Black Widow

by Deirdre

Part 16

He managed to move his body out the door and down the hall. J.D. waited for an elevator. Chris saw his profile and the heat in his eyes. He's himself? at Vin? J.D. felt the scrutinizing eyes and gave Chris a sharp look before sliding into the waiting carriage. Chris flipped his cell phone open and punched the numbers. He walked to the edge of the long empty hall and looked around as Buck answered.

"You're in clean-up, Buck," Chris said wearily, "We need a grand slam."

"That bad..." Buck sighed, hearing the defeated tone.

"J.D. buried him, Buck." Chris supplied, "Did you tell him about finding Vin in his car?"

"No," Buck answered, "Didn't tell anybody but you. Why?"

"He spilled his guts, Buck. Gave them all kinds of extra ammo. He painted Vin into a corner, but good."

"But how? Hell, Vin couldn't have told him, he can't remember."

"He must have heard us talking, before he came in the room."

"Shit..." Buck slammed his fist into the wall, causing Vin to jump up from his desk. Vin had been so quiet, Buck thought he was asleep.

"They're giving me the high sign, Buck," Chris mentioned, "Get him up here."

Buck slipped the phone back in his pocket and nodded to Vin. Vin took a deep breath and left his desk. He passed Buck, who put a brotherly arm across his shoulder. The blue-eyed sharpshooter paused at the door, eyeing every detail in the large room. Buck swallowed hard, realizing Vin recognized that it might be the last time he stood here as an ATF agent.

Vin felt his muscles stiffen and his insides turn to ice. He looked at that which he took for granted. Josiah's beat up, oversized bible on his desk, Buck's stack of Sports Magazines and the antique leather gunbelt hung across his chair, the cantina where they had coffee and shared lunch and a lot more, Chris's office and the chair he sat in the day the blond shook his hand and welcomed him to the team. Sighing, he glanced at his desk, in the back secluded and apart from the rest. He slipped by Buck and out the door. The rode the elevator in silence. Just before the doors opened, Buck gripped his shoulder.

Vin felt it before he turned around. The dark blues of this loyal man, who was like a brother, reflected what Vin already knew. The unwavering loyalty and commanding strength that Vin admired so much. Never more so than in these last few days. Buck had been his staunch ally from the onset, fighting for him, supporting him and turning into the beacon during the storm. Vin cringed, wondering if he ever really told the tall, kindhearted man how much he meant. Buck, whose laughter could brightened the darkest moods and always scared a wayward smile from the younger man. Buck whose catlike reflexes, gut instinct and deadly accurate shooting precision was the backbone of the team. Buck, who without blinking took a bullet for Vin only four months ago and laughed if off, dressing down the guilt-ridden Tanner with a stern glance and mock death threat.

Vin felt the strong grip and heard the bing as the elevator warned of the approaching floor. He turned and briefly embraced the taller man, surprising him but good. He didn't say a word, he didn't have to, Buck knew.

Buck was caught off guard by Vin's uncharacteristic show of physical emotion. He usually conveyed those feelings, good or bad, with those emotive blue pools. But he returned the strong embrace, short and hearty, realizing how very much Vin needed it. He felt the gratitude and indebtedness ooze from the smaller man. Vin pulled away and met his eyes, nodding once.

"Would you quit thanking me, Junior," Buck teased, voice catching, "You're gettin' to be a goddamn pain in the ass."

Vin felt that grin sneak up again, as it always did when Buck's teasing tone boomed forth. The door slid open and the smile disappeared. Vin took a deep breath and started forward. Matt Krieger motioned for Buck to enter. Vin slid into a seat in the empty hall. The door closed and he sat quietly, thinking how he hadn't felt so alone in a long time.

Buck answered only a few questions about the incident. Truthfully, he hadn't seen much. He'd been behind J.D. and his vision was obscured. Chris felt a smile of satisfaction growing, as Buck remained staunchly loyal to the seventh member.

"Mr. Wilmington, is it your opinion that Vin Tanner acted in a careless fashion, shooting the unarmed woman."


"NO?" Gordon grilled, getting irritated, "He issued no warning and shot this woman without provocation and you call that a warranted action?"

"He did what had to be done to save a fellow agents life." Buck replied calmly, staring Carl Gordon down, "and she wasn't unarmed."

"Oh, so you saw a gun?" Gordon mocked derisively

"No, not yet. But I'll find it,"

"How so? The police searched the entire area and they didn't."

"They're not on our team," Buck drilled.

"Mr. Wilmington, Was Vin Tanner inebriated in any fashion Friday night when he fell asleep at the wheel of his car?"

"What?" Buck shot forward, eyes glaring, "What the hell kind of shit are you trying to pull?"

"Buck, you're out of line." Orin warned.

"I'm out of line!" Buck said incredulous

"Answer the question only Buck, no commentary or feedback." Orin's voice was steely and hard.

Buck sighed in anger and took a long drink of water. "Vin doesn't get drunk and he wasn't asleep at the wheel."

"How was it that you found him then?"

"He was late and I went looking for him. He had car trouble and was pulled over. I gave him a lift."

Chris saw Matt Krieger nodding and making some notes. That's one nail out of the coffin. Buck stared hard at the slimy inquisitor, mentally taking him apart, limb by limb.

"What state of mind did you find him in at the restaurant? Was he in control of all of his facilities?"

"He was at first, then he passed out."

"And when you encountered him on road, was he in control of the vehicle?"

"Yeah, I'd say so." Buck hesitated, just enough for Gordon to jump.

"You didn't see him weaving?"

"He changed lanes a few times." Buck recovered. "That happens when you're chasing a suspect."

"A suspect? this unarmed model who now lies in a hospital bed, without the use of her legs? That's the dangerous felon?"

"They come in all shapes and sizes, Gordon. Course you not being in the field, I wouldn't expect you to know that."

"No further questions." Gordon snapped.

Buck left the room and went into the hall. Vin was pacing and looked up as Buck approached. He took a deep breath, accepted Buck's clap to the shoulder and entered the room. He took the empty chair next to Chris. He didn't have to turn and look into the cool green eyes; he felt the vibrations like small electrical charges. Chris's wave of faith washed over him. He felt a renewed sense of purpose. He straightened up and stared at Gordon, so hard it caused the other man to blink and turn. He heard Chris clear his throat and could picture the smirk.

Chris watched Vin slide into the seat next to him. He glanced over briefly, hoping to catch his eye. Vin didn't look, but Chris rained all the confidence he could down upon the other man. He saw Vin take a deep breath and smile slightly, sitting up and glaring brazenly at Carl Gordon. The blue eyes, which could silently convey deep care, concern and support, now glinted with a dangerous edge. He bit back a chuckle as Gordon was forced to turn away.

Vin identified himself, gave his badge number, job series and length of service. Chris braced himself, waiting for Gordon to pounce. It didn't take long.

"Your HR Records show you never attended High School or College. Despite these mandatory requirements, here you sit, masquerading as an ATF agent."

"I am an ATF agent." Vin said in a low growl, " and a damn good one. Pick a date and time and yer best man, I'll show y'all what the hell kind of agent I am."

"Good for you, Vin," Chris thought, "Give 'im hell, Cowboy."

"It doesn't surprise me that we're sitting here today. I've been expecting your lack of training to backfire. And backfire it did, nearly killing an innocent victim, who lies paralyzed. Your actions are despicable, shooting an unarmed woman in..." Gordon diatrabe was cut short.

"She wasn't unarmed." Vin said calmly. During Gordon's whole dissertation, Vin never flinched, keeping those blue eyes icy and cool. "She had a chrome plated beretta aimed at Ezra's head. She was gonna take 'im out."

"When you invent something, Tanner, you got all the way." Gordon leaned in, growling, "a chrome plated beretta, nice must have dreamed that up while you were unconscious, just before you were weaving like a drunk behind the wheel. How did you come to be at that restaurant?"

"Followed that woman." Vin grunted.

"From where?"

"Don't recall." Vin shifted, "Most likely Ezra's place. Saw her foolin' with the phone the night before." Vin eye's widened slightly as that slipped out.

Chris raised his eyebrows, at the timing of Vin's memory returning. He eyed the wheels in Gordon's mind spinning.

"The ER reported that you suffered a concussion early yesterday morning. Mr. Standish reported finding you unconscious in his apartment. What were you doing inside his apartment?"

"Don't recall."

"But you contend that is where you followed Ms. Santanna from?"

"Reckon so."

"Which brings up back to the gun. How is it nobody else saw the gun? You had three fellow agents within a few feet of the victim. They were at her side within minutes. Where did the gun go?"

"Don't know, reckon yer time would be better spent out there looking fer it."

"I 'reckon' it slipped back inside your deranged mind, Tanner." Gordon goaded. Chris bristled, and Orin clapped a restraining arm across the blond's irate chest.

"Gordon, this isn't personal. Do your job within the realms of the office." Travis objected.

So it continued for over another hour. Gordon brought up many cases where Vin's firepower as called in question. Vin held his own, cooly answering without becoming frazzled. Chris took his jacket off, realizing how warm it had become. Another one of Gordon's tactics. He shifted his eyes to Vin, who's previously unraveled, unflappable exterior was cracking. His brown hair clung to his forehead and jaw. The back of his shirt was damp with sweat. Chris saw how pale he looked and the pain sneaking back in his eyes. He'd been through concussions and knew how lousy you felt for a good week or more after. Vin was only twenty-fours hours off a head injury. Orin shifted beside him, noticing the same uncomfortable feeling. Before either man could react, Gordon dropped a bombshell.

"You're certain there was a gun, Tanner?"

Vin nodded once, blinking rapidly at the harsh lighting. His head was pounding and his stomach was churning. Didn't anybody else feel like they were roasting in an oven? He felt rivers of sweat rolling off him, down his face and back. He wiped his face with his sleeve and took a deep breath. Gordon leaned in, baiting him.

"Is that a yes?"

"That's what I been sayin' fer the last couple hours." Vin grunted, narrowing his throbbing. "Somethin' wrong with yer ears?"

"You saw a gun that nobody else did?"

"Yes, dammit," Vin snapped, shooting out of the chair, his nerves frazzled.

Chris leaned forward to grab him, when Gordon seized the moment he'd been waiting for.

"Just like it was with Ricky Webster?"

Chris scowled, furrowing his brows and repeating the unknown name silently. He heard Vin drop into the chair and spun his head, spotting the agonizing shock. Vin's eyes were wide and he was breathing too rapidly. He clutched his abdomen as if gut-stuck by a hunting knife. The sweat ran like a small river. Vin leaned forward, trying to quell the pain. Chris was leaning over to Orin, about to request a recess, when Gordon resumed his badgering.

"He didn't have a gun either did he, Tanner, despite you claim. He didn't live long enough to give his side of the story. You seem to have a habit of gunning down innocent people. Well? What happened to that gun? Answer me!" Gordon's hand slammed down on the table, inches from Vin's face. Vin flew back into the chair, and Chris jumped up and threw himself at Gordon.

"Back off you fuckin' animal..."

"Travis, he was warned..." Gordon replied, ignoring Larabee.

"Chris..." Orrin put himself between Larabee and Gordon and physically restraining the seething blond. "Sit down. Gordon, spare us the theatrics. Call a recess and find a room that isn't an damn inferno."

"Not until he answers." Gordon went around them and leaned over the shell-shocked sharpshooter. "What happened to Webster? A fifteen year-old kid minding his own business. You swore he was armed too. But he wasn't, was he? Was he...Was he..." Gordon's voice grew louder and it was all Travis could do to hold off the irate team leader.

"No!" Vin cried out, staggering to his feet, "Is that what ya wanted to hear? This is nothing but a goddamn circus." He threw his badge and gun across the room. "I'll save y'all some time..."

"VIN!" Orin turned, gripping the heaving shoulders. "Calm down." He allowed Chris to aid the young man, trembling with anger. "Get him out of here..."

"Krieger I want that recess. We'll reconvene in thirty minutes, turn the air conditioning back on or find another room." Travis said as Chris led Vin out of the room.

Part 17

The elevator was only a few feet away and it opened as soon as Chris touched the down arrow. Five minutes later, they entered their office. Buck jumped up and his stomach clenched at Vin's haggard appearance. Chris just shook his head and led the dazed younger man, barely walking, into his office. The blast of air conditioning seemed to revive him somewhat. He heard Vin inhale and saw the relief on his face.

Buck appeared with a cold soda and fished Vin's pills out of his pocket. He handed two to the ashen-complexioned agent. Chris pulled Vin sideways, motioning for him to lie down on the couch. Vin curled up on his side, facing the back of the couch. Buck watched from the door as Chris used his hand to ease his best friend's head onto the pillow. Chris left his hands at Vin's neck and massaged the weary tension-ridden muscles for a moment. He patted the damp back once and turned.

Buck watched Chris shut the door of the dark room. It didn't take a genius to recognize the mirror-look of agony in Chris's eyes.

"What the hell happened?" Buck finally asked.

"Until about a half hour ago, he was holding his own, Buck." Chris sighed, rubbing his eyes, "Like an underdog who wins the first eleven rounds and then gets K.O'd in the twelth, by a blind punch." Chris leaned on the edge of Ezra's desk across the aisle from Buck. "You should have seen Vin, he shot down everything Gordon had. Answered every question, kept his cool. It started to unnerve that piece of shit. The air conditioner conveniently stopped working. Vin's headache kicked in and he started sweating like a bull. Then Gordon asks him about shooting some kid named Ricky Webster."

"Who?" Buck asked, not recognizing the name.

"That was my first thought, until I saw Vin's face." Chris let out a long breath; "He reacted like he was gut shot, Buck. It took all the life out of him. Gordon wouldn't let up, it got ugly...and Vin snapped. He threw his gun and badge across the room."

"Shit..." Buck slapped his fist to this hand.

"He's had it, and I don't want that spineless cretin anywhere near him." Chris stood hands on his hips. "Hell, he should be a damn hospital bed not being tortured." Chris walked a few feet away and stared through the dark-glass wall of his office. Buck saw what his oldest friend feared most, reflected in the haunted image of the glass. If Vin were tossed out, he'd hightail it outta town. Trust and faith would shatter, sending him retreating into himself and reverting back to being a loner. Buck didn't know how Chris would recover.

"Anybody check in?" Chris asked, without turning.

"Can't get J.D., he ain't answering at home or on his cell," Buck informed, "I'm worried about him, Chris, he won't talk. He needs to come to terms with this, it's eatin' away at him."

"It didn't look that way to me," Chris shot back, voice tinged in bitterness.

Buck let the remark slide and continued, "Josiah got sprung, his plane due in around four."

"What about Ezra?"

"What about him?" Buck replied, "You don't think he'd call me? If anything, he'd call J.D. Did you check your voicemail?"

Chris picked up Ezra's phone and punched his extension and password. He skipped through two messages and then nodded at Buck. After a few seconds, he went onto the next message. Finally he hung up.

"Well?" Buck inquired.

"J.D. and Ezra both. Ezra's got a meeting tomorrow morning with Carlino. You and J.D. tail him. The Kid said he'll be in early to set up the van."

Chris disappeared through the glass doors and headed for the bathroom. Buck punched J.D.'s number again without result. He tried Casey's cell phone and then at the apartment she shared with Dunne. He was about to hang up, when the college student answered.


"Hey, Casey, J.D. around?"

"Haven't seen him Buck. He called about an hour ago and wasn't himself. It was noisy in the background, I guess he was at a bar. I was a little worried and tried some of his usual hangouts, but struck out."

"He'll be okay, Case...don't you worry none," Buck soothed, "If he calls in again, you tell him it's important that I talk to him and I'm not mad. I'll see if I can't find him in the meantime."

"Thanks Buck."

"Buck, if you could..."

Buck's head turned at the sound of Orin Travis's voice. The sneering fool who flanked him cut off the Bureau Director. They were standing just inside the door.

"Where's Tanner?" Gordon spat.

"None of your damn business." Wilmington glared.

"You produce that backwoods bastard or I'll have you up on charges."

"You got a dirty mouth..." Buck growled, shoving the smug I.A. representative.

"Buck..." Chris warned, entering the room.

"Chris, can you get Vin? We'll keep it short, I know he needs to rest." Orin said.

"He'll have plenty of free time coming." Gordon gloated.

"Wait here." Chris warned, casting a lethal glare at the reptilian agent.

Chris entered his office, Buck on his heels. "You can't just turn him over, Chris."

"You think I like this?" Chris snarled, "I don't have a choice." He took a deep breath and bent over Vin, shaking him gently. "Vin...Vin...wake up."

Vin sat up and rubbed his eyes. He made no attempt at moving. He glanced at Chris for a lingering moment. Buck felt like an intruder. Vin and Chris said more without talking than most people he knew did with words. Chris waited patiently until Vin got up on his own and walked by his side. Vin paused as Buck's hand came out. The younger man's blue eyes burned when he saw taller agent's pained eyes. He took the offered hand and gave a reassuring grip before facing the firing squad.

Matt Krieger stepped forward as Vin made his way to the empty area in front of Buck's desk. He winced inwardly, seeing the ghastly aftermath of the ATF agent’s ordeal. Vin paused a few feet away, never looking at Gordon.

"I'm sorry," Krieger started, "but it's my duty to inform you that as of this date, you are hereby suspended. The term of which will be..."

"Indefinite," Gordon interrupted, punching Vin's chest with his index finger. "And permanent if I have anything to say. You cocky, mangy Texas roach...I'm recommending a full inquiry. I'm not gonna rest until your behind bars and some of those lowlife's you sent away come calling."

Buck growled and shoved Gordon against the wall, "You fuckin' ball-less wonder, you watch your back, 'cause I'm comin' after you." Buck whispered, low and lethal.

"Buck, get off him." Chris said quietly.

Buck Wilmington didn't scare Carl Gordon, his kind never did. But Larabee was another matter. There was no mistaking the death threat that hovered around the blond leader's body. Gordon tore his eyes away, not able to stare at those green laser beams. Gordon produced a paper from his pocket and thrust it Vin. Vin looked at Gordon for a thick few seconds before taking the paper.

"The official findings." The I.A. detective gloated, "Sign at the bottom. You can write, can't you?"

"That's it..." Buck shoved Gordon so hard he fell over.

"It's okay, Bucklin," Vin said softly, stepping in front of the irate agent. He handed the documents to Krieger and slid out the glass doors.

Orin handed Vin's gun and badge to Chris and sent his own sympathetic sign of support. He liked Vin Tanner and agents that good don't come along often. He heard Chris's suspicions and thought they were well founded. Chris laid the badge and gun on the desk behind him and pulled Gordon to his feet. He gripped the stunned man's collar, nearly choking him. He leaned in close, his lips curled in unbridled disgust.

"Get out of my house," He growled, forcing Gordon towards the door, "You fuck with my team and it'll be the last thing you do." He warned, shoving him out into the hall.

Buck and Chris stood in the empty room for several seconds. Buck had too much anger pent up inside and threw a trashcan against the wall. Chris eyed the tall agent and made his way to where he left Vin's badge and gun. He fingered the badge, remembering the look of pride in Vin's eyes the day he gave it to him. The quiet Texan had been overwhelmed, unable to speak. Chris took the treasured items into his office and locked them in the bottom drawer.

"I keep 'em for ya, Cowboy. We'll ride again, you got my word." He vowed.

Chris made his way to his truck and saw the body sitting on the ground. Vin was huddled against the door. Chris unlocked his side and slid behind the wheel. He reached over and popped the lock on the door. Vin eased inside, hiding his aching eyes behind aviator glasses. He clipped the belt on and laid his head against the door panel. Chris turned the engine over and put the air on. He watched the icy blast lift Vin's damp curls.

"Y'all got a bottle of tequila at the ranch?" Vin asked without raising his head.

"Matter of fact," Chris replied turning the engine over, "It's got your name on it. Been savin' it."

"Reckon we're wastin' time."

That was the extent of the conversation. It was an hour's drive to the ranch and Vin slept the entire way. Chris showered and changed, then joined his best friend in the den. Vin was in a pair of Chris's running shorts and his tee shirt. He was sitting on the floor, his back against the sofa. Sam's head was in his lap. Chris slid onto the seat behind him and took the bottle that came up at him. The first swig of the imported liquid burned. The rest didn't.

The ringing of a phone woke the sleeping beauty. Sierra fumbled in the dark, unfamiliar hotel room and picked up the phone. Dial tone greeted her. She frowned and flipped the light on. She fumbled across the room to her purse. The ringing was inside; it was her cell phone. She took it back to the bed and flipped it on.


There was silence for several seconds, just an uneven breathing. She was about to hang up, when the saddest voice she ever heard greeted her.

"They took my badge, Kamama...." Her heart sank at the frailness of his voice. She remembered the first time he called her that. He studied Native American Culture and his loft was designed with, art, sculptures, rugs, tapestries and other Indian relics. Kamama was the word for butterfly, which, according to Vin, was the feeling he got every time he held her. 'like a bunch of 'em are inside my chest...'

"Oh God, Vin...I wish I was there with you. I love you, Cowboy." She turned the light off and listened to him breathing. Finally his voice, soft and colored with despair, slipped into her ear.

"God, I miss y'all...I ache fer ya..."

+ + + + + + +

Vin was still asleep when Chris left for work. If he wasn't scheduled to meet with Ted Dempsey at nine o'clock, he'd have called in sick. Hangovers were better suited for much younger men. Plus, he was worried about Vin. He heard the younger man get up sick several times during the night. He peeked in the guestroom before descending the stairs and winced at the green pallor.

He skipped breakfast, opting for juice and coffee. He filled his thermal mug and thought on the clock. He'd make it an early day. Buck and J.D should be done their surveillance by noon. Josiah was in town, and was going to spend some time with J.D and Ezra. The ex-preacher left word on Chris's machine that he also wanted to see Vin. Chris put him off for the moment; Vin was just too fragile right now. Plus the combination of the concussion and hangover wouldn't have the sharpshooter in the best mood or out of bed.

+ + + + + + +

The office was dark when Buck arrived. He tossed his car keys on his desk and headed for the cantina. He placed the box of doughnuts on the table and put the coffee on. He ambled back to his desk and saw J.D.'s head appear from the equipment room. He nodded to the dark-haired young agent as he made his way to his desk.

"Hungry? Coffee and doughnuts back there," Buck nodded to the cantina.

"Coffee, maybe. Thanks." J.D. replied.

Buck was sitting at the table in the cantina, finishing his coffee when J.D. arrived. Buck rose to get another cup and poured one for his partner.

"Here," he said placing it on the table, "Sit down, I'm buying."

"Don't preach, okay?" J.D. asked, slipping into the chair.

"Wasn't planning on it." Buck said, taking the chair across from him. He saw the dark circles and confusion on J.D.'s face. "I'm worried about you, J.D. Looked everywhere for you last night. Casey was worried."

"Yeah, she made that very clear when I got home." J.D. winced, rubbing his back.

"Slept on the couch?" Buck guessed, grinning.

"Wasn't any sleeping involved," J.D. replied, "But we made up this morning. I needed to think...I'm a mess, Buck."

"Them Internal Affairs sessions are always tough. Nobody comes out without feeling rundown."

"I know what I saw Buck. I got no problems with that, it's just..."

"It's just that you volunteered some unnecessary information. Why J.D? Vin's in enough trouble, now you got Gordon thinking he was DUI as well. What I told Chris was in confidence, you had no business repeating that, especially to that prick Gordon. He nailed Vin to the cross."

"I was so mad at him, Buck," J.D. pained, "I couldn't stop."

"You wanted to hurt Vin because he hurt you?" Buck guessed.

J.D. nodded and sipped his black coffee. He frowned and furrowed his brows before replying. "We've gotten to be good friends, Buck. I really like Vin. I've learned a helluva lot from him, about this job and about life. He just shot her down...for no reason...that hurt, Buck."

"Vin had his reasons, and Chris and me are gonna find that gun. You can't take back what's been done." Buck advised, "Right now we got to keep tabs on Ezra and Carlino." He avoided the Cambria situation for the time being, not wanting J.D. to tip their hand to Ezra.

"They take his badge?" J.D. asked, without looking up.

"You knew the handwriting was on the wall." Buck replied, catching J.D.'s eye, "Next time, you stick to 'yes' and 'no' answers. You understand?"

J.D. nodded and got up, intent on getting the van ready to roll. Buck followed him and they kept silent. They were on their way uptown to where the meeting was taking place. Ezra arrived and went inside the small coffee shop.

"Where is he?"

"He's right there," Buck pointed, "Hell, them fancy clothes of his stick out like a sore thumb."

"Not Ezra," J.D. complained, " he okay?"

"He's at Chris's." Buck answered, "and I think you know how he feels. I'm gonna get his badge back, you can bank on it." Buck vowed, still angry at Gordon's slurs.

Carlino arrived and the tape began to roll. On Friday, Ezra would accompany Dom and Roberto Carlino to Nogales, to wait for the shipment to arrive. Ezra didn't linger after the breakfast affair. He got in his car and headed east, toward the hospital. Buck and J.D. went back to the office. Buck immediately began doing a search on Cambria Santanna.

He looked up as Chris entered, and winced. Chris wasn't a morning person to begin with, but with a hangover he was downright onry. He didn't say a word to either of them and headed in his office. Buck entered about five minutes later, and put a mug of coffee in front of him.

"Josiah called, he's gonna to the hospital to talk to Ezra. What the hell did you and the boy drink?"

"Tequila...lots of it," Chris croaked, draining a glass of ice water. "How'd the meet go?"

"They're leaving Friday for Nogales. I can't shake this feeling that Ezra's not coming back."

"You get anything on that girl?"

"Not much. Can't find anything before her arrival in Denver. Computer’s been slow. You look like shit, Pard. You ought to head home after your meeting."

"Plannin' on it. Close the door on your way out." Chris dictated, flipping his computer on.

Part 18

Vin groaned and rolled over, peering at the red glowing numbers on the digital clock. Twelve sixteen. He saw the small cooler next to the bed and flipped the lid up. He fumbled in the dark and retrieved his beloved coke. Chris thought of everything. He welcomed the darkened room and the cool air that circulated. Pulling the lightweight blanket over his head, he retreated back into the void. His throbbing head and aching body were battling his queasy stomach.

It was after two o'clock when Chris got home. He checked on Vin and saw the lump buried under the blanket was still breathing. He spotted the empty coke cans and took them with him. After taking Sam for a long walk, he ate a light lunch. He trudged up the stairs and saw the bed was empty. He heard the toilet flush in the guest bathroom and winced. Vin's complexion was a color somewhere between gray and green. He avoided Chris and fell forward on the bed. Chris grimaced and tapped the body.

"You should take a hot shower, you'll feel better. Did you take your pills? You take something for that stomach?"

"Y'all need to get a child." Vin muffled, face buried in the mattress. "Y'all is a frustrated mother."

"Come on," Chris tugged at the nearest arm, "Get up. We gotta talk."

"Ain't nothing more to say."

"Oh yeah there is..." Chris stated determined, "You get that sorry body of your into the shower. I'll be downstairs." Chris stood, pulling Vin upright and pointing him.

Chris knew Vin better than anyone and knew how hard the next few weeks would be. Like Buck, he felt there was a whole lot more to this story. The next few days would give Buck and him the time to investigate Cambria. The hard part was keeping Vin at bay. Without the badge, he had to curtail himself, or he'd end up in jail. He had a bowl of chicken noodle soup and some toast waiting for the bleary eyed agent when the tousled head appeared.

"I ain't hungry." Vin scowled, slumped at the table.

"It's not up for a vote," Chris reprimanded, "Who's Ricky Webster?"

Vin took several spoonfuls of the steaming liquid, before answering. "He was an Aztec, they was our rivals. I's living with Jack and keepin' my nose clean. But a couple of my friends, the ones that looked out fer me when I first come to Denver, ended up dead. Webster was one of the ones that killed them. I heard about the fight the Raptors were plannin', out for blood. They wanted me to come. It tore me up to say no, took me days to get the nerve up. I felt I's abandonin' my kin. ya know?" Vin paused; seeking understanding and getting full support.

Vin didn't talk much about his past, but Chris was one of the few people who he opened up to. He knew the younger man arrived in Denver from Texas as a preteen. The Raptors took care of him for years until Jack Kelly, a private eye in the neighborhood he ran in, got a hold of him. He eventually became Vin's foster father and until Chris, the only person Vin felt close to. It was sometimes hard for the blond to understand how very lonely Vin was. Saying no to his 'family' had to be gut wrenching. It was the first transition inside Vin to his new life, that Jack's support and discipline were paying off. Vin saw a way out, without guns, knives and robberies.

"Took a lot guts, Vin."

"Yeah...well it felt like shit." Vin recalled, "Ya can't know how hard that hurt, seine' that look in their eyes. I's a traitor..." Vin paused, taking a deep breath and rubbing his tired eyes. "I never could prove it, but they set me up. I's comin' from the church, Jack got me a job, fixin' stuff there. Anyhow, Mario Jiminez was the leader of the Raptors and knew my schedule. They was chasin' Webster and I got caught in the middle. I didn't have no gun, but when the bullets started flyin’, I dove fer cover. There was a dead Aztec kid, lyin' next to me. Two bullets hit the wall, about an inch from my head. I grabbed the gun, like a reflex." Vin stopped, shaking his head, "I didn't even know I picked it up. I saw Webster firing at me and fired back. He dropped and when the bullets stopped flyin' I crawled out. A cop grabbed me and threw me against the wall. They didn't find no gun..." Vin snorted. "I seen Mario laughin' and gesterin' from down the block. He had the gun, it was payback."

"What happened? Why didn't you tell the cops that?"

"Tell?" Vin shook his head; "I's afraid fer Jack and Nettie. Jack had a lot of friends downtown." Vin recalled, "He was great about it. Never doubted me, never made me explain. Came in the cell they's holdin' me in and hugged me. I like to know how the hell Gordon found out. Christ, Chris, that was nine years ago...I's only fifteen. I didn't even stay over, Jack got me out the same day."

"This ain't over yet either, Vin." Chris sipped his coffee, "Buck and me are gonna check out Cambria."

"Unless I find that beretta, it won't matter none." Vin stated, drinking the remaining soup.

"You got stay out of it, Vin," Chris warned, "You’re a civvy now, no badge or gun. You get caught and you'll end up behind bars."

"I can't just sit around and wait fer that prick Gordon to show up with a noose." Vin argued, "Don't look at me like that, Chris. Like y'all would sit around if it was yer hide hanging out the winda."

"We're not talking about me." Chris glared, "Vin I mean it, you stay out of it. I got no jurisdiction over you until you get your badge back. Not to mention what Carlino's men would do if they found you snoopin' around."

"Speakin' of that dirtbag," Vin scowled, "I think he was aimin' to ice Erza Saturday and I got in the way. Y'all better keep a watch on Ezra, or he'll end up missin'."

"Josiah's with him for the next couple days," Chris sighed, "But he's still the key player. He's flying down to Mexico on Friday with the Carlino's."

"I got a bad feeling, Chris..." Vin shook his head and stood up. "Are we done? I feel like shit. Yer hot shower theory sucks, Cowboy."

Chris grinned a little and eyed the ghastly face of his best friend. "Take those pills when you get upstairs. You know what Rain said, you have to take that stuff and stay in bed."

Vin screwed his face up, gave Chris a non-verbal suggestion in lieu of a response and padded towards the stairs. Despite how awful he felt, and how tired he was, he couldn't sleep. He started organizing his thoughts and ideas and got a game plan. Vin might not have a badge, but he wasn't about to sit around a helpless victim. Vin Tanner went into hunter mode. He had prey to catch.

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