Main characters: Vin, Chris
Warnings: Deaths (in flashback) of minor canon characters. Language, including a few racial epithets (necessary to the story, sorry). Also, this fic includes a couple of scenes set during war-time that contain graphic details some people may find disturbing. If you think you're one of those people you may want to skip over the scenes.
Notes: Thanks again to MOG for creating such a great universe to play in. This story is a sequel to my previous fic Roller Coaster Beginnings (though it can be read as a stand-alone). Vin Tanner is now part of Team Seven but things are not going smoothly, a problem that complicates the team's planned takedown of two dangerous gangs.
Still swearing, Chris Larabee stormed into the outer office of ATF Team Seven. JD Dunne skittered out of his way, almost dropping the file folder he was holding in his haste.
"Sorry, Chris - "
"Chris?" came another, deeper voice.
Larabee paused in mid-stride to throw a murderous glare at Josiah Sanchez who was hanging up the telephone. Not by so much as a flicker did the profiler indicate he was aware of how furious his superior was.
"Nathan just called from the hospital. Vin's being seen now."
"How is he?" JD said quickly. "Is he okay?"
Josiah gave him a reassuring smile. "Nathan said he should be fine. The injuries are superficial."
Chris's glare only intensified. He stomped into his office and slammed the door shut before yanking off his jacket and flinging it at the chair.
"Dumb, stupid, son of a bitch!" he snarled at the wall. He was glad, truly glad, Vin wasn't seriously injured. That meant Chris could kill him.
What had the man been thinking? Dumb question, Larabee. If Vin had taken the time to think he would have known better than to act. Instead of thinking the Texan acted and it was a miracle he wasn't killed by one of his own people.
Chris's hands clenched into fists. Sure as hell, he was going to kill the sharpshooter himself.
In the outer office, JD looked worriedly at Josiah. "You sure Vin's okay?"
"I think we can trust Nathan's judgment."
The young agent didn't look any less anxious. "I know but - Chris is awfully mad."
The profiler suppressed a sigh. Watching their team leader storm around his office only reinforced Josiah's belief that Chris and Vin needed a little time apart. He gave JD another reassuring smile and sat down at his desk, pretending to skim through a file while he thought about how to approach his superior.
The case itself had been straight-forward, backing up Team Three in taking down a gang that was trying to smuggle several cases of stolen RPG's, rocket-propelled grenades, out of the country. When the ATF team identified itself at the takedown, all hell broke loose. As the chaos was finally winding down one of the criminals made a run for freedom. Vin spotted him from his position in the rafters and chased him down a block away.
All that was well and good. The reason Chris was blowing a gasket was because Vin hadn't radioed his intentions to his teammates so no one knew he'd left his position. Worse, for some unknown reason he’d removed his jacket identifying him as an ATF agent, so all anyone saw was someone apparently trying to escape arrest.
The unthinkable almost happened. Mike Ramsey, leader of Team Three, came frighteningly close to shooting Vin when the Texan ran out of the building, back-up pistol in hand, in pursuit of the fleeing criminal. Only at the last second did he recognize the other agent and hold his fire.
Josiah concentrated on taking some deep breaths. Because he didn't follow procedure Tanner was nearly killed by another agent. Almost losing a teammate was horrific even to think about. How much worse would it be to lose a teammate because the man ignored ATF protocol? Except Josiah was sure Vin hadn't deliberately ignored the rules. Rather, in the heat of the moment he'd simply fallen back into older, more deeply ingrained habits.
He rubbed his face hard in the hope it would help him to think. Bottom line, being part of a team didn't come naturally to the Texan. It was strange, considering Vin had been part of a Ranger team for most of his six years in the Army. But for whatever reason (and always excepting his expertise with weapons), the sharpshooter behaved as if those years in the military never happened, as if he had always been alone. Which was more true than not, but the dichotomy still made Josiah wonder.
In the two-plus months since he'd joined Team Seven, Vin had had a hard time letting go of habits developed over a lifetime of being on his own. It was a problem the profiler expected and cautioned Chris about more than once. Thinking that Vin would be able to instantly settle in as a member of the team wasn't reasonable. There were sure to be a few bumps along the road.
Josiah's lips quirked when he recalled Chris's response to this soothing platitude. "Bumps I can handle," he snapped. "It's those big damn rocks on the road that worry me."
Larabee's anger with Vin today was understandable. However, jumping on the Texan without taking the time to hear his side could be disastrous. Vin Tanner might be quiet and unassuming in nature but he also possessed a strong will and a stubborn streak that nothing, not even an angry team leader, could sway.
Josiah needed to get Chris calmed down before Vin and Nathan returned. How to do that was the issue. If he just walked into Chris's office -
The sound of approaching footsteps jerked his head up and his apprehension turned to relief at the sight of Ezra and Buck entering. Not Vin, not yet. There was still time to think of something.
Buck's eyes darted around the room, ending with a look at the inner office. "The roof's still on the building so I'm guessing Vin's not back yet."
"No," JD said with another worried glance at their team leader. "Nathan called a few minutes ago to say he was being checked out at the hospital."
"Mr. Tanner is not seriously injured?" Ezra said.
The tone was casual but Josiah didn't miss the tension around the green eyes and he tried for another reassuring smile. "Nathan says he'll be fine."
"Excellent." Ezra took a step toward his desk and stopped. "Why, pray tell, is that disorderly accumulation of files perched on my desk?"
"Oh, sorry, Ezra." JD leaped to his feet and grabbed the offending files. "I forgot to take them back."
"You were working at my desk?" Elegant eyebrows rose in disapproval.
JD blushed and gave Buck a pleading look. The big man chuckled. "We were doing some research and ran late. There was stuff spread all over the place. We started to gather it up but Chris called us in to go over some last minute things and, well, the time kind of got away from us." He shrugged. "You know how it goes."
Ezra's lips thinned. "Unfortunately, Mr. Wilmington, where you are concerned I do indeed know ‘how it goes’."
"See there, JD? Ez understands – hold on." Buck glowered at the undercover man. "That didn't sound like a compliment."
"There are rare occasions when you display surprising astuteness, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra said as he pulled out a chair and sat down at his desk.
"Now, brothers," Josiah put in. "This is no time to get sidetracked. We have a problem we need to deal with right away."
Buck's expression changed to one of concern. "Yeah, but how? I mean, I get that Vin saw a perp running and went after him. But why in the hell didn't he tell us what he was going to do? And why in God's name did he take off his jacket? Any one of us could've shot first and found out too late he wasn't one of the bad guys."
Josiah looked around the room; everyone wore the same troubled expression. "We don't know why Vin did what he did, and we are not going to gang up on him about it." He made sure he met each man's gaze before going on. "Vin's had to make a lot of adjustments since joining the team and he's dealing with a lot of pressure. He needs to talk it through with Chris and we need to give him the space to do it."
"I do not believe that Mr. Larabee is in a very communicative mood," Ezra said, looking at the inner office. "At least not in a mood that is conducive to calm discussion."
"I’ll - "
"Let me take a shot.” Buck cut Josiah off. "I know where Chris is coming from."
Buck grimaced. "No, but I think I should."
The profiler hesitated before nodding. "That's a good idea. He's probably sick and tired of hearing my two cents every time a problem comes up."
"You didn't have to agree with me so fast," Buck grumbled. He ignored the chuckles from his teammates, inhaled some air, and marched resolutely toward the door standing between him and his team leader. For once he didn't push it open without warning. He stopped and knocked, half-hoping the man would tell him to stay out.
Buck winced, smoothed out his expression and opened the door. Chris was standing behind his desk, still flushed and furious. Pretending he didn't notice anything wrong, Buck closed the door and sat down.
"Did you hear Nathan called? He said Vin - "
Buck decided to jump right in. "I don't remember the last time I was as scared as this morning."
Chris blinked. "Scared?"
"Yeah, when we found out Vin wasn't in the warehouse and couldn't raise him on his radio." He blew out a gusty breath. "Then when I heard what he'd done I didn't know whether to hug him or strangle him."
Some of the fire faded from the green eyes. "I know the feeling."
Cheered by the response, Buck grinned. "I gotta admit, it's not the first time I felt like that but he's lucky I didn't have a chance to get my hands on him this morning."
That won him a grunt and, even better, Chris relaxed enough to drop into his chair. "What in the hell was he thinking?"
For the first time, Buck heard concern diluting Larabee's anger. Good, now it was time for a little reason. He'd start by nibbling around the edge of the problem. "Vin was the only one in position to see Engwall slipping out and he went after him, just like any of us would've."
"No." The negative was flat and unequivocal. "Any one of us would've first radioed what we were doing, the team would've known and backed up the one leaving his position. Vin didn't bother doing that."
"I know. But you gotta remember he's only been with us a couple months. You can't expect him to forget all those years of thinking a certain way in that short a time."
Chris gave him a sour look. "You been talking to Josiah?"
"I didn't need to talk to him," Buck returned indignantly. "It's not like I'm new to this game, you know."
"Yes, but - " Chris's glare intensified. "My God, Buck, what made him take off his jacket? It almost got him killed!"
"I don't know. Nobody knows, 'cept Vin. He had a reason, Chris, I'm sure of it. You need to let him tell you."
The green eyes cut back to him and Buck almost flinched at their hard expression. "You need to let him tell you why he did what he did," he insisted. "If you don't, if you just go ballistic on him, he'll quit."
Chris looked away. "Maybe . . ."
He stopped but Buck had a good idea what the man was thinking and he said quickly, "You know better than that. The team is stronger with Vin than without him."
"Damn it," Chris growled at the air.
"He scared us all this morning," Buck said. "I know you, Big Dog. When you get scared you get mad. But you can't drop that on him without hearing his side first." Seeing his old friend's lips tighten he tried another grin. "Maybe after."
Larabee's gaze dropped to the desk. "You've got a report to write. Go write it."
Buck got slowly to his feet, feeling suddenly uncertain. Had he found the right words to make the man think instead of just explode? It was always a toss-up whether Chris's temper would win over reason. Too often it did and then they had to pick up the pieces afterwards. He left the office, unexpectedly depressed.
"Well?" JD said anxiously. "How'd it go?"
Buck looked at him, at Ezra, at Josiah. "I'm not sure. Maybe if would've been better if you'd talked to him, 'Siah."
The profiler smiled sympathetically. "Don't sell yourself short. You and Chris go back a long way. You've been through a lot together and he trusts your judgment."
"I hope you're right." Buck glanced back at the inner office. At least Chris was still sitting behind his desk. He wasn't storming around or throwing things. That was something to take comfort in.
"We'd better get started on those reports," he said.
+ + + + + + +
Vin Tanner was deeply grateful that no splinters had struck him in the eyes. He was even more grateful that the high-powered bullet intended for him was deflected by the crates he'd ducked behind. Still, he was annoyed by how much his face hurt. It was damned distracting and distraction was always dangerous.
He wanted to rub his cheek and forehead where the wooden splinters had been removed but Nathan Jackson had already reproved him once when he tried. Instead he walked stoically beside the bigger man as they entered the Federal Building. His step slowed at the sight of people crowding into an elevator.
Nathan stopped. "We'll grab the next one," he said and stood aside to let two more women squeeze in.
Vin felt a surge of warmth. He had never told any of his teammates about his problem with small spaces but they figured it out on their own and, without ever making him feel conspicuous or foolish, quietly avoided putting him into situations where he would feel closed in.
Would he ever be able to tell them why small spaces made him uncomfortable? He didn't think so for that would involve reliving his worst memories, memories he spent a lot of time and energy keeping buried.
The fact that he even considered the possibility reminded Vin how far he had come in the last few months. From bounty hunter to wanted fugitive to cleared of all charges to becoming an ATF agent. Sometimes when he thought about all that had happened in such a short time it made him a little dizzy. Even when he'd accepted Larabee's offer to join the team he wasn't sure it was a good idea. As it’d turned out, he'd had good reason to doubt.
He thought about the I.D. and badge resting snugly under his jacket. More than once he’d considered handing them back. Maybe today was the day.
The doors of another elevator opened and Nathan stepped inside and immediately hit the Close Door button. Vin was relieved when the doors slid shut; at least he only had to deal with one other person and Nathan was remaining considerately silent.
Vin sighed to himself. He'd done his best to keep his teammates at a distance but failed. They'd all found a way into his heart and leaving them would be the hardest part of leaving the ATF. Especially Chris. He still didn't understand that almost instant connection he'd felt with the man when they first met but it was a connection that time had only strengthened.
Damn it, he'd never wanted to get into this kind of mess again. He couldn't stand the thought of it happening again. Closing his eyes, Vin fought back a wave of emotion.
He opened his eyes to see Nathan looking at him with a concerned expression. The elevator door was open; they'd reached the seventh floor. Trying to hide his chagrin at this lapse in attention, he stepped out.
It was closing in on noon and from the break room Vin smelled something cooking. Considering he hadn't eaten since yesterday morning the smell should have made him hungry but it only turned his stomach. Food was the last thing he wanted.
His heart sank when he entered the office of Team Seven. Everyone was there, working away at their desks. Heads rose as he and Nathan walked in.
"Hi, guys," Buck greeted, his smile not hiding the worry in his eyes. "Damn, Vin, you look like you went a few rounds with a weed whacker and lost."
Before Vin could come up with a retort JD said, "You okay?"
He couldn't help but smile. Wasn't it obvious? "'m fine, JD."
"It is unfortunate that your appearance is not in agreement with your reassuring words," Ezra noted.
Vin reached instinctively toward his face only to have Nathan slap his hand away. "Remember what the doctor said," he reminded sternly.
"What did the doctor say?" Josiah asked.
Vin spoke quickly before Nathan could. "She said I'm fine."
"Will be fine," Nathan corrected, ignoring Vin's narrowed-eye glare. "Between the antibiotic ointment and - "
"Nathan, enough," Vin said, amused as well as a little exasperated. They were all a bunch a nannerin' nanny goats, always sticking their noses in their teammates' business.
Memory of another team that had done the same swept through him and his breath caught in his throat. He dropped his gaze to the floor while he struggled for control. He needed to get out of this place, away from these men, before it was too late. No matter how hard it would be.
"Vin, my office."
Chris's terse order cut through the painful memories. Unaccountably relieved, Vin obeyed, not caring that the man shut the door with more force than necessary. When Chris sat down again Vin was almost glad to see his stormy expression. Larabee in a temper would make it easier on both of them when he turned in his badge.
"What happened?" the blonde demanded.
Vin expected Chris to start yelling immediately. This calm, if cold, question took him aback.
"After the bust went down and the perps in custody I spotted Engwall slippin' out and went after him." He gave a slight shrug. "I caught him and brung him back."
Chris's lips tightened. "It didn't occur to you to advise the team of your intentions before you acted?"
"Nope." The more official the man sounded, the more it got Vin's back up, even though he knew he was in the wrong. He hadn't thought about using his radio; he hadn't thought about telling his teammates what he was doing. He'd seen one of the enemy trying to escape and reacted. End of story.
Chris looked down at his desk. Vin waited; he knew the explosion was imminent. Or maybe the man was going to wait to explode until after -
Green eyes met his, bright with anger. "Why in the hell did you take off your jacket?"
Despite his obvious temper Chris still wasn't yelling and it surprised Vin. Keeping his expression neutral, he said, "Somethin' was wrong with the zipper. It kept catchin' on my vest." He shrugged again. "So I took it off."
Years of military training had taught him to set aside anything that interfered with his focus when he was preparing to shoot, and he'd slipped back into that mind-set without realizing it. Another mistake, Tanner.
"Do you know Ramsey almost shot you because he thought you were a perp?"
Vin almost snorted. He'd been too intent on running down Engwell to think about anything else. But afterwards, Josiah told him, Nathan told him, even Mike Ramsey came up to him just before Nathan dragged him off to the hospital and told him.
"Things were happenin' fast. I did what I thought I had to."
Chris rubbed his face and took some deep breaths; Vin felt a flicker of amusement. Usually when Larabee got mad, he blew up all over whoever made him mad. Watching him struggling for control was something his teammates didn't see a lot.
"Vin, why didn't you radio that you intended to go after a suspect?"
He thought he'd just explained but it seemed Chris wanted something more. "I didn't think about it. I saw Engwall run and went after him."
Vin had followed his instincts and his training - honed by his years with the Rangers. Except he was supposed to be following new training, new rules, since joining the ATF. He'd screwed up, pure and simple.
"You didn't think about the risk you were taking," Chris said flatly. "You didn't think about ATF protocol or anything else. You just reacted."
"Yeah." There really wasn't anything else to say.
Chris turned in his chair and punched a button on his phone. A second later, Buck's voice sounded.
"Go down to the van and find the jacket Vin was using. It shouldn't be hard; there's supposed to be something wrong with the zipper."
Vin's lips tightened. "Ya think I'm lyin'?"
Chris's eyebrows rose. "Of course you're not lying," he snapped. "I want to make sure that jacket's out of circulation so it doesn't cause any more trouble."
Oh. He was pleased by Chris's certainty that he was telling the truth. And a little surprised. As angry as the man was, he didn't expect such easy acceptance of his explanation of his actions.
"Why didn't you say something right away about your jacket?" Chris demanded.
"I didn't know anythin' was wrong till I got into position and tried to zip it up. By then the bust was about to go down so I took it off so's I could aim without it yankin' at me every time I moved."
Chris rubbed his face again. When he met Vin's gaze again he didn't look angry anymore, only tired. "You were damn lucky, Vin. But this can't happen again."
There it was. He reached inside his jacket.
"No," Chris said sharply, as if reading his mind. "That's not what I meant."
Vin stopped in mid-motion. "Maybe it's best."
"No, it's not." Chris sighed. "Vin, I don't want you to leave the team. And I don't want you killed because you forget you're part of a team."
"I didn't mean t’ forget - "
"I know." For the first time Chris's features relaxed into a smile. "We need to work on that until you know, deep down, you're part of this team. When you know it in your gut you won't forget."
It sounded easy enough. But. The knowledge had been growing in Vin for weeks. The whole idea of being a member of a team - that was the real problem. It wasn't just that he was used to being alone and working alone. The last time he'd been part of a team, the last time he'd allowed the men he worked with to become as close as brothers, it'd blown up in his face so horrifically that Vin didn’t think the nightmares would ever stop. He knew he'd never survive that kind of loss again.
He recalled his earlier thought, about his need to leave Team Seven before he got too close to these guys. Looking at Chris now, recognizing the concern in the green eyes, he knew it was already too late. He'd waited too long.
Unable to turn away from the truth suddenly staring him in the face, Vin felt despair settle over him. He wanted desperately to hand over his badge and flee but instead he lowered his eyes and slowly pulled his hand out of his jacket.
"Okay," he said dully.
Silence fell between them, not the easy, comfortable quiet they were used to but a troubled, aching silence.
There was a knock on the door which opened to reveal Buck. "You want this?" he offered, holding out a jacket with "ATF" emblazoned across the back and sleeves.
"Give it here," Chris said and caught the material when it was tossed to him. "Thanks," he added dismissively and Buck stepped back, giving Vin a smile before shutting the door.
Larabee shook the jacket out and zeroed on the zipper. "Damn," he said. "It looks like it was run over." He held it out and Vin saw what he hadn't had time to notice earlier. The zipper pull was bent and twisted and a couple of the teeth had sprung open.
"No wonder it kept catching on your vest," Chris added before dropping the jacket on his desk. "Next time we'll check all our gear, including jackets, and if you spot something we missed, speak up. Clear?"
Vin's lips twitched despite his misery. "Yeah."
"We'll also work on radio protocols as soon as the reports are done," Chris continued in the same inexorable tone. "For everyone."
"The guys 'll love that."
There was no arguing with that tone and Vin didn't react. Chris waved his hand. "Go on, you've got a report to write."
That wrung a grimace out of him but he rose and turned to leave.
He looked back to meet an intent green gaze. "We're a stronger team with you than without you," Chris said quietly. "Things will get better."
Vin appreciated the support but for some reason it made him feel worse. It wasn't something he could voice, even if wanted to, so he nodded and walked out, shutting the door softly behind him.
Chris looked at the closed door, then down at the pile of papers on his desk. He shoved them aside, irritated all over again. He'd thought after they talked through the whole mess everything would be okay. Except at some point during their talk it had gone wrong and he didn't know when or why. Or what to do about it. All he knew for certain was that Vin Tanner was on the verge of leaving the team.
He rubbed the spot between his eyebrows where a headache was making itself known. Jerking open his center drawer he pulled out the small bottle of aspirin and dry swallowed two of them. They caught in his throat, he choked and grabbed the cup of coffee he hadn't finished earlier. It was cold and tasted like crap but it washed down the pills so he could breathe again. He set the cup aside with a thump and swore under his breath.
Despite Josiah's warnings, Chris had hoped the Texan would settle into the team more easily. There'd been reason to be hopeful for the first month went fairly smoothly.
He grimaced at the thought. Smoothly, right. That easy beginning probably had a lot to do with the fact that they hadn’t been working any active cases. Instead, Team Seven was chosen to represent the ATF at the annual National Conference on Law Enforcement, a two-week get-together of law enforcement personnel from around the country.
The first week was always filled with meetings, seminars, networking and the like and, despite the efforts of the organizers, was mostly boring. The second week was the highlight of the conference because it was dominated by a contest lasting several days that pitted the best marksmen from the country's various law enforcement agencies against one another. The winner and his or her agency won undisputed bragging rights until they were dethroned in a later competition.
Vin had been with the team less than two weeks when they flew off to Washington, D.C. for the conference. Like everyone else who joined the ATF, he'd had to endure physical and written tests, a background check and drug screening. He'd passed them all and also (after some cramming of books recommended by Josiah and supervised by Chris) tested out of other training that was usually required of new agents such as surveillance, arrest techniques, explosives (thanks largely to his Army training) and general law enforcement procedures. Additional training on bomb scene investigations and a couple other areas were still in his future but that didn't prevent him from joining the ATF.
He'd also tested out of one other area of training. Firearms. And he done so in such a way as to turn Vin Tanner into a legend only hours after he'd officially joined the ATF. For the first time in ATF history, he achieved perfect scores across the board, using several different weapons. As soon as those scores were formally confirmed, the news raced through the ATF with the speed of, well, a bullet.
With those results fresh in mind, Vin's new teammates had no doubt how the firearms competition at the national conference would go down. Nor did the Texan disappoint them. He not only won the competition but he surpassed the previous highest scores in the process.
Chris never asked if any of his men had gambled on Vin - at a law enforcement conference of all places - because he didn't want confirmation of what he already knew. He suspected Ezra, in particular, had made a killing, but didn't doubt that all of his men came back to Denver with more money than they had left with.
Despite his headache and frustration, Chris couldn't help smiling at the memories. The experience had proven to be a good, low-key way to begin to integrate Vin into the team. It wasn't until they returned home and tackled their first case with the sharpshooter on board that cracks began to appear in the team's previously smooth interaction.
A knock on the door pulled Chris out of his painful thoughts and he looked up to see Josiah.
"Since we're not going to finish these reports in the next half hour, we figured we'd head over to the Saloon for some lunch, all right?"
Lunch? Already? He looked at his desk clock and couldn't believe the time. Then again, as much as they'd packed into the last six hours it felt like it should be night time.
"Aren't you coming?"
Now that he knew what time it was, Chris realized he should be hungry, except the strain between him and Vin was getting in the way of his appetite. That gave him an idea, providing the Texan intended to stay behind.
"Is Vin going with you?"
The pale blue eyes studied him and Chris suspected the profiler knew what he was thinking.
"No, he says he's not hungry."
So it wasn't affecting only Chris. "You guys go on. Maybe I can persuade him to get something to eat."
Josiah smiled. "That sounds like a good idea."
Chris waited until the usual hub-bub that accompanied his team's departure was replaced by silence. When he opened his door he found what he expected, an empty outer office except for Vin typing slowly on the computer at his desk.
For a minute Chris watched him. He didn't care that it took longer for the Texan to complete his reports than the others for Vin always included the important details and that was what counted. Although Chris had debated talking to him about the odd spelling errors that regularly appeared in his reports, he hadn't. Partly because they didn't affect the accuracy of the reports, and partly because Vin was an intensely private man. Even after more than two months of working side by side with the younger man, Larabee knew nothing more about him than what he had already learned through the normal background checks. When it came to his personal life, Vin remained tight-lipped.
If something came up that required Chris to intrude in those areas the Texan preferred to keep to himself, he would. But he wasn't going to do it without a good reason.
Vin spoke without looking away from the monitor. "Somethin' on your mind, Cowboy?'
Chris almost smiled. He should have known. Vin was always aware of his surroundings, no matter the situation.
"Ain't hungry, thanks."
"Save what you're doing and let's go."
Vin lifted his head to meet his gaze. "I said I - "
"I don't want to hear it," Chris cut in. "Let's go." He watched the muscles in Vin's jaw clench and was secretly entertained. He hadn't yet seen the younger man lose his temper and wondered more than once what it would take.
When Vin didn't move he said, "Come on," with a little more bite.
For a minute the Texan looked tense, undecided, then he sighed a surrender. As he rose he said, "Sometimes ya can be a real pain in the ass, Larabee."
Chris smirked. "You're just figuring that out now?"
That won him a glare. "Nah. Like Ezra said, it's one a your definin' characteristics."
Chris was surprised into laughter. "Where was I when my character was being assassinated by a member of my team?"
"In your office yellin' at someone on the phone," Vin answered, looking smug.
Chris didn't follow through until they got outside. "Are you sure it was Ezra who said I was a pain in the ass? It sounds more like Buck."
Vin gave his friend and team leader a cheeky grin that made him look ten years old. "Buck's the one said ya could be a pain in the ass. Ez talked about definin' characteristics."
Chris shook his head, still grinning when he slid behind the wheel of his truck. "I need to swing by City Hall so I can drop off the affidavit the D.A. wants. Then we'll get something to eat."
Though he was watching the traffic, he could feel the blue-eyed glare and wasn't surprised when Vin said, "Buck an' Ez sure knew what they was talkin' about."
Now he sounded like a sulky kid and Chris tried not to laugh, knowing better than to voice the comparison. A few minutes later they reached City Hall and he was pleasantly surprised to find an empty spot in front of the building.
"Come on," he said.
"I'll stay here, I'm not deliverin' anythin'."
"I want to keep you where I can see you."
Vin stiffened. "Ya think I'm gonna run off?"
Fighting back another grin, Chris pushed his door open. "I want to be sure you get some lunch. Let's go."
Vin sighed again, the sound of a man greatly put upon, and joined him on the sidewalk. "Are ya tryin' to piss me off?" he demanded.
Chris couldn't hold back his amusement any longer and after a minute Vin smiled too. "Just remember, Cowboy, two can play that game."
"Fair enough." He was pleased to see that the Texan was looking more relaxed, which had been his real goal. Choosing a restaurant he knew Vin would like should also help.
Delivering the requested document took only a couple of minutes and then they were on their way out. As Chris pushed open the front door he almost ran into a slender, white-haired woman.
"Sorry, ma'am," he said and stood aside.
"That's all - " She stopped in mid-speech and stared at Vin. "Vin? Vin Tanner?"
"Ms. Nettie?" The disbelief in the Texan's voice was matched by his expression.
A small crowd of people came up the steps toward them and Chris said, "Let's get out of the way."
Vin followed automatically as did the elderly woman. They stopped at the bottom of the stairs and she gave a unlady-like snort of laughter.
"It’s me, all right, in the flesh. I can't believe you're standing in front of me, boy. And what the devil happened to your face?"
"I, uh . . ."
Chris darted a look at Tanner. This was the first time he'd ever seen the younger man looking so, so flummoxed and it was hard to suppress a chuckle.
Still smiling broadly, she interrupted Vin's stammering. "All right, how about a proper greeting first?"
"Yeah." Vin gave his head a quick shake and took a step forward to wrap his arms around her, an embrace she returned whole-heartedly.
"That's better." The dark eyes swept him up and down before fixing Larabee with a direct gaze. Meeting it, Chris found himself revising his initial impression. This wasn't your ordinary little old lady. Despite her white hair and slight build, he had the impression of strength and determination. She would be a formidable adversary. He was relieved when her eyes turned back to Vin.
"What happened to you?" she demanded, one hand almost but not quite touching his face. "Are you all right?"
"'m fine. It was a, an accident."
To Chris's surprise he saw the old woman roll her eyes and he almost laughed. She obviously knew the Texan well.
Vin continued quickly as if to forestall more questions. "Ms. Nettie, what are ya doin' in Colorado?"
"I could ask you the same thing," she said. "But why don't you introduce me to your friend before we get into that."
"Right, sorry." Vin looked at Chris who was entertained by the sight of the younger man's bemused grin. "Ms. Nettie Welles, this is Chris Larabee, my, uh, new boss."
Her grip was firm, no nonsense. "New boss?" she repeated.
Before that hard stare Chris was tempted to salute. "And friend," he added. "I'm with the ATF. Vin joined my team a couple months ago."
"ATF?" Her white eyebrows rose and she fixed Vin with a determined look. "What happened to the Army? I thought you wanted to make a career of it. Although," her eyes narrowed, "now that I think of it, the last letter I got from you was a couple of years ago so I guess I'm behind the times."
A faint red stain darkened Vin's cheeks. "I'm sorry 'bout that, Ms. Nettie. Things kinda, I guess they got away from me."
Chris felt unaccountably annoyed. He didn't like the apologetic note in his friend's voice. "That's in the past," he said dismissively. "I'm sure Vin is happy to see you now."
The dark eyes swung back to him. Chris was expecting her to be annoyed at his interruption but instead was surprised to see - was that approval?
"Sure am," the Texan said quickly. "Ya look real good, Ms. Nettie."
"Thank you, Vin." She smiled warmly. "Other than your poor face, so do you. Law enforcement, hmm?" Her eyes softened. "I think Jake would be very proud."
Chris looked at Vin in time to see him lower his gaze. He recalled the day Josiah first discussed the background of one Vin Tanner, at that time a murder suspect and fugitive from the law. Henrietta Welles was mentioned in the background check that Josiah had run on Vin. She'd been a social worker who identified a man named Jake - what was his last name? Riordan, that was it. According to Nettie Wells, Riordan was young Vin Tanner's guardian and thus able to sign the required forms to enable the seventeen-year-old to join the Army.
But all this had happened in Texas. What was she doing here now?"
Vin was apparently thinking along the same line. "I never thought anythin' could get ya outta Texas, Ms. Nettie."
"It's not much of a story. I moved up here three years ago to take care of my niece after she was diagnosed with cancer." A shadow of pain made her eyes even darker. "She died two years ago and I decided to stay because my great-niece was a senior in high school at the time. The last thing she needed was more upheaval in her life. And the county was looking to hire another social worker so things worked out."
"I'm sorry for your loss," Vin said quietly.
"Thank you," she returned, equally soft, before clearing her throat. "It seems we have a lot of catching up to do. You should come over this weekend for dinner, what about Saturday?"
Chris barely swallowed a smile at the brisk, take-charge attitude. He slanted a look at his companion and almost laughed at Vin's slightly bewildered expression.
"That'd be nice, thanks." He gave Chris a half-smile. "Ms. Nettie's a great cook."
"Chicken and dumplings, if I remember correctly," Nettie said.
"Right, I mean - " Vin looked between Nettie and Chris. "Chicken an' dumplin's was my favorite."
"Great." She dived into her purse and rummaged around before pulling out a business card that she turned over and wrote something on. "Here's my address. Come over around five o'clock so we'll have plenty of time to catch up."
She handed over the card and Vin stuffed it in his pocket. "Thanks, Ms. Nettie. I'm lookin' forward to it."
"So am I. Mr. Larabee, you're welcome, too."
That took Chris by surprise. "Thank you, Ms. Welles." He hesitated. Would his presence interfere with Vin's time with an old - in more than one sense of the word - friend? He looked at the Texan.
"Ya should come, Chris," he said. "Ya ain't lived till ya tried Ms. Nettie's chicken an' dumplin's."
Chris felt a glow of pleasure. Vin wanted him along. "All right, I look forward to it."
"Likewise," Nettie said and looked at her watch. "Excuse me, boys, but I have to run."
Boys? It was Chris's turn to give the woman a bemused look as she hurried off. He couldn't remember the last time someone had referred to him as a boy.
Forty minutes later Chris was feeling both full and a little smug. He'd been right. Hank's Grill would never appeal to anyone interested in gourmet dining but it was right up the Texan's alley. Getting Vin relaxed and in a comfortable environment had done wonders for his appetite. Vin had downed a steak sandwich, the specialty of the house, with every appearance of enjoyment and done equal justice to a mountain of ranch fries accompanied by half a bottle of ketchup.
Chris could hardly point fingers, considering the now-empty plate in front of him. He sipped his coffee while he debated his next step. Part of his plan in dragging his teammate out of the office had been to try to get the Texan talking about whatever was bothering him. But Vin was looking so much better that he was reluctant to rock the boat with questions. Best of all, the tension he'd sensed earlier between them had disappeared.
Since meeting Nettie Welles he also had a lot of questions about the redoubtable old woman and her relationship with Vin. But he decided to hold those questions for another day, wanting to keep the conversation light and casual. They had spent most of lunch chuckling over Buck and JD's collection of toys, including Buck's most recent acquisition - radio-controlled race cars.
"I swear those two ’ve got more toys than any kid I ever knew, specially Buck."
"That's because he's the biggest kid either of us know," Chris said dryly. He glanced at his watch. "You want some dessert before we leave?"
Chris eyed him knowingly. "Maybe some of their death-by-chocolate cake?"
"Think they got any left?" A rare, wide smile spread across Vin's face.
"Let's find out." As he lifted a hand to get the waitress's attention his cell phone buzzed. "Damn." He pulled it out and flipped it open. "Larabee."
"Agent Larabee." Orrin Travis spoke with his usual briskness. "Your presence is required at a meeting that will be held in a half-hour."
"Conference room three."
"I'll be there."
Chris snapped his cell phone shut and gave Vin a wry look. "We're going to have to get that dessert to go."
Almost exactly one-half hour later Chris walked into the conference room. Travis was sitting at the head of the long table; two other men were also present, sitting across from each other. Chris recognized one of them. Walt Gaynor was a Lieutenant in the Denver Police Department and head of their gang unit. The other man, a young African American, was a stranger.
"Agent Larabee," Travis said without preamble, "I believe you know Lieutenant Gaynor."
"Larabee," Gaynor said with a nod. "This is Rick Addison, one of my officers."
Chris sat down at the opposite end of the table. "Why am I here?"
"Captain Rhodes called me with information that Lieutenant Gaynor's unit recently obtained," Travis said. "The Captain and I agree that responding to this information will require the joint efforts of the Denver Police Department and the ATF. Lieutenant?"
Gaynor looked at Chris. "What I'm about to tell you can't leave this room."
Chris bristled. "If this involves taking my team into a volatile situation they'll need to know the details."
He saw Travis' lips tighten but didn't care. Gaynor waved a dismissive hand. "I'm not talking about the case, I'm talking about one specific part that has to remain secret."
"Let's hear it," Chris demanded.
Gaynor looked at Travis who nodded and back to Larabee. "Addison here was able to infiltrate one of the street gangs a few months back and has been funneling information to us ever since. You cannot reveal that to anyone, I don't care how trustworthy you think they are."
Chris didn't like Gaynor's tone but he couldn't fault his concern for his man. "Fine." He looked at the young officer. "I take it this information came through you."
"Yes. I've been working undercover for several months as a member of the Skulls. Last week I shot a cop and that got me in tight with the gang's higher-ups, Devone Miller and Chazz Fernandez."
The calm admission startled Chris though he knew there had to be more to the story. As for the names Addison had mentioned, he recognized them. The Skulls were one of the biggest street gangs in Denver. Chazz Fernandez was head of the gang and Devone Miller was his lieutenant.
"We set up the shooting to help Addison's cover," Gaynor said. "The officer was wearing two layers of Kevlar under his coat so the bullet didn’t do any damage. But it looked realistic enough and we put the word out that he was in the hospital in critical condition."
"That was still a hell of a risk," Chris observed.
"The officer volunteered," Gaynor snapped. "And it worked out. It got Addison a lot closer to Fernandez and Miller a lot faster."
Chris's radar twinged. "Faster," he repeated.
The Lieutenant looked at his subordinate who said, "I heard a rumor that the Skulls have started stockpiling weapons, supposedly with the intention of an all-out war with the Double Deuces."
Damn. This day just kept getting worse.
"Getting close to Fernandez and Miller allowed me to confirm the rumor, and I also found out the Double Deuces know what the Skulls are up to and have started accumulating their own war chest of weapons. I got word to the Lieutenant last night."
"I told my superiors ASAP," Gaynor said, "and the Captain decided to contact the ATF about a joint operation."
He didn't sound wholly approving and Chris couldn't blame him. If he'd received this information directly he wouldn't have wanted any outsiders butting in the case. But considering that the Skulls were rumored to have close to a thousand members and the Double Deuces almost as many, this was going to be way too big of a case for one PD unit to handle. Not to mention God knows how many weapons, which definitely fell under ATF jurisdiction.
Travis looked at his subordinate. "After discussing the matter with Captain Rhodes it was agreed that Team Seven will take the lead in this case, since locating and confiscating the weapons must take precedence. Of course you will work closely with Lieutenant Gaynor's unit."
No wonder Gaynor looked unhappy. Chris tried not to be too obvious about his satisfaction at being in charge. "Yes, sir. If we’re going to be taking on these gangs, we're going to need additional teams for back-up."
"I agree." Travis flipped open the file folder on the table before him. "Teams Two and Four are currently available. The other teams are either involved in cases or finishing up. I might be able to bring one or more of those teams on board but it will depend on how quickly this case goes down." He frowned. "I wouldn't ordinarily assign so many teams to one case but this has the potential for turning the city into a war zone. We have to avoid that at all costs."
"Very well." Travis closed the folder and stood up. "I will leave you gentlemen to come up with a plan which Captain Rhodes and I will review, although I doubt there will be any problem with approving it. Keep me apprised, Agent Larabee."
"Yes, sir," Chris said. After the door closed behind the Judge he turned to Gaynor. "How many people can you bring in on this?"
"Some of my officers have specific assignments that can't be interrupted. I can bring in ten now, probably more in a week or so but no guarantees."
Ten plus three ATF teams. Twenty-some law enforcement personnel against nearly two thousand gang members. Not a happy thought. Chris cut his eyes to Addison.
"Any idea when this is supposed to go down?"
"I haven't heard any specifics but I got the impression it'll be soon."
"Let's hold off on impressions and concentrate on what we know," Gaynor said sharply. Ignoring his subordinate’s angry look, he added, "If it wasn't for the probable collateral civilian damage, I'd say let them blow each other to kingdom come. We'd have a lot less assholes to deal with when it was over."
Chris’s eyebrows rose. Before he could respond Addison said heatedly, "Do the words 'serve and protect' ring a bell, sir?"
"Watch your mouth - "
"These kids grew up in neighborhoods that were nothing more than war zones and the only family most of them have is their gang - "
"Don't spout that psycho-social shit to me," Gaynor snapped. "Call 'em what you like. Gang bangers, drug dealers, fucking murderers - they're all the same."
"That's enough!" Chris's voice cut like a knife. "Our job is to stop this before it blows up in our faces. If the two of you can't work with the ATF to make it happen then you're out."
Gaynor's head whipped around to him. "You can't kick me out."
"A call from Travis to your Captain sure as hell can." Chris met his furious gaze. "I'll see that he makes that call unless you cut this shit out."
The Lieutenant took a deep breath through his nose and exhaled noisily. "No one can accuse me of not being a team player."
"We'll see." Chris looked at the younger officer. "We won't stand a chance if we wait until they start fighting so we have to stop it before it gets to that point. Which means getting hold of the weapons. Any ideas where they might be keeping them?"
"No, not yet. I'll keep digging but . . ."
He let the sentence trail off; he didn't need to finish. They all understood the difficulty of his task. Addison was already walking a razor-thin line. Any unusual interest would likely catch the attention of other gang members, with the undercover officer's life forfeit.
Chris rubbed his jaw as he thought. "You know the key players in these gangs. How determined are they to go to war?"
"There's a lot of bad blood between them," Addison admitted. "The word on the street is that Herschel King, leader of the Double Deuces, killed Chazz Fernandez' cousin a couple years back. Fernandez hates King's guts and has been looking for a way to take him out ever since. I don't see any way he'd give up the chance now."
"Bunch of murdering bastards," Gaynor muttered.
Addison glared at his superior. Chris spoke before they could start arguing again. "We need to get to those weapons before a war breaks out," he reminded. "The quickest way to do that is finding a way inside, something we can exploit. Any ideas, Gaynor?" To stop a gang war he was willing to take suggestions from anyone and everyone.
The Lieutenant scowled. "Hell, if I knew don't you think I'd of already said something?"
Chris's gaze switched to Addison. "You've gotten close to the leaders of the Skulls. Is there anything on either one of them, some weakness or vulnerability, that we might be able to use against them?"
"I don't know." Addison frowned. "Both Fernandez and Miller worked their way up through the gang. They're smart and ruthless and as tough as anyone I've ever run into on the street." His frown faded. "One thing, though." He didn't go any further so Chris gave him a push.
"I had a conversation with Devone Miller the other night, he’s second in command of the Skulls. You know that, right?."
Larabee nodded and Gaynor said, "Miller's suspected of blowing away a couple Deuces last year."
This time Addison ignored his superior. "Devone's brother was killed in a drive-by a month ago and it hit him hard. Now he's worried about his youngest brother, Roberto. The kid's just eleven years old and the Skulls are using him as a runner." His lips tightened. "Devone didn't come right out and say so but I got the feeling he wants his brother out of the gang."
Chris's eyes narrowed. "How badly does he want the kid out?"
The officer shrugged. "I'm not a confidante. Devone isn't going to tell me something that might get him or his brother killed."
"What does your gut say?"
Addison chewed his lower lip. "Devone wants him out but he doesn't know how to get him out. It's not like there's any kind of intervention available in the projects for young, wannabe gang members. And if the Skulls got wind of what was going on, both Devone and Roberto would be killed."
"Maybe the kid would have a chance if he could be removed from that environment."
Addison and Gaynor looked surprised. "How would you do that?" the younger officer asked.
"And what does that have to do with stopping a gang war?" the Lieutenant demanded.
"I'm not sure how we'd do it. As for what it has to do with stopping a gang war, we need to look at that." Chris considered the idea. It had come out of left field but now that he had given voice to it he wondered about the possibility. Years in law enforcement had made him cynical about the likelihood of hardened criminals actually turning over a new leaf. He didn't see any hope for Chazz Fernandez or Herschel King or the other long-time members of their gangs, although Josiah would probably disagree.
An eleven-year old kid was another story. And maybe through him they could get to Devone Miller. Then maybe a couple more things might fall into place. The first faint beginnings of a plan began to come together in his mind.
He glanced between the two officers. "Does Miller have any other family?"
"I don't think so," Addison said.
Gaynor shook his head. "I haven't heard of any."
Chris focused on the Lieutenant. "I don't suppose you happen to have any undercover agents working in the Double Deuces?"
Well, it had been a long shot. "What about any about other kinds of connections? Maybe through relatives or friends?"
"Nothing comes to mind, but let me check with my people and I'll get back to you."
That wasn't exactly encouraging but at least it wasn't a complete shut-out. They had a lot of work ahead of them.
Less than an hour later Chris was back in the same conference room. This time only his team was present and he wasted no time in laying out the facts of the case. When he finished there was silence until Buck let out a long whistle.
"So we're looking at twenty against over a thousand? Can't say I like those odds."
"Actually, Mr. Wilmington, I believe that the total accumulated membership of the Skulls and the Double Deuces is closer to two thousand."
Buck glared at their undercover agent. "You got a funny way of trying to make a fellow feel better, Ez."
"On the contrary," Ezra said coolly. "I am merely attempting to correct your misunderstanding of the particulars."
Nathan snorted and Josiah coughed, a sound suspiciously close to a laugh.
"It is ironic," their undercover agent continued, "that our successful arrests of Edward Bartolommeo and his associates have allowed the Skulls to increase both their power and wealth."
Vin's forehead creased. "I don't follow ya, Ez."
"That's because you're new to Denver," Josiah said. "One of Bartolommeo's local sources of methamphetamine used to be the Skulls. They were, actually still are, extremely skilled in the creation, processing and sale of meth. Bartolommeo used to be the sole buyer and his organization kept the leadership of the Skulls more or less under control."
"But since we busted up Bartolommeo's gang, the Skulls can do as they please," Buck put in. "And they're pleased to sell their meth to everyone who wants some."
"In the past the Double Deuces had to keep a low profile," Nathan continued the explanation, "because Bartolommeo considered a gang war to be bad for business. So his organization regularly eliminated any Double Deuces who had ideas about muscling in on the Skulls' operations."
Chris was nodding. "With Bartolommeo out of the picture, the Double Deuces can also do as they please. So what we've got are two gangs who hate each other’s guts and who both want to become the main source of meth in town. What it comes down to is if the Skulls and the Double Deuces go to war there'll be a hell of a body count, and we know a lot of civilians are going to be caught in it."
"We must act quickly to avoid such an eventuality," Ezra said.
"Which means getting those weapons before they can be used," Nathan noted.
Josiah leaned forward in his seat. "I take it we don't know where either gang is stockpiling their weapons?"
"Will Gaynor be able to come up with locations?" Buck asked.
As much as Chris disliked keeping details from his teammates, he had to keep his promise to Gaynor. So he'd settled for identifying Addison as a confidential informant.
"He's leaning on his CI pretty hard for information on the Skulls but there's no guarantee he's going to find out anything more."
"There's another thing we can try, too."
They all looked at Vin who kept his eyes on Larabee. "I know a lotta the kids in gangs and some a the younger ones that run errands for 'em. Maybe I can get some intel through them. "
Chris's lips tightened. Despite his protests, Vin had chosen to live in the rundown area he originally hid out in when he first came to Denver. The newspapers had nicknamed the crime-ridden neighborhood "Purgatory,” and what few citizens outside of it realized was that in addition to the gangs, the area was also home to honest, hard-working individuals and families too poor to leave.
"That could be dangerous," Buck said with a frown. "Word you were asking could get back to the gangs and make you a target."
"If it'd stop a war it’s worth taking the chance."
Something about Vin's matter-of-fact tone rang alarm bells in Chris. "What've you been up to, Tanner?"
The blue eyes that turned toward him were as calm as his voice had been. Before he could answer Josiah chuckled.
"Now Chris, there's no need to scold Vin. He's been doing very important work, reaching out to the youngsters in his neighborhood. For many of them he's the first positive male role model they've ever known. I suspect they'd be more likely to talk to him than anyone else."
Chris turned an accusing gaze on the profiler. "You've known all along?"
"If you wanna yell, yell at me," Vin cut in.
"There's no need for anyone to yell," Josiah said firmly. "Vin knows I volunteer at skid-row missions and we've had several discussions on how to reach those souls whom society has turned its back on."
Vin looked uncomfortable. Ignoring the profiler's words he said, "I'll be careful, 'sides, I don't want to put any a the kids at risk. That don't mean I can't ask a few questions."
Chris didn't like it but Vin's words inspired a new thought. "Have you run across a kid named Roberto Miller?"
Vin's eyebrows rose. "Yeah, a few times."
"Is he related to Devone Miller?" Buck was quick to make the connection.
"His kid brother,” Chris acknowledged. "DPD is going to keep a close eye on Roberto. Hopefully sooner rather than later the Skulls will send him off with a drug delivery, at which point he'll be picked up."
Vin didn't react outwardly but Larabee sensed he'd struck a nerve. "Ya think ya can use him to get to Devone?"
"We're going to try." He saw a flicker of emotion in the blue eyes and added, "We'll do our best to keep the kid safe but right now he looks like the quickest way to his brother."
Buck was frowning again. "What exactly d'ya have in mind, Chris?"
"The CI says Devone Miller wants his brother out of the Skulls. Maybe we can do that. Josiah, what do you think?"
The profiler was also frowning. For that matter, everyone around the table was frowning. It was nothing more than Chris expected.
"You're not thinking of juvenile detention, are you?" Josiah said.
"No." Chris remembered Addison’s comments. "You know of any intervention programs to keep kids out of gangs?"
"There are a few programs for at-risk youngsters in the city," Josiah said, "and I know a lot of the people who work with children and teenagers. Let me ask around and see what I can find."
"And I can talk to my parents," Nathan said. "My mother’s been concerned about the number of black youths joining gangs, especially in the last ten years. She probably has some useful contacts."
Chris was surprised he hadn't thought of that. Nathan's parents had been prominent activists in the civil rights movement for decades. They knew everyone, from fellow activists up to and including high-ranking politicians.
"Do it," he said crisply. "You too, Josiah. We don't know when this war is supposed to start so we need to move fast."
"Is that the deal?" Vin asked.
"Roberto’s arrested and then Devone Miller has to choose between his brother and his gang?"
"That’s one possibility, yes."
JD straightened, his eyes wide. "Do you think he'll betray the Skulls to save his little brother?"
"Never happen," Buck said flatly.
"We don't know that," Chris snapped. "What we do know is that we need to get our hands on those weapons before the city goes up in flames."
"It doesn't have to be black and white," Josiah said, then grimaced. "No pun intended. Maybe we can think of a way to make the deal somehow more appealing to Miller; that could be helpful."
Ezra had been listening silently. Now he said, "Exactly what sort of deal do you have in mind, Mr. Sanchez? Even if the authorities are able to disarm the Skulls, what of the Double Deuces? They will still be armed and will certainly realize that they are in a position to inflict severe damage upon the Skulls."
"We have to get the weapons from both gangs." Buck smiled confidently.
"Even if such an endeavor is successful, what do you then expect to happen, Mr. Wilmington? Is it not likely that both sides will simply begin to re-arm themselves?"
"As I understand it," Chris said, "what's fueling all this is the desire of Fernandez and King to kill each other off. "
"So not only must we discover the secret locations of the weapons for both the Skulls and the Double Deuces, we must also remove both leaders from their respective gangs to avoid a re-escalation of hostilities. And we must accomplish all of these actions as expeditiously as possible. Is that a correct overview, Mr. Larabee?" Ezra looked at his superior with one eyebrow raised, a mannerism that always annoyed Chris, as the undercover man knew.
He glared at his agent. "Yes," he snapped, "that's right. So quit stating the obvious and start thinking about how we're going to do it."
Vin said, "Maybe Ezra's just given us that better deal Josiah was talkin' about."
That caught everyone's attention. "Go on," Chris said.
"If we can get the weapons and take down Fernandez and King at the same time, it'd leave the Double Deuces with no one to run things since King doesn't have a second in command right now. It'd also mean that Miller’d step into Fernandez' position as leader of the Skulls. I bet he'd like that."
"I see where you're going, Vin," Josiah said eagerly. "With King gone, Miller wouldn't feel the need to continue Fernandez' vendetta. Plus," he held up his forefinger, "with Fernandez gone, he would be busy consolidating his new position with the Skulls and want to avoid distractions, such as a gang war. Another plus," Josiah held up a second finger, "the Double Deuces would be preoccupied with an internal struggle about who would be their new leader, so they wouldn't be interested in a gang war either, at least not for some time."
"I ain't heard anyone mention the other problem we got here," Vin said.
"There's another problem?" Nathan demanded.
Chris suppressed a smile. He'd known the single detail he hadn't mentioned would occur to one or more of his people, despite all the information and suppositions he'd just dumped on them. He wasn't surprised that Vin caught it first. As did Standish, he realized, when the undercover man cleared his throat.
"Of course, the supplier," Ezra said softly. Vin gave him a slight nod that the undercover man returned before continuing. "Apart from successfully completing all aspects of the case as Mr. Tanner and Mr. Sanchez have set forth, we must also discover the identity of the individual or individuals who are supplying these groups with illegal weapons and take him into custody if at all possible. Even apart from his criminal activities, there is the possibility he may have information that will prove of assistance in our endeavors."
"Of course," Josiah agreed, looking a little chagrined and Buck slapped his forehead.
"Damn, I was thinking so hard about how we were going to stop a gang war I missed it."
Chris said, "It would've occurred to all of you after you had time to think everything through. This is going to be a complicated operation. Travis is going to give me every available team he's got and the DPD's Gang Unit is throwing in every available officer. "
"You said we don't know when this war is supposed to happen." JD was looking at Chris. "How can we make any concrete plans until we know the time frame?"
"Gaynor's unit is working on that. We can also add it to our own list of information to be obtained."
There was a long silence while they digested this. Buck looked around the table and said, "So, best case scenario, Miller gives us the location of the weapons in return for a guarantee that all charges against his brother are dropped and the kid goes into some sort of anti-gang program. Is that right?"
"I'm not sure anti-gang program is accurate," Nathan said, "but something along those lines. I don't see any way Miller will buy it unless we can show him a solid plan that will remove his brother from the influence of the Skulls and see him in a better environment."
"I can’t see him betraying his gang," Buck said with a shake of his head.. "But say he does, what about 'Siah's second plus? Taking down Fernandez so Miller can take over. How do we do that?"
JD practically bounced in his chair. "Isn't it obvious? We wait until Fernandez is wherever the weapons are and then we arrest him when we grab the weapons."
Buck glared at the younger man. "Aren't you forgetting a couple steps? First we need to find out where he's stashing the weapons and then we need to know when he's going to be there."
"We will," JD said confidently.
Josiah chuckled. "Buck makes some good points. Finding those weapons has to come first before we can finalize any plans."
It was Chris's turn to nod. "We've got some good ideas on the table but it's going to take a lot of work to put all the pieces together." He debated whether to share with them the last part of the discussion he'd had with Gaynor. No, he'd wait to see how the Lieutenant's plan shook out. If it didn't work they would have to come up with another plan.
"The majority of the ideas that have been presented here have to do with the Skulls," Ezra noted. "Exactly how we are to locate the weapons of the Double Deuces is another issue. Are we to rely solely on Mr. Tanner being able to obtain the information through his street connections?" As he spoke he gave their sharpshooter an apologetic look. Vin only shrugged, the corner of one lip curving upwards.
Chris looked at his undercover agent. This wasn't the first time Standish had voiced his own concern. "Gaynor and his unit are working on that, too," he said. "And so will we. Even if we only get a little information here and there, it can add up to a lot more." He grimaced. "But we have to stay under the radar while we work. We don't want the Skulls or Double Deuces to hear that the ATF is interested in their activities."
"So while we have a variety of possible strategies in mind, we cannot move forward on any one of them at this time, correct?"
Time for a re-cap before Chris gave in to temptation and punched out Standish. "I'll stay in touch with Gaynor. He comes up with anything, I'll pass it along. DPD will keep an eye on Roberto Miller. Josiah, Nathan, look into programs that focus on keeping kids out of gangs. JD -"
"I can do background checks on the computer," JD said eagerly. "Maybe I can find some associates, old or current, of Fernandez or Miller or King that we might be able to squeeze for information."
Just what Chris had in mind. "Do it." He looked around the table. "I want all of you to stay on top of your sources. What the Skulls and Double Deuces are planning is too big to keep to themselves. Somebody has to know something. Vin, you've got a lot of contacts on the streets. Use 'em. Ezra, I'm thinking your sources might be especially helpful in learning the supplier's name. We know the weapons are out there. We need to find out where ASAP and figure out how to get our hands on them before a lot of people die.” He was pleased to see thoughtful nods. They were all on the same page. "Anyone have anything to add?" Silence was his only answer and after a minute he said, "Finish your reports on this morning's bust. As soon as you're done, get started on this."
Table legs scraped the floor as chairs were shoved back and everyone stood up, filing quietly out of the room. The city was facing a disaster and didn't know it. It would be up to a small group of law enforcement personnel to stop the disaster from happening.
Vin reached the door before he heard, "Vin, wait up." He stopped and looked back to see JD hurrying toward him.
"I guess we need to cancel tomorrow morning," the younger man said reluctantly.
Vin considered. "Nah, let's keep the plan for now."
"Yeah?" JD brightened. "You think we'll still have time?"
"If we don't, we'll just do it another day."
Buck came up behind them. "What're you doing tomorrow?"
JD smiled in anticipation. "Vin and I are going to come in extra early to work out. He's going to teach me some of his moves."
"Oh, those." Buck looked a little disgruntled.
Still standing by his chair, Chris almost laughed. People who didn't know better tended to underestimate the Texan because of his average height and lean build. As any member of Team Seven (not to mention an ever-increasing number of other ATF agents) could attest, Vin Tanner was about as fragile as tempered steel and a ferocious opponent, even when only working out. His reflexes were faster than any human being had a right to and he was much stronger than his size indicated. Adding to all that was his knowledge of street fighting and mixed martial arts which had enabled him - at least so far - to take down every opponent rash enough to challenge him.
After watching him in several work-outs, Chris had concluded that Vin enjoyed proving the old adage true - the bigger they are, the harder they fall. It wasn't as if any of them were unfamiliar with hand-to-hand fighting. Besides their training as law enforcement officers, most of the team were military veterans and had additional expertise in self-defense and various forms of martial arts. All of that counted for nothing when they sparred with Vin. With his skills, experience and speed, not one of his teammates had been successful against him, although Chris was looking forward to the day when that changed.
Buck was the most recent one to be reminded of Vin’s expertise as he had worked out with the Texan just two days ago and, after an intense struggle, once again ended up flat on his back on the mat with Vin standing over him.
His grimace made it clear he hadn't forgotten. "You giving lessons now, Vin?"
"Why ya askin', Bucklin? Ya finally admittin' ya need help?"
JD laughed and Buck narrowed his eyes. "Yuck yuck, junior, your time's coming."
"That about the same time the world ends?" Laughter gleamed in Tanner's eyes.
Buck huffed in disgust and reached out to give the shaggy head a slap. Without effort, Vin moved aside just enough to avoid it and walked away.
"Smooth, Buck," JD chuckled. "Real terrifying." He took a quick step that took him out of reach of his fuming roommate and followed Tanner out.
Buck glared after them. "Damn kids," he muttered and Chris laughed. Buck turned quickly. "What're you still doing here?" he blustered.
"Waiting for the room to clear," Chris said. "It looks like you've got both of 'em scared to death."
"Oh, put a sock in it, Larabee," Buck muttered before stomping out.
Still grinning, Chris went back to his office where he reviewed the notes he had made earlier of his meeting with Gaynor and Addison, then began adding to it notes of the team meeting. When he finished he read everything over. As annoying as Standish could be, he'd put his finger on their biggest problem. It was impossible to move forward with the plans they had discussed until they knew more.
He knew his team and what they were capable of. Gaynor, too, had every available officer in his unit working on the situation. Between them, Chris believed they would gain the information they needed in order to finalize and then implement their plans. He only hoped it would be in time.
Travis needed to be updated but before Chris did that he wanted to talk to Vin. He hadn't missed the Texan's discomfort when they discussed using Miller's little brother as a bargaining chip. Chris wasn't happy about the idea either but it was the only one they had at the moment. Best case scenario, that part of the plan would not only work but possibly give the eleven-year-old a shot at life apart from gangs.
Chris suddenly remembered his earlier words to Vin about spending time working on radio protocols. That wouldn't happen today after all. At least Tanner would be happy about that.
He pressed the appropriate extension number on his phone. "Vin, my office."
A minute later there was a knock on the door and Tanner appeared. "Yeah?"
He shut the door behind him and slumped into a chair, wearing his usual unreadable expression. Chris felt a twinge of irritation. Surely by now Vin must know he didn't need to hide behind a mask with him.
Setting the thought aside he said, "I'm not happy about you wandering around your neighborhood asking questions that could get back to the Skulls or Double Deuces."
"It's not like I'm gonna come right out and ask about guns, Chris. It'll just be some chattin' with folks I know'll talk to me."
"If you twig anyone's radar and it gets back to the one of the gangs - "
Vin stiffened. "I know what I'm doin'."
As surely as if he could see it, Chris felt the Texan slam the door on the topic. Any more discussion would only turn into an argument. The real issue that neither of them mentioned had to do with trust - whether he trusted Vin to handle this.
As annoyed as Chris was at the moment, he trusted the younger man's instincts. Didn’t he? Yes, he did, not withstanding this morning's mistakes.
"All right," he said, swallowing the desire to warn Tanner to watch his back. Vin was far too experienced to need the warning and would probably be insulted. Letting the subject drop, he turned to another.
"If we go ahead with the plan to use Roberto Miller to get to his brother, you know we'll look out for the kid, right?"
"I know we will," Vin said slowly, "I ain't so sure about the DPD."
Chris was both pleased and concerned by the words. Vin trusted his team but he didn't trust the other law enforcement personnel working on the case. Truth be told, Chris Larabee thought much the same, although he had learned to work with outside law enforcement agencies over the years.
"We'll keep an eye on Gaynor's people," he said.
That won him a faint grin. "Fair enough. We done gabbin'? I got stuff to do."
Chris waved a hand. "Go on, get out of here."
As he watched Vin walk out of his office he realized that he'd forgotten to follow-up on his most critical concern. The Texan wouldn't leave them in the lurch as they prepared for a major bust, but whether he would stick around afterwards was still up in the air.
+ + + + + + +
The first streamers of amber, scarlet and sapphire streaked through the dark sky, heralding a soon-rising sun. Despite his weariness, Vin noticed the striking display of color as he climbed the stairs of the run-down apartment building and couldn't help but smile in appreciation.
When he reached his apartment, he went directly to the tiny kitchenette. He dumped several scoops of coffee into the pot and added water before turning the knob on the stove. Several seconds passed before the electric coils begin to glow and he breathed a sigh of relief. He hadn't been able to get the other burner working again which left him with only one usable burner. Which was okay with Vin because he never needed more than one burner at a time.
He deliberately blanked his mind of all thoughts while he waited for the coffee to be ready. Finally he was able to pour a cup and sighed again, this time in pleasure, as the strong, hot brew scorched its way down his throat. Now this was coffee, not that dirty water most people around here drank.
The ancient refrigerator still held the last few slices of a pizza he'd bought on the way home the other night. Vin pulled out a slice, took a bite and nodded in approval. Still eatable.
Coffee and pizza in hand, he climbed the stairs to the roof. He leaned against the wall that bordered the roof and studied the slowly brightening sky. It was still quiet; the day hadn't started for most people, and he relished the silence. A cool breeze caressed his skin and he felt himself relaxing.
When the city and crowds began to press in on him, Vin's choice of escape was the mountains. When that wasn't an option, he'd discovered that the roof of his building gave him at least a sense of freedom.
Vin needed that feeling after spending the night wandering the neighborhood. He'd run into a number of familiar characters, including two kids he knew were runners for the Double Deuces. They weren't much more than babies and Vin's stomach knotted up every time he thought of their likely futures. It was possible to escape the gangs but few were able to do it on their own. As much as he wanted to help, he had to be careful about how he approached these kids for their sakes as well as his own.
Vin wasn't used to feeling helpless but it was hard not to sometimes. So many of these youngsters were lost before they'd taken more than a few steps into adulthood.
He knew Chris and the others worried about him living here but they didn't understand. A lot of these kids didn't have anyone willing to fight for them or their futures. Vin was willing to fight and he was occasionally successful. Willie and Tomas had both been destined for the gangs. Willie proved to be the easier one to convince that he could have a better life elsewhere. Tomas had been a bigger battle, one that turned physical when his uncle, only a few years older than Tomas and already firmly entrenched in the 82nd Avenue gang, discovered Vin's interference. The fight had been fierce but short and, to Vin's surprise, the sight of his uncle lying crumpled in the street finally convinced Tomas he wanted out.
Thirteen-year-old Willie was now living with relatives in Nevada and the last Vin heard, doing okay. Tomas, a year older, didn't have any family but Vin had found a spot for him at a center in Colorado Springs that provided housing, counseling and training for homeless teenagers. The rest was up to Tomas.
Some people might think two kids weren't much to show for nearly three months of hard work but as far as Vin was concerned, getting just one away from a gang was all the reward he could want. So he stayed and spent much of his free time trying to be a friend to anyone who needed one, especially kids who had no idea how much they needed someone on their side.
He sighed at the thought. It wasn't that he felt he was the only hope these kids had; he didn't need Josiah to know there were other folks trying to reach out to them, trying to guide them into better lives. Still, Vin couldn't escape the feeling that he had a job to do here, something that had nothing to do with the ATF. If he ignored the needs of these youngsters he saw every day, it was like he was ignoring the love and guidance of the two most important people in his life.
Vin smiled wistfully at the slowly brightening sky. His mama and Jake never had a chance to know each other but he knew they would've gotten along like gangbusters. His memories of his mama were so old they were more like a series of still images, snapshots of his long-ago past. Gentle arms holding him close, the faint fragrance of lilacs, the sweet humming that wooed him to sleep at night. For awhile they'd lived in rooms not unlike the apartment he called home now, small, with only a few pieces of furniture that had seen better days, in a neighborhood much like this one.
He hadn't realized they were poor. He'd been too little, maybe three or four. Back then, it'd seemed like a wonderful place to live because his mama was with him. He'd had no idea of how little time he had left with her.
Vin swallowed and tried to pull himself out of the still painful memories, not only of losing her but of the years after. Some of the foster homes hadn't been too bad but none of them filled the hole in his heart left by her absence. Who would've thought that running away to live on the mean streets of Dallas would lead him to someone who did a better job at filling that hole than anyone since her death?
He chuckled and swiped his nose at the same time. Jake Riordan was as different from his mama as anyone could be, yet he'd been a lifeline to a sick, desperate twelve-year-old. More than a lifeline, as it turned out.
Thinking of Jake naturally led to thinking of Nettie Welles, which wrung another chuckle out of him. It was through Jake he'd come to know Ms. Nettie. She and Jake came from different worlds but they had been united in their determination to help kids that polite society didn't want to think about. Thank God for both of them.
It was still hard to believe that his past had caught up with him in Denver, Colorado, of all places. He had no idea what to make of that.
Giving his head a shake, Vin reminded himself that he had plenty to do here and now. Last night hadn't been a total loss. He'd learned some things that might be helpful in the team's efforts to stop a gang war before it started. His biggest regret was that he hadn't run into Roberto Miller. Vin didn't know the youngster well but they'd talked a few times. Knowing the cops were just waiting for the chance to swoop down on the boy made his skin crawl. He understood the plan and it might even have a chance of success because, from the talk he'd heard on the streets, Devone Miller was devoted to his little brother. But using an eleven-year-old child as a pawn in such a dangerous plan just didn't set right with Vin. He hadn't decided what he'd do if he ran across Roberto but it didn't matter since he hadn't seen the boy.
Vin swallowed the last bite of pizza and washed it down with a gulp of coffee that drained the cup. He started to turn away from the view when the sound of an approaching motorcycle stopped him. Peering down at the street he saw a familiar Kawasaki Ninja come around the corner and stop in front of the apartment building. The helmeted figure turned off the engine and sat still. Vin grinned. There was no way JD would leave his precious motorcycle unattended in this neighborhood. Sure enough, he saw him pull out his cell phone and Vin reached inside his jacket for his own phone just as it rang.
"Be right down," he drawled.
Ordinarily he would have driven his jeep over to the secure garage where he kept his Harley but since JD was here Vin decided to hitch a ride over there. He made a brief stop at his apartment to grab his gear and when he got down to the sidewalk JD pulled his helmet off to offer him a broad smile.
"Morning, Vin, I hope you got a good night's sleep because I intend to use some of your moves against you."
"We'll see 'bout that," the Texan retorted before putting on his own helmet and sliding behind JD. Even with the detour to collect Vin’s Harley, they reached the Federal Building in a little over half an hour. They parked their motorcycles in adjoining slots and started for the exit.
As they walked Vin realized that JD’s usual high spirits were missing. "Somethin’ botherin’ ya?”
The younger agent started and gave him a sheepish smile. "Bothering me?”
"What’s on your mind, JD?”
For an instant the hazel eyes looked undecided, then he smiled ruefully. "You’re only a few years older than me, Vin, but sometimes I think you’ve lived a couple more lifetimes.”
"Nah, just lived a different life, that’s all.”
"But you . . .”
When he didn’t continue, Vin said, "But me what?”
That made the younger man smile again but the expression faded quickly. "I looked into the backgrounds of Fernandez, King, Miller and several other members of their gangs and, well, did you know the oldest of them is only 25? That’s how old you are, right?”
"That’s not much older than me,” JD said softly. "And a lot of them are my age or younger.” He cleared his throat. "Do you think any of them have a chance?”
"A chance?” Vin repeated, although he suspected he knew what the younger man was getting at.
"At life,” JD said even more quietly. "I mean a real life, not being part of a gang.” He raised troubled eyes to Vin. "Or are they all lost?”
"What do ya think, JD?”
"From what Chris and Josiah and Nathan said yesterday, there’re people out there trying to help kids get out of gangs.”
"So maybe there’s still hope for them?”
It was Vin’s turn to hesitate. "I don’t think I’m the right one to ask, JD. Ya should talk to Josiah or Nathan.”
"But you’re helping too, in your neighborhood.”
"I work mostly with the younger kids. It’s different.”
JD stopped and faced him squarely. "Vin, when I was with the Boston Police Department
I spent most of my time updating their computers. I wasn't out in the streets much and I never had anything to do with the gang unit. When I came out here to join Team Seven, well, since I joined we haven't had anything to do with the gangs, not until now. And what I've been learning, I . . ." his words trailed off.
"It's tough, JD, there ain't no way around it,” Vin admitted. "Ya asked me a question and ya deserve an answer. I wish I could tell ya I see hope for Miller and Fernandez but I don't. But if ya ask Josiah," his lips quirked, "I'm pretty sure he'd disagree with me. And maybe he's right."
JD managed a smile. "Josiah sees hope in everything."
"There's nothin' wrong with that. Hope's a powerful thing. And 'Siah does more than just hope. He tries hard, ever' chance he gets, to help folks down on their luck. Josiah's always willin' to give 'em a hand." Vin shrugged. "This world 'd be in even worse shape without people like him and Nathan and the rest of the team."
JD's words warmed Vin and embarrassed him at the same time. He hated seeing the younger man without his usual buoyant optimism and wondered how he could help. They reached the exit, pushed the heavy door open and walked out into the early morning sunlight. After a quick look in both directions, they sprinted across the street and slowed to a more deliberate pace that took them into the Federal Building.
"How 'bout we go for a long bike ride after this is over? Maybe take a weekend; we could head for the mountains, camp out overnight before comin’ back."
JD brightened. "That’s a great idea.”
"Course, I thought of it,” Vin deadpanned. "Not much challenge riding your Ninja around town, is it?”
JD’s smile faded. "No.”
What was going on with the young agent now? "Somethin' wrong with the Ninja?"
"No, nothing's wrong. It's a great motorcycle. It's just that, well, have you ever seen any of the classic motorcycles?"
"Classic? Ya mean old? Like mine?"
"Your motorcycle’s a beauty but I was thinking even older,” JD clarified. "Vintage. You know, from the early days. Made in the 1920s or 30s or 40s."
"Nope. I ain’t never seen any that old."
JD licked his lips. "A few weeks ago I met a guy who owns a 1947 Triumph Speed Twin. In mint condition." He sighed longingly. "He let me look it over and, I swear, it's as much a piece of art as a beautifully built motorcycle."
"Ah." Vin nodded in understanding. "Ya want one ’a them vintage motorcycles."
JD smiled, looking embarrassed. "I'd love one, but I can't imagine anyone who owns one ever letting it go. Besides, a vintage motorcycle in mint condition would cost a lot more than I could afford."
"Maybe ya could find one in bad shape and fix it up."
"I've thought of it, even looked around a little." JD made a face. "So far I haven’t had any luck."
"We could still have a good time ridin’ up to the mountains,” Vin reminded. "Even without vintage motorcycles.”
JD laughed. "We sure will,” he said and pushed the elevator button that would take them down to the gym in the basement.
At this hour of the day only a few other people were taking advantage of the facilities. Vin and JD changed into their workout clothes, t-shirts and sweat shorts for both men. When they left the locker rooms Vin grinned at JD who seemed to be back to his usual cheerful self.
"I ain't never seen anyone so excited about gettin' knocked around."
JD laughed. "I know you're going to put me on my ass but I can't wait to learn some of your tricks so I can do the same to Buck."
"Buck depends too much on bein' big and fast. Still, if ya don't know what your doin' he's hard to bring down."
"But you know what you're doing," JD said excitedly.
As they walked out into the main area, JD muttered a curse.
"Somethin' wrong?" Vin asked.
"You could say that."
He wondered at the unusual sour tone and looked to see what had caught the younger man's attention. A tall, husky specimen in - his eyebrows rose - powder blue designer sweats was shadow-boxing on one of the mats. A few feet away his red-haired opponent stood quietly, boxing-glove-clad hands raised while he waited for the other man to stop showboating. Vin recognized the redhead, Jack Cavanaugh from Team Eight, but the other man was a stranger.
"Who's the guy in the fancy sweats?"
"Ed Cochran. He's the FBI's senior liaison with the ATF."
JD didn't have a secretive bone in his body; his dislike for Cochran came through loud and clear. Vin studied the man. He was about Nathan’s size and moved easily around the mat. Maybe it was in reaction to JD's sudden upset but something about the guy rubbed him the wrong way.
"Come on, Jackie boy," Cochran said at that moment, his voice echoing in the cavernous room. "Don't just stand there, come after me."
Cavanaugh did, with unexpected speed. There was a flurry of blows and he landed an upper cut on Cochran's jaw that staggered him. His face twisted in fury and he threw a wide, looping strike that the ATF agent dodged, a split second before Cochran's right leg shot out and his foot caught the redhead squarely between the legs.
"Ow." JD winced.
Cavanaugh went down like a felled tree and Vin's eyes narrowed. Son of a bitch knew something about kickboxing and enjoyed using dirty tactics. In a real fight the Texan had no problem with fighting dirty, but when you were supposed to be sparring with someone that was different.
Ignoring the groaning agent, Cochran turned in a circle, hands raised in victory. "Who's next?" he challenged before his eyes fell on them. His hands lowered and he smiled.
"Well, well, if it isn't the ATF's child genius. You back to learn a few more pointers from the grown-ups, shorty?"
Vin felt JD stiffen beside him. He didn't need to be psychic to know the two had sparred before or that the younger agent had ended up worse for wear.
"How 'bout me?" he drawled before JD could speak.
"Who're you?" Cochran demanded.
"Name's Vin Tanner."
"Oh, sure. Larabee's latest misfit, right?"
Vin pushed himself off the wall and walked forward. "Ya wanna go a round or ya yellow?"
Cochran's lips tightened before relaxing into a smug smile. "It's your funeral, Tanner."
+ + + + + + +
Chris was glad to see almost all of his teammates in the office despite the early hour. He had heard from Gaynor late last night and he was hoping that some of the other agents' sources had come through.
Rapid footsteps caught their attention and they turned toward the door just as JD burst in.
"Damn, kid," Buck exclaimed. He'd been walking past the door when the younger man rushed in and barely avoided a collision. "Slow down, already. What's the rush?”
"You missed it, Buck!"
JD's enthusiasm was nothing new but there was something over-the-top about it this time that caught everyone's attention.
JD looked over his shoulder at Vin who was just sauntering through the door. The Texan cocked an eyebrow at him and the younger agent chuckled and looked back at the others.
"You remember Ed Cochran?"
Buck frowned. "Has that bastard been bothering you again? I told you - "
"It's okay, Buck." JD was smiling from ear to ear. "I don't think he's going to bother anyone again, at least not for awhile."
He gave Vin another over-the-shoulder grin while the others exchanged looks. Tanner's bland expression frustrated them so they looked back to their youngest.
"What happened?" Nathan got the question out first.
"I came in early to work out with Vin, I wanted him to show me some of his moves. Cochran was there - "
"Let me guess," Buck interrupted, his voice rich with disgust. "He was prancing around in his designer sweats flexing his pecs at everyone. Did he go after you again, kid?"
"No, well, yes, but - " He shot a look at Vin and started laughing. That made everyone else look at the Texan who looked back without expression. Chris had a sudden suspicion.
"You challenged him."
"Nope," Vin returned mildly. "Just asked if he wanted to go a few rounds."
Buck began to chuckle. "That asshole hadn't heard about you, huh?"
"Must not have," JD excitedly. "He couldn't wait for Vin to get on the mat."
Ezra cleared his throat. "I assume it would be too much to hope that the encounter between Mr. Cochran and Mr. Tanner was preserved for posterity?"
JD whipped out his cell phone. "I got it right here."
Tanner turned a reproachful eye on his teammate who flushed guiltily. "It's not like I'm going to show it to everyone, Vin, but I thought the guys would like to see it."
"Later," Nathan said. "I want to hear what Vin did." Despite his size he was a gentle man not given to fisticuffs. He got along with nearly everyone but Cochran was an exception. It was the team's suspicion that the man was a closet racist along with being an intolerant bully in general.
JD's eyes gleamed. "It was amazing. You know Cochran, he was dancing around with his fists up, then he threw in a couple kicks - none of them came close to Vin - and was bragging about how big guys had the edge in fights because little guys didn't have what it takes and - " he paused just long enough to take a breath. "And then Vin wiped the mat with him!"
While JD had been excitedly talking, Vin slipped around him and sat down at his desk. He crossed his arms over his chest, looking alternately bored and as if he wished he were somewhere else.
Buck's laugh boomed through the office and he clapped his hands together. "Yeah! Come on, kid, let's see it."
"Wait, you haven't heard the best part," JD rushed on. "Cochran was lying on the mat, groaning, and Vin crouched down next to him and said something, I don't know what, and then - Cochran was wearing those powder blue sweats he likes so much, you've all seen them. Anyway, Vin said something to him, then got up and walked away and Cochran - " JD began to snicker again. "All of a sudden his sweatpants were showing more than sweat."
"He pissed himself?" Buck demanded in delight.
"He sure did!" JD swiveled his head around to Vin. "What did you say to him?"
Looks were exchanged again but they all knew if the Texan didn't want to say anything nothing would convince him.
"Anyway," JD resumed the story, "he was still laying on the mat after we showered and left." He sighed happily. "It was about the coolest thing I ever saw." His smile disappeared and he looked anxiously at Vin.
"We didn't get a chance to work out this morning, but we can re-schedule, right?"
"Great." The kid looked happy again.
"Lemme see that cell phone of yours," Buck demanded. "I want to watch the whole thing."
"Later," Chris cut in, though he was secretly looking forward to seeing it, too. "We have work to do. Conference room, now."
After they were all seated he said, "I know you've only had since yesterday to start looking for information on this case but since we don't yet have any idea about the time frame we're looking at, we need to move fast. Anyone have anything?"
Ezra cleared his throat. "I have been able to ascertain that two individuals who are involved in the illegal procurement and disposition of weapons have been observed in Denver within the last week. I am still attempting to obtain information as to their names and current locations."
"Stay on top of it,” Chris ordered.
"I haven't had much luck so far," Buck put in. "I called a friend of mine who used to be head of the DPD's gang unit. He said Gaynor's an SOB but good at his job and will probably come through for us. Oh, he also said he had the name of a group that works with at-risk kids. I told him I might get back to him." He looked across the table at the profiler and medic. "I figured you guys probably already have that info."
"I'm waiting to hear back on some calls," Josiah said, "but I think Nathan's got what we need."
"I hope so,” Nathan said. "I had a long phone conversation with my mother last night. She thinks a group called 'Second Chance' may be what we're looking for. It's located in Idaho and was started by an ex-gang member almost fifteen years ago. Over the years it's gained an excellent reputation in rehabilitating former gang members."
"Idaho?" JD said. "There's nothing closer?"
"There is, but one of the reasons it's based in Idaho is to get the kids away from gang influence. That's not to say the state doesn't have problems of its own but nothing like some other places." Nathan looked at Chris. "If you want to move ahead with this I'll contact Booker Dents, he's the one who started Second Chance and he's still the main man there. It'll be up to him to decide whether to give Roberto Miller a shot."
"Can't we get something more definite ahead of time?" Buck was frowning.
"No," Nathan said. "It's Dents' call and he won't make it until he's talked to Roberto."
"If he refuses," Chris thought aloud, "there are other groups we can contact, right?"
"Yes, although I think this program may be the boy's best chance."
"Call Dents," Chris said. "Feel him out. All he needs to know right now is that we're trying to get the kid away from a gang. Nothing more."
The medic nodded.
"I’m afraid I don't have much," JD said. "I spent most of yesterday afternoon trying to track down associates of Chazz Fernandez and Devone Miller. Most of them are either still in the gang or in prison. Some are dead.” His expression darkened. "Killed during the commission of a crime or fighting with other gangs, a few from drugs. I'll keep at it but I don't know if I'll find anything useful."
"None of us know what we'll find," Chris said. "Keep digging. I heard from Lieutenant Gaynor last night. One of his officers found out that Herschel King has an ex-girlfriend who might be a source; he's trying to track her down."
Ezra's eyebrows rose. "How likely is it that he would have revealed any information of consequence to a female acquaintance?"
"No way to know until we talk to her."
"What's her name?" Josiah said.
"Leticia something. They don't have her last name yet."
"Leticia Grimes." All eyes turned to the Texan. "According to my street kids,” he continued, "she was King's girlfriend for years and he just threw over for another girl. Leticia's pissed as hell about it and she's been tellin' everyone he's gonna be sorry."
"She better be careful or she's going to be the one sorry," Buck said worriedly.
"We need to bring her in," Chris agreed. "Do you know where she can be found, Vin?"
"I heard about some different places but they're just guesses."
"It wouldn't hurt to check them out," Josiah suggested.
Chris nodded. "Give me whatever you’ve got, Vin, and I'll pass it along to Gaynor since he's already got his people looking for her."
A few minutes later they were done and he looked around the table one last time. "I want everyone to keep after their sources. We need whatever information we can get as fast as we can get it."
The men filed out, all except for Buck. Chris recognized his expression. "What's on your mind?"
The big man sighed. "I'm not sure about this whole plan."
"You think I am? Having to depend on things happening that depend on other things happening, a lot of which are being handled by another agency?"
Buck snorted. "When you put it like that, what's not to worry about? I guess what really sticks in my craw is the idea of taking out Fernandez and letting Miller slide into his place. Even if everything works out the way we want, it's not like Miller's any improvement over Fernandez. They're both stone-cold killers."
"I know. But with any luck we can avoid a major gang war."
Buck nodded but he didn't look any happier. Chris slapped him on the arm. "An old friend of mine told me once that all we can do is the best we can and then we need to move on."
That got a wry smile out of the other man. "Your old friend needs to watch what he says so his words won’t keep coming back to bite him on the ass."
"That’ll never happen,” Larabee said with assurance. Buck blinked, then laughed.
"You got that right,” he agreed.
+ + + + + + +
Chris Larabee was an experienced law enforcement officer so he was well aware of how easily tentative plans could blow up in their faces. But it was all they had so he threw his energy into making what was tentative more certain.
What he hated most was that a lot of the plan was out of his hands. Travis insisted that his agents keep a low profile. Gang members being followed and/or questioned by members of the DPD's gang unit was SOP. If it became known on the streets that ATF agents were sniffing around, it would raise red flags for both the Skulls and the Double Deuces, and quite possibility precipitate the war they were trying to stop.
Although there were the occasional awkward moments, more than a day later the DPD and ATF were still working together on the case. Everyone felt the same sense of urgency and frustration was growing on both sides because, despite everyone's efforts, they were no further ahead. Leticia Grimes hadn't been located, Roberto Miller was still being followed, fruitlessly, all sources tapped to date hadn’t provided anything new for either the DPD or the ATF.
Until late the next afternoon when Ezra Standish hung up after a terse telephone conversation and said, "Mr. Larabee, I have obtained information that may be of assistance."
After a hurried conference with his teammates, Chris decided not to advise Gaynor because this was firmly ATF territory. With any luck it would be a significant break in the case. If that happened, it would be soon enough to inform the DPD.
Three hours after receiving the information, and just over two hours after confirming its accuracy, Larabee had his team in place. From his vantage point in the storage room of a liquor store he studied the building across the street. There was nothing unusual about the motel; it was one in a chain of thousands spread across the country. It was what - or who - was inside the end unit that held his attention.
Ordinary binoculars wouldn't work at night but his binoculars weren't ordinary. The night vision enabled him to see everything and he spared a moment to be pleased that this latest addition to their gear lived up to its hype. What he liked most was the built-in infrared illuminator that penetrated even the murkiest of shadows. It seemed as if the only thing the equipment couldn't do was see through walls. For that Chris was depending on his sharpshooter.
It hadn't been easy evacuating all the guests and employees from the motel without alerting their quarry. It took the better part of an hour but finally they were successful. Only one guest remained inside and, with any luck, was still unaware of the covert activity outside.
Larabee keyed his radio. "Sit rep," he ordered.
"In position," Josiah said quietly for himself and Nathan.
"All set," Buck said.
"Five by five," JD said from the communications van.
For a minute there was only silence while they waited for the final check-in. Vin Tanner was on the fourth-floor roof of an office building half a block away, in direct line of sight of their quarry's motel room window. Chris's stomach had time to begin to knot up before he heard the familiar drawl.
"Suspect’s sittin' on the bed, watchin' TV."
Chris picked up the megaphone. "Calvin Foster," his voice reverberated through the night air, "this is the ATF. Come out with your hands up."
Silence answered him, then Tanner's voice sounded through the radio. "He's pullin' stuff outta a suitcase. Damn, he's got a gun; it looks like a Steyr TMP."
The news that their suspect was armed with a tactical machine pistol was all the information Larabee needed.
"Smoke 'im out!"
The heavy-duty tear-gas projectile blew through the glass window and exploded in the motel room. Chris dropped the megaphone, snatched up the binoculars with one hand and waited tensely, .45 pointed at the front door. He wanted the bastard alive for several reasons, none of which involved concern for the perp's well-being.
"See anything, Tanner?"
"Too much smoke," Vin answered. "Wait, there's movement behind the bed. He's crawlin' on the floor."
"Can't tell. He's headin’ for the door."
A minute later Chris saw the doorknob turn. He set the binoculars aside and rose to his knees to get a better aim.
The door opened a crack, then wider. Tear gas billowed out and a figure half-crawled, half-fell into view, coughing violently. Chris waited just long enough to see that his hands were empty before he called, "Move in!"
As fast as he moved, Josiah and Nathan were closer and got there first. Because they were wearing protective masks they were able to rush in despite the slowly dissipating gas. Grabbing the suspect by his arms, they dragged him across the grass to the sidewalk where the rest of the team met them.
"Get him on his feet," Larabee ordered.
Josiah pulled off his mask and cuffed the man before yanking him upright and patting him down. Still coughing and hacking, tears streaming down his face, Foster gasped, "Don . . . don't know your problem . . ."
"No?" Chris said. Anyone of them could have warned the suspect about the dangers of that mild tone but no one bothered. Foster would find out soon enough.
Nathan went back inside the motel room. When he reappeared, he pulled his mask down and handed the weapon over. Chris looked at it before raising his eyes to their suspect.
"A Steyr TMP. That raises all kinds of questions."
"I . . . travel a lot." Foster coughed and tried to wipe his streaming face against his shoulder, without success. "I need to be able to protect myself."
"You can do better than that."
Down the street Chris saw Tanner approaching, weapon cradled in his arms. Everyone accounted for.
"Josiah," Chris snapped and the profiler read the suspect his rights. When he finished, Larabee took a step closer to Foster.
"Why don't you try again," he said in the same deceptively mild tone.
"I, I don't - " he coughed again. "Don't know what you're talking about."
Chris looked at Buck and Nathan. "Go."
The pair jogged across the street to the parking lot opposite the motel. Foster's gaze followed them and when he saw where they were going, his reddened eyes widened in alarm.
"Let's take a walk," Chris said, this time with an edge in his voice.
When they were all standing at the back of the rental van, Buck disengaged the lock, then he and Nathan pulled the doors open. Vin leaped lightly inside and stopped by one of the boxes. He yanked at the lid until it gave way and revealed the contents.
"Got a mixed bag here, a bunch a AK-47s and some AR-15s," he reported and turned to the box beside it. Once that lid was open he peered inside. "These all look like AKMS." He opened the other boxes one by one before saying, "These are pretty much the same.”
Chris knew he wasn't the only one who heard the thread of anger in the quiet voice. The amount of firepower in this one truck was frightening. Even more frightening was the thought of what these weapons could do if they had gotten into the hands of the Double Deuces.
He fixed Foster with a cold stare. "Before you start claiming you know nothing about this shipment, think about how many of your fingerprints we're going to find inside this truck and on these weapons." It was a safe bet, considering they'd watched the man climb into and out of the back of the truck less than an hour ago.
The illegal arms dealer visibly deflated and Larabee shoved him into Nathan's arms. "Take him in," he ordered. When Foster was out of earshot he said, "Forensics is on the way. When they're done, I want Buck and Vin to secure the weapons. Josiah, get back to the communications van and help JD pack up. And let Ezra know it went down according to plan."
Buck chuckled. "I bet old Ez will still be pissed because you didn't let him in on this. It was one of his sources that put us onto Foster, after all."
Chris shook his head. "Considering they often travel in similar circles, it's possible Foster might know Standish in one of his impersonations. I won't risk that."
An hour later he walked into the interrogation room with Josiah and sat down at the table across from their suspect. Foster tried to glare back but it wasn't a good effort. He had to know he was screwed. They had him cold.
After identifying himself, Josiah and the suspect along with the other necessary information for the video filming the interrogation, Chris said, "You've been read your rights, correct?"
"And you refused an attorney, correct?"
Foster looked around the room with haunted eyes. "An attorney's not going to get me out of this."
Chris gritted his teeth. He hated all the preliminary detail work but knew how critical it was in building a case. "You have the right to have an attorney present. Do you want one or not?"
A slow headshake answered his words, followed by a soft, "No."
Now they could get down to business. "We know this is the second shipment you brought into the city. We also know you sold the first shipment to a street gang called the Double Deuces, and that this second shipment was supposed to go to them, too. What I want to know is where you delivered the first shipment, how many and what kind of weapons were included, and when and where you're supposed to deliver this second shipment."
Foster's eyes darted between Larabee and a silent Josiah. "I . . . I want a deal," he stammered.
Though Chris didn't show it, he was pleased to hear the nervousness in the arms dealer's voice. "We have the weapons and forensics will link you to them. You're going to be convicted, Foster." He watched him, like a cat watching a mouse. Under his hard gaze the man swallowed repeatedly. "This will be your third felony conviction. In case you didn't know it, Colorado has the three-strikes rule."
"No, it's not . . . I'm not . . ."
"Conviction this time means mandatory life in prison with no possibility of parole."
The little color remaining in Foster's complexion drained away, leaving him looking more like a corpse than human.
"No," he whispered.
Chris felt Josiah shift slightly beside him. He knew what the change in posture meant and silently agreed with the profiler. It was time to hold out the carrot. As much as he hated making deals, this one would be worth it. "Your one chance," he said coldly, "is to tell me everything I want to know. If it pans out, the D.A. might waive the three-strikes rule in your case."
Foster seemed to shrink in his seat. His chalky complexion gleamed with sweat and his pale eyes looked desperate.
"If I tell you," he spoke as if his throat hurt, "you'll tell the D.A. that I cooperated, right?"
"Providing you have something worthwhile to trade."
"You want to know about the first shipment, right? I delivered it last week."
Once Foster started talking, it was a deluge of information. Chris listened silently while Josiah made notes, not caring that the interrogation was being filmed. His notes concerned his read of the suspect as well as the facts and had proven invaluable in previous cases.
Now they knew where the first shipment had been delivered and where, most likely, the Double Deuces was still keeping it, considering the risk of transferring that many weapons elsewhere.
It was a huge break. If past experience was anything to go by, the first break was usually followed by others. That had to happen soon, though, for now he knew he had less than a week to stop the worst gang war in the history of Denver from happening.
It was after midnight by the time they were done. Josiah took Foster off to be processed and Chris returned to the office. He wasn't surprised to discover that, despite the late hour, none of his teammates had left.
As soon as he walked in they all drew close. "What've we got?" Buck demanded.
"A lot," Chris acknowledged. He looked at Ezra. "Your source really came through."
Standish nodded but his cool, distant expression did not change and Chris tried not to show his amusement. It was going to take awhile before his undercover man forgave him for ordering him to sit out Foster’s takedown and recovery of the weapons.
Pretending he didn't notice, he summarized the interview with Foster, ending with, "So we have confirmation that King and the Double Deuces expect the second delivery to take place in two days. And King's comments about a 'noisy' weekend seem to point to the following weekend as the time they plan to go to war with the Skulls."
"That doesn’t give us much time before the streets explode," JD said worriedly.
"Maybe less then we think," Vin said. "We know the Double Deuces' plans but the Skulls may be plannin’ to start trouble sooner." He looked from Ezra to Chris. "We sure Foster didn't supply them, too?"
"Foster says he didn't," Larabee recalled. "And considering he spilled everything else he knows, I think he's telling the truth."
"I did learn that a second illegal arms dealer was in Denver as recently as last week," Ezra reminded them. "Unfortunately, that was all the information I was able to ascertain. However, I am under the impression that this second individual is no longer in the city so I assume he completed his business and departed."
"If his business was with the Skulls," Vin said, "then they're probably ready to rock 'n roll."
The ringing of a phone had everyone checking their cell phones. Chris flipped his open. "Larabee." He listened and his brows drew together. "Why in the hell didn't you call me sooner? We agreed I'd be there when you brought him in.” His jaw muscles bunched as he clenched his teeth. After listening for another minute he said, "I'll be over first thing in the morning."
Without waiting for a response he snapped his cell phone shut and looked at his teammates. "That was Gaynor. Roberto Miller was picked up tonight carrying eight kilos of meth in his backpack."
Buck whistled. "So much? I thought two of the Skulls' labs were shut down last month."
"That was last month,” Nathan reminded. "Remember, a few hundred dollars in over-the-counter medications and chemicals can produce thousands of dollars worth of methamphetamine. They've had more than enough time to make up for those lost labs."
"How's the kid?" Vin demanded.
"He's fine," Chris said. "Hasn't said anything, no surprise there." Since the child was a juvenile they couldn't technically question him without a parent or guardian present, anyway. Although in Roberto's case, his closest parent equivalent was his big brother who was unlikely to come to his aid.
"Gaynor's people have already put out the word on the street that the police have Roberto in custody," he added.
"Which means Devone Miller will find out quickly," Josiah said.
JD looked at the others. "You don't think he's going to come in on his own, do you?"
"He won’t," Vin said.
"He won't dare," Josiah agreed. "Fernandez would look on that as a weakness and Devone knows it. As it stands, Roberto's too young to be looking at serious time. That's why the gangs use children as mules. Under normal circumstances, he'd simply be processed through the system and be out in a matter of months."
"But we ain't doin' things the normal way this time," Vin said, his eyes on Larabee.
"No," Chris assured him. "Gaynor's CI will get word to him where Miller will be tomorrow and the police will pick him up and bring him in. Then we'll talk." He looked at Nathan. "You've spoken with the guy from the Second Chance program?"
"Yes. Booker Dents is willing to talk to both Roberto and Devone Miller but that's all he'll promise."
"It'll do for now," Chris decided. "Call Dents, tell him he'll get the chance to talk to both of 'em tomorrow so he needs to fly in ASAP. We'll cover his expenses."
Nathan glanced at his watch and grimaced.
"I know it's late," Chris acknowledged, "but we're in a time crunch. Call him now."
Larabee studied his teammates. They were all looking a little ragged. "There's nothing else we can do right now. I want everyone to get some sleep and be back here first thing in the morning. Tomorrow's going to be busy."
"What about Roberto?" Vin demanded.
"Gaynor promised he'd be kept in protective custody, away from everyone else." Vin didn’t look reassured and Christ added, "He'll be okay." Their eyes locked briefly before Vin turned away.
At this time of night there was little traffic and Vin was back in his apartment in twenty minutes. Exhausted by the last 24 hours of non-stop activity and almost no sleep, he sat on the edge of his bed and debated going out in the neighborhood to see how the streets were reacting to the recent quiet, covert activity of the ATF and DPD. It would probably be a good idea to check things out.
A yawn caught him by surprise and he realized he was lying down, although he couldn't remember when that happened. Maybe he'd rest for a minute before heading out. Just for a minute.
+ + + + + + +
They reached the designated position just before dawn and settled in. Andy slapped the back of his neck and pulled his collar higher.
"Damn bugs," he muttered. "I swear they think this repellant is some kind of love drug."
Vin chuckled. "Ya ever see that old movie, 'The Fly'?"
"Don't start with me, Texas."
Vin stifled a laugh. As early as it was, the day was already heating up and the high humidity clamped down on them like a warm, wet blanket. Setting the discomfort aside he raised his sniper rifle to peer through the scope. The enemy camp below was quiet and he saw only one guard, not much more than a kid. He was sitting on the ground with his back against the wall of a ramshackle hut and as Tanner watched, the kid yawned widely. There was an AK-47 in his lap but he wasn't paying any attention to it.
"Piss poor security," he muttered. Despite being well out of hearing range of the camp, he kept his voice down.
Andy raised his own scope to his eye. "All the better for us."
True. The kid had no idea how lucky he was because he wasn't Vin's target, so he'd live to see tomorrow.
According to Intel, there was supposed to be a full enemy squad in the camp, including Vin's target, the local militia leader. There was no telling when he'd appear. Hopefully he'd come out for breakfast but it was just as likely that he'd have one of his lackeys bring it to him. It couldn't be any cooler inside one of those huts but at least it was out of the baking sun.
The sun rose; so did the temperature. Vin wouldn't have thought it was possible but so did the humidity. More figures began to appear and gathered around the fire to eat. Most of them were carrying weapons and wore at least some piece of military fatigues. A few looked like civilians.
The smell of meat cooking made Vin's stomach growl. Without looking away from the scene he took an energy bar out of a pocket, pulled off the wrapper and began to eat.
"Damn," Andy grumbled.
Vin saw it at the same time. A scruffy, bearded character walked into one of the huts carrying a plate of food.
"Want to bet the target's inside?" Andy said.
"Sucker bet." He took another bite of his breakfast. "Guess we're gonna be here awhile."
"Swell." Andy plopped back on his butt and gave Vin's meal an unappreciative look. "Right now I'm thinking more along the lines of crab cakes."
"Don't ya codfishes ever think about anythin' but food?"
"You're just jealous you're not from the beautiful Bay State."
Vin snorted. "‘Ya keep thinkin', Butch, that's what yer good at.’"
Andy grinned. "‘I got vision and the rest of the world wears bifocals,’" he proclaimed, albeit softly, in his best Newman accent. It wasn't half bad, although none of his teammates would ever admit it.
Vin threw his spotter a sideways look. Despite the heavy camouflage paint streaking the man's face, he thought he could still see Andy's freckles peeking through.
"Considerin' your mis-spent life, I can't figure how ya still manage t' look like some kind a choir boy."
Andy clapped a hand over his mouth just in time to stifle a yelp of laughter. "Oh yeah, can't you just see me in the middle of the Vienna Boys Choir?" He offered his impression of an angelic smile - which would've sent any real angel screaming for cover - and struck a pose, not easy to do when he was sitting in the dirt in muddy fatigues.
It was Vin's turn to choke back a laugh. "Gawd help us, now I'll never get that picture outta my head."
"He shoots, he scores." Andy smirked before digging out his own energy bar.
They settled down to eat their breakfast and drink some water. And wait. Vin kept track of the wind speed and direction, temperature and humidity, conditions that would affect his firing solution. Periodically he checked the temperature of his ammunition. If they had to spend several hours here the extreme heat could affect the ammunition and he would have to compensate for it when it came time to take the shot.
"Round about now, shouldn't you be filing down your fingertip?" Andy said.
Vin flexed his fingers. "I don't know why ya waste time watchin' those stupid movies. Hell, I'd think watchin' grass grow 'd be more interestin'."
"You got no appreciation for the absurd." Andy chuckled. "They're always good for a laugh. And I get a kick out of trying to find something accurate in those lame-ass stories."
"Accurate?" Vin raised his eyebrows.
"Okay, I've never found anything accurate but, hey, the leading ladies are always a nice eyeful."
"Are married men supposed to talk like that? What would Carol say?"
"She better say the same thing she says when I catch her eyeballing another guy. Just because she's already ordered from the menu doesn't mean she can't still look at the other entrees."
They both chuckled.
"Movement," Andy said abruptly, getting to his knees.
Vin was also up. He chambered a round in his rifle as he watched the scene unfold below. A man was just walking out of the hut they identified earlier and two characters in shabby fatigues approached him. Vin mentally compared him with the picture he had memorized, although he could've guessed simply by the clean, unwrinkled uniform that this was his target.
A last check of the wind gave him an estimate of about ten knots from his right. Good enough. He dialed in the windage and distance into his scope, which confirmed what he already knew. The target was too far away for a head shot. A bullet smashing into the chest wouldn't be an instant kill but it would still do the job. With that in mind, Vin placed the crosshair on the target and adjusted his point of aim.
"Spotter ready," Andy murmured, his scope focused on the target below.
Vin took a deep breath. "Shooter ready."
He gently squeezed the trigger and immediately lost sight of the target as the rifle recoiled, giving his shoulder a familiar push.
Andy was watching the bullet's supersonic atmospheric wake through his scope and an instant after Vin fired he grunted in satisfaction. "Target down. Let's move."
Vin quickly packed up his gear while listening to Andy on the radio giving a mission update and requesting an extraction. Even as they worked, they kept watching to see if anyone from the camp was going to come after them. For the moment everything looked to be in total confusion. It was a good time to get the hell out of here and head for the Blackhawk helicopter that would be waiting for them.
+ + + + + + +
Vin jerked upright, gasping for breath. Several seconds passed before he realized where he was, still lying on top of his bed; he'd been dreaming. He fell back with a groan and rubbed his eyes, feeling their wetness.
He didn't know why he dreamed about that particular mission so often. Everything had gone as planned and they made it back to base with no problem. The mission had been a success. Unlike other missions, especially the last one.
Vin flinched away from the horror of those memories and pressed the heels of his hands hard against his eyes. If he had to dream then he'd choose this mission. Hell, maybe that's why he dreamed it so often. It was safe to remember, as safe as any of his memories that included Andy.
"I'm sorry, buddy," he murmured in the darkness. "So damn sorry."
For an instant Andy stood before him, not as he'd been the last time Vin saw him but the grinning, freckled, happy-go-lucky soldier who made the mistake of introducing himself to his new team over four years earlier as "a true Codfish." His Ranger teammates immediately pounced on that and his nickname was inevitable, which both amused and annoyed him.
Vin rolled over onto his back, keeping his eyes closed to hold back the tears. He was still shaking and he knew from experience that it would take awhile before it stopped. No more sleep was happening tonight so he gave his eyes a last swipe and trudged out of the room.
He didn't bother turning on any lights. That would make his surroundings too real and sharpen the memories he was trying to distance himself from yet again. Instead he walked easily through the darkness out to the tiny kitchenette where he pulled the battered coffee pot toward him before picking up the container of coffee.
As he dumped in the coffee, he tried to ignore his trembling hands. It'd be over eventually, though never soon enough.
Minutes later he was on the roof and the chill in the air made him realize he’d forgotten to grab a jacket. The hell with it. He took a deep swallow of coffee, trying to re-direct his thoughts. It was crystal clear tonight and he stared up at the sky, at the countless pinpoints of light that sparkled like a million diamonds on black velvet. From the sky his eyes turned west and he could make out the outline of the great Rocky Mountains in the distance. Now there was something to focus on.
The week before he officially joined the ATF, Vin rode his Harley out to the Rocky Mountain National Park for an all too brief couple days away from the city. It was his first visit and he knew immediately it wouldn’t be his last. He didn't know what it was about those mountains that called to him; he only knew they did. For two cents he'd turn his back on his life in the city and escape to the Rockies and the hard but simple life they offered.
For two cents.
Vin rubbed his eyes. As much as he wanted to, he couldn't do it. At least not now. Embracing that life would mean leaving his teammates behind just before a dangerous bust went down. He wouldn't be able to watch over them and without him they'd be vulnerable.
They'd be insulted by the idea, of course. All of them were smart, well-trained and experienced, quite capable of looking after themselves. But Vin had known men like his new teammates before, eleven of the finest men he could ever hope to have at his back. Brothers in every way that mattered. In the end, all their smarts and experience hadn't been enough to save them.
Most bitter of all, he hadn't been able to save them, either. What made him think things would be different if it happened again? Vin closed his burning eyes. He had to believe he could make a difference next time, otherwise, why in the hell was he still breathing?
"Aw, guys," he whispered, but this time his words of regret remained unspoken. They'd never made a difference before; they wouldn't now.
Maybe when push came to shove, he'd fail his new teammates, too. But he had to try. After this case was over, maybe then he could move on with a clear conscience. A clear conscience, right.
In his mind's eye he saw Chris standing before him, green eyes thoughtful but not judgmental. That was nothing short of a miracle. Hardly a night went by without the nightmares, a constant reminder of how badly Vin had failed. To run into someone like Chris Larabee, smart and savvy, someone who'd spent his entire adult life commanding others and so knew about human weaknesses and failings better than most - despite all he knew he still looked at Vin not judging but accepting.
Vin was all too aware it wouldn't last. In his heart he knew that one day Chris would find out the truth of Vin Tanner and that would be the end of acceptance.
The thought hurt like hell but there was no denying the truth. One day Chris would turn away from Vin, which was nothing more than he deserved.
+ + + + + + +
Swearing under his breath, Chris threw the bedcovers aside and sat up. He scrubbed his face hard and ran a hand through his hair, as if the gesture would help against the nightmare.
"Son of a bitch," he muttered and got out of bed.
No way was he going to try to sleep again tonight. No way was he taking a chance of reliving the worst moments of his life.
Chris stumbled out of his room and headed straight for the kitchen. As he turned down the hallway he tripped over something and rammed his foot into the wall.
He hopped on one foot until he could lean against the wall and rub his throbbing toes. As the pain began to subside he reached down blindly in the darkness until his searching fingers came across a leather surface. A boot.
Chris vaguely remembered pulling off his boots when he got home a few hours ago, exhausted and drained by the day, but he had no memory of what he had done with them. Now he'd found one.
Growling, he turned and fired the boot down the hall into the bedroom before continuing his limping way. In the kitchen he headed straight for the coffee machine by the sink. He overrode the timer and pressed the start button, then leaned against the counter and waited.
Moonlight streamed through the window over the sink and despite the fact he hadn't bothered to turn on any lights, he could see clearly enough. He stared out the window, content to let his thoughts drift aimlessly. Night sky, stars, moon. Quiet. He became aware of the beat of his heart, strong, steady, and wondered that it had continued to beat all these years despite the fact that, more than once, he wished it would stop.
Knock it off, Larabee. Sarah would have your head for even thinking that.
"I'm still here," he murmured in the darkness, and hoped his words pleased . . . someone. Somewhere.
A couple minutes later he poured a cup of coffee and took his first swallow. That hit the spot, just what he needed. This was coffee, not that throat-blistering tar Vin liked.
Chris laughed under his breath. He had no idea how in the hell Tanner had learned to like that caffeinated sludge. Ezra had tried to tempt the Texan with expensive, aromatic brews but Vin turned his nose up at all of them. Shortly after the sharpshooter joined the team Chris decided to get a second coffee pot for Tanner's use in order to pacify the others who were threatening a mass mutiny if they were forced to drink another drop of the noxious brew that Vin called coffee.
His smile faded when he recalled the younger man's expression a few hours ago. He understood this case was hard for Tanner, although he didn't know all of the reasons. He wondered if it had anything to do with those missing years when Vin was a child, living on the streets and, miraculously, surviving.
Travis was very unhappy about those years they knew nothing about. It was one of the reasons he'd been reluctant to grant Larabee's request to bring Tanner on board. It took a great deal of argument and persuasion before Chris finally wrung an agreement out of his superior.
Thinking back on Vin's actions during their most recent bust still made Chris uncomfortable. He'd known once he calmed down that his teammate hadn't deliberately broken the rules. It'd been an instinctive reaction that, thank God, worked out okay. But what about next time?
Those missing childhood years, followed by six years in the Army, most of that as a Ranger working classified missions, all added up to a much longer period than the two-plus months Vin had been with the ATF. How long was it going to take before those old instincts and training would be superseded by his new life?
Chris took another swallow of coffee, this time without tasting it. He knew when this case was over, Travis was going to call him into his office to grill him about Vin's recent actions. He needed to be clear in his own mind how he was going to respond, especially considering he didn't want to lose Tanner, not to the team and not in his life.
He grimaced when he recalled that brief moment of weakness when Buck talked to him after the near-fiasco. Wilmington had something about needing to listen to Vin before jumping all over him, otherwise Vin would probably leave the team. For a split instant, that sounded like a good idea. The Texan would be safer off the team. As soon as the thought crossed his mind, Chris recognized its stupidity. Vin needed Team Seven as much as they needed him, not only for safety's sake but for other reasons Larabee had difficulty putting into words
Despite occasional bumps along the road they'd been doing better than not, up until last week when Vin had broken protocol to chase down a fleeing suspect and nearly been killed. The tension caused by that near-tragedy had been compounded by their disagreement over Vin’s plan to obtain information for their new case. Chris vividly recalled the Texan's reaction when he later questioned his decision to talk to the street kids in his neighborhood. He'd known instantly he'd made a mistake. Though neither of them mentioned it the question of trust suddenly loomed between them.
Chris sighed at the memory. He'd thought his response would reassure Tanner but it hadn't. Ever since that morning the unique connection he'd shared with the Texan felt . . . he fumbled, trying to put it into words. Previously he'd always had a good sense of Vin's presence and emotional state. Now that connection felt strained and . . . and blurred.
Hell. Forget putting a label on it. It was enough to know there was a problem, and he suspected it was at least partly because Tanner was ambivalent about staying with the team.
He looked at the window and saw his reflection glimmering back at him. Did he trust Vin? Yes, he did. He trusted him absolutely to look out for his teammates, to do everything in his power to keep them safe.
So what's the problem, Larabee?
Asking himself the question gave him an immediate answer. Vin wasn't behaving like a member of the team. He was holding back some part of himself, whether unconsciously or deliberately. Vin needed to let that resistance go if he was going to be able to accept his role as an integral member of Team Seven.
Why was Vin holding back?
It was the same question Chris had struggled with since the Texan joined the team. Josiah, too, had looked for an answer to the question, but neither of them had come up with anything definitive. The profiler still believed that a lifetime of isolation had scarred Tanner and made it difficult for him to get close to people.
Although he respected Josiah's expertise, Chris wasn't sure that was the answer, at least not all of it. He kept coming back to the fact that Vin had chosen to join the Army. Even at seventeen years of age, the Texan must have realized that working in the military required close association with his fellow soldiers. And he hadn't stopped there. He'd volunteered to be a part of the most elite group of soldiers in the Army - the Rangers. Such commitment required unparalleled work and sacrifice and the Rangers were legendary for their close-kit teamwork.
Even if Vin hadn't fully understood what he was getting into when he joined the Army, he must have learned enough by the time he became a Ranger to know what that dedication would involve.
Chris's early career choice had taken him into the Navy; however, his own classified military work led him into some joint missions with Army Ranger teams. After one mission the teams got together for some downtime and after several drinks, their friendly rivals began to boast about the superiority of the Ranger creed.
Remembering, he couldn't help but smile. Even when deep in their cups, the Rangers had no trouble remembering every word of that creed. Chris didn't recall it all but one phrase had always stuck in his head - "Never shall I fail my comrades." That would have been a fundamental aspect of Vin Tanner's life as a Ranger. Such a creed required absolute commitment to his teammates. No one reluctant to be part of a team could make such a promise, much less live by it.
So what had happened to change Vin?
His thoughts drifted back to that day, less than three months ago, when he’d asked Vin to join Team Seven. They'd batted the idea back and forth and Chris had been quietly dismayed to see that Vin was not excited about it. So he'd reminded the Texan of something they both already knew.
"You were an Army Ranger for several years."
Thinking back, Chris swallowed as he recalled Vin's response.
"That was a long time ago. Things were . . . different."
At that moment, Chris realized there was a problem. Vin had been out of the Army for only a year yet he thought of that period as "a long time ago."
"Things were . . . different."
"What things, Vin?" he wondered aloud now.
When he first read Vin's military record, Josiah had noted that the Texan looked to have a great career ahead of him in the Army. And Chris hadn't forgotten Nettie Welles' words only a few days ago. She, too, thought Vin intended to make a career in the military. Her surprise that he'd left the Army had been obvious.
Something had gone wrong with Vin's plans. Though he didn't have a shred of proof to support his suspicions, Larabee knew he was right. Whatever that "something" was, it’d been terrible enough to turn Vin away from the life he loved in the Army, and changed him from a soldier who vowed, "Never shall I fail my comrades," to a man who refused to accept the camaraderie of a new team.
Sorrow weighed heavily on Chris's heart. "Damn it, Vin," he muttered, "why won't you talk to me?"
Maybe he'd been too patient, though Buck would laugh if he heard that. Patience wasn't a Larabee characteristic but Chris had been patient for nearly three months. He'd known from the beginning that something was eating at the Texan, something he stubbornly kept to himself. Once or twice Chris thought he had sensed it in their connection. What troubled him most was that it felt oddly familiar, but it never lasted long enough for him to identify.
He'd never said anything to Vin because he wasn't sure if it was his problem or if the disturbance came from the younger man. Since it felt familiar, maybe it was coming from Chris. God knew, Chris Larabee had plenty of shit in his past to cause it. Buck knew the worst because he'd been around when it happened, but even his old friend didn't know all the details because Chris hadn't shared them with him - or anyone else. Nor could he now. Chris had no intention of reopening still raw wounds, not even for Vin.
Maybe Vin feels the same way.
Chris started. Where had that thought come from?
"Damn it." He dropped his cup into the sink and ran a hand over his face.
He couldn't face his own demons. How in the hell could he help Vin face his?
+ + + + + + +
Several hours later, Chris was standing outside an interview room in the Denver Police Department, looking through the one-way mirror. Inside, Devone Miller sat slumped in a chair, arms folded, looking bored. Although he knew Miller was 23 years old, he looked younger. Until you got a good look at his eyes. They reminded him of Buck's words a few days ago, about Miller being a stone cold killer. There was no emotion, worse, no humanity in those black eyes.
Josiah, being Josiah, would probably argue with that conclusion. Chris was glad the profiler wasn't here to muddy the waters. Their plan was simple. Miller knew his younger brother had been picked up carrying eight kilos of meth. He also knew the kid wasn't looking at serious jail time due to his age. It was extremely unlikely that he would turn against the Skulls simply to help his brother avoid being locked up in juvenile for awhile.
What Miller didn't know was the plan that Larabee and his team had set in motion, with the grudging agreement of Gaynor and the DPD. Whether he would be willing to inform on his gang in order to give his little brother a chance at a real future was the issue.
His cell phone buzzed. "Larabee."
"Chris, we’re just pulling up outside. We’ll be there in a few minutes."
As he stuffed his phone back inside his jacket Buck entered. "Have you heard from Nathan?"
"He just called."
Buck rubbed his hands together. "Then let's get this show on the road."
They walked into the interview room. Gaynor was standing on the far side of the table, glaring at Miller who was ignoring him.
"Devone Miller, I’m Agent Larabee with the ATF."
The gangbanger didn't react but Chris knew his presence must be a surprise. They were taking a calculated risk. If their plan fell through, Miller would go back to the Skulls knowing the ATF was involved. Neither he nor Fernandez were stupid. They would know there was only one reason for the ATF's appearance - the hidden weapons. Which realization could precipitate the very violence the ATF and DPD were trying to prevent.
On the other hand, Larabee and the ATF were behind the attempt to remove Roberto Miller from the gang. If Miller cared as much for his little brother as the rumors claimed, their efforts would make him more open to a deal. Or so they hoped.
Even though he was expecting it, the knock on the door made Chris tense. Miller didn't react to that either; his bored expression didn't change. When the door opened it revealed Nathan who stepped aside to allow the stranger behind him to enter. Chris gave him a swift, assessing gaze. Early forties, maybe, with skin a shade lighter than Nathan's and dressed in a worn t-shirt and faded jeans. Though not tall he was powerfully built, as if he'd spent a lot of time pumping iron. There was no missing the gang tattoos on his arms and neck.
"This is Booker Dents," Nathan introduced. "Agents Larabee and Wilmington, ATF, Lieutenant Gaynor, DPD, and Devone Miller."
Dents nodded brusquely, his eyes on Miller. "I hear you want your little bro' outta the gang. That right?" The other man didn't respond. "Or you waitin' until the day you stand over his dead body? That's one way for him to get out."
If Chris hadn't been watching so closely he would have missed the flicker in Miller's eyes.
"You're gonna die soon and bloody," Dents said. "On the streets or behind bars. Is that what you want for him?"
The cool, emotionless tone was jarring and Miller finally looked up. "Who the fuck are you?"
"Booker Dents, like he said."
Miller looked at the others before turning a hostile gaze on the newcomer. "Why I care what a white man's nigger gotta say?"
Dents' expression didn't change. "I'm nobody's nigger. I used to be in the Goodlows," he named a notorious L.A. gang, "now I try to keep kids outta gangs."
"Like hell," Miller denied. "If you really left, they'd a killed you."
"I really left and I'm still breathing. You want your brother out or not?"
The Skull eyed him between narrowed lids. "How'd you get out?"
"My grandma and aunt was walking home from the grocery store one day, minding their own business. They got caught in a drive-by. That's when I walked away. "
The two were totally focused on each other; it was as if no one else was in the room.
"I been out fifteen years," Dents went on. "Been working with kids ever since, trying to give them a reason not to join a gang."
Miller snorted. "How that goin'?"
Dents shrugged. "Some joined gangs anyway but not all." A brief smile lightened his bleak expression. "My sixteen-year-old cousin found out he'd rather fix things than be in a gang. Now he's a mechanic at a garage and he's talking about going to college to be an engineer."
"You shittin' me?"
"I don't have time to shit you. If you'd rather stand by and let your little brother die before he's had a chance to live, then I got other places to be." With that Dents turned, opened the door and walked out.
Miller stared after him while Chris's heart sank. For a minute he'd actually thought the former gangbanger was getting through.
"Get 'im back," Miller rasped.
Nathan disappeared from view. Seconds later he reappeared with Booker Dents who gave the Skull a cold look.
"I got some questions."
Dents looked at the agents and police officer. "We don't need you here."
Gaynor bristled; Chris spoke before he could. "Buck, Nathan, Lieutenant, we're gone.” He only got two steps before Dents spoke again.
"And turn off your damn cameras and microphones. This is a private conversation." His dark eyes focused on Chris who gave a short nod before they walked out.
Once the door closed behind them, he said, "Buck, make sure the equipment is turned off. Nathan, wait here until Dents comes out. See what he has to say."
Gaynor gave the closed door a sour look. "There's no way Miller's going to rat out the Skulls."
Chris saw Nathan's eyes narrow and said, "We don't know what he's going to do. Let's give Dents a chance to get through. Unless you've come up with another option in the last hour."
Before Gaynor could respond his cell phone buzzed. "This is Gaynor. . . . Yeah?" He began to smile. "It's about damn time. . . . Yeah." He snapped the phone shut and gave the ATF agents a triumphant look.
"We found Leticia Grimes."
Herschel King's ex-girlfriend. Calvin Foster had given them the location of the weapons delivered to the Double Deuces and Chris doubted she had any information that might tie into the case. Still, better to be sure.
Buck returned and looked between Gaynor and Larabee. "What'd I miss?"
"We found Leticia Grimes," the Lieutenant repeated, a little smugly.
"Oh?" Buck's eyebrows rose. "Let me guess, you found her at one of the addresses we gave you."
Larabee glanced at his teammate who was trying for the innocent look. Buck and innocence didn't go together and he quickly looked away.
Gaynor's sour look returned. "What of it?"
"Nothing." Chris forestalled any more would-be innocent remarks. "She's being brought here?"
"Yeah, should be here in a half-hour."
"Let's make sure Miller doesn't spot her." It took an effort but Chris managed to make his words sound like a suggestion rather than an order. Or maybe he wasn't as successful as he thought for the police officer turned away with a snort.
"It's not like I'm new at this shit, Larabee."
Deciding that didn't require a response, Chris said, "I want to listen in when you talk to her."
Chris swallowed his annoyance and walked away, Wilmington at his side. When they were out of hearing, Buck said, "What a guy, huh? And such a pleasing personality, too."
"You channeling Ezra, now?"
"I know words," Buck retorted, trying to look injured. "You think I'm wrong?"
"Pleasing personality?" Chris repeated with raised eyebrows.
The big man chuckled. "That's what you call ironic, Big Dog."
"Good God, you are channeling Ezra."
A half-hour later they were standing in front of another one-way mirror, looking into another interview room as Leticia Grimes was led in. Chris knew she was eighteen years old although the heavy make-up and clothes designed to show off her figure made her look older. She wore multi-colored beads in her black curls that clacked as she moved. Was that some kind of fashion statement? He had no idea. According to the streets, she'd been Herschel King's girlfriend for four years, up until he'd recently dumped her, which meant King had hooked up with her when she was only fourteen.
Leticia dropped into a chair and frowned prettily at Gaynor who was looming over her. "Are you the man in charge?" she said in a little-girl voice.
"That I am," he said with a smile.
Chris heard Buck's soft snort and gave him a warning glare.
"So why 'm I here?" Leticia fluttered exaggeratedly long lashes. "I been a good girl."
"You're not here because you're in trouble, Leticia," Gaynor said easily. "We're hoping you can give us a little assistance."
She sat up a little straighter. "Help the cops? You kiddin' me?"
The Lieutenant's smile looked a little more strained. "This is very important, Leticia. We need - "
"So's my life!" the girl returned indignantly. "You know what'll happen to me if I talk to you."
"He's going about it all wrong," Buck muttered.
"She's a woman scorned, remember?" Buck insisted. " That's what'll get through to her, not this good citizen crap."
Chris thought about it and realized his teammate was probably right. "Come on."
They walked into the interview room and Gaynor looked up with a scowl. "What do you think you’re - "
"Mornin' darlin'," Buck interrupted, pulling out the one remaining chair and sitting down.
Leticia's eyes roved over the big man and a smile spread across her pretty face. "Tell me you're not a cop," she cooed.
Chris managed not to roll his eyes but Buck only smiled back. "'Fraid so, darlin’. But we shouldn't let a little thing like that come between us, should we?"
She giggled. "You're really full a shit, aren't you, sugar?"
"Who, me?" Buck winked. "You've been a hard girl to find, you know that?"
"I didn't know anyone was looking for me," she said with another flutter of eyelashes.
"No? Not even Herschel King?"
Her brown eyes sparked with anger. "That good-for-nothing bastard? The hell he’s looking for me. I walked out on him a couple weeks ago."
Her interpretation differed from the word on the street but they weren't about to argue.
"He must’ve done something really bad to make a fine young lady like yourself leave," Buck said sympathetically.
"That son of a bitch said I was too old!" Leticia banged a fist on the table. "All this time we been together and he up and says shit like that to me!"
As Buck had said, a woman scorned. Chris watched as his teammate sympathized, flattered and cajoled the girl. She obviously enjoyed his attention and Larabee was reminded once again that Buck Wilmington did indeed know women.
The information she provided came piecemeal. On the one hand, she claimed King never talked to her about "business." On the other hand, she mentioned in passing that just a couple days before he dropped her for a "younger" girl, King stopped at a warehouse in the rundown east-side area, insisting she stay in the car while he went inside. Buck's expression didn't change when she identified the location - the same warehouse Foster had delivered the first shipment of weapons to. Nice to have that confirmed.
The only other detail that interested Chris was the comment she made when Buck deftly turned the conversation to the Skulls.
"Herschel's always had it in for that Chazz Fernandez," she said with a sniff. "He wants him dead real bad. He says they're no skulls, just roaches he's going to stomp out real soon."
Chris listened grimly. It was more confirmation of a bloody war if they couldn't stop it before it began.
As Buck was winding up the interview, Chris felt his cell phone vibrate. Quietly he made his way out of the room before answering.
"Chris," Nathan said, "it looks like Dents got through to Miller."
"I'll be right up."
He snapped his phone shut with a stirring of anticipation. It felt like things were finally moving into high gear, and not a moment too soon.
Buck came out, his usual jovial expression missing. "Gaynor said he'd have a car take Leticia back."
"Nice work with the girl."
The big man shook his head. "I just gave her a little attention and respect. She's not used to that."
Chris saw the pain in his eyes before he looked away. This case was bringing them into contact with too many kids with little or no hope of having futures, and it was hitting all of them hard.
"Nathan called," he said. "Miller may be ready to deal."
When they got back upstairs, they found the scene had changed slightly. Devone Miller was still in his seat but now Booker Dents was in a chair across the table.
"We've come to an understanding," Dents said without preamble. "But before Devone talks to you, he wants to see his brother. In private."
So brotherly affection was winning out over gang affiliation? As much as they had been hoping for and working toward this result, Chris wouldn't believe it until he saw it.
"We can arrange that," he said. "And then?"
Dents looked at Miller. Chris didn't see anything pass between them but Dents said, "Then I'll talk to Roberto. If he's willing, he'll leave town with me. After we're gone . . . " he paused, his gaze still fixed on Miller.
"After they're gone, I'll tell you 'bout them fucking guns," Miller said flatly.
Larabee's eyes turned toward Gaynor long enough to see the man was going along with the program before looking back to Miller.
"You have a deal."
+ + + + + + +
Glancing at his watch, Vin realized that by now Roberto Miller and Booker Dents were in the air, heading for Idaho. His thoughts lingered on the eleven-year-old, remembering the last time he saw him. Undersized, skinny, looking even younger than his years, trying for the street-tough attitude of his big brother but failing. God, he hoped things worked out for the kid.
At least Roberto had a chance now. If nothing else came out of this case, that was almost enough to satisfy Vin. Almost. There was still the not so minor problem of stopping a gang war.
He caught himself on a sigh. They'd do it; they had to. And then he would need to decide whether to stay or go.
A small voice in the back of his mind jeered at him. What the hell happened to staying with the team to protect their backs?
He'd do it till this case was finished, he argued back. Then, well, then he’d see.
Vin gritted his teeth, angry with himself. He was sick and tired of going back and forth about this. It wasn't like him, being unable to make up his mind.
Giving himself a mental shake, he looked around the crowded table. All of Team Seven was present as well as the leaders of Teams Two and Four and three members of the DPD. They had all been cooling their heels for the past ten minutes, waiting for two people to reappear. And here they came. Vin slouched a little deeper in his chair, hoping the end of the strategy session was near.
Larabee walked into the room, followed by Gaynor. Neither man looked too happy but they didn't look angry either, so it seemed that the little private time-out the two had taken succeeded in clearing the air.
"Let's go over the plan one more time," Chris said without preamble. It took ten minutes to review, then Paul Jankowski, leader of Team Two, leaned forward in his seat.
"I’m clear on our side of the bust but are you sure Foster will play ball?"
Chris nodded. "I’m sure."
Jankowski looked at Ezra was sitting directly across from him. "And you're sure the Double Deuces will believe you're Foster's man?"
Ezra had sworn up and down to Chris that he’d never met Foster under any guise. That plus the fact that they wanted to have a man of their own inside when the bust went down had convinced a reluctant Larabee to allow his agent to be that man.
"I actually bear a certain resemblance to the gentleman in question," Ezra said. "We are approximately the same height and build. Altering my coloring and the shape of my nose will not be difficult matters, and Mr. Foster's acceptance of me as his assistant should alleviate any concerns the Double Deuces may have."
"If Standish says he can do it, he can," Chris confirmed. He noticed movement out of the corner of his eye and turned his head. "You have something on your mind, Lieutenant?"
Gaynor looked up from the pencil he was slapping against the table. "I'm going to have a dozen officers surrounding the Skulls' hideout. I don't need any of your people interfering. They'll just be more bodies I'll have to look out for."
Chris resisted the desire to grit his teeth and his eyes swung back to Jankowski since Team Two would, with back-up from the DPD, be taking down the Skulls' cache of weapons. The big ex-Marine looked calmly at Gaynor.
"My team can take care of itself, Lieutenant. And since the ATF has jurisdiction when it comes to stolen weapons, I believe we're doing the DPD a favor in allowing you to join in on our bust."
Though spoken quietly the agent's words were a clear challenge. Gaynor flushed angrily and Larabee spoke before he could.
"Lieutenant, your superiors and mine agreed that the ATF is the lead agency in this case for exactly the reason Agent Jankowski just mentioned. They also agreed that your people would work with ATF Team Two to take into custody the weapons that are being held by the Skulls, as well as any members of that gang who may be on the premises at the time. Is there any part of this plan you don't understand or want to argue with your superiors about?"
Gaynor's jaw muscles clenched but after a minute some of the angry color left his features. "No." He met Jankowski's eyes. "So long as me and my people aren't left out in the cold."
"You'll be part of the bust," the agent acknowledged.
Larabee had always known Gaynor wasn't happy about the ATF being in charge. Thankfully it seemed that particular thorny issue had been dealt with without fireworks.
Chris himself was frustrated that, due to the need to hit the two gangs at the same time, Team Seven wouldn't be able to take down both the Skulls and the Double Deuces. Once they determined that Ezra would go undercover as Foster's man when the second shipment of weapons was delivered to the Double Deuces, the decision for Team Seven to be in on that bust was practically automatic. And Chris had no doubt that Jankowski's team, with Gaynor's people assisting, would get the job done with the Skulls. Knowing that didn’t make him feel any less annoyed by his inability to be in two places at once.
"Anyone have any other questions or concerns?" he demanded.
Vin shifted in his chair. "I still think I should set up earlier. Waitin' til just before everyone's supposed to be in position don't leave any time for last minute adjustments."
Gaynor opened his mouth but closed it when Chris shot him a look. Chris understood the concern and ordinarily he would have allowed the sharpshooter to follow his instincts. But despite the ATF being lead agency in the case, he wasn't wholly in charge. With all the eyes and ears on the streets, Gaynor and the DPD were worried about the gangs getting word of the impending busts ahead of time, so they had pressed hard to hold off moving in until just before the bust actually went down. Although Larabee had argued for an earlier infiltration during a private meeting with Travis, in the end the Assistant Director decided to go along with the DPD's wishes.
"The DPD doesn't want to do anything that might alert either gang of what we're up to," Chris reminded everyone. "Vin, that includes you getting into position earlier than agreed."
Tanner didn't respond but his closed-off expression worried Chris. Surely the Texan wouldn't disobey a direct order. Then again, while he trusted the Texan with his life, Vin's record of following orders that conflicted with his military training wasn't the best. Chris couldn't escape the uncomfortable feeling that in an effort to protect his team, Vin might disregard his orders and set up early for tomorrow night's bust. If he did and Gaynor found out . . . he made a mental note to catch the sharpshooter after the meeting and make sure they were on the same page.
He looked around the table. "If no one has anything else, go home, get some rest, be back here tomorrow morning, eight a.m. to start getting set up."
Chairs scraped the floor and the men filed out of the conference room. Chris followed his teammates back to the office and paused by the door to give them a once-over. They looked okay. Buck was teasing JD, as usual, Josiah and Nathan were talking quietly, Ezra was straightening his desk, and Vin . . . Vin was standing by his own desk flipping through some papers. Chris frowned. Although the Texan appeared to be looking for something, the page turning seemed random.
The phone rang, the main line which meant it went to every desk. Josiah paused in his conversation with Nathan and answered it. "Agent Sanchez."
Chris was only half-aware of the conversation, still focused on his friend. What was going through Tanner's mind? How was Larabee going to break through the invisible barrier that had come between them after the near-disaster of a bust last week? By now he was so frustrated he wondered whether a punch in the jaw was the only way to get Vin's attention. Tempting a thought as it was, he was pretty sure Tanner's instinctive reaction would put him on his ass and leave him with a sore jaw of his own.
"Vin," Josiah said, gesturing with the phone. "Security’s calling. There’s someone downstairs who’s looking for you. He says his name is Snake." The profiler spoke the last word with a faintly questioning note as all eyes swung to the sharpshooter.
Vin looked at him blankly. "Snake? He's here?"
For a split second Chris thought he saw something flash in Tanner's eyes but it disappeared before he could recognize it.
"Apparently so," Josiah confirmed with a smile. "Do you want to talk to him?"
"I - no, I'll go down."
Without another word he strode swiftly out of the office and JD jumped to his feet.
"Stay put,” Chris ordered. He couldn't fault the kid for his curiosity but he didn't want Vin to feel crowded by his teammates.
JD stopped and looked beseechingly at his superior. "But . . ." He hesitated when he met the cool green gaze and looked around the room for support. Josiah smiled gently.
"Vin didn’t invite us to go with him,” he reminded their youngest.
"Perhaps Mr. Tanner will bring this individual up to the office,” Ezra put in.
"You think so?” JD said hopefully.
"Maybe,” their profiler said.
Buck came up to stand beside Chris. His look down the hall was enough to tell Larabee that he, too, was curious about this acquaintance of Vin's but he had something else on his mind. "Are you sure about JD being part of taking out whoever’s in the warehouse?"
Chris managed not to smile. As much as the big man teased his roommate, they were all aware of how protective he was of their youngest agent when they were in the field.
"Team Four is backing us up," he reminded his old friend, "and JD says Wiley is more than capable of handling communications. Besides, the kid's been stuck in the van during the last three take-downs. He can handle it, Buck."
"I know he can handle it," Wilmington retorted, "I'm just not sure I can."
Chris snorted. "JD's a trained agent. You need to cut those apron strings before he does it for you."
Buck's annoyed exclamation caught everyone's attention, including the subject of the discussion. JD took a few steps toward them, hazel eyes bright with curiosity. Chris said quietly,
"Now you've done it. Try talking yourself out of this one."
The big man turned around to see everyone watching him and he tried for a smile that wasn't wholly successful. He cleared his throat and walked nonchalantly back to his desk, as if he didn't notice JD following
"What's going on, Buck?"
Buck settled himself behind his desk with a thump and began flipping through the usual chaos. "Nothing, kid. Nothing at all."
Chris almost shook his head. Buck Wilmington had gone undercover more than once in his career and always done a fine job. But at the moment his efforts at dissembling were as transparent as a toddler's.
"Yeah, right," JD scoffed before looking at Nathan and Josiah who were clearly amused by the back-and-forth. "Do either of you believe him?"
Nathan's smile widened and he tried to wipe it away with his hand. "Well . . ." he let the word trail away.
"See there, Buck? Nathan doesn't believe you," JD said with an emphatic nod. "Josiah, what about you?"
Content to stand on the sidelines, Chris was grateful for this brief light-heartedness at the end of what had been a difficult week and prior to what was sure to be a dangerous culmination of the case tomorrow.
He heard the faint ding of an arriving elevator down the hall and only then realized he had been unconsciously listening for it. When he turned his head to look he saw Vin approaching, a stranger beside him. The man was limping slightly, not that it slowed him down. He was a couple inches taller than Tanner, lanky in build, although as the pair drew closer Chris realized the lankiness was deceptive. What struck him most was the relaxed body language between the two men. They not only knew each other well, they trusted each other.
The realization sent a pang through Larabee. The obvious closeness between the two men was a painful reminder of the rift that had come between him and Vin.
He unfolded his arms and straightened as they drew near. Vin was wearing a slight smile which reassured Chris. Even better, whatever unsettling emotion he'd glimpsed in the Texan's eyes earlier was gone.
Vin stopped in front of him. "Dan, this is my boss, Chris Larabee. Chris, Dan MacInne."
Chris met eyes as gray as a stormy sky yet without threat, and took the hand extended toward him. "Any friend of Vin's," he said.
"Likewise," MacInne returned with a smile. His eyebrows rose when the others approached. "I take it this is the rest of your team, Ghost?"
JD got a handshake in next. "Ghost?" he repeated, wide-eyed. "Oh, sorry, I'm JD Dunne."
MacInne looked at Tanner. "They don't know?"
"Nothin' to know," Vin said with a shrug.
MacInne's smile faded, only to return immediately. But this time, Chris thought, the weathered features showed faint strain.
"Oh yeah?" Buck demanded after also shaking hands. "Buck Wilmington, and we don't know nothing, junior, so how do we know?"
"What?" JD said, looking perplexed while Josiah chuckled.
"Josiah Sanchez, Mr. MacInne. It's a pleasure to meet a friend of Vin's."
Nathan introduced himself and Ezra did the same. After he finished shaking hands MacInne grinned at Tanner. "Look at you, a respectable member of law enforcement."
Vin rolled his eyes and Chris almost laughed. He'd never seen the sharpshooter do that before. He wasn't the only one amused and chuckles broke out from the others.
"I'm scared to ask how ya keepin' busy these days."
"I'll have you know I too am a respectable member of society."
Tanner made a rude sound. "Since when?"
MacInne slapped his thigh and Chris was reminded of his limp. "This may’ve taken me out of active service but I can still teach smart-ass, wet-behind-the-ears brats who think they have what it takes to shoot.”
Vin’s eyebrows rose. "So ya say.”
The newcomer's bark of laughter surprised them. "Damn straight. I’m a civilian contractor with the Army’s Sniper School.”
"Good gawd, those poor kids.” Vin shook his head.
"Can I ask a question?" JD said.
"Depends on the question," Vin said and MacInne chuckled before saying, "What is it?"
"You and Vin were in the Army together, right?"
JD looked from one man to the other. "You served together?"
"We sure did." MacInne slung an arm around Vin's shoulders and jostled him. "Part of the best twelve-man squad the Rangers ever had. For almost five years. Until last year when he decided not to re-up and disappeared."
Vin pulled away. "I didn't disappear."
"You sure as hell did." MacInne frowned at his friend. "Bang, overnight, just like that. No one knew where you went. No warnings, no goodbyes, nothing. I've been looking for you on and off ever since."
Buck chuckled. "That's why you call him Ghost? Cuz he disappeared on you?"
"No, he earned that years ago." MacInne smirked. "It was either Ghost or Windy."
"Shut up, Snake," Vin warned.
"Windy?" Buck repeated, looking delighted.
Vin gave him a cold stare. "Be careful, Bucklin, unless ya wanna be publicly humiliated in our next work-out."
Buck's grin died and JD laughed. "Will I get in trouble if I ask why they call you Ghost?"
Vin looked at MacInne. "See wha'cha done?"
"Hell, man, there's nothing wrong with it. To answer your question, Agent Dunne, our team discovered very quickly that Vin could disappear even while he was standing practically in front of us, and it was next to impossible to see how he did it or where he went. The guys started saying he was just like the wind or a ghost. Ghost is the nickname that stuck."
"It wasn't that big a deal." Vin looked uncomfortable.
"The hell it wasn't."
Chris had been listening and watching. More than once he'd seen Vin pull that disappearing trick and he thought Ghost was a good nickname. His sharpshooter's expression made him decide it was time to change the subject. "How'd you locate Vin?"
MacInne's smile widened. "We have a mutual friend, a former teammate by the name of Rob Townsend."
"Doc?" Vin interrupted with more animation than he normally showed. "What's he up to these days."
"You’ll never guess.” MacInne started to laugh.
Vin’s eyes widened. "He didn’t.”
"I’ll be damned.”
The others stared at the pair and MacInne noticed. "Every time the team got in a tight fix,” he explained, "Doc would say, ‘I should’a been a vet.’ Well, he’s got one more year to go before he graduates from a vet school in northern California. He's the reason I was able to track you down, Ghost.”
Snake gave another bark of laughter. "Doc's brother-in-law is a cop and he read in one of those cop magazines about the ATF ace named Tanner who outshot all the competition at some law enforcement conference last month. He passed along the info to Doc and I happened to call him a few days later just to say hi and he told me all about it." He punched Tanner lightly in the arm.
"Not surprised you showed all those yahoos how it’s done. They had no idea who they were shooting against.”
"Yeah?" Buck said. He waggled his eyebrows at Vin. "Just who were they shooting against?”
They were all listening closely to this peek into the past Vin guarded so carefully. Snake glanced around at the interested faces then back to Tanner. Vin met his gaze without expression and it was MacInne’s eyes who softened.
"The best damn marksman ever to come out of Sniper School.”
Vin looked away and MacInne punched him again. "No need for modesty. The truth is the truth.”
JD’s eyes were bright with fascination. "Vin was really good, huh?”
Was and is, Chris wanted to say, but he kept his mouth shut.
MacInne met the youngster’s gaze and amusement faded from his expression. "I've been watching shooters in the Army for almost twenty years, a lot of them when they went through Sniper School and others in combat. Vin’s the best I ever saw.” The quiet sincerity in his voice silenced everyone. Almost.
"Ya did okay,” Vin said.
Snake grinned. "Hell, yeah, I was damn good. And if I hadn’t been around pushing you, you’d never have got so good.”
That made Tanner snort. "Right. What’s Mack doing these days?”
MacInne's smile vanished. "There’s no way to sugar-coat it, Ghost. A few months after we made it back, Mack was diagnosed with brain cancer. We buried him five months later.”
The color drained out of Vin's face until only his eyes looked alive in the pallid features, the pupils dilated blackly until all the blue in his eyes was gone. Chris glanced around the room to see varying expressions of surprise, sorrow and regret. No one looked like they knew what to say. Neither did he.
Snake put a hand on his shoulder. "Don't be feeling guilty, man. We know you would’ve been there if you’d known.”
"He survived all that shit,” Vin said softly, "just to die anyway.”
MacInne’s grip tightened. "He made it back home. He got to be with his wife and kids at the end. That's got to count for something." Vin didn't react and his friend looked at Larabee.
"I kind of dropped everything to come here when I found out where Vin was, and I've got to fly back in the morning. Any chance of kidnapping this character for the night?"
Vin started to shake his head as Chris recognized the unexpected opportunity that had fallen into his lap. If Tanner spent the night with his Army buddy he wouldn't be able to ignore orders by setting up early for tomorrow's bust.
"Take the night off, Vin," he ordered. "I don't want to see you until tomorrow morning.”
"But - "
Vin looked from his boss to MacInne, obviously torn. Chris gestured. "You heard me, get out of here.”
"Come on,” Snake added his urging.
Tanner met Larabee’s eyes. "’Preciate it.”
Chris waited until he saw the pair get into the elevator before glaring at his other teammates. "That means all of you, too."
Leaving them talking animatedly between themselves as they prepared to leave, he went into his office and closed the door behind him. He made sure the blinds were closed before dropping into his chair and rubbing his arms in an effort to alleviate a sudden chill.
Dan MacInne had mentioned that he and Vin had been part of a twelve-man Ranger team, but beside Vin and MacInne, only two names had been mentioned. What about the other eight members of the team?
For months Chris had wondered why Vin Tanner left the Army so abruptly. Now he wondered if he’d suddenly been given the answer.
Another chill ran through him. God, he hoped he was wrong.
+ + + + + + +
One order Larabee always gave his men the night before a bust was to get a good night's sleep. He wanted everyone fresh and at the top of their game when they took down a gang of desperate criminals.
He had never admitted to anyone how difficult a time he had following his own orders. Although he knew it was good advice, it was very hard to turn off his thoughts, especially the night before the bust. Even though he had spent days planning, worse-case scenarios always plagued his sleep, especially when the climax of a case was imminent.
Last night had been no different.
The sun was just rising when Chris parked his truck, made sure it was locked and the alarm set, and headed for the exit. This time of the morning the office should be empty, giving him peace and privacy to review yet again the plan now in place.
Danger was always part of a takedown. They all knew that; it came with the territory. But that didn't keep Chris from doing his best to plan for every eventuality in order to ensure both their survival and their success. Some might consider him obsessive; he didn't care. Besides, he'd discovered in a conversation with his sharpshooter that he was in good company.
"They taught us in Sniper School," Vin had once explained, "to think through every possible scenario before a mission so no matter what happened we wasn't surprised.”
Chris smiled. Different though they might be, he and Vin thought a lot alike. His smile faded. There were few things in life that he hated more than having to talk about feelings but he had come to realize he had no choice if he was going to keep Tanner from leaving the team. Whatever was going on, they needed to talk it through, clear the air, and all the rest of those damned clichés. The problem was going to be holding Vin down until he agreed to talk.
He grunted at the thought. Since he hadn't yet beat Tanner in their workouts, holding him down was going to be a challenge. But Chris knew something Vin didn't. He was willing to fight dirty to hold onto the Texan until he got his attention. So far, Vin hadn't been willing to resort to unfair tactics, at least not without advance warning.
If Chris was right in his suspicion of what had happened to Vin’s Ranger squad, it was going to take a hell of a lot of work to break through the Texan’s defenses. If dirty tactics were what were needed, Chris Larabee could deliver.
He reached the open garage doors just as a dark blue Jeep Grand Cherokee pulled up across the street in front of the Federal Building. Chris paused still inside the garage, watching as Dan MacInne got out of the driver's side and Vin Tanner the passenger side, carrying a gun case. The sight didn’t surprise Chris. He knew the sharpshooter must have taken the weapon completely apart, cleaned and re-assembled it, as was his habit the night before a bust.
The two men came around the Jeep to stand on the sidewalk. They were too far away for him to hear their conversation, which ended when Vin put his hand out. MacInne grasped it and pulled him in for a hug that Vin returned. A few seconds later they separated, MacInne slapped Vin on the back and returned to the Jeep. He opened the door before pausing to say something more, this time with his index finger raised for emphasis. Vin's face split into a grin as he responded. Chris was impressed. He’d rarely seen the Texan show emotion so openly; it was another indication of the friendship between the two men. He continued to watch while MacInne got back into the Jeep though it didn't move until Vin walked inside the Federal Building.
Chris took in a bushel of air. "One way or another, Tanner, we're going to clear the air."
He crossed the street quickly, watching out for traffic. To his surprise he saw the Jeep make an illegal U-turn half-way down the street and head back.
Chris stood still, waiting. Sure enough, when the Jeep drew close it made another illegal U-turn and pulled up to the curb beside him. He looked through the open passenger window.
"You’ve got a lot of nerve breaking the law in front of an ATF agent.”
MacInne grinned. "I’ll take my chances.”
"Something on your mind?” That had to be it; there was no other reason for the man to come back to talk to him.
"Yeah.” MacInne paused, as if considering his words. "I don’t like the look in Ghost’s eyes and I’m thinking you have something to do with it.”
There was a new note in his voice. If Chris had been someone else, he might have felt intimidated. "What’s between Vin and me is private.”
The other man frowned. "I asked him to come back to Georgia with me.”
"Georgia?” Chris repeated, hoping he didn’t sound as surprised as he felt.
"Fort Benning, Georgia is where the U. S. Army’s Sniper School is based,” MacInne explained. "I know they’d love to get Vin Tanner back.”
It was Chris’s turn to think about how to respond, a decision made more difficult by his bewilderment. "You want Vin to re-enlist?”
"No.” The denial was flat and unambiguous. "He’ll never do that, but he could be a civilian contractor, like me.”
He’ll never do that. Four simple words but they were enough to convince Chris of what he had only suspected before.
"You know what’s burning a hole in his gut.” It was a statement, not a question, for he had never been more sure of an answer.
MacInne’s eyes went vague, as if he was having an internal conversation. When his expression cleared he gave a shrug.
"It’s not for me to say.” He licked his lips. "Ghost said he didn’t want to go back to work for the Army, even as a civilian. But I got the feeling he’s not sure he wants to stay here.”
Annoyance warred with worry in Chris. He respected the man’s loyalty to Vin, even if he wished he would be more open.
MacInne fixed him with a hard stare. "They don’t come any better than Vin Tanner. I hope to hell you can work out whatever’s wrong because he needs someplace to belong, even if he doesn’t know it.”
That pulled a reluctant smile out of Larabee. He thought the same thing.
MacInne reached inside his jacket and pulled out his wallet, opened it and extracted a business card, then a pen from another pocket. He turned the card over and wrote something on the back before handing it to Chris.
"You can leave a message at the number on the front of the card,” he explained. "I put my cell number on the back. If Vin needs anything, anything at all, you call me.”
The last words were an order, not a request and Chris nodded. So did the other man before he shifted out of Park and drove off. Chris looked after the Jeep for a minute before tucking the card away in a pocket and heading into the Federal Building.
When he walked into the office of Team Seven his first sight was of Vin who had the now-open gun case on his desk. He had set down the deployment kit that was part of the weapons system beside it and was rummaging through it.
The sight sent confidence flooding through Larabee and he was reminded of his earlier thought. There was no one he trusted more than Vin Tanner to watch his back or his team's backs. No way was he going to settle for anything less.
Chris was caught unawares by the drawled question, the more so because Vin hadn't looked up from what he was doing. He smiled ruefully, relived yet regretful that this was not the time for a personal conversation.
"Why do you say that?"
"Wasn't expectin' ya in so early."
"I could say the same for you."
"Dan had to catch a flight," Vin said, raising his head to meet Chris's gaze. "Figured I'd come in 'n get ready."
"There's plenty of time for that."
Vin shrugged, picked up the scope and began to gently rub a cloth over it. Chris could practically see the signs going up around the sharpshooter - No trespassing. Tanner was beginning to settle into his usual zone before a bust.
He left the Texan to it and retreated to his office where he settled down to review the plan once more, looking for any weaknesses, any holes, anything that could tip the takedown against him.
The morning continued, the teams assembled for final discussion and to work out last-minute details. Ezra disappeared to get into character as Foster's assistant. Chris went with him for, when the undercover agent was ready, they went over to the jail to meet up with Foster. Larabee wanted to remind the gunrunner that his future depended on how well he carried this off. By the time Chris returned to the office everyone was moving into the heightened awareness that preceded a bust.
Vin was aware of it all on one level but as the day progressed his internal, mental preparations took an increasing portion of his attention. He was going into battle. The enemy was out there and it was up to him to protect his team.
The sky was beginning to darken outside when Drew Sheridan, leader of Team Four, and Team Two’s leader, Paul Jankowski, appeared and went straight into Chris's office. Their conversation was brief and Sheridan was smiling when he came back out, though Jankowski retained his usual impassive expression. He nodded uninformatively at the curious team members.
"We're heading out to meet up with Gaynor's crew. Keep your heads down."
"We'll be just fine," Buck said with a grin. "You look out for yourselves."
"Always," Jankowski said before walking out the door.
Sheridan followed, giving them a nod. "See you there.”
"You know it,” JD said cheerfully.
Looking through the open blinds, the team saw Larabee stand up and pull his pistol out of the holster.
"Chris is checking his weapon," Josiah noted. "It's time."
Nathan picked up his heavy pack and, with a hand from the profiler, shrugged it onto his back. The others were also going through their last minute checklist, except for Vin who was ready to go.
Chris swept out of his office. "Let's move."
It took forty-five minutes to get across town to the devastated area that the Double Deuces claimed as part of their turf. It was filled with graffiti-covered abandoned buildings, apartment buildings as old as the city itself and collapsing from disuse and neglect, and at the heart of the desolation, the skeletal remains of factories and other industrial structures that only rats inhabited these days.
Larabee parked several blocks from their target building, not wanting to draw unwanted attention. By now the sun had almost fully set and deepening darkness was like a protective cloak. Thanks to the DPD’s insistence, they hadn’t been able to run an unobtrusive check of the area today and that lack made him uncomfortable. If Vin had had his way, he would have been in position hours ago and the team would already be aware of the situation and any potential problems.
There was nothing to be done about it now. Chris pulled out his cell phone and checked the display. It was beginning.
"Team Four's moving into position,” he told his teammates. "Ezra and Foster should be here within thirty minutes." He looked over his shoulder. "Vin - "
He stopped for his words weren't necessary. Tanner was already moving, cradling his rifle while stepping lightly over his teammates' legs, and shoving the door open. One second he was there, the next he was gone and the door drifted quietly shut behind him.
Vin moved cautiously, staying in the deepest shadows and keeping an eye out for the unexpected. Although no one was known to live in these condemned buildings it was possible some homeless people might have taken refuge.
He didn't see any movement nor did he sense the presence of anyone nearby, hiding. As he passed a pile of rubble that had once been a small storefront, he heard the distinct squeaking of rodents. Rats he could handle.
If Snake was here he –
Tanner immediately squelched the thought, annoyed with himself. Normally, once he was in mission-mode, nothing could distract him. But Snake’s unexpected appearance yesterday had shaken him, awakening all the bloody memories he had been trying to bury for over a year,
He shook the thoughts out of his head. He had work to do, a team to protect.
Because he was taking a covert route, it took Vin ten minutes to go a block and a half to the old five-story hotel that had once held prime of place, decades ago. At five stories high, it was the tallest building in the immediate area and, most important for his purposes, the rooftop gave him a good line of sight into the abandoned warehouse that had once housed storage facilities for a moving company and was now one of the Double Deuces’ hangouts. The same hangout that had received Foster’s first shipment of weapons and was now about to receive the second shipment.
The stairwell that ran up all five stories to the rooftop of the hotel was on the south side of the building in deep shadow. Vin approached it warily, every sense on full alert. He placed his free hand on the iron rail and gave it a gentle tug. It didn't move, a good sign.
The higher he climbed, the more exposed he was to unfriendly eyes. There was nothing he could do about that except to move slowly and deliberately, taking his time, watching his footing and constantly checking his surroundings, while inwardly aware of the rapid passing of time. He needed to be in place on the roof before Ezra and Foster showed up, for that was when the teams would begin to close in.
He reached the third story without incident. So far so good.
In spite of his growing sense of urgency, Vin went up the fourth flight of stairs with the same cautious deliberation, testing each tread before putting his weight on it, vigilant for any untoward sound or movement in the structure.
Just as he took the first step onto the final rise of stairs, he froze. The unexpected sound didn’t come from the staircase but from above.
From the roof.
Vin held his breath, listening. There it was again, a loud, scraping sound. It took a second for him to identify. It was the sound of leather, shoe leather, on the tarpapered roof.
Someone was already up there.
Anger flared hotly. He knew he should have set up earlier.
As quickly as it rose, Vin stifled the distracting emotion.
The immediate question he needed to answer was how many people were already on the roof.
Step by step, Vin moved slowly up the stairs. Now he could make out the low wall around the roof. The silhouette was normal; there were no unusual shadows so it seemed safe to continue.
Four steps from the top of the staircase he froze again, this time at the sound of low laughter.
"You try runnin’ that by him and you know damn well what he’ll say."
"Hey, you got a problem, talk to Herschel. 'Course then you'll get turned into a grease spot." More laughter and curses from someone.
Vin took in some air through his nose. At least two of them. Hershel King must have decided to add some extra security precautions for this final shipment. Or maybe he’d had them in place for the first shipment and Foster hadn’t noticed.
Son of a bitch. Well, so be it. He needed to deal with the cards he’d been dealt.
He'd only heard two voices. Were there any more people on the roof? There was no way to know unless he poked his head up and over the edge. For all he knew there could be a guard right there, in which case Tanner was dead.
He dared to take a few seconds to consider his options. He couldn't radio Chris to warn him, not now when he was so close to the enemy. In the still darkness, even a whisper would carry. He would have to climb back down before contacting his team leader.
Vin knew without thinking about it that Chris would want to be apprised of this twist in their plan. But, damn it, he was running out of time. Ezra would be coming with the van-load of weapons any minute and he needed to be on the roof to ensure his team was covered.
Two soft clicks came through the radio and Vin suppressed another curse. Ezra and Foster had arrived. Chris was alerting his team and demanding a response to confirm everyone was in position.
Another sound – an incautious step making the stairwell creak - broke the quiet and Vin's heart skipped a beat.
It came from below.
Someone was climbing up the staircase from down below. Climbing toward him.
There was no time left to make new plans.
Sorry, Larabee, he thought, and double-clicked his radio before moving quickly up the last several stairs to the roof.
+ + + + + + +
Chris crouched instinctively when the van drove by and slowed as it approached the dilapidated warehouse. He watched it turn down a narrow alley beside the building. So far Foster's information was panning out.
He double-clicked his radio and hefted his pistol, waiting for his teammates to respond. Five, six, then silence. Chris tightened his grip on his weapon while he waited for his seventh to respond.
Damn it, Tanner, if you've gone off with your own cockamamie plan -
He breathed a sigh of relief when the sharpshooter finally responded. Ten seconds later, another click came through his radio, followed by two more. Sheridan's team was in position.
Two figures appeared out of the van and approached the small group waiting on them. They hadn’t miked up the gun dealer for the man’s safety but with Ezra in the middle of things, Chris wouldn’t have any problem hearing what was going on. He switched to another frequency in time to hear Foster's voice.
"Hello, Mr. King. You got my final payment?"
Another voice answered, not as loud but still understandable. "You got my guns?"
"Sure do. Woods, show the man."
"Yes, sir," Ezra's voice answered, sounding odd with a flat, New York accent.
The sound of chains rattling came through, then the large doors creaked open. Footsteps resounded on a metal floor which meant Ezra was inside the van. A loud, unpleasant metallic screech followed, then a dull, wooden thump.
As tempting as it was to move in now, Chris knew better. They needed to wait until the weapons had been formally delivered and King paid Foster. Then there would be no chance that the gang leader could argue that he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, an innocent bystander.
Chris’s biggest concern was how many suspects they were dealing with. He hadn't seen any gang members other than the three with King, one of whom was now helping Ezra-Woods unload the weapons. That didn't mean there weren't more inside the old building. But if he read the gang leader right, King would want to keep the location of the weapons as secret as possible, which meant having the fewest possible number of people know where they were stockpiled.
Best case scenario, Teams Seven and Four were only facing a handful of gang members. Worst case – was not something to inspire confidence.
His fist tightened on his weapon. He hoped to God all went according to plan.
+ + + + + + +
Vin's luck held.
He reached the roof and paused long enough to do a quick visual sweep. No one was in sight although he could still hear the conversation coming from the far side of the roof. Exactly where the perps were he couldn't tell because a ramshackle structure that looked like a small shed blocked his view.
A faint, dull thud drifted up to Vin and he knew whoever was coming up the stairwell was drawing near.
The ones on the roof were closest.
He crossed the empty, open space in a swift, controlled rush. As he rounded the shed he saw them, two figures holding automatic rifles and leaning over the edge of the roof, looking down at the warehouse.
Vin had to take them out before they spotted his team.
One must have heard something for he suddenly turned around, raising his weapon as he moved.
Then Vin was on him.
He smashed the stock of his rifle into the enemy's face and heard bone snap.
The perp fell back, choking, and Vin struck him again in the throat.
Even as he collapsed the other figure looked around in bewilderment and Tanner slammed him on the side of the head.
He dropped without a sound and Vin reached down for their weapons. He knew he only had a matter of seconds before -
Instinct spun him around in time to grab the rifle barrel only inches from his face and yank it out of his surprised attacker’s grasp. He flung it behind him but in that split second he sensed more than saw something glinting in the air.
Vin stepped back, a fraction too late. He felt the blade slice into his shoulder, the force of the blow almost knocking him off his feet..
A third man. Although he’d thought there might be more than two, he hadn't been sure and that uncertainty almost killed him.
His attacker was too close for Tanner to raise his rifle and he let it drop to the ground as he took another step back to avoid a second swipe of the knife.
His attacker snarled in frustration, dropped the knife and pulled an automatic out of his pocket, but he was a second too slow.
Tanner drove his fist into the perp's nose which shattered. A gasp wrung its way out of the throat before his assailant slumped to the ground.
Vin didn't bother giving him another look. The blow he had struck was lethal; done right, it sent shards of broken bone into the brain, killing almost instantly.
He snatched up his rifle and moved swiftly back across the roof, but not fast enough. A muttered curse and loud, scraping noises were enough to tell him he had company.
Vin darted behind the shed, swearing inwardly. There hadn't been time to drag the three bodies out of sight. As soon as the newcomer stepped off the stairwell onto the roof he would spot them.
There was no time.
He couldn't afford any noise.
He reached down to his boot and pulled out his knife.
"Son of a bitch - " the voice started but never got to finish.
Vin stepped smoothly out from behind the shed, the knife already coming up as he moved.
Only ten feet away.
It was over in a heartbeat.
He retrieved his knife, then sparred a precious minute to drag all the bodies behind the shed, quickly tying and gagging the two who were still alive. It was unlikely either would regain consciousness any time soon but he wasn't about to take any chances.
As Vin moved toward the edge of the roof, he grabbed the two weapons still laying where they had been dropped. Even if there was no one left to fire them, he wasn’t about to let the rifles out of his control.
He settled on the northeast corner, laying the other weapons aside. A quick look at his watch told him less than three minutes had passed since he arrived at the top of the stairwell. He peered through his scope, adjusting it until he had a clear view down to the alley roughly two and a half football fields away. Easily within his rifle's capabilities.
He sighted on each figure, one after another. There were two gang members standing on either side of King, weapons out though pointed at the ground. Foster half faced the gang leader. There was movement in the back of the van which, fortunately, faced Vin's position. The interior light was dim but he could see two people inside. One of them must be Ezra.
Something moved just beyond his sights.
Vin swept the scene and realized what he was seeing. The ATF teams were creeping closer.
The van blocked the sight of the gang members on the ground and a shiver ran through him when he realized that if he hadn't taken out the Double Deuces on the roof, his team would have been sitting ducks.
He started to re-sight his rifle but the movement sent pain slicing through his shoulder. Vin swallowed a hiss and looked down at himself. Damn, he'd forgotten about the knife. Now that the burst of adrenalin was fading, he could feel a lot more than he wanted. The knife had caught him just beyond the edge of his vest, leaving behind a deep gash several inches long that was bleeding freely.
But that wasn't the worst damage.
Vin fingered the piece of velcro to which his radio had been attached. The knife had cut it away as neatly as if it had been deliberate.
His eyes darted across the roof but he didn’t see any debris.
There was no way he could get in touch with his team now.
Chris was going to be beyond pissed.
+ + + + + + +
Larabee crouched behind the crumbled remnants of an old store wall while he watched. Much to his annoyance the van was partially blocking his view. He could see King standing to the side with Foster while another gang member helped Ezra unload the crates. Knowing that Josiah and the others were on the opposite side of the street, able to see what Chris couldn't, was reassuring, as was knowing Vin was on the roof of a building a couple blocks away, keeping an eagle eye on the entire scene.
Each time a crate was taken out of the van King insisted the top be removed so he could look inside. Foster had explained during his interrogation that they had gone through the same rigmarole with the first shipment so Chris was expecting this. What worried him was that each time a crate was opened, Ezra - looking very unlike himself with straight blonde hair, moustache and a bulbous nose - and the gang member assisting him, stood directly in front of King. This was the most likely time he would be spotted as a ringer but so far that hadn't happened.
It was hard to sit still and watch the crates of weapons disappear inside the warehouse. Even knowing those weapons would shortly be in their custody didn't ease the knot in Chris's gut. What that kind of firepower could do on the streets wasn't something he wanted to think about, even briefly.
The minutes passed with excruciating slowness as the heavy crates were unloaded one by one, opened to King for inspection, then moved inside. Chris kept his binoculars glued on the gang leader. If anything was going to happen, it would start with King.
Nearly an hour passed before the last crate was removed from the van and set down in front of King. He peered inside, smiled and nodded, this time without insisting on checking each weapon, after which Ezra and the other man carried it inside.
As they reappeared in the door way, Foster’s voice came through the radio, faintly because Ezra was several feet away. "There, all accounted for. Where’s my money?”
King’s smile faded and returned. "I got your payment right here.”
His two guards suddenly raised their weapons while the Double Deuce who'd been helping Ezra unload the van shoved the undercover agent forward and pulled out his own pistol.
A double cross.
The flat, deadly crack of a high-powered rifle echoed across the street and the warehouse window behind King exploded, sending everyone ducking.
+ + + + + + +
Vin had watched intently during the unloading of the weapons, his rifle moving constantly from one gang member to the other. It was all going according to plan but he wouldn't be able to draw a deep breath until it was over and the perps were in custody.
Thoughts of the throbbing wound in his shoulder, of the destroyed radio and his inability to communicate with his team, were set aside. He had one job to do here and nothing else mattered.
It seemed to take forever until he saw the last crate being unloaded. Vin focused his sight on King, waiting for the man to okay the contents so that it could be taken into the warehouse.
What the -
He re-sighted his scope on the window behind King.
Was it Ezra -
No. They always turned to the left when they carried the crates inside. The window was to the right of the door.
He held his breath, waiting.
Ezra reappeared, King’s man right behind him.
Another shadow moved across the window.
This time he recognized it.
Someone was inside.
Pointing an Uzi.
One of the gang members yelled.
Weapons appeared in several hands and Ezra was shoved hard into Foster, sending both men stumbling.
It wasn't a conscious thought. Vin's forefinger pressed the trigger lightly, which was all that was needed.
An instant later he saw the window shatter, and in the sudden flurry of movement within, he knew he was right.
There was a bunch of Double Deuces inside.
It was a set-up.
+ + + + + + +
There was another crack of a rifle and Larabee heard yelling from inside the warehouse.
Thank God for Vin.
The perp holding a gun on Ezra fired point blank before diving back inside.
Ezra fell, grabbing Foster and pulling him down with him.
His double-cross exposed, King yanked out a submachine pistol.
Before he could aim, Chris's bullet knocked him off his feet.
King's guards fired wildly until they too were taken down.
With the nearest threat immobilized, Chris concentrated on the warehouse. He had no idea how many gang members were inside and jabbed at his radio.
"Tanner!" he yelled over the gunfire. "You got a count?"
He flinched despite himself as the sniper rifle fired again and again, sending high-powered bullets smashing into the building.
On the far side of the warehouse he spotted Sheridan and Kelsey from Team Four moving in, and spared a moment to be thankful that the Double Deuces hadn’t been more organized. If they had, they'd have people watching the rear of the building. Because they hadn't, they'd left themselves a blind spot that the ATF teams could exploit.
Of course, the gang hadn't expected to be dealing with anyone except Foster and his assistant and they obviously didn't know about preparing for any eventuality. Dangerous they certainly were, but they weren’t trained soldiers. Which was all to the good as far as Larabee was concerned.
He wanted to move in, too, but the gunfire was too heavy on this side. Worse, because he couldn't see inside the warehouse, he wasn't sure where to place his shots. Thankfully, Tanner was providing superb support and he had no doubt the Double Deuces were very unhappy about their current situation.
He was concerned Vin hadn't responded to his call but the Texan was obviously busy, so he was willing to give him some slack. So long as that sniper rifle kept firing, he must be okay.
There was movement at the opposite end of the warehouse that turned into Buck and JD. They crawled slowly across the roof and Chris wasn’t surprised to see that Buck was the one with a bag slung over his back. He’d figured the big man wouldn’t let JD take point. The gang members thought they were safe inside but in a matter of minutes they were going to find out differently.
Other windows in the warehouse blew apart under the force of weapons fire, both inside and out. Although unable to see into the interior, Chris knew only the bad guys were in there so he had no problem with firing back. But as Buck and JD drew closer, he held his fire, fearful of a ricochet.
The gunfire continued behind him and off to his left but he recognized the difference. Instead of the earlier fusillade, Josiah and Nathan were firing more cautiously now, staying away from the roof and Buck and JD, but not aiming too low, for Ezra and Foster were still on the ground. It was risky but they needed to keep the suspects bottled up inside.
More gunfire sounded at the rear of the building and Chris smiled grimly. The bad guys had finally realized their danger and some – not all of them for shots were still being fired on this side – were trying escape through the rear. Too bad for them that Team Four was already there.
He ducked involuntarily at the zing! of a high-powered bullet striking overhead. The gang members in the warehouse were firing blindly but that didn’t make them any less lethal.
Chris was relieved to see Ezra moving finally, pulling Foster’s prone figure with him as he crawled under the van, which provided at least some cover from the unrelenting firepower of both sides. Thank God, the Kevlar vests the two men were wearing had done their job, though Ezra had been still long enough to worry his team leader.
Buck and JD finally reached the overhang just above the first of the shattered windows. They stayed low, JD covering his teammate while Buck opened the bag and pulled out the gun and tear gas projectile. He loaded the weapon, gestured JD aside, and inched forward to angle the gun over the roof.
Chris watched tensely, his own weapon ready but unable to fire with his men so close. Buck rose to his knees, JD with him, still protecting his teammate, and for a brief, terrifying moment they were totally exposed. Then the gun angled down and Buck pulled the trigger.
The projectile burst through the window, exploded, and tear gas immediately began pouring through the interior, while some escaped out the shattered window.
The pair moved swiftly along the edge of the roof as Buck loaded another projectile, then they stopped and fired it through the second window. That fast it was done and they retreated rapidly the way they had come.
For a few seconds the weapons inside were quiet – probably due to shock. Suddenly yells and curses began to resound, followed by another explosion of gunfire.
The teams outside ignored the temptation to fire back, including, Chris was glad to hear, a certain sharpshooter. It was time to wait, even if only a few seconds, for they all knew the inevitable was about to happen. He focused on the door; that was no other way out. It was still closed though now hanging drunkenly from only one hinge, badly damaged by Vin’s high-powered rounds.
The worst of the tear gas was inside but Chris knew some of the fumes must be drifting out through the windows. He was glad he was across the street and hoped he was far enough away. Like everyone else, he had a protective mask at hand but considering how the damn thing limited vision, he had no intention of putting it on unless he had to.
The door flew open and bodies began pouring out, still yelling and swearing, many of them firing randomly despite being temporarily blinded by the gas.
Chris focused on the ones with automatic weapons for they were the most dangerous while trying to avoid those whose hands were empty, without threat.
The gunfire was deafening in the contained space of the alley, but that limited space was also the gang’s undoing.
In a matter of minutes, the bad guys were down, at least the ones who’d been firing when they came out. Several others still stumbled around the narrow alley, wiping furiously at their eyes, a couple crying out in pain.
"Hold fire!” Chris yelled into his radio, then addressed the remaining suspects. "Everyone on the ground! Face down!”
A few obeyed, a few more didn’t.
"On the fucking ground or I’ll put you down!” Chris bellowed.
Finally the last of them obeyed. Instantly he was on his feet and racing across the street. Although he knew Vin was covering them, he kept his own .45 ready.
He heard others running up behind him and spared a quick look over his shoulder to ensure it was his people. The knot in his stomach finally began to unravel when he saw they were all upright and in one piece. Even Ezra was standing and though he was wincing as he moved, the bullet hole clearly visible in his pale blue shirt showed no trace of blood.
From around the corner, three of Team Four appeared, herding four cuffed suspects ahead of them.
"This is the last of ‘em,” Sheridan said. As it his words were a cue, another voice sounded in their earpieces.
"Rear containment looks good,” Wiley – the last member of Sheridan’s team – reported from his vantage point in the communications van. "Front containment still in progress.”
Chris glared at the leader of Team Four who shrugged. "I know he’s a pain in the ass, but he’s usually good for a laugh.”
Buck snorted but this wasn’t the time for levity. When the last of the suspects were formally in custody, Chris adjusted his headset. "Wiley, are the paramedics here yet?”
"We’ve got one unit so far, two others are on their way.”
"Send it in and the others when they arrive.” He looked around the scene. "And the M.E. too, when he gets here.”
It had been a bloody takedown. The Double Deuces were hardcore; Chris was actually surprised so many had chosen surrender over death. Not that it would make the paperwork any easier.
The thought made him walk to the end of the alley where two crumpled bodies lay. Herschel King’s plan to destroy the Skulls had resulted in his own death, as well as the deaths or arrests of a number of his followers.
It wouldn’t destroy the gang called the Double Deuces but Chris hoped it would at least end the immediate risk of a gang war with the Skulls. Beyond that . . . he’d deal with whatever happened when it happened.
That reminded him. "Wiley, what do you hear from Jankowski?”
"Just a second. He’s calling in now.” The silence lasted long enough for Chris’s stomach to knot up again, then he heard Wiley say, "Everything’s A-okay. Team Two’s got the weapons. Fernandez and four other Skulls are in custody with minor injuries to three police officers and one agent. That’s it.”
Finally Chris could relax and he let out a long breath of relief. Two successful busts and only a few minor injuries for the good guys. They’d done it.
He looked around the scene to confirm all was well. Automatically, he gave each member of his team the once-over to be sure they were okay. One teammate was still missing and he pressed a hand against his headset.
"Tanner, it’s over. Get your ass down here.”
He caught Josiah’s eye as he spoke and wasn’t surprised to see the older agent smile.
"You know he’s not going to come down until he’s sure all suspects are in custody.”
Chris gestured at the scene. Yes, it was still somewhat chaotic, between all the bodies, alive and dead, the suspects and the agents keeping watch over them, and now, with a low growl, the arrival of the first paramedic unit, followed by an ambulance. But despite the noise and apparent confusion, the situation was under control as any experienced eye could see.
"What more does he want?” he demanded before focusing again on his missing sharpshooter. "Vin, acknowledge.”
Unease began to trickle through Chris. After the fuck-up last week, he couldn’t believe Vin would forget the importance of remaining in contact with his team. Unless – he swallowed and spoke more sharply. "Tanner, talk to me.”
Josiah came closer, lines appearing in his forehead. "He’s not responding?”
Chris ignored the question. "Vin, respond. Now,” he demanded as rising fear threatened to swamp him.
JD looked up from his suspect; just behind him Nathan finished bandaging the arm of another suspect and stood, his dark eyes also focused on his team leader.
Biting back a curse, Chris met the worried gaze. "Nathan, JD, get up there and check on Vin.”
"Right away,” the medic said, snatching up his pack and hurrying off with JD beside him.
+ + + + + + +
Vin had kept his weapon trained on the perps until the last one was handcuffed. Only then did he allow the rifle to sag in his arms. Despite his caution the knife wound sent fresh pain slicing through his shoulder.
He looked down at himself and realized he had another problem. His shirt and vest were slick with blood, a lot more than he’d expected.
Damn, he was bleeding like a stuck pig.
Well, shit. There hadn’t been time to do anything about it when he was knifed and after that things got kind’a busy.
So do somethin’ about it now, idiot.
Vaguely amused by his thoughts, Vin tried to move his arm and winced. Okay, forget about that.
He raised his good arm and with his teeth tore part of his sleeve off. Filthy and damp with sweat, it wouldn’t make a great compress but it was better than nothing.
Treating the injury hurt about as much as he’d expected but by the time he’d finished, he could tell the bleeding had slowed.
How about standin’ up, Tanner?
Huh. That could be a problem, one of several now that he thought of it. If Chris hadn't already checked in with his teammates, he soon would. Vin wouldn't be able to respond and he regretted the worry his silence would cause.
All things considered, he was glad he was up here and Chris was down there. Not that that would last long. Hell, better to go on down and get the yelling over with.
He wiped the sweat off his forehead and wondered how he was going to get on his feet. One-handed was his only option, but doing that while still hanging onto his weapon was another matter. He briefly regretted that he'd removed the rifle sling earlier; it sure as hell would've helped right about now.
Vin snickered at the obviousness of his thoughts, then realized he was light-headed. Oh boy, was Chris ever gonna be pissed.
Dead meat, Tanner, that’s ya.
He snickered again before forcing himself to consider his situation.
Maybe he could get up without using his hands? He tried and gasped when the knife wound protested. Nope, that wasn't going to work.
Neither would trying to brace himself one-handed if he was still hanging on to his rifle. As loathe as he was to set the weapon down, he didn't see any other way he was going to get upright.
A faint clang, followed by a series of regular thumping sounds, caught his attention and his pulse began to race, a surge of adrenalin clearing the haze that had settled over him. Someone was running up the stairwell.
It was likely one of his teammates but it could be another Double Deuce.
He dropped down and swallowed another gasp of pain, hugging his rifle close and placing the sights at the top of the stairwell.
The thumping footsteps grew louder and suddenly a figure popped into view.
He took his finger off the trigger and lowered the weapon while he surveyed the new arrival between half-closed lids. "’Bout time,” he drawled.
"Vin!" Nathan gasped, half in alarm and half because he had been running up the stairs.
Wasn’t that kind of obvious? Two could play that game. "Nate," he responded and gave a little wave.
The medic dropped beside him, simultaneously swinging his pack off his back. "How bad?"
Vin grinned, feeling his light-headedness increase. "Had worse."
Nathan gave him a long look. "Let's get you on your back so I can see what’s going on."
Turning over was painful, though it was nothing more than Vin expected. He stiffened at the sound of new footsteps.
"Relax," Nathan said as he unfastened Vin’s vest. "JD was right behind me."
Sure enough, their youngest agent appeared and hurried over. "You okay, Vin?" he said anxiously.
"Be fine, JD."
"I'll be the judge of that," Nathan said sternly. "JD, help me get his vest off.”
"Shit!” Vin gasped a few seconds later.
"Just hold on,” the medic ordered. "What the hell is this?”
Vin peered down at himself between slitted lids. "Part ’a m’ sleeve.”
"It’s filthy,” Nathan said, making a face as he drew away the blood-soaked material.
"Damn, Vin, you’re really bleeding,” JD said, peering over Jackson’s shoulder, worry making him look years older.
Tanner couldn’t help it; he giggled. "No shit, JD?”
"What – ” JD looked scared. "Why are you laughing?”
"He’s not laughing,” Nathan snapped, cutting Vin’s shirt away and firmly pressing a clean compress against the injury. "He’s suffering from shock and blood loss.”
Vin nodded proudly. "What he said – shit, Nate!”
"Hold still. I need to stop this damn bleeding.”
Pain was great for helping a man to focus. His brief levity fading, Vin remembered something that had worried him earlier. Trying not to think about what the medic was doing - it was bad enough to feel - he said, "I saw Ez go down."
"He's fine," JD said cheerfully, looking reassured now that the sharpshooter was behaving more like himself. Nathan grunted.
"His vest caught the bullet; he's going to be sore for a few days but that's all."
"Foster's the only other one hurt," JD went on. "From our side, I mean. King shot him just before he got taken out, but his vest stopped the bullet, too, then Ezra pulled him under the van. Probably saved his life," JD reported, eyes still gleaming with excitement. "What happened to you?”
Vin jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "One ’a them.”
Looking curious, JD trotted toward the shed just as Vin caught his breath. "Nathan, ya got a touch like a camel.”
"A what? Never mind, I get the idea. Just hold still.”
Vin frowned. "Why’re ya whisperin’?”
"I’m not – ” Nathan looked up. "Stay with me, Vin. You hear?”
I hear, Vin wanted to say but it took too much effort. Knowing he was in safe hands, he allowed the approaching darkness to swallow him up.
+ + + + + + +
He lay quietly in the darkness, not moving, careful to keep his breathing from changing, listening, needing to know his situation before he dared let anyone know he was awake.
There were voices nearby, soft, indistinct.
Friend or enemy? He couldn’t tell.
He was lying on something softer than the ground. It supported his body, cushioning him.
Somewhat reassured – the enemy wouldn’t likely be concerned about his comfort – he assessed his physical condition. Nothing hurt, that was good. Hold on, what was this? His right side – shoulder – didn’t feel at all.
He realized blankets had been drawn over him. Beneath their covering, he tried flexing his fingers. Relief flowed through him when he discovered they still worked, although flexing them did send a twinge through his shoulder. That was okay, pain was good. He still had all his body parts, even if some of them weren’t working as well as he’d like.
He knew that smell. Antiseptic. Now that he recognized it, he realized he could smell other odors too, vaguely medicinal, none he could immediately identify but combined they led him to one conclusion.
He was in a hospital.
Fear flooded through him and only his survival instinct kept him from crying out.
God, please let him go back to sleep.
He knew what was waiting for him when he woke up.
The memory of Sarge’s bloody, mutilated form forced its way into his thoughts.
Andy’s broken body lay limp and unmoving in his arms.
The pounding rain and liquefied mud ran down into the narrow crevice, filling it slowly, burying him, burying them, while he tried to breathe through it.
Vin surged up, flailing at the horror of the memories.
"Whoa there, junior!”
"Vin, stop it!”
Hands grabbed him and he fought them.
He had to get away!
"Vin! You’re all right, wake up!”
A sharp blow to his jaw rocked his head back, and the bloody memories lost their grip.
He opened his eyes to meet an intent green gaze only inches away.
"You’re safe,” Chris said slowly, emphasizing each word. "Everything is okay.”
Vin stilled, barely aware that the imprisoning arms were now supporting him. Chris was here? If Chris was here, that meant he wasn’t in the foreign military hospital that figured so prominently in his nightmares.
The memories continued to lose hold of him and were gradually replaced by more recent ones. Vin lay back on the pillow, hardly aware of hands loosening their hold, all except Nathan who guided him down.
There was no chance he could control the trembling caused by reliving that last mission with his Ranger squad. Bad enough it happened when he was alone. For Chris and the others to see it bit deep.
"’m fine,” he rasped, closing his eyes so that he wouldn’t see their faces.
"Will be fine,” Nathan’s deep voice said. "You lost a lot of blood, Vin. You’re lucky, though. At first I thought the bullet had severed the brachial artery and – ”
Mingled protests stopped him, with Buck’s the loudest. "Damn, Nate, give Junior a break. He just woke up.”
"Indeed, Mr. Jackson. There is no reason to concern Mr. Tanner with your worse-case surmises.”
Vin opened his eyes. "Ez, ya okay?”
The undercover man gave him a slight smile. "I am perfectly well, Mr. Tanner, thank you, though your concern is appreciated.”
"No, you’re not,” Nathan contradicted. "You’re going to need to take it easy for awhile so that bruised rib can heal up.”
"You came out the worst of all of us, Vin,” J.D. put in from the other side of the bed. "I’m glad Nathan got to you so fast.”
"As are we all,” Josiah rumbled, patting the medic’s shoulder.
Nathan’s skin was too dark to show a blush but Vin was pretty sure the man was. He managed a smile.
They chuckled, all but one. Chris hadn’t spoken and Vin’s gaze drifted toward him in spite of himself. The blonde stood at the foot of the bed and at first glance he seemed the same as usual. At second glance Vin noticed the tousled hair, as if Larabee had been running his fingers through it. He needed a shave too, and there were dark circles under his eyes, so dark they almost looked like bruises.
Despite his disheveled appearance, the green eyes that met his were piercing. Vin almost squirmed under their intensity and tried for a distraction.
"How long I been here?”
Josiah gently patted his good shoulder. "Since last night. It’s morning now,” he glanced at his watch, "a little after 8 a.m.”
Hell, he’d been out of it all night? Vin offered his team leader an apologetic grimace. "I wanted t’ let ya know what was happenin’ on the roof but couldn’t.”
"I figured,” Chris said briefly.
"It must’a been a hell of a fight, Junior,” Buck said.
"We found your radio in pieces,” JD added, looking uncomfortable. "And, uh, you know, the others.”
"This isn’t the time – ” Nathan started before Chris overrode him.
"We’ll get your report later, Vin. For now, take it easy.”
Vin felt his throat close at the concern in the other man’s voice. He couldn’t have answered even if he’d known what to say. Before the silence could become awkward the door opened and a tall, robust nurse with graying-brown hair came in. Her eyebrows rose at the sight of everyone.
"I don’t know how you all got in here but – ”
"We’re just visiting our friend here, darlin’,” Buck said quickly, giving the woman his most charming smile.
She looked back, frowning, and Vin almost chuckled. Team Seven’s ladies’ man had clearly met his match.
"Mr. Tanner needs to rest, which means all of you need to leave.”
"Couldn’t one of us stay?” JD asked hopefully. "We’d be quiet.”
"I’m afraid not,” she said, although a trifle less severely than when she’d spoken to Buck. "Everyone, out.”
"What if – ” Buck started, only to be unceremoniously cut off.
"Right now.” They looked at each other but nobody moved. "Or,” she added coldly, "I can call Security.”
They would have been tempted to argue but Chris’s jerk of his head got them moving. He lingered by the bed while they said goodbye to Vin and left reluctantly. Finally Chris was the only one left and the nurse narrowed her eyes at him.
"Sir – ”
"Give me a minute,” he said. Though he spoke quietly it was clearly an order and she bristled.
"Please, ma’am,” Vin said, although he wasn’t sure he wanted to hear whatever Chris had to say.
Her expression smoothed and she gave him a quick smile, before frowning again at Larabee. "I’ll be back in one minute.”
The door had barely closed behind her before Chris said, "When they let you out of here, why don’t you come stay at my place?”
Vin blinked in surprise, warmed by the words but uncomfortable, too. He didn’t want to be around anyone, especially not Chris. "Nice ‘a ya to offer but - ”
"We have things to talk about,” Chris cut in, not harshly but with determination.
Vin’s smile faded. The last thing he wanted to do was talk about "things,” but he didn’t know how to get around it unless he just up and quit, taking off without telling anyone. At the moment he only wanted to be alone, so he pretended to give in.
Chris nodded once and patted his good shoulder. "It’s going to be okay, Tanner,” he said softly.
No it won’t, Vin wanted to say but he swallowed the words. For a few seconds they just looked at each other, then the door opened to reveal the nurse again.
"Your time is up, sir,” she said with determination.
"I’m going,” Chris said. "I’ll be back later,” he added, giving the sharpshooter another nod before walking out.
After the nurse left Vin lay quietly, although his thoughts were anything but. He tried to focus on the most positive thing – he’d done his job and his teammates had come through if not completely uninjured, then nearly so.
So why didn’t he feel any better?
Dumb question, Tanner.
The success of this mission stood in stark contrast to his last mission as a Ranger.
That last mission.
It always came back to that.
Ever since leaving the Army more than a year ago, Vin had struggled to bury the memories of that last mission. Some days he actually thought he was succeeding. But always, and usually sooner rather than later, the memories returned in nightmares that made sleep his enemy.
And lately the nightmares had been growing worse.
Vin knew when it had begun to happen, when he agreed to join Team Seven. Something about being part of another team was acting as a . . . as some kind of trigger, unburying his worst memories as rapidly as he tried to bury them. Snake’s unexpected appearance hadn’t helped, either.
He closed his burning eyes. He’d been a fool to think he could really forget but what was the alternative? To face the loss of his brothers at arms because of his failure? To embrace instead of struggle against the caustic guilt that had made him look down the barrel of a pistol more than once? To face it, to acknowledge it, would plunge him right back into the hell he’d been trying to climb out of the past year.
Vin had thought – hoped – if he was successful in protecting this team, it might lessen his feelings of shame and remorse at his failure to protect his last team. Now he recognized the folly of that hope.
There was no escape.
He swiped angrily at moisture on his cheeks. The hell with this. If it was time to face his nightmares, if it was time to decide if he had a right to keep on breathing when his teammates were dead because he’d failed them, then he was damned if he was going to do it lying in a hospital.
Vin shoved the covers aside one-handed. His arm was strapped to his chest and the bandaging was too complicated to deal with. He maneuvered himself into a sitting position and sat still while the room whirled around him. When it settled he carefully inched his way off the bed and walked, slightly unsteadily, toward the closet. His clothes better be in there or he was going to have to steal some.
He found his clothes, but not the ones he had worn yesterday. Someone must have gone to his apartment to bring him fresh clothes.
Vin blinked to clear his vision before reaching for the shirt.
+ + + + + + +
As Chris guided Pony around the last stand of trees he saw his quarry. Vin was sitting by a pile of huge boulders near the crest of the ridge, his back to the trail. Larabee stopped beside Peso, dismounted and loosely looped the reins around a branch. He knew Vin must have heard him arrive but the Texan didn't look around.
They had been looking for Tanner since the hospital called this morning. They’d checked Vin’s apartment, the Saloon, a dojo the Texan liked to visit, the office, and every other place they could think of.
Chris wondered why he’d thought of this place last. It was the highest point on his ranch and offered sweeping views of the valley below that could take your breath away, if you were so inclined. He’d first brought Vin up here just after the sharpshooter agreed to join the team and he knew Vin had come back on his own several times since.
He wasn’t looking forward to this confrontation but it had to happen if they were going to have any chance of moving forward.
Chris walked up to the figure reclining against a massive rock outcropping. At first Vin had seemed to be sitting frighteningly close to the edge of the cliff but as Chris drew nearer, he was relieved to see there were actually several feet between Tanner’s position and the edge.
He was almost beside him before he saw the two six-packs of beer on the ground beside Vin and his eyebrows rose involuntarily. Vin had never been a big drinker, at least not when he was with Chris or the team. One beer, occasionally a second, but that had been the extent of it.
One six-pack hadn't been touched yet; the other contained three empty bottles and as Chris approached he saw Vin drain a fourth one.
Chris sat down on the ground a couple feet away, not wanting to crowd him. "Looks like you’ve been here a while,” he said.
Vin picked up an unopened bottle, used the edge of the boulder to pop off the cap, picked up the cap and dropped it into the carrier, then saluted him with the bottle.
"Yer good, Lar’bee. ’A course, thass why ya get the big bucks," he said before taking a long pull.
Considering he had four-sixths of a six-pack in his stomach, Chris was surprised the slur in Vin’s speech wasn’t worse. He debated how to respond and settled for taking one of the bottles from the full pack. Vin was between him and the handy, bottle-cap-popping boulder so he pulled out his knife and used the opener on it. He took a small drink and rested the bottle on his leg.
He looked at the younger man. "Well what?"
"Ya think I dunno all the questions ya been wantin’ to ask since I joined the team?"
Chris had come up here expecting to find his friend in a contemplative mood, but this was something else entirely. He wasn’t sure what it was and he needed to know if he was going to be able to help. Direct questions had never worked in the past; maybe all the alcohol he was pouring down his throat would change that. Whatever tack he took, Chris knew he would have to step carefully.
"Just because I have questions doesn't mean I have to have answers."
Vin snorted and took another swallow. Chris turned slightly so that he was facing him.
"That’s what I thought anyway. Now I'm thinking maybe I was wrong. But my questions have nothing to do with you as a member of the team, Vin, you know that, don't you?"
Vin looked at him with moist eyes. "Then it don't matter."
Chris shook his head. As hard as it was to say the words, he knew he needed to. "That's not true. You're my friend, Vin. What matters to you matters to me. Something’s eating you up inside and I don’t know how to help unless you talk to me. "
The blue eyes blinked, turned away and resumed their scrutiny of the view below. "If'n you want answers, ya better ask now cuz I dunno how t’ talk 'bout 'em sober."
Chris shifted uncomfortably. He couldn't shake the feeling that he was taking advantage of his friend, pushing him when Vin was already in a fragile emotional state. Yet he needed to know what demons were haunting the Texan, not only for the sake of the team but also for the sake of the friendship that had grown between the two men but was now in jeopardy.
Maybe starting with what Chris thought would be the least problematic topic would help in easing the way to tougher questions.
"Who's Jake Riordan?"
Vin's head whipped around, his eyes wide with surprise. "Jake?"
Chris took another small drink. "When Josiah first did a background check he discovered that someone named Jake Riordan signed for you so that you could join the Army when you were seventeen."
The surprise faded from Vin's expression. He took a deep breath and looked back at the scenery. "Jake," he murmured before taking another swig. After swallowing, he said, "I ran away from m' last foster home when I was a kid an’ hitched m' way to Dallas."
Chris barely refrained from cringing at the thought of an eleven-year-old hitch-hiking across Texas. He was careful to maintain a calm, mildly interested expression. Now that Vin was beginning to open up he wasn't about to say or do anything that might stop him.
"I made it through my first year livin' on the streets but moving into my second winter I picked up a cough I couldn't shake. I was sleepin' in a park then, thought I’d found a pretty good hidin’ place, but woke up one night to see this big guy standin' over me." He chuckled.
"B’fore I could move he said he wasn't gonna hurt me an’ handed over a couple bottles ’a water an’ some sandwiches an’ walked away." Vin sighed. "Those was the best damn baloney sandwiches I ever ate."
He fell silent and after a few minutes Chris dared to prime the pump. "Jake?"
"Yep. No matter where I hid after that he always found me, he kep' showin' up with food an’ water but I got too sick to eat. The next thing I knew I woke up in a hospital."
Vin took another long swallow of his beer, draining it. He dropped the bottle roughly into the carrier and reached for the last one in the carrier. Chris tried not to wince. He had a good idea how bad the Texan would be feeling tomorrow morning.
"Turned out Jake Riordan was a good guy. He brought Ms. Nettie in. She was a social worker workin' with runaway kids an’ they kind’a vouched for each other. He'd moved into an old warehouse years b’fore, fixed it up, an’ spent his time tryin' to get kids off the streets. The warehouse was kind’a like a dormitory. As soon as the docs let me outta the hospital Jake took me in. The deal was, he made sure I, I mean all of us, had a safe place to stay with a roof over our heads an’ food in our stomachs. To pay 'im back we had to go to school, make decent grades an’ help keep the place up."
He fell silent, his eyes on the distant landscape although Chris was pretty sure he wasn't seeing it. "Sounds like a hell of a guy," he offered.
"Yeah," Vin said softly. "After I'd been there awhile I found out he used t' be in the Army, wuz a Ranger during Vietnam. Did four tours b’fore he ran into a frag."
Chris stifled another wince. A fragmentation grenade was one of the nastier anti-personnel weapons in a war. Not many soldiers survived such encounters.
Vin raised his head and looked at him with bleary eyes. "The Army docs wanted to take 'is leg off but he was like Snake, wouldn’t do it. He had a pretty good limp when I knew 'im but it never slowed 'im down. He swallowed. "None ’a us ever regretted trustin' 'im."
It was a hell of an accolade. Although he knew nothing about Riordan except what Vin had revealed, Chris was willing to bet that the trust of those wary, older-than-their-years street kids had meant the world to the veteran.
"I decided I wanted to do the same as Jake as soon as I got old enough."
"Become an Army Ranger."
"Yep. When I told 'im, he said most people who try t’ be a Ranger don't make it. I said I would." His lips quirked. "Jake took me at m’ word an’ started trainin' me, gettin' me prepared, he called it. His trainin’ was the hardest thing I’d ever done. I think he was tryin’ to make sure I knew what I was gettin’ into.” A smile flickered briefly. "It was the first time since my mama died, I felt good about myself.” He stopped for another swallow of beer.
"I finally got my GED right after I turned 17 an’ I was all hot to go into the Army but Jake kept sayin’ I needed to wait awhile."
"How'd he get to be your legal guardian?" The words escaped before Chris could stop them and he was relieved that they didn't break the Texan’s confiding mood.
"How? Ya already met how." Vin smirked at him.
"I don't understand."
Vin snickered. "Ms. Nettie's the how. I dunno how she did it but she got Jake declared my guardian, me an’ the other kids. She said he had to sign for me if I wanted in the Army early an’ I kep’ after him. Till he got sick."
His voice flattened on the last words and he gulped down more beer. Chris sat very still and eventually the soft voice continued.
"Jake didn't believe in hospitals so he ignored it ’til one day when he fell down in the street. He'd passed out so he couldn't keep 'em from takin' him to the hospital. Turned out to be leukemia." Vin stared at the sky. When he spoke again his voice was almost inaudible.
"Me an’ Jake switched ’round then. I wanted to stay an’ he wanted me to enlist. We had us some real good arguments. In the end, he won." He chuckled again but this time it was a dark sound, more like a sob.
"I got a couple letters from him while I was in Basic. I kep’ tellin' him to do what the docs said cuz I wanted him there when I graduated. It was the first time I ever graduated from anythin'.” He took a deep, shaky breath. "Three days before the end of Basic, Ms. Nettie called." He fell silent, a silence that continued long enough for Chris to think he was going to stop there, until he started talking again.
"A couple years before, Jake an’ me was talkin' an’ he told me ’bout a book he read when he was little, ’bout folks livin' a long time ago. Seems when these folks got to the end ’a their lives, they just walked away from their village into the forest an’ let nature happen. Jake thought that made a lot more sense than the way most people die today, hooked up to machines, sufferin' and lingerin' long after they should ’a died."
Vin took another shaky breath and Chris suddenly knew the end of the story. "Jake chose the old way," he said, wanting to spare his friend from saying the words.
"Yeah." He swallowed convulsively. "When Ms. Nettie told me, all I could think was Jake died the way he'd lived, on his own terms."
Chris was grateful for the approaching night because he was afraid he couldn't control his expression as well as he wished. He was suddenly, enormously thankful for Jake Riordan's presence in Vin's young life and the lives of who knew how many other street kids. He regretted that he'd never be able to thank the former Ranger.
He knew the story didn't stop there. Vin must have graduated from Basic and gone on in the Army for he eventually became a Ranger, too, like his mentor before him. But something had happened, something that drove him away from his chosen career.
There it was again. "Something.”
It was that "something” that Chris wanted out in the open where he hoped it would lose its power to torment his friend, where it might even finally begin to heal. He studied Tanner's profile. Was the Texan drunk enough to let it out?
Deliberately, he raised the bottle to his lips and took a swallow. A few seconds later Vin did the same.
"After Basic," Chris said matter-of-factly, "you went through a lot more training."
Vin snorted. "Sure as hell. But all that trainin' only gets you into the Rangers. If ya wanna advance, ya gotta make it through Ranger School." His voice softened, drifted. "I thought I knew what hard was b’fore I got to Ranger School, but I didn't, even after all Jake’s warnin’s an’ trainin’. It was pure hell. Ever’ day, ever’ single damn day for sixty-one days I thought I was gonna fall down an’ die, but somehow I got back up the next day an’ did it again."
"And after that . . ."
Chris knew about that thanks to the background checks. Vin had gone through Sniper School and SERE, Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape training, and undoubtedly other training designed for elite commando troops. At the end of all that training, Vin Tanner would have been as perfect a warrior as the military could make him.
The silence lengthened between them and Chris was determined not to break it this time. Vin had to do this in his own time, with his own words.
"Ya met Snake.”
He was grateful for the darkness that hid his surprise; he hadn’t expected this tangent. "I did. He seems like a good man.”
"He is. Him an’ the others.” Vin’s voice thickened. "Eleven ’a the best men I ever knew. They accepted me as one ’a their own. For almost five years no other Ranger team could touch us, whether we was workin’ as snipers or gatherin’ intelligence. No one . . .”
Chris was sitting close enough that he could see the bottle shaking in Vin’s hand. He wanted to reach out to him, do something, anything, to help. Instead, with fists clenched and jaw tight, he chose to do the hardest thing of all. Nothing.
+ + + + + + +
As usual, Hollywood got it wrong.
He didn’t march boldly upright, as if daring the enemy to see and shoot him down. He moved cautiously, stopping frequently to look, listen and even feel, using all his senses and equipment to detect anything out of the ordinary.
Acting as point man for his squad was a great responsibility and Staff Sergeant Vin Tanner took it very seriously. His squad. They were the reason he’d strenuously resisted his promotion. Now that he had it, his superiors wanted him to take over a team of his own. Be damned to that. This was his team and he wasn’t leaving.
Being thirty yards in advance, Vin knew only his squad leader had direct line of sight to him. Sarge was depending on him to be their eyes and ears, to warn them of any danger, as he had so many times before.
This time they weren’t on a mission designed for their sniper skills. Instead, it was a mission for intel, something the squad had proven extremely proficient in obtaining. According to reports, the enemy had set up a bivouac less than five klicks away. It was the squad’s job to slip in, obtain information on who was there and what was being planned, then sneak away to deliver the intel back to base.
Something stopped him in his tracks and he raised a fist in the air. Behind him he knew Sarge would relay his warning, preparing the team to fight or retreat. Vin trusted them to do their job just as they trusted him to do his.
A quick check of his surroundings didn’t reveal anything that would’ve set off his internal radar. Except something had. There was nothing to be seen in front of him or on either side. Nothing he could smell.
His eyes traveled downward. It looked like nothing in particular but instinct said otherwise. Taking the long stick off his belt, he reached out, every nerve alert, to brush cautiously at the small pile of twigs and branches in front of him. A few of them fell aside and something glinted metallically beneath the pile.
It was what munitions experts called an improvised explosive device. Soldiers just called them IED’s and they were dangerous as hell.
Using extreme caution, Vin slowly uncovered the rest of the device. As tempting as it was to back away and set it off by remote control, the resulting blast was too likely to give them away to the nearby enemy. Exposing it so that it was easily avoidable was the best he could do.
Keeping his voice down to a whisper, Vin reported his discovery before moving on. He kept the stick out; there was no telling if there were more IED’s or tripwires or other booby-traps, especially since they were getting closer to the enemy camp.
A village came into view, partially screened by the trees. The jungle had eased its grip in the area and although the woods provided some cover, they were not thick enough to depend on. Not that Rangers would depend on their environment for safety, but it was something that could be used.
According to Intel, the village had been destroyed during an earlier firefight, and the damage Vin could see backed up the information. Despite the destruction several of the structures were still at least partially intact. He felt a twinge of discomfort at the sight and his pace slowed even further while he tried to determine if it was because of anything in particular.
His eyes darted around while he listened, smelled, even tasted the occasional breeze that drifted along the air currents. Some part of him was aware of the increasing humidity and he knew they were in for a storm. That awareness faded into unimportance as Vin focused all his senses on his surroundings, searching for anything that would support his growing sense of unease.
The mission was important; their C.O. had made it clear. The success rate of the squad was phenomenal which was, Vin knew, why they had been handed this mission. To quit now would sit sourly in all their stomachs.
He moved steadily closer to the village, acutely aware of his team following him in, trusting him to warn them of danger.
Vin looked; he listened. He saw nothing; he heard nothing.
But he couldn’t shake the feeling, growing now in the pit of his stomach.
From one step to the next he made his decision. His fist shot in the air again and he dropped to one knee.
"Fall back!” he whispered harshly, his rifle scanning the area, looking for the danger he knew was out there.
The world erupted.
Dazed and deafened by the explosions, Vin never remembered hitting the ground. Instinct and training forced his head up and what he saw cut through the haze.
Enemy soldiers were running toward him, firing so furiously he felt as he was in the midst of a storm of bullets.
He needed to report a count.
There was no time to count.
Vin rolled onto his belly and took aim.
His fire was merciless and on target.
Those leading the attack fell, as fast as he could sight and shoot.
A roar from behind him suddenly cleared Tanner’s hearing.
Explosions decimated the front ranks of the enemy and their attack faltered, slowed.
Vin smiled grimly. There was no mistaking the roar of the M-50. Li’l Abner had moved up to cover him and his massive firepower was making a difference, as it always did.
His team wasn’t about to fall back while their point man couldn’t. Knowing they were endangering themselves to support him, he began to crawl backwards.
Approaching night was making it harder to see the enemy, who belatedly realized they needed to hunker down.
Even as the thought crossed Vin’s mind, he saw illumination rounds arc through the air, blasting the enemy position and lighting it up like mid-day.
Sarge was making good use of his M-203 grenade launcher.
When he could see clearly Vin paused in his retreat to take out every target in range.
The artificial light was fading, but what he saw in the last bit of illumination stopped his heart.
"It’s a trap! Fall back! Fall back!” he screamed into his radio.
He heard Sarge shouting at the squad to retreat.
Determined to give his team as much time as possible, Vin continued laying down suppressing fire.
Suddenly the last of the enemy was down and silence fell, echoing as loudly and eerily as the weapons fire seconds earlier.
Vin looked around. Nothing.
He should feel relieved.
He felt even more frightened.
He had to get back to his squad.
Another explosion of weapons fire made him duck down, until he realized where it was coming from.
He lunged to his feet, whirling around as he ran back toward his team.
It took all he had to hold fire. He couldn’t, not when he was approaching his own people, not when he couldn’t see the enemy.
The weapons fire was unrelenting, getting ever louder as he drew closer.
Some of the weapons he recognized as those carried by his teammates.
Others he recognized as those used by the enemy.
Vin ran as he’d never run before.
God, it was taking too long!
The storm of gunfire began to diminish.
He burst through the trees.
The first thing he saw as Li’l Abner – at least it had to be Abner because he was still clutching his M-50. Otherwise Vin wouldn’t have known him because there was only a gaping hole and blood shooting out like a grisly red fountain where his head had been.
On auto-pilot Vin dropped to his knees, grabbed the .50 cal, braced himself, and pressed the trigger. He aimed it at the enemy fire still incoming and as the massive weapon boomed, over the chaos he heard screams. He fired repeatedly, moving the heavy weapon in an arc so that the deadly ammo sprayed out, cutting down everything in its path.
The enemy fire slowed, stopped, but Vin continued firing, turning now to ensure they hadn’t crept up behind him.
The .50 clicked and the trigger froze under Vin’s grip. Out of ammo.
He lowered the weapon and, one-handed, awkwardly rolled over the headless corpse that had been his friend and teammate a few minutes earlier, scrabbling desperately for a full magazine. In a matter of a seconds the .50 was ready to fire again and Vin tried to hear over the ringing in his ears.
There was nothing to hear.
Gradually he realized the truth. His teammates had managed to bring down most of the attackers; he’d taken down the last of them.
Vin was under no illusion that it was over. The trap had been too carefully planned. There would be more of the enemy coming.
He had to get his squad out of here.
He staggered to his feet, the weight of his weapon almost pulling him back down.
Just beyond Li’l Abner’s body lay another he recognized instantly.
He dropped beside his spotter. There wasn’t much blood, at least –
Vin slipped his hand inside the torn fatigue jacket and his heart turned over at the puddle of liquid he felt welling up.
"Andy!” He slapped the drawn face and almost choked at the sound of a faint wheeze. "Hold on, buddy, just hold on!”
There was no time to take care of the injuries but he couldn’t leave him to bleed to death. Tearing off his pack he dug out the supplies. Too little for what he needed but something.
Survivors. He had survivors.
He’d barely finished with Andy before he was looking around again.
His searching eyes fell on another unmoving form.
God, Sarge, oh, God.
A huge, bloody maw was all that was left of Sarge’s torso. His blood-streaked face was frozen in a snarl of defiance.
If he could think Vin would have screamed his rage to the uncaring sky. But there was no time to think. No time to feel. He had to act if he was to save his men.
Stan, Andy, Sarge.
Three accounted for.
Vin moved swiftly through the heavy foliage, weapon ready.
Sarge’s last order had been for his squad to retreat.
Some of them must’ve got away.
Please, God. Please someone.
He stumbled, almost falling over one body nearly hidden by the underbrush.
Or was it? It was hard to tell, most of his face was gone.
A closer look told him he was right. The youngest of his teammates was beyond help.
He found Munk and North lying together. They must have been fighting back to back for that was how they’d fallen.
What about the others? Where were Snake, Doc, Mack, Scotty and Roman?
Vin felt a flicker of hope. Roman was their communications man, their link to HQ. So help must be on the way. They needed to make it back to the rendezvous point.
He raised his head sharply.
He’d heard something.
Another of his teammates?
The prickle down his back warned of danger.
Enemy reinforcements were approaching.
Everything in Vin rebelled at leaving behind his teammates. No one was left behind. It was at the heart of the Ranger creed.
But he had no choice.
He’d gathered all the I.D. tags he could find.
His dead teammates couldn’t be hurt anymore.
It was up to Vin to get Andy out of here.
Vin hurried back to Andy and knelt beside him. For a frightening moment he thought the man had died, but no. He was still breathing.
"Hold on, buddy,” he said into his ear. "We’re going home.”
He lifted Andy in his arms and shifted him onto his shoulder. Though Andy was actually a little bigger than him, Vin had carried heavier weight during Ranger training. Holding onto his friend with one hand, keeping his weapon ready in the other, he headed out.
+ + + + + + +
Vin’s voice trailed off. When Chris glanced at him he saw his friend staring down at the valley, his eyes unfocused. He wasn’t looking at anything. His internal eye was too absorbed in hellish memories, recalling horrors no civilian could imagine.
Phantom had been a twelve-man squad, Chris recalled. Vin’s soft-spoken, frighteningly monotone recital had accounted for six lost teammates. But there had to be more.
Even incomplete, the story sickened him. He’d had missions go bad when he was in the Navy, but never like this. Nothing of this magnitude. Selfishly, he was tempted to stop Tanner from continuing. God, he didn’t want to hear anymore.
He kept his mouth shut and waited.
As it turned out he waited a long time.
Night had fully fallen before Vin finally spoke again, in that same eerily flat, detached voice.
"I found Scotty a few yards away, almost hidden under a fallen tree. It was too late to do anythin’ for him, but I decided there was somethin’ I could do to slow down the enemy comin’ after us. I rigged a little trap before I picked up Andy again an’ went on. Was a good ten minutes before I heard the explosions.”
A smile appeared briefly on the thin features, a cold, predatory expression that reminded Chris of how dangerous this young man truly was.
"Some time later the skies opened up. I’d seen monsoons before but this one was the worst. An’ I was thankful for it. I didn’t have t’ worry about leavin’ any kind ‘a trail cuz the rain washed it away with every step I took.
"By then, it was darker than the inside of a cow. I didn’t wanna stop but I wasn’t sure of m’ direction anymore. Then I heard voices, comin’ at me.”
Chris tried not to react, tried not to let his hands curl into fists. He wrapped them both around the bottle and took another, convulsive swallow.
"I didn’t know what to do. In the dark, between the trees an’ underbrush, I couldn’t get past ’em without ’em hearin’ me. An’ it was too dangerous to backtrack with ’em on my tail.”
Horrifying incidents were part of war. Chris knew that as well as anyone who’d served in their country’s military. What grated on him almost as much as the recital was Vin’s monotone. He spoke without emotion, as if he was reading a story someone else had written that had no personal meaning. Chris wanted to grab him, shake him, tell him it was okay to let out his rage and his grief and all the other emotions he had to have felt, must still feel.
"I moved a little east ’a their position. They was comin’ almost straight at us but they didn’t sound like they knew we was there. I couldn’t hear much over the damn storm but they was laughin’ all casual.
"I fell into a hole.” For the first time Chris heard a thread of emotion, followed by a brief, disturbing bark of that dark laughter.
"I almost dropped Andy but managed to put him down an’ checked it out. I’d run across plenty ‘a holes out there in that godforsaken place, big and small. But this was like, hell, like the earth just cracked open, right there in front of us. It was just a few feet across an’ started narrowing seven or eight feet down. Couldn’t tell how far down it went but far enough to hide us. So I got Andy down in it an’ then I slid in too an’ just hung on t’ him.”
More silence, followed by a shake of the shaggy head. "Wouldn’t ’cha know it? The damn enemy decided to settle down an’ wait out the monsoon not twenty feet away.” Vin gulped audibly and Chris’s heart contracted painfully.
"We was stuck in that damn hole with the water pourin’ down, scared ta move, scared to breathe too loud. I was holdin’ on to Andy, prayin’ he’d hang on, prayin’ the bastards would move the hell away. The rain an’ mud kep’ runnin’ down into the hole, an’ it started fillin’ up. God, I could feel it movin’ up my legs, getting’ higher with the mud an’ water pourin’ down like a goddamned river, like a bunch ‘a goddamned rivers. Pourin’ down over us. I, I tried to keep Andy’s face pressed against me, tried to keep him covered but it jus’ kep pourin’ in. I couldn’t breathe without breathin’ it in an’ then I had to try not to choke, try to keep from swallowin’ it but I couldn’t help it. I can still taste that shit sometimes. The hole was fillin’ up an’ I knew even if I wanted to crawl out, it was too late. I’d taken us down too far. I thought it’d be safer but now the sides of the hole was too slick to grip. All I could do was hang on to Andy an’ pray we lived through it.”
He stopped with another gulp. Minutes passed before Vin took a deep, shuddering breath. "Sometime durin' the night he stopped breathin'. He died in my arms an’ I didn't even know when.”
The sight of the bowed head sent another stab of pain though Chris. He would’ve given almost anything to help Vin but there was nothing, absolutely nothing he could do. It was a bitter realization.
"The monsoon stopped sometime durin’ the night. The water an’ mud had about filled the hole, almost covered us too. When the enemy finally moved off, I started tryin’ to climb out. That’s when I saw Andy was gone.”
Vin raised his head and took another shaky breath. Chris could see the rising moonlight reflect silver on the moisture streaking his cheeks.
"I decided to leave ’im there. Hell, he was already mostly buried. At least those bastards wouldn’t get their hands on ’im. When I finally dug my way out I, I finished coverin’ ’im up and headed for the rendezvous. I made it there the next mornin’ an’ found Snake, Doc an’ Mack. They told me Roman didn’t make it.” Vin’s voice had gone flat again. "We hid there until night fell an’ the chopper showed up.”
Chris wanted to put an around Vin but refrained. He sensed the Texan wouldn’t accept it, wouldn’t accept the comfort he wanted to offer.
He’d suspected the story would be bad but he hadn’t guessed how bad. Perhaps the worst part was something Chris hadn’t considered before, but which now struck him with sudden, crushing clarity. Vin was struggling with more than grief over the loss of his teammates. At the heart of that grief was a deep, corrosive guilt that had come through clearly in the sharpshooter’s recital. What Chris needed to know was what the guilt sprang from. He thought he had an idea but only Vin knew for sure. Whether he was drunk enough to be willing to put it into words was still up in the air.
Chris had lived through his share of wars and the memories would never leave him. He knew from experience that when Vin had been in the midst of that firefight, he would have been acting on auto-pilot, operating according to his training without taking time he didn’t have for soul-searching. But afterwards… afterwards those hideous memories would return in nightmares, forcing him to relieve the horror over and over, of seeing his teammates’ butchered bodies and knowing there was nothing he could do to change what had happened.
After hearing the entire tragic story, one fact was obvious. Chris knew he needed to give voice to that fact. If Vin refused to acknowledge it, any further bearing of his soul was unlikely. If, however, he acknowledged the truth of that fact, Chris might have a chance to try to counteract the bone-deep remorse that was slowly destroying his friend.
"You were set up.”
"Yeah,” Vin said softly. Chris was relieved by this easy acknowledgment, a relief that faded with the next words. "Turned out there was a mole in our chain ‘a command. My team ’d been too successful an’ the enemy wanted us taken out.”
"Did they nail the bastard?”
"They caught him, questioned him, but when they was gonna take him back to the main base for more questionin’ he must’a had some friends close by cuz our guys was ambushed an’ he disappeared.”
Chris’s heart sank. The final blow. The person responsible for betraying Vin’s team, responsible for the deaths of nearly all of his teammates, had escaped punishment.
There could be no simple resolution to his friend’s tragedy.
Chris felt pain in his hands and looked down to see he was clenching his fists so tightly that his nails were digging into his palms. A minute passed before he could speak.
"You know it was a set up, then you have to know it wasn’t your fault.”
Vin turned on him so fast he leaned back involuntarily. "The hell it wasn’t! I was the point man! I was supposed to keep an eye out for danger, to keep my team safe! I had a feelin’ in my gut but I didn’t listen to it, not until it was too late. If I’d told ’em to fall back as soon as I knew somethin’ was wrong – ”
"That’s just it, Vin. You didn’t know. You had a mission to complete and you couldn’t abort for no reason. But even so you followed your instincts and – ”
"Not soon enough!” Vin yelled, eyes wild as Chris had never seen them before. "They sucked us in an’ I didn’t see it ’til it was too late to fall back. We was surrounded, outnumbered. My team had no chance cuz I didn’t do m’ job!”
Chris had wondered what it would take for Tanner to lose control. Now he knew and regretted the knowledge. But there was no going back, no forcing the genie back into the bottle once it’d popped out.
He fought to maintain his own control in the face of Vin’s fathomless despair, the flip-side of an insidious guilt that could destroy a man from the inside out, in the end leaving him worse than dead. He knew those emotions too well for they had driven him for over a year and more than once nearly succeeding in drowning him.
In a sudden flash of insight Chris realized he now had the answer to the question he’d asked himself a few nights ago when he’d been standing in his kitchen, worrying about the strange murkiness that was clouding his connection with Vin. It’d felt strangely familiar, but not enough to identify. He could identify it now. Guilt. No wonder it’d felt familiar.
Chris Larabee understood where Vin Tanner was coming from as very few others could. That understanding frightened him because he knew where it could lead, where he would have been lost if not for the unremitting efforts of Buck Wilmington.
Four years ago Chris wouldn't have understood the complicated, toxic mixture of guilt and grief eating away at Vin. Now he did but there was no way the Texan would believe it, no way he would accept the comfort Chris wanted to offer, not unless he knew the truth.
God, no, there had to be another way. He wasn’t in the same dark place he’d been for over a year after he’d lost Sarah and Adam, but his own wounds were still raw, still bled despite the passage of time. To allow those wounds to be opened in the re-living of his loss – he didn’t know how he could do it. He would need more strength than he possessed.
Yet he also knew that Vin couldn’t continue on this path and live.
Bottom line, Vin Tanner wouldn’t buy any reassurance Chris offered, not unless he realized that Chris truly understood where Vin was coming from because he had walked a very similar road.
Chris shrank from the thought but it wouldn’t leave him. Vin needed to know that Chris understood in the depths of his soul, and only the true story would convince him. The true story, the whole story that no one knew, not even Buck. Chris had never told it to anyone. He couldn't.
He looked at the bowed figure and felt his heart constrict. The thought of Vin carrying such an insupportable burden alone was unbearable. Maybe it was time. Maybe he could do this, for Vin.
Chris swallowed again but it didn’t ease the pressure in his throat. Keeping his eyes on the horizon he said, "Vin, not long ago I wouldn't have understood. Oh, I could’ve said the words but they would’ve been a lie. That changed a little over three years ago."
+ + + + + + +
It was the worst storm to hit the area in over two years. Lightning, thunder, fierce winds, torrential rain, golf-ball-sized hail.
Despite his claim that he was now too old to need the comfort of his parents, Adam Larabee decided to spend the night in their bed. Which guaranteed that his parents did not sleep well. The storm finally eased near dawn and they fell into an exhausted sleep, unaware that lightning had blown out a transformer a couple miles down the road, leaving them without power.
When Chris opened his eyes it was to find a small blonde head resting on his chest and just beyond that was a beautiful face surrounded by tousled red hair. He grinned drowsily. It never failed to amuse him how much smaller a king-size bed felt when his entire family was in it. As much as he encouraged Adam to sleep in his own bed, secretly he loved it when the child piled in with Sarah and him. Well, maybe not so secretly, considering how well his wife knew him. At least she had never ratted him out.
Vague discomfort penetrated his sense of well-being. Chris frowned in confusion before he recognized the problem. He could make out the color of hair on his wife and son because the sun had risen. What time was it?
He turned his head to look at the bedside clock and groaned at its blank face. Reaching out, he grabbed his wristwatch and peered at it.
"Chris!" Sarah reproved automatically, awakened by his exclamation.
"It's after eight!" he reported and leaped out of bed.
Chris rushed into the bathroom, hearing his wife behind him.
"Adam, it's time to get up. Come on, sweetheart, we overslept."
Fifteen minutes later Chris was showered, dressed and in the kitchen. Regardless of the time, he knew Sarah would not allow Adam to leave the house until he'd had breakfast so he dropped a couple slices of bread into the toaster and pushed down the lever before pulling a carton of orange juice out of the refrigerator.
Muttering under his breath, he peered out the kitchen window. At least the storm had finally let up. It was still raining lightly but nothing compared to last night. His truck was parked in the drive way where he left it last night and the sight made him slap his forehead.
"Son of a bitch!"
He turned around and gave his wife an apologetic grimace as she came into the kitchen. She put her hands on her hips and glared back.
"What is the matter with you? You know better than to use that kind of language when Adam's around."
"He's not here." As soon as he spoke Chris knew he'd made a mistake. Her lips tightened.
"Since when does it matter that he's not in the room? There's nothing wrong with his hearing."
Oh, shit. This was about to get ugly and he didn't want to start the day with an argument.
"You're right," he said. "I'm sorry."
She studied him, as if uncertain of his sincerity. Chris tried his most earnest smile.
"Honest," he insisted.
"Hmph," Sarah retorted.
The toast popped up and she came over to the counter. Chris stepped aside but caught her in his arms when she reached for the peanut butter and jelly. Before he met Sarah, he had kissed his share of women, but no one kissed like his wife. For a minute time went away; they were lost in each other.
They broke apart, laughing. Sara picked up the jar of peanut butter and Chris turned around to snatch up his little boy.
"Someday, partner," he said, his fingers moving unerringly to the most ticklish spots, "you're going to discover there's nothing yuck about it."
Between giggles Chris heard, "Daddy, stop!"
"Yes, Daddy," Sarah agreed, "stop. Adam needs to eat so we can get going."
"All together," Chris said, setting the child in his chair and glaring out the window.
Sara put a glass of orange juice and the toast in front of Adam. "Eat up," she ordered, tousling his blonde hair before moving over to her husband's side.
"All together? What are you - oh sh- shoot."
Chris smirked at her near-miss. "Thanks to the power going out, I don’t have time to look at your car this morning. From what you said it's probably a problem with the starter but I don't want you driving it until it's fixed. I’ll drop the two of you off before going into the office."
Sarah's lips moved silently though he had no doubt what she was thinking. "We're going to be even later."
"Did you call the school?"
Damn. "I'll do it now."
She huffed in annoyance but a quick kiss as she walked by reassured Chris she wasn't actually upset. They rushed through the next ten minutes, at the end of which they were ready. Almost.
"Coat," Chris reminded his son when Adam appeared. "It's cold outside." The child hurried away and returned a minute later, trying to pull on his jacket which was inside-out.
"Just a minute, honey," Sarah said, giving him a hand.
"Got it!" he said with a triumphant smile. His mother laughed and gave him a hug.
"Yes, you did."
"So are we ready now?" Chris demanded with his last shred of patience.
Sarah wrinkled her nose at him. "Haven't we left yet?"
He laughed despite himself and reached for the door. "Let's get this show on the - "
His cell phone cut him off and Chris yanked it out of his pocket. "What!" he growled. Hearing Buck's voice on the other end made him shake his head. He looked at Sarah. "I'll be right there," he said and handed her the keys.
"We'll get the heater going first thing," she promised. "Come on, Adam, Daddy's slowing us down."
"Race you!" Adam yelled and ran out the door.
"Wait, honey!" She gave her husband a mock glare. "That's your son," she mouthed.
Chris made a face at her that she returned before hurrying out the door. Holding the phone in one hand, he stepped out onto the porch and pulled the door shut.
"I'm not talking, Buck, because I'm listening," he said in exasperation while he checked to make sure the lock was engaged. He paused on the porch, waiting for his partner to get to the point and watching Sarah unlock the truck door and help Adam climb inside. They were both laughing and she looked over her shoulder at him, giving him a triumphant smile and flashing a "V" for victory sign before climbing in after her son and slamming the heavy door shut.
Chris chuckled. His wife wasn't competitive, not Sarah, not one bit -
He was staring at the porch roof. How strange. Why was he staring at the roof?
Where was that ringing coming from? He couldn’t hear anything except the unrelenting clamor that was making his head hurt.
The roof looked odd, somehow off-kilter.
He blinked and it came into focus, except some of the rafters were gone.
Chris turned his head slowly, wincing at the pain in his neck.
What was going on?
Something bright glinted not far away and he tried to focus on it.
Bright, red, dancing in the early morning light.
A massive fireball burned in the center of the yard.
The ringing began to diminish and suddenly Chris realized the sound was coming from his own ears.
He blinked repeatedly, his eyes drawn inexorably back to the huge bonfire before him.
Dimly through the flames, he saw something within the fireball, a large, lumpish mass of twisted metal –
The sight blew all the cobwebs out of his brain, leaving only stark reality behind.
A sight that destroyed any chance of disbelief or denial.
He saw. He knew.
And there was absolutely nothing Chris could do while the only reality he ever wanted burned up before his eyes.
+ + + + + + +
How long he sat, eyes closed, after he stopped talking, he never knew.
Chris had known the re-telling would rip his heart to shreds again.
He realized that at some point he’d stopped breathing and forced himself to take some shallow breaths to push back the growing dizziness. No matter how shallow, it still hurt to breathe. It was a much lesser pain in the midst of reawakened grief.
If only he had taken the time to lock his truck in the garage.
If only he hadn’t overslept.
If only he had checked out Sarah’s car, regardless of the time. It could have been a simple repair. They could have driven off, alive and safe.
If only it could have been him instead of them.
The "if-only’s” pierced his heart with an all-too-familiar lament.
Vin didn’t speak, for which Chris was grateful. He hoped the sharpshooter understood what he was trying to say because he had no more words.
Gentle pressure squeezed his shoulder and he looked up to see Vin still gazing at the dark sky. He hadn’t shifted his position except to place a hand on Chris’s shoulder.
Then Vin’s head turned and their eyes locked. Green eyes filled with unspeakable pain met blue eyes darkened not only by their own grief but by, yes, by understanding. There was no need for words, and the realization sent a rush of relief through Chris.
He was grateful for the warm weight of Vin’s hand, a weight that held him in place, kept him from flying apart into irretrievable pieces.
They sat in silence for a long time. Above their heads the sky turned black, relieved only by the moon and stars that were increasingly obscured by clouds.
"Looks like rain,” Vin said, his voice a little raspier than usual.
"Yeah,” Chris agreed. He had to clear his throat before continuing. "We should head back to the house, get these animals in the barn.”
Despite their words neither man moved. It wasn’t until a distant rumble reached them that Chris stretched out his legs. "Thunder,” he noted.
"Pony’s not a fan of thunder. How’s Peso?”
"That hard-headed mule don’t care ’bout much ‘a anythin’, so long as he gets fed.”
Thunder rumbled again and a horse snorted loudly behind them. Chris sighed. "Like I said, Pony’s no fan.”
"Better get movin’.”
They got to their feet and faced each other. When their eyes met again Chris suddenly realized their connection was back, strong and clear. He could feel what Vin was feeling and knew he’d been right to bare his soul. Vin would never betray his confidence. And, in the telling, he’d given his friend a reason to hope there was life beyond guilt and regret. Chris was proof it could happen.
As for Chris . . . he was startled to feel something he hadn’t expected. The freshly-awakened ache of loss wasn’t as sharp as he remembered. The intensity seemed strangely lessened. It was as if sharing his pain had somehow eased the worst of its grip.
He hoped Vin had experienced something similar through his own confession.
In the distance, a brief flash of lightning lit up the black sky. Chris took in a large breath of air through his nose and exhaled slowly.
"Let’s get out of here.”
Vin took a step and staggered slightly. Without thinking Chris put an arm around his shoulders to steady him.
"Easy, Texas, I've got you."
Vin gave him a crooked grin. "Likewise, Cowboy."
They walked back to the horses, supporting each other, instinctively in step. It was an awareness that gladdened Chris’s heart even as he snapped, "How many times have I told you not to call me Cowboy?"
"Ya keep sayin’ I don’t listen t’ ya, Lar'bee. So why’d I start now?"
Chris couldn't help himself. He began to laugh. A few seconds later Vin joined him. And if there was a dark edge to their laughter, more akin to sorrow than amusement, it didn't matter. Neither man would ever tell.
+ + + + + + +
Chris walked out of the barn and into the mudroom, where he changed into his regular boots. When he reached the kitchen he went to the cupboard by the refrigerator and took down the bottle of aspirin. He shook out two and looked at the small tablets in his hand. After a moment’s thought, he shook two more out of the bottle. After drinking almost an entire six-pack of beer last night, Vin’s hangover was undoubtedly going to be monstrous.
He set the tablets on the table beside the just-poured cup of coffee. It was stronger than he usually made it – even if not up to Tanner’s usual liquid tar - and he hoped the Texan appreciated his effort. For himself, Chris diluted his coffee with some hot water before taking a sip and making a face. He wouldn’t have to worry about meeting his daily caffeine intake today.
Chris spun around so quickly the coffee slopped out of his cup and splashed over his hand.
He dumped the cup in the sink and slapped at the faucet handle with his free hand. Water burst out, splashing against the sink and up in the air. Chris ducked back but not fast enough.
A few minutes later he had two cubes of ice wrapped in a dish towel, cooling his minor burn. Ruefully, he pulled his wet shirt away from his torso.
"Damn,” he said again. He needed to change his shirt, and his jeans, he thought belatedly. The wet patch just below his belt stood out against the denim and made it appear as though he hadn’t gotten to the bathroom in time.
Vin hadn’t moved from his chair. Still grinning, he said, "If’n I’d knowed ya had floor shows here, I might’a spent the night more often.”
Chris turned his ire on the Texan. "A lot of help you were. I could have been seriously burned.”
"Like hell. The coffee barely hit your skin before you got water on it.” The last words wavered, as if Vin was about to start laughing. "An’ on most ever’ thin’ else too.”
A sudden thought struck Larabee. "You don’t act like a man suffering from a hangover.”
"That’s cuz I don’t got one.”
"The hell you don’t. You downed practically an entire six-pack, Tanner. You’ve got to have a hangover.”
"Nope.” Vin took a sip of coffee, made a face and put the cup down. "Beer don’t bother me.”
"We’re talking a six-pack here.”
"Don’t matter,” Vin said easily. "Only time I gotta worry ‘bout hangovers is when I drink the hard stuff.”
"I don’t believe it.”
Shrug. "That ain’t my problem.”
As hard as it was for Chris to accept, the proof was right in front of him. The Texan was relaxed, slouching in his chair, clear-eyed and obviously not in any kind of pain. Shaking his head, he turned away from the annoying sight and headed for his bedroom and dry clothes.
Thirty minutes later they were finishing up the scrambled eggs and bacon that Vin had whipped up. Chris looked across the table at the sharpshooter who was happily mopping up the last bits of egg with a piece of toast, before popping it into his mouth.
"You have any plans today?” he said.
"A couple,” Vin garbled, talking with his mouth full.
"Such as?” He didn’t think he was being noisy. If Vin didn’t want to tell him, he wouldn’t.
"Such as goin’ back up to that ridge and collect the beer we left up there.”
Chris smiled. Leave it to Tanner.
"Pack in, pack out?”
Vin’s eyebrows rose. "A’ course.”
"Of course. You mind some company?”
Vin’s eyes met his again and Christ felt unaccountably warmed.
"If’n it’s the right company.”
"How about your not so esteemed team leader?”
"I guess he’d be okay,” Vin said with a shrug.
"Glad to hear it. What about your other plan?”
"Oh, that.” The blue eyes twinkled with mischief and Chris was immediately wary. "We been kind’a busy the last week.”
"Kind’a,” Chris agreed.
"So I had to call Ms. Nettie to say we couldn’t come over for dinner.”
Son of a bitch. Chris was chagrined that he’d completely forgotten about the elderly woman’s invitation. Thank God Vin hadn’t.
"Was she upset?”
"Nah, she understood. Said we should come over another day.” The twinkle made Vin’s eyes even bluer than usual and the truth hit Chris in the face.
"Today.” He made it a statement, not a question.
Vin nodded. "We’s supposed t’ be there at five o’clock, on account she eats dinner early on weekends.”
Chris had been hoping to spend an uninterrupted day with his friend, making sure everything was back on an even keel between them. But hell, they would have most of the day, for which he was grateful.
"After we clear your garbage off my property, how about going into the city with me?”
"I ordered a new bridle for Pony, the old one’s falling apart. I got a message on my answering machine the other day that it’s come in so I need to pick it up.”
Vin gave a slight nod. "Reckon I could ride shotgun for you.”
"Let’s keep the shotgun out of sight, okay?”
That won Chris another smile and he stood up. "You made breakfast so I’ll clean up the dishes.”
Vin flapped a hand at him. "An’ I’ll let ya.”
Chris started to turn away but stopped to give the younger man a searching stare. "You don’t have any hangover at all?”
"Hell, Larabee, ya think I could eat all them eggs with a hangover?”
It was a shudder-worthy thought.
Two hours later they returned to the ranch with both six-packs, one almost full and the other almost empty, in hand. After putting the full bottles in the refrigerator and sticking the empty bottles in the recycling bin, Chris got his truck out of the garage and stopped long enough for Vin to leap inside and settle back in his seat, closing his eyes with a satisfied sigh.
"Let me know when we get to town.”
There was no response. The truck didn’t move. Vin opened his eyes to see Chris staring at him.
"Ya still fussin’ cuz I ain’t sufferin’?”
Chris struggled briefly for words. "We’re okay, right?”
"We’re okay.” Vin’s lips curved in a faint smile.
Thank God. Chris had needed to be sure. There was still one more hurdle to cross and he took a deep breath before he spoke again.
"Vin, I believe in you. And I believe in this team. And I think the seven of us make an even better team. Stick around, okay?”
The blue eyes that met his were direct, unflinching. "Ya sure ‘bout that, Cowboy?”
"I’ve never been more sure of anything.”
There was a beat of silence before the shaggy head nodded. "’kay.”
It was hardly a dramatic affirmation but Chris knew the single syllable was a promise he could trust with his life.
The ride into the city was silent, which was fine with both men because it was the familiar, easy, comfortable quiet they were used to, and which both had sorely missed when it had been missing.
They had just driven through an intersection when Chris hit his brakes so abruptly Vin was flung forward before his seat belt yanked him back.
"What the hell ya doing?"
"Stay put," Larabee grunted and shoved his door open.
Vin looked around to see Chris had stopped in front of an ice cream store and as he watched, the blonde figure disappeared inside. Vin's eyebrows rose involuntarily. Ice cream and Chris were two things he had never put together before.
Five minutes later, Chris reappeared carrying a small container in each hand. He walked around the truck, juggled one container long enough to open the door, and slid carefully inside.
"Here." He handed over one of the containers, then rummaged around in one pocket and came out with – Vin almost laughed as he took the undersized pink plastic spoon and poked at the small mound of chocolate.
"What does it look like?"
A little excavation uncovered pieces of marshmallow and nuts. "Rocky Road?"
"Yeah." Chris shot him a sideways look. "It seemed appropriate."
Vin's lips twitched. "Ya trying for some a that deep thinkin', Cowboy?"
Now it was Larabee's lips that had trouble keeping still. "Who, me? Just eat the damn ice cream. And don't call me Cowboy.'"
Grinning, the Texan dug out a spoonful, rolled it around in his mouth and then chewed happily.
"This Rocky Road's pretty good stuff," he observed.
Chris snorted. "Yeah. Thank God it's worth it," he said before taking a bite of his own treat.
To most people, his words would make no sense, but he had no doubt the sharpshooter knew exactly what he was talking about. A blue-eyed wink confirmed it.
"Eat up," Chris ordered. "We've got things to do, places to be, today."
"Ya say so, Cowboy." The last word was slightly muffled by another mouthful of ice cream.
Larabee glared at his passenger and was met by eyes bright with laugher. Several seconds passed before he finally caved. Only when their chuckles began to diminish did Chris dare take another spoonful of his own treat.
"It’s good to have you along, Texas,” he said after he swallowed.
Vin saluted him with a spoonful of Rocky Road. "Likewise, Cowboy.”
Feeling better than he had in days, hell, in weeks, Chris turned the key in the ignition and pulled back out into traffic.
Almost three months ago Vin had, albeit reluctantly, agreed to join Team Seven. Chris had thought then that they were all in for one hell of a ride. Time had proven him right. Then again, it’d been worth every bump along the road. As for what the future might hold for them, Chris threw another look at his companion and smiled to himself.
Bring it on.
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