Disclaimer: Just playing. I know I can't keep 'em…damnit!
Thanks to Mog for ATF
Main Characters: Vin, Chris, JD
Ratings/Warnings: Some bad language
Summary: The team loses contact when one of their own is undercover
My thanks to Blackraptor for their continuing generosity in archiving my stories.
"Hey, 'scuse me, have you seen this guy? Wait! Damnit. Hey, Mister, 'scuse me, have you seen this guy around?"
"Push off, Kid."
Bouncing painfully off a building wall, JD Dunne recovered and flipped the bird to the guy who'd shoved him. In one of Denver's many cardboard cities, JD was undeterred by the hostility and continued harassing the city's vagrants to look at a photograph he was holding.
Rolling up curbside in his truck, Buck Wilmington watched his anguished partner's desperate hunt for their recently missing teammate. Uncoiling his tall frame from inside the truck, Buck crossed the street and approached the boy just as one down-and-out was keen to show JD his fist up close and personal. Buck flashed his ID.
"Beat it, punk!"
JD spun around, fury in his eyes. "Buck! That guy might know something…"
Taking JD's face firmly between his hands, Buck spoke softly. "Enough. Let's regroup and think on this some more."
JD tried to pull away, but Buck held fast. The determined, yet compassionate look from Buck was the young agent's undoing, and his features crumpled.
"But – it's my fault…"
"No, it's not…"
"…YEAH! It is; my bug malfunctioned. Vin's out there, alone, and we have no clue as to where."
"Damnit, Kid, it happens, equipment fails."
JD's gaze shimmered. "Not mine, never mine."
Buck's hands dropped down to JD's shoulders. "Come on, we're going back to the office."
JD shook his head and gestured with his outstretched hand. "I bet Chris is still out here searching."
"Right now, Chris needs to be out here, Kid."
JD thumped his chest with his open palm. "And so do I," he rasped.
Buck pulled him a little closer. "I know, and you will, we all will, but we need to do this together, okay?"
"Jeeze, get a room why don't you!"
The passing comment from a man shuffling by snapped the pair back to awareness. Buck guided JD toward his truck. "Come on."
Exhausted from hours of cruising the streets, Team Seven's leader, Chris Larabee pulled over, clutched the wheel, and rested his forehead against it.
"Damnit, Vin, where are you?"
Tiredness was finally winning the battle against blame; a deep-seated guilt heaped upon himself for agreeing to his best friend going undercover as a homeless bum in order to garner information on a new drug dealer hitting the streets.
Instead, he and his team feared their sharpshooter, Vin Tanner, had fallen foul of a gang whose modus operandi was to take vagrants…somewhere…never to return them alive. JD's little bugging device in a neat gold cross earring was keeping track of him until it stopped transmitting several hours ago. They had scoured the vast area where its last signal died to come up empty; and now Vin was out there, somewhere…
In conference room one, on floor eleven of the Denver Federal Building; three of the seven teammates were studying the board composed by team profiler Josiah Sanchez. Regular undercover agent Ezra Standish was leaning into one corner placing calls all over the city, while JD, fingers entangled in his black hair, and poring over his iPad, paced the floor in a desperate bid to figure out what could have gone wrong with his bug.
Josiah pointed at the pinned up photographs of vagrants who were recently found dead. Most were unidentified; each one had been beaten; all had died from drug overdose; but nothing else, except the fact that they were homeless, linked any of them.
And that the drug which killed them was too pure.
"Not even their ages tie in," Josiah pointed out. "They range from late teens, through to mid to late twenties, early thirties."
"Significance?" Buck queried.
Nathan replied. "Well, since they all OD'd, I'd say we're possibly looking at guinea pigs. Maybe this is the age groups the dealers are targeting to sell to."
Buck stared at the board. "So…it's about reactions?"
All eyes turned to JD, who had stopped pacing and was also staring at the board. "It's all about the math when it comes to cutting, right?"
Nathan's face lit up. "Dosage!" He snatched up the deceased's files neatly stacked up on the table and opened each one. "It's all here in the Coroner's report, liver temp, levels of rigor, and toxicity levels at time of death. All indications of what dose strength killed them." He looked up.
"'Guinea pigs' is right. The levels vary from victim to victim. They don't want the drug to hit the streets so pure it would kill their customers, so they're determining strength with test subjects they figure won't be missed."
"You're saying these guys are developing a conscience?" Buck huffed, then all but snapped his fingers at an epiphany. "They're cutting and re-cutting to find their level and maximize the profits."
Josiah nodded. "Makes more sense. Now we need to determine whether Vin's unwittingly become one of those helping against their will."
"Have to wonder," Buck added. "We're looking into a new dealer on the streets, and..." he pointed at the board, "...those poor guys became guinea pigs after the first wave killed more than a dozen people. Could we be looking at the missing link? Did Vin connect with these guys after all?"
Ezra broke the ominous silence caused by pondering what those questions entailed. "I've called in every favor owed. If Vin is still out there, we will hear of it."
Approaching the table, a disheveled JD leaned over, set his iPad down, and rested both his palms on the surface. "But it could be too late, we need to get back out there," he pleaded.
Eyes turned toward Chris as he entered the room. JD's guilt prevented him from looking into his hero's eyes until a hand cupping the back of his neck forced him to look up.
"Quit beating yourself up, this isn't your fault," Chris ordered. Seeing JD was still unable to look directly at him, Chris continued. "Your little gizmo got us to an area until it gave out. Go pull me a schematic of every building and business within a five-mile radius of the stop point. Let's get back out there and find out what we're dealing with." Chris allowed some of the tension to leak out as he watched JD nod and hurry out of the room and to his computer.
Buck moved in and put a supporting arm around a weary Chris to guide him to a chair. "We'll find him, Chris."
Larabee looked beat; his features were haunted and drawn. "We have to," he said, quietly.
Ezra joined them. "We will," he assured, and the others nodded.
One strongly brewed pot of coffee later, the team was looking over the schematics of all occupied and abandoned buildings in the target area. It was a fresh starting point, and a reinforcement that they could actively help toward finding their teammate and friend.
Vin was freezing. Every bone in his body ached as awareness crept over him. White puffs of his breath hung in the frigid air as he looked around to get his bearings. He gasped and fought a sudden surge of panic when he realized his toes were barely touching the floor and any movement caused a fiery ache in his shoulders unlike anything he had experienced before.
Looking up, he could see his arms were stretched above his head and his wrists manacled to a butcher's hook secured by a link to a metal runner in the ceiling. It was then that Vin realized where he was.
A walk-in meat locker.
He shivered, and thanked all that was Holy for the wig and the extra clothing he was wearing. The Texan felt sure that, without the extra layers of warmth, he would have struggled to wake up. He mentally checked himself, quickly realizing that a wet, cold sensation and a sting above his left eye meant he'd likely taken a blow there. Other than that, he seemed to be intact.
Sounds from the door caused him to feign unconsciousness in the hope of gaining some insight into why he was being held captive. Vin's blood ran cold when he sensed a hand touch his face.
Unbolting the cooler door, two men walked inside, and up to Vin's limp form. One took Vin's jaw in hand and lifted the drooping head up, turning it left and right.
"This one looks pretty healthy. We may have more luck this time."
"And one more dead bum off the streets, if we're not," the other grunted before they both left.
Once it was quiet, Vin took in a breath and looked up. 'Dead'? Not if he could help it.
At the target area and working from a centrally situated surveillance van, the team eliminated deserted buildings one by one during their search. In truth, they were only going on the last location of the bug Vin was wearing, but they had to start somewhere; so while DPD officers went door to door of several 'live' businesses, Team Seven searched the abandoned lots.
The search radius was large, and a full day's investigation revealed no trace of Vin. Night was drawing in and neither man of Team Seven wanted to quit. Using the surveillance van as a temporary quarters, they grabbed some take-out and went over what they knew.
Frustration high, Chris pounded a fist against the van's paneling. Four sympathetic gazes looked his way. With headphones on as he worked with his electronic equipment, JD jolted more at the vibration than the sound. Tired, miserable, and equally frustrated, he pulled off his headphones and stood up.
"Damnit, Chris! I'm trying to concentrate."
Larabee rose from his seat and stalked up to the young tech. "When I want your opinion Agent Dunne, I'll ask for it."
JD swallowed, but stood his ground. "Yes - sir." Turning away, he snatched up his phones and re-took his seat.
Chris closed his eyes for a moment as his anger washed over him. His gaze acknowledged the looks from the other four, and he sighed. "JD…" Getting no response from the young tech due to the replacement of the headphones, he touched his shoulder and JD looked up at him.
The youth nodded. "Yeah, me too, Bossman."
JD resumed his work, and Chris turned to the others. "With none of the empty buildings being unexpectedly occupied, all we have left are the live businesses. Ezra, pull up a list of all those that DPD haven't checked yet."
Standish nodded, opened his laptop and got to work. JD turned to the southerner.
"I've picked up some business names associated with known criminals. We can run a comparison when you're done."
"I'll let you know when my task is complete," Ezra agreed.
JD slipped off his headphones and held up an unimpressive gadget. "It only has a low parameter, but I've successfully modified and calibrated this to pick up the electro-magnetic field from Vin's tag." He noted the hopeful looks.
"In English, Kid," Buck pleaded.
JD looked each man in the eye. "Providing Vin's bug isn't damaged, get this baby within a few yards of the tag, and it will register."
Chris almost smiled. "It's a start."
Sometime later and on hearing the large cooler door opening, Vin prayed his near-numb body would co-operate when the time came. As he'd hoped, the returning men unhooked his wrists. When he dropped, Vin bit back the spike of pain through his feet and legs and squatted, turned, and side-kicked one guy in the groin. As he straightened, he balled up his tied fists and swung them hard into the other man's jaw.
His legs were like jelly, and his feet hurt when he walked, but Tanner still ran out of the door. He slammed and locked the large metal door and turned to get his bearings. Unfortunately a third man was waiting outside and cracked the butt of his gun into Vin's cheek.
With a grunt, Vin dropped to his knees and spat blood. Although dazed and hurting, he was aware of being dragged toward a large chair in the other half of the vast room, shoved onto its seat and then secured to it. He managed to clear his head in time to see the other two men being released from the meat locker. He stared back at his captors.
"You've sure fucked up this time." He stifled a cry as the nearest man punched him in the face.
"And just how do you figure that?"
Vin released a bloody grin. "ATF. You're under arrest." His grin broadened as his assailant's eyes grew wide and he turned to the other men.
"Where did you get this guy?"
"At one of the same street-dives as those others, Boss."
The man in charge reached out and tugged at the bandana around Vin's long, dark brown hair and forehead. He actually growled when the wig came away in his hand and revealed the Texan's slightly shorter, lighter brown tresses.
In pure frustration at being duped, the man pounded into Vin. The sharpshooter's legs kicked out, catching the man in the knee. Tanner stood and swung the chair attached to him in the hope of causing more damage, but one of the other two goons' fists crunched down on the soft spot between his shoulder and neck and Vin staggered, then fell back into a seated position. The furious leader limped back into the fray and pounded Vin mercilessly until the sharpshooter's body went limp.
Pulling up Vin's head by his sweat-matted hair, the man tore off a false mustache and beard before letting the agent's head drop to the hard floor. Aiming his gun, he cocked it and placed it at Vin's temple and was about to fire when he changed his mind and turned to the others.
"Pack up. I'm guessing those cops searching for a missing kid yesterday were looking for this guy, which means the Feds will probably be on their way over at some point. We need to get out of here."
He glared at the unconscious captive. "But not before we leave them a parting gift."
In the van, only three nearby businesses matched up with less-than-sterling businessmen.
"DPD went to those locations yesterday," Josiah reminded. "And revealed nothing out of the ordinary."
In frustration, Chris rubbed at his eyes. He noticed JD frowning. "What?"
"I should have factored in that surveillance equipment might fail under extreme conditions."
"Do you mean like excessive heat, or cold?" Ezra asked.
Chris sighed. "Your point?"
The youth signaled to the list on the monitor. "One of the three locations is a meat packing plant."
"Walk in coolers," Buck added, his interest piqued.
Nathan shook his head. "Aww come on, really? You think they would keep Vin in one of those? That sounds more like a plot for a TV show than a reality. Besides, don't they freeze meat?"
Ezra nodded. "Or chill. They have thermostats just like any domestic appliance."
The nerve in Chris's jaw jumped as he considered the information. He pointed to JD's newest acquisition. "Can that still pick up a reading if cold is what caused the bug to fail?"
JD's enthusiasm had lessened. "Sure, but only if the device isn't shielded by metal."
There was a pause. Chris checked his weapon, opened the van's sliding door and looked out at the lightening sky. "Well, right now, it's all we got. Let's go."
"All packed up and ready to go, Boss. We should get moving, it's getting light out."
Inside the meat packing plant, the man nodded. "Bring me the batch we planned on giving this guy."
"Boss?" He balked. "He's a Fed."
Eyes flashed in fury. "A Fed - on my turf. One way or another, I'm gonna give him the trip of his life."
Vin groaned when the man grabbed the sharpshooter's whiskered chin and lifted up his head.
"Get ready to go on one last wild ride, Mister ATF Agent."
Protocol stipulated that the team wait for the backup and paramedics now en route to their location, but as they approached the plant's entry gates, Chris's gut was telling him they were out of time. "We're going in."
"Chris," Josiah warned. "We have no backup, or a warrant."
Larabee waved off the caution and the group continued on, but Josiah persisted. About to reply, a yelp from JD drew the team leader's attention.
Chris glanced back to see JD staring at the device in his hand. "What?"
JD looked up to see all eyes on him. "I…I've got a reading."
Chris moved to go. Buck saw the look on JD's face and knew what was going through his partner's mind. He grabbed Chris's arm. "It could just be the bug. Vin may not be with it."
A conviction in Chris's eyes caused the others' spines to tingle. "He's in there. Let's do this."
Tanner glared at the man holding a syringe over him. "You do this, and you'll be signin' your own death warrant."
The man smiled. "No one's found you yet, Fed. There's nothing here to connect me. I'm home free." While his cohorts held a thrashing Vin steady, the man in charge waited until Vin's hair was yanked back to expose his throat and neck. He approached to inject the liquid.
Vin tried harder to struggle, but found it nearly impossible to move. "No…no!" He felt the touch of the point at his neck. "Fuck you. I'll see you in hell!"
The man smiled. "Maybe, but you'll be there long before me…"
On entering the building, the sound of Vin's alarmed voice had the team bursting into a rear room of the plant. The horrifying sight of a syringe hovering near Vin's neck caused a rush of mixed emotions through the six teammates. Guns aimed, they strode toward the small group.
"Hands in the air - NOW!" Chris ordered as each agent confirmed he had a clear shot.
The bare glimmer of a smile was the only warning as the six federal-issue guns returned fire at the three thugs shooting at them. There was no time to find cover, and also, with taking the greatest of care not to hit Vin, the ATF agents were at a huge disadvantage. JD and Ezra cried out as they each took hits, but the pair kept firing alongside the others until the threat was eliminated.
Even as the last goon dropped, Chris was crouched in front of Vin. His eyes widened on seeing a semi-plunged hypodermic hanging from Vin's neck. "Nathan!"
Pulling down his shirt cuff to protect prints, Chris removed the needle from the puckered skin and dropped it into the evidence bag that suddenly materialized next to him.
Vin's eyes were wide, and he was already glistening with sweat and breathing rapidly. As Josiah freed Vin, Larabee took him into his arms and eased his best friend off the chair and onto the floor. "Easy buddy."
Nathan had his ear pressed to Vin's chest. "His heart's going like a freight train."
Vin cried out and went stiff in Chris's arms before his body convulsed.
Chris struggled to contain the fitting, heated body, his eyes welling at the sight of his best friend in such pain.
The Texan's glassy gaze caught Chris's anxious one. "Oh...God...Chrisss…help..."
The team watched helpless and horrified and Larabee's world narrowed when Vin went limp, and he howled out in anguish. "NOOOOOOOOOO!"
Late evening and four of Team Seven were spread around the ER waiting room. Ezra was to be kept in overnight following surgery to extract the bullet in his arm from the shootout, and at this time, Nathan was with him. Josiah was sitting close to Chris on one side, while Buck was on the other.
After a debridement and treatment of the through and through injury to his upper arm, JD was discharged with a prescription for pills. With his arm strapped, and hopped up on meds, he was currently stretched out across the chairs asleep. His head rested on a balled up jacket on Buck's thigh, and the tall agent had a protective arm drooped over the youth's prone figure. Buck watched Chris stand, walk over, and touch the back of his hand to JD's clammy forehead.
"He's doing okay, Stud," Buck assured. "How about you?" Buck didn't really need to ask; one look at Chris's haunted features told a story all of its own.
Chris walked over to the window and looked out at the darkening sky. Every time he closed his eyes he relived the ambulance ride in. Him sitting there, watching the still, sweaty features of his best friend being punctured and monitored to within an inch of his life.
Were they too late? Could they have done any more to find Vin sooner? Chris cast a quick glance back at JD.
JD's state of the art toys were even more enhanced than the newest Federal gizmos so to get what they had from Vin's tracking device was more than they, or any other team could have hoped for.
Chris nodded to himself. It had been a solid operation, well coordinated and executed. But then he expected nothing less from these men. Plus, they'd learned from it. Now all he could hope for was that their success wasn't at the expense of two injuries…
…and one man's life.
All eyes but JD's turned to the newly arrived doctor. Buck gently shook JD and supported him while he rose from his drug-induced slumber. Chris approached.
The physician spoke. "Hi Chris. Thanks to the fact Vin didn't get a full hit, and that you brought us the drug for analysis, we were able to act swiftly.
"After running blood gasses and toxicity levels, I placed Vin on Naloxone. We're continuing to monitor him throughout the treatment process, with particular attention to his temperature, pulse, respiratory rate, blood pressure, urine output, ECG and O2 saturation."
"And?" Chris pushed; his exhausted mind and body was almost at breaking point.
The man smiled and gestured toward the ER treatment rooms. "He's asking for you."
Chris left instantly. The relief in the room was palpable. JD's head bowed, and a grinning Buck offered him a one-armed hug. Josiah stood.
"I'll go tell Nathan and Ezra the good news."
Buck blew out a breath. "Damn, Kid, that was a close one." Receiving no reply, Buck ducked his head down to see JD was once more asleep. Chuckling, the brunet eased his best friend back to his prone position and relaxed back.
"Damn close; but we beat it." He smiled down at his sleeping partner, and then looked out toward the ER. "The Seven are still riding."
As he entered the quiet room, Chris had never been so pleased to see the blue eyes looking back at him. They were a little dulled, but the familiarity in the gaze washed over him like a soothing balm. He took a seat next to the bed. "You're sleeping on my time, Tanner."
"Take it outta my paycheck," a raspy Vin shot back.
Chris took in the man's bruised features. Realizing Vin was watching him, he smiled. "How are you?"
Vin winced. "Feel like I'm comin' off a three-day bender. You?"
"Wishing I was on one." Larabee paused. "You had me worried there for a while."
"You and me both." Vin looked down at his covered body. "I still got everythin'?"
Chris frowned. "What?"
Vin offered a lopsided grin. "Pretty cold in that cooler."
Chris flat out laughed. "Nah, far as I know, it's all still there and working." Both their expressions sobered. "That was too close, Vin."
"Don't I know it. Felt like I had fire in my veins." He winced as he moved in the bed. "Everyone else okay?" he asked. Noting the pause he grew anxious. "Chris?"
Larabee clasped the Texan's bare arm. "It's all good. Ezra and JD got hit, but they're both okay. JD's discharged…" Chris grinned. "…Sleeping on his nose, but discharged. Ezra's coming home tomorrow."
Vin relaxed. His eyes grew heavy. "Guess you got a ton of reports to fill out, huh?"
Keeping his hand on Vin's arm, Chris shrugged and sat back. "Nothing that can't wait." He noted Vin flip a weary wave and turned to see Buck, JD, Josiah, and Nathan standing at the doorway to Vin's room. When they came inside, Nathan was pushing Ezra in a wheelchair.
"Damnit, got me some visitors, and I can't keep my eyes open," Vin sighed.
Nodding to the others, Chris squeezed Vin's arm. "Then don't. We'll be here when you wake up."
With a slow nod, Tanner's eyes drooped. They suddenly opened to look at JD. He gestured toward the nightstand and Chris passed over the gold cross earring Vin had been wearing. "Great gadget, Kid." The Texan tossed it toward JD's good side, but his uncoordinated air snatch missed it; however, Buck's didn't.
JD's brow furrowed as he took the bug from Buck. "But…it failed."
"Found me, didn't you?"
"Yeah, I guess." JD smiled shyly, understanding that Vin was absolving him of the guilt he was carrying. "Thanks."
Tanner winked at him, and then glanced around his friends. Seconds later, he was asleep.
Ezra argued to delay his return to his hospital bed, and won. As he and the others got comfortable, Chris knew he should be back at the office working on closing the case, but he shrugged off the thought. Paperwork could wait. What was important was that he, Vin, and the guys be allowed to move through this latest near-tragedy together. Their support structure was second to none, and right then, in that room…
…Seven troubled souls began to heal.
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