ATF Alternate Universe
This is a sequel to Kim's story, Surprises! (but, it has been updated since it was originally written so that Vin's age remains 20-something).
Chris doubted the wisdom of the decision Vin had made, but he'd agreed to come along with him, anyway. He'd convinced Vin that they should take his Ram rather than fly and then rent a car. He hoped it would give Vin time to contemplate what he was about to do, time to reconsider, and time to back out before it was too late.
He didn't know what kind of fantasies Vin had about his family, but when he'd used IRS records to trace down James Vincent Tanner, one thing they had discovered was that Vin wasn't the lost heir of some filthy rich Texas oil magnate. Hell, his father wasn't even a Texan, and the income he earned from his small business was only enough to have enabled him to accrue about $8,000 in savings and purchase a modest home. Luckily, knowing Vin, the last thing he cared about was how much money the guy had.
"What are you going to say to him?" Chris asked. He was of the opinion that Vin should have called the guy before showing up on his doorstep. Vin had tried, but as soon as he'd heard a voice on the other end of the line, he'd gotten tongue-tied and had either hung up or said he had a wrong number. After all the years of wanting to belong somewhere, when it came right down to it, he just couldn't bring himself to say 'I'm your son' to a complete stranger.
So now here they were driving down Interstate 25 in southern New Mexico, almost 600 miles from Denver and the life Vin had made for himself with no help from the man they were about to meet. The exit they took was marked "Jicarilla Apache Nation" but neither of them thought anything of it until they were pulled over by a patrol car just inside the boundary of the reservation and approached by an officer who was clearly Native American and whose uniform indicated he was a member of the tribal police force.
"You fellers lost?" he asked them. His tone wasn't accusatory, but it was plain he wondered what business they had with his people.
Chris took out his driver's license and along with it his ATF badge. The trooper studied it with interest, but waited for Chris to answer his question.
"We're looking for this place," he handed him an index card on which he had written the directions.
The trooper handed it back to him. "Stay on this road. It's about five miles down . . . There a problem with Jim?"
Chris took the card and his driver's license back. "Nope. Social call."
The trooper waved them off and returned to his cruiser. Chris turned to Vin, who was so nervous he was sweating, even though the air conditioning in the Ram was working fine. "You okay?"
Vin nodded. "Jim . . . " he said softly. "James Tanner . . . they must call him Jim' for short."
He was talking more to himself than anything, so Chris just acknowledged him with a nod.
Five miles down the road, they saw a old adobe building covered with stucco that might have been white once. There was a small, well-kept garden in front, a bed of gravel with small planters for cactii, moss roses and zinnia's - about the only things that would grow in a garden in this part of the desert.
They parked the Ram and Chris followed Vin's gaze to the small red letters above the entrance: Tanner & Sons
Vin's heart was in his throat. What the hell was he doing here?
Tanner & Sons
He'd never considered the possibility that his father had a family. Kids he'd raised and who hadn't grown up in more foster homes than they could count.
Tanner & Sons
The irony of it left a bitter taste in his mouth. No, more than that. It made him angry. Maybe that was irrational, but his anger steeled him to do what he had come to do.
"You want me to go with you?" Chris asked softly.
Vin shook his head. "I gotta do this alone."
Chris leaned against the hood of the SUV and folded his arms across his chest. "I'll be here waitin' for you," were the words he spoke, but his eyes said, 'I'll be here for you no matter what.'
Vin took a deep breath and with determined steps headed for the building, hesitating only briefly as he pulled open the glass door which seemed out-of-place on the ancient structure. A blast of cold air from a window mounted air-conditioner hit him as soon as he walked in, and made goosebumps on his arms. The sign painted on the window proclaimed the place to be a hardware store and garage, but when he entered, he could see it sold a little bit of everything. Counters, bins and shelves crowded the interior and were stocked with everything from disposable diapers to groceries to high-power hunting rifles in a locked display case.
There was a counter with a cash register and a rack of candy and gum, and the man behind it had his back to Vin. He was a big man, well over 6 feet and broad at the shoulders and chest. Long, pin-straight black hair liberally flecked with grey hung in a pony tail down his back. He wore jeans and a brown plaid western shirt and when he turned, a large turquoise and silver belt buckle caught Vin's eye.
His features were unmistakably Native American, as was his bronze skin and small dark eyes. He looked surprised to see Vin standing there, but whether it was because Vin was white, or a stranger, or he just hadn't heard him come in, Vin couldn't tell.
Vin absently picked up a hunting knife from a nearby display and pretended to look at it. In the back of his mind, he noted that it was a beautiful knife - better than anything he had, and probably more expensive. But he was too nervous and distracted to fully appreciate its quality.
The man behind the counter acknowledged him with a nod, but didn't question Vin's presence or say anything else to him for that matter.
Vin cleared his throat, not trusting his voice. "I'm looking for James Tanner," he said.
"Senior, Junior or the third?"
The man was cordial enough, but his reply was like a punch in the gut. Fathers. Sons. Grandsons. Continuity. Family. He fought down a surge of resentment that threatened to overwhelm him.
"I reckon he'd be about your age."
The man set his palms on the counter. "Then he'd be me. Call me Jim.'"
That took Vin by completely surprise. "No . . . " he stammered. "He'd be . . . I mean, you're not . . . I mean, the man I'm lookin' for, he's uh . . . "
"If you're lookin' for James Tanner, you found him. Now what is it you want?"
Completely blindsided by the sudden realization that he almost certainly had the wrong man, Vin impulsively pulled out his ID. "I'm with the ATF." WHY did he say that?! Damn! He should just to turn around and leave!
Jim Tanner raised an eyebrow and motioned to the display of weapons Vin had noticed when he entered. "Want to see my dealer's license? I ain't got nothin' to hide."
"Uh . . . yes," Vin stammered, then realized how stupid that was. "I mean no . . . "
"Well, what's your business, then? Want me to pull my records? If you want that, I'll have to call my son Carlos. He keeps the books . . . "
Tanner said more, but Vin stopped hearing him when he said "my son." Damn damn damn . . . This was a stupid STUPID mistake!
"Uh no . . . " Vin shook his head. "Never mind."
Vin turned to leave, his face burning with embarrassment and humiliation. How could he have thought finding his father would be as easy as Chris just pulling a few strings with the IRS? Goddamit!
He was reaching for the door handle when a voice from behind him said, "Kid? You didn't drive all the way out here from Denver just to look at my knives. What do you really want?"
Vin stopped in his tracks. "How did you know I came from Denver?"
"Billy Redfeather called me on his cell phone. He's the trooper that pulled you over up the road. He ran your tags. . . Larabee, is it?"
"No. Chris is my . . . friend. He's outside." Shit, might as well look like a complete fool since he'd already gotten such a good start on it. "My name's Vin Tanner."
Jim's weathered features registered only the slightest hint of surprise. He didn't say a word, but his gaze cut right through Vin, who stood momentarily frozen to the spot.
"Aw, hell," Vin muttered and reached into the back pocket of his Levi's. He took a copy of his birth certificate out of his wallet and handed it to the man.
Jim Tanner carefully unfolded the document, and then as he studied it, he leaned back against the shelves behind him, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. When it seemed to Vin that he'd had enough time to memorize the damn thing and he was about to say something, Tanner looked up at him.
"Houston, Texas . . . 24 years ago . . ." he continued to study the paper for a few more seconds and then handed it back to him.
+ + + + + + +
Jim Tanner looked at the young man before him, searching for some hint, some clue, something he might recognize as familiar about him. Slight and average height with fair skin and blue eyes, there wasn't any resemblance to his own boys that he could see.
Just the same, he'd been in the Army stationed at Fort Bliss, Texas the year before this kid's birth, and whoever his mother was, she had known him well enough to know his middle name was Vincent. And, the father's date of birth on the certificate the young man had just shown him was, in fact, his own. He didn't know how to tell this kid that he had never heard of Emma Rose Wilson, or worse, if he had, he didn't remember her.
He motioned for Vin to come behind the counter. There was an ancient drink cooler there, probably as old as the building itself, and he pulled out two cold bottles of Coors, popped them open and handed one to Vin.
Vin took it reticently. He was too tensed up to be able to get much down.
Jim Tanner scratched his head, before he began. "That was just before I got shipped off to the Middle East," he said, knowing that didn't explain a damned thing.
The young man continued to look at him. He had big eyes, the color of the blue amethysts he found by the handful and then sold to tourists at $20 a pop. Those eyes didn't come out of him, and he thought he ought to remember a girl with eyes like that.
"Times were different for me then," he looked down at his beer. "Forget safe sex . . . I was 22 years old . . . "
Vin didn't like where this was leading. "So did you sleep with my mother or not?"
The older man laughed. "Sonny, I slept with any gal who would spread her legs for me back then."
Vin felt his face go crimson.
Ah, damn, Jim Tanner cursed when he saw the look on the kid's face. He was coarse in his ways but that was no excuse. "I'm sorry . . . " he put a hand up defense, "I didn't mean that the way it sounded . . . No whores. I never went with whores . . . but there was no one . . . serious. Not in Texas, anyway."
Vin felt sick to his stomach and angry. "Are you sayin' my ma's a liar?" He was feeling belligerent, too. It was one of the ways he had learned to defend himself from being hurt.
"Son, all I'm sayin' is that a woman can put down any name she wants on a birth certificate. It don't mean squat."
Vin wanted to punch this guy, not because of what he said, but because he was right. No! His mother would NOT have lied to him! - You're a Tanner'
He held his temper in check, but he felt like his heart was being ripped out as the truth dawned on him. "You don't even remember her, do you?"
Jim Tanner looked him in the eye, and that upset Vin even more, because he could tell that the older man was being honest with him. "No. I don't."
Tanner took another swig of his beer. "course, she could have been going by a different name . . . " he said softly, shaking his head. "A lot of girls do that when they leave some place they want to forget."
Was he admitting it was possible? Vin was daring to entertain a flicker of hope when the door of the store burst open. Three small children, the oldest maybe seven, headed straight for Tanner with shouts of "Grandpa!"
Vin felt his heart catch in his throat. Tanner and Sons
The children didn't look Apache. They were tan, but they all had curly dark blonde hair. Tanner bent down to tossle each head and speak to each child, and Vin was assaulted from all sides by conflicting emotions, among them anger and envy.
Tanner and Sons
The children were followed by a very tall, lanky man, 30 or so, with shoulder-length platinum blond hair . He headed for the cooler and helped himself to a beer. "Shelly needs a ride home from work and I'm workin' on my truck. Can I borrow the van?"
Tanner reached into his pocket and tossed him a set of keys.
The children were helping themselves to candy and soft drinks. The blond man frowned. "Dad, you know that stuff makes em hyper." But neither of them did anything to stop the children from grabbing their treats.
The blond looked questioningly at Vin, their eyes meeting for a few seconds, but when he spoke all he said was "I'll have er back in a couple of hours. You need anything from town?"
Tanner pulled a bill from the register. "Oil and air filter for the Ranger."
The blond man nodded and then gathered up the children and was gone again.
Vin watched him go, and Tanner seemed to guess what he was thinking. "That's Carlos."
Vin still felt like he wanted to smash something. "Don't look like any Carlos' I ever seen," he snorted.
The older man laughed. "He's named after Santana. You know? The singer? Man, what were we thinking back then?" He finished his beer and his face turned somber. "He's not my blood son. His daddy took a bullet with my name on it. I swore I'd take care of the boy and his ma, and when she died of cancer a couple of years later, I made good on my word. Figured my own kids wouldn't have a dad if it hadn't been for his father, so that makes him as much mine as the others."
Vin choked on the irony. Why Carlos? Why did that not happen for him? He swallowed hard. "You have other children?" he said softly.
Tanner nodded. "Two sons and a daughter. Got married at 17 and bam, bam, bam, one right after another, 11 months apart. Old lady said enough after the last one. Course, she didn't mind Carlos because she didn't have to have him."
Vin took a deep breath. He had so many things he wanted to ask, but didn't dare. And then something Tanner had said registered. "If you were 22 when you made me . . . "
Tanner looked away from him. "Yeah. I was married."
Vin bristled. "And you still slept with my mother?"
"I slept with a lot of girls. Like I said, I was different then. And when I found out I was goin' overseas . . . Well, I figured it might be my last chance to . . . ." his voice trailed off like he wasn't sure what to say next. He collected himself and looked down at his gnarled hands. "My dad went off to war when I was eight. I never saw him again. I knew I might not be comin' back."
Vin didn't feel a shred of compassion for the man. "How can you not remember her?" he demanded.
He saw a spark in Tanner's eyes, but the man's voice remained even. "Hell, I was a stupid kid who hung out with other stupid kids. We'd get stoned and boink each other's brains out. For all I know, your mother went through my wallet while I was trippin' out and copied down the stuff she put on that paper you have there. It don't mean nothin'."
"My mother wasn't a thief."
Tanner looked at him, his voice softer when he spoke. "You say wasn't . . . She gone?"
"She died when I was five. I grew up in foster homes." Vin had to make sure this man knew that last part.
If Jim Tanner cared, though, he didn't show it. "Yeah, my dad was from somewhere in the south. Good family, so I heard. No way his people would take in his squaw and her papoose. We had to come back here after he died. Lived with my grandfather who never drew a sober breath in his life and smacked me for breathin' the wrong way."
Their eyes met again, but Vin didn't feel any connection to this man. Not like he had expected he would. Wouldn't he know his father when he met him?
"You know," Jim Tanner said softly, "I barely remember my dad. Not what he looked like. Not him even bein' there for me, really . . . "
Vin looked at him, confused. "So?" he said without sympathy.
"So, I was eight. You were only five. How well do you remember your mother?"
"Well enough!" Vin spat.
"Tell me about her."
Vin squirmed and his stomach roiled. You bastard, I was five. FIVE! . . . Deep down, he knew what Tanner was getting at, and didn't want to admit it to himself. He didn't really remember her at all. He knew he'd felt safe and loved in her presence, but the harsh reality was that young children were often blind to their parents' shortcomings. He saw it all the time in Purgatorio. Heartbroken little ones who cried pitifully while their loser parents were hauled off in handcuffs because they didn't see the hooker, or the drug dealer, or the car thief. They only saw mommy or daddy - and their security - being taken away. Being a scumbag didn't mean your kids didn't love you.
He had always believed his mother was a good, kind, decent woman because he had wanted to believe that. In truth, he didn't know a thing about what she was like, or what she had done either to survive or because she chose to . . .
"How'd she die?" Tanner asked him, striking a nerve.
Vin told him.
The older man shook his head. "Never took a hand to my woman. Slapped the kids on the ass a few times, but a man who'd do something like that . . . "
The tension in the air was almost electric by this point, but Jim Tanner kept his composure. Either that, or he just didn't give a damn that a stranger had just walked into his life claiming to be his son. "So, you're ATF?" he said, catching Vin by surprise at the sudden change in subject. Vin nodded.
He cocked one eyebrow. "You aren't in on stuff like Waco or that Ruby Ridge thing, are you?" He almost sounded like he was teasing Vin.
Vin gritted his teeth. Who the fuck does he think he is? "No," he said coldly.
The older Tanner nodded. "Never had much use for the Feds, but I reckon someone has to do . . . whatever it is you do."
He reached out like he was going to clap Vin on the shoulder, but he stopped short and instead nodded towards a tiny back room with his hand. "Lemme show you something." He motioned for Vin to follow him .
The room was a small office, just big enough for a desk and some file cabinets. On the desk was a picture. A family portrait. Vin wanted to look away. He didn't know why, but looking at the picture made him ache. He was torn between questioning whether he had a right to intrude upon what the portrait represented, and rage and humiliation that he had never been 'good enough' to have been a part of anything like that. Nope. There were no family pictures' with Vin Tanner in them.
Jim Tanner pointed to the faces in the picture. "Jim Jr, Lee, Annette . . . you saw Carlos . . . my wife, Velma."
Vin wondered why Tanner was taunting him with the photograph, but it seemed as though the older man expected him to see something there. Despite his inner turmoil, Vin studied the portrait and it only took a moment for his deductive instincts to figure out what Tanner couldn't or wouldn't put into words. Velma wasn't Indian. She was a short, ample woman with light skin and dark blond hair. Their children had darker hair than the mother, but lighter skin than their father.
"My father was white," Tanner begin, "my wife is white. My kids are one-fourth Apache, but . . . " he motioned to the picture. Except for their brown eyes, Vin could see that Tanner's biological children had coloring not much different from his own.
Vin swallowed hard. He couldn't take his eyes off the picture, but still, there was no sense of connection, and any resemblance between him and the faces there was so vague that it could be expected between total strangers.
Vin reached up and massaged the bridge of his nose, suddenly aware that he had a pounding headache. "I better get goin'," he said softly. "I'm sorry I bothered you." And he meant that on several levels.
Jim Tanner nodded and followed him back into the store. Vin set his unfinished beer on the counter and headed for the door, an irrational feeling of panic closing in on him.
"Hey kid," Tanner called out, stopping him in his tracks.
Vin turned around. The older man was holding the knife Vin had been looking at earlier. He'd pulled it from the finely tooled black leather scabbard and sunlight coming through the window glinted off its polished stainless steel blade.
"You ATF people . . . " Tanner began . . . "You ever work with the FBI? You know, those labs were they do that DNA thing?"
Vin frowned. "Yeah, sometimes." he whispered.
Tanner stared at Vin as he stabbed the knife into a nearby box of zip-loc baggies, cutting it open and lifting one out with the blade. Vin watched, transfixed, as the older man removed a neatly folded white handkerchief from his pocket and before Vin could stop him, drew the blade of the knife across the base of his thumb. Blood poured from the gash, and the crazy old coot just stood there letting it drip onto the handkerchief until there was a spot the size of a silver dollar.
There was a roll of paper towels by the cash register and when he was finished bleeding onto the handkerchief, he tore one off and pressed it on the wound. Then, he wiped the blade and put the bloody cloth into the zip-lock bag. Before he sealed it, he reached behind his back and pulled his pony tail forward. He lopped off a lock of hair and tucked it in with the handkerchief.
He tossed the plastic bag to Vin, who caught it instinctively. Words eluded him. He couldn't think of a single thing to say. 'Thank you' seemed woefully inappropriate, so he just stood there like some speechless idiot until Tanner broke the silence.
"A man should know who he is . . . Who he isn't."
Their eyes met one last time. Vin's emotions were in such conflict at that point that he could only nod.
He turned again to leave and got as far as the door.
Vin turned around again as Tanner tossed him the hunting knife. His fingers closed reflexively around the leather scabbard and he looked up at the older man who made eye contact only briefly.
"Keep it," he told Vin.
Vin looked at the exquisite weapon. It was expensive and he felt he should refuse to take it, but somehow that just didn't seem right.
He folded the plastic bag around it and left the store without looking back.
+ + + + + + +
Chris could see Vin was visibly shaken. He opened the door on the passenger side of the Ram and Vin slid into the seat without a word.
"You okay?" he asked him.
Vin nodded. "Let's go home."
Chris turned the Ram around and headed back to the highway as Vin stared pensively out the window.
Twenty minutes later, he was still staring, but Chris noticed he was toying with something in his hands. "What've you got there, Vin?" he asked, trying to bring the younger man back from his thoughts.
Vin looked down at the plastic bag and the beautiful knife that was now his. "Don't know," he said so softly Chris could barely hear him. "Maybe nothing . . . Maybe everything."
No flames - if you hated it, I don't wanna know!