A Stranger's Protection

by Brate

ATF Universe

Disclaimer: Don't own any of them, and make no money from it.

Comments: Many thanks to Deirdre for her invaluable help. To Jan and Cin for the gentle nudges, and to Mog for inventing this playground. And a special thanks to my coworkers for answering my questions while laughing at me.

Chapter One

Chris Larabee nursed his third beer as he waited at the Saloon. The rest of Team Seven were to meet at six. It was now past eight, and the only ones yet to arrive were Vin Tanner and Ezra Standish. Chris watched in amusement while Buck Wilmington and JD Dunne quarreled over whether or not the new waitress Inez hired would succumb to Buck's charms.

"I'm telling you, JD, that little lady is gonna fall at my feet," Buck boasted.

"Maybe after smelling you," JD muttered.

"Drawn by the scent of my animal magnetism," Buck agreed.

"You're so full of crap, Buck."

Chris heard Josiah Sanchez call out hello and turned to greet Vin, but it was Ezra that had walked through the door. The blond leader tried to hide his concern, but Nathan Jackson saw through it.

"Don't worry, I'm sure he's on his way," he whispered, leaning over toward his leader.

Chris didn't even bother trying to deny his concern. "He's usually the first here."

Josiah heard the comment and smiled, "Brother Vin's jeep probably broke down and he's trying to fix it."

"Mr. Tanner had been known to have vehicular mishaps of that variety. Rest assured, his presence is forthcoming," Ezra drawled.

"You're just happy that, for once, you're not the last to arrive," JD smirked.

"Mr. Dunne, I assume you've heard, 'Save the best for last'," the Southerner commented.

"And what does that have to do with you?" JD asked innocently.

"Children, behave," Chris reprimanded. The shrill cry of his cell phone silenced their protests. "Larabee... What?... Where are you?" He sat forward, his green eyes furrowed and tension spelled out clearly on his face. "Sit tight, I'll be there in twenty minutes."

"And what trouble has our brother gotten himself into this time?" inquired Josiah.

Chris sighed, and ran a hand through his hair. "He's at the 17th Precinct...he witnessed a murder." He paused as the shocked voices of his team shattered the air. He raised a hand, silencing the noisy group. "I'm heading over there. I'll call when I know more."

Nathan started to stand. "Do you need any help?"

"No, I think it's better if we don't all go charging in there," Chris replied. He looked at the men, who surely would want to come. "You know how Vin hates crowds..."


Chris Larabee stormed through the unlucky precinct, his frosty eyes drilling the apathetic desk sergeant. The traffic delay had been bad enough, but not finding his blue-eyed friend waiting threatened to shatter his already thin patience. He stalked to the desk and glanced at the nameplate: Sergeant Willis. "Where the hell is Vin Tanner?" Chris demanded.

"Who are you, and what are you talking about?" the sergeant asked, looking up from his crossword.

Chris displayed his badge before answering. "You have one of my men in custody. He witnessed a murder in Purgatorio tonight and I want to talk to him."

"You're too late," the officer told him, returning to his game.

"What do you mean 'I'm too late'?" The ATF leader asked, puzzled.

The sergeant gave a bored sigh. "I mean he's already gone."

"Gone?" Chris snapped. Frustrated with the lack of cooperation, he ripped the newspaper out of the sergeant's hands. "Gone where?" His face was now only inches from the lawman's.

"He's been taken into custody by the FBI," the officer surrendered under Larabee's glare.

"Why would they be involved in a local murder? Who was it?" Chris growled.

"A pimp named Kaybee Schemba," Officer Willis replied.

"And..." Chris hissed, his patience running out.

The triumphant smile appeared as the desk jockey leaned forward. "And the perp is none other than Joey Mancino, right hand man to gangster Leo Trotta."

"Fuck," Chris breathed.

"You said it," the sergeant affirmed, vindicated. "Your boy stepped in it deep this time. The captain was notified, and he called in the Feds who came and collected him immediately."

"Where they'd take him?"

"Even if I did know, I couldn't tell you. You know the drill, he's under federal protection," the sergeant replied, enunciating the latter words slowly as if talking to a moron.

Chris realized he'd go to jail if he killed an officer in the middle of a police station, and thus would never find Vin, so he opted to scowl at the sergeant instead. "Who's running the show?"

"Not my problem," came the clipped response.

"Thanks so much..." Chris responded, voice dripping with sarcasm.

The fair-haired leader stalked stomped out of the precinct before his rising temper landed him in a cell. Once back in his truck, he dialed Buck's cell phone.


"It's me. Vin's in deep shit. The guy he ID'd worked for Leo Trotta."

"Shit..." Buck whispered. "Junior okay?"

"Damned if I know," Chris raged, slamming his fist against the unfortunate dashboard. "Feds already got him in protective custody."

"How reassuring," the mustached agent replied. "I don't like it."

"Me either. I'm going to call Judge Travis and have him find out where Vin's being held."

"I'll pass on the news," Buck relayed, his voice edgy. "Oh, and Chris...don't kill nobody, okay? Offin' Feds is nasty work, and I don't want to break in a new boss."

"Fuck you, Buck," Chris shot back, smiling slightly at his old friend's concern.

Chris let Buck go and dialed Travis' home number. A sleepy Mrs. Travis picked up the phone and handed it off to her husband. "What do you want at this hour?"

"I'm sorry to call so late, Sir, but I need some help." Chris sighed and related the night's events.

"Okay, Chris," the weary judge spoke. "I'll make some calls and get back to you. You going to the ranch?" he inquired of Larabee's home.

"Yeah," his agent replied. "I really do appreciate this."

Chris drove back to his house, letting himself in. He left the lights out, feeling better in the dark, and knowing the house well enough to maneuver successfully. The blond man sat in his favorite chair before immediately rising and pacing the length of his living room. He wondered where Vin was being kept, thinking back to when the cocky agent had called him at the Saloon. He'd heard when his friend had laughed at him through the line.

Just like Vin not to worry even after witnessing a mob hit. After taking into account all the shit the young man had gone through in his life, he was still so damn positive about everything. Chris was staring out the window at nothing when the phone rang, shattering the quiet. He jumped slightly and took a deep breath, "Larabee."

"Bad news, Chris." The judge's voice was low. "Orders came from Ken Harris," referring to the Special Agent in Charge of the Bureau's local office.

"This is insane. How can they get away with kidnapping one of my agents?" Chris demanded, outraged.

"Now, Chris, it really isn't kidnapping," Orrin reasoned. "Vin is a federal agent under protective custody of fellow federal agents. It's not as if he was stolen out of his house in the middle of the night. They know what they're doing."

"My team and I can do a better job. He's one of our own," Chris protested futilely.

"I know how you feel, but it's not our call. Why don't you get some sleep? There's nothing you can do in the middle of the night."


Chris gave up the fight for sleep. He'd been unable to rest, worried about his best friend, and after tossing and turning for hours, finally relented and rose from his bed. The first stop was the kitchen and the coffee machine, brewing up a large batch to get him through the day.

With coffee and a bagel in his system, he went downstairs to work some of his frustrations out on his punching bag. He lost track of time, pounding his fists repeatedly into the canvas. He turned as a voice called out from behind him.

"Who's the lucky bastard?" Buck asked, nodding to the bag. He smiled. "I knew you'd be fretting over Junior."

"What kept you?" Chris answered back, wiping his face with the towel that was tossed at him. "Call the others...we're gonna find him."

Chapter Two

Later that morning, Chris Larabee pulled his Dodge Ram onto Stout Street and slipped into the Federal Office Building's parking garage. He marched to the office of SAC Ken Harris. After presenting his badge, he was notified by the secretary that he'd have to wait. He reluctantly sat in the waiting area and stared openly at the receptionist. She kept glancing up, and seeing him still looking, quickly returned to her work. After her fourth peek, Chris watched her make a short call, and two minutes later he was ushered in to see Harris.

Chris refused the offered seat and strode right to Harris' desk. As soon as they were alone, he exploded. "I'm not here for pleasantries, where is he?" Chris commanded.

"I assume you mean Vin Tanner?" Harris inquired, flicking an imaginary piece of dirt off his impeccable suit.

"Start talking..." Chris fairly snarled.

Harris pushed back his graying hair, and straightened his tie before answering. "I'm afraid that's privileged information; it's on a need- to-know-basis."

"You're a prick, Harris." He was barely able to control his rage at the runaround and apparent lack of concern by the smug lawman.

"I've already been warned about you, Larabee. Save your breath, I'm running the show."

After another hour of arguing, Chris realized the futility. Harris had the law on his side, and there was nothing to do about it, yet. The ATF agent reluctantly withdrew for the time being. He made his way to his truck, letting his head fall to the steering wheel. He was no closer at finding out where Vin was being held. He raised his head, and smacking his fist against the steering wheel, he started the truck. The journey to the office and facing his team with the bad news left a bad taste in his mouth.

Upon entering the office, every head turned. He paused as the door shut behind him and was at once accosted by silent pleas. He walked past the desks nodding at JD and Ezra, and noticed Josiah leaning in his office doorframe. Catching the ex-preacher's gaze, he shook his head and sighed heavily.

"I don't know his location, they wouldn't tell me anything," Chris told them dejectedly.

"They wouldn't tell you?" JD seemed shocked. "Didn't you give them 'the glare'?"

Chris leveled his gaze at the flushed youth.

"Yep, that'd be the one," Josiah laughed at his boss' steely eyes. "It didn't work?"

"Smug sonuvabitch," Chris snapped, brushing past Josiah, and once he entered his office, loosened his restrictive tie. The three men remained at his open door.

"So what next, Mr. Larabee?" Ezra inquired.

"Now we get to work," Chris asserted. "JD, you set up a tail on Harris. I want to know where he goes, who he calls, the works. Josiah, stick to the courthouse while Nathan's testifying, and shadow the DA."

"Are you sure Fontaine will be involved?" Josiah asked of the District Attorney.

"Positive," the blond confirmed. "This case is too important. There's no way he would farm it out to one of his underlings; he's too conceited. They'll have an airtight case if they can keep Vin alive until the trial. After that, Fontaine and the rest of them won't care what happens to him."

His fellow agents listened to their leader's instructions, and went off to find their associates to get started on their tasks. Ezra watched them leave, and then faced his boss. "And what would you have me do?"

"I want you to get on the computer and find out as much as you can about this Mancino."

"I'll consider it my reason for being." With that said, Ezra sauntered back to his desk and got to work.

Two days later, Chris had lost his temper and snapped so many times, the others were going out of their way to avoid him. The typically rowdy bullpen was quiet: Buck and JD were not arguing, Josiah and Nathan were not discussing the latest news, and Ezra had been coming in on time every day. Chris passed an assignment on to Team Three declaring they were already too busy. Judge Travis had heard about this, but let it go, giving Larabee the time he needed.

Ezra tapped on his leader's door and waited for the acknowledging grunt. He winced inwardly at Chris Larabee's worn features. Worry mirrored the pale eyes, and the dark circles advertised his lack of sleep. The undercover agent waited until the head rose from the paperwork covering the large, normally immaculate desk.

"Got something?" Chris asked softly and saw the answering nod.

"Mancino started out as a numbers runner for the mob, quickly working his way up the ranks, by maiming or killing anyone who got in his way," said Ezra quietly, and then looked back down at his notes when he saw Chris's scowl. "Currently Joey is working as 'first lieutenant' to Leo Trotta." No one had to be told about Trotta. He'd been one of the top gangsters in the city for a decade, heavily into drugs and prostitution. The DA has been trying to get a conviction against Trotta for years. "All this information was unsubstantiated, since anyone who ever was scheduled to testify against Leo Trotta either disappeared or was eliminated."

Upon hearing this, Chris grew even more silent. He was convinced that if they couldn't find Vin, they'd never see him again. He rose and walked to the large wall of windows, which framed a spectacular view of the Rockies. Hearing the door close as Ezra left, he remembered the first time the Texan had sat in this office, when he'd first joined the team. He smiled, recalling the intense blue eyes and lanky body, in torn jeans and an old leather jacket, trying furiously to blend into the background. Vin had come a long way from his days of riding solo, and now Chris couldn't imagine Team Seven without him. He was still staring out his window when he heard another tap at the door. "Enter," he called and turned to find Nathan and Josiah.

"We found him," Nathan crowed proudly.

"Well," Josiah amended. "We think we have."

Chris looked back and forth between the two of his men. "Where?" he asked anxiously, quickly closing the area between them.

"At the Weston Towers," Nathan said.

"You sure?" the leader inquired, too fearful of having his hope dashed.

"It's the only place in the past two days that both Fontaine and Harris have gone. Looks solid," the medic advised.

Chris nodded in acceptance. "That's well over twenty stories, any idea which floor?"

"We had JD hack into the property records and found two likely levels," Josiah noted. "The government seized the sixth floor from Dimitri Santini two months ago, and the nineteenth is owned by a holding company we've found out is backed by the FBI."

"Good job. Set up watch on the Towers. I want it covered 24/7." He smiled wickedly, "I have an idea."


"What can I do for you, Mr. Larabee?" Ezra asked.

"We got a lead on Vin."

"Yes, I am aware of the situation," the undercover agent commented.

"Then you know why I'm here..." Chris trailed off, smiling slightly, handing the Southerner a dossier.

Ezra cocked an eyebrow in question, as he accepted the folder, scanning it. Chris watched his agent's face pale as he read the assignment.

Chapter Three

Vin Tanner was bored...and pissed...and frustrated. It'd been five days of what he termed his "solitary confinement" and it was driving him batty. The most exciting thing he'd done was play Pokemon Gold on GameBoy. That's the entertainment they'd provided him, not allowing him a television or radio. JD would've been ecstatic with the chance to play the game all day, but it wasn't doing anything for the sharpshooter.

His prison cell wasn't bad; it obviously used to be an office, complete with desk, chairs, and conference table. To the left was a small bathroom with shower stall, and on the right, a connecting office had been made into a bedroom. It wasn't much bigger than the double bed inside, and had no other entrance or window. The one and only window in the office was on the back wall, and was no larger than two by three feet. He was a bit claustrophobic in the best situations; he'd shave his head to be able to go outside.

He'd also love to have a pair of his worn out jeans and an old tee shirt. The first morning he'd risen and taken a shower, to find his clothes missing and replaced with khaki pants and a chambray shirt. He'd gotten out of the shower, looked around, and seen this "Gap Crap." Since he hadn't felt like walking around naked, he'd put it on. It wasn't very comfortable to lounge around in, but at least they'd let him keep his boots.

The worst part was he hadn't been sleeping well since his incarceration. Each night he ended up staring at the ceiling, or tossing and turning. Vin, who normally could sleep anywhere, anytime, hadn't had a good night's sleep since he'd arrived. He decided the insomnia was either due to his lack of trust in his "protectors," or the fact that he felt so closed in. He'd even gone so far as to try a new meditation technique that he had seen Josiah showing JD. Vin had wondered at the time, if that was Josiah's attempt to try and get JD to sit still for more than two minutes. It worked no better for him than it had for the youth.

Vin leaned back in his chair, hiking his feet up onto the desk, thinking of what had gotten him here, trapped like a criminal. Hell, criminals were treated better than this. At least they got to walk in the 'yard' twice a day. He again wished he'd called Chris, instead of walking home that evening. He knew the ATF leader would be a growling mess by now, worried about one of his family.

Rising from the desk, Vin got up and crossed the room. Pushing the conference table against the wall, he took his shirt and boots off and started on his martial arts forms, trying to burn off the excess energy. Letting his mind roam, he thought on how he'd ended up here.

He had been heading to the Saloon when his jeep had quit on him. It wasn't cold, and he'd only been two miles from his place, so he decided to hike back and take his Harley to the bar. Unfortunately in choosing the direct route, he'd gone through one of the seediest parts of Purgatorio. Passing by an alley, he'd heard someone grunt in pain and had stopped to investigate. Taking out his SIG, he approached the alleyway cautiously, checking out his surroundings. He realized what was happening, but not in time to stop the man from taking out a gun and firing three bullets into the head of his victim. Vin yelled, and was unpleasantly surprised to learn there had been two more men that had been hidden behind a dumpster. They fired at him and he ducked back, praying his reflexes were fast enough.

Retreating into an empty building, the Texan watched as the men started to search the area. Luckily knowing this locale much better than they did, he was able to elude them and call the police. He identified himself as a federal agent. The police responded quickly to his request, and sent out officers to Purgatorio. When the sirens were heard, Vin saw his pursuers take off. He came out of hiding toward the officers, making sure to show his badge at his approach. He explained the situation and agreed to go with them to the precinct to identify the attacker. The officers called forensics and the ME, then two drove Vin to their precinct, while their compatriots secured the crime scene.

The sharpshooter had been directed to sit down at someone's desk, and started to flip through the computer looking at mug shots. Clicking the mouse through the many pictures, he dialed Chris's cell with his other hand to let him know what happened. Vin chuckled at the worried older man. It tickled him, knowing how much Larabee cared. As he hung up, Vin saw the perp. He quickly called an officer over and pointed out the shooter. The reaction was instantaneous. The officer left, and within minutes, his captain arrived, looking anxious.

"Are you sure this is the man you saw pull the trigger?" he asked.

"Positive," the Texan answered, unsure of what this meant.

"I've just notified the FBI and they're sending someone over immediately," the captain told him matter-of-factly.

This news broke through Vin's confusion. "What the hell is going on?"

That's when his nightmare began.

Special Agent in Charge Ken Harris had arrived on the scene five minutes later and started barking orders. A protesting Tanner was immediately withdrawn from the area. His gun and cell phone were confiscated, and he was driven to a darkened office building. He soon realized the seriousness of the situation. Joey Mancino, being the triggerman, was surely under orders from his boss, Trotta. Vin was in hot water, cut off from the outside...from his team. He glared at the smug gray-haired agent rambling about Tanner being in protective custody.

Since that night, he'd only seen six people: the three agents watching him on different shifts, Harris, the janitor, and that asshole DA, Paul Fontaine. Fontaine had been here Tuesday evening, and again this morning. He'd tried to get the DA to at least let Chris and the others know he was okay, but Fontaine refused, saying he had to protect the case...and Vin, of course.

He'd been warned not to talk to the janitor when he came to clean. It was an older man, and they let him tidy up, not wanting to draw attention to their situation. As if an entire floor with only a few people wasn't suspicious enough.

And the men watching him were annoying Vin. They were the kind of agents he hated, mindless automatons, living to follow orders. They even looked exactly alike, just what the "normal" picture of a federal agent should be: short brown hair and dark gray suits. He'd named them 'Clones 1, 2, and 3.' Of course he could be a little spoiled; he worked with six of the most unconventional agents, who seldom felt the need to follow orders, especially if it could be done a better way.

Vin was rudely brought back to the present by a large crash. He shook himself out of his stupor and turned to face the noise's originator. It turned out to be the old janitor clearing out the trash, who had dropped the can against the desk. Vin chuckled and turned back around, returning to his workout. Once again, the can was hit against the desk. The Texan sighed, giving up. He slipped his shirt back on went to sit at the desk, pulling on his boots. He picked up his game and twisted the chair to watch the maintenance man continue to empty the other trashcans in the room; they were mostly filled with the empty fast food cartons from the crap they kept bringing him to eat. The janitor went around the room, carefully watched by the agent guarding the door. When he came to collect the bag of garbage left at the desk, he turned and winked at Vin from his kneeling position on the floor.

Vin nearly dropped the GameBoy and shot an outraged look toward the janitor. Then he realized that behind the glasses and wrinkles, the man had bright green eyes. Vin looked a little closer and saw Ezra looking back at him. It was all the Texan could do not to jump up and hug him. He glanced at Clone 2, who thankfully was oblivious to any undertones. He let his gaze return to Ezra, watching for a sign of what he was to do. The Southerner shook his head slightly and stood up straight, preparing to leave. Vin struggled not to show any emotion, but this was killing him.

On his way past, Ezra slipped a cell phone into Vin's hand, and softly said, "They made me clean the toilets," with as much disgust allowed in a whisper. Vin clutched the phone like a lifeline, because to him, that's exactly what it was. Ezra was ushered out of the office and continued his journey down the hall, clutching the trash bags.

Waiting for the clone to once again leave him alone was the longest few minutes of Vin's life. He tapped his foot against the floor and pretended to play with his game. Satisfied all was under control, the agent went out the door.

Vin practically ran to the bathroom and flipped open the phone. He punched the number he knew by heart and listened as it rang once and a voice saying, "Larabee," greeted him.

"Hey Cowboy."

"Vin." That one word expressed all his relief that his best friend was okay. Vin could picture the grin on Chris's face as he was asked, "You all right?"

"If you get me outta here."

"We're working on it...I don't trust Harris or Fontaine. Watch your back."

"Been doing that. What's going on?"

"Where are you?" Chris asked suddenly.

"In some office building," Vin answered, puzzled by the question.

"I know that. I mean, where are you right now? Your voice sounds weird."

"I'm in the bathroom." He could hear Chris's snort over the line. "Hey, it was the only room with a lock on it. I didn't want them taking this phone away, too."

"Sorry, I'm just picturing you sitting hunched over on the toilet."

"I'm leaning on the edge of the sink, if you must know. Now tell me what's going on."

Chris sighed and began his side of the story. "...And the boys finally found out that you were being held up in Weston Towers, we just needed to find out which floor. So Ez volunteered to go undercover..." Chris had to stop when he heard Vin start laughing.

"Yeah, 'volunteered.' You didn't tell him what the job was, didja?"

Chris ignored his friend's outburst. After a long pause, Vin got an uneasy feeling in his gut. "What else?"

"You know the rules Vin. If you testify, you'll go into the Witness Relocation Program."

"Aw, hell!" Vin shouted. He'd hoped something could be worked out. Realizing his outburst, he heard a knock on the door.

"Are you all right in there, Mr. Tanner?" the guard called.

"Yeah, I'm fine. I just stubbed my toe," he called out, lying. He whispered into the phone, "I gotta go Chris. I'll call ya later."

"Hey, Vin..." Chris's voice trailed of, thick with emotion.

"Yeah, me, too," Vin replied to the silent message.

He hung up the phone and stuck it in his boot. He flushed the toilet and washed his hands for effect, then exited the bathroom.

Sitting at the desk was Harris, smiling like the proverbial cat who swallowed the canary. Not a good sign, Vin thought. He sat down in the only other chair, and remained silent.

Slowly, Harris' grin faded until it was replaced with a frown. "Don't you want to hear the good news, Mr. Tanner?"

"I get to leave?"


Vin perked up at that. Maybe this moron knew something that Chris didn't. "Now?" he asked, concealing any excitement he was feeling.

Harris chuckled. "Not quite yet, I'm afraid, but very soon. You see the man you're prepared to testify against knows about you, and is starting to worry since you cannot be found and silenced."

Vin thought on how quickly the guys found him, and how easily Ez had slipped in to see him. "Yeah, you're doing a stellar job, all right."

Harris smiled at the imagined compliment and continued. "Mancino's about ready to spill his guts about his boss, Mr. Trotta, which is what we wanted all along. We've offered Mancino a deal; he'll receive immunity from prosecution for the murder charge in exchange for the information. As soon as that happens, you're free to go."

"When?" Vin scowled.

"At any time." He patted his jacket pocket and said, "The DA has the number to my cell phone and will be calling me as soon as the deal is set." He pushed the chair back from the desk and stood up. "I'll keep you informed of everything, Mr. Tanner. I'm hoping we can end this ordeal for you soon." He walked to the door and quickly exited, followed by the clone.

Vin glanced at the clock, surprised to see it was so late. It was nearly six p.m., around the time they usually brought in the food. He decided to wait before calling Chris back; he didn't want to get caught with the phone. They probably wouldn't do anything other than confiscate it, but he didn't want to risk being moved and losing touch with his team again.


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