MAIN CHARACTERS: Vin, Chris, Seven
Editors' Note: The original version of this story first appeared in the Mag 7 zine, Let's Ride #17, published by Neon RainBow Press, Cinda Gillilan and Jody Norman, editors. When we all decided to post the stories that have appeared in the issues of Let's Ride that are more than 6 months old, we opted to use a generic pen name because, while Patricia Grace is the primary author of this story, she had so much help from the other folks writing for the press that it just made sense to consider the story to be written by the Neon RainBow Press Collective! Resistance was futile. So, thanks to the whole Neon Gang – Dori Adams, Dana Ely, Michelle Fortado, Patricia Grace, Dani Martin, Erica Michaels, Nina Talbot, Kasey Tucker, Rebecca Wright, and Lorin and Mary Fallon Zane. S tory lasted edited 1-2-2015. Art by Shiloh
The tree was still up in the living room, although all of the presents had been opened and carted home by the men and women who had been at the ranch to celebrate the holiday with Chris Larabee several days earlier. Outside it was cold, but the sky was a brilliant blue, the air scrubbed clean by a recent snowfall that had almost melted away now. Chris smiled. He'd never imagined he would find the coming of a New Year so painless. Every holiday the past two years had been an agonizing affair, but by the time he'd gotten to Thanksgiving, he'd realized that some of that pain had faded away. It wasn't gone, and probably never would be, but it was tolerable now, and for that the blond was grateful.
He glanced around, trying to decide if he was ready for the upcoming blitz – the 3rd Annual Team Seven New Years' Eve blow-out…
Three years? Had he really had his team for three years now? He shook his head. There were days when it felt much longer, and others much shorter. And when it came to Vin Tanner, he had to remind himself regularly that he hadn't known the younger man his entire life.
But right now he needed to worry about the present.
The weekend-long event would open with a potluck – a late lunch/early dinner – on December 31st and last through New Year's Day, and the outcome of the Rose Bowl game. There would be plenty of poker, college football, food, and drink over the two days, and the rest of Team Seven would be camping in his spare bedroom, the living room, and maybe even out in the barn, if he knew Tanner.
He glanced out the window, wondering what was taking the sniper so damn long to get back. Tanner had come out early, to see what was left to be done, and had taken off a few of hours ago to make a liquor run. He also planned to swing by his apartment in Purgatory to pick up some extra clothes, and his military issue extreme cold sleeping bag.
Chris had expected him to be back by now, but there could be any number of explanations for his absence. He'd probably run into traffic – lots of people heading up into the high country for the long weekend, but it still made Larabee a little anxious. Over the past three years he'd seen each of his men injured, and had been hurt himself, but Tanner was the undeniable trouble magnet of the group.
He watched through the large picture window of his living room as Buck drove up, JD riding shotgun with him. He went to open the front door as the two men began unloading their "supplies" for the extended party.
"Hey, stud!" Wilmington greeted him, grinning widely as they reached the front porch. "Where's Vin? There's plenty more stuff to bring in."
"He's on a run to restock the bar," Chris explained, taking several of the plastic grocery bags from the pair and heading to the kitchen.
Buck and JD went back twice more before they had everything inside. And they had just finished putting it all away when Josiah and Nathan arrived, forcing them to start the process all over again with the bags of food and snacks the two men had brought with them.
Chris knew some of the leftovers from the weekend bash would still be in his freezer and cabinets when they did this again over the 4th of July weekend, but that was just fine by him.
Once they had everything situated, Chris handed each of the men a beer, and then grabbed one for himself. They headed into the living room and had just gotten settled when the doorbell rang. Chris knew it had to be Ezra, since Vin had stopped ringing the bell well over a year ago.
Pulling the door open, all he saw were two paper grocery bags crammed full of who-knew-what, and a pair of legs, covered by expensive wool slacks.
"It's customary for the host to invite his guests inside, Mr. Larabee," the smooth-talking southerner drawled, shifting impatiently from foot to foot under the weight of the bags.
Chris shook his head, saying, "Just trying to decide what this stuff on top is."
"Something I'm sure your unsophisticated palate will no doubt reject," Standish replied dryly, then stepped inside when Larabee moved aside, heading straight to the kitchen, where he made sure to immediately refrigerate several items from his bags.
Chris leaned against the kitchen doorframe, watching and waiting for Standish to finish. He wasn't sure what the stuff he saw removed was, but the man usually came up with some kind of surprise for them that turned out to be delicious, unpronounceable, and made from things most of them would never knowingly ingest.
"Grab yourself a beer when you're done," Larabee told his primary undercover agent. "We're just waiting for Vin."
"Ah, I see our Mr. Tanner is running late as usual."
Chris grinned. Vin and Ezra were usually in competition to see which of them could arrive the latest each morning.
The two men walked back to the living room, where someone had turned on the big screen television, although the volume had been muted on a program Chris didn't recognize.
Larabee returned to his favorite recliner, and Ezra settled on the empty end of the smaller of the two sofas in the room. Conversation picked up, the men chatting for a time, but it trailed off when they noticed the worried look on Larabee's face as he glanced out the window to check the long gravel driveway that led from the road to the house.
"Hey, don't worry," Buck said. "The roads were getting pretty bad. He's probably just stuck in traffic."
Larabee sighed and nodded, and the conversation picked up again until JD squeaked, "Oh my God, look!"
The men turned their attention to the television as JD fumbled with the remote, trying to release the mute.
"C'mon, JD," Buck snapped, sliding to the edge of his seat as he peered at the screen.
There was a "breaking news" banner on the bottom of the screen, and a collage of worrisome images – police cars, their lights flashing, ambulances, paramedics, people running back and forth behind the cameraman, and a worried-looking reporter, speaking into a mike. The breaking news banner was right above the words "Deadly Shooting in Purgatory."
The volume came on suddenly, the reporter's voice filling the room. "…an officer on the scene has confirmed that there are at least two dead and several others injured. We're standing by to bring you more information as soon as we get it. Stephanie?"
The picture shifted, returning to the regular news anchors back at the CBS station. Larabee was already up and heading for the door before any of the others began to speak.
"Whoa, Chris, call him first," Buck said, heading his friend off at the front door. "He's probably on his way back and nowhere near Purgatory."
Chris huffed out a breath, but he turned and headed straight to the phone in the kitchen, dialing Vin's number at his apartment. It rang four times and the answering machine picked up. "Hi," said Vin's voice, "I can't get t' the phone right now, so leave a message after the beep an' I'll call y' as soon as I can."
"Vin, it's me," Larabee said. "If you're there, pick up." He waited a moment, then added, "Now, damn it."
Buck grinned briefly and shook his head. "You're a real people person, you know that, Chris."
Still nothing, and then the beep sounded, letting Chris know the connection had been broken. The blond turned, determined to leave this time. But Buck stopped him a second time, his hand on Larabee's arm.
"Try his cell," the ladies' man said, silently praying Tanner picked up this time.
Chris' eyes narrowed, but he reached out and grabbed the phone again, punching out the number to the sniper's cell phone, which rang and rang and rang before it finally shifted him over to Tanner's voicemail. He hung up before the message from Vin could begin.
"Guys!" JD called anxiously from the living room.
Buck and Chris hurried back down the hall, walking in as the broadcast shifted back to the crime scene.
The reporter appeared, saying, "Earlier this afternoon a deadly shootout took place here at the Purgatory Liquor Barn." The camera closed in on a pool of blood on the sidewalk. "A spokesman for the Denver Police Department has confirmed that three people have been killed. Two others were seriously wounded and have already been taken to area hospitals."
The image shifted to footage that had been shot earlier – a woman was being loaded into the back of an ambulance that then pulled away, sirens wailing. The shot shifted back to the reporter. "Several shoppers who were in the store at the time of the robbery were injured by flying glass when gunfire broke out inside, but their injuries are not life-threatening and they are being treated at the scene by paramedics, or taken to local hospitals."
As the reporter spoke, the camera closed in on a man, seated on the curb, a medic working to clean the blood of the side of his face.
"Harold Reynolds," the reporter continued, "police department spokesman, had no comment about who was responsible, but an official statement should be released within the hour. This is Daniel Huang, Channel Four News, in Purgatory. Now, back to you, Stephanie. Larry."
"We couldn't reach Vin," Buck stated flatly.
"Let's go," Chris said, his voice soft but intense.
The others stood, all of them worried now. They went out, splitting into two vehicles for the drive to Purgatorio. Chris took his truck, Buck and JD riding with him. Josiah took Nathan and Ezra in his Suburban. They pushed the speed limits, but with the almost all the traffic heading into the mountains, they had a clear shot back into town, and they arrived at the scene as quickly as possible.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The street in Purgatory looked almost exactly like it had on the news – run down, building walls covered with graffiti, and whatever paint hadn't been covered had gone grey with dirt and grime. Police cars were still scattered around the Liquor Barn, some of their lights still flashing. Two ambulance trucks remained close to the store, and paramedics crowded around the opened rear doors of both vehicles, making it impossible to see what was going on inside.
Chris and Josiah double-parked, the six men climbing out and heading across the street, stopping the traffic that was crawling by while drivers tried to see what was going on. The ATF agents showed their IDs, slipping past the first layer of uniformed officers protecting the crime scene, which included the sidewalk in front of the store, and the entire parking lot alongside it.
They continued across the lot, but were stopped when they neared the building by a plainclothes detective – a broad-shouldered man in his early 40s, his short, light brown hair was shot through with grey. He looked imposing, and had at least three inches and twenty-five pounds on Larabee, who was leading the way.
"Gentlemen," the detective said matter-of-factly, "I'll need to see—"
Larabee fished his ID out again, letting the detective take a look. "I need to get into the scene," he said and took a step forward.
"Why?" the detective asked suspiciously, shifting to block Chris' path and earning himself one of the blond's icy green glares in response. "Is there an on-going ATF investigation—?"
"One of my agents may have been involved," Chris began.
"May have been?" the detective asked, cutting him off.
"Speer. What's his name?"
Chris fought back the anger and the fear that inclined him to just deck the man and keep walking, but he drew a deep breath and said, "Tanner. Vin Tanner." And he could tell from the flash of recognition that crossed Speer's face that Vin had indeed been involved at the scene.
The other members of Team Seven saw it, too.
"Is he all right?" Buck demanded, locking gazes with the detective.
Chris, however, didn't hear
's question. He swallowed hard, a soft roar beginning to fill his ears as he saw a man ease past the tangle of medics and start toward him. Larabee's gaze was riveted on the blood soaking the front of the man's long-sleeved T-shirt, and he felt his knees begin to shake. Then his gaze lifted and he saw more blood on the man's face. It was a ghost. A fucking ghost. He gasped softly, strobes of white and yellow lights beginning to explode in front of his eyes. Wilmington
"Chris?" Buck yelped, lunging to catch his friend before he dropped to his knees. He looked around, frantic to understand what was going on. Then he saw what had affected Larabee so profoundly. "Jesus Christ," he breathed, the sight taking his own breath away.
"Chris?" Vin called, frowning and breaking into a jog as he hurried over to his teammates.
"Vin?" Nathan demanded.
"I'm fine, Nate," Vin said as he knelt and reached out, grabbing Larabee's shoulders, and getting right up into his face. "Chris, it's all right. 'M fine. I ain't hurt. Y' hear me? I'm fine."
Larabee's eyes narrowed. The ghost was talking to him, touching him. His hand came up and he touched the ghost's face, then smeared the blood across his finger tips with the pad of his thumb.
"Chris, 'm all right," Vin said again, blue eyes locked on Larabee's green.
"What happened?" JD asked, staring worriedly at the blood on the front of Tanner's shirt.
Vin took a deep breath and opened his mouth to speak, but then he spotted the reporter and cameraman moving closer and he jerked his chin in the direction of the ambulance. "Over here."
Vin and Buck guided Chris over to the truck, Detective Speer staying behind to move the press back again.
"What happened here?" Josiah asked when Tanner slumped against the side of the ambulance.
"Was at the Barn, pickin' up our stuff. I paid an' was takin' it out t' the Jeep when I saw this guy go in. Gave me a bad vibe, so I slipped back inside t' take a look." He looked down at the ground and shook his head. Then he lifted his chin, pain-filled blue eyes locking on Josiah's as he said, "He didn't say a word, J'siah, just started shootin'. Took me too damn long t' get a shot, but I finally dropped the bastard." He looked down at the blood on his shirt. "One of the ladies in the store," he said softly. "I hope she makes it. She was talkin' 'bout her little girl…" He shuddered, too easily remembering the large exit wound in her upper chest.
Josiah reached out and rested his hand on Tanner's shoulder, giving it a supportive squeeze. "I know you did everything you could, Vin."
The sniper nodded, but it was clear he was hurting, blaming himself for not being able to act quicker.
One of the uniformed officers stepped up to join them. Sergeant Timothy Argrow was a handsome Black man, a little taller than Buck and just as wide as Josiah. He smiled at the agents as his gaze swept over them. "Agent Tanner, I just spoke to Detective Speer; he said you're free to go now. We have everything we need for now."
Vin nodded. "Any news on the injured?"
Argrow shook his head. "I'm sorry. They were taken to St. Joseph's. I'm sure you could find out…"
Tanner nodded again.
"…Detective Speer asked if you'd stop by tomorrow to read over your statement and sign it," Argrow added.
"He'll be there," Chris said, watching the officer. There was honest admiration in the man's eyes.
Argrow extended his hand to Vin, who shook it. "Agent, that was some damn amazing shooting. The rest of those people—"
"Two people died," Vin said flatly. "It wasn't good enough."
The officer nodded, understanding the sniper's feelings. "Still, it could've been a hell of a lot worse if you hadn't been here." He looked at the other agents and added, "The owner and a customer were killed, two other patrons were seriously wounded, but the rest only had minor injuries, mostly from flying glass. Agent Tanner dropped the perp, saved the four others in the store." He looked at Vin, Josiah still standing at his shoulder, then back at the others. "The witnesses said Agent Tanner stepped out into the open and tried to talk the man into surrendering. He was holding a wounded woman in front of him, using her as a shield. She'd been shot by the store owner when he'd tried to defend himself; shot went wild when he was hit and killed by the perp. That woman was bleeding to death. Agent Tanner made what had to be a one in a million shot. My partner and I saw it from outside. Then he kept pressure on her wounds until the paramedics got here."
"Christ," Buck breathed, easily able to imagine the scene playing out as the officer described it.
"Yeah," JD added in agreement.
"You did everything you could, Vin," Nathan said. "I'll call the hospital, see if I can get some news for you."
Chris nodded, letting
know he should do that, and they watched Nathan trot away, headed for Josiah's Suburban. Jackson
One of the medics moved in to stand next to Argrow. "Agent Tanner, you sure you don't want us to check you over?" she asked, looking worried.
Vin shook his head. "No, thanks. I'm fine," he told her.
"All right," she said, "but take it easy, okay?"
Tanner nodded again, then looked up at the others saying, "I need t' go home 'n' change."
"I'll go with you," Chris said, his tone one that warned them all he'd brook no arguments. "The rest of you head back to the ranch," he told the others, tossing his keys to Wilmington. "We'll meet you out there in an hour or so."
Buck nodded. The color had returned to Larabee's face and the blond seemed steady on his feet now. "You two drive careful," he told them.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Chris drove Vin's Jeep to the sniper's Purgatory apartment building, the two men climbing the stairs to Tanner's fourth-floor home when they saw the elevator was – once again – out of order.
Vin opened the door and stepped inside, listening as Chris followed him in, then closed and locked the door behind them.
Heading straight to the bathroom, Vin pulled his blood-soaked T-shirt off and threw it into the small trash can sitting by the counter. His jeans followed, and he wadded them up, shoving them into the trashcan as well. Then he turned to the shower, cranked on the water, and stepped out of his underwear, which went into his hamper. A moment later he was standing under the hot water, his eyes closed as he let the powerful stream wash the blood off his chest and legs.
He watched as it swirled down the drain, feeling the tears welling up in his eyes at the same time. Vin reached out and placed his hands on the wall of the shower stall in front of him and stood, the cascading water beating against his chest. He dipped his head into the stream and let the tears fall.
He knew he'd done his best, but it didn't matter, two people weren't going home tonight…
"Vin, you okay?"
Vin sighed. "Yeah," he called.
He knew Chris would be able to hear the truth in his voice, but he also knew that the man would respect his privacy – for a little while, anyway.
Vin forced himself to reach for the soap, and washed himself from head to toe. Then he rinsed off, turned off the water, and climbed out, drying his skin. He noted that the trashcan was empty.
He slipped into his bedroom to get dressed again.
Chris was waiting for him in the living room when he walked out to join the older man.
Larabee looked up, green eyes meeting blue. "Christ, Vin, I thought you were dead."
"I know," Tanner said, dragging his fingers through his still-drying hair. "I know. I'm sorry, Chris. I'm so sorry."
Larabee sloughed back against the sofa and shook his head. "Scared me worse than I expected."
"Y' need me, don't ya." It wasn't a question, the truth too easy to read in Chris' haunted green eyes.
Larabee nodded. "All of you… you're my family now… I can't—"
"'M alive, Chris," Tanner said, sitting down next to the blond. "'M alive an' we're gonna go out t' the ranch and have us a helluva party."
Chris snorted and shook his head.
"I really am okay," Tanner replied.
"I know," Chris said. "But when I first saw you…"
"Y' thought I's a ghost."
Chris nodded. "I was just so sure you were dead…"
"Probably looked like it… all that blood."
Larabee took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Damn."
"What?" Vin asked.
Chris shook his head, knowing he couldn't put what he was feeling into words. But then, he didn't have to. Vin smiled at him and ducked his head, his cheeks going a little red.
"Yeah," Tanner said quietly, "family…"
Vin grinned slightly. "C'mon. Y' told 'em an hour. We best get goin'; gonna be late as it is."
Chris nodded and stood. This man was his brother, there was no denying it, and a part of his new big, crazy, bizarre family…
And he wouldn't have it any other way.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
They rode in silence as they headed out of the city and toward the ranch. Chris finally asked, "You all right?"
Vin nodded. "Yeah… Will be, anyway."
Larabee studied the younger man's profile for a moment, deciding that the answer was an honest one. "Even if the woman doesn't make it?" he probed.
Tanner sighed softy. "I know I did all I could, just wish it could've been more, but—"
"The best we can do is the best we can do," Chris interrupted.
Tanner nodded. "Would've called y' sooner, but they—"
"I know," Larabee interrupted again.
"Didn't mean t' scare ya, neither," Vin said.
The older man nodded. "I know you didn't… And that young woman knew you did everything you could, too.
Vin forced a nod. "But her daughter—"
"Don't borrow trouble."
Vin nodded again, then jumped slightly as his phone rang. He fished it from his pocket and answered it. "Yeah, Nathan, it's me."
"She's going to make it," the man told him.
"Y' sure?" Vin asked.
"I am," he replied. "You two on your way back?"
"Yeah, we'll be there in thirty," Vin told him, then returned his phone to his pocket. "She's gonna make it."
Chris smiled. "Looks like we all are."
"Yeah," Vin said and smiled. "Step on it, old man, I'm hungry."
"Old man?" Larabee growled at him.
The grin widened. "Y' heard me."
"Keep it up and you can walk the rest of the way," Larabee growled, but he felt the knot of tension that had settled in his gut fade away. They were all okay, and ready to meet another year head on… together.
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