them.
Chris and Ezra exchanged a look, both of them getting the same sinking feeling in the pits of their stomachs.
"Dennis Bishop is dead," Reeves concluded.
Ezra's expression could only be described as stricken.
"Now, do you still want to stick to that story?" the lawman asked Standish.
"Yes," he snapped back. "It's the truth. Dennis Bishop tried to kill me earlier today. I saw his face."
Reeves scowled. "You honestly expect me to believe that there are two people shooting up the men from that poker game? It's crazy enough to think that it might be one!"
Standish slumped back in his chair, but Larabee leaned forward in his, saying, "Crazy or not, he's telling you the truth."
"You know, you two have been pretty high on my list of suspects, but I couldn't find a damn thing to tie you to any of this - so far. Now it looks to me like I'd better start checking you both out a little more carefully."
"We're not the ones you need to worry about," Chris told him. "You really think we'd come in here with a story about Bishop trying to kill Styles if we'd just killed Bishop ourselves?"
"Might be pretty clever, actually," Reeves shot back.
"What about Mr. Tower?" Ezra put in. "He's our friend and he was nearly killed, too."
Reeves nodded. "Maybe that's where I need to be starting."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Chris and Ezra followed Sheriff Reeves through the hospital to Vin's room where they found Marybeth sitting at his bedside. Josiah was also there, standing and leaning back against the windowsill.
When she saw them, Mrs. Wilds stood and smiled. "Evening, Sheriff... boys."
"Evening, Marybeth," Reeves replied. "Tower conscious?"
"I don't think so, why?" she asked.
"I need to talk to him, and I'd just as soon not have to make the trip twice... especially after dark," he replied.
"I don't blame you for that, Andrew," Harlan Wilds said, stepping into the room as well. He nodded at Josiah, saying, "Pastor, if you'd give us a few minutes?"
"Certainly," the big man replied, pushing off the windowsill and leaving.
"You mind telling me what's on your mind?" Harlan asked the lawman. "You don't think Vincent had anything to do with all this, do you?"
Reeves huffed out a breath. "Harlan, if you'll look around, you'll see we're running out of possibilities here. If Tower can't clear these two, I'm going to have to lock them up."
Wilds' eyes narrowed. "Andy, I need these men. We have a war to wage. I thought you were behind me on this."
"I am, Harlan, but it's starting to look to me like these two might be plants."
"But surely you're not saying that Vincent is as well," Marybeth interjected. She rose and moved to the bedside, reaching out to caress Vin's cheek. "He's such a good boy."
"Maybe," Reeves replied. "To be honest, I don't know. That's what I want to talk to him about," he told her, looking a little disconcerted by the intimacy of the woman's touch.
Vin moaned softly and blinked awake. "What's goin' on?" he asked, his words a little slurred.
"How do you feel, Vincent?" Harlan asked, walking over to stand beside his wife, who pulled her hand back and wrapped it around her husband's arm.
"Terrible," was his immediate reply, then he caught sight of Chris and Ezra standing behind Wilds. "What happened?" he asked, the question directed at his friends. "Where am I?"
"Hospital," Reeves said. "You were shot, damn near killed, according to the doctors."
Vin looked a little surprised about that bit of news and he saw Larabee frown. Damn, he should remember something like that, shouldn't he? If he said the wrong thing, their covers could be blown...
"You remember getting shot?" Reeves asked him.
Vin's brow furrowed as he thought for a moment. He was getting no help from Chris or Ezra, but then they were being watched by Wilds and Reeves. "Don't rightly recall it, no."
"Tell me what you do remember," the sheriff instructed him.
There was another long moment before Vin said, "Well, we were out in the woods, trainin'... Next thing I remember, I felt like I'd been kicked in the head by a mule."
Harlan smiled at that. "I'll just bet you did."
"And then?" the sheriff prompted.
"And then... I remember..."
"Yeah?" Reeves questioned.
"Uh, Mrs. Wilds, holding my hand and wiping my forehead... think she might 'a been readin' t' me, too. Oh, and a priest or something... And an orderly - he gave me some jell-o, I think."
"Where were your friends?" Reeves asked.
Vin's brow furrowed again. "With Mr. Wilds, trainin', I suppose."
Reeves huffed out a breath and Vin caught the amusement in Larabee's eyes. "No, damn it, I mean when you got shot - were Lawson and Styles behind you, beside you or in front of you?"
Vin looked at the lawman, then swung his gaze over to Chris and Ezra. He looked back at Reeves, obviously trying hard to recall. "Well... They were right... in front of me - four, maybe five yards."
Reeves shot the injured man a skeptical look. "You sure had to think about that for a while."
Vin scowled and glowered at the man. "Y' ought t' try takin' a chunk of lead in the head sometime, Sheriff. I didn't remember m' name was Tower 'til Mrs. Wilds reminded me."
"And you're absolutely sure that they were in front of you when you were shot?" Reeves persisted.
Vin sighed. "Yeah, I'm sure."
"How can you be that sure if you didn't even remember your own name when you woke up?" Reeves demanded.
"Because, Sheriff," Vin growled, "I can remember thinkin' how easy it'd be t' shoot the two of them in the ass with a paint pellet."
Reeves sighed and took a step back away from the bed, scrubbing his hand over his face. "Damn it..." He looked over at Chris and Ezra. "Well, I guess you didn't shoot Tower, but that doesn't mean I trust either of you an inch."
"Andy, these men are going to help us pave the way for the Lord," Harlan said, trying to defuse the tension.
Reeves looked back at Wilds. "Well, unless it's you or me, Harlan, it's beginning to look like the killer has to be someone on the outside - feds, another prophet... We're right back to where we started."
"We'll figure this out, I promise you. Hopefully before anyone else has to die," Wilds said, reaching out to rest his hand on the sheriff's shoulder and leading him from the room.
Marybeth stayed behind, hovering near Vin as Chris and Ezra stepped up to his bedside.
Vin made eye contact with the woman, asking quietly, "Ma'am, I hate t' ask, but do y' think y' could go see if y' can find me a can of 7-Up? M' stomach's doin' flips and that usually helps."
"Of course," she said, reaching out to give his arm a squeeze before she left.
Vin looked up at the two men as he asked, "Who else died?"
"Jennings and Bishop," Chris answered. "How are you doing?"
"Feel like crap, but if y' need the back-up"
"You stay right there," Chris told him.
"Y' have any idea who's behind all this?" Tanner asked.
Ezra nodded. "We think Bishop was responsible."
Vin looked confused. "But y' just said Bishop was dead."
"Yes, well, after he tried to kill me someone conveniently killed him," Standish replied.
"Damn," Vin said, then he looked at Chris and asked, "Just where were the two of you when I got shot?"
Larabee grinned. "Behind you."
Vin grinned back. "Figures." Then he frowned. "Y' were here before, weren't ya?"
Chris nodded. "Don't worry about it, that brain of yours is still a little scrambled. Josiah and Nathan are here to keep an eye on you."
Vin nodded, hoping he hadn't done or said anything that might compromise the investigation.
The next day
Ezra was sitting in Vin's hospital room, working his way through an outdated volume of Reader's Digest, when Marybeth arrived. She stopped short of the bed when she saw him sitting in the chair.
"Oh, Mr. Styles, I didn't realize you were here. Is Vincent all right?"
Ezra stood, tossing the magazine down onto the seat of the chair. "Given the way things have been going, it seems that Vincent is looking luckier and luckier to be alive," the undercover man replied, watching as she dipped her head to look away from him. A rosy blush colored her cheeks.
"I- I don't know what Dennis was thinking... He seemed so committed to Harlan's plans."
Ezra cocked his head to the side. "Dennis... Yes, of course. But he's dead now, too."
She looked up then, meeting his eyes for the first time. "I'd feel much better if you and Mr. Lawson were away from here, away from all the killing."
That brought a slightly predatory smile to Standish's lips. "But killing is what we're all about, isn't it, Mrs. Wilds? Surely you don't want us to leave as well. Who would be left to carry out your husband's plans to usher in the End Times?"
"The End Times are coming, with or without our help, Mr. Styles," Marybeth said quietly.
"Yes, I'm sure they are," Ezra agreed. "But your husband seems to think he can hurry them along with this plan of his."
"And you agree with him," she added.
"Let's just say that I agree with what he's willing to pay me to believe."
She looked away. "Still, it seems like there's been enough killing... enough innocent blood spilled."
"Indeed," Standish replied, his gaze drawn to the sleeping man in the hospital bed. Then he looked back at the woman and said, "There's something I'd like to talk to you about."
"There is?" she asked him, suddenly looking afraid.
"Why don't we take a walk," Ezra said, taking a step toward her.
She took a step away from him, asking, "Why can't we talk here?"
"Because I don't think you would want to take a chance on anyone overhearing what I have to say," he told her, his voice taking on a slightly hard edge.
She swallowed. "But... But I have to sit with Vincent. I'm reading this to him," she said, holding up a copy of Charlotte's Web.
Ezra was thrown off slightly by the children's book. "Come with me, it won't take long," he ordered her.
She nervously set the book down on the small rolling bed-side tray and followed him from the room. He led her down the hallway and out into a small garden that gave them a view of the mountains.
She looked around, then offered him an anxious smile, saying, "Pretty, isn't it?"
"Yes, it is," he agreed, trying to gauge what her reaction to his question might be.
"Yes, well," she said, "you didn't bring me out here to talk about the scenery."
"No, I didn't," Ezra agreed. "I wanted to discuss a theory of mine with you."
"What sort of theory?" she asked, looking honestly confused.
"It has to do with murder," he told her.
"Murder?" she questioned him. "You mean the killings?"
Standish nodded. "I believe I have been right all along, the murders were connected to your husband's poker game."
"The poker game?"
He nodded again. "It's the only thing that makes any sense."
"Killing someone over a poker game can't make any sense, Mr. Styles."
"Be that as it may, the more I think about it the more clear it becomes."
Marybeth folded her arms over her chest, her gaze darting about the garden.
"Would you like to hear my theory?" he asked her.
"I- I need to get back to Vincent. I need to finish the story."
Ezra reached out and grabbed her arm, keeping her from leaving. "It looks to me as if the murders were all leading up to one: your husband's."
"What?" she asked, startled. "But my husband isn't dead."
"No, but he was supposed to be," Ezra said. "But I think he might have figured it out as well."
"Figured out what?" she asked him, pulling back slightly. She looked honestly confused and he let her go.
"That the rumors about you and Dennis Bishop being lovers were true; that Dennis might want to get rid of a husband so he could take his place."
She stared at him incredulously, then shook her head and turned to start away. "I have to go back to Vincent's room."
"I won't stop you from going," Ezra told her. "But there was a reason I wanted to talk to you out here, instead of at the sheriff's office."
She turned back to face him. "I'm sure there was, Mr. Styles, but it really doesn't matter to me, because all of those rumors are lies."
"I believe it mattered to your husband - enough that he felt he had to kill Dennis Bishop in order to save his own life."
"Harlan would never do such a thing."
"I think Dennis wanted your husband dead, only he knew he'd never get away with it. But there was that poker game every week. If he could do something at the game - like remove an ace from the desk - and then kill off a few of the players, your husband included, it would seem to be connected to nothing except the poker game. And, if he couldn't sell that, then he could scapegoat the federal government, who most certainly does have an interest in your husband and his activities."
"That's insane," she argued.
"Yes, it is, but if you think about it, you'll find that it does answer a lot of potential questions... Well, except one." She gave him an expectant look and he continued. "Whether or not you knew what Dennis was planning to do."
She jerked back like he'd slapped her. "Can you really believe that I knew about something like that and didn't try to stop it, can you?"
"I don't know, Mrs. Wilds. I assume you know what your husband's plans are..."
"No, I do not know what his plans are. Harlan doesn't think I need to know about those things," she snapped at him. "And I didn't know anything about Dennis killing anyone, either. Dennis is dead, Mr. Styles, and it does no good to speak ill of the dead." She hugged her arms around herself. "I- I really must get back to Vincent now..."
And with that she turned and hurried back inside the hospital. Ezra watched her go, a frown on his face.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Harlan Wilds looked up when his wife hurried into Vincent Tower's hospital room. He frowned when he realized she was upset.
Her head came up and her eyes widened. Her hand flew to her mouth as a surprised "Oh!" escaped her lips.
"Marybeth?" he questioned.
She shook her head and tried to pull herself together, smoothing down her hair and then her blouse.
Looking at her curiously, he asked, "Marybeth, what's wrong?"
She shook her head and headed for the bedside, looking down at Vincent, who was apparently sleeping.
Her husband stepped up closer to her, reaching out to take hold of her arm. "Answer me. What's happened?"
Marybeth pulled away from him, walking to the window and staring out as she tried again to pull herself together. "Harlan..." She turned and met his eyes. "There's a rumor that Dennis Bishop and I were lovers. Did you ever hear that rumor, Harlan?"
"I don't know what you're talking about," Wilds replied, but he couldn't hold her eyes as he said it.
"Harlan, everything we have together depends on what you tell me here and now. If you lie to me, I'll know. You know I will."
She continued to stare at her husband long after her words had delivered her message. He finally looked up and met her eyes as he said, "Yes, I was aware of the rumor."
"But you never chose to speak to me about it," she said flatly.
"I thought about it. I thought about it a lot," he told her. "I decided not to. I knew it couldn't be true."
She looked at him thoughtfully, then turned back to the window, deciding not to rebut his statement. "I have one more question," she said quietly. "And you'd better answer this one more truthfully than the last." She turned back around and looked him squarely in the eyes. "Did you kill Dennis?"
There was a long pause, then Harlan opened his mouth to speak. She held up her hand to stop him. "You don't have to answer. What Mr. Styles said was true. You actually believed I was involved with Dennis." She shook her head sadly. "Oh, Harlan... I have never been unfaithful to you. I never would."
"Marybeth, I can explain."
Her hand came up again. "No. You killed him, Harlan. Dennis believed in you, in your cause, and you killed him."
"It's too late. It's all too late," she said, shaking her head. "All our friends are dead - Dennis, poor Vincent... Maybe we were wrong, Harlan. Maybe this isn't the right way at all. Maybe the Lord is angry with us."
"No, Marybeth, it's not too late. All right, I did know about those rumors, but I didn't believe them. I didn't. At least, I didn't until the killings began, and then- God help me, Marybeth, I did. You have to forgive me for that, but under the circumstances, the killings, I started to believe the rumors because it was an explanation for something that made no sense. Andrew has checked and double-checked all the men like Vincent we have working with us, and none of them are feds. That was the only other thing that made any sense. Can't you see that?"
"Forgive you?" Marybeth gasped, having only heard half of what he was saying. "How could I forgive you for that? For actually thinking, for a single moment, that I could have lain with another man. Harlan, marriage is sacred. We were sealed before God!"
"I know, but"
"I- I can't stay with you any longer..." As she started for the door to the room, Chris arrived, blocking her path. She pulled up sharply, her eyes going wide.
"Wait," Harlan snapped and she did. "I'll go," he told her. "The blood is already on my hands. I'll finish this myself." And with that he brushed past her and Larabee.
Chris frowned. "Mrs. Wilds?" he questioned.
Her hand was over her mouth again, her eyes filling with tears. She shook her head, unable to speak.
"Chris," Vin called airily.
Larabee crossed to the bed, Vin telling him what he'd overheard. The blond listened, then turned back to Marybeth, who looked like she just didn't know what to do next. She began to quietly hum a lullaby under her breath as she rocked back and forth.
"Mrs. Wilds," Chris snapped, "where is he going?"
She shook her head. "Too late, it's too late... it's all too late..."
"Where is he going?" Larabee demanded again.
"To usher in the reign of the Lord," she replied, then sobbed. "But it's too late, he's already damned." She looked up at him. "Doesn't he know that?"
On that line, Ezra stepped into the room to join them. "Excuse me?" he said, completely at a loss.
Marybeth looked from Ezra to Chris. "You have to help me," she said. "Harlan... He, he killed Dennis. He's despoiled our marriage bed. He"
"Lady," Chris snapped, "where the hell is he going?"
"You have to stop him," she replied, meeting Larabee's eyes. "I can't leave him. I could never leave him - now or ever. You have to help me. You will, won't you? I know, you know. I know who you really are... Poor Vincent, he was in such pain. He was talking in his sleep, calling for you... Mr. Larabee."
Chris drew up short and shot her a hot look. "If you know who we are, then you know we came to stop your husband. He's planning to kill innocent children in some harebrained scheme to bring about Armageddon."
Her chin began to quiver. "He said the Lord spoke to him, told him what had to be done."
"Your husband's nothing more than a deluded racist and an anti-Semite," Ezra told her, the distaste he felt for the man very clear in his tone.
"Tell us where he's going," Chris demanded, stepping up to grab hold of her arms.
She squealed and tried to pull free, but his grip was too strong.
"Now!" Larabee growled.
"The federal building!" she wailed. "But you can't let him! If the Lord returns, Harlan will be cast down with the goats!"
Larabee shoved the woman out of his way, Ezra catching her as she broke down and began sobbing uncontrollably. Grabbing his cell phone, he speed-dialed the office and when Josiah answered, he said, "Get everyone out of the building, Wilds is on his way. He's planning to blow up the building. I'm on my way!"
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Josiah hung up the phone and looked up at his fellow teammates. "Wilds is coming. We need to evacuate the building," he stated calmly. "Call security, have them get started now."
Nathan was reaching for his phone before the profiler finished his sentence, and, moments later, a soft alarm was sounding in the hallway, the distinctive warble letting employees in the building know there was a bomb threat.
As people began to hurry past their offices, Josiah continued. "Wilds is on his way from the hospital I'm guessing, since that's where Chris was supposed to be. The boss says he going to try to blow up the building."
That sparked Buck to reach for his phone. A moment later he was speaking to a friend in the DPD. "Yeah, Frank, I need a favor. Looks like we might have a guy on the way to blow up the federal building... Yeah, I'm serious. Look, the guy is Harlan Wilds... Yep, that's the one. I need your guys to set up a perimeter, on the double, and be on the lookout for a 1995 Ford Explorer, Black, plates are Colorado, Adam Charlie X-ray one zero eight two... Yeah, I know. Look, this guy might be on some kind of a suicide run, okay, so tell your guys to be careful... Right, you do the same."
"Don't you guys think we better leave, too?" JD asked when Buck was finished.
Josiah nodded. "But we're only going as far as the ground floor."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Chris spotted Wilds' Explorer ahead of him in traffic and maneuvered so he could keep an eye on the man's Explorer as they headed toward Denver. He fished his cell phone out of his pocket and called Josiah again. "Building cleared?"
"Almost," came the man's calm reply.
"I'm on Wilds," Larabee told him. "I'll let you know where he gets off I-25."
"Roger that," Josiah replied. "DPD is setting up a perimeter and they know to look for the Explorer."
"Where will you be?" Chris asked.
"We're taking up positions on Stout Street."
"All right," Chris replied. "We should be there in less than a half hour."
"We'll be waiting."
Chris set his phone on the dash and concentrated on Wilds, knowing that, between his own people and the DPD, Wilds would be forced off on Speer. He shook his head, wondering how someone could get sucked into his own paranoia as deeply as Wilds had.
Several minutes later, they reached the park and, moments later, he followed the black Explorer off on Speer Boulevard, but as the man pulled away from a red light he took a turn that would have him headed away from the federal building. The blond cursed softly and grabbed his cell phone, speed-dialing Josiah.
"Yeah?" answered the profiler.
"He's not going to the federal building. He's on Colfax- Shit. The school!" Chris pressed down on the gas. The Kunsberg School-Jewish Med Center ran a day program for special needs children and it was one of five targets Wilds had planed to destroy in order to launch the Second Coming. Two of the other targets were Catholic schools, and the last two Jewish grade schools.
He passed a Honda Civic and pulled in behind Wilds, pulling into the parking lot when the older man did. He leapt out, drawing his weapon at the same time. "Wilds!" he shouted as the man climbed out of the Explorer.
Harlan's head snapped around. "Lawson? Why are-?" But then he knew. "You work for the Zionist Occupied Government, don't you."
"Larabee, ATF," Chris replied. "Step away from the vehicle."
"You're too late," Wilds said, shaking his head sadly, his hands in the pockets of the windbreaker he was wearing. "The explosives are on a timer."
"This isn't the answer," Chris said, already knowing that he'd never be able to get through to the man. His hatred and paranoia ran too deep, were too powerful.
"This is the only answer," Wilds countered. "He is coming. This world will be purged of sinners."
"I know," Larabee cut in, "but when He does come, you'll be a part of that purge, won't you. You killed Dennis Bishop."
Wilds' eyes were half-wild, half-anguished. "I had no choice. He was going to kill me, to get to Marybeth."
"She was sleeping with him."
Harlan shook his head vehemently. "No. She'd never despoil her marriage vows like that."
Chris snorted. "That why one of my men caught her giving Vincent a sponge bath?"
"What?" he demanded, unsure if he could trust Lawson or not.
"You heard me," Larabee replied, seeing Josiah's Suburban pulling into the parking lot.
"No, she- You don't understand," he argued. "She's... simple in some ways, innocent. She- If someone's hurt, they're like a child to her. She has to take care of them. Bishop misunderstood her feelings. She just wanted to take care of him. The Lord didn't see fit to bless us with children."
Thank God, Chris thought as he saw his men working their way toward them. "Children, huh?"
"Yes. Bishop was hurt in a training accident. Marybeth nursed him back to health. I knew he was smitten with her, but I never expected him to kill for her."
"She asked me to stop you," Chris told the man, seeing that his wife was the only thing that seemed to break past Wilds' obsession with Armageddon. "She wants you to come back to her. She decided she was wrong. She said she knows she can't leave you."
"She really said she'd stay with me?" Wilds asked, his expression surprisingly hopeful.
"That's what she said," Chris replied.
Wilds hesitated for a moment, but then he shook his head. "No, it's too late. I've made my bed... But at least I can do one truly good thing before I die."
Chris didn't think, he reacted, pulling the trigger and dropping the man to the pavement. The others rushed forward, all of them with their weapons drawn.
Nathan knelt and checked the man's neck for a pulse. He shook his head. But the head wound made it obvious that Harlan Wilds was dead.
Chris holstered his gun and stepped over. He checked the pockets of Wilds' windbreaker, finding the detonation switch. He shook his head. It had been too close. "Send in the troops and round up the rest of his 'army' before they decide to carry on without their leader," he said softly. "I'm going back to the hospital."
The next day
Vin lowered himself carefully into the waiting wheelchair, being careful not to jar his head too much. He still had a headache, but at least it had gotten tolerable over the last few days. He sighed with relief when the movement didn't cause a sudden spike in the dull throb that pulsed from temple to temple.
Nathan grinned slightly at him, asking, "Do you want one of the pain-killers the doctor gave you to take home?"
"Naw, but thanks," Vin replied. He checked his watch. "Y' think they're on their way back?"
Nathan nodded. "More than likely. The last call I got from Josiah, he said they'd rounded up the rest of the men Wilds was training out at the compound, and Sheriff Reeves had been picked up, too, so they ought to be headed back to the city by now." He paused, noting that Vin had gotten a little pale. "You okay?"
"Yeah, m' stomach's just feelin' a little... cranky."
Jackson nodded. Given the mild concussion the man had suffered, that was to be expected. He figured the ride out to Larabee's ranch would probably tire the man out completely, but Chris had refused to allow Tanner to go home alone to his apartment.
"Hey, Nate, what happened with Mrs. Wilds?"
The former medic frowned slightly, then said, "She collapsed when she heard about her husband. They have her up on the fifth floor and are doing a mental evaluation to see where things stand... But I have to tell you, that woman made my skin crawl."
Vin looked up at the man, surprised. Nathan was generally as nonjudgmental as they came. "I don't know... I mean, yeah, she was a few fries short of a happy meal, but she seemed to have a good heart."
Nathan shrugged and shook his head. "She was... creepy."
Vin frowned. "She was not. She was just... I don't know, kinda innocent."
"Innocent?" Nathan asked as an orderly came in and began to push Vin to the exit.
He waited until he had Vin settled in his Explorer and was behind the wheel himself before he added, "I don't know if 'innocent' really applies to Marybeth Wilds."
"Why do you say that?" Vin asked, catching the half-amused, half-teasing look on the man's face.
"Caught her giving you a sponge bath one afternoon," Nathan said as he pulled out of the parking space and headed for the parking lot exit.
"A what?" Vin yelped.
"You hear me. And I mean a bath."
Vin's eyes had rounded with surprise and embarrassment. "You- You mean, she was washin' me..."
"Everywhere," Nathan finished for him, then added as the man's cheeks began to burn, "Was cooing at you like you was a baby while she did it, too."
"What?" Another yelp.
Flashing Tanner a grin, Nathan said, "She was treatin' you like you was her little baby. It was"
"Disturbing," Vin finished. "I know she was... a little off, but..."
"Guess Dennis Bishop liked it so much he fell in love with her."
Vin shook his head and instantly regretted it. "T' be honest, I'm just glad the whole thing's over."
"Amen to that," Jackson agreed.
Vin grinned slightly. "Though huntin' Chris and Ezra down was a lot of fun."
It was Nathan's turn to shake his head. "Just lucky you were training with paint guns."
"You mean they were lucky," Vin countered.
"No, I mean you were. You had to let them shoot you, remember?"
Vin snorted softly and glanced out the window as they took the onramp to the interstate. "Wish I'd been there for the end of it," he complained.
"We all do," Nathan told him. "But the important thing is that you're alive and you're going to be all right... with plenty of rest."
"Yes, Mother," Vin teased.
"I'm serious, Vin," the man grumbled. "You came damn close to dying out there. You need to rest and let yourself heal, y'hear me?"
"I hear you," Vin said quietly. He knew how close it had been, knew because he'd awoken one time to hear Chris praying over him, something he hadn't ever expected to hear. And the sniper couldn't imagine Chris doing it if he hadn't thought he was dying.
Tanner carefully turned his head to meet Nathan's worried gaze. "How many of these nutcases do y' think we're going t' have t' deal with before this whole millennium thing is over?"
Jackson huffed out a sigh. "Hell, Vin, I'm hoping this one will be the last, but that's probably just wishful thinking on my part."
"Was afraid you'd say that," Tanner grumbled.
"Cheer up," Nathan said, adding, "Maybe next time you'll get to shoot Chris and Ezra."
That made the man smile. "Now you're talkin'."