Characters: All Seven. Also, there are additional original characters, the Wild Bunch, and the MCAT team. <Guest appearance by OW Chris and Vin>
Rating: Mystery/Action/Het -FRT, some violence and profanity
Disclaimer: This is entirely a work of fiction, for entertainment purposes only, based on the characters from "The Magnificent Seven." We don’t own them, but if we did we would run away with ‘em and never be seen again. CBS and Co., Trilogy Entertainment, and MGM had ‘em first and do not want to give ‘em away. We only play at this for fun and do not make any money doing it. No infringement of any copyrights is intended. This is strictly a piece of fiction. Any references to locations or people are only for story use and are not intended to depict any real place or person.
MCAT AU: MCAT (Major Crimes and Acts of Terrorism) Yes, it has action, and yes it's Het. Further background and information on the characters of MCAT and the Larabee 7 families can be found @ The Magnificent Seventh Heaven website. @ http://www.tannertexaslady.com/ MCAT: Turbulent Transitions, the foundation series for this AU is complete.
MCAT: Strength & Solidarity – Series of stories which center on the Seven's intrinsic bonds of friendship and brotherhood, forces which have no boundaries.
# 1 - Shades of Gray Summary - Chris Larabee, his family, and his MCAT Unit are drawn into the gray areas between black and white, forced to participate in a twisted plot of intrigue against them. Right and wrong, fact and fiction, visions and dreams, rational and irrational, past and present, becomes indistinguishable, pushing the team as well as seven brothers to their personal limits of endurance and beyond.
Acknowledgments: Our heartfelt thanks for the suggestions and feedback go to Sue, Jo, Jan, Tonny and Sarai. They lent their eyes, ears, and their friendship to this project. Y'all are appreciated.
Special Thank You:
To Jan, for the long conversations working on plot strategies and her written contributions to this story.
To Tonny who shared her time to edit and beta while teaching a few lessons in the process.
To Bountyhunter'slady for the awesome collage she created for Shades of Gray.
Notes: Any mistakes are ours. The original characters created for this series belong to the authors who created them. Glossary of Law Enforcement terms used in this series. @ http://www.tannertexaslady.com/Whatdidtheysay.html
Vin Tanner pushed through the swinging doors of the saloon, pausing long enough to scan the room, before strolling inside. Chris was sitting at his favorite table in a darkened corner. The half-empty bottle of whiskey on the table added to the dangerous look on Larabee's face usually warned most people off, but not him. He ignored the signs and ambled over to where his friend sat. Using the toe of his boot, Vin scooted a chair out and sat down.
Chris spent the better part of the evening staring into his empty glass, pondering the events of fate which brought him here. He had walked on the wild side of life for a long time, earning himself a helluva reputation as a man not to cross. Then he met a feisty young woman named Sarah who refused to see him as the man others feared. Instead she chose to give him her unconditional love. For seven short years he experienced the blissful life of having a loving wife and son, before tragedy struck… in an instant his family was gone. The following years were hard for him. Chris wished often for death to claim him.
Providence obviously had other plans, because somehow he survived. Three years ago he crossed paths with a young Texan. Instinctively he knew the instantaneous bond he felt with Vin was one which had evolved over time. They were unquestionably spirit brothers, whose lives had been intertwined by events or deeds more than once. They were joined by five men who also gathered at this place and time to renew the bonds of brotherhood which had only become stronger throughout the ages.
The anniversary of his family's deaths, however, was still a difficult time for him.
"What good does it do a man to know life goes on if he can't hold on to the things that make him happy?" Chris knew Vin was there and spoke without looking up from his glass. "When do we stop allowing fate to deal all the cards?"
Vin chewed on his bottom lip and Chris knew he was taking a moment before he answered. "Not sure Cowboy," was his simple reply. "I've never been able to figure that out myself." He waited until Chris looked up before continuing. "I do know you're not gonna find the answer in that bottle or sitting here broodin' about what's already passed."
"No you don't know! Unless you've walked in my boots you can't understand how it feels to have your soul ripped apart …To have all that is good and pure wiped from your life by an act of evil and not be able to do a damn thing to change it!" Chris took a deep breath, lowering his voice. "Evil survives though, and sometimes a man has to cross into hell where it hides to confront it."
Fire flashed in the Vin's eyes. "I have been where you are, Chris! I've traveled the road of lookin' for answers. You want to know what I found? I found that there is no God damn answer! Maybe our hell is havin' to relive our losses over and over, chasin' the shadows of our past into eternity. I do know this doesn't help." He threw the bottle of whiskey against the wall as memories he had tried to keep hidden for so long flooded his mind and the hurt tore through him like a knife.
Surprised by the venomous anger laced in Vin's words and actions, Chris studied him intently. It occurred to him, there were still parts of his friend's life he knew nothing about. "Who was she Vin?" He asked softly.
Vin swallowed hard and shifted uncomfortably in the chair. "She was… the woman I had planned to spend my life with… and the mother of my unborn child…."
The evening sky was painted with soft hues of purples, pinks, and oranges as the sun set over the horizon, silhouetting the majestic mountains in the distance. Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner sat on the porch of one of the two newly built houses looking out over the land of the Larabee-Tanner horse ranch.
It had taken time, and trust, but both of them had eventually allowed themselves to take a second chance with love. They found the strength to lay their individual haunting memories to rest for a while to find a semblance of peace for their scarred souls. As a result, the two old friends now held their sleeping sons in their arms, enjoying the companionable silence between them while their wives tended to supper.
Vin brushed his hand gently over his son’s cheek before looking over at Chris to ask a question. "You reckon these two will understand the connection between Larabees and Tanners?"
Chris nodded. "It's our job to see they do, Vin. My Colton Vincent and your Christopher James will lead the way for future generations."
Sarah Spencer Larabee smiled at her son as she helped him with his coat. When Chris called to tell her that he was held over one more day at the law enforcement conference he had reluctantly attended, she knew Adam would be disappointed. Their son looked forward to the morning ritual he and his father had established over the last three months. Since classes had begun in September, Chris was the parent who always drove Adam to school. Both Larabee males looked forward to the father-son time alone. While Chris was gone, Adam had been riding to school with his best friend and his mother, but today his friend was ill and Adam would have to settle for his own mother's company. Sarah was determined to make it a fun experience.
Through the misty fog of time two figures stood silent as events unfolded that threatened to destroy the legacy they had left for the future Larabees and Tanners. Helplessly they watched as Sarah and Adam perished in a fiery explosion, plunging Chris Larabee into the depths of a guilt-ridden hell.
*It’s not time, yet.*
Chapter 1 ~Shades of Gray
Denver, Colorado, 2007
I should've been more careful…I should've seen the signs… While all was calm, I guess I should've read between the lines… I should have run for cover… in the calm before the storm…*
Monday October 8th
MCAT Commander Chris Larabee threw the file he was reading onto a pile of paperwork which littered the top of his desk. Months engaged in an emotion driven battle with the RMR had taken a huge mental toll on his agents. Chris was hoping things would settle back to a normal routine for his unit, especially after the deaths of Karl Chambers and Bubba Jones ended the threat to his team and family. He leaned back in his chair, took a deep breath and exhaled in frustration. Normal for this bunch was a relative term and once again he was without his full team.
JD Dunne, CASSIE specialist and supervisor for all computer and communication operations of the unit, was at home recovering from major surgery. The younger agent would be out of commission for at least four more weeks. Chris knew they were lucky JD was still with them. The bullet that had been lodged near his spine for over a year shifted and damn near killed him. Only too aware JD could find trouble without ever leaving his home; Chris planned to keep a close watch on him. Agents Pam Walton and Mallory Sanchez were doing a great job in his absence, but JD's expertise and his unique understanding of CASSIE was sorely missed.
Captain Vin Tanner was on an unexpected assist assignment as a sharpshooter for an ATF team in Santa Fe, New Mexico and had been there for the last eight days. Agent Justin Michaels accompanied him as Tanner's personal backup at Larabee's insistence, and the pair was not scheduled to return to Denver until sometime later in the week. Before Vin left, one of his and Kelli's twin boys caught a cold. Agent Kelli Coulter-Tanner requested an additional day of maternity leave to be at home with Bren just to make sure he was okay, and she would not be returning to work until tomorrow.
Ezra and Barbara left for Italy last week to rendezvous with Maude and her new husband. The Standishs' were not expected to return until the end of the month. Add all that to the loss of Ross Anderson and Paul Roberts and it was enough to convince Director Travis MCAT needed two more agents, at least temporarily. Orrin had a plan worked out which would insure that MCAT would always have another agent or two in reserve, available anytime he deemed their presence necessary.
Chris knew how hard it was for Vin to leave for New Mexico. The boys were barely three months old, and with the one exception of the brothers' weekend retreat last August, Tanner had not spent any nights away from home since the twins were born. *Hell Chris, except for that retreat, you have not been separated from Grace since you came back from California or Cody since he was born….*
The buzz of the intercom interrupted Chris's thoughts. He reached over to answer it. "Yes Gunny."
"Captain Wilmington is waiting to see you, Sir."
Chris looked at his watch. He had forgotten his request for her to send him to his office when Buck returned from giving a deposition to the District Attorney. He chuckled to himself thinking about the running battle of wills which had grown between 'Gunny' Montgomery and Buck. The older woman often tried to mother Vin, and while she was a top notch Administrative Assistant for her Commander, Buck managed to get on her wrong side early on, and managed to stay there. "Send him in."
Buck entered the office and immediately found the most comfortable chair in the room directly across from Larabee's desk. He settled his large frame into it and stretched out his long legs in front of him. Then he grinned at Chris. "One of these days I'm gonna win that woman over to my side."
"Good luck. I think she secretly trained at commando camp. She is a formidable woman."
"You know me Chris, I love a challenge."
"Well then you are going to love this. Travis informed me this morning that we will be receiving new agents on a rotating basis. All of them are supposedly elite personnel from a range of law enforcement agencies. They will be coming to us to round out their skills with our MCAT Unit; insuring we have additional trained agents available when necessary. Six month rotations and the first two will be here tomorrow morning." The Commander handed Wilmington the files on the new personnel.
"In other words, we're going to be doing glorified baby-sitting," Buck grumbled. "Why do they do this to us?"
"Because we are the best, and like it or not we have found ourselves shorthanded, at least by Travis's way of thinking. The 'powers that be' want this, so we will oblige them, to a point. We’ll include these potential recruits in our training exercises, let them observe how we work, and assign two of our agents as evaluators. You know what they want. Make it happen." Chris closed his notebook saying, "One other thing, Buck. They will only be exposed to our standard ops, no mention of shadow assignments around them."
Taking the folders, Buck opened them and scanned the names. "Damnit, this has to be some kind of joke. Brad Garrison is a good man, but Guy Saunders? That man is an ass. He always has been and always will be. Didn't we get enough of him when we worked ATF? Not to mention the last run in that he had with Vin."
As an FBI agent assigned to the Denver office, Guy Saunders had crossed paths with them numerous times. Their meetings had not all been affable, so consequentially there was no love lost between Saunders and the members of Team Seven.
Buck grinned. “Hey do you remember our first assignment as MCAT agents? Who was the lead FBI agent for that case?"
“You know damn well who it was."
It was none other than their old nemesis, Saunders. Unfortunately for him he made some offensive comments to and about Kelli, which Chris delighted in passing on to Vin. Captain Tanner made it his personal responsibility to let the older man know that treating a female agent in any manner except with complete respect was unacceptable.
Both Buck and Chris hoped Tanner made an impression on the man and he would behave while he was here. Remembering how the ladies of MCAT paid another former agent back for his disrespect they knew the women could handle the chauvinistic FBI agent. They were also aware that none of the men of MCAT would sit idly by and let anyone show disrespect for their teammates. Nevertheless, whatever else he was, Saunders was a good agent; he wouldn’t be part of the program otherwise.
"Guy may be a pain in the ass, Buck; however he is an FBI Agent with almost twenty years of experience. You will be in charge of our agent review program. I want you to try and play nice."
"Hell, I always play nice. Only time will tell us how elite they really are." Buck held up his hands. "In the meantime around here they’re rookies, and will be treated accordingly."
Chris rolled his eyes. He knew when Travis told him about having temporary MCAT agents the idea would not be well-received by the others, especially with Saunders involved. Hopefully this program would fizzle out and they could get back to their core unit within a few months. In the interim, it was only a slight inconvenience and it would give the unit an opportunity to teach some of the skills they had gained over the last two years.
"In fact, as of tomorrow morning, you will be in charge of this zoo." Chris handed Buck a stack of files. "Travis is sending me to Washington, D.C. to answer questions about MCAT in front of a senate hearing committee."
"Better you than me, old son." Buck took the folders from Chris. "Why do they want you, and not Travis?"
"Travis was there last week." Chris sighed wearily. He was not happy about being ordered to go to Washington. Nevertheless it was part of his job as MCAT commander and he would have to deal with it. "Now they want to question me about field activities and procedures."
"You know we could say to hell with it all and spend our time on the ranch, raising kids, horses, and hunting for all those abandoned gold mines reputed to be on or near the ranch."
"We could, but even Ezra wouldn't give us odds on finding any of them." Larabee shook his head. "Until we stumble across our gold mine, I have to resign myself to separations from the kids, whether I like it or not."
"Go home." Buck patted Chris on the back." I can handle things here, and you need to spend time with Grace and Cody this evening. "
Larabee nodded. "I think I will." He began to gather the reports he would be taking with him to Washington. "Vin should be back Wednesday or Thursday and with any luck I'll be home by Friday." He added the last file into his briefcase and closed it. "I also want to stop on the way home and check in on JD first, and then Kelli."
"Make sure he's following the doctor's orders. He's been giving Casey hell about taking it easy." Buck stood up. "See you Friday, Boss."
"Remember Buck, play nice with our visitors, and keep a lid on this place." Chris walked out the door with Wilmington at his side.
"No problem. Gunny and I will keep the peace." Buck winked at Gunny and grinned.
Gunny shook her head disapprovingly at him as her only response, and then continued on with her work.
"Yeah, well, just don't have any surprises waiting for me when I return and I'll be happy." Chris headed to the front door.
JD had been sitting in a cushioned chair on the front porch for over an hour and was ready to attempt an escape. It had been over a month since his surgery, and three weeks since his discharge from the hospital. Three weeks equaled twenty-one days of confinement to the ranch, or more specifically, to his home. He could not get more than twelve feet from the front door without Casey or Nettie steering him back inside. He had to admit that spending extra time with Lilah and Daisy was nice, and all the family had been by often to see him. Shoot, Buck stopped by every day and kept him up to date on the latest news from work. He definitely had not been neglected. However he was going stir crazy and really needed to find a way to break out of this well-meaning confinement.
JD smiled as he glanced up the drive that led from the front gate and saw Chris's black Ram come into view. Surely Chris would understand and help him plan a way out. Of course, Larabee was known to be somewhat of a mother hen where his family was concerned, and he rarely let any of them disobey doctor's orders when he was on watch. Come to think of it, he had given him and Vin hell when they started to complain during the numerous times they had been laid up and force to stay with him while recuperating. All hope of assistance disappeared when his memories surfaced. He watched Larabee get out of his truck and walk toward the porch.
Chris dropped into the chair next to JD and propped his feet up, turning his head toward the young man. "I hear you've been giving that lovely wife of yours a hard time about following the doctor's advice."
JD closed his eyes and sighed. *Damnit Buck.* He was the only one that could have mentioned that to Chris. "I guess I've been busted."
"Yep," Chris answered as he dropped his feet, and leaned forward. "Look JD, I know how hard it is to stay at home and feel like you're being left out of things. I sat in my ranch house for months while you guys opened a new MCAT office, went to work every day, and then became involved in one helluva dangerous case. I was frustrated, angry, and disappointed. As bad as it was not to be involved, thinking of the alternative was even worse. If I had come back too soon, I would not only have put myself at risk, but I would have put the people I care about at risk too. That was unacceptable."
JD sighed, shifting in his seat a little to look at the man whose opinion meant the world to him. "I hear you, but damnit there must be something I can do besides sit here and watch the grass grow."
Chris grinned, thinking about that image, sobering again as he spoke. "There is. You can stop worrying about what you can't do and start appreciating what you can do. The fact that you are still around to watch the damn grass grow is a miracle in itself. Love your wife, and those two beautiful babies. Be as glad as the rest of us that you still have a life." Chris put his hand on JD's shoulder and spoke softly. "We know you're not a kid anymore, JD, but you are still our little brother," he leaned in and attempted his best glare. "Furthermore this big brother says you had better behave or he'll have to kick your butt once you're healed."
JD stared at Chris for a few moments, and then grinned. "Okay...okay, I'll do it...I promise, I'll behave, I'll follow doctor's orders." Dunne feigned sincerity. "Besides... I'd hate to see you hurt yourself trying to kick my butt, you being the old brother and all."
Chris tightened his grip on JD's shoulder slightly, smirking as he watched the younger man chuckle and squirm. "That's older, not old, and don't you forget it." Chris gave Dunne a mock glare and mumbled something about insolent kid brothers.
"Yes, Sir," JD answered trying unsuccessfully to hide his laughter.
Chris stood up to leave. "I'll be out of town 'til the end of the week. Do you think you can try to stay out of trouble until I get back?"
"Oh he will, Chris," Casey said, stepping out the front door catching his last remark. "I intend to see that he follows the doctor's orders to the letter."
Chris smiled inwardly as he watched JD mumble something under his breath at Casey's remark. He nodded to Casey approvingly.
"I see that JD is in good hands. I have one more stop to make and then I plan to spend the evening with my children." Chris kissed Casey on the cheek. "See you two later." Chris was smiling as he pulled out of the driveway; Casey knew exactly how to keep her man distracted.
Riding with her children in the afternoons was one of the things Kelli was going to miss once she returned to work. They made a habit of riding together every day with some of the kids from Caitlyn's Reins of Change program. After spending so much time with them over the last few months, it was emotionally difficult for her to even consider returning to MCAT. Making a list of pro's and con's had not helped. On one hand she felt guilty about leaving the twins when they were so little. Even though she would be home for their morning and evening feedings, the young mother still had misgivings. Additionally, with both Jason and Andi in school, she worried about not being available for them when they got home.
It was not a question of needing the money. Adding together her trust fund from Jake's estate, Vin's salary, and the lucrative return on the investments Ezra made for them, they had more than enough to live quite comfortably without her paycheck. Most of all she was concerned about finding the right balance as a wife, mother, and responsible federal agent
On the other hand, she and Vin were blessed by having the best caregiver available with Max watching the kids while they worked. The MCAT office was only a twenty minute drive from home, so they were not that far out of touch and could get home quickly in case of an emergency. Their children would never be with strangers and they were surrounded by a loving, supportive family unit on the ranch. She and Vin also managed to keep their priorities straight since the day they had married. Caring for one another and their family was at the top of that list and took precedence over anything else.
Vin was not much help when it came time for her to make a decision, because he had not tried to persuade her one way or another. He simply said whatever she decided to do, he would support her choice.
Kelli knew her career in law enforcement was more than just a job to her. It was a state of mind, and she had always felt confident that what she did was important. So, eventually it all boiled down to one question. What did she want to do? In the end, it was because of the children she realized she had no choice other than to go back to work, at least for now. Last year she told Vin the only way for them to make a better future for their children was to keep fighting the injustices in the world, and that when good people stopped fighting, evil won. She needed to put action to those words. While it didn't make it any easier for her today, she was certain there would come a point in the future she would quit, and be content to stay at home full-time. It was just not going to be now.
Kelli, Andi, and Jason were walking up from the barn when Chris arrived. The children raced to see who would be first to meet him at his truck and Andi won. She threw herself at him with the absolute confidence of a four-year-old that her Uncle Chris would catch her. "I won!"
Chris gripped Jason's shoulder and winked. "Yes you did, Sugar, but just by a hair. Jason was right on your heels."
"Uncle Chris, when will my daddy be home?" Andi turned her baby blues on him, giving him a look which melted his heart.
"Your daddy will be home real soon, little one. I promise," Chris was pleased to tell her.
"Andi, you know Dad said he'd be home by the end of the week." Jason rolled his eyes and addressed his uncle. "She's asked the same question at least ten times in the last hour."
"Jason would you and Andi go see if the boys are awake for me?" Kelli felt her Dad needed rescuing.
Chris set Andi on her feet and watched as brother and sister ran toward the house. "Thanks," he grinned. "I love 'em, but Andi can sure ask the tough questions."
"She certainly can." Kelli joined her dad beside the truck and leaned against it. "So, what brings Papa Bear out here today? Come to check up on your eldest cub?"
"I thought you might be a little anxious about going back to work tomorrow."
"Am I worried about returnin' to work? No. Am I concerned about bein' separated from the kids? Yes."
"Is Bren feeling better?"
"I took him to the pediatrician's office this mornin' and she said that aside from bein' a little grumpy, Bren is over his cold."
"That's good to hear." Chris laughed. "Grumpiness must be a shared trait of the Tanner men. Vin sounded downright cranky this morning when I talked to him. Filling in for a lost member of a team does not make him too popular there. The good news is that the ATF team has found a permanent replacement for their sharpshooter. Vin and Justin should be able to leave Santa Fe within a couple of days."
Kelli tried to read between the lines of Chris's word. "I know, Vin called me after he talked to you. He is irritated about bein' loaned out to the ATF and would not be doin' it if Travis had not asked him as a personal favor, but you already know that. What's the real reason you're here and don't give me that bull about checkin' up on us for Vin?"
"I have to leave for Washington, D.C. in the morning and will probably be there for the rest of the week. I need you to do a couple of things for me." Chris sighed. "I trust Dottie implicitly with the children's welfare, and I told Grace that Daddy will be away for a few days. Still, if you could maybe stop by while I'm gone and give them a few extra hugs for me I'd appreciated it."
"Dad, you know I will." Kelli knew how hard it had been for Vin to leave the children and he was not a single parent. He had taken comfort knowing she would be here with their kids while he was gone. Chris was going to be across the country and his babies did not have another parent to be with them. She could not even imagine the conflicted emotions he must be feeling. "You said a couple of things. What else do you need me to do?"
"My flight leaves at nine, which means I need to be at the airport by seven at the latest. Think you can give your old man a ride before you go to work?"
"Of course I can. I'll be at your front door by five-thirty. You can buy me breakfast on the way to the airport." Kelli leaned in and gave Chris a hug. "I won't tell you not to worry about them, 'cause I know better. I will make sure Grace and Cody know how much they are loved for you."
Jason came from the house, running toward them. "Mom, Bren and Trey are awake. Max said to tell you they are demandin' to eat."
"Guess that's my cue to go in. You want to join us for dinner?" Kelli asked.
"Thanks, no. I want to spend the evening with Grace and Cody." Chris kissed her forehead. "Hug the babies for me, and I'll see you in the morning." He released his daughter so she could go inside with her son, climbed into his truck and waited until he saw Kelli and Jason enter the house. He then started the engine, and drove home.
Larabee Home - Journal Entry - Midnight
Tomorrow I have to leave for Washington, D.C. on MCAT business. I knew the day would come that I would have to be separated from Grace and Cody. I just did not think it would be this difficult. My heart feels like it has been ripped into pieces. The image of my two babies' angelic little faces as they lay sleeping in their beds tonight is permanently etched in my memory. The next few days are going to drag by, and not just because I'll be trapped in boring senate hearings.
Vin is still out of town temporarily working with the ATF in Santa Fe. I know he was not very happy about taking the assignment. However there are so few sharpshooters of his caliber available at a moments notice and the Santa Fe ATF team was in the middle of an important case when their man went down. Kelli will be returning to work tomorrow. I asked her to take me to the airport early. I could have driven myself or had Buck take me, but I wanted to give her a mission to make it easier for her to leave the house in the morning. She has been off work and at home since last December. It is not going to be easy for her to walk out that door, even though she knows the children are in good hands with Max. I do hope Buck keeps her busy the rest of the day or she will be on the phone calling home to check on the babies every fifteen minutes. Not that I can blame her, it is not easy to leave Grace and Cody either.
Orrin is giving us time to ease back into the heavy stuff after the hell the RMR gave us, so our caseload has been light. The most interesting thing on the horizon is the agent review program Travis set up. I can understand him being concerned about us having qualified replacements available for MCAT if necessary. Even so, I do not think this is the way to get them. I suppose only time will tell.
With JD still out on sick leave, Vin in Santa Fe, Ezra in Europe, Nathan at a Forensic seminar, and Buck tied up with the District Attorney for most of the day the office was definitely too damn quiet today. Josiah seemed to be distracted by something, but said he was not ready to talk about it yet. I hope whatever it is he works it out and it's nothing too serious. With everyone scattered to the four winds it at least appears that the next few days will be peaceful at work and Buck should not have too much to deal with in my absence.
Time for this Larabee to hit the hay…five o'clock comes early and I have no doubt Kel will be here by five-thirty.
Eerie malevolent shadows dance across the walls in the dim light provided by the solitary lamp on the nightstand. Their ghostly shapes contort into a kaleidoscope of flickering images that seem to grow as the insubstantial voices become louder. The hunched figure on the bed closes her eyes tightly against the horrifying images, hoping it will make them disappear from her room. She raises her shaking hands to cover her ears, in an effort to block out the frightening sounds. Chaotic thoughts enter her head. She fights to break free of them, but to no avail. Backing into the corner, the terrified woman curls into a fetal position and opens her mouth to scream. Fear steals her voice, as the shadows engulf her mind and send her spiraling into an abyss of silence….
The monster behind the shadows laughs. “And so it begins,” it intones.
Tuesday October 9th
Denver International Airport
Kelli spent precious extra minutes with the boys during their morning feeding, and then woke Jason and Andi to say goodbye before she left. Inez would be taking them to school at eight, along with Caleb, Sarah, and Joanne because by then Kelli would already be at work Chris had his gear packed and was waiting when she arrived at his house to pick him up. They enjoyed a quick breakfast at a small café near the airport before it was time for him to check-in. Father and daughter had come a long way since their relationship was first revealed, and they were now at a point that they enjoyed spending time together.
"There's no need for you to come inside, Kel. Just drop me off over there and get your butt on to work." Chris pointed toward the front entrance to the airport. He would have preferred to fly on one of the MCAT jets, except neither one was available today.
"In case I forgot to mention it, Dad, thanks for the diversion this mornin'." She pulled her Tahoe into the line of cars waiting to drop off departing passengers. "You knew how hard it was goin' to be for me to leave the house today and in typical Larabee fashion, you decided to do somethin' about it."
Chris was not surprised that she had seen through his motives and smiled. "You're welcome Missy." He leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. "Fathers are supposed to look out for their children, no matter how old they are." He opened the truck door and stepped out, reaching into the back seat to grab his valise and garment bag. "See you later brat, take care." He shut the door and watched her drive off before he headed inside. Chris knew his body would be in Washington before noon. It might take a little longer for his heart and mind to join it.
Buck had stationed himself by Gunny's desk to have a good view of the front door. Brad Garrison arrived thirty minutes earlier and had already checked in with him. Garrison had been a great asset to the child trafficking task force and Buck was pleased to be working with the man again. He had a long memory though when it came to anyone that crossed his family the wrong way, and had his doubts about working with FBI Agent Saunders.
Guy Saunders walked in and stopped long enough to scan the room before making his way toward Wilmington. When he applied for the opportunity to be considered for training with MCAT, and then was selected, Saunders knew he had to prepare himself for whatever this unit wanted to throw at him. The seasoned agent also knew he would have to prove how capable he was to the men and women of MCAT, especially to the original Team Seven.
Buck waited until Saunders stopped in front of him before speaking. "Pick an empty desk and get settled. You need anything ask Mrs. Montgomery to help you." Buck indicated Gunny's desk, but did not offer an introduction. "There'll be a team meeting in the war room in thirty minutes."
Saunders nodded and moved past the Captain to search for a place to call home for the next six months. He spotted a desk by the window that did not appear to be in use and walked over to it. The drawers were empty, but the phone worked, and when he hit the start up on the computer the blank screen lit up. Saunders had moved around enough in his twenty year career in law enforcement not to be put off by the lukewarm welcome. He knew that new team members were expected to find their own way to a place with an established unit. He was a patient man and damn good at his job. It may take some time for Wilmington and the others to accept him; nevertheless he was here and had no plans on leaving any time soon.
Josiah sat in his office, holding the phone receiver in his hand long after his conversation with the doctor was concluded. His mind told him that he was experienced enough to handle bad news, but his heart had clenched painfully in response to the doctor's words. Doctor Rivers expected Josiah to accept the diagnosis he had made and he was firm about how his instructions were to be followed. After the turmoil of the last year in all of their lives, things had settled down considerably the past two months. The profiler had hoped that he and the rest of the team could have a period of calm before the next storm hit. Evidently that was not to be, at least for him and his family. His thoughts were interrupted by a knock on the door.
He placed the receiver into the phone cradle and straightened up in his chair. "Come in."
Mallory Sanchez slipped into the room. One look at her husband's face told her that he was in emotional pain, and her heart ached for him. She walked around his desk and leaned over him to plant a comforting kiss upon his forehead, before reaching out to stroke his jaw line with her fingertips. "You spoke with the doctor?"
Josiah placed his large hand over hers and sighed deeply. "Yes. The news was not encouraging though."
"I know it's not what you wanted to hear, but we'll get through this together, love. One day at a time." Her blue-green eyes showed her husband her boundless love and deep concern for him. "You are not alone, Josiah Sanchez, and I will not let you shut me out on this."
"I love you Mallory." He kissed her hand. "Now, you need to get back to work and so do I. We'll talk about this later at home." Josiah smiled at the woman that meant the world to him. The smile hid his fear that their lives were about to change. He saw her hesitate and felt a bit of encouragement was in order. "Go on, woman, CASSIE is waiting for you and we have a team meeting in fifteen minutes."
Mallory nodded, kissed him, and then left the room. Josiah watched until the door closed behind her, thinking about how important she was to him, and the difference she had made in his life. She had the ability to make him believe that everything would be all right. He prayed that she was right.
It was eight-thirty when Kelli finally arrived at MCAT. She rushed into the office, stopping long enough to dump her gear at her desk before proceeding on to the war room. There had been a major accident on the freeway as she returned from the airport, and traffic had come to a complete standstill for over forty-five minutes. Even though Buck knew she was taking her father to the airport before she came to work, she hated to be late on her first day back on the job. She hoped to be able to quietly slip into the room and find a seat without attracting any attention to herself. She really should have known better.
"Welcome back, Agent Coulter." Buck grinned when he saw her attempting to sneak into the room. "Glad you decided to join us." He knew he was probably embarrassing her, but he was so glad to see her back at work, he did not care. For a while during those terrible months of strife with the RMR he was afraid that neither she nor Vin would be coming back to the MCAT unit at all. "You can catch up after we're through. You're just in time to get your assignment for the day."
"Shoot, I reckon my timin' is off. I was hopin' to miss that part." Kelli smiled and sat down next to Josiah. She was so pleased to be here today that not even Buck's teasing would dampen her spirits.
"Commander Larabee will be back at the helm Monday Morning. Ezra is on vacation. Nathan is at a seminar for the next three days, and JD will be out for another four weeks or so. That means if you need CASSIE'S help with anything, you need to see Pam or Mallory. Captain Tanner and Agent Michaels should be back with us Thursday or Friday. In the meantime, I want us to try for a quiet week. Bones, you have your team busy already working with DPD, so carry on. Raphael, you take Saunders, bring him up to speed on our current caseload, and familiarize him with our procedures. Alex, you do the same for Garrison. Mark, you and Bandit are expected on the explosives training field in twenty minutes. Selena, you will be working with Kelli, but I need to speak with her first. That's it, you're dismissed."
Josiah nodded to Buck and disappeared quickly from the meeting room. His unusual quietness concerned Buck and made him wonder what was preoccupying his Josiah's thoughts. Saunders and Garrison had returned to the bull pen and Wilmington waited as the other agents stopped to give Kelli a personal welcome back. Once the room was cleared he asked Kelli about Chris. "Did the old man get off okay?"
"Yes, but I had the feelin' he would rather have his teeth pulled than get on that plane."
Buck laughed. "He's just having what Inez would call separation anxiety."
Kelli sighed. "I know all about that." She was already missing Jason, Andi, and the babies. So far she managed to resist the urge to call Max to check on them. She was certain however, before this day was over her resolve not to call would crumble.
"Yeah, I guess you do." Buck sat with his hip hitched onto the table and spoke seriously. "I know it's going to be a long day for you, and Chris did too. He left instructions for me to keep you busy. First off, you need to go down to the gun range and certify. Take Selena with you, she needs some practice. Then I want the two of you to go and interview a witness for the case we're assisting with. I have a feeling she hasn't told us everything she knows." He handed her a folder. "The information you need about the case is in there along with some notes of what I want you to try and find out."
"Sure, Buck." Kelli took the file.
"It's good to have you back Kel. Take it slow and don't try to catch up on everything in one day." He stood." Oh, by the way. I know you're still breastfeeding and that means you'll need a private place to…you know…Use Vin's office, he has a small refrigerator in which you can store what you need to." Buck was not a prude by any stretch of the imagination and loved to tease. However, seriously discussing the private matter of using a breast pump at work with his Vin's wife found him struggling to find the right words.
"Thank you, Captain." Kelli decided to put him at ease by keeping her answer more professional and less personal. "I appreciate your consideration." She already planned to use Vin's office to privately collect and then store the milk she would have to release during working hours. Yet if Buck wanted to think it was his idea, then that was fine with her. "We'll be at the gun range for an hour and then head out to talk to your witness." They exited the war room together and Kelli found Selena waiting for her.
"Hey partner, we have an assignment. Grab your gun and let's get to it." Kelli and Selina wasted little time leaving the office.
Buck scanned the room before he went into his office. Everyone was busy on the work he had given them to do. His eyes stopped for a moment on Josiah's closed door. He wished that Sanchez would share what was bothering him. Still, one thing he was certain of about the profiler, you did not rush him. When he was ready to talk, he would. As he went into his office he said a silent prayer asking for a nice quiet week.
Santa Fe, New Mexico - Noon
Vin Tanner was past the point of wanting this assignment to be over. He had an urgent need to finish up here and get his butt back to Denver and his family. It was not that he minded working as a sharpshooter again, even though the ATF team he was working with had not exactly welcomed him and Justin as friends. They were wary about Vin and Justin's MCAT status and somewhat resentful they had to depend on another agency to fill in for their lost man. He could understand that, but it did not make the time move any faster.
However, since he had arrived in Santa Fe he had felt uneasy about something, and for the life of him he could not see clearly what it was. The dreams he had been having did not help matters either. He reckoned that calling them dreams was not an accurate description of what he had been experiencing. They were more like visions, consistent, yet sketchy and incomplete. All he knew was they were disturbing, and he had spent any free time he had looking for some answers about what he had was seeing in them.
Hours of searching for a name on the computer, and a trip to the local library had given him some information about the glimpses of images he envisioned. He called Josiah to ask for his assistance in locating an out of print book that might shed some additional light on what he had been able to piece together. For now though, he did not have enough facts to explain why he was evidently seeing something that had allegedly taken place here in New Mexico almost 140 years ago. More importantly, what in the hell did it have to do with him? Simply disregarding his night visions was not an option. Vin learned long ago not to ignore his instincts, even though he may not fully understand them, and the sooner he was home again, the better he would feel.
In the meantime, he still had a job to complete before that could happen. He stood before a table on which lay an assortment of weapons he had spent the last five hours cleaning and checking. With a little luck the meeting they had been waiting for would be set up for tonight and he and Justin could finish this assignment, do their reports, and leave for Colorado sometime tomorrow.
Justin walked into the small room. "So this is where you've been hiding. Not that I blame you, that bunch is a little hard to take on a good day, and right now they are all on pins and needles waiting for their undercover operative to call in. They're all a bit touchy."
"Touchy, hell, I've run across a few rattlesnakes friendlier than they are."
Justin chuckled. "You do have a way with words Captain. If you're about done here, I'll help you store this gear and we'll take off for lunch."
"Hell, I've been through for an hour. I just wanted to stay out of that damn bull pen." Vin was locking up the weapons as he spoke. "If one more person asks me if I'm sure I'm not out of practice, I think I'll shoot 'em."
Justin laughed while he helped Vin. "From what I have seen you do with a rifle, your skill with guns is a natural talent. You could not touch a weapon in fifty years, pick one up, and still shoot better than any man they want to throw against you. I'd trust you with my back anywhere, anytime."
Vin acknowledged Justin's remark with a nod. Even though he had spent most of the last two and a half years in a supervisory position, he knew his shooting skills were still sharp maybe even better than they ever were. The only thing that had really changed for him was he did not feel as pressured to react to others questioning his abilities as he once had. Maybe it was the maturity coming with age, or maybe it was the confidence he had gained as MCAT Captain that made a difference.
Whatever it was, it had saved some of those ATF agents in the next room from getting their asses kicked. It did annoy him, them doubting his expertise, but not enough to raise hell about it. He could almost hear Chris laugh and tell him he was getting mellow in his old age. Vin smiled at the thought. Paybacks were a bitch and lord knows he had given Larabee enough ribbing about his age to deserve getting some smartass remarks thrown back at him.
Vin closed the last locker, turning to Justin. "Tell the CO we're leavin'. I'll meet you at the elevator." Once Justin left, Tanner clipped his pager to his belt and turned it on. He fingered his cell phone, briefly considering calling Kelli to see how she was holding up on her first day back at work. His better judgment took hold though and he resisted that urge as he busied himself with locking up the equipment room. He beat Justin to the elevator by thirty seconds and after a short discussion they decided to have Mexican food for lunch. As the elevator doors closed, they were both hoping that today would be their last day in New Mexico.
Chris Larabee could not remember the last time he had felt this uncomfortable. Hell, that damn press conference last year, as disastrous as it had been, was more fun than this. It was bad enough that he had to come straight from the airport to the capital building without even seeing his hotel room. Now the questions he was being bombarded with had nothing to do with MCAT cases or the details of field work. The only thing these Senators seemed to be interested in was CASSIE. What were its capabilities? Who had programmed it? How many operators were qualified to access its recourses? Who were they and what were their qualifications? Was he given a daily report on the uses of CASSIE? What restrictions were placed on the Agents that used it? JD was the one who should be here fielding these inquiries, not him.
After two years Chris barely knew what the letters in CASSIE's name stood for, much less how it was put together and what the exact specifications of its numerous abilities were. He only knew that JD's unique computer system produced extraordinary results, and if the rest of the world knew what it was fully capable of doing, even MCAT could not place enough security on the system to safeguard it.
Daring to look at his watch Chris saw that he had thirty more minutes of this torture to endure before they adjourned for the day. His first stop when he left here was to find a private area to phone Orrin. He had one question. What in the hell had the Director gotten him into?
Joanne and Adam were sound asleep and Mallory had finished cleaning the kitchen. She dried her hands and went in search of her husband. Finding him in his study, sitting in the dark, she stood quietly in the doorway just watching him. Her thoughts raced back to the first time she had laid eyes on Josiah Sanchez seven years ago. She and Rain had become fast friends after meeting at the hospital one day and that led to her being invited to a get-together on the Larabee 7. There she had seen this big bear of a man, looking as if he could be one of the most dangerous and scary individuals she had ever met, until he smiled at her. At the time she was immersed in her career as an ATF agent, and after her disastrous first marriage the last thing she had wanted or expected was another relationship. Josiah's quiet nature and philosophical outlook on life intrigued her though. The more time she spent with this wonderful man, the more she realized how lonely her life had been. One date led to another and eventually to marriage. Joanne was a bonus neither of them expected, however they welcomed her with loving arms. Having Adam three years later they considered truly a miracle of their love.
Mallory was thankful every day for having her gentle giant to love. He was the rock she depended on in her life. Now he was in pain and needed a safe harbor for his emotions. She was determined to be there for him even knowing he would fight involving her in the battle he was facing. She moved silently across the room to his side, wrapping her arms around his neck, whispering softly to him, "I love you, big guy."
Josiah smiled. He had not believed it was possible for him to be lucky enough to find lasting love after all the years he had spent in one fleeting relationship after another. He had considered himself a fortunate man, gaining six chosen brothers and being a favorite uncle to their children, but he had resigned himself to remaining a single man. Mallory had changed that when she swept into his life like a breath of fresh air and captured his heart, mind, and soul. Joanne and Adam were the additional little miracles they had been given that completed him. His life was almost perfect as far as he was concerned, but now reality had come crashing into their family and he was determined to distance the pain he was feeling from the woman he loved. She was not making that easy to do.
Pulling her down across his lap, he gently traced the delicate features of her face with his fingertips. "You are beautiful."
Mallory knew he was trying to distract her from rekindling their conversation from this morning, but it was not going to work. "Josiah we need to talk about this. I am not going to let you take this on alone."
"Don't you Mal me. I'm here and I'm not going anywhere. You are not going to shut me out, and we will move forward together to get through this."
He saw the determined set of her jaw and the fiery passion in her eyes. Mallory Sanchez was a formidable woman when she made up her mind to do something, and he knew she would not be put off for one second by his façade that all was fine with him. "Okay, woman," he said, before sighing deeply, accepting that it was not going to be possible to go this one alone. "We will talk to Doctor Rivers in the morning, together." Josiah leaned over her and kissed her brow. "Are you satisfied now?"
Looking into his eyes she knew she had won. Whatever happened in the next few weeks and months they would deal with as one. Mallory grinned impishly, "Satisfied, Sanchez?" She gave him a kiss full of love and passion and her voice turned husky. "Not yet love, but I will be."
Midnight - Phoenix Arizona
The fire raged on for over an hour before the weary firefighters on the scene were able to get it under control. U.S. Marshals arrived at the location a short time after the firemen. They stood on the sidelines observing, and waiting for a time when they could corner the Battalion Chief for questions. Both men were eager to find out if Christina Adams had survived the inferno that destroyed her townhouse.
The Battalion Chief approached the two Marshals with his preliminary report. "This was definitely arson, and we found a single body inside."
"Is it male or female?" Marshal Jones asked.
"Hard to tell at this point, the coroner is in route. Maybe he can tell you more." The fire Chief flipped the pages of his report. "Neighbors say one woman lived here alone, if that helps."
"Thanks, but we're fairly certain it's the Adams woman." Jones waited until the Chief walked away and addressed his partner. "It looks as if our source was telling the truth. I usually hate to see it be one of our own. Although, in this case it will be a pleasure to see one of the mighty MCAT team fall."
Fate has a way of lulling us into a false sense of complacency as unseen forces stay busy inventing roadblocks to throw onto the path we choose to take in our journey through life. It is only through faith, steadfast vigilance, and readiness to confront the battles that seek us out, that we remain strong and victorious. Otherwise we are destined to perish by the wayside, leaving our dreams scattered to the winds, and our loved ones behind to grieve.
Wednesday October 10th
Wells' Ranch - Morning
Black clouds had gathered on the horizon and rolling thunder could be heard in the distance, as bolts of lightning streaked across the darkened morning sky. The peaceful calm of yesterday had been swept away by the turbulent winds that raced ahead of the storm.
JD watched the gathering clouds through the window, and felt a shiver run up his spine. *Relax,* he told himself, *It's just a storm.*
Casey quietly approached her husband, making him jump when she gently laid a hand on his shoulder.
"Dang it, Casey," JD grumbled. "You're getting more like Vin is about sneaking up on people."
Casey laughed, and then acknowledged the compliment that her husband had just paid her. "Thank you."
She noticed the tension on JD's face, and questioned softly, "What's wrong, honey?"
"I don't know, Case," JD replied, pulling her into his warm embrace. "I guess I never quite understood what Vin was feeling when he would say things just didn't feel right…until now. I have a weird sensation in the pit of my stomach and my instincts are telling me something is wrong. I just don't know what it is."
Casey attempted to reassure JD. "Maybe it's just being away from the day to day action in the office that has you on edge." She grinned. "Either that or the third helping you ate at breakfast is not agreeing with you."
Smiling at the love of his life, JD took a deep breath, forcing himself to relax as he replied, "You're probably right."
"Let's go play with the girls; they can brighten up the darkest day."
Pulling his wife in for a kiss first, JD winked, saying, "Yes they can." Turning away from the window and the ominous storm brewing outside the safety of their home, the two made their way down the hall to join their daughters.
Washington, D.C. 7:00 a.m.
Chris cursed when he heard the phone ring in the other room. He had just stepped out of the shower and was dripping wet. Snatching a towel from the stack of clean ones on the sink, he wrapped it around his waist as he raced toward the phone, and grabbed up the receiver before the ringing stopped. "Larabee," he shouted.
"Travis here, I received your message yesterday, but I wanted to have some answers for you before I called you back. Chris, I was initially told these hearings were routine evaluations of MCAT operations. The same type required of all government agencies funded by taxpayers' money. I did not expect them to be exciting, but they are a necessary evil we have consider a cost of doing business."
"I understand that, Orrin, and I know that part of my job is to sit in those boring meetings and answer questions about our procedures. All of the questions yesterday were about CASSIE, though. I get the distinct feeling this is some damn fishing expedition. There is nothing routine about it."
"You may be right. We have gone to great lengths to keep CASSIE and its capabilities low profile, and there is no reason it should be the focus of the hearings. My sources tell me that Senator Green is the one pushing that line of questions. He is also on a committee overseeing a special investigation in conjunction with the Justice Department concerning the security of government information in cyberspace. While he may be only pushing his personal agenda for political reasons, we can't take any chances this could mean specific trouble for us. I will do what I can to get you out of there ASAP, in the meantime keep your answers vague, and your temper in check."
Larabee took a deep breath and exhaled before he responded to the Director. "Don't make it too damn long, Orrin. I have a bad feeling about this."
Travis had the same feeling, prompting his next question. "Chris I remember early on you told me you ordered Dunne to install a kill switch in the CASSIE's system to keep its unique data from falling into the wrong hands." Orrin hesitated. "Is that still an option if it becomes necessary?"
"It is a standing order, Orrin. JD, Pam, and Mallory are all capable of 'pulling the plug' on CASSIE if it becomes evident its security is breeched, and will do so if the need arises."
"Let's hope it does not come to that. However, I want them prepared for any possibility." Travis would hate for it to happen, but CASSIE should only be accessible to the agents he trusted, and there were not many of them outside MCAT he held in such regard. If Cassie fell into the wrong hands… well he did not even what to think about that scenario. "I'll be in touch, Chris."
Chris slowly replaced the receiver and thought about Orrin's words. If he was concerned enough to need assurance about CASSIE'S security, it meant he knew more than what he was saying. He was glad they had not revealed the details of Camp Larabee to anyone outside the family, even to Travis. JD had CASSIE's twin up and running out there, along with satellite link ups and an assortment of other high tech systems. As far as Travis and the rest of the world knew, Camp Larabee was an auxiliary training center only, and a place they could meet when going to the office was not an option. Larabee intended to keep it that way, just in case
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Vin Tanner walked into the ATF supervisor's office and laid his and Justin's reports on the man's desk. "We'll be headin' home now." Last night they concluded their assignment here in Santa Fe. It was an explosive end to a grueling case, and Vin had covered their butts in spite of their open resentment to him being there. He was anxious to leave New Mexico and get back on friendly ground again.
Agent Webster could not bring himself to say thank you for the assistance. He did nod and say, "Good job, Tanner."
It was more than Vin had expected. He exited the office and joined Justin, who was waiting for him with their gear. They had checked out of their motel earlier and nothing was holding them here one minute longer. The two MCAT agents headed to the elevator without saying a word to any of the other agents in the room. The MCAT jet was fueled up and waiting for them at the airport. After ten days away, they were on their way home.
Justin looked at his watch. "We should be back in Denver by noon."
Tanner grinned. "Yeah, and I'm ready for a couple of days of down time with my family."
"I bet you spend all your time with your kids for the next twenty fours hours." Justin knew from his own experience how much you could miss your kids while on assignment. It had always been hard for him to leave when his were little. Now that they were teenagers and not babies any longer, it was a bit easier. He still missed them, but they stayed busy and spent less time at home anyway, so he was used to not having them as dependent on him as they were when they were younger.
"I love my children and I'll spend time with them, but I am in love with my wife and we'll be havin' our own private time together." Vin was a firm believer that the more he and Kelli worked to keep their relationship strong, the better it was for them and their kids. "Kel and I made a commitment to not let the necessary routine of life take away from our time. We work at bein' us first and I know it makes us better parents because we do."
"Congratulations, Vin. You and Kelli already know what took Beth and me several years and a lot of arguing to figure out. If we're good, then the rest of the family is good. We take as much time as possible to get off on our own and our children have never felt slighted. In fact, they respect our choices and want the same type of relationship for themselves one day."
Vin nodded in agreement. He was anxious to get back to Kelli and not just because he missed her. His troubling visions had only increased over the past ten days and if he had learned anything from his grandfather, Treyton Hawk, he knew better than to ignore them. Visions did not just happen; they were coming to him for a reason, and until he knew that reason, he planned to keep a close watch on not only their children, but her too.
MCAT Office - Noon
The rain kept falling all morning. Yet it did not stop the MCAT jet from gliding down the runway and coming in without incident. Vin and Justin grabbed their gear, thanked Mike, their pilot, and headed over to the MCAT parking lot. Vin made a quick stop at his truck to throw his gear inside and told Justin to go on home.
"I'll turn in our reports; you go on home and spend time with your Beth."
"Thanks Vin, see you tomorrow." Justin opened his car door and slid behind the wheel, while Vin hurried toward the door to the office.
"Damn, you look like a drowned rat," Buck laughed when he caught sight of a drenched Vin as he came through the door. He watched Vin's blue eyes scan the outer office, and knew he was looking for Kelli. "She's not here. I sent her and Selena out to finish up some interviews."
With a disappointed nod in response to what Buck had told him, Vin moved toward his office. He was stopped by Gunny before he reached it. The older woman's eyes lit up for a moment as she and Vin came face to face, the only acknowledgement he knew she would make to indicate she was glad he was back.. "Captain Vin, you get out of those wet clothes before you catch your death. I'll give you five minutes to change and then bring you some hot coffee, just the way you like it."
"Would you bring me a cup of coffee too, darlin'?" Buck asked her using his best smile.
"It doesn't appear to me, Captain Wilmington, that your hands are broken," Gunny replied, and stepped around him.
"Well, neither are Vin's." Buck called after her retreating back, his comment falling on deaf ears.
Vin smiled, listening to the witty exchange between the two MCAT employees as he proceeded into his office with Buck on his heels. "I'd be careful if I was you, Buck. Gunny isn't some young thing you can turn your charm on and get her to do whatever you want her to do." He retrieved a dry set of clothing from the small closet in his office.
Buck grinned at him. "Relying on my charm hasn't worked yet, and besides, if I even tried to use some of my old ways of persuasion on any other woman, young or old, Inez would chop off a certain part of my anatomy I'm particularly attached to and feed it to the birds."
Vin laughed, easily envisioning an irate Inez. Buck certainly towed the line around his fiery wife, and for good reason. He wasn't so certain he would ever want the exotic beauty mad at him either. He went into his private bathroom and shut the door behind him.
"I'll win Gunny over sooner or later," Buck yelled through the bathroom door as he waited for Tanner. "She's still a little miffed because I tried to get her to do my reports when she first arrived here. The woman can't hold that against me forever."
Vin emerged from the bathroom dressed in dry clothes, and he was using a towel to dry his long hair. "I'm givin' you our reports and then 'm out of here. I have some catchin' up to do at home."
The two men heard a slight tap on the door a moment before it opened, and Gunny entered carrying two cups of coffee. "Your coffee, Captain Vin," She set it down on his desk. "I brought one for you, too, Captain Wilmington, but don't get use to it."
"Thanks, Gunny," Vin smiled. He laughed when he turned and saw the shocked look on Buck's face when the older woman walked out the door." Close your mouth, Bucklin, and drink your coffee."
Buck took a drink from the cup and grimaced. "Damnit, she made this your way. It's strong enough to melt steel."
"You gonna complain to her?"
"No, at least she included me, and that's progress."
The door opened again and Josiah walked in carrying a small package. "Welcome home Vin." He handed him a parcel. "I got lucky and the bookstore I use was able to locate the item you wanted."
"Appreciate it, Josiah. How much do I owe you?"
"Nothing, I owe you for Jason's birthday gift you picked up for me, so now we're even." Josiah sat down in the chair opposite Buck. "Since Vin's back and things are quiet around here, Mallory and I need to take a few days leave for a short trip. We'd like to take off on Friday."
"Is everything okay with you, Josiah?" Buck leaned forward in his chair. "Anything we can do to help with whatever has kept you so preoccupied this past week?"
Josiah sighed. "Just approve a week off for me and Mal. It's nothing we can't work out."
"Take what time you need, Vin and I can handle things here until Chris gets back." Buck threw a worried glace toward Vin. "Just remember we're here, if you need us."
"I know that, Buck and if I need you, you'll be the first to know. We'll be fine." Josiah stood up to leave. "We won't be going anywhere until Friday, and should be back by the middle of next week." He left the office without further explanation.
Vin looked at Buck and asked, "Serious?"
"I don't know, he's not saying. I guess all we can do is wait and see what happens."
"Josiah keeps things close to the vest. He'll tell us when he's ready." Vin pulled out the reports from Santa Fe and handed them to Buck. "I'll be in tomorrow. Right now though, I'm goin' to the house. Tell Kel I'll see her at home."
"That's fine, but you might want to take what's in your fridge home with you. Kel left it in there before she and Selena headed out."
Vin opened the refrigerator door and saw the packets he knew contained breast milk. They had at least a three months supply of it stored in their freezer at home, but these were going to be used today. He grinned. "Perfect, I'll have an opportunity to feed the twins this afternoon, which is almost as good as havin' their mama there."
Buck laughed. "I have always considered myself a liberal thinking man when it comes to women, yet talking with Kel about using a breast pump at work had me all tongue tied. Hell, Inez does it and I think it's wonderful, but this was not just any agent I was talking to, it was your wife."
"If it makes you feel any better Buck, I'd be a bit self-conscious talkin' to Inez about it too." Vin placed the packets in his bag. "I know it's natural and I love the fact that Kel decided to do it, but talkin' to Inez or Casey or any of our women about it would seem like an invasion of privacy to me."
"Yeah," Buck grinned, "But between you and me, I wish Inez could breastfeed Tannis forever. I like the fringe benefits."
"You're preachin' to the choir, Buck." Vin laughed. "I like 'em too." He looked around to see if he had forgotten anything. "I am out of here."
Buck stood. "I'll walk out with you, and I promise to send Kel home as soon as I can." The two men parted in the bull pen, and Buck watched Vin leave.
Larabee 7 - Afternoon
Vin spent the afternoon working on his plan to catch up on the home front. His first stop was at the Well's Ranch to let JD know he was back. As he exited his truck, Vin took a deep breath of invigorating mountain air. There was a certain smell to the world after a cleansing rain when everything had been renewed and refreshed, nothing could compare with.
JD sat on the porch and greeted him warmly. "Welcome home, Vin. How was your trip?"
"It was too damn long as far as 'm concerned. It's good to be back." Vin sat down on the top step.
"I hear you. I hate being away for more than a day of two," JD said. "Although I remember when you and I used every scheme we could think of to wrangle a week off to go skiing, rafting or to sneak off with the bikes."
"If I recall, we usually ended up gettin' hurt and havin' to listen to Chris and Buck bitch us out." Vin smiled. "We did seem to piss 'em off on a regular basis."
"Yeah we did." JD grinned. "We haven't done that in a while. You think we're getting too settled in our ways?"
"Buck and Chris are settled in their ways, you and I just found somethin' wild and exhilaratin' at home to keep us busy." It pleased Vin to see JD apparently doing well.
"Speaking of which, have you seen Kel yet?"
"Not yet, she's workin' in the field and I wanted to stop by and see you before I went home." Vin looked at his watch. "I need to get a move on if I want to feed the twins, and then pick up Andi and Jason from school." He stood up to leave.
JD smiled, "Better than biking or rafting ain't it?"
"Damn straight," Tanner grinned. "You take care, JD, see you later."
The next stop on Vin's list was Chris's house. He spent over an hour visiting with Grace and Cody, making sure they both knew that even though their daddy was not physically there, his spirit was with them, today in the form of an uncle who loved them both.
By two he was home in time to give Bren and Trey their afternoon feeding, while Max stayed busy in the kitchen. Sitting in the quiet of the nursery holding his sons, a feeling of peace settled over him.
He thought about the time he had been away. Ten days earlier, his visions started to come to him as a regular occurrence. Often they were obscured by a gray fog, and sometimes he saw only isolated scenes clearly. While he was not certain what had prompted them, he did know the messages being sent to him were important, even if he did not fully understand their meaning. Vin was patient though. His grandfather had taught him that all things were revealed in their own time. Often it was necessary to simply accept the presence of spirits and wait for them to speak to him when the time was right. All he could do was to keep his mind open and read the signs that were presented to him until the veils of mystery were lifted.
Vin was positive the book Josiah had found for him would shed some light on what he was experiencing. It would have to wait, though. Laying his sleeping boys in their cribs, he took one more, long look at them, before leaving to pick up Jason and Andi from school. One thing his visions had convinced him of was that it was way past time for him to tell them about their great grandfather and his teachings. There was no better time than now to start.
Andi was the first to spot his truck. She turned to her older brother with an excited smile on her face. "Jason! It's Daddy!" She took off at a run toward Vin as he stood beside the Silverado waiting for them.
Vin crouched down to catch her in his arms and spin her about for a moment, a welcoming smile creasing his lips. Andi flung her arms around his neck and let out a glee of delight. He felt another pair of arms encircle his waist when Jason joined them.
"You're home!" Jason cried out, hugging Vin tight. He loved the feel of his father's strong hand on his back.
"Yep, Daddy's home, and I thought the three of us might stop for ice cream on the way back to the ranch. Vin smiled as both children yelled their affirmative agreement to his proposal. "Then haul yourselves into the truck and let's go." Once they were securely buckled in, he slid in on the driver's side.
"Is Mom coming too?" Jason asked.
"Mom is still at work, so it's just us," Tanner grinned. "We're the three musketeers today."
"Yay! I like being an 'usketeer," Andi laughed, unaware that she had just given them a name that they would remember long after they were grown and had families of their own.
Vin found the Tanner 'uskeeteers a secluded table at the ice cream shop and listened happily to the stories his children had to tell. When they fell silent, he said, “Did I ever tell y’all I’m part Indian? Although they didn’t call themselves that since it was a derogatory name given to them by the white folks. They called themselves the People and the People I come from through my Mama are the Apaches. I thought I’d tell you about them, would you like that?"
“Oh, yes!" Andi said, eyes wide, while Jason nodded eagerly.
“Good. And while I’ll tell you about the People, I’ll also share a story or two my grandfather, Treyton Hawk, used to tell me." ” Vin smiled at his children, hoping that his grandfather’s teachings would help them as they had helped him.
Vin kept their attention for the next hour with his stories. "Okay enough for today. Let's go home and see if your Mom is there."
U.S. Marshal's Office - Phoenix
The FBI team rolled into the Marshals office like a tidal wave with no regard for anything or anyone in their path. The SAC informed the Marshals that they were taking over the investigation into the death of Christiana Adams.
Marshal Jones protested. "We put her into witness protection. That makes the investigation of her murder fall under our jurisdiction."
"Not anymore." FBI Agent Simon Rush slapped a judicial order on Marshal Jones' desk. "I want your files on her now and the name of your informant."
Jones hesitated. Giving them their files was one thing. Giving up the name of the man that tipped them off to her identity being compromised was asking too much. If a dirty cop was going down for this one, he wanted the U.S. Marshal's office to be the ones to do it. He opened the bottom drawer of his desk and pulled the disk filled with all their information on Christina Adams. "Those orders say I have to give you this, but our informant is confidential."
"You don't have a choice. I have a judge ready to sign off on arrest warrants as we speak and the authority of the Attorney General's office to do whatever is required to make it happen." Rush leaned over and lowered his voice. "You want to get into a pissing contest about who gets credit for bringing down the agent responsible for the leak, bring it on. I promise you'll lose. I want the name and location of the informant now, Marshal Jones, or the next job you have will be issuing parking tickets in Podunk, nowhere."
"We don't even have the coroner's report back yet. Are you sure…?"
"We have it and the dental records match. So, quit stalling. Where are you holding this damn informant?"
"I have two of my men with him at a safe house here in Phoenix." Jones grabbed a pen and wrote down on paper the requested information. "Here's the address." He shoved it in the FBI Agent's hand.
Agent Rush knew he had won. "Fine, my men will relieve them. As of this minute he belongs to us." He gave the order for two of his men to go to the safe house to retrieve their new informant and walked outside. He punched in a number on his cell phone to text a message. "We have retrieved the package. Our party will be in Denver by tomorrow morning."
A small pebble lodged at a precise point can lame a horse or cripple a man. One error in time can change the destiny of men and countries. The courage to follow your heart and take a stand can make the difference between victory and defeat.
Washington, D.C. - Early Evening
Chris did his damnest to avoid answering too many questions. It seemed as if all Senator Green was interested in was CASSIE and arguing about who had oversight jurisdiction concerning MCAT matters. By the end of the day's session, Larabee was not certain if it was their computer system or Travis's job the man was after. He was well aware that even after two and a half years of successful work, there were still a number of people not only in other agencies, but in the political field who resented MCAT, its existence, and the freedom they had been given to operate. Thankfully they had dismissed today's session early, but it left Chris with too much time on his hands to think about home.
Larabee lay sprawled across the bed in his hotel room and picked up the phone to call Buck at the MCAT office. Punching in the number, he waited. Gunny answered on the second ring. "Gunny, put me through to Captain Wilmington."
"Hey stud, are you havin' fun yet?" Buck asked, already knowing the answer.
"Hell yeah, a laugh a minute," Chris replied mockingly. "What's going on there?"
"It's been quiet. Justin and Vin made it in safe and sound about noon. Vin sent Justin home, turned in their reports, and when he found out Kel was still out, he headed to the ranch."
"Is Kel adjusting to being back at work?"
"You told me to keep her busy. She hasn't had time to think about adjusting or missing the kids."
"Good." Chris hesitated. "I may be overacting, but I have a feeling we may be in for some rough days ahead. I don't like what I'm hearing up here."
"Anything specific I should be watching for?"
Chris sighed, "I don't know. It may be nothing. Keep your eyes open anyway. Travis is trying to get me out of these hearings, and hopefully I'll be home sooner than Friday."
"You watch your back, Chris. I'll keep an eye on things here."
"I know you will. Call me if you need to. I'll talk to you later." Chris hung up the receiver. He had hoped talking to Buck would make him feel better about everything, but the gnawing in his gut was still there. He reached for the phone again to call home. After he talked to Grace he was going to call room service, and then turned in early.
Kelli tried to get away from work early. Fate conspired against her. The woman they interviewed today would not stop talking once she started. Kelli then had to include her statement into a full report, and deliver it to the Denver Police Department for them to follow up on. Finally she made it home and was looking forward to seeing Vin. They had talked on the phone over the last ten days. Still, it was not the same as physically being together.
She walked in the front door and heard Andi shout, "Mama, we is the uskeeteers and belong to the people!"
"You are? That's great, honey." Kelli had no idea what that meant, but Andi was excited about it.
"She means we're connected to Dad's grandfather, Treyton Hawk," Jason explained. "The People are what the Apache called themselves. Dad was telling us how all things are connected, and that means me and Andi, too." He was pleased to be the one to tell his Mom what they had talked about. "Of course I already knew about the Tanner-Larabee thing. Dad told me last year."
Vin watched his redhead walk in, feeling the now familiar tug at his heart he had experienced the first time he had seen her in that restaurant almost three years ago. Over the years, when he thought being single was his destiny, Chris repeatedly told him there was a woman out there somewhere meant for him. He never believed it until that day. He had 'known' Kelli before he even knew her name and had missed having her in his life without realizing that it had been incomplete
Vin met her halfway across the room and drew her into a long, lingering kiss, which reached deep into both their souls. He whispered to her, "I've been teachin' 'em family history. I'll explain why later."
"Yes, you will, among other things." Kelli ran her hand through Vin's hair and smiled. "I missed you."
Max entered the room. "Okay, kids, it's time to wash up for supper." Turning to Kelli and Vin, she said, "Five minutes." She followed Jason and Andi to make certain they did not make any detours.
"Five minutes," Vin grinned. "After ten days alone I'll take every minute I can get with you." As soon as the kids left the room he leaned his head down to nibble on her neck. His hands moved over his wife, taking his time to reacquaint himself with her body. Looking into her eyes he saw a mirror reflection of the desire he was feeling. "Damn, I missed bein' home."
"I can tell." She lovingly stroked the slight stubble on his jaw and felt a delightful tingle of excitement race through her.
Vin captured her hand and pulled her fingers into his mouth. Slowly, kissing each finger, his tongue curled around her skin, lightly teasing, mixed with the fine art of seduction.
The sound of giggles coming from two little imps standing in the doorway put a temporary halt to pursuing those desires.
"Apparently our five minutes is up, but we'll be continuin' this later Tanner."
Vin slid his hand down her back and patted her backside. "Count on it."
Releasing his hold on his wife he turned to the children. With a mischievous glint in his eyes, he first grabbed Andi and then Jason around their waists. Then he carried the delighted children into the dining room. The kids kept up a steady stream of conversation throughout the meal.
Vin had to read two bedtime stories them before Jason and Andi fell asleep. Bren and Trey had fought sleep as well. The twins stayed awake longer than usual after their evening feeding, enjoying their extra time with Mom and Dad. Eventually though all four little Tanners were sound asleep. Arm in arm Vin and Kelli walked out of the nursery into their bedroom, and with the exception of the five short minutes before supper, they finally found themselves truly alone together for the first time in ten days.
Kelli leaned into Vin's bare chest and sighed. Knowing he was only wearing sweatpants and nothing more, made her pulse race faster. In spite of the fact that she only wore her silk robe, the room was getting warmer. She wrapped her arms around her husband's waist. "Now it's our turn, Tanner." She raised one hand, placed it on the back of his neck and pulled his head down, gifting him with a sizzling kiss that stirred his blood and Vin was convinced would last forever.
"Lord, woman, you're killin' me." Vin took her hand and squeezed it gently. "As much as I want to make love to you right now, we need to talk first." He led her over to the big overstuffed chair next to their bed, sat down and drew Kelli across his lap. "What I am about to tell you may sound … well, a little strange. Hear me out please."
"A little strange," she said with a smile. "You and Chris talk without words, read one another's thoughts, and your instincts have given you directions to act without good reason more times than I can recall. There is nothin' you could tell me that I would consider strange, darlin'. So, get it out. What has been stuck in your craw since you went to Santa Fe?" She had been able to pick up during their phone conversations something was off by the tone of his voice.
"Many years ago my grandfather told me that one day I would rediscover two spirits I had known in the past. Once reunited, one would strengthen my mind, and the other would reveal my destiny. Chris is the brother of my spirit. He certainly has made me stronger mentally. I know he and I have been brothers before and will be again. I also know you are the one that has fulfilled my fate. We have been lovers in more than one lifetime. We are lifemates, Kel, I know that. I know we have been before and always will be one."
"Vin, I don't think that's strange, it's beautiful. We've discussed this before so why…" He tenderly laid a finger across her lips.
"Bear with me Kel and hear me out. The first night I was in Santa Fe, I had what I thought was a dream. It was about a young woman that I felt I should know somehow. I quickly realized I was not dreamin'. I had been granted the first of several visions. Over the next week I saw bits and pieces of a time long ago … I saw her death. I didn’t understand what it specifically meant, but I did remember her name, so I did some research. Then I asked Josiah locate a book for me. I was determined to try to figure out what my visions were showing me so I could understand why they were important. He found the book and gave it to me this afternoon."
"Did you find your answers?"
"Not all of 'em. Let me tell you part of the historical account so you can decide for yourself." He reached over and picked up the book lying on the table next to the chair.
"This is a book put together by Amanda Forsyth-Cain. It was published privately for the descendents of William Forsyth, her great- great-great-grandfather, who settled in Santa Fe in the early part of the 1800's. He had four daughters and one son. The daughters married and moved out of the area. His son Daniel married and took over the prosperous family ranch when William died in 1858. Daniel had one son and three daughters. The two oldest ones married men he chose for them. His youngest, Anne, was a bit of a rebel and refused to even meet the man he had picked for her.
The journal entries in this book are taken from Anne, and her sister Meredith's diaries. In the summer of her seventeenth year Anne met a young bounty hunter from Texas. Before long they were in love and meetin' in secret every chance they could. One thing led to another I reckon, and she became pregnant. He wanted to confront her father with the fact they loved each other and planned to be married. Anne convinced her Texas cowboy that her father would never approve. They agreed to meet the next mornin' and leave for a new life together, further west. Accordin' to Meredith's diary their father found out about the love affair and was livid. His daughter was not goin' to be involved with a common cowboy. He made plans to get rid of the young Texan and intended to send Anne back east to live with his sister.
Daniel Forsyth followed his youngest child when she left before daylight the next mornin'. He took six of his men with him, vowin' to make his daughter do his biddin', not hers. She met her Texan and they were ready to leave Santa Fe forever when her father confronted the two young lovers. He grabbed his daughter and slapped her. Infuriated that her father dared to harm Anne in front of him, the Texan attacked the older man. Forsyth ordered his men to shoot the cowboy. Instead, Anne threw herself in front of her chosen mate and they shot her. She died in her lover's arms takin' their unborn child with her. Afterward, her father was devastated by the outcome and instead of killin' the young Texan, Forsyth ordered him to leave town and never come back. The bounty hunter had lost the only thing that mattered to him in Santa Fe and he returned to Texas. Accordin' to Meredith's diary she heard later he was accused of a murder, left the state and then headed west supposedly joinin' up with six other men as some kind of peacekeeper."
Vin looked up at his wife and saw the tears rolling down her cheeks. Setting the book aside, he reached over and gently brushed them away as he held her tighter.
Although Kelli had no idea how or why, she felt a kinship with Anne and understood how the young woman must had felt on that fateful day. "She loved him Vin, and I bet if you read her last diary entry she was afraid her father would try to stop them. Deep down she knew what the outcome would be and was prepared for it. Anne was willin' to die rather than have her father separate her from the man she loved. She believed that even death would not stop them from reunitin' someday."
Tanner picked up the book again to read the diary entry and was not surprised to see that was exactly what Anne had written. He had known since earlier that afternoon that he was linked in some way to the young Texan and that his Kelli, who coincidently was first named Anne while in foster care, was linked to that Anne. He still wasn't sure why it had been revealed to him here and now, yet he accepted it. It explained his visions and only confirmed what he had known since the first time he had laid eyes on Kelli. A higher power had preordained them to be eternal partners in a love that went beyond reason and control when their spirits had instantly recognized one another as lifemates.
"My grandfather had the gift of visions his entire life, and he knew how to interpret them. He was also a firm believer that our lives are all connected in a never-endin' circle. Until now I knew I had flashes of insight, or good instincts as you call them. I didn't know I was able to have visions too."
"Maybe Anne and her Texan's spirits are together now." She shifted her position gently stroking his jaw line with her fingertips and huskily whispered. "As for me and my Texan, we have ten days of lovin' to catch up on."
Vin saw in the depths of her sapphire blue eyes the ageless love Kelli kept guarded from others, yet freely shared with him. He saw a woman who had every reason in the world not to trust anyone, yet would lay her life in his hands without hesitation. She was a woman that had a difficult time saying I love you, yet she told him every day in a hundred different ways how much he meant to her. She was the mother of his children, and undeniably his lifemate. He could not even begin to imagine his life without her.
"Then I reckon, woman, that we best get started." Vin grinned roguishly as he tenderly slid his hands across her shoulders, pushing back the silk robe she wore to expose the bare skin underneath. Their eyes locked and they both knew that the rest of this night belonged to them.
Their enthusiasm spent and desires sated, it took some time before either of them had the energy to move out of the chair to the bed. Once they did, Vin covered them both as they cuddled together under the comforter. He held her long after their lovemaking was over, smiling as he watched his wild redhead settle into a serene sleep and reflected on their life together.
They had certainly filled more than one book of memories in the last three years. Admittedly, earning her trust had been a challenge in the beginning, but damn well worth the effort. He vowed never to abuse the gift of unconditional love he had been given or take for granted the woman curled up next to him. They may not have the freedom they once had to spend time together at will since the children came along, but having Jason, Andi, Bren, and Trey had only enriched their lives. Neither of them would change a thing, nor let their special times together fall by the wayside of busy lives.
Eventually he drifted off to sleep; contented with his life and confident he had solved the mystery of his visions, totally at peace with the discovery he had made about the young Texan and his Anne.
Vin had been asleep for about an hour when the visions returned with a vengeance. Swirls of assorted colors assaulted him first, and then imagines began to flash across his field of vision like an old-time movie reel playing at a Saturday matinee. He saw what he thought was the Larabee ranch house. It wasn't, it was older and the woman he saw with a child was not Anne or anyone else that he recognized. Then there were flames everywhere. In his mind, he heard the death screams of the mother and child as they perished.
Then the picture changed to a time much closer to the present. His vision took him to a November first morning, twelve years into the past. He watched as a beautiful young woman laughed and walked with a young boy. They exited a house he did recognize as Chris's and they stopped beside a pickup truck parked in the driveway. Vin saw the young woman open the vehicle door and tell the boy to climb inside first. She followed and slid into the driver seat, reaching to insert the key into the ignition. He knew what he would see next, yet he still jerked when the truck exploded into flames.
Vin rolled out of bed, careful not to awaken his wife. He went over to the window, staring out into the night. Clouds raced across the moon, allowing intermitting beams of light to break through. The light reflected off the glistening drops of moisture left by the rain, creating what appeared to be a blanket of shimmering diamonds on the ground. The serenity of the night set a sharp contrast to the turmoil of thoughts and emotions Vin was experiencing. The visions he had seen in Santa Fe he could halfway understand the reason for. Although why he had to see Sarah and Adam Larabee's death was inexplicable to him.
He knew there was a warning veiled within his visions, except he did not have the vaguest idea about what it was. How or if it affected him, his family or Chris was not clear. All he had were questions with no answers, and a gut feeling was telling him that an unseen evil was looming around the edges of his life. He turned away from the window to observe the soft rise and fall of Kelli's chest as she slept. His thoughts drifted to the next room, where the twins were sleeping and then to Jason and Andi. Ezra was half a world away in Italy, Chris was half a continent away in Washington, the Larabee children were snuggled in their beds here on the ranch, and Nathan was in Seattle. JD and his family were secure at the Well's ranch, while Josiah and Buck were tucked in safely with their families.
*What in the hell is going on, Tanner, and who is in danger? *
Deep in the shadows of the night, a gunfighter clad in black and a young Texan stood sentry at the gates of time. Their moment of decision was at hand and whatever they decided tonight could change the course of destiny for their descendents.
* It's time,* the gunfighter told his friend.* Chris needs to lay his pain to rest once and for all. Cody and Grace are depending on him.*
The young Texan gazed at the now empty window of the Tanner home, where moments before Vin was standing. *It's gonna be especially difficult for him.*
*Hell, it's going to test them all. They're going to need our help to see this through.*
Nodding his head in agreement, the younger man reached out to clasp forearms with his spirit brother. *Let's do it.*
The two men moved out of the shadows and stepped across the threshold of tomorrow, into their future.
There was no escaping the insidious shadows that plagued her mercilessly from the first day the monster had come to see her. She tried to shut them out. They were relentless in their quest to inflict further torment upon her already fragile state of mind. Their sinister voices permeated her every waking moment, and terrorized her ceaselessly while she slept. They had robbed her of the power to speak, and twisted her thoughts until she could no longer distinguish what was real or imagined. The door to her isolated room opened slowly, announcing the arrival of the monster whose very presence sent shivers of uncontrollable terror racing through her slender form. She tried to make herself invisible by scrambling off of the bed and curling up into a ball in the corner. It was futile. The monster had already seen her and there was nothing she could do, but wait for the inevitable.
It approached her in slow motion, and time seemed to cease as the world around her stilled. When the sinister being reached her hiding place at last, it spoke in a husky whisper that was barely audible, and its ominous words penetrated the shroud of confusion swirling around her.
"Today the first victim will fall prey to my magnificently crafted web of deceit. One by one, as the seven are divided, their strength will wane. Then I shall become the conqueror and claim my victory."
Thursday October 11th
Vin entered the building and proceeded straight to his office, not stopping to say good morning to anyone. Last night's vision had been particularly unsettling for him and his mood had not improved with the light of day. He closed the door behind him before Buck could ask him what was wrong. Kelli came in fifteen minutes later. Wilmington did not allow her to slide past him as easily.
"You and Vin came in separately. Is everything okay with you two?"
"We're fine, Buck." Kelli thought about their loving solution to her husband's bad mood, earlier this morning. "In fact, we're more than fine. We just drove separate vehicles in case one of the kids needs us and we can't leave together." Kelli knew Vin was upset about his latest vision, but she was not about to share that information without his permission, not even with Buck. Until Vin could work it out, he was going to be worse than a sore tailed bear rudely awakened from hibernation.
"Positive, Captain. Now may I get to my desk please?"
"All right," Buck stepped aside to let Kelli pass. He did not believe her explanation for a second, but the other agents were arriving. He would bide his time and wait to find out the truth.
War Room - 9:00 a.m.
Guy Saunders knew that sooner or later he would have to face Tanner. It appeared to be now, as both men entered the conference room at the same time for the morning briefing. Saunders had expected Captain Tanner to at least speak to him. The man only brushed past him without so much as a second glance. Maybe he had lucked out and Tanner had forgotten their last meeting.
Vin was already in a foul mood. Seeing Saunders had not improved it. He was determined to hold on to his temper though, and for the time being planned to just ignore the man. There would be time later on to discuss Saunders's respect issues, should the need arise. Vin had spent the last hour reviewing the current cases each agent was handling and was satisfied nothing required his immediate attention. In fact, with such a light caseload he wondered why he was even here. Buck was capable of taking care of things until Chris returned. Vin would have preferred to be in his office, making discreet inquiries about the investigation into the deaths of Sarah and Adam Larabee.
Buck waited for the other agents to get settled. Then he started the briefing. "Let's get down to business. Tomorrow we're going to take part in a mock disaster drill. Several agencies will be involved, including DPD, all Denver emergency response teams, homeland security, the FBI, and the ATF. We will be given the details at 9:00 am, and will respond as if this were the real thing. Mark, be sure Bandit gets a good rest tonight, I have a feeling he'll need it."
Mark laughed. "Bandit has no problem resting. He works hard, plays hard, and sleeps hard."
"Sounds like Alex," Raphael said. "When we were at that training seminar last month in Vegas, he partied ‘til the wee hours, and then slept like the dead."
"He snores, too," Mark added with a conspiratorial grin.
"I do not!" Alex protested. "Besides, what happens in Vegas is supposed to…"
"Stay in Vegas," several agents shouted in unison amid bouts of laughter.
"Okay, children, let's try and stay focused." Buck sounded serious, but he was secretly happy to see the banter and teasing among the agents. It was a sign that things were really returning to normal after an extraordinarily demanding year.
Before he was able to continue the briefing, the team was alerted to the sound of some kind of commotion in the outer office, accompanied by raised voices, including Gunny’s. Vin motioned for everyone to stay seated while he went to investigate. When he opened the door, he saw Gunny in a standoff with half a dozen men in dark suits and identical sunglasses, who were flashing badges at her. She was standing her ground and not letting them past her desk, refusing to give them further access to the structure. As Vin stepped out into the bullpen, the men harassing Gunny turned toward him in a synchronized movement meant to intimidate. Vin wasn’t impressed. Buck, watching from his position just inside the doorway of the War Room, immediately tensed up, shifting his feet to get a better view of the unfriendly forces invading their territory.
"Are these men harassin’ you, Gunny?" Vin questioned as he moved to stand beside the older woman. Without waiting for her to answer him, he addressed his next question to the Men in Black. "I hope to hell y’all have a good reason for bullyin’ this sweet little ole lady?"
Buck had moved out of the War Room to flank Vin and Gunny, followed by Josiah, who had sensed the trouble as well. Buck snickered in response to Tanner's remark, earning him a scathing glare from Mrs. Montgomery.
"Special Agent Simon Rush, FBI Special Judicial Task Force." The man closest to Gunny faced Captain Tanner, and identified himself. "We're here to question Agent Pamela Walton." He slapped a warrant into Vin's hands. "We also plan to search your main office area and seize the data on the MCAT computer system."
"Like hell you will!" Without moving or taking his eyes off of Agent Rush, Vin gave Gunny an order. "Get Director Travis on the phone."
"Travis can't help you, Tanner." Rush stepped forward into Vin's personal space and his men moved with him. "Now, I suggest you move out of the way or I'll have you arrested for obstruction of justice."
"Unless you plan on this little skirmish escalating into a full scale war, I suggest you order your men to back off," Josiah said, the stormy look in his blue eyes belying the calm infliction in his voice.
"It would please me to no end to arrest all of the members of the infamous "Magnificent Seven" and their flunkies, however, I will settle for taking you down one at a time."
By now all of the team members had overheard the heated conversation going on in the other room. Pam paled when she heard her name mentioned. She didn’t allow it to keep her from joining her teammates. They moved to stand behind their leaders. Kelli reached out and placed a reassuring hand on Pam’s arm, while they all waited to see what would happen next.
"You’re going to need more men if you plan on getting through all of us," Buck told him.
"This warrant, signed by a Federal judge, gives me all of the authority I need," Rush said while shoving the paper into Vin's hands. "Agent Pamela Walton, I need you to step forward."
Kelli’s fingers tightened on Pam’s arm, keeping her in place until Vin finished reading the contents of the warrant. With a resigned sigh, Tanner gave a curt nod over one shoulder. Reluctantly Kelli removed her hold on Pam, as the other female MCAT agent stepped forward.
"The warrant is legitimate," Vin said quietly to the other MCAT agents. To Rush he said, "If you intend to question Agent Walton, then you’ll do it in our Federal office, and not yours. You can use our conference room…with the blinds open."
A tense silence settled over the two groups as Agent Rush contemplated Captain Tanner’s terms. Finally he relented, thinking it prudent for now to keep things from escalating further. "I’ll agree to your request, Tanner, just as long as you or your men don’t interfere with the execution of this warrant."
Vin did not like the turn of events, because MCAT records were suppose to stay confidential. However, he was not going to let these men leave the office with one of his agents. "Fine, you execute your warrant, but if there is so much as a single paper clip out of place when you finish, I’ll make sure that the next job you have is flippin' burgers at McDonald’s."
Despite the seriousness of the situation, all of the MCAT Agents burst out laughing, while Gunny smirked.
"Damn, Tanner, you’re channeling Chris again," Buck said.
"Director Travis is on line one, Captain," Gunny informed Vin.
Tanner grabbed the closest phone. "Sir, we have half a dozen Fibbies here with a warrant to search the office and seize the data on CASSIE. They also are in the process of questionin' Agent Walton." While Vin listened intently to the Director's instructions, he observed the men from the FBI rifling through each of the MCAT agents' desks. Rush had taken Pam into the conference room and from the looks of it through the window, he was attempting to intimidate her. Travis however gained his full attention when he ordered Vin to make certain that no one be allowed to take one disk of data from CASSIE, even if it meant destroying the system. "I understand, Sir."
Buck and Josiah had been standing next to Vin while he conferred with Travis. Buck lowered his voice and asked, "What did Travis say?"
Vin waited until the FBI Agent closest to them moved away, before he answered softly, "Buck, you better call JD and warn him so he won't panic when his computer shuts down. Travis wants us to pull the plug on CASSIE."
"Damnit! How are we supposed to do that with JD out and Pam in there with Mister Gloom and Doom?"
Josiah looked over to where Mallory was standing beside the CASSIE station. "Mal can do it."
"Tell her to do it, Josiah." Vin wished that Chris was the one issuing the order, but he wasn't. Keeping the confidentiality of MCAT intact was more important than whatever consequences any of them might face as agents. "It's a direct order from Travis."
Josiah casually sauntered over to where his wife stood. Ignoring the FBI agents ransacking the outer office, he leaned over and whispered in her ear. To her credit, Mallory didn't react with any facial expression to the instructions that Josiah had just given her. She nodded in Vin's direction to acknowledge the order she knew had come from him. Mallory typed in a code on her keyboard and the screen changed from CASSIE to MCAT. Within five minutes all of the specialized and confidential information stored in CASSIE would be irretrievably erased. The computer system would only hold whatever other government law enforcement agencies had access to. Special Agent Simon Rush was not going to be a happy man.
Meanwhile, Buck had been repeatedly calling the Wells' Ranch, trying unsuccessfully to get hold of JD. He was growing increasingly worried the more time passed and no one answered JD's cell or the house phone. He knew JD didn't have any scheduled doctor's appointments, and Nettie had stayed close to home during the younger MCAT agent's recovery, while Casey worked for Reins of Change. The lack of response was giving him a very bad feeling.
Aside from a light drizzle outside, the day had started out almost perfect. Casey and JD shared an hour together, before the twins were up and running. Nettie made a wonderful breakfast of blueberry pancakes, sausage and eggs that the family had enjoyed together. While JD entertained Lilah and Daisy by reading to them, Nettie and Casey washed the dishes and cleaned up the kitchen. Their work was interrupted by a knock at the door.
"I bet that's Rain coming to check on you," Casey said to JD as she headed to answer the door.
"Most likely," JD agreed. He went back to his reading. The girls began to fidget.
Casey opened the door and felt alarm fill her when she took in the serious looking men in dark suits standing on her front porch. "Can I help you?"
"I'm Special Agent Frank Spelling from the FBI. I have a warrant for John Daniel Dunne's arrest and to search your house," the tall, blond haired man in the front of the group said brusquely.
Before Casey had a chance to reply, the man pulled open the screen door and brushed past her into the house. The rest of the men quickly followed him inside
"You can't arrest him! He's a federal agent!" Casey cried out as she ran into the living room after them. Two of the agents were roughly pulling JD to his feet, ignoring the terrified screams of both Lilah and Daisy, who had been sitting on either side of their dad.
"You're going to regret doing this," Nettie told the men angrily, maneuvering her way over to the couch where Lilah and Daisy were sitting. The twins were clinging to each other and crying their hearts out. She scooped them up into her arms and tried to comfort them.
JD winced at the pain shooting through him when two federal agents handcuffed his hands behind his back. He was aware of the surreal events going on around him, but his first priority was his family. "Nettie, will you take the girls into their bedroom? They don't need to be in here witnessing this."
Nettie nodded and stood, carrying the crying toddlers out of the room. JD turned his attention to his wife, who was nearly as hysterical as his daughters were. He edged himself closer to her, ignoring the FBI agent whose only task was to keep an eye on him. "Casey, let the men do their jobs, honey, I promise you everything will be fine."
"They're tearing up the house, and you're in handcuffs. How in the hell can you stand there and tell me everything will be fine?" Casey exclaimed, her brown eyes overflowing with tears at seeing him in restraints, in addition to having the FBI invading the privacy of their home.
"C'mere," JD said. He ached to take her into his arms and hold her, but couldn't because of the handcuffs.
Casey obeyed the softly spoken words. She leaned into him for the comfort she so desperately needed from him at that moment. JD kissed the top of her head. He whispered soothing words to her, shutting out everything going on in the room but her, trying to comfort her as best he could under the circumstances.
Washburn, the agent guarding him, stepped quickly forward and jerked JD forcefully away from Casey, causing the younger man to wince in pain. "You have the right to remain silent and I suggest you use it. We got you for conspiracy to commit murder, Dunne, and my only regret is we can't arrest the rest of your hot shot team."
"Leave him alone!" Casey yelled, having seen her husband wince in pain. "My husband is recovering from surgery. Hurt him, and I'll have your badge." The house phone was ringing again and although she had already been warned not to answer it, Casey dove for the cordless phone setting on the coffee table.
Agent Washburn was quicker than Casey. He grabbed her by one arm, stopping her movement forward and pushed her struggling body down onto the couch "I told you to let it ring!"
"Touch my wife again and even these handcuffs won't stop me from tearing your head off!" JD shouted as he lunged forward, furious at his wife's mistreatment. Only the quick thinking of another agent stopped the infuriated young man from attacking the man that grabbed Casey.
Agent Washburn turned away from Casey and approached JD. "Well now, I think I just heard you threaten a Federal Agent, Mister Dunne. That ought to add at least ten years onto your sentence."
Casey let out a cry of outrage as she watched Agent Washburn shove JD. Without the use of his hands, JD couldn’t protect himself or prevent falling to the floor. Washburn took great delight in accidentally kicking JD in the side before pulling him off of the floor and throwing him into the recliner next to the couch.
"Oh, JD," Casey cried out, taking in the look of agonizing pain sweeping over his face before he could control it. Anger overrode her fear, and just as she was about to take on the federal agent single-handedly, a familiar female voice alerted her to the fact that reinforcements had arrived.
Rain and Caitlyn had planned a short visit with the Dunne's. Although she wasn't JD's orthopedic doctor, Rain had been providing some additional medical care for him, so that he didn't have to venture into town too often. When they drove down the driveway leading up to the Wells' Ranch, fear swept through Rain as she took in several unfamiliar vehicles blocking the driveway and parked on the lawn. She and Caitlyn exchanged concerned looks as Rain parked her car behind one of the others. The two women got out and quickly hurried up to the front door. The sounds of angry shouts, crying, and furniture being thrown around inside increased their concern.
"Just what the hell is going on here?" Rain demanded, her barely controlled anger deepening her voice as she took in the situation with narrowing dark eyes. Without waiting for a reply she started to approach JD. Agent Washburn stopped her.
"You are attempting to impede a federal operation in motion, ma'am," Washburn told her in a firm voice.
"Agent Dunne is recovering from extensive back surgery and is under the care of his personal doctor and me. I am not interested in disrupting any part of your 'investigation'. However I will see to it that JD doesn't receive further mishandling by you or any of the other so called federal officers on the premises. Now, unless you intend to arrest me, I suggest you move out of my way."
When Agent Washburn still didn't move out of Rain's way, Caitlyn gave him and the other agents a glare that would have made the men of MCAT proud. She said, "You may think you can justify bruises on the Dunne’s, but there’s no way in hell you’ll be able to explain them on all of us."
"I don't care who the hell you are or what your association is with Agent Dunne and his family. There is an ongoing investigation taking place on these premises, and you are not stepping one foot further into this house. So I advise you ladies to turn your nosy little heads around and leave before I stop playing Mister Nice and arrest you both," Agent Washburn told them. He knew he had let his personal feelings about MCAT get the better of him. Unless he got the situation back under control again, Special Agent Dunne wasn’t the only one in trouble.
Neither of the two women heeded the order he had given them. While Caitlyn engaged Washburn in a stare down to distract him, Rain pulled out her cell phone and set it on camera mode. She had to work to hold her own emotions in check as she locked eyes with Casey, and snapped pictures of her tear-stained face and the rapidly appearing bruises on areas of both Dunne's bodies.
Rain had just finished snapping the pictures, when one of the other Agents took notice of what she was doing and hollered, "Stop that."
Before the agent or Washburn could take the cell phone away from her, Rain quickly shoved it into the waistband of her pants and dared the two men to try to take it from her with a heated stare.
"That's it. You are out of here!" Washburn exclaimed, grabbing Caitlyn by the arm and forcing her out the front door, while another agent moved in on Rain.
"Touch me, and I'll see you in court." Rain warned the agent as she moved out the door on her own.
"I’m sure the press would be interested in the FBI’s attempt to hide the evidence of their brutality," Caitlyn growled, shrugging her arm free of Washburn's hold on it.
Agent Washburn swallowed hard, knowing backing off now was the only thing that would save his career. "Ladies, it would be advisable if you left the property now."
"We're staying," Rain told him firmly
Agent Washburn turned around and went back inside, followed by the other agent. "Keep an eye on them. They make any attempts to come back into the house through another way, let me know."
"Yes, sir," The other agent responded.
Rain stepped off of the porch and fished her cell phone out of the waist band of her pants. She opened the phone and pressed the button she knew would call Josiah's cell phone. Caitlyn moved to stand in a position that didn't allow the agent watching them through the screen door to see what Rain was doing.
A single transgression carried out against one innocent set into motion a chain of events destined to affect them all. Most did not understand what the rumbling sounds in the distance truly meant. For it was not the sound of thunder associated with lightning. It was the echo of men's voices through the ages rallying a charge, and answering the call to confront injustice.
The sound of a ringing cell phone startled the agents. Josiah immediately recognized the number as Rain's. He almost ignored the message when he saw it was a picture thinking Rain was sending him a new photo of Adam at the Reins of Change day school. A small voice inside his head told him to check to make sure. Anger swept through him when he saw JD's trussed up figure and Casey's tear-stained face. He went straight to Vin. "We got problems at the Wells' Ranch," he whispered showing them the pictures on his phone.
"Sonofabitch," Vin whispered. He reached to grab Buck’s arm before quietly saying, "Take a team and go check it out."
"Justin, Josiah, let's roll." Buck wasted no time heading toward the door. Whatever was happening at the Wells' place, he intended to get to the bottom of it fast.
Agent Rush released Pam after twenty minutes of questioning. Once he conferred with his men about the progress of their search, he was livid. "Tanner! What the hell did you do to this computer system?" He marched over to Vin shouting, his forehead furrowed into angry lines as he came to a stop in front of the MCAT agent.
"I didn't do a damn thing to it!" Vin's arctic blue glare stopped Agent Rush in his tracks. "Now, if you're finished with your damn fishin' expedition, I want you and your men to get the hell out of here."
"That is good advice, Agent Rush." Orrin Travis walked in, catching the verbal exchange between Rush and Tanner. "I just got off the phone with your superior. You are through here and free to leave. If you need help I'll have a couple of my agents escort you off the property."
"I'm quite certain we can manage without your assistance…Sir." It took all the discipline Rush could muster to add the sir, but he was not going to give Travis grounds for insubordination charges. He signaled to his men and within three minutes they had cleared the building.
As soon as the FBI Agents were gone, Travis turned to his Captain. "Your office, Tanner, I'll hear it all, from the beginning."
Buck turned on the siren, hit the strobe lights on his truck and made it to JD's in record time. He jumped out of the vehicle and ran up the porch steps, only to be met by a nearly hysterical Casey.
"Buck," Casey exclaimed, flinging her arms around Wilmington's neck as he reached the porch. "They took JD! They put him in handcuffs and hurt him!"
Wilmington felt his heart plummet into his stomach as he held the hysterical young woman in his arms. "Casey, you have to calm down darlin'. Who took JD?"
Casey drew back and tried to control her crying so she could respond to Buck's question. "The...FBI...they came in here and said they had a warrant for JD's arrest and to search the house."
Rain stepped forward. "The charge was conspiracy to commit murder and they were very aggressive when severing their warrants."
"They trashed the house and took JD's computer." Caitlyn added.
"Where are the girls?" Josiah asked, alarmed by the bruises starting to show on Casey's arms.
"Nettie took Lilah and Daisy into the back bedroom and Inez is on her way over to pick them up," Rain answered. "JD's going to need to be examined by a doctor. The FBI agents were very rough with him."
"They said they were taking him to… to jail." Casey sobbed. "You all have to help him."
"We will darlin', I promise." Buck attempted to sound reassuring.
Rain wrapped her arm around Casey's shoulders. "Caitlyn and I will stay here with Casey and Nettie and help them calm down. You men do whatever you have to do to get JD out of jail. "
Buck hugged Casey, and confident that she was in good hands turned his attention to finding JD. "Justin!" Buck yelled as he ran toward the truck, with Josiah following closely behind him.
Justin was already dialing the number. "Captain Tanner is on the line." He handed the phone to Buck.
Orrin Travis was not a happy man. Not only had he found out about a special FBI task force assembled specifically to target his team, now they had invaded his territory. "Vin, these men were hand picked to investigate MCAT. It all transpired because an unnamed informant contacted Senator Green with some wild accusations. The sudden need for Chris to be in Washington makes more sense now."
Vin said, "Rush must be damn confidant about his support to barge in here like he did."
"From what I gather they're a cocky bunch. They envision themselves being the next elite MCAT team. After they discredit this one of course," Travis replied wearily.
"Damn, they want to destroy us and replace us?" Vin shook his head and answered his ringing cell phone.
It was a call from Buck. "Vin, the FBI arrested JD and took him to holding! We'll meet you there."
"Damn." Vin slammed the phone down and stood. "JD's been arrested. We need to meet Buck at the Federal building." He grabbed his jacket on his way to the door.
"I'm going with you." Travis joined him. "You may need my connections to get in to see him."
Vin stopped long enough to tell Kelli about JD. "You're in charge until Justin gets back. Stick close to Pam, make sure she's okay." He leaned in and gave her a quick kiss. "I'll call you as soon as I know more."
"You take care, Tanner, and tell JD to hang in there." Her heart ached for Casey, but she knew Rain, Inez and Caitlyn would take good care of her and the girls. Right now she was needed here. Pam was putting up a brave front. Still, the interview followed by the news about JD had shaken her, and Kelli wanted to be here for her.
The Director and Vin made good time, arriving at the Federal holding facility in less than twenty minutes. They had just exited the truck when Buck pulled in beside them, jumping out of his vehicle before Josiah or Justin had a chance to even open their doors.
"This is bullshit," Buck started in on Travis. "There's no way JD could be involved in a murder."
"Captain Wilmington, you need to calm down," Travis said sternly. "I will get to the bottom of this, but if you cannot control yourself, you will wait out here while we go inside."
"Buck, give Justin your keys. He can go back to the office and hold things down while we work on gettin' JD out." Vin said calmly, hoping to cool some of Buck's anger and give him a minute to compose himself.
Taking a deep breath, Buck knew he had to unwind before he saw JD. He reached in his pocket and tossed his keys to Justin. "We'll stay in touch."
"Whatever you need me to do let me know, and consider it done." After a nod to the Director, Justin climbed into Buck's truck and headed back to the office.
"When we get inside, I'll do the talking" Travis instructed. "I will not tolerate anything less than professional conduct. Are we clear?"
"Absolutely." Josiah moved to stand beside Buck. "We're right behind you, Sir."
The four men started toward the main entrance, unified in their intent to get the recovering JD Dunne released from jail. They hadn't gone very far when a flicker of light crossed over Tanner's face, and he raised his hand to shade his eyes from the sudden glare. He looked toward the direction the unexpected bright light had come from and recognized the unmistakable glint of metal off a sniper's rifle on the roof of the building across the street.
"Gun!" Tanner shouted, alerting his companions to the danger, even as he drew his own weapon and went down in a crouch. Several shots rang out in rapid succession around them. Josiah went down on one knee, his gun trained in the same direction. Buck threw himself at the Director. Both men hit the pavement when chunks of splintered asphalt flew at them. The MCAT agent's service revolvers barked as they returned cover fire until the threat and the sniper were gone.
Tanner's blue eyes scanned the roof and once he was satisfied that it was safe, gave the all clear. "You can get up now, whoever it was is long gone."
Josiah was already on the phone giving details of the attack to the security personal inside the Federal building. He knew they would search all the adjacent buildings, but he was certain their assassin was in the wind.
Vin turned around expecting to see Buck helping Director Travis off of the ground. Alarm flooded through him when he realized neither man had moved. "Josiah, call 911!" He ordered the other agent while he knelt down beside Buck.
"Dear Lord," Josiah exclaimed. He carried out the order, before crouching down at Vin's side.
"Help me roll Buck off of Travis," Tanner told Sanchez.
Together the two men eased Buck's large frame over onto his back, so they could each examine one of the wounded men. Sanchez and Tanner both drew in sharp intakes of breath when they saw the blood covering the front of Wilmington's shirt. Josiah examined Travis, while Vin checked out Buck. His eyes scanned over Wilmington's body, noting the large goose egg above Buck's left eye, and prayed that it was the only injury the man had suffered. He touched two fingers to the large vein in Buck's neck and felt relief flood over him when he found a strong heartbeat. It was then he discovered the gunshot wound in Buck's right shoulder, and Vin applied pressure to the area to staunch the flow of blood.
"Buck's got a shoulder wound and a knot on his head the size of Texas. How's Travis?"
"It's not good, Brother. Gunshot wound to the upper right quadrant. He's unconscious, and his pulse is weak," Josiah reported. "Where the hell is that ambulance?"
Vin was listening to Josiah, while he kept pressure on Buck's wound. Though he was seeing jumbled images of Anne, Sarah, and Adam flash through his mind, He shook his head to clear his thoughts, trying to concentrate on the present. Were his visions a warning about sniper attacks? Or was this just the beginning of something more sinister?
It seemed an eternity had passed before the ambulance arrived and the paramedics were able to attend to the injured men. In reality it had taken only seven minutes. Vin and Josiah were forced to stand back while the medics assessed their patients. Orrin Travis was in critical condition and Buck, though still unconscious, was deemed to be stable. While the two injured men were prepared for transport, Vin conferred with Josiah.
"You go in the ambulance with them, Josiah. I'll have Inez and Mrs. Travis notified, and arrange for them to be escorted to the hospital." Vin wanted to go, too, but his first priority was to try to get in and see JD.
"I expect you're going to get in touch with Chris and apprise him of today's events." Josiah knew Vin would prefer to be the one to take on that task.
"After I see JD, I'll call and fill him in on what's goin' on. In the meantime I'll tell Mike to fuel up the jet and head to Washington." Vin sighed. He watched Travis and Buck being loaded into the back of the ambulance. "Stay with 'em. We don't know who the target was or if the bastard will try again."
"Watch your back," Josiah warned him, before he climbed into the ambulance. Vin closed the door, slapping the palm of his hand against it to signal the driver into motion. The wail of the siren assaulted his ears when the emergency vehicle sped away.
Pulling out his cell phone, Vin dialed the MCAT office first, firing off orders to Justin. He then made arrangements for their pilot, Mike, to prepare the jet to leave for Washington D.C., ASAP. Next he talked very briefly to Kelly. He explained what had happened and instructed her and Mallory to go to the Travis home to escort Evie Travis to the hospital. His third phone call was to Rain, informing her of Buck's injuries. Rain assured Vin she would head over to the Wilmington's at once to tell Inez and bring her to the emergency room. The third call was to a friend who was a criminal attorney. With Travis down, and Ezra too far away to help, JD needed a lawyer as quickly as possible.
Vin slipped the phone back into his pocket and opened the front door of the Federal building where they processed prisoners. He was met by FBI Agent Simon Rush before he reached the front desk.
"I've been expecting you, Tanner." Rush blocked his path. "I'm sorry about your friends and I sincerely hope they'll be okay."
"That would be Director Travis and Captain Wilmington," Vin corrected him. "We don't know yet what their prognosis is, but they have the best care available."
Rush nodded. "I know why you're here, and you're wasting your time. I can't let you talk to Dunne. In fact, I've given orders that no one from MCAT is allowed in to see him."
"Is that what you call professional courtesy, Frank?"
"It's what I call covering my ass. I have my orders from higher up and I intend to follow them. My superiors were not happy to find out that you somehow fucked up your computer system."
Vin already knew that without Travis along to pull rank, his chances of actually seeing JD were somewhere between slim and none, however he wanted to make certain his message was clear. "You cover your ass, Agent Rush, but hear this. Agent Dunne is under doctor's care and I expect his medical needs to be taken care of. His attorney is on the way over and I know you won't deny Agent Dunne his constitutional rights. So, when Douglas Banks arrives you will make sure he gets inside. Won't you?"
"I wouldn't dream of denying him his rights. Our case against Dunne is too good to lose on a technicality like refusing to grant him access to his attorney." Agent Rush flashed a wicked grin. "He's going down, Tanner, and if I had my way, you, and the rest of your not so magnificent squad of hotshots would be going with him."
Vin raised an eyebrow upon hearing the unmistakable tone of resentment in the FBI agent's voice. Did the man really think he had anything on JD, or was this only a flimsy and unsubstantiated attempt to rattle their team? Whatever it was JD was not going to pay the price for it. Vin leaned closer to the agent and said in a lethal tone, "You just make certain Agent Dunne comes out of this uninjured or there won't be a place on earth you can hide from our team of magnificent hotshots." He reached out, tightened, then straightened the agent's tie, and grinned as he patted his shoulder. "You have a good day now." Captain Tanner turned and walked out of the building.
Once he was back at his truck, Vin checked the text message on his cell phone before calling Chris's number. Chris should be between sessions for a lunch break about now and easy to reach. After three rings he heard a familiar voice answer, "Larabee."
"Grace and Cody are fine, Chris." Tanner wanted to give him that assurance first. "We do, however, have a shitload of other trouble here."
"Give me the short version."
"JD's been arrested for bein' part of a murder conspiracy, Travis and Buck were shot by a sniper, the MCAT office was searched by the FBI, and we had to pull the plug on Cassie," Vin informed Chris. "Mike is on his way to Washington, D.C. as we speak, and will meet you at Reagan National at 5 o'clock, your time."
Chris was silent on the other end of the line. His head swam for a moment under all of the information Tanner had just told him. "First off, give me the specs on Travis and Buck?"
"I don't have a definite answer yet. Travis was critical at the scene, and Buck was in stable condition."
He heard Chris draw in a breath and let it out slowly, before his voice came back over the line. "Keep me informed on their condition. Now on to JD, have you been able to see him? Just who is it he was supposed to have helped murder?"
"No clue as to who it is. The warrant wasn't specific past the point of murder. Travis, Buck, Josiah, and I were on our way in to try and see JD when the sniper struck. Josiah went with the ambulance and I tried to get in to see JD, but it's a no go. The Fibbies are keeping things close to their chest and won't allow any MCAT agents in."
"Shit! There's got to be some way we can get in there. He's recovering from surgery!"
"I called in a favor from a lawyer friend I know. After my discussion with the agent in charge, the Fibbies should let him in to see JD, and then hopefully we'll know more."
"Good. Damnit, when it rains it pours for us." Chris heaved a sigh, "Once I'm airborne I'll call you back. I want to hear all the details you left out of this recitation."
"JD's attorney will contact me once he's seen him. For now I'm headed over to Denver Memorial." Vin started the truck, pulled out of the parking lot and eased into the traffic. "Inez and Evie should be there by now, and Josiah and I will run our investigation of the shootin' from there."
"Vin…," Chris hesitated. "I'll talk to you soon."
Half a continent away Chris ended the call without saying more. He was certain Vin knew how he felt. Being 1500 miles away was a bitch when your family was in trouble. He opened his briefcase and pulled out some paper. Hurriedly he scribbled a short note to the chairman of the Senate committee, explaining that he had been called away due to an emergency situation. He spotted one of Senator Green's aides and requested him to give the note to his boss. Chris then left the building, hailed a cab, and went to his hotel to pack. He should be back in Denver by early evening and he planned to waste little time before digging to the bottom of this mess.
JD had been in this building numerous times as an agent, though he had never thought much about the view from the other side of the bars. He always figured that surviving one of Chris's tirades or his piercing glares made it next to impossible to be intimidated by anything or anyone else. Being fingerprinted, photographed, and having spent two hours in this place, though, he had changed his mind. The only thing worse than hearing the door to his jail cell lock into place, was seeing Casey's tears while they forced him into the backseat of the transport car, and hearing the frightened cries of his daughters when Nettie had taken them out of the room.
The cell was small. Thankfully he did not have to share it with anyone. Judging by some of the remarks the other inmates were yelling, news of a Federal agent being in lockup was no secret. JD rubbed his aching back as he paced the 8 x 10 cell. He was beginning to feel the pain from his bruised ribs, and he was so tired he felt as if he could sleep for a week, but not in here.
JD had no doubt everyone was moving heaven and earth to get him out of here. He half expected to see Buck or Vin show up any minute to tell him this was all a big mistake and he could go home. By the time Chris returned from Washington this nightmare would be over and nothing more than a bad memory. Yep, all he had to do was last a few more hours. The pain in his back was increasing, but he could handle a little discomfort and by this time tomorrow he would be home. Wouldn't he?
"Damnit, I hate to see them go through what's comin'. Are you sure we can't stop it?" The young Texan was worried about what lay ahead for the Tanners.
"You know we can't. Events have already been set into motion we have no control over. Still, we can be there to make certain the outcome is one they can live with," the gunfighter answered. He looked toward the group gathered in the waiting room. "I just hope that stubborn Larabee won't ignore the signs. I can only do so much to try and guide him."
"It's gonna take all the strength the seven of 'em can muster up, along with our help to do this you know."
"They're up to it and we'll be there to nudge them in the right direction."
"If they listen," the young Texan voiced his reservations. "They are a stubborn lot."
"You should know better than most," the man in black grinned. "This time they'll have no choice, but to listen, if they're all going to survive."
Denver Memorial Hospital
Vin entered the emergency room and immediately headed for the waiting area they had all become too damn familiar with. He felt Kelli's eyes on him before he saw her sitting beside Inez. Knowing instinctively she was checking him over for any sign of injury, he gave his wife a reassuring smile to alleviate her obvious concern for his welfare. Josiah stepped away from the wall he was leaning against, near where Mallory and Rain were trying to calm an anxious Evie Travis.
"Any word yet on Travis or Buck?" Tanner asked the profiler.
"Nothing yet," Josiah informed him. As if the large man's words carried through the thick hospital walls, the double doors of the inner sanctum opened. Doctor Raymond Landers entered the waiting room, approaching their small group.
Two worried wives, flanked by their supportive family, stood up to meet him. Inez reached over to clasp Evie's hand and spoke for both of them. "Speak freely, doctor, we're all family here."
Landers indicated for them to reclaim their seats. He sat down opposite the two women. "Mrs. Travis, Doctor Gilford took your husband into surgery about thirty minutes ago. We were able to stabilize him. However it was imperative that we operate immediately to halt the blood loss causing his critical condition. It may be several hours before we know more." He shifted his gaze to Inez. "Mrs. Wilmington, the gunshot wound your husband received is not life threatening, and has been treated. However, the head injury he sustained has us concerned, since he has not regained consciousness. I will be admitting him for observation and what happens in the next twenty four hours will tell more about what we may be dealing with. I'm sorry I cannot be more specific at this time. We will do what we can to make both of you comfortable until we can get you in to see your husbands."
"Doctor Landers, we'll need someone with both men once they are in a room." Vin stated.
"Of course you will." Landers smiled. "I wouldn't expect anything different concerning anyone on your team." The doctor rose and took his leave.
Josiah addressed Vin. "Were you able to reach Chris?"
Tanner nodded, "He's on his way home."
Overhearing the brief conversation between them, Rain felt she should tell them about the phone call she had made to her husband. "Nathan is on his way, too. I talked to him on the ride over to the hospital. His flight should arrive at 7:10 pm Denver time."
"Chris will arrive about an hour before him," Vin said. "I tried to reach Ez, but he and Barbara weren't in. I left a message with Maude for him to call us as soon as possible. I also contacted an attorney for JD and he should be with him now. Forensics is all over the scene of the shootin', and Justin has the rest of the team contactin' their sources for any information we can gather."
"I suppose all we can do now is wait and see who comes up with somethin' first," Kelli sighed. "Either that, or we all wake up from the same bad dream."
5,585 miles from Denver
"Welcome back, Signore e Signora Standish," the doorman greeted Ezra and Barbara. He held open the door to the luxury hotel they were staying at with Maude and her newest husband, Charles Logan.
Every time someone referred to him and Barbara as Mr. and Mrs. Standish, Ezra couldn’t hold back the smile on his face that matched the one in his heart They had just returned from a trip for two to Venice, the city of lovers. With a little over two weeks left of their month long trip to Italy, the newlyweds were feeling relaxed and carefree.
"Thank you, Guido," Barbara replied, her smile matching her husband’s. "We had a wonderful time and your recommendations were excellent."
Guido saw Ezra start to unload their luggage from the rental car the hotel had arranged for them. "No. Signore Standish, I will personally see the luggage sent to your room."
Ezra thanked the man and gave him a generous tip before holding out his arm to his beloved, to escort her to their suite.
Maude and Charles were finishing a late lunch on the balcony when the younger couple arrived at the lavish suite the Logan's had leased for their stay in Rome. Joining the older couple, Ezra and Barbara openly admired the breathtaking view. "Have you eaten?" Maude asked. "We can order more."
"No thank you, Mother," Ezra replied kissing her cheek. "We stopped at a delightful bistro on the way here."
"Your Mister Tanner has called several times, looking for you. I promised the persistent man I would have you call on your return," Maude said making it sound like Vin had just called to say hello.
"Thank you Mother. If you will excuse me, I shall return his call immediately," Ezra said politely, not revealing the thread of alarm that shot through him. Neither Vin, nor any of the others would call unless it was urgent. Barbara gave Ezra’s hand a reassuring squeeze; she was also concerned about the message.
Keeping a watchful eye on Ezra, she tried to be patient as he made his call. Barbara's concern grew more pronounced when she saw the color drain from her husband's face. She caught the slight tremor in his voice when he said, "We'll be on the next flight home."
Hanging up, Ezra took a moment to calm himself before rejoining the others. He drew strength from Barbara when she offered him her hand and swallowed hard before saying. "JD has been arrested for murder, and both Buck and Orrin Travis were shot by an unknown assassin."
Barbara saved him from having to say more when she spoke up, "I'll call the airlines to book our flight home and let Guido know not to bother bringing our luggage up."
Maude's husband placed an arm around her shoulders, "There is no need for that. Please allow me to loan you my personal jet to transport you to Denver." He saw Ezra's refusal coming, so he added, "We're family now and it's just sitting at the airport. You will arrive sooner if you take it and since there is a bedroom on the plane you will be rested when you reach Denver."
"Thank you, your kindness is appreciated, Charles," Ezra said, reaching out to shake the man's hand. "If you will excuse us, we will pack the items we left here."
"I'll make the call to have the jet readied for your departure. I will also have a car and driver waiting out front for you, and instruct Guido to load your luggage into it."
Ezra nodded his gratitude and joined Barbara in packing the rest of their belongings. Barbara moved into his arms as soon as he closed the door to their room behind him, and the couple spent a few moments holding each other close while they dealt with the news they had just been given.
"Sorry about cutting our lovely holiday short, darling," Ezra said softly.
"Don't be, Ezra, I'm not. We've made enough memories here to last a lifetime. Besides, I've come to love your brothers and the rest of the Wild Bunch just as much as you do." Barbara kissed him tenderly on the lips. "Now, we really must finish packing."
"Beautiful and practical," Ezra said lovingly as the two of them went to work.
When they were ready to go, he and Barbara rejoined Maude and Charles in the formal living area of the suite. Ezra shook hands with Charles and kissed Maude on the cheek, "I'm sorry Mother. I must go."
"Yes, you must. I'm grateful for our time together. Take care of yourself, darling boy," Maude said, stroking his cheek before turning to Barbara. "My son has chosen well, you are a delightful woman."
"Thank you Maude, we've enjoyed our time with you," Barbara replied.
Waving goodbye to the older couple, Ezra and Barbara made their departure from the hotel, each wishing they didn't have such a long way to go before they could be reunited with the unique family they laid claim to, and who needed their support.
During the drive to the airport they went past Trevi Fountain. Ezra smiled down at his wife. Her beautiful eyes were full of love for him, and filled his heart was with emotion. He remembered when they had visited the Trevi Fountain, made famous in the movie "Three Coins in a Fountain". He had handed Barbara a coin to throw in. He thought he would cry for joy when she had looked at him, her eyes full of tears as she said, "My love, I don't need to throw in a coin. My heart’s desire was granted the day we wed. You are my life, my love; there is nothing more I could wish for."
How could Barbara possibly think she was the lucky one to have found him? Ezra knew the reverse to be true; he didn't know what he had done to deserve her love. Each time his ragtag family had a problem she was right there, rolling up her sleeves, and asking what she could do to help. Today was another example of the loving soul he married, she never hesitated to cut their vacation short and he knew she loved the Wild Bunch as much as he did.
Watching out the window of the jet, Barbara saw Italy growing smaller and smaller. Without speaking, she unfastened his belt and pulled him along until she located the bedroom Charles had mentioned. There she removed Ezra's jacket and tie, before pushing him onto the end of the bed, so she could remove his shoes.
Running her fingers lightly across Ezra’s cheek she said softly, "Darling, we didn’t get much sleep last night. There is nothing we can do until we arrive. Rested we will be able to help the others, tired we are useless to them."
Ezra pulled her up into a kneeling position between his legs so he could rest his head on her breasts. They stayed that way for awhile, until he finally replied, "I'll rest if you do."
"I wouldn’t have it any other way." Winking at him, Barbara added, "You wore me out last night."
Her comment received the desired laugh from Ezra she was hoping to achieve, and she felt a little of the tension leaving his body. "Come, we shall hold each other as we sleep."
Wrapped securely in each other's arms they rested. Barbara lay with her head resting on Ezra's chest, his muscular arms wrapped securely around her, and thought back to their last day in Venice. She relived the joy and love she had felt, feeling secure in the knowledge that no matter what fate threw at them, there wasn't anything they couldn't get through together. Barbara smiled as she thought back to their evening.
Venice, Italy - the previous night
Ezra and Barbara were enjoying their classic Venetian meal at Le Bistrot de Venise near the historic Saint Mark's Square. Barbara was thrilled to have it be just the two of them. Every time it was just her and Ezra together, they had a wonderful time. When Maude and her husband joined them there was uneasiness in the air. It wasn't a heavy tension, and if she didn't know Ezra and his moods as well as she did Barbara wouldn't have noticed it at all. Their time in Venice had been full of laughter and fun.
They had a room reserved at the Hotel Bonvecchiati. It had a waterfront dock for gondolas and motor boats, along with a romantic restaurant on the terrace, where they had dined their first night, and was located in the heart of Venice. The couple had spent their day at the historic Rialto Market area, browsing the shops and buying small gifts for their family back at the Larabee 7. After shopping they returned to their hotel room, engaging in some afternoon delight before changing for their dinner reservation.
Ezra waited while their waiter refilled their wine before taking Barbara's hand saying with a smile, "I find myself regretting this is our last night in Venice."
"Is that because you aren't enjoying Rome or because of our company there?" Barbara asked, hoping to get her husband to tell her what was bothering him.
"I have no reasons to base it on, but there is something about Mother's newest husband that makes me uncomfortable. While he has been witty, intelligent, gracious and a charming host, there is something about him I can't quite put my finger on… yet."
"Darling," Barbara started to say, only to be interrupted by Ezra.
"Please my love; it's probably nothing, just the small boy in me questioning any man in his Mother's life. I don't wish for that to come between us and our enjoyment of our trip. You have been enjoying yourself. Haven't you?"
"Oh I have. I've traveled to Europe before, but none of those trips have compared with sharing Italy and its treasures with you."
Ezra gently kissed her hand before answering, "I understand your sentiments exactly, and having you on my arm has made all the difference in my own enjoyment."
"Yes. The United States has a rich heritage, yet seeing the history here, places like the Pantheon that was built in 27 BC, make you marvel at the skills of those men who created it."
"The craftsmanship does leave one in awe. The whole country is full of examples of talent. To be able to go to Vatican City and see the Sistine Chapel in person, the photographs and artwork I have seen don't do justice to the beauty of seeing it for yourself."
Their waiter patiently waited for them to finish their dessert and wine before bringing their bill. Ezra helped Barbara with the shawl she had purchased that day at Rialto Market, suggesting, "I was hoping we might enjoy one last gondola ride around Venice."
"I would love that. How did I ever get so lucky to find my charmingly perfect man," Barbara replied, kissing his cheek as they left the restaurant.
Ezra pulled her into the shadows, claiming her lips with a kiss full of passion and love. "It is I who am the blessed one, I did not know what true happiness was until you came into my life."
Settling into the gondola they cuddled together as they enjoyed the sights of Venice through love filled eyes. The water and buildings may have been dingy but to the lovers everything glittered like a fine diamond and that was the memory they would carry in their hearts. The gondola floated along, while the stars above added to the magical time.
The gondola pulled to a stop right in front of the Hotel Bonvecchiati, The ride had ended none too soon for the lovers, who practically ran down the hallway to their room and a night of sweet passion.
Barbara tucked her memories away and then looked over to find that Ezra was asleep. She smiled as she covered him and snuggled in close. Sixteen hours from now they would be in Denver to stand with their family. Whatever awaited them, they would face it together.
Attorney Douglas Banks always considered himself to be a patient man, within certain limits. That was before he ran up against a brick wall of FBI agents standing between him and his client, JD Dunne. It was obvious the name of the game was hardball and fortunately for JD, Banks was an expert in that field. After being stonewalled for over two hours, he walked across the street to the Federal courthouse, where he asked for and received an emergency hearing with a judge. He returned to lock-up with a judicial execution to see his client immediately, ascertain that he was receiving the proper medical attention, and an order to hold him in administrative segregation instead of the general population.
Thirty minutes later Douglas Banks was in an interrogation room waiting to see his client. JD shuffled into the room accompanied by two guards and trussed up in leg irons and handcuffs with a belly chain connecting the two. He was shoved into an empty chair and ordered to sit down.
"I wish to speak to my client alone." Banks glared at the guards. "I'll let you know when we're finished."
"You got fifteen minutes, counselor, and then we'll be back," the larger of the two men answered as they exited the room and locked the door.
"JD, my name is Douglas Banks. Vin Tanner called me and retained my services as your attorney. I understand you're under a doctor's care. Have you been allowed access to your medication?"
All of this seemed surreal to JD. The shackles, the leg irons, a man that said he was his lawyer and being questioned about his health. What the hell was happening? "No, I haven't, but that's the last thing I'm concerned about. This is all one big mistake. When can you get me out of here? Where is Buck or Vin? Why aren't they here with you? "
"Do you know why you've been arrested?"
"They think I had something to do with a murder. Some woman named Christina Adams. Hell, I don't even know who she is; much less know anything about how she died." JD shifted uncomfortably on the hard chair. "When can I get out of here?"
"They have 24 hours to officially charge you and another 72 to bring up for arraignment, before placing you in a county jail cell until trial. I am certain they will try to use every one of them. I want you to say nothing to anyone. You let me talk for you. If they try to question you, ask for me. If they try to intimidate you, demand to see me." Banks felt sorry for the young man sitting in front of him. Information was slow in coming and even the possibility of bail was slim. "I have arranged for you to be separated from the rest of the inmates, and the officers in charge here have been ordered by a judge to have a doctor see you. I'm afraid though that you'll have to settle for only seeing me. No MCAT agents or family will be allowed to visit you, at least until after your arraignment."
The cold reality of his situation was just beginning to sink in for JD. He was a Federal agent accused of murder, locked up with the same criminal element he had spent the last ten years fighting to keep off the street. He was in pain, separated from his family, and had no idea when he would be able to see any of them. Charged with conspiring to kill a woman he had never heard of and facing a possible death sentence if he was convicted. Taking a deep ragged breath, JD fought back the terror that threatened to consume him and asked. "Do you think they have a case?"
"I think they believe they do or you would not be here. My job is to find out what that alleged case consists of and discredit it. You don't know me son, but you're going to have to trust me. I will stay in close contact with your team and your family and I will get the facts, but it will take some time. You're going to have to be patient and let me do my job."
JD had a million questions. He just could not find his voice to ask any of them. He could only nod his agreement as the door opened and the two guards reappeared.
"Your time is up, counselor." One of the guards pulled JD to his feet while the other one checked his chains. "Anything else you have to say to this scum will have to wait."
"JD, I will be back. You hang in there, son." Douglas Banks was already planning his next move. None of this made sense, and the sooner he could get Dunne out of here the better he would feel. He followed the guards out of the room and while they returned JD to his cell, Banks headed out of the jail. As he exited the building, he pulled out his cell phone to call Tanner. He only wished he had something good to tell him.
JD was shuffled past cells that held some of the worse offenders in the system. The chain attached to his leg irons and cuffs rattled with each step he took, and the pain in his back grew worse every minute he was on his feet. It seemed as if hours had gone by before the guards allowed him to stop as they opened the door to a new cell. Administrative segregation…the place they put cops that had the misfortune of being incarcerated, otherwise known as solitary confinement.
The two guards unlocked and removed his shackles moments before they shoved him inside, locking the door behind him. JD waited until he heard them move away from the cell, before he eased his aching body down on the single bunk in the room. All his pain, anger, and frustration rose to the surface and this time he didn’t try to hold back. He drew his knees up and wrapped his arms around them, slowly rocking back and forth.
A single tear rolled down his cheek as the hopelessness of his situation took root and refused to go away. He stretched out, in spite of the protest from his sore muscles, and the last thought he had before he allowed sleep to claim him was of Casey and his two daughters.
How long would it be before he saw them again?
Sometimes the winds whisper tenderly, carrying the gift of joy and love to our souls to bring forth a gentle warm rain. Sometimes the winds howl with anger and despair across the expanse of time and space to share sorrow or grief preceding a chilly tumultuous storm. Regardless of the message, our emotions are the conduit, which will either savor the euphoric offerings, or crash and burn with the anguish.
Friday October 12th
Denver Memorial Hospital
Chris stood and stretched, mindful of his muscles, aching from sitting in a hard chair all night. Some days he felt every second of his forty-five years and today was one of those days. Buck's condition had remained unchanged during the night and Inez had refused to leave the hospital. She had finally succumbed to sleep and still rested on the cot the nurses had provided for her. Chris slipped quietly out of the room and traveled down the hall to check on Orrin.
Director Travis was still unconscious and critical. He remained in a private room under an assumed name. Evie's sister had arrived during the night and persuaded the older woman to join her at the hotel across the street, after Nathan promised to call immediately if there were any changes in her husband's condition. Mallory and Rain had returned to the ranch to be with their children. Once Nathan and Chris made it plain they were staying on hospital watch, Vin sent Kelli home to be with the kids, while he and Josiah headed over to the MCAT office.
Chris silently opened the door to Travis's room and motioned for Nathan to step into the hallway. "Any change?" Chris asked Nathan once he had joined him.
"No, he's still critical. From what I can tell he's damn lucky to be alive, period. If Buck's body hadn't deflected that bullet, it would have been a kill shot to the head."
"Damn," Chris swore. "Who in the hell would gain by preventing Travis from entering lock-up to see JD?"
"Maybe he was targeted to stop him from pulling strings to get JD released." Nathan said thoughtfully. "We should be asking who would gain by keeping the kid locked up."
"Right now we have more questions than answers." Chris stared down the corridor toward Buck's room. "Vin is on his way over to give me an update on the investigation. Hopefully I can find us some decent cups of coffee before he gets here." He saw Inez come out of her husband's room. The two men moved down the hall to meet her.
"Buenos Dias," Inez greeted them. "I woke up and…" She cleared her throat and wiped away a tear. "My Buck is still sleeping."
Chris took her arm and walked her across the hall to a private waiting area. "Inez, you know Buck. He's just resting while he can. He'll be fine."
Inez was just barely holding her emotions in check, so Chris was surprised when he saw her eyes light up and a smile cross her beautiful face. He turned in time see Vin stepping off the elevator with Kelli, and he was carrying Tannis.
"Look who I found in the parking lot." Vin passed Tannis over to her mother's waiting arms, while Kelli set two bags on the floor.
"Tannis took a bottle last night and reluctantly had another one at five this mornin', but she made it clear that she preferred to get her breakfast directly from her mama," Kelli explained. "So, I promised her that her next feedin' would come from Mom. Caleb and Sarah are in school and I left Maria with Max. The last time I saw them they were plannin' on makin' cookies."
Inez hugged her youngest and did not try to stop her tears. "Gracias, Kel." Holding Tannis was comforting and breastfeeding her youngest would bring some normality to the nightmare she had been experiencing since she first heard that Buck was injured.
"I brought you a change of clothes, plus what you'll need for the baby," Kelli said. Looking over to Chris, Nathan, and Vin, she said, "I also brought y'all some homemade breakfast wraps with thermos of fresh coffee."
Standing with Tannis secure in her arms Inez said. "I think we'll take our breakfast with Buck." She took one of the wraps from Kelli and went into Buck's room with the baby.
Vin stood behind his wife, whispering in her ear, "How did you know that havin' Tannis here was what Inez needed?"
Kelli leaned back against him. "Easy, I always feel closer to you when one of the boys is nursin'. I figured Inez needed to feel closer to Buck about now. Plus, Tannis is one stubborn little girl, she wanted her mama, not some bottle replacement."
Max had filled two thermoses, one regular, one marked Tanner. Chris was already enjoying his coffee, waiting for the others to get theirs. Nathan and Vin grabbed a breakfast wrap. They sat down while Kelli filled them in on what was happening at home. "I stopped in and saw Cody and Grace, and they're both doing fine, Dad. I also checked on Casey. She's doin' about as well as we could expect, under the circumstances. Douglas Banks contacted her last night. She feels better after speaking with him, even though he told her that no one will be able to see JD until after the arraignment. She told me to tell you thanks for retaining him, Vin."
"Thanks, Kel, for checking on Grace and Cody." Chris felt badly that he had not been able to see his babies yet. Right now though, he needed to be here for Buck and Orrin.
"It's not a problem, Dad, I love 'em too you know." Kelli sat down between Chris and Vin, asking, "So, any news yet?"
"Things are status quo here," Nathan answered. "Orrin is listed as critical and Buck is still unconscious."
"The forensic analysis of the crime scene indicates that Travis, not Buck, was the target of the sniper. Why, we don't know yet," Vin said. "We do know more about JD's situation. According to Banks he won't be arraigned until Monday mornin', and the chances of the judge allowin' bail is slim. He is charged with being part of a murder conspiracy." Tanner pulled out his notes. "A woman in the witness protection program was killed when her townhouse was deliberately set on fire with the intent of murderin' her. Allegedly JD tracked her down through CASSIE and gave the information to the arsonist."
"JD? Take part in killing a woman?" Nathan was incredulous. "No way in hell."
"Who was she, Vin?" Chris asked.
"Her name in the program was Christina Adams." Vin steadied his gaze on Chris. "Does that name ring any bells, Christopher?"
Chris nodded, "Yeah, that's the name Lady Ice took when the Marshals moved her from prison to witness protection."
"They let that bitch out of prison?" Kelli asked.
"She had too much information they wanted, so yes, they cut her another deal. She took that name as a jab to me for having her arrested." Chris shook his head. "There must be a long list of people that would want to silence her. Why did they zero in on JD?"
"Guy Saunders used his connections to the FBI to find out some interestin' stuff. It seems what the special task force Orrin told us about had an unnamed informant. What they expected to do was build a case against the entire team, make us out to be some kind of damn vigilantes. Once we were discredited and disbanded then CASSIE would be fair game for the next MCAT team. Accordin' to Saunders's sources the only murder they could allegedly connect to MCAT though with any half-ass proof was this one to JD, by usin' an informant." Vin answered.
"There were other murders?" Nathan asked.
"Yep, five more that we know of and all of 'em have some tie to MCAT in one way or another." Vin began to list them. "Rauel Estefan was one of Paul Madera's men; he was shot while walkin' his dog eleven months ago. Congressman Zimmerman made a deal and got himself released from prison early, he died two days later in a car accident that had all the markin's of a hit. Costa Mesa's Police Chief, William Blain was killed in the prison infirmary by an unknown assailant. Donner's second in command, Willis, cut a deal and was paroled. He was killed by an alleged mugger two weeks later. Patrice Garner, Jack's ex, supposedly committed suicide and left a note sayin' she could not live with the memory of abandonin' Jason and Andi without seekin' help for them. The police are convinced she was murdered, and suspect her note was forged. Then you have to add Christina Adams, AKA Lady Ice to the list. All of these people, we've had dealin's with over the last two years and all of them died under suspicious circumstances."
"It would appear someone other than the FBI is targeting our entire unit, and JD is the one that got snagged for it." Chris could feel the anger growing inside him, and all the questions thrown at him in Washington started to make sense. "CASSIE is one thing they wanted access to, and I'd bet they're pissed because we put it out of commission. I want our team to go over every single one of these deaths. There has to be some detail to find that will tell us if they're really connected and who's behind all this."
"It's already in the works, Chris. Justin has pulled the case files and our team is all over it." Vin leaned forward and spoke quietly. "I also had Pam move out to Camp Larabee. She will be able to stay under the radar there and have access to CASSIE II to help us."
"Kel, you stick close to Pam. If CASSIE is the key to what they're using to get to JD they are going to want more information from Pam when they come up with nothing on JD's computer," Chris ordered. "Under no circumstances do we let anyone outside our unit know we have a backup for CASSIE."
"I did talk to Ezra, and he's on his way home," Vin informed them. "He said he would help Douglas Banks, that Banks was one of the best criminal attorneys he knew."
"Good, we need to have the family together on this, at least until we know who we're dealing with." Chris had a feeling it would take all of them to uncover the answers they needed in order to help JD. "I want the name of the informant that implicated JD in Lady Ice's murder."
"We'll find whoever it is," Vin assured him, "One way or another."
A flurry of activity taking place near Buck's door drew their attention. Nurses rushed inside and Doctor Landers was not far behind them. The small group of agents hurried over to see what was going on. Relief flooded through them when they heard Buck bellow. He was awake and raising hell, which was a good sign.
Buck's Hospital Room
Pain was the first thing that assaulted Buck's senses as he came to. His head felt like it was three sizes too big, and was about to disconnect from his neck and bounce away. He tried to bring both hands up to hold it in place, but a wash of agonizing pain in his right arm and shoulder halted any further movement and a moan escaped from his parched lips.
It was a struggle to open his eyes, and when he did manage it, he wished he hadn't even tried. His vision spun so fast, he felt bile rise up in the back of his throat. Hastily he closed his eyes and willed himself not to throw up.
He attempted to open them again a few moments later, and was relieved when the spinning sensation didn't seem to be quite as strong as it had been before.
Buck lay there for several minutes, trying to remember what had happened to him that put him in a hospital. He recognized the familiar sounds of a heart monitor, IV Drip, and soft spoken voices in the near distance. Slowly he turned his head to one side and felt a smile attempt to crease his lips, as he took in the lovely sight of his beautiful wife nursing their youngest child.
Inez's glossy black hair was tousled, and her usually lively brown eyes were red rimmed from lack of sleep and tears she had recently shed. He knew without a doubt her tears had been for him, and it sent a pang of regret running through his body to know he had caused her any kind of pain.
He licked his lips and spoke. "Inez?"
Inez's head jerked up when she heard the familiar voice of her husband speak her name. She felt new tears fill her eyes. This time they were tears of joy instead of fear and worry.
"I'm here, Buck," she choked out. When she leaned forward so Buck could see her better, Tannis loudly protested the movement, as it disrupted her meal.
Buck managed a low chuckle, "That's my girl. She knows a good thing when she has it."
Inez smiled through her tears of relief. "Yep, she takes after her daddy."
"What happened?" he asked.
"You were shot while shielding Director Travis outside of the Federal jail."
"Travis? How is he?" Buck tried to remember why he and Travis had been outside of the Federal jail, and felt panic flood through him. "JD! We were going to get JD out of jail!"
"Buck, please, calm down. You're injured," Inez pleaded with him.
"Where are my clothes? We've got to get JD out of jail! I promised Casey that I would take care of him!" Wilmington struggled to sit up, ignoring Inez's pleas for him to stay calm and the erratic beeping sounds erupting from the heart monitor and blood pressure cuff.
"Buck, please..." Inez tried again.
A team of medical personnel, led by Doctor Landers, rushed into the room in time to see an unsteady Buck contemplating pulling the IV drip out of his arm.
"Mister Wilmington, get back into bed this instant!" Doctor Landers ordered the injured man. He gestured for Inez to move away from the bed so he and his people had more room to work.
"Sorry, doc, I hate to be wrecking your fine work and all, but I've got someone depending on me to help him out, and I can't do that from a hospital bed." Buck told him, struggling against the hands pressing him back into the bed.
"Buck! Stand your ass down, NOW!" Chris yelled as he came into the room, quickly taking in the situation.
"Chris, they've got JD! I have to help him." Exhausted, Buck slumped back into the pillows.
"We're doing everything humanly possible to take care of JD. Our hands are tied until he gets arraigned." Chris now stood beside Wilmington's bed. He spoke softly to his friend. "The best thing you can do is to listen to Doctor Landers and get well enough to spring this place."
"I promised Casey I was going to get him out. I've never broken my word to either of them." Buck's voice broke as he gazed up at Chris.
"You took a bullet meant to kill Travis, neither Casey nor JD, are going to fault you for not being able to carry out your promise this time."
"Travis? Is he okay?" The memory of what had happened rushed up to assault his mind.
"Thanks to you, he is alive. He's still critical, but the bullet passed through you first, deflecting the head shot that was meant to kill him," Chris explained. "Now, why don't you let the doctor examine you and put your wife's mind at ease?"
Buck looked over to his beautiful Inez and was reminded that there was a helluva lot more involved here than his stubbornness. "All right, Doc, you do your thing, but I want out of here as soon as possible."
Doctor Landers cocked an eyebrow at him. "How fast you recuperate from your injuries rests entirely on your shoulders, Mister Wilmington. Any more stunts like the one you displayed a few moments ago and you'll be in here a lot longer than I believe either of us could endure."
Chris chuckled in response to Doctor Landers words, as a sheepish look passed over his friend's face.
Buck reluctantly sat through the examination, answering the questions Doctor Landers posed to him about the pain and other symptoms he was experiencing.
"Guess what, Mister Wilmington? You're still alive," Doctor Landers quipped when he was finished with the examination.
Buck scowled at him. "Ha-ha, like I didn't already know that."
"You won't remain among the living, however, if you don't get over thinking you have Superman's ability to stop speeding bullets with your body." Doctor Landers closed Wilmington's chart. "Buck, you're going to have a monster headache for a while. If you remain stable, I may consider letting you go home after 24 hours, providing you behave."
"He will, Doctor Landers," Inez spoke up. "Won't you Buck?" she asked her husband.
"I will, if you promise to go home and get some rest." Buck took her hand and squeezed gently.
Chris grinned as he watched Buck and Inez together. Buck could be as much of a badass as any of them, and often had criminals intimidated by his size alone. Yet Inez could wrap him around her little finger and score a hit at his teddy bear heart without even trying. "Casey is holding up okay, JD has an attorney, his arraignment is 9:00 am Monday morning and we'll all be there. Take the 24 hours, Buck, so you can be there for him, too." Chris advised.
"All right, I won't make anymore escape attempts," he said, shifting his attention from Inez to Larabee. "JD's going to need all of us to get through this."
"See that you don't." Dr Landers took his leave along with the nurse.
"I'll see you later. Buck, and give you two a few moments alone before sending Kel in. I need to let the others know you're okay," Chris said and followed the doctor out of the room.
Stepping back into the hallway to rejoin Vin, Nathan, and Kelli, Chris gave them an update. "Buck's going to be just fine, if we can keep his ass in bed for the next twenty-four hours."
"That is the best news I've heard since Rain called me yesterday," Nathan said what they were all thinking.
"Tanner, I want you to use some of those old bounty hunter connections you have, and see what they can dig up." Chris had made a decision. "Nathan, as soon as Doctor Gilford gives you an update on Travis, I want you to get together with Bones. Go over every piece of forensic evidence available from those old cases; find me something to work with. I'll send Alex and Josiah over to guard Travis and Buck."
"You plan on leaving?" Nathan questioned.
"Vin and I are going to the office. Kel, I want you to wait with Inez until Josiah arrives and then accompany her and Tannis back home." Chris leaned over and kissed his daughter on the cheek. "Use some of that Larabee charm you inherited from me and try to keep Inez, Casey, and Pam calm."
Kelli raised an eyebrow and questioned, "Larabee charm? I'm not certain if that's a compliment or an insult."
Nathan and Vin burst out laughing, earning themselves a scathing glare from Chris. "Are you two choirboys insinuating I don't have any charm?"
"You've got about as much charm as a Texas sidewinder that's just come out of hibernation," Vin answered with a grin. "Fortunately, your daughter has her own charms to rely on." He winked at Kelli, leaned over and kissed her. "You, I'll see later."
"Does that mean you plan on makin' it home tonight and maybe sleep a few hours?" Kelli was concerned by the dark circles under Vin's eyes and the obvious signs of fatigue. "I bet you didn’t sleep at all last night."
"Some," Vin answered. He did not want to admit every time he had tried to rest on the couch in his office his visions had returned. Between images of the bomb blast killing Sarah and Adam and the new images of an old building of some sort that seemed to him to be an entrance into hell, with flames included, he was more than just bothered by those damn visions. They were beginning to be downright scary.
Before Vin could say more, Chris interrupted. "I promise, Kel, he will be home tonight and he will get some rest." He gave Vin an intense once over, realizing just how exhausted he looked. Somehow, Chris knew there was more going on in his life than Vin was admitting. He planned to find out what it was. "Make sure Buck stays put. Josiah will take over for you in a couple of hours."
Kelli laughed. "I think Inez and I can keep Buck in line." She turned and knocked on Buck's door to give the couple inside a warning that she was coming in. "See y'all later." The redhead waited until she saw Vin and Chris disappear into the elevator before she sighed, and then entered Wilmington's room.
Josiah knew there was no way he and Mallory were leaving under the current circumstances. As concerned as he was about what the doctor had told him, his place was here. He would just have to find another way to fulfill his responsibility to confer with Doctor Rivers…after JD was home. He dialed the doctor's number and waited for an answer.
"Doctor Rivers' office, may I help you?" a young female voice asked.
"My name is Josiah Sanchez. I need to reschedule an appointment with the doctor. I was supposed to see him Monday morning, but find that I am unable to take the time off from work. I would like to set up a phone conference instead, sometime near the middle of next week."
"Mister Sanchez, Doctor Rivers specifically asked to see you in person, I'm not…"
"That is impossible at this time." Josiah did not let her continue. "He has my number, have him contact me at his convenience. I'll be expecting his call."
"Yes, Sir, I will give him your message."
Josiah terminated the call and took a deep breath. He hated that he was forced to choose between priorities. God willing he would not have to wait long to resolve the issue he had with Doctor Rivers. Right now, he was needed at Denver Memorial and that was where he belonged. He shut down his computer, grabbed his coat, and turned off the light in his office as he walked out the door.
On the way to the office…
"I thought I would call Colonel Tai. He owns a reputable private investigation firm and has some good contacts." Chris watched Vin as he drove them to the office. Tanner had not uttered more than two sentences since they had left the hospital. Not that that was unusual. They had other ways of communicating with each other, but Vin's thoughts were a long way away from the cab of this truck. "Okay. Vin, spill it. What in hell has you so damn distracted?"
"You mean aside from the fact that JD is in jail, Travis and Buck were damn near killed, and someone is apparently trying to destroy our unit?" Vin shook his head. "You don't think that's enough, Larabee?"
"We've been in worse fixes and made it through." Chris looked over to Vin and threw a question back to him. "You think this is gonna be different?"
"Hell, I don't know!" Vin snapped. "Reckon we'll have to wait and see, now won't we?"
Chris knew Vin well enough to know that whatever else was bothering him; he was not ready to talk about it. He was willing to wait. "I'm here when you're ready to talk."
Vin could only nod his acknowledgement. No way was he going to tell Chris that visions of Sarah and Adam dying were plaguing him night and day. The reason he was reliving that horrible day was something he would have to work out on his own…he sincerely hoped it would be sooner, rather than later.
By the end of the day the team had uncovered more questions than answers. It was now after nine, and Chris had ordered them all home for the night to get some much needed sleep. He told them to meet by two, tomorrow afternoon at Camp Larabee, and to make certain they were not followed out to the ranch. Chris was not ready to reveal the fact they had another CASSIE system to anyone outside the unit. They would compile all the facts they had gathered, make a plan of action, and then move forward from there. Mark and Raphael relieved Josiah and Mark at the hospital for the night. According to the last report Travis was holding his own and Buck was asleep for the night.
Vin pulled up to Chris's house, and waited for him to exit the truck, before passing him his valise and garment bag. "See you in the mornin', Chris."
"Night, Vin," Chris answered as he went inside. He had been gone just four days, but it seemed like an eternity since he had seen his babies. Throwing his bags on his bed, he went to Grace's room first.
Opening the door quietly, Chris entered the room and in the glow of the nightlight saw the ringlets of blond hair framing his little sleeping angel's face. He wanted to pick her up and hug her; however he knew that once she was up he would be in for a very long night of endless chatter and boundless energy from his youngest daughter. Chris reached over the railing of Grace's bed and drew her quilt over her, placing a light kiss on her cheek. He stood and just watched her breathe for a few minutes before he silently backed out of the room and headed down the hall to Cody's nursery.
Cody was awake and when the image of his father appeared over the edge of his baby bed, his excitement showed. The five-month-old kicked his legs and waited for the hands he knew would lift him up. He was not disappointed. Chris grinned as he took his son into his arms and sat down in the rocker next to the bed. "Lord, I missed you and your sister this week, but your ole Dad has had his hands full." He looked down into his son's face and felt his heart turn over at the sight before him. Blue-green eyes gazed up at him attentively. "You want to hear about it? Well, it started Tuesday in Washington, D.C…" Chris continued to talk and Cody listened, not caring about the words he did not understand, he was just happy to be in his father's arms again.
Thirty miles away…
The nightly prisoner count was over and the cells were locked down. Light's out had been called and the cellblocks were darkened. The only lights still on were in the corridors and at the guard stations. JD sat alone in his cell wishing the noise would cease, too. All day he had listened to other prisoners argue, yell, and curse one another. He was tired of being cooped up in this small cell, even though he knew it was for his own good, and he was desperate to know what was going on in the outside world. Other than his lawyer, he had had no contact with anyone from the family or his team. Casey, Lilah, and Daisy were on his mind constantly, and he felt a physical pain when he thought about the possibility of being separated from them indefinitely.
Dunne tried to get comfortable on the hard bunk, although the pain in his back had worsened. He had finally been allowed to see a doctor in the prison infirmary and he had resumed his anti-inflammatory prescription, but even that did not help much. His ribs ached, and the heat in his back was spreading to his shoulders. He pulled the thin blanket up to his neck and shivered.
Why was he having chills when his insides were burning?
Tanner had made a detour on his way home to pick up a few things he needed to work on a project he wanted to complete soon. Since his visions were coming more often he wanted any help he could get to make sense of them and all the protection her could for his family. Each of the children had a dream catcher over their beds, but he felt he may need to do more to protect Kelli, the sooner the better.
Vin walked in the back door and was struck by the silence that met him. One glance at his watch told him Jason and Andi were probably already asleep and Kelli was most likely in the nursery with the twins. He stopped by the kid's rooms on his way to his own and checked on his two oldest. Tracker lay in the doorway between their rooms and wagged his tale when he saw Vin.
"Stay, boy," Vin ordered as he covered Jason and stepped over the dog to look in on Andi. She was sprawled half on and half off the bed. Lifting her without waking his sleeping princess, Vin straightened her on the bed and before tucking the blanket around her. He slipped out of the room to find the rest of his family.
Kelli had just put Bren down for the night and Trey was taking his turn with mama, when Vin walked in. He had seen a lot of wondrous things in his life. Still, the sight of his child nursing at the breast of the woman he loved took his breath away, filling his heart with peace and contentment. Leaning over Kelli's shoulder he kissed her soundly and whispered softly, "Hello, beautiful." He kept one hand on the back of her neck, while the other traced a finger down Trey's cheek as he suckled at her breast.
"Hello yourself," Kelli whispered back. "I saved you some supper, if you're hungry."
"Nah, I ate earlier, but I do want a nice, hot shower." He kissed her once more before moving to the baby bed to see Bren. "As much as I'd like to be in here with you and the boys, I think I'll hit the shower. By the time 'm out, you should be finished and we can talk."
"Give me twenty minutes and I'll meet you in our bed," Kelli said. She saw how worn-out Vin was and was worried about him.
"You, Lady, have a deal." He brushed his hand against hers. "If you get there first, wait for me."
"I love you Vin. For you, I'd wait forever," she replied softly.
"I don't think our water will stay hot quite that long. Twenty minutes tops." He reluctantly left Kelli with Trey and headed for the shower.
Twenty minutes later, Kelli entered their bedroom to find Vin stretched out on the bed wearing nothing except a towel wrapped around his waist and…he was sound asleep. Smiling, she gently removed the towel, taking a minute to admire the body she knew better than her own. If she had a magical power she would kiss away every scar, and erase every injury and hurt he had ever experienced. All she could do though was love and care for him the same as he did for her. She drew the covers over him and trying not to disturb Vin's much needed rest; Kelli turned off the light and crawled into bed next to her husband. As soon as her head hit the pillow, she felt his strong arm wrap around her and heard a soft drawl say, "Love you, Kel." She snuggled deeper into the warmth of his embrace. Tonight she would let him sleep, but tomorrow all bets were off and he was fair game.
U.S. Marshal Ronald Jones loved this time of morning. Awake at five, he was always up before the rest of the world began to stir. He ran a familiar route, making better time than the previous day. Five miles and he was not even winded. He stopped for a moment to take in a deep breath of Arizona desert air, readying himself to make the return trip home, feeling refreshed and invigorated. Thirty seconds later he lay sprawled on the road, taken down by one shot to the head.
The sniper felt the rush of adrenaline which always accompanied a successful kill. *One more connection terminated, time to move to the next phase.* Satisfied that the job here was finished, and there were no witnesses, the assassin leisurely walked away. The plane for Colorado would be departing in one hour and the killer was looking forward to the return trip to Denver.
Saturday October 13th
Chris was tired. He had been awake since four, due to a strange dream he had experienced about being a gunfighter in the old west. A dream that was, to say the least, a bit unnerving. Since he knew Cody would be awake by five, followed by Grace at six, he found it was pointless to go back to bed. He made a pot of coffee and called the hospital for an update on Travis and Wilmington. Although Orrin was still unconscious, his condition had been upgraded from critical to serious. According to Mark, Buck had a good night and he was expected to be released later today. Two DPD officers were going to stand watch at Travis's door, and as soon as they arrived, Raphael and Mark would be escorting Buck home.
It was easy for Chris to forget how tired he was when he was holding Cody. The two of them enjoyed their special bonding time during these quiet pre-dawn feedings and it was a pleasurable routine Chris had missed very much while he was in Washington.
"Good morning, Chris, and welcome home," Dottie greeted him as she entered the kitchen. "I'll have breakfast going in no time." Dottie Morris loved her job. She was a full-time caregiver for the children and she had taken on the welfare of the entire Larabee family as her responsibility.
"No hurry," Chris answered as he shifted his son in his arms. "Cody is full and Grace is still sleeping."
"Da," Grace cried out from the doorway, proving him wrong, "You here." She hurried over to her father and with his help climbed onto his lap.
Sitting here with his two youngest children snuggled in his arms was the best medicine Chris could ask for to cure his lack of sleep. "Yep, I'm here Sunshine, and the three of us are going to spend the morning together." He kissed the top of Grace's head.
Grace looked up at her father, studying him intently as if she was looking for something. Finally she asked, "Where's Cowboy Da?"
Chris mentally cursed. He was going to have to talk to Vin about calling him Cowboy, especially now that Grace had picked up on it. "Baby, Daddy is not a cowboy." He knew she understood what he was saying, yet she looked at him as if she did not believe him. Chris sighed and changed the subject. "You ready for breakfast?" He laughed as she wiggled off his lap and went straight for her booster chair. He'd take that as a yes.
Reins of Change
Caitlyn dipped a bucket into the grain bin for the third time. She loved each of her horses. However on the mornings when Jesse, her stable boy, did not show up, it took her over an hour to feed all of them. Twelve- year-old Jesse Wayne Hunter came into the Rein's program through the Child Protective Services. After a series of unsuccessful stays in foster care, his case worker felt it was either here or juvenile detention. Jesse had great potential, but he was easily distracted, and carried a huge chip on his shoulder. She would deal with him about ignoring his chores, even though it would have to wait until later in the day.
Casey entered the barn and grabbed a bucket. "Morning, Cait, I thought you might be able to use some help. We have our first group counseling session of the day at 8:30 and I know you wanted some time to review the case files."
The therapist side of Caitlyn understood Casey's need to stay busy with all the uncertainty swirling around her, but as a friend she was concerned. She set the bucket down and approached the younger woman. "You can take some time off, Casey. Your job is safe, and I totally understand if you need to be with your children right now."
"I'm fine…really. Nettie is dropping the girls off with Inez and then she and Max are going over to help Dottie prepare for a family dinner later this afternoon." Casey took a deep breath and fought back the tears that threatened to fall. "I need to stay busy or I'll go crazy worrying about JD."
"Have you had any sleep?"
"Not much, every time I close my eyes I see JD locked up and he's moving away from me." Casey choked back a sob. "I'm afraid that I won't… What if? …Oh God, I should have told him!" The dam broke and all her tears burst through.
Caitlyn put her arm around the younger woman and led her away from the stalls to sit on a bench located at the front of the barn. Handing her a handkerchief, she waited for the waterworks to subside before asking, "You want to talk?"
"No… I…oh damn." Casey swore. "I suspected a few days ago…I wanted to be sure before I told him. Now…" She took a ragged breath and then continued. "I'm pregnant and I didn't tell JD about the possibility before they came for him. I retook the test this morning and it was positive." She looked up at Caitlyn. "I can't tell him now; he has too much on his shoulders as it is."
She let the young woman cry it out and offered words of assurance, "You will have the chance to tell him Casey. I have no doubt that Chris and the others will have JD home real soon." Caitlyn may not have been on the Larabee 7 long, but she had learned early on that the men of the Wild Bunch were men of action. She knew their history from listening to their wives, and as an experienced psychologist she recognized and admired the way Chris Larabee led them. Their deep loyalty to one another was part of the bond that made them family. It was also the reason she knew they would do whatever was necessary to bring JD home. She reached out and pushed Casey's hair back from her eyes. "I want you to go up to the office and set out the files. I'll finish up here and be there in a few minutes."
Taking a deep breath, Casey sniffed and answered, "I know they will. Thanks for listening." She knew Caitlyn would not repeat anything she had said and suddenly felt better after sharing her secret.
"You are welcome, my friend. Now go on, we have eight kids coming to our first session and we want to be prepared." Caitlyn Broderick watched the young woman leave and for a moment let her thoughts drift to the past. Fate had not given her the opportunity to mother her own daughter, Amanda, who would have been twenty two this year, but maybe she could help Casey by giving her a caring shoulder to lean on. Looking down at her watch, she knew she had to get moving and gently pushed her memories to the back of her mind.
JD had been awake for hours. With nowhere to go he had stayed on his bunk and waited for morning. He had dreamed about Casey, Lilah, and Daisy, and it was almost as painful to think about them as the real pain he felt in his back. Douglas Banks had told him his arraignment would be early Monday. He hoped he could last that long without losing his mind. The guards did say he would be taken out later for thirty minutes of exercise and then he would be stuck in this box again for another twenty-four hours. He knew his friends were out there doing everything they could to help him thought. All he had to do was hang on until they freed him.
Vin did not sleep well because visions invaded his dreams again. When they first started he was simply curious. Then as they progressed he began to feel an urgent need to understand their meaning. Now every instinct he had was screaming that someone close to him was in imminent danger. The problem he had was trying to connect the death of a young woman over a hundred years ago, to the death of Sarah and Adam, another unknown mother and child, and now an old building shielded by a wall of flames. Would he have to enter those fires of hell to find an answer?
"Tanner, you have not heard a word I've said," Kelli complained, closing the door to the nursery. Her blue eyes were troubled as she took in the pensive expression on her husband's face, and the darkening circles under his eyes which clearly told her he wasn't sleeping like he should. She took a breath and let it out slowly. "What has you so deep in thought that you aren't payin' attention to what I'm sayin' in the here and now?"
"Actually," Vin said, while reaching out to draw her against his body. "I was thinkin' I owe you for last night." He nuzzled her ear and whispered, "Don't make any plans for after dinner, I have my own."
"Really and what would they be?" Kelli teased brushing her fingertips lightly over his unshaven cheek.
Still whispering he began to give her details as he mischievously nipped at her neck. "First we get the kids to bed early." His hands roamed over her body, gently caressing her soft curves while he continued speaking. "Then, we do a little of this." He captured her mouth for a tantalizing kiss, fueling the growing passion between them. "Then a little of this…."
"Dad!" Jason yelled from the next room. "Are we going to feed the horses now?"
Vin sighed, resigning himself to the fact that their love session would have to be postponed. With a wink and a smile he told her, "Hold those thoughts, baby. I'll be back."
"Damn, just when things were beginnin' to get interestin'," Kelli said, flashing him an understanding smile. "Guess we'll get to the really fun part later."
"By the time we get to tonight, I'll have you beggin', woman." Vin grinned, patted her on the butt and left her standing there with a smile on her face.
As soon as he and Jason were bundled up against the cold, father and son headed for the barn. The cold air snaked its way in through the folds of his clothing and sent an icy shiver racing over him. Vin felt his heart clench in reaction to it, and saw the frightening images of his visions flash across his eyes once more.
*Vin?* Chris's concerned, familiar voice filled his head.
*I'm fine, Cowboy.* Tanner hurried to reply, and closed down the connection between them.
He couldn't risk Chris getting even the slightest bit of the alarming images that were frequent visitors in his mind lately, especially the ones about Sarah and Adam. He didn't even understand why he was receiving them. How the hell was he supposed to explain it to anyone else? He also could not let go of the idea that somehow there was a message he was supposed to receive connected to Kelli. His instincts about her had not been wrong yet, and every fiber of his being said he needed to be close to her now.
Chris had spent the morning with Grace, only taking time away from her long enough to talk to Buck. Assured that he was okay coming home with Raphael and Mark, Chris relaxed and went back to spending some quality time with his daughter. Cody was down for his morning nap and in spite of the fact that there was a week's worth of mail piled on his desk; Chris was reluctant to put an end to their time together.
The intercom connected to the front gate buzzed, announcing the arrival of someone outside the family. Chris went over to the wall and punched the button. "You're on Larabee 7 property. State your business."
Chris heard a quiet chuckle and then a familiar voice. "Michael Tai here and you are my business."
"I'll buzz you in," Chris said, pressing the button to open the gate. While he waited for Colonel Tai to drive up to the house, Chris had Dottie get Grace interested in helping her, Max and Nettie, with the baking for dinner. He then walked outside to meet his friend.
Colonel Tai just came out of his car when Chris stepped outside.
"It's good to see you Chris," he said. "You look well."
"I am well, Mike. Let's go inside, we can talk in my office." They entered the house, and went straight to Chris's office. "You want coffee or anything?"
"No, I'm fine."
"What brings you to my neck of the woods?" Chris asked. "You need more information on the cases I asked you to look into?"
"I've already got a couple of my men contacting their confidential informants for any viable leads. As soon as they come up with anything you'll be one of the first to know."
Chris studied the man for a moment and then asked. "Not that I mind your company, but why the hell are you here?"
Mike laughed. "We know each other too well by now for me to beat around the bush. How are you holding up?"
Larabee grinned. "You don't have to worry about me. No way am I backtracking into hell. Been there, done that and the next time I make that trip, pills won't have anything to do with it."
"As a recovering addict, I wouldn't be much good to you as a sponsor if I didn't check in with you every now and then. Especially when I know you are facing a crisis in your family."
"I know your number Mike and I am not averse to using it, if I need to. I promise you, if I sense trouble coming, I'll call you."
"That's all I need to hear." Mike stood up to leave. "I'll be in touch and I can see myself out."
Chris reached across the desk and shook his hand. "Thanks for coming." As he watched Colonel Tai leave Chris decided it was a good time to catch up on his mail and messages. He turned on his computer and brought up his e-mail account. Most of the posts were routine, but there was one from a name he was not familiar with that had a strange tag line.
The message was from someone calling themselves, 'Shadowchaser ' and the tag line read…'Rule of the Game'. Chris opened it.
"YOU ARE NOT MISTER PERFECT AND OTHERS WILL SUFFER FROM THE FALLOUT OF YOUR SELF-RIGHTEOUS ATTITUDE."
Chris stared at the screen and thought to himself. *What the hell is that suppose to mean?" His finger hesitated over the delete key, but something told him to press save instead. He would have Pam try to trace where the message came from.
Standish Home - Noon
Ezra stopped in front of their home and cut the engine. As much as he liked being back in Colorado, he wished the reasons for them cutting their trip short were more pleasant. "We made it Mrs. Standish." He drew Barbara close and kissed her, drawing strength from her presence. "Welcome home daring."
Barbara opened the door and exited the vehicle. She took a deep breath of fresh mountain air and commented, "It's good to be home."
"Even under the dreadful circumstances that cut our trip short, I must agree." Ezra answered as he popped the truck and pulled out the first two bags of the many they had brought home.
"I'll air out the house while you bring in our luggage." Barbara unlocked the front door and entered their home.
As he made the first trip into the house, Ezra replayed his latest conversation with Vin in his mind. They had spoken for almost an hour just before Logan's jet landed at the Denver airport. Tanner had given him a complete update of everything that was going on and Standish was anxious to attend the team meeting at Camp Larabee this afternoon.
Raphael pulled into the circular drive in front of Buck's home. He smiled when he saw the big banner on the porch that read, 'Welcome Home Daddy'. Inez stepped out the front door onto the porch with Tannis in her arms, followed by the older Wilmington children, and the Dunne twins.
"Daddy," exclaimed Caleb, Sarah, and Maria in unison, as they ran to greet Buck. After noticing Buck's arm in a sling, Caleb came to a stop in front of his Dad to block his sisters' enthusiastic movements, preventing them from tackling their father.
Buck laid his hand on Caleb's shoulder and whispered, "Thanks, son."
Once they were in the house and everyone had welcomed him home, Buck pulled Inez aside. "Darlin' I know you won't agree, but I need to be at that team meeting at Camp Larabee."
Inez looked into Buck's blue eyes and nodded. "I know better than to try and keep you away from there, especially when it's JD they're meeting about. However, as soon as the dinner at Chris's is over I'm putting you to bed."
Buck teasingly leered at his beautiful wife and grinned. "Is that a promise?"
"Try me and see." Inez winked, kissing him just before he walked out the door with Mark and Raphael.
Jason and Andi burst through the door yelling "We're here!"
Chris grinned and caught Andi. She never considered that her Uncle Chris would not catch her when she threw up her arms to him. 'Hey kiddo, you and Jason ready to help Max, Dottie, and Miss Nettie baby-sit?"
"Yep, but all Bren and Trey do is eat and sleep," Andi stated as if that said it all.
"We'll help, Uncle Chris." Jason gave his sister an indulgent look. "They are awake some of the time, and we know how to keep 'em entertained."
Vin and Kelli came in, each carrying one of the twins. Max immediately took Bren, and Dottie was there for Trey.
"I think we'll all manage just fine," Max said, lifting Bren from his carrier. "You all go on to your meeting. We'll have dinner ready for the family when you’re through."
Dottie had Trey in her arms already. "Jason and Andi are the best helpers I know."
Kelli hugged her oldest son and then kissed Andi. "We'll be back soon."
"Bye Mom," Jason said, already digging out Chris's Playstation games. Andi had wiggled her way down from Chris's arms to help him.
"Bye Daddy," Andi added.
Vin chuckled. "That is the last you'll hear from them, as long as the video games hold up."
"We need to get going." Chris looked at Vin. "You okay?"
"I'm good," Tanner answered. He watched Kelli give the twins a last check and then took her hand. "Come on, Mama, they're in good hands. I need you to keep me warm." Vin wrapped his arm around his wife's waist and drew her under his shoulder.
Chris grinned, watching his daughter and Vin. After kissing Grace goodbye, he grabbed his keys. "Let's go, before you two forget we're working this afternoon."
"Lead on, and we'll follow." Vin didn't release his hold on Kellie. "While you drive, I'll keep my wife entertained."
Chris rolled his eyes and shook his head. Vin was in a strange mood today, first with the anxiety he had picked up from him earlier, and now, his normally reserved MCAT Captain had disappeared entirely. Vin was making no effort to hide the lust he felt for his wife and he obviously had not taken time to shave the last couple of days. Chris made a mental note to keep an eye on him.
Chris took Pam aside and requested that she check out the e-mail he had received earlier. She promised to stop by his house after she and Kat returned from having dinner with Matt at the Southern Breeze to take a look at it. The rest of the team arrived and they were anxious to get started. Larabee was concerned about Buck, but he knew that ordering him home to rest would be met with a great deal of resistance. He would have to settle for keeping a close watch on him instead.
Josiah, Mallory, and Nathan sat down together. Rain was going to meet them at Chris's in a couple of hours with all their kids and Nathan wanted to keep a closer watch on Josiah. He knew something besides this mess with JD was on the profiler's mind and the stress was beginning to show. Kat was talking to Pam about their evening plans. Alex, Raphael, and Mark found a seat and waited for the others to settle in. Guy Saunders and Brad Garrison took in their surroundings and decided that there was a lot more to MCAT than first meets the eye.
Bones and Greg were setting up some charts detailing the forensic evidence they had, while Buck slid in quietly to sit next to Chris's. Justin found an open seat next to Selina and joined the rest of the team to wait. Vin sat on the other side of Chris and insisted that Kelli sit next to him. She gave him a questioning look because they usually tried to keep their personal and professional life separated. Tanner just smiled at her and firmly clasped her hand under the table. Ezra had been the last to arrive and after everyone welcomed him back, he sat down beside Kelli. Chris nodded to Gunny to start taking notes and began the meeting.
"Ezra, Buck, it's good to have both of you back with us today. Director Travis's condition has been upgraded from critical to serious. Hopefully we'll hear better news with the doctor's next report. I know all of you have been busy and I don't plan to hold you here long. However we do need to go over what we know." Chris turned on the large video monitor behind him. "We know JD has been arrested on the charge of conspiracy to commit murder. The victim was Christina Adams aka Lady Ice aka by a dozen other names. She was in the witness protection program and allegedly our JD gave out the information on her location to the arsonist that set fire to her townhouse."
"Sold Commander, not gave," Pam interrupted. "I found a hundred thousand dollar transfer to JD's savings from an offshore account in the Bahamas. I discovered the transaction took place the day before Christina…that woman was murdered. I'm trying to find out where it originated."
"JD would never do that," Buck shouted.
Chris placed a hand on Buck's uninjured shoulder forcing him to stay seated. "We know Buck. Someone has gone to a lot of trouble to make others question JD's actions."
Guy Saunders spoke up. "They also have a CI they snatched from the Marshal's office ready to testify he overheard JD's phone call to the arsonist. The FBI task force has him stashed at a safe house and won't give up the location."
"Then go back to the Marshal who handled Christina Adam's protection," Chris told him. He was surprised Saunders would pass on any information about the FBI task force team, but he would take it.
"That, Sir could be a problem," Guy replied. "The Marshal in question, Ronald Jones, was killed by a sniper while he ran his usual ten miles this morning."
"It looks as if a pattern is developing," Josiah said. "The five other murders they want to connect to us have the same problem. The investigating officers in the deaths of Rauel Estefan., Congressman Zimmerman and Willis are all since deceased. The man who murdered Blain was killed in a prison yard fight two months later, and the investigation into the death of Patrice Garner is going nowhere since some of the case files have vanished."
"We have the same problem with the forensic evidence," Bones said. "All we have are the original reports, because most of the materials were discarded once the COD was established or the cases were closed."
Justin sighed, "One dead end after another is all we've been able to find…so far."
"That's not good enough," Buck fumed. "JD did not sell information to get that woman killed! No way in hell!"
Ezra had remained quiet until now. "We will have JD home soon and we will find the mastermind behind this obvious conspiracy. Douglas Banks is not only a great criminal attorney, but a very good judge of character. He believes JD is innocent and is willing to do whatever it takes to prove it. My sources are working as we speak along with I'm certain everyone else's. Have faith, and a little patience."
Buck sank back into his chair and let Ezra's words sink in. "You're right."
Chris was satisfied that the potential Wilmington fireworks were diverted and resumed speaking. "Justin, I want you to take Saunders and Sandoval and head for Arizona. Follow up on the investigation of Jones's death and see if anyone in his office can shed some light on who this so-called informant is. Pam, stay on the trail of the money transfer. Brad, you and Selina will relieve the DPD officers standing guard on Travis's room. Bones, you and your team keep digging on the forensics. Raphael, you and Mark get some rest and be ready to take over the watch on Travis at midnight. All of you stay on top of your snitches and don't overlook even the hint of a rumor about a plot against our unit. JD's arraignment is scheduled for nine Monday morning. Let's see if we can come up with enough to convince a judge to release him on bail."
The agents scrambled out of the room to take on their assignments until it was only the brothers' and Kelli left. Chris closed the door and sat back down. "We have some financial matters to discuss."
"I can leave," Kelli offered.
Vin tightened his hold on her hand. His protection mode had kicked in full force and he did not want her out of his sight. He was saved from having to attempt an explanation when Chris answered. "You can’t vote, but as long as we all agree, I see no reason for you to leave." He looked around the table and saw unanimous acceptance of his statement.
"I'll make this short and to the point. Criminal attorney's cost money and so does bail." Chris sighed wearily. "What are we willing to put up for collateral?"
"I say we do whatever is necessary. Even with Douglas willin' to work with us, it will still run close to a hundred thousand dollars for his fee," Vin said.
"Bail, if it is granted, will be high. It could easily be half a million or more for the charges," Ezra stated.
"How much cash could we raise by putting the ranch up as collateral?" Josiah asked.
"More than enough, but we would all have to agree to do it," Chris answered. "I vote yes."
"I'm willing to bet the ranch on JD," Buck said. "I vote yes."
"Me too," Nathan added.
"I'm in," Josiah said without hesitation.
"Count us in," Vin added.
"I'll start on the paperwork." Ezra had known the outcome before Chris took the vote. Their loyalty to one another was something he had learned to depend on with these men. In spite of what he had said to Buck, Standish realized that it was going to take more than a few snitches to break this case, a helluva a lot more. Right now the FBI was holding all the cards and it did not look good for John Daniel Dunne.
Ominous shadows had entrenched themselves into every corner of her room, however the frail woman was now oblivious to their presences. She had withdrawn from the realm of reality and escaped to an imaginary world which existed only in her mind. Even the monster could not touch her there, but the damage was already done. She was lost to the world of the living and the miracle of modern medicine had not been able to bring her back from the dark abyss in which she had sought refuge.
Barbara arrived at the Larabee home with Casey and Caitlyn. Caitlyn hadn’t wanted to come, but Casey had practically begged her. Walking up to her husband, Barbara slipped her arm around his waist. "You sir, are thinking too hard."
Ezra smiled as he embraced her, before kissing her forehead. "Did Caitlyn fill you in on everything you missed while we were gone?"
"Obviously not everything, judging by the feel of the tension in this room," Barbara answered. "I think she may have missed a few things."
"I fear, my love, that you may be correct," he agreed.
Nathan and Rain moved across the room to join Ezra and Barbara. "Welcome back, you two. How was your trip?"
"It was wonderful," Barbara replied smiling.
"It would appear we had a far superior experience than those of you who remained behind," Ezra said. "Aside from the tragic events surrounding JD being in jail, and Buck and Travis being injured, what the hell is wrong with Vin, Josiah, and Chris?"
Nathan shook his head. "I wish I knew. Josiah has been distant for a couple of weeks now, and had in fact planned a trip away with Mallory before all this happened. I don't have a clue as to what Vin's problem is, and Chris has been acting strange all day."
"So there appears to be more going on here than we know about," Ezra said thoughtfully. "I propose we stick close and be there when they need us."
"Those are my feelings exactly. When I was going through that rough patch they were all there for me, even saved my family when my foolishness put them at risk," Nathan said.
"We will be there for all of them too," Rain stated "What we need is something to get them all focused on the same thing, instead of brooding about their own problems."
Barbara had an idea. "Ezra, let’s hand out our gifts now, maybe that will get their attention."
The couple handed out the small treasures they had brought home with them from Italy. There were beautiful scarves and jewelry for the ladies, wool scarves and beer mugs for the men. The couple also presented each family with a hand inlaid music box and a collection of Italian chocolates and cheeses.
Little Maria Wilmington called out "Pinocchio" in delight when they pulled out the puppets Barbara and Ezra brought for each of the children. They also had other toys they were certain the parents would allow their kids to play with, instead of being saved as a collectible.
While they were handing out the gifts, the Standish's told their family of the places they visited on their trip. Sharing a look with the Jackson’s the two couples realized the interest of the other adults was forced. They knew it had nothing to do with caring about Ezra and Barbara or their trip. It had everything to do with the strain their current situations had them all under. The foursome agreed to keep their eyes open and hoped to discover the clues they needed to assist their loved ones.
Chris was silent throughout most of the dinner, content to let the children take center stage and keep their parents' minds off the more serious issues they were all facing.
Nettie hovered around Casey, seeming to be more than just a little concerned about her mental state. She stood watch to make certain Casey ate a good healthy meal, keeping Lilah and Daisy occupied, so her niece could stay off her feet. Nettie was a smart lady and very perceptive. Chris was positive Casey was in good hands, but wondered… What did her aunt know, the rest of them didn't?
Chris approached Casey who was talking to Caitlyn about their earlier counseling session with the Reins of Change kids. Caitlyn Broderick had also taken Casey under her wing and stood by just as protective of her as Nettie.
"Ladies," Chris greeted them all before addressing Casey. "Are you holding up okay, honey?" He had known Casey since she was nine years old and had no doubt she was strong enough to weather the storm blowing through the Dunne family's life.
"I'm doing okay, Chris. I'll just be glad when this is over and JD is home where he belongs," Casey answered.
"Soon Casey, I promise." Chris admired her confidence in JD and hoped he could keep that promise. "We don't know all of what is going on yet, and I do not want you going anywhere without one of our agents. Kelli will be escorting you to court Monday and she'll stay with you until you return to the ranch."
"You think I'm in danger?" Casey had not considered that possibility.
"Not really, but JD would give me hell if I did not take every precaution where you, Nettie, and the girls are concerned." Chris gave the young woman a hug. "Don't worry, the next dinner we have for the Wild Bunch will be JD's welcome home party."
"Thanks. I think after all this is over, JD and I are gonna take a long vacation before you get him back at MCAT."
Chris grinned, "Two weeks and not a day longer. Now bundle up those babies, go home and get some rest, you'll need it for that two week vacation."
"I'll do that, you just bring him home to me." Casey kissed him on the cheek. "I'll see you Monday morning." He watched her leave and then caught up with Josiah and Mallory.
"Before you two leave, I wanted to let Mallory know I need her to work with Pam next week at Camp Larabee."
"No problem, Chris, I'll be there by eight o'clock Monday morning," Mallory answered.
"We were just rounding up Joanne and Adam to leave," Josiah told him, not wanting Chris to ask too many questions. "If we start now we might get them to bed by nine."
"I hear that. Grace thinks it's normal to take at least two hours getting ready for bed. I'll see you both later." Chris knew Josiah was usually one of the clearer headed of all them. Still, something was definitely on his mind and Chris was willing to bet it was more than JD being arrested. Especially seeing the way Mallory had stayed close to him all evening. He made a mental note to talk to his profiler on Monday, after court.
"You look damn serious about something, stud. Are you targeting anyone in particular?" Buck walked up and stood beside Chris.
"You should be home in bed," Chris stated firmly, and then turned to Buck grinning. "Maybe I should tell Inez about that killer headache you're trying to hide."
"Aw hell, Chris, don't do that." Buck groaned. "Inez will have my hide. I told her I was fine."
Chris laughed. "She knows you better than that and I know you do not want to set off her Latino temper. Go home, Buck, and get some rest."
"Don't make me get Inez over here," Chris threatened.
Buck threw up his hands in surrender and grimaced as his injured shoulder reacted to the unexpected movement. "Fine, I'm going," he grumbled, "you don't play fair." Chris watched Buck tell Inez they were leaving and sent his old friend a satisfied smirk.
He caught sight of Vin absently caressing a ringlet of Kelli's hair and shook his head. Vin was standing so close to her a mosquito couldn't fly between them. To an outsider it would be difficult to believe four of the children in this room belonged to them and that usually the Tanners were not so obvious about their mutual attraction to one another. They were behaving more like lovesick kids than married adults.
*Vin, you two gonna need a private room?*
*Not yet, but I'm working on it.*
*Try to remember she's my daughter."
*It's kinda hard for me to forget that, Cowboy. She's Larabee stubborn with a temper to match.*
*I'm not stubborn. I am concerned about you're sanity at the moment. Are you sure you're okay?*
*Ha! You're as bullheaded as they get, and yes 'm fine.*
*I hope you find your sane side before Monday*
*I'm about the sanest friend you've got, Larabee.*
*Judging from your performance tonight, it's a scary thought.*
*Goodnight Cowboy. It looks as if you have more company and we're headed home.*
*Goodnight Tanner.* Chris was not convinced for one second that Vin was all right.
Chris looked behind him and saw the company Vin was talking about. Matt Dubois had just walked in with Katrina and Pam. Matt extended his hand to him as a greeting and Chris accepted. "Good to see you, Dubois."
Matt grinned at him, keeping one hand around Katrina's waist. "Nice to see you, too, Larabee. How are the kids?"
"They're good, but see for yourself." Chris directed him to where the children were. "If you'll excuse us, there's something I want to talk to Pam about."
"Take your time Chris. We'll be right here with Grace and Cody." Matt knelt down to hug his niece, while Katrina lifted Cody into her arms.
Chris nodded and headed for his home office with Pam. "I want you to find out everything that you can about this strange email I received today." He told the younger woman as he settled himself in his chair and opened his mailbox. He located the email in question and opened it, and then rose from the chair to let Pam sit down.
"It's not from any ISP server I've ever seen before. Of course that doesn't mean anything," Pam said as she studied the email. "Its point of origin could be from out of the United States or it could be a new ISP company just introducing itself."
"Can you trace it back to the sender?"
"Maybe, but I'll have to have CASSIE's help." She entered her e-mail address and forwarded the message to herself. "It may take some time. I'll do what I can."
"Pam, for now, this stays between you and me."
"Yes, Sir." She followed Chris out of the room to join the others.
"You ready to go?" Katrina asked Pam, glancing up from where she was playing with Cody.
"Any time the two of you are ready," Pam was quick to assure her, not wanting to shorten Matt's time with his niece and nephew.
Matt gave Grace another hug and whispered something in her ear that made her giggle. "Bye-bye," she said proudly.
"Bye, sweetheart," Matt smiled at her, before looking over to Chris. "We'll be going. Thanks for letting us visit with the kids."
"Anytime Matt, uncles are an important part of a child's life and you are always welcome here." Chris walked with the trio to the door and once they were gone, he closed it and sighed. Handling the Wild Bunch was easy, putting Grace and Cody down for the night…that was a whole new ballgame.
Tonight, Cody proved easier for him to put to sleep. After changing his son, Chris rocked the infant until he fell asleep, and then placed him in his crib. He left Cody's room and headed down to Grace's room. Dottie had already given her a bath. Chris took over assisting his daughter into pajamas as well, and then read her a bedtime story. He tucked her into bed, kissing her cheek. "Good night, angel," he said softly.
Grace yawned. "Night Da, Night Cowboy."
Larabee frowned. He was really going to have to talk to Vin about not calling him by that detested nickname around his kids anymore.
The children were all down for the night and Buck was still fighting sleep. Inez came into the bedroom, long dark hair glistening from the shower she had taken, and wearing a colorful silk robe. She shook her head when she realized Buck was still awake. "Husband you need your rest."
Grinning he answered, "What I need is my woman right here beside me."
Inez couldn’t keep her smile from reaching her eyes, defeating her efforts to be stern with her spouse. "Buck you are recovering from a serious head injury and being shot, and you're under the effects of strong medications for the pain. The last thing you should be thinking about is being amorous. The doctor ordered you to rest."
"Now, Darlin’," Buck said patting the bed beside him with a wolfish smile on his face. "If my doctor had a wife as sexy and beautiful as you are, he would understand why it is I can’t rest until I have pleasured my lady fair."
"Buck ..." Inez started to protest again, but was cut off by her husband's next word.
"Please," he whispered seductively.
He knew he had her when Inez shook her head and laughed. Slowly she untied the sash on her robe before dropping it to the chair next to her. Her bronze skin glowed in the moonlight. She walked over to the bed and crawled in next to her charming husband. Careful of his injury they cuddled together, but before Buck had a chance to execute his bold lovemaking plan for the evening, he was asleep in her arms. Unfortunately for Buck, his spirit was willing, but his battered, exhausted, body was not. Inez snuggled against her husband, not bothering to hide her amusement when she whispered, "Goodnight, my love."
Vin knew the twins would sleep a little longer and told Kelli to take advantage of it while he put their older children to bed. He sat down to read them their bedtime story, so Kelli could take a few minutes for herself. Andi did not last through the third chapter and Jason barely stayed awake for the end of the fairytale. Gently lifting Andi into his arms, Vin covered Jason and carried his daughter to her bed, tucking her in for the night. He turned on the intercom before closing their doors and headed across the house to join his wife.
Kelli had only enough time for a quick shower and to change clothes before the twins were awake demanding their bedtime meal. The boys had reversed their order tonight. Trey slept peacefully with a full tummy, while Bren took his turn. Of the two he was the most animated when it came to feeding, while Trey's style was more laid back. Kelli smiled at her son as she held him to her breast. "You, love, take after your father only when it comes to feeding."
"Yes he does," Vin spoke from the doorway. He had been watching Kelli and Bren for a good ten minutes before he made his presence known. "Although it's for entirely different reasons, we're both fascinated by your beautiful breasts." He moved over to stand beside the rocker, taking in the image of mother and son and tucking it into his mental book of memories. As he looked down at an enthusiastic Bren, he had to grin. "Son, your mama is not gonna disappear. You can slow down a bit."
"You can tell him that, but it's not his way to go slow about anythin'." Kelli laughed. "Bren has one speed lately, and that is hurry up."
"I'll have to teach him about the value of patience, but not tonight. I'm anxious to get you alone." Vin stood behind Kelli to get a better view of the breasts under discussion and began to lovingly massage the nape of her neck.
"Damn, that feels good." Kelli leaned her head back against him, feeling the strength in Vin's hands as he gently rubbed her neck and shoulders. She was well aware of the passion simmering just under the surface between them today, yet she had also seen flashes of trepidation in Vin's eyes when he thought she was not paying attention. Whatever it was that had moved him to display himself as the ardent lover all day was more than desire. "Tanner, not that 'm complainin', but why all the special attention? Are you hidin' a secret girlfriend or somethin'?"
"You know me better than that!" Vin was incredulous. He knew she was teasing, but still he was surprised she would even ask such a question.
She did know better, however if an outrageous remark could shake him, he might talk to her about what was troubling him. "Somethin' is going' on. You want to share?" She tried to turn enough to see his face.
Vin was saved from having to answer when Bren protested her movement and gave her a sleepy-eyed look which told Kelli she'd better burp him now, or he would be asleep before she had the chance. Kelli started to move him when Vin reached down and took the baby from her. Father and son spent a few minutes 'talking' while Kelli prepared Bren's crib. The baby burped and within a few minutes he was asleep in his father's arms. Vin laid him in the crib and reached for Kelli. His hand slid around the nape of her neck nestling her to him as they began to walk out of the nursery. With every step they took together, their bodies brushed against one another.
In their bedroom Vin had a fire going in the fireplace. He had made a cozy nook in front of it, built of comforters and pillows. Soft music played on the stereo, and several scented candles were placed around the room. Vin's head bent down to find Kelli's mouth. His arms swept around her, pulling her against him. Between heated kisses and gentle loving touches, he whispered softly, "Dance with me, baby."
A small feminine smile curved her soft mouth and she Kelli breathlessly answered," I would love to." She rested her head against Vin's chest listening to the steady beat of his heart. They swayed to the music enjoying their time of just being close. Heat sizzled and danced along her skin, arching between them like white hot lightning as they moved closer to the fire. Raising her head to look at her husband she saw the warm passion glittering in his eyes, the same look he was without doubt seeing in hers. She traced her fingertips upward over the rugged line of his jaw, tenderly brushing through his unruly chestnut mane. "Vin?"
Tanner saw the unasked question in her eyes, but he could not begin to put into plain words how he felt when he could not understand it himself. Every instinct he possessed was screaming for him to protect their relationship and keep Kelli close to him. Whatever was happening, or what his visions meant, he had no intention of allowing anything to come between them, tonight, tomorrow or ever. Just as Vin had immediately recognized Chris as the brother of his spirit, heart and mind, he knew from the moment he had first set eyes on Kelli that they were to be bound together in ways mere words could hardly explain. He answered her the only way he knew how without sharing more of the visions and demons that were chasing him. "I needed us today, Kel, and I need you now."
Intent on making his redhead forget her concerns about him, Vin nibbled on her earlobe and spoke softly, letting loose the poet in his soul, repeating to her portions of their wedding vows. "You are my chosen mate Kel, my anchor, and the part of my life which completes me. Your heart beats with the same rhythm as mine and I feel your spirit within me. I need you beside me in this life and the next as much as I have need of air to breath. All that I have is yours, as well as my love, my life, and my protection." He raised his head to look deep into her sapphire eyes and added, "I want you with every cell in my body, with my mind and my heart."
Vin's mesmerizing words were an erotic whisper of seduction Kelli seemed helpless to resist. Still, she had to let him know she understood. There would be no more questions. She trusted him with her life, and would wait until he was ready to share his burden with her. She softy whispered part of her vows, "I take into my keepin', without reservation, the same that is yours and I freely offer to you, all that is mine." His hands gently framed her face and drew her to him for an enticing kiss that held the passion of ten lifetimes and the promise of more to come.
JD sat in his cell and listened to the other prisoners while they laughed and made jokes. So far he had not found anything humorous about being locked in this hell. Monday he would get a reprieve when he got out of here and went to the courthouse across the street for his arraignment. He knew he would at least see Casey at the hearing, but seeing and not being able to talk or touch was a whole different thing. His lawyer had already warned him that bail was unlikely. He prayed Douglas Banks was wrong. JD needed his family and as much as he hated to admit it, he knew he needed to see his doctor, too. The pain he had been experiencing in his back had been steadily increasing and he was positive he was running a fever. Regardless of the odds against him, he found himself looking forward to nine o'clock Monday morning. If fate was kind, maybe he would get a miracle and be allowed to go home.
Charlie knew lockdown was only minutes away, but he had to know for sure the money was there for his kids. So, he stood at the payphone and made a collect call to his wife. "Did you get it?"
"Yes. It was a cashier's check for fifty thousand dollars. Are you certain this is the only way?"
"Baby, it will be thirty years before I even have a chance to see the outside world again. You and the kids need the money, now. Take it and remember, whatever happens, I love you." He hung up the phone before she had a chance to try and talk him out of what he had to do or say good-bye. It may be too late for him, but at least he could do one good thing in his sorry life for his family. All he needed to do now was create an opportunity, do what he was paid to do, and then his wife could collect the balance of the payment. He was not concerned at all that it might cause him to spend the rest of his life prison, and he had no reservations. No one was going to miss one lousy cop.
The Texan leaned leisurely against the corral fence while the restless Gunslinger paced before him. Shaking his head, the long haired man laughed as his friend formed a deep groove in the dirt with his constant moving. "We have all the time in the universe and you're still an impatient sonofabitch."
The man in black stopped in front of the young Texan and shot him a glare that should have wiped the grin off his face, but didn't. "I don't need a smartass Texan reminding me about time! WE may have eternity. They don't. If we can't find a way to get through to them soon, it will be too late."
"They have the connection, their own band of brothers, and damn superior bloodlines. I have a feelin' they'll make it with or without us."
"No, they won't. If we can't find a way to warn them, then the worst will happen and those two, while they may survive, will never be the same again." The Gunslinger looked his old friend in the eye. "You know that as well as I do."
Painful memories of another time and place flashed through the young Texan's mind. He knew life moved on even when you did not want it to, and a semblance of normality could be found eventually, if you allowed it in. However, there were special parts of a life which could never be replicated, and answers as to why remained an elusive mystery. Those kinds of losses were the ones that haunted a man's soul forever.
The Texan nodded toward the ranch house where Vin and Chris were preparing to leave for the courthouse. "We know the baby can see you, but she can't tell him what we need him to know. How do we get our message to Larabee?"
The older man watched the present day versions of his best friend and himself and sighed deeply. "I'm not sure. Mine is not too receptive to messages. He did not even think twice about the dream I sent him. What about yours?"
"He's receptive, but the time is not yet right for him. All I can do at this point is stick close to him and wait."
"Then we work on Larabee first and go with him. The sooner he figures out what's going on, the better chance they will all have to survive."
Monday October 15th
"Grab that swill you call coffee and let's roll." Chris had said his good-byes to the kids while Vin waited for him in the kitchen, and the blond was now headed out the door. "One of these days, Tanner, that stuff will eat a hole in your gut. Where the hell is Kelli?"
"Kel is on her way to the Wells' ranch to pick up Casey, per your orders," Vin grumbled as he walked beside Chris to the truck. "Maybe we should go over and follow them in." Tanner was still uneasy about letting Kelli out of his sight, in fact he and his redhead had already argued about it this morning.
"Kelli can handle getting Casey to the courthouse. She's a trained Federal Agent for God's sake; she doesn't need a damn babysitter."
"Fine, it was just a suggestion!" Vin barked. He was not ready to make a big deal out of it, yet, but if something did not change real soon, he was going to put her on personal leave until these damn visions went away or he figured them out.
"You lose your razor Vin? We are going into a courtroom, not the rodeo," Chris snapped.
"No, I didn't lose it, just didn't use it," Vin snapped back.
"You could at least pretend to care."
"Damn, Larabee, you're in a bitchass mood today. Who pissed in your cereal this mornin'?"
"Hell, who hasn't? Grace is cutting a tooth and was up half the night. JD's locked up in federal holding for something he did not do. Travis finally woke up yesterday. He is still in serious condition and is trying to run this investigation from the ICU. One of my Captains is on sick leave, and the other has been actin' like a randy sixteen-year old kid. Someone is targeting my team and that bastard from the FBI has already ragged on my ass this morning for twenty minutes about the Marshal who was killed in Arizona. He'd like to pin his death on one of us, too." Chris opened the door of the Ram, climbed inside, and started the engine. The moment Tanner shut the passenger side door. Chris shifted the truck into gear, and hurriedly drove away from the house. He did not even mention the strange dreams he was having every night.
Tanner took a sip of his coffee and mumbled to himself, * Damn cranky ass Cowboy, it's gonna be a long day.*
*I heard that!*
Douglas Banks gathered the family together in the corridor outside the courtroom. Ezra had used his influential contacts to get into the bank early. He presented the deed to the ranch and now held the paperwork for a cash loan should the judge allow bail for JD.
"Whatever happens in there, I do not want to see any reactions from the family," Banks warned. "If bail is denied, I plan to ask for an immediate hearing, and I do not want any flared tempers to piss off the judge."
"We'll behave if that's what it takes to get JD cut loose," Buck assured the attorney. "Just make sure the assholes that arrested him are on the other side of the room." He still got angry when he thought about the way JD was treated and the bruises they had inflicted on Casey.
Casey had to ask. "Will I be able to see him, other than in the courtroom?"
"If we don't get him out today, I should be able to get you a visitation within the next day or so, but it will only be a short one," Banks informed her.
"You just concentrate on getting him home now," Chris stated firmly. "JD does not belong in jail." It was plain to all of them that Larabee was in a dark mood already and if JD was not released, it would only worsen as the day wore on.
Ezra could feel the tension building and motioned to Vin to help him herd everyone inside. Eight family members took up the entire front row, allowing Casey to sit closest to where JD would be brought out, and all they could do now was to wait for court to be called into session.
Two unseen observers stayed close by. It was heartening for the Texan and the Gunslinger to see the six men together, waiting to lend their strength to the seventh, in his time of need.
Judge Rodale's Courtroom
Court had been in session for fifteen minutes and several prisoners had been brought forward. JD was not among them. They were getting restless, and Casey's nerves were on edge. A correctional officer entered from a side door and passed a note to the bailiff. He read it and then approached the judge to relay the message. When the judge asked Douglas Banks to approach the bench, the family knew it could not be good news.
One hour earlier…
Douglas Banks had come by Sunday afternoon to talk about today's proceedings and drop off a suit for him to wear to court. JD had no mirror in his cell, but hoped that he did at least look presentable. He had been dressed and ready to go since seven and now anxiously waited for the guard to come and get him. One more hour and he could see his wife. Although his attorney told him she was fine, all JD could think about was the rough treatment Casey suffered because of him, and he needed to see for himself she was all right.
Two guards made their way down the corridor to JD's cell. As a law officer he was held apart from the other prisoners and would be escorted to the courthouse separately from the rest of the inmates scheduled to appear for arraignment today. They would have to take him through one common area on the way to the exit. There he would be held until the van arrived to take him across the street to another holding area at the courthouse. One guard opened the cell door while the other brought out the leg chains and handcuffs to secure their prisoner.
JD may not have been in jail long, however he knew the drill by now, and as much as he hated those damn restraints, he complied. He was too close to seeing his wife to cause a ruckus, and smart enough to know he had no choice. He was led out of his cell and back down the corridor with a guard on each side of him. They moved through the empty areas quickly and then crossed through the common area. Here the other inmates were allowed thirty minutes of inside activities once each day, rotating a different fifteen prisoners in and out every hour.
Some waited in lines by the pay phones for their chance to make a call, others gathered around the one television in the room for a glimpse of what was going on outside the jail, while still more played games or talked in groups of two or three. Armed guards and security cameras monitored the large room, ready to break up any fights if one or more were to break out. For the most part the men were well-behaved for inmates, but they were all criminals of one degree or another and to forget that was to invite trouble.
JD took note of the nefarious looking men milling about the room, identifying a couple of them as men he and the rest of his teammates had arrested at one time or another, and felt his forehead break out in a cold sweat. He wasn't a man who scared easily, but being locked up behind bars without the security of his teammates to back him up should a fight break out, sent a cold thread of fear through him. He kept from making eye contact with anyone else; instead he focused his attention straight ahead, and counted down the minutes until he would see his beautiful wife.
As JD was escorted through the room accompanied by his two watchdogs, three prisoners began to move past them. The MCAT agent felt a thrill of alarm go through him as he realized that one of the inmates was a man he had seen staring at him a few moments earlier. Warily he watched the man, as the other prisoner stumbled, and then fell into the guard on the left side of him. His other guard motioned for him to stop, so his companion could confront the inmate.
"Sorry about that," the inmate apologized as he steadied himself against the guard's arm.
*Yeah, right.* JD thought to himself, hoping the guards realized that they were being conned. Working more than ten years with the best undercover agent there was had taught the young Federal Agent a thing or two about cons, and this inmate couldn't even tell a decent lie.
"Just watch where the hell you're going," The guard admonished the man.
"Yes, Sir." The prisoner straightened before moving on with the others.
JD had just begun to breathe a bit easier, when he heard a footstep behind him, and sensing trouble, tried to turn around. It was too late to defend himself. He felt something sharp jab into his left side, and then a fiery hot lance of pain flooded through him. Something warm and thick began to run down his leg, and a moment later he fell into the other guard.
As JD fell into him, the guard on his right let out a muffled curse and caught him. His partner turned his attention from watching the trio of inmates walk away when he heard a grunt behind him.
He turned in time to see Dunne's legs collapse from under him, and reached out a hand to catch the falling inmate, exclaiming, "What is this, an epidemic of clumsiness?"
It was then he saw drops of blood on the floor next to the young man and became alarmed. "Hold up," he ordered. Pulling back JD's jacket, he saw the red stain spreading across his white shirt. "Lock us down, and get a medic in here NOW!"
It only took a few minutes for Douglas Banks to get everyone into the hallway to deliver the news. Agents Rush and Spelling, who were also in the courtroom, felt it would be in their best interest to follow the attorney into the corridor.
"There has been an incident at the jail. JD has been injured," Banks said quietly.
"No, please, God, no," Casey cried. Her face lost all color as she began to hyperventilate, gasping for air. She reached out with both hands for support, knowing instinctively that something awful had happened to JD.
Vin and Ezra quickly moved to her side, in time to hold her upright when her legs buckled. Vin spoke softly to her in an effort to calm her. Josiah and Nathan walked into the closest room and ordered the young DA rehearsing his opening arguments out. Then they signaled Chris and Buck to bring the Casey in.
Buck was barely hanging onto his own control, fear for JD's welfare racing through him. Still, he knew whatever came he had to be there to help Casey. He didn’t say a word when he grabbed Douglas Banks’ arm to pull him along with the others.
Chris was the last to enter the room, taking a minute to throw a scathing glare at FBI Agents Spelling and Rush. He made a mental note to pay the two agents a visit once all this was over. He hadn’t forgotten what Rain and Caitlyn reported about the situation at the Dunne household, when the FBI arrested JD.
Casey continued to gasp for air as she sobbed into Vin’s chest, while Kelli whispered nonstop to her. Chris waved Nathan off and walked over. Kneeling down he placed one hand on Kelli’s back and the other on Casey’s.
Chris’s tone was gentle but commanding when he asked, "Have you ever known me to break a promise, Casey?"
She was still gasping for air when she shook her head no.
"I want you to try to slow your breathing down. We need to hear what Banks has to say. I promise you, no matter what happened at the jail we will work it out together." Chris never broke eye contact with Casey adding, "That’s it, sweetheart. Breathe with me, in and out, slow and easy."
No one said a word as they watched their leader take charge and calm her with his soothing words. Those who had been on the receiving end of Larabee’s temper wouldn’t have believed the tenderness he used. Once Chris had Casey’s breathing back under control, Buck looked to Banks.
"What the hell happened?" Buck demanded.
"I don't have any details. The call just came in to the judge's office," Banks responded.
"Where is JD?" Chris asked in a soft, dangerous tone
"He's on his way to Denver Memorial Hospital." Banks answered.
Casey choked back a sob, as Kelli rubbed her back soothingly.
"JD was supposed to be isolated from the rest of the inmates. How the hell did someone get close enough to him to hurt him?" Vin said angrily, voicing the words the rest of them were thinking.
"We don't know yet what happened. I'm going over to the jail now to meet the officer in charge. It would be best if I go alone," Banks said. "I'll meet all of you at the hospital."
Denver Memorial Hospital
JD was already in surgery when they arrived at the ER. So far no one could tell them a thing about his condition, except that immediate surgery had been required. Casey managed to keep herself composed enough to call Nettie. She filled her in on this newest turn of events, and told her she wasn't certain when she would be home. When she finished, Casey made a second call to ask Caitlyn to come to the hospital and be with her while they waited for news. The anxious young woman may have thought she was keeping her secret, but was unaware she had given it away by placing her hands protectively over her stomach. If those unconscious gestures weren't enough, her vacillating mood swings were a dead giveaway.
There may not be an announcement yet, but there was another Dunne on the way. Everyone in that waiting room knew it.
They were still waiting on word of JD when Doctor Caitlyn Broderick strolled through the double doors of the emergency room and made her way over to the small group of worried family members. Casey immediately flung her arms around the older woman's neck and cried into her shoulder. As Caitlyn hugged her back, her concerned green eyes met those of Chris Larabee's, an unspoken question in them.
"There's been no word yet," Chris said softly.
Caitlyn nodded and turned her attention back to Casey, who was withdrawing from the embrace with embarrassment written all over her face. "I'm so sorry. I don't know what's the matter with me anymore."
"It's okay," Caitlyn said, her voice filled with compassion. "After everything you've been through recently, I'm surprised you're holding up this well."
Casey chuckled ruefully. "If it wasn't for the Wild Bunch and my Aunt Nettie, I don't think I would be able to handle any of this."
"Don't sell yourself short, darling," Buck told her. "You have a lot of inner strength that you've been tapping into."
Casey started to protest, but it was then that JD's attorney made his appearance.
Douglas Banks hesitated outside the door before he entered the emergency waiting room. He was all too aware the news he was about to deliver was not going to be well-received, especially by Chris Larabee. He steeled himself for the barrage of questions he knew he would be assaulted with, took a deep breath and walked inside to meet with JD's family.
Buck was the first to confront him. "What the hell happened to JD?"
Douglas's gaze flickered to Casey's face for a moment, before settling back onto Wilmington. "Perhaps we should speak in private."
"If what you have to say concerns JD, then you better tell me," Casey demanded. "I am not a child, and I will not be treated like one!"
Chris stood behind Casey and placed both hands on her shoulders. "Easy, sweetheart, let's sit down and hear the man out." He nodded to the attorney and once they were all seated Douglas began to tell them what had happened.
"Two guards were escorting JD through the jail's common area, when another inmate stumbled into one of the guards. The trio halted their movements so the guard could reprimand the other prisoner. They were unaware it was a diversionary tactic deployed to keep them occupied, while another inmate stabbed JD with a homemade shank. By the time the guards realized what had happened, it was too late."
"Sonofabitch," Buck swore.
"The doctors here have said nothing. How badly was he hurt?" Casey asked as she swallowed a sob.
Banks hesitated before answering. "He had lost a critical amount of blood by the time the ambulance arrived. I'm sorry, I don’t know anymore than that."
"What about the inmate that stabbed him?" Chris asked.
"Charles Monroe," Douglas answered. "He was to be moved tomorrow to a federal prison to begin a thirty year sentence for murder and armed bank robbery. Unfortunately before he could be questioned about the incident, he hanged himself in his cell using torn bed sheets. He was dead on the scene by the time they found him. The men that created the disturbance said they were only helping a friend harass a cop and know nothing about the attempted murder. I believe them. Whoever got to Monroe apparently covered their tracks, and he was the only one who knew who wanted JD dead."
"Damn, who's investigating?" Chris asked.
"FBI Agents were there when I left, Spelling and Rush I think." Banks answered.
"They're the bastards that put JD in that hellhole in the first place," Buck huffed. "For two cents I'd…"
Chris stopped him from continuing. "Buck! We'll get to the bottom of this."
All eyes went to the door as Doctor Gilford entered. He motioned for them to stay seated and sat down in front of the group. "JD is out of surgery and is now in recovery. It went well. When he arrived here he had lost a copious amount of blood from a nicked artery near the spleen. I was able to repair the damage without removing the organ." Gilford sighed. "By itself, JD would be in good shape within a couple of weeks. Unfortunately, he presented with a low grade fever indicating some type of infection. Tests showed an infection is spreading from the surgical site in his back and because it went untreated, it entered his bloodstream. We have him on antibiotics and with time I believe we will have it under control. Nonetheless, JD is in for at least several weeks of recuperation."
Casey took a deep breath, trying to steady herself, and found not only Chris's comforting hand on her shoulder, but Vin's as well. She gathered strength from their presence.
"Can I see him?" she asked hoarsely.
Chris and Gilford exchanged looks over her head. Doctor Gilford answered. "I'm not certain it will be possible, considering JD is still in the custody of the prison."
"We'll make it possible," Chris stated firmly.
"Then as soon as we've got JD out of recovery and into a room, I'll send someone out to get you," Doctor Gilford said as he made his departure.
"Chris, we need to be in there with JD. You have a plan?" Buck asked
"Better than that, I have a secret weapon," Chris answered. "Travis has been moved to a private room. Buck, you, Kelli, Caitlyn, and Nathan stay here and be patient. Vin, Ezra, and Josiah, come with me." Larabee took off for the elevator.
Travis's room was on the fifth floor and Mark stood watch in front of the door. When Chris knocked, Evie was the one telling them to come in. Chris moved into the room. He felt a bit reassured by the directness in Travis eyes and the better color in his face since the last time he had seen him. The Director had a long road ahead of him to recover, but it looked like he was headed in the right direction at last.
"Evie...would you excuse us for a few moments?" Chris asked her.
"Certainly," she replied. She rose from her chair and leaned over the bed to kiss her husband. "A bit of fresh air will do me some good after being in this stuffy room."
Chris waited until Mrs. Travis left the room before approaching the bed. "It's good to have you back with us, Orrin."
Travis shifted. Albeit moving stiff and robotically, he was otherwise fully in control and alert. "It's good to be back, but you told me that yesterday. What do you need?"
Orrin always was one to get straight to the point. Chris explained about JD and ended with the dilemma of how to get him released from custody. "JD needs his family to heal properly, and we need to see him to piece together what's happened."
"I can make some phone calls. I warn you though, even if I can pull this off, the bail will be high," Travis told them.
Ezra stepped forward. "We are using Larabee 7 as collateral and regardless of the amount; we can have the cash in a matter of a few hours."
"If one of you men will hand me the phone, I'll get right on it, "Travis said." I'll make it happen. However, it may not be until tomorrow morning before we can get rid of his guards."
Chris stepped forward and placed the phone within the Director's reach. Then the MCAT agents made their departure.
"Josiah, I want to talk to you," Chris said as they left Travis's room. After a knowing look from Vin, he and Ezra moved on to tell Casey what had been decided and convince her to go home to rest. Chris waited until they were out of hearing, before asking Josiah, "You want to tell me what the hell is going on with you?"
"I'm fine," Josiah answered, trying to sound convincing. He was not really ready to have this discussion and it showed.
"No, you're not. You haven't been fine for a couple of weeks now. Plus, I saw you're reaction to the text message you received while we were waiting on news about JD." Chris softened his voice. "You are always there for all of us; let us be there for you."
Sanchez took a deep breath. Chris was the one person he could not hide from and he knew it. "I realize I have been a little distracted lately." He saw the smirk on Chris's face. "Okay a lot distracted. However with everything going on, it just did not seem to be the time to discuss it with any of you. It's just that I need to be in two places at one time and have not figured out how to do it."
"So tell me and we'll work it out together." Chris responded.
"I received a call from Doctor Rivers about two weeks ago. Hannah is not doing well and we have been discussing options about her care."
Chris knew the story behind Hannah's illness and how much Josiah loved his sister. She had been diagnosed long ago as schizophrenic and had been in a full care facility for the past fifteen years. "I thought with the new medications she was doing better."
"She was. Suddenly she's taken a turn for the worse and is in a catatonic state. No one has been able to reach her for the last week and I'm afraid it may be permanent. Mallory and I were going to see her, but then JD was arrested and…Chris, I love my sister… I love all of you as well."
"Josiah, you have six of us, but you only have one blood sister." Chris placed a hand on Josiah's shoulder. "You and Mallory go to Hannah. We'll manage, and your place right now is with her."
It took a little more convincing for Casey. Doctor Gilford had to sneak her into the recovery room to see JD and his assurance that he would be sleeping for the next twenty-four hours, before she reluctantly allowed Caitlyn to take her home. Buck promised he would pick her up early in the morning and they would be in to see JD the minute bail was official. Chris did not trust the guards, so he assigned Raphael to stay the night in front of JD's door, too. Tomorrow would be soon enough to talk to JD, Chris was just thankful he was still alive to talk.
The young Texan and the Gunslinger were relieved to find out that Dunne would make it, but they were still concerned about the danger lurking in the shadows for the rest of the family.
"We have to try harder to make Larabee listen." the Texan was concerned about their progress.
The black clad gunslinger watched Larabee, "You don't worry about him. I have a plan."
It was late in the afternoon and the temperature had been falling all day. Arctic fronts had been moving down into Colorado since early October and with the fluctuating temperatures, snow and ice in the higher elevations had become unstable. Kelli was returning to the MCAT office from the assignment Chris had given her and had chosen to drive the Mount Evans Scenic Byway, a route that reached an altitude of 14,130 feet. The weather up here was always volatile; one never knew what to expect. For wind, rain, lightning, snow, and hail were possible any day of the year.
Vin had warned her to be careful, but she was in a hurry. Kelli knew the sooner she made it back to the office, the sooner she could leave for home to be with the children. It happened quickly, close to the summit pass of Mount Evans. One minute the road was clear, the next, tons of snow and rock were cascading down from above, crashing into the road, taking huge chucks of asphalt with it, on the trip down the mountainside, along with anything else in its path.
Kelli tried to escape her fate by braking hard, but the road had simply disappeared in front of her. The Tahoe was caught up in the avalanche. She had no control over the outcome. The rumbling landslide engulfed her. Within seconds it was over, and…she was gone.
Tuesday October 16th
Trembling with fear and drenched in sweat, Vin woke up, his senses still reeling from the dream vision. It took a minute to orientate himself with his surroundings. Glancing at the clock on the nightstand by his bed, it read 4:00 am. He was in his own bed, at home, but he was alone. He threw back the covers, ran into the nursery and found Kelli bending over Bren's crib. She was alive. It took him a moment to calm his raging pulse and breathe normally before he could move across the room to join his wife. He wrapped his arms around her and kissed the top of her head, assured that she was safe…for now.
*What in the hell is happening Tanner? More importantly, what are you going to do about it?*
Chris watched his agents as they entered the office. He knew they were all tired and working hard on JD's case. Josiah and Mallory had left last night to go to Louisville, Colorado, to Hannah's care facility. They had a conference scheduled with Doctor Alan Rivers for today. Buck was at the hospital waiting with Director Travis for JD's bail to be taken care of so he and Casey could go in to see the injured young man. Ezra was to meet with Douglas Banks at 7:30 am to hand over the bail money. Hopefully it would all be a done deal very soon.
Vin joined Chris in front of his office. "You heard anythin' on JD yet?"
"He's about the same. The infection wore him down and the blood loss has left him weak. However with time he should make a full recovery."
"We have to do more than get him bail. Casey needs him one hundred percent and free."
"Yeah she does. You think he knows?"
"Judgin' from the way she acted yesterday I doubt it. Hell, she probably doesn't realize we know." Vin watched Kelli as he spoke. "Once JD is focused and sees her though, he'll know too. Casey's hormones are all over the place."
Chris followed Vin's line of vision. "You'd know about that. Once you experience pregnant hormones, you never forget." Chris laughed, and then turned more serious. "Are things okay with you and Kel?"
Vin turned to look at Chris. "You bet. Why the hell would you think they're not?"
"Oh, I don't know, maybe because you keep watching her like a hawk ready to pounce on its prey?"
"I am a hawk, remember and if I pounce, it will be in private, unless you expect to hear details," Vin grinned. He was concentrating to keep Chris from reading his true thoughts. Vin was not ready to torment him with painful memories. Once he knew for certain his visions of Sarah and Adam related to what was happening around them, then and only then would he share them with Chris.
"More information than I need to know, Tanner." Chris shook his head. "Team meeting in thirty minutes," he said. Then entered his office and left Vin standing there.
Nathan observed the exchange between the two MCAT leaders. He did not miss seeing the grin fade from Vin's face the moment Chris turned his back. For a few brief, unguarded seconds, Nathan saw anguish and uncertainty in his eyes. Alarm flooded over him when he saw the intensity of Vin's hidden emotions. He was used to Vin holding his own council from most everyone, until he had something important to share. Except from Chris, he usually knew when his best friend was troubled before the rest of them. Whatever torments Vin was currently experiencing, he was not sharing with anyone.
Chris was anxious to hear Justin's report, but he would not be landing for another fifteen minutes. Resigned to wait until the meeting to hear the details, Chris sorted through his notes while he waited for his computer to boot up. The screen lit up and the mail icon began flashing
*Great! Eighty-seven e-mails, just what you need this early in the morning.* Reading e-mail was not one of Chris's favorite things to do, but a necessity of the job. He quickly scanned the names of senders and suddenly stopped when he saw one that drew his attention, 'Shadowchaser'. One message may have been a bad joke, but two? Not likely, and with a similar tag line not a coincidence.
Opening the ominous message that read simply, 'Are you listening?' Chris took a deep breath as he read the chilling words.
"A SISTER HOLDS THE KEY TO YOUR SALVATION. FIRST, YOU MUST RELIVE THE AGONY OF LOSING ANOTHER CHILD."
Memories overwhelmed Chris as he paled. Breaking out in a cold sweat, all he could see was Adam's young face before him. His heart clenched in fear while his mind screamed out. *NO! NOT AGAIN!* He grabbed the phone and dialed Walter's number. The older man answered on the third ring, and Chris began barking orders before he could speak. "I want the security doubled on the ranch. No one gets in without you clearing them. When I am not there I want you and another guard on Grace and Cody at all times and under no circumstances are they allowed off the property!"
"I'll do it Chris. Is there someone in particular I need to be on the lookout for?" Walter could tell by the tone in Chris's voice he was dead serious and did not question his reasons.
"No, just stay with them, Walter," Chris replied, willing himself to calm down. "I'll be in touch."
The next call he made was to Dottie, explaining that Walter was coming over. He instructed her to keep Grace and Cody at home and in sight at all times. Finally he called Pam. With Chris following her instructions, she was able to tap into his computer and attempted to trace the origin of the e-mail. Chris ordered her to work harder on finding Shadowchaser. He needed to know if he was dealing with a harmless prankster, or a nutcase serious about harming his family. He looked at his watch; it was time for the team meeting. There was nothing else he could do about this situation at the moment, and JD was counting on the unit to clear him.
Justin, Guy, and Alex entered the conference room together, having just returned from Phoenix. Bones, Greg, and Katrina sat nearest to the viewing screen, and Nathan joined them. Ezra was on his way in from the courthouse. Mark stayed at the hospital with Buck and Casey. Selina, Raphael, and Brad found three empty chairs together on one side of Chris, while Vin sat on the other, next to Kelli.
Chris started. "Josiah and Mallory have taken some personal time off and will not be with us today. Buck is officially on sick leave. He is at the hospital, along with Mark, standing watch over Director Travis and JD. The latest report on their condition has our Director listed as stable and he has been moved to a private room. JD is listed as serious, but stable and is expected to be in the hospital at least for another week." Chris waited as Ezra came in and sat down next to Kelli.
"Agent Standish, you have an update for us?"
Ezra cleared his throat and then answered, "As of this morning JD has been released on a half million dollar bail. He also has been ordered to surrender his passport. When he leaves the hospital he will be monitored electronically, but he will be going home. Hopefully before that happens we will have this dreadful situation resolved."
The conditions were tougher than Chris had hoped for, but at least JD would not be going back to lock up, or be transferred to the jail infirmary. "Okay, now we have to find the proof we need to have the charges dismissed. Justin, what do you have?"
"U.S. Marshal Ronald Jones was murdered by an unknown assassin during his morning run. The ballistics report shows it to be one shot from a 308. I faxed the report to Doctor Metfield last night and according to him, it's the same rifle used in the attempted murder of Director Travis and Captain Wilmington." Justin waited for Bones to comment.
"After receiving the report I talked to a friend of mine in Phoenix. With his help I was able to confirm that the bullet which killed Jones came from the same rifle use to shoot Travis and Wilmington. Checking further, I discovered it matched the bullet that killed Rauel Estefan eleven months ago."
"This connects Jones's murder to Estefan, Travis, and Buck, but still doesn't help us with JD," Nathan offered.
"True, but it's a place to work from. What else do we know?" Chris answered.
Raphael responded, "We found out the deal Congressman Zimmerman made to get out of prison was to turn on Lady Ice. The only thing saving her from spending life in prison was her deal to name names of some of her associates. That led to her entering the witness protection program. The man identified as the arsonist, who allegedly started the fire which killed her, was found dead of an overdose three days later. Coincidently, the man identified as the mugger that killed Willis died of an overdose too, before he was arrested."
"The man, who murdered Blain while he was in prison, hanged himself the same way Monroe did after he knifed JD yesterday." Alex had been sorting through files since yesterday afternoon. "I obtained a warrant and asked Pam to check their bank accounts. She found out both of those inmate's spouses received fifty thousand dollars just before the attacks."
"I don't believe in coincidence, which means someone has methodically worked to sever any connections leading back to the source," Chris stated.
"Zimmerman's alleged accident happened during almost perfect driving conditions. The time of death indicted he may have been dead before it happened. The investigating officers, however, could not find any evidence to support it and let the cause of death stand as an accident," Selina added.
"Patrice Garner's death is the last one. Do we have any reason to suspect her suicide was staged?" Nathan asked.
"I read her autopsy report and she was three months pregnant." Kelli said. "After the way she tried to help Jason and Andi, I have a problem believin' she would kill herself and her unborn child. I'd like to go interview some of the people who knew her."
Vin tensed beside her. Considering the disturbing vision he had this morning, he did not want Kelli on the road. "It probably isn't necessary at this point Kel. If you do go, I'll go with you. Besides, I'd rather you stay here today."
Chris noticed Vin's protective attitude with Kelli. After the message he received earlier he had to agree. "I think we know enough to indicate none of these deaths were by chance and there is a link. Not only between all of them, but also to the attempt on JD's life. The only problem I see is any possibility of making the connection to one person is slim to none. They're all dead."
"Maybe not all," Guy Saunders said. "I talked to a few trusted associates of mine in the FBI. I found out Marshal Jones had a CI that gave him the information about Dunne. Agent Rush took custody of the informant and has him stashed in a safe house. He is the secret witness whose testimony they are counting on using to convict Agent Dunne."
Ezra stared at Saunders thoughtfully. "I trust that the FBI is competent enough to safeguard this alleged informant until we have the opportunity to liberate him of a few pertinent details."
Saunders shrugged his shoulders. "Considering our mysterious Shadowchaser has managed to kill all the other likely leads, we can only hope."
"The only thing we can find in common with all the victims is their contact with MCAT," Nathan noted. "It's really not so much of a stretch for the FBI to think we are somehow involved in their deaths."
"As a former FBI agent I hate to say it. The truth is it's easier for them to blame MCAT, a government agency the FBI considers a bunch of mavericks anyway, than to believe one person could orchestrate such a meticulous and personal plan of reprisal," Alex said. "They would love the chance to discredit the fine work MCAT does and put their task force in the limelight at the same time."
"We know the truth, and you're right Alex. This is personal and MCAT appears to be the target," Chris agreed. "There has to be some connection we've missed. We need to go over every case we have handled from day one, and find it. Time is against us. We need to clear JD before he goes to trial, so plan on some long days ahead. We don't stop until we find the person responsible for this. Saunders, I want you to try and get the location of the informant. Ezra, you are acting Captain until Buck returns to duty. Vin and I are headed over to the hospital to speak with JD and Director Travis. I want you to pull the files and make the assignments. You are dismissed."
"Should I consult with Pam for computer assistance?" Ezra asked after the other agents had left the room.
Chris hesitated. He knew Ezra was asking about CASSIE. He did not want to advertise it was still an option. "Discreetly see if she can narrow down the possibilities and give us the most likely suspects, but don't discount anyone until we have the bastard in custody."
Kelli remained silent for the duration of the meeting. Inwardly she was seething about Vin's attitude. She waited outside the conference room until he exited and then pulled him aside. "Captain Tanner we need to talk."
"Chris and I are leavin' for the hospital, it will have to wait," Vin answered.
Chris walked up behind him. "Let's go Vin," he said, placing a hand on Kelli's back. "Kel, you behave until we return."
Vin smiled, kissing Kelli before he left. "See you later, baby."
Ezra watched them leave and approached his partner. "Chris and Vin have both been under an exorbitant amount of stress. I am positive they do not mean to treat you any differently than the other agents in this unit."
"You could have fooled me," Kelli snapped. "With a few well-chosen words I have been downgraded from a respected Federal Agent to a child that needs supervision. Are you my designated babysitter now?"
"As the officer responsible for your MCAT training, I feel confident in my assessment that you do not require the services of a babysitter," Ezra grinned. "You may perhaps, on occasion, walk perilously close to the edge of sensible behavior. For example, when you insisted taking on the identity of Blaze Butler. Furthermore you have been known, on occasion, to push the envelope. However, I believe it is an inherited trait and cannot be helped. Fortunately you have a partner who recognizes your need to be creative in our line of work."
"Becomin' Blaze made sense to me," Kellie answered defensively.
"I'm sure it did. May I remind you that in spite of my misgiving, I supported you?"
"You did," Kelli sighed. She knew Ezra was mainly talking to calm her temper. "I'm fine, Ez, thanks."
"It's Ezra, two syllables, and you're welcome," Standish smiled. "As soon as I hand out a few assignments, you and I are going to drive over to Blackhawk to talk to one of my sources. I'll even drive the Mount Evans scenic route, just so you can enjoy the view."
"Sounds like a plan to me," Kelli agreed.
Denver Memorial Hospital
Chris nodded to Mark when he and Vin approached JD's room. Pushing the closed door open, the two men silently entered. They felt their hearts clench at the sight before them. JD's ashen face was only a shade or two darker than the starch white pillowcase his head rested upon. A maze of colored tubes protruded from the multiple machines gathered close to the head of the bed. All were attached to various parts of the young man's injured body.
A very weary looking Casey sat on one side of the bed, while Buck dozed in a chair on the other.
"How is he?" Vin asked softly.
"Worn out, but the doctor said considering what he's been through he's doing well." Casey answered without taking her eyes off her husband.
"What about you?" Chris was worried about the dark circles under Casey's eyes.
Buck stirred in response to their voices in the room, and straightened his large frame in the chair. "She's just as mule-headed stubborn as the rest of this bunch. She won't answer honestly to that."
"Buck," Casey began, her dark eyes narrowing at him in warning.
Wilmington ignored it and continued, "She won't tell you, but she has not slept more than two hours since yesterday."
Hazel eyes slowly opened, with effort JD whispered, "Make her go home, Chris."
Chris grinned down at him. "It's good to hear your voice, kid, but I'm not sure even I could make Casey do something she doesn't want to do."
"That's right." Casey cast a relieved look in Larabee's direction. They both knew full well if Chris thought it was best for her to go home, nothing she could say or do would stop him from seeing she did so.
Chris caught the glance she cast his way and winked at her. He knew the best possible thing for her right now was being close to her husband. His attention turned back to JD.
"Buck told me…told me you arranged bail…Tha... Thanks." Every word was labored and JD had to work to keep his eyes open.
"You have Travis to thank for it." Larabee realized any questions would have to wait until JD was better. "You rest. We're going to get you home. I promise you, this nightmare will be behind you real soon."
With his feverish eyes locked onto Chris, JD smiled slightly and said, "I know you'll make sure I'm fine… not worried." His eyes closed and it was only a matter of a few seconds before he was asleep again.
"I'll be right back, darlin'. I'm just gonna step outside with Chris and Vin." Buck squeezed Casey's shoulder.
"I'm not going anywhere, so take your time," Casey replied, still holding JD's hand.
The trio of MCAT agents exited the room to confer in the hallway.
"Buck, I'm moving Mark to relieve the guard on Travis's room since you'll be here. I'll send Brad Garrison up in a couple of hours to give you an assist. I know Casey won't leave anymore than you will. Make arrangements to have a cot for you and another bed for Casey moved into JD's room." Chris instructed.
"You know me too well, stud," Buck grinned. "Inez is bringing a bag of clean clothing up for each of us. She and I will trade off staying with Casey until JD is well enough to make her leave. Max and Rain are taking care of our kids, so we'll be fine."
"We're goin' to stop and see Travis on the way out. He wants to confront Senator Green about his interest in CASSIE and needs some information. You just make sure you rest too, Bucklin," Vin said. "I like seein' all of y'all in good health."
"I'm good. Now that I know JD will be going home from here, I feel a helluva lot better. I'll see to Casey and the kid, you two work on finding a way to clear him." Buck went back inside, while Chris talked to Mark. Once Larabee had given him his new orders, he and Vin went to update Travis.
MCAT Office - Afternoon
Returning to MCAT, Chris went straight into his office to call home, checking on Grace and Cody, while Vin looked for Kelli. He felt he owed her an apology for this morning and wanted to clear the air between them. It was time to let her know why he was so worried about her working in the field.
Chris reached the ranch with no problem and after he was assured that Walter had enough men to protect his children, he felt better. He had no sooner hung up the phone when he heard all hell break loose in the bullpen.
"I ordered Kelli not to leave this office!" Vin was furious. "Where the fuck did they go?"
"Ezra said they had a source to check on in Blackhawk. He did not say who it was or when they'd be back." Justin was the only one brave enough to answer their enraged Captain.
Tanner felt a cold chill run down his spine as he replayed his latest vision in his mind. The avalanche he had seen took place on the same road Ezra and Kelli would be traveling to get to Blackhawk. He heard Larabee's voice, but couldn't answer him. When he looked at Chris, all he could see was the explosion that killed Sarah and Adam. The visions blurred together, coming at him like a storm, images of flames, explosions, falling rocks and snow swirled in his mind. Above it all he sensed death. It scared the hell out of him. The room began to spin around him.
'Vin… Tanner!" Chris yelled, alarmed at the paleness of Vin's face and his wobbly stance. "Nathan!"
"I'm here," Nathan said. "You're obviously sick, Vin. You should have said something sooner." He put an arm around Vin's waist. "Let's get him to the couch in his office."
Nathan and Chris took Vin to his office. After a brief examination the medic could not find anything wrong with him. His blood pressure was a bit high, although being agitated could explain it. He had no fever and his eyes looked tired, but clear.
"You want to tell me what's going on?" Chris asked.
"I'm fine, just haven't slept much since this mess with JD started. I reckon it caught up with me." Vin was careful not to let Chris into his thoughts.
"Well, I'm ordering you to go home to catch up on some sleep." Nathan was concerned. He knew there was more to Vin's problem than he was saying. However, trying to force him to talk was not the way to find out what was.
"The last place I need to be is home. We need to work on clearin' JD." Vin protested, relieved Nathan believed him, but aware that Chris did not.
Vin was not a good liar, and Chris did not believe for one second his condition had anything to do with lost sleep. "You're going home Tanner, and I'm the one that's going to take you there." Chris wanted to talk to Mike Tai about adding extra protection for Grace and Cody anyway. "Get your coat. Nathan, you're in charge."
"Fine," Vin huffed. He grabbed his coat. The sooner he was home, the sooner he could call Kelli without anyone eavesdropping on his conversation. "Well, Larabee, what the hell are you waitin' for?"
*I remember when the answers seemed so clear. We had never lived with doubt or tasted fear. It was easy then to tell truth from lies … who to love and who to hate, the foolish from the wise… but today there is no day or night; today there is no dark or light. Today there is no black or white …Only shades of gray…
Centennial Peaks Hospital - Afternoon
Although they had been at the hospital since early morning, Josiah had not seen his sister. Doctor Rivers advised against it. Now he and Mallory sat in the doctor's office waiting for him to bring in Hannah's test results. Mallory squeezed her husband's hand, feeling him tense up when Doctor Rivers walked in with a medical chart in his hands.
"Mister, Mrs. Sanchez, I am sorry you had to wait. I wanted to run one of these tests a second time to be sure we had the correct results." The doctor sat down at his desk and opened Hannah's file. "As you know, Schizophrenia is a biological disease of the brain that ebbs and flows. We have been able to somewhat control Hannah's hallucinations, delusions, and thought confusions with the newer anti-psychotic drugs. Medications such as clozapine and resperidone help alleviate some of those negative symptoms. She was doing much better on the regimen we had her on. I had hoped that at some point in the near future she would be able to have at least overnight visits with your family."
"You said had hoped, what changed?" Mallory asked.
Doctor Rivers attempted an explanation, "I assure you we take our responsibility to our patients very seriously. We have initiated some of the tightest security measures possible. I have also contacted the authorities to begin an investigation as to how this could happen. It appears someone was able to change Hannah's medication and she has had an adverse reaction to the foreign drug."
Josiah rose swiftly to his feet and leaned his large frame menacingly over the doctor's desk. "Are you telling me that my sister is in a catatonic state because someone fucked up her meds?"
"Mister Sanchez, please remain calm." Doctor Rivers scooted his chair back. "It was not an error on our part. Everything indicates that someone deliberately substituted your sister's medication, with the intent of harming her."
Josiah struggled to control the fury coursing through his body… someone purposely changed Hannah's medications. He would have never left her at Centennial Peaks in the first place, if he hadn't been certain of the fine care she would receive. How could something like this have happened?
"Josiah," Mallory said softly. He heard the plea in her voice and responded.
Once Josiah settled back down in his chair, Doctor Rivers cleared his throat and continued. "Before Hannah went silent, she kept mumbling about a monster coming and shadows chasing her. I believed it was connected to her hallucinations and delusions. I may have been mistaken. In hindsight, I think Hannah knew someone was trying to harm her, but just did not know how to tell us."
Mallory moved closer to her husband. With her eyes she implored him to be reasonable. "We need to speak to the investigators and then go from there."
Josiah nodded and sighed. He knew what had to be done. However, it did not change what had happened, and he knew he would be having nightmares about shadows and monsters chasing Hannah for a long time to come.
Ranch Road 12
Chris kept looking over to check on Vin while he drove. Thus far the trip to the ranch had been silent. Whatever had a hold on Vin was deeper than Chris could reach. Not only had he shut down their mental connection, but he was not willing to discuss it either.
Vin was aware of Chris's efforts to reach him. However he could not let him see what he was seeing. It might come to the point when he had no choice, but it was not going to happen today. Kelli was uppermost on his mind at the moment and even though Vin was fairly sure that his visions were not to be taken precisely as he saw them, he could not relax until she was home. He was certain she was all right because where his wife was concerned he could feel her spirit, the same as he could with Chris. Maybe it was that unexplained Tanner-Larabee connection or his inherent sense of awareness. Whatever the reason, if either of them were hurt, Vin knew it.
"I probably overreacted." Vin simply stated.
"Probably," Chris agreed.
"It appears that someone out there is after MCAT agents. Kelli's too much like you; trouble has a way of findin' her when she's not even lookin' for it."
"Ezra is with her."
"He was with Blaze, too."
"Right." Chris paused, remembering that escapade and how angry he had been. Kelli may have bent the rules, but she was not careless about it. However, Ezra should have stopped her when he had the chance. "I know my daughter; she can take care of herself. Just don't tell her I said that."
"Is that why you told her to behave until we got back?"
Chris thought about his last remark before they left for the hospital. Feeling a bit remorseful about it, he sighed, "Call her, it will make us both feel better."
Vin only hesitated for a moment. His need to be sure of her safety was stronger than his desire for privacy. He pulled out his cell and punched the speed dial number for Kelli. He planned to be calm and reasonable, yet the moment he heard her voice on the other end of the line, all thoughts of reason fled his mind. In its place was the domineering, overprotective male part of him that he had sworn he'd never use with the woman he loved. "Kel, I ordered you to stay in the office! Why in the hell did you leave?"
Kelli let out an aggrieved sigh. With the way Vin had been acting before he and Chris had left for the hospital, she had known he wasn't going to be pleased to find her gone when he returned. She had hoped this conversation would have occurred when the two of them were alone. "I'm workin', and you said you would rather I stay, you never made it an order."
"Damnit, Kel, you knew what I meant. With some nut out there obviously targeting MCAT, you should have listened. We have children depending on you. Two of 'em only babies. They need you to come home safe and sound every night." Vin knew he was far from being reasonable, but with images of his vision still fresh on his mind, he could not stop once he started. "What in the hell were you thinkin'?"
"Agent Standish and I were followin' a lead. I was thinkin' I was doin' my job!" Kelli snapped. "You're actin' as if we traveled to the other side of the world, instead of sixty miles from Denver and need someone to hold our hands while we work. You don't like what I do then fire my ass, otherwise quit bitchin'!"
Kelli slammed the phone shut and heard Ezra remark, "That went well."
"Don't start, Ez." Kelli sent him a withering glare that resembled her father's, and he wisely chose not to make any further comments.
Vin stared at his phone, not believing that Kelli had actually hung up on him. "Damn!"
"I take it she didn't want to talk?" Chris quipped, knowing full well the infamous Larabee temper his oldest daughter had inherited had clashed with Vin's mule-headedness.
"Sometimes your insight amazes me. Hell no, she didn't want to talk!"
"You were an ass."
"Ya think! Damnit, Chris that woman makes me crazy and will be the death of me someday."
Chris laughed, "That, brother, is what you call love. It's like a punch in the gut that robs you of your sanity at the same time."
Vin did not get a chance to fire off a snappy comeback before the windshield of Chris's Ram shattered. Larabee cursed, "Sonofabitch!" Vin shouted.
"Gunshot!" Larabee yelled. He scrunched down into the driver's seat to make himself a smaller target, bringing the vehicle to a skidding halt on the side of the road. With exchanged glances, he and Vin were out of the Ram, crouching down behind the relative safety of the open doors, guns in hand. Their eyes anxiously searched the surrounding area for whoever was responsible for blowing out the windshield.
Tanner saw only one place the shot could have been fired from. "Up there Chris." He pointed to a rock ledge on the mountainside. "I'll work my way up, cover me!"
"Vin, don’t!" Chris shouted too late. Vin was already on the move and Chris had no choice, but to cover his partner. "Damn, stubborn, jackass," he muttered, watching for any signs of a threat. Once he was satisfied Vin was in the clear, he followed him up the mountain.
Vin's boots made indentions into the soft dirt of the snow covered mountainside. At times, he was sent sprawling onto his stomach, when one or both feet sank up to his ankles into the soft sludge. He didn't let it deter him from continuing his ascension toward the top of the mountain, where he was certain the shot had come from. His breath came out in pants when his lungs contracted painfully in reaction to the icy air going in. Below him he could hear the muffled curses Larabee muttered while he climbed up after him.
Approaching the rock ledge, Vin slowed his approach, gripping the butt of his gun tighter. He didn't really believe that the sniper had stuck around to be forced into a confrontation, however he knew it would be wise to proceed with caution. He cleared the last foot, coming to a stop at the edge of the plateau, peering intently around him. A few seconds later Chris joined him.
Their would-be assassin was gone; probably miles away by now using a preplanned escape route. Chris looked down to where his truck was. "That had to be one hell of a shot. Whoever was here was one lucky bastard to hit us."
"No. From this vantage point, he could have easily taken you or me out if he wanted to. The bastard has only made one mistake and that was with Travis, thanks to Buck." Vin crouched down to look at the boot prints in the snow. "This sonofabitch knows exactly what he's doin'. See this." He pointed to a print. "The boot size indicates a large man, but the indention says his bodyweight was no more that 140 pounds. Plus there is no spent cartridge on the ground to lift prints from."
"Are you thinking it's a pro?" Chris asked.
"Most likely," Vin answered. "What's that?" He pointed behind Chris.
Chris turned to look. There in the snow was an envelope. It had the name Chris Larabee scrawled across the front of it. Trying to preserve as much evidence as possible, Chris picked it up with a handkerchief and pulled out his pocketknife. He slit the envelope open with it and carefully extracted the letter from inside.
Your youngest survived his fate, so far, and one captain's wing is clipped. The con man returned from across the pond, and for now the healer is well.
The oldest suffers the guilt of his neglect, while your leader lies in pain. As for the sharpshooter, his torment is yet to come, and then he faces hell.
Our score, Chris, is 4 to none and you trail in this deadly game. I would offer you more clues, but I promised not to tell.
"It's not signed."
"Whoever this is he's no poet, but he wanted us to know he was out here." Vin shook his head, "One thing's for sure, he does deliver one helluva message and knows too damn much about all of us."
"Damn straight he does," Larabee agreed angrily, barely able to cover the thread of fear evident in his voice. ”I hope he understands this: he's going to rue the day he ever threatened the lives of my family. When we're through with him, he's going to be pounding out rock in hell."
"What do you want to do now? Get that letter to forensics or…"
Chris did not let Vin finish. "We're going home." He was anxious to see his children and plan more protection for the ranch. "Call Bones and have him sweep this area and then have him meet me at the ranch with the MAU. He can take the letter and check for prints." The two men marked the area and headed back down the mountain.
Chris drove on to the ranch and stopped in front of the Tanner house. "I'll take care of forensics. You get some sleep. "
"Chris, 'm fine, don't make a big deal out of it."
"It's too late for that. Now take your stubborn Tanner ass and haul it into the house. That is an order."
"Yes, Mother," Vin mumbled about mother hens as he exited the truck and walked up to his door.
Tanner entered his house, missing the kids running to the door even knowing it was too early for them to be home from school. Max was busy in the kitchen so he bypassed that area and headed toward the nursery. He walked through the silent rooms of his home and thought about how much his life had changed over the last three years. *Damn, Vin, for a man who coveted his solitude as much as you did, you sure made a detour.* he laughed to himself. *Yeah, but I wouldn't change any of it. I never want to experience not having Kel and the kids in my life. Hell, they are my life.*
He stopped at the phone in their bedroom, started to call Kelli, deciding against it. He had enough damage to repair when she returned home, no sense in adding fuel to the fire. He looked in on the sleeping twins. Determining his best course of action might be to actually follow Chris's order and try to rest, he returned to the bedroom. There he took off his boots, stripped down, and sprawled across the bed. Exhaustion took over and he was asleep in five minutes.
The first thing Chris did was to find Grace and give her a big hug. He listened to the details of her day, and then took her with him while he checked on Cody, who was down for his afternoon nap. After twenty minutes of 'playtime', Grace began to yawn. Chris carried his daughter to her bed. She was asleep in less than three minutes. He shut her bedroom door and went down the hall to his home office, to make a few phone calls.
Pam had nothing on the e-mails so far and Chris was desperate to find out if they were legitimate. He also wanted to free her time up to work on the MCAT investigation. He had her collect the information she did have, authorizing her to give it to Colonel Michael Tai when he contacted her. He then called Tai and after explaining to him about the e-mails, asked for his assistance. "Mike, I need your computer forensic department to do some research for me."
"You have one of the best computer and forensics' departments I've ever seen at MCAT. Why do you need my team on it?"
"For now this is a personal matter. Until I know otherwise, I'd like to keep it that way." Chris was reluctant to jump to conclusions. These messages might have nothing to do with their investigation. Right now they had more than enough to worry about at MCAT. "I've increased the guards on the ranch and feel confident my kids are safe here, but if you can tell me these e-mails are garbage, I'll feel a helluva lot better."
"Give me the information. I'll get my best man on it ASAP." Mike took down the number to reach Pam, assuring Chris he would be in touch soon.
Walter knocked on the door. "Your forensics man is here."
"Thanks, Walter." Chris had placed the letter in an evidence bag and put it in a drawer. After retrieving it he went outside to meet Bones at the Mobile Analysis Unit.
With the specialized equipment on the MAU, Bones was able to run several tests on the letter and envelope. There were no prints on either one. He cut a square off the paper to take back to the lab, leaving the original letter with Larabee. He also went over Chris's truck, looking for evidence.
"The slug that fractured your windshield was a 308, same as the others." Bones informed Chris when he was done.
"Probably no more traceable than they were either," Chris said, making a mental note to call his insurance company.
"As clean as the area was where your shooter took the shot; we are probably dealing with someone who knows his business and how to cover his tracks. If I were a bettin' man, I'd say we'll find nothin', on this paper, but you never know." He closed the door to the unit. "I'll call you if I find anythin'."
"Thanks, Bones." Chris watched as the older man drove through the gate and then checked his watch. It was only four. He decided to feed the horses early so he could spend more time with the kids tonight. He laughed to himself as he walked to the barn, thinking about Vin and what he was going to have to do to cool Kelli's temper. Chris sure hoped he was well-rested; his friend definitely had a lot of homework to do tonight.
The gunfighter and the young Texan were in a corner of the barn discussing with one another just what their next course of action should be in regards to Larabee and Tanner, when the MCAT leader walked through the door.
"Here's our chance to knock some sense into that Larabee head and make him listen," the gunfighter told his friend.
"How do you propose we do that?" the younger man replied. "Nothin' else we've tried has worked so far?"
"By literally knocking some sense into him," the gunfighter said. He watched Larabee go through the motions of feeding the horses.
With a doubtful look on his face, the Texan watched as his companion moved over to where a small pile of old 2x4's were stacked and lifted one of them into his hands. Astonishment covered his features, having not realized until that moment they had the ability to lift or move things. The gunfighter positioned himself to strike out with the board as Chris came down the aisle of stalls toward the front part of the barn. The 2x4 connected hard with Larabee's head, and sent the blond man crumpling to the ground, as the Texan stepped up beside his accomplice.
"Shit, did you have to hit him so hard?"
"Relax, I barely broke the skin."
"He's gonna have one helluva headache when he wakes up."
"It's a small price to pay considering what's at stake. Help me move him, I need to talk and he needs to listen."
The Texan did as the gunfighter asked and helped him move the unconscious Larabee into an upright position against a barn wall. Then both men settled in on either side of him. The gunslinger began to speak softly, trying to reach Larabee's subconscious spirit.
"Son," he whispered, "I know you're a sensible man, but you need to open up your mind and hear what I'm saying. There is more to this life than you've allowed yourself to believe and it's important you stretch your senses and be receptive. Your family and friends are in danger and we're here to help, but can only do so if you cooperate. Try to be more like Grace… she hears me. I don't want you to suffer from unnecessary guilt the way I did. The truth is out there and you owe it to my great, great, grandchildren to seek it."
*Think he heard you, Cowboy?* the young Texan questioned.
*Don't call me a cowboy,* the Gunfighter and the now semi-conscious Larabee answered together, making the young Texan chuckle in response.
When Walter entered the barn looking for Chris, he found his employer sprawled on the hay strewn dirt floor. A few moments passed before the blond man's green eyes fluttered open and he let out a low moan as he became aware of the dull pain in his head. He raised one hand up to his head and lightly touched the growing lump upon it. "W...what happened?"
"It looks as if on of those rafters gave way and you got knocked silly by a 2 by 4." Walter helped his boss to his feet. "Let's get you inside the house." Together they made it out of the barn, leaving behind the unseen Texan and Gunfighter.
Shadowchasers must always be prepared for the inevitable confrontation between good and evil, as well as recognize there is a fine line that separates the hunters from the hunted. The evil one's goal is to stay hidden in the shadows and remain far enough ahead of the good guys to confuse, mislead, and distract its pursuer, while implementing its plan of death and devastation.
5: 00 pm
Ezra and Kelli returned from Blackhawk safely. Justin filled them in on what had transpired in their absence. When he related the shooting incident, Kelli paled a bit. Justin quickly assured both agents that Chris and Vin were uninjured. At least they were okay from the attempt on their lives. Then he told them Larabee had some kind of accident when he returned to the ranch. Vin called and asked for their medic and Nathan left thirty minutes ago to check on him.
"I need to get home." Kelli grabbed her coat and started for the door, refusing Ezra's offer to drive her.
"Then I will follow you." Standish walked her out the door and waited in his Jag until Kelli was ready to leave.
Vin's truck was still parked in the lot. Kelli took out her keys and climbed into the Silverado. There would be time later to argue with Vin. Her concern for his and her father's welfare took precedence over her anger.
Twenty minutes later she pulled up in front of Chris's home with Ezra right behind her. As she walked past Chris's truck and saw the broken windshield, she felt a cold chill. She could have easily lost either her husband or her father, or both. She and Ezra hurried inside. The first thing she did was scan her husband with her eyes, making sure he was okay. Vin stood next to Nathan, his arms crossed in front of him. He looked up the moment she stepped inside; assuring her with a look that he was fine before moving his attention back to Larabee.
Nathan was busy attempting to examine the reluctant man. Chris was lying on the couch, insisting he was fine. "You were unconscious for at least five minutes. You are not fine!" Nathan argued. "You need to go to the hospital."
"No hospital! I'm fine! What part of that do you not understand?" Chris grunted, "Quit poking around the damn cut and it won't hurt."
"If you weren’t so damn stubborn, I could examine you properly and get it over with," Nathan retorted. "It's a good thing the board hit you in the head. Anywhere else and I'd be worried, but that skull of yours is made of solid rock."
Chris sat up and allowed the medic to bandage the small cut, still adamant about not going to the hospital. "Go home, Nate, I know the drill. If I have any dizziness, nausea, or severe pain in my head, I'll call you. I do not plan on going to sleep anytime soon, but when I do, I will set my alarm to wake me and then reset it for the next hour." Chris just wanted to be alone for a while to sort through what had happened. Walter said he was unconscious when he found him, but he could have sworn he had been talking to someone…if he could only remember who it was. "In fact, all of you can go home to your families. Dottie is here and I have an evening planned with Grace and Cody."
Nathan sighed. "I'll go, but you call me if…"
"I promise I'll call if I need you," Chris assured him. He turned to Ezra. "Ezra, if you would contact the insurance company and arrange for the repairs to my truck, I'd appreciate it."
"No problem, Chris, I'll get right on it." Ezra could feel the tension building between the Tanners and felt it was a good time to make an exit. "I will see all of you tomorrow."
"Are you sure you're okay, Dad?" Kelli asked.
Chris stood up. "It was just a dumb accident and yes, I'm sure." He walked over to her and kissed her cheek. "Don't worry, Missy; I plan on being around a good long while to harass my children."
"You do seem to have a knack for it," Kelli shot back at him and looked over to Vin. "Want a ride?"
"It appears this ornery Cowboy is throwin' us out, so I reckon we should leave." Tanner took the keys she still held in her hand and said. "I'll drive."
Chris stood at the door and watched them leave. He had a feeling it was going to be a long night at the Tanner house.
Vin stuck the key in the ignition and looked over at his wife. "We need to talk. Are you willin' to go somewhere quiet and discuss this?"
"I didn't pump this afternoon and need to feed the boys to get rid of some milk as quickly as possible. If we do any talkin', it will have to wait."
Vin only nodded and headed toward home. The ride was a silent one. Jason and Andi met their parents at the door and the next few hours were spent feeding, bathing, and listening to their children.
Ezra had a lot to consider on his short drive home. He disliked seeing any of his family in pain, whether it be physically or mentally. Chris was obviously going to experience one helluva headache, and not being able to take pain medication only insured it would be a difficult night for him. Ezra knew his partner well enough by now to know Vin may be having a headache of his own before this evening ended, though for different reasons. The only thing Ezra could do was to fervently hope both men had a fairly decent night. Or else tomorrow the MCAT office would not be the place to be.
He parked his Jag in the garage and entered his home. Barbara was in the kitchen. Ezra stood in the doorway for a moment, watching his wife as she moved about the expansive room, making what his nose told him was one of his favorite meals. Her long dark hair hung in curly ringlets around her shoulders, but the sides were held back away from her face with ruby studded gold combs matching the shade of the silk dress she wore. She was a gift sent by God and he didn't deserve her.
"You plan on staying in the doorway all night, or are you going to come over here and give me a kiss?" Barbara's amused voice broke Ezra out of his reverie, flashing a sheepish grin, before walking over to her. Without a word, he slipped his arms around his wife's waist and lowered his mouth to hers. Barbara quickly set the cooking utensils she held in each hand onto the countertop and wrapped her arms around Ezra's neck as the kiss lingered. When it ended a few moments later, both of them were a bit shaken by its intensity. "Now that's what I call a proper greeting," Barbara exclaimed breathlessly, her hazel eyes gazing up at him lovingly.
"I aim to please," Ezra replied softly. He caressed her cheek with the knuckles of one hand. "It may be best if we continued our amorous attentions later, or else the wonderful dinner you've prepared will be ruined." Barbara reluctantly agreed.
The two of them worked side by side to finish the rest of the dinner. They ate the delicious meal of beef stroganoff, tossed green salad, fresh rolls, and tiramisu by candlelight. After the kitchen was cleaned, the couple headed for the living room. While they shared after dinner drinks, Barbara went over a couple of client depositions she would be needing for a court case the next morning, and Ezra made a couple of phone calls to associates of his, to see if they had been able to come up with anymore information that might help MCAT solve their current case.
Barbara tucked the papers away into her briefcase and then settled back onto the couch beside her husband. Ezra put his left arm around her and offered her the glass of red wine she had neglected while she worked. She took a sip and then said, "I hope the judge rules in favor of Jesse Hunter staying at Reins of Change indefinitely. His mother is dead and Caitlyn is the best hope the boy has of leading a better life."
"I am certain that any respectable officer of the court will clearly see that the child is remanded into Caitlyn's custody, after you've brilliantly given him all the reasons for it to be done," Ezra told her softly. He lifted a strand of her hair up to his nose and inhaled her unique scent.
"Caitlyn introduced me to Jesse today and I have to tell you, he looks remarkably like a certain devastatingly handsome and debonair man I know."
"Really?" Ezra placed a tender kiss upon her forehead and began to work his way down the side of her exquisite face to her elegant neck. "Who would that be?"
"You, silly," Barbara said on a moan as her husband set moist lips to her neck.
Ezra smiled against her skin, loving the way she responded to even the lightest of caresses from him. Barbara gave herself over to him whole-heartedly and without any inhibitions, and he marveled at her ability to do so. No one had ever given themselves totally over to his care, except for Barbara, and he vowed there and then that he would always cherish what a blessing she was in his life.
Barbara pulled away from her husband's tender administrations long enough to set her glass of wine onto the coffee table, before shifting her position on the couch so she faced Ezra. She reached up and began to unbutton his vest. Her eyes locked with his emerald green ones.
Ezra was drowning in the depths of Barbara's beautiful love-filled eyes, as he shrugged out of the vest and tossed it onto the floor. Barbara went to work on the buttons of his dress shirt. As each button was set loose, she slipped her hands inside and caressed bare skin, sending shivers of desire racing through his body. Ezra felt the last shreds of his control slip away.
It was time to move this party to a more comfortable setting. Rising from the couch, Ezra lifted his wife into his arms and carried her out of the living room and through the house to their bedroom.
It was nine o'clock before all four little Tanners were asleep and Vin had an opportunity to attempt starting another discussion with Kelli.
"You haven't said two words directly to me all night. Don't you think it's time we cleared the air between us?" Vin gently grabbed Kelli's arm as she started to walk across the bedroom.
Kelli was not ready to let go of her anger. "If you want to talk Captain Tanner, you could just order me to and then you'll have what you want."
Vin sighed and let go of her arm. "Kel, 'm not orderin' you to talk, 'm askin'."
"Well, Agent Coulter has nothin' to say."
"I'm a husband tryin' like hell to talk to my wife! What is it with Captain and Agent all of a sudden?"
"I figured since Vin and Kelli are at the MCAT office, it must be Captain Tanner and Agent Coulter here. Then again, maybe the rules changed and we don't have a professional dividin' line anymore. You wanted to keep our work separate from our personal life, which is fine, but husband or not, I will not allow anyone to treat me like a three-year-old. I am a trained Federal agent and fully competent of doin' my job! I work hard to overcome any appearance of favoritism because of my relationship with you and Chris. You both shot that all to hell today with your …your… damn male attitudes! How can I expect my teammates to take me seriously if the Captain and the Commander think I need to be coddled?"
"The rules haven't changed Kel. I admit I was out of line this mornin' and I shouldn't have jumped all over you for goin' with Ez, but damnit, you shouldn't have hung up on me!"
"Damn right you were out of line and I hung up on you because you were actin' like an overbearin' possessive ass!"
Vin heard the anger in her voice. He also saw the hurt in her eyes and he knew that in his fanaticism to protect her, he had been unfair and caused that hurting. As close as they were, and as much as he loved her, Vin still found it difficult at times to include her in his pain. Although he knew it was wrong to hold back from the woman he had chosen to share his life with. Maybe he was more of a primitive male than he wanted to admit, because his first instinct was to shield her and take on the torment alone, but Kelli was not a frail woman. She was mentally strong or she would not have survived all she had faced alone. She was his life partner and he had spent a long time convincing her that together they could take on anything. Maybe he should have listened to himself.
"You’re right baby. I should have shared with you sooner because you deserve an explanation." He took Kelli's hand, intertwining his finger with hers. "Sit with me. Let me tell you all of it." Vin was not going to force her. When he saw the anger flee her eyes, replaced by love and concern for him, he knew she was willing to listen. He led her over to their rocker and sat down, pulling her with him and began to tell her about all of his visions. In addition to how he reacted to the one in Santa Fe, he told her about Sarah, Adam, the flames, the explosions, the old buildings, as well as the hell he saw when he tried to sleep, ending with the images of falling rock, snow and ice on the Mount Evans byways.
Kelli was in tears by the time he finished. She could physically feel the pain Vin was experiencing. The fear he must have felt when she left for Blackhawk along the same road where he had envisioned her death. She reached up with her free hand to stroke his cheek. "I knew somethin' was wrong. I promised myself that I would not ask… that I would wait until you shared with me, but Vin …you should have let me help. You have always been there to cushion my pain and I trust you above all others, but you need to do the same with me." She felt he needed a reminder of the lesson he had taught her. "We are in this love together and there is nothin' we can't deal with as long as we remember that."
Vin brushed the tears from her face while he tightened his grip on her hand. "I do trust you, Kel. I just wanted to spare you the pain. Obviously, I only made it worse for you. I'm sorry. Normally I would have told Chris. He would no doubt have set me straight, but I can't tell him about this …I can’t tell him that I watch Sarah and Adam die over and over… unless I figure out the warnin' 'm gettin' is for him, I won't make him relive that horror again."
"Of course you can't," Kelli agreed. "Vin, I may not be any help with figurin' out what these visions mean, but I can and will do anythin' to make it easier for you. If I had known about Mount Evans, I would never have put you through what happened today. Just tell me what I can do."
Vin kissed the top of her head. "You are doin' it now; it feels good to share some of the burden I've been carryin'." He reached into his pocket, pulling out something to give to her. "I made this for you to wear. I wasn't sure how to ask you to do it without tellin' you why. Now I think you'll understand." He held it up for her to see and explained, "It's a protection amulet. I made this medallion and etched the hawk on it. That way you'll have me with you at all times. The stones I set into it are the ones my people believe offer protection, turquoise, jasper and hawk's eye." He laid the necklace on her neck, clasping it; the medallion dropped and lay perfectly in the soft valley between her breasts.
Kelli was overwhelmed with emotion. A hawk represented so much of who Vin was, and his heritage from his grandfather, Treyton Hawk. Tanner was steadfast, powerful, intelligent, and fiercely protective of those he loved, as well as being a stealthily hunter and ferocious predator when need called for it. He had made this for her with love and she cherished it as much as the rings he had designed to honor their wedding vows. "I won't take it off, Vin." She wrapped her arm around his neck and drew his head down. "Let this Lady Hawk show her overprotective man how much she loves him." The bitter storm had passed. All that was left was the sweet gentle rain that would carry them through the night.
Denver Memorial Hospital
Buck stood up to stretch his tired muscles. The aches in his long legs told him their displeasure at being in one position for so long. Attempting to make it up to them, Buck walked around the room to look out the window.
The lights of town gave the landscape a soft glow surrounded by darkness. Checking his watch, Buck thought, *only 9:15 pm, I could have sworn it was after midnight.* Turning back from the window, Buck smiled when he took in the tired look both Dunnes' were wearing. *Damn, I ain't doing a very good job of protecting either one of them.*
The soft sound of the door opening caused the tall agent to poise his hand over his gun as he moved to place himself between the intruder and his family.
Guy Saunders locked eyes with Wilmington, telling him quietly, "Just wanted to let you know I've taken over for Brad. The orderlies are down the hall checking the rooms for the night, so someone will be in soon.
Buck nodded. "Stay sharp." Saunders gave a curt nod in reply before taking his position outside the door.
Walking up behind Casey, Buck placed a hand on her shoulder, giving it a gentle squeeze. "Darlin', the orderlies are down the hall. They always ask us to leave while they are in here, so now's a good time for us to go get some food at the diner across the street and let the man work in peace."
Casey started to protest, but JD's tired voice filled the room. "Bring me back a piece of peach cobbler."
"Buck can bring back something for both of us," Casey said, her voice cracking.
"Casey, I know you want to stay with JD, but I need you to trust me now. A few minutes out in the fresh night air will help you." Leaning down to whisper in her ear, Buck played his ace. "JD needs you to take care of yourself too."
Casey's eyes filled with tears, nodding her consent, "I need to find my shoes and we can go."
"Thanks Buck," JD rasped out.
"You just worry about getting yourself well and let the rest of us take care of everything else," Buck replied, heading out the door to give the young couple some privacy.
"We won't be long," Casey promised JD. Their lips met in a gentle kiss. "I love you, John Daniel Dunne."
"I love you too, Casey Dunne," JD replied. He used what little strength he had to brush the hair back from her face. "Don't forget my cobbler."
The words were barely out when JD was rewarded with the smile he was searching for. "I promise to bring you back the biggest piece they have."
JD managed to hold on long enough to smile back as she left the room. Once he knew the door was closed again, the injured MCAT agent drifted back into a healing sleep.
Guy Saunders watched Buck and Casey walk toward the elevators, and knew Wilmington trusted him with an important assignment. Some might think guard duty was beneath them, but Saunders knew Dunne was someone very precious to the entire MCAT team and he was determined not to fail them.
Peeking through the crack in a doorway down the hall someone evil was smiling. Wilmington and his gang were familiar with the hospital staff and would know all was not as it appeared. Fortunately the man guarding the door was new to the team. *Keep focused; follow the plan, pretend like everything is fine. There will be no problem reaching my prey*.
Unaware of the danger lurking inside the hospital Casey and Buck walked out of the front door into the cool night air. Casey closed her eyes and breathed in deeply before smiling at Buck. "You were right, the fresh air is helping."
One door from the final prey the orderly was going through the motions of caring for the patient, knowing in order for the plan to succeed it had to look good. When enough time had passed, the orderly left the room and moved down to the room with the guard.
Saunders followed procedure, checking the ID and making sure the name was on the list of hospital orderlies. Satisfied all was well he opened the door unknowingly letting JD's worst nightmare into his room.
Hard cold eyes racked the sleeping man. A quick look at the clock told there was time for a little play first. Approaching the bed the orderly held the IV to inject a strong hallucinogen into the line. Wishing the others could watch their youngest suffer before he died, the orderly waited for the first drug to take hold before the second fatal dose was injected into the helpless victim.
JD wasn't sure what woke him or if he really was awake. He blinked furiously, trying to make out the monsters that seemed to appear out of the shadows on the walls. He felt the blanket slowly slide down his body, his chest bared to the monsters claws.
An evil smile of delight appeared on the hospital worker's face. Gloved hands extracted a small scalpel from within a pocket of the scrubs, and began scraping and pulling at the skin on his bare chest. Only adding to the terror felt by the prey, whose hallucinations caused him to believe shadow monsters were tormenting him. JD felt hot breath on his ear and tried to jerk away from the evil he sensed. A hand reached out to grab his jaw and hold the weakened man's head in place so the other could whisper harshly,
"Shadowchaser has come for you boy. Shadowchaser will not quit."
It begins as a trickle, but as time passes madness spreads silently in the mind. It takes over all reason, morality, and logic, leaving only the appearance of sanity. Evil feeds on the growing lunacy and hides in the shadows, just beyond the reach of righteousness.
Denver Memorial Hospital
A noise outside halted the orderly's playtime. Peeking out the door, anger filled the monster when Buck and Casey stepped off the elevator carrying a bag with their meal. *Damn, they were supposed to eat at the diner, not bring it back,* the intruder thought knowing there wasn't time to stick around and watch the finale.
Quickly replacing the blanket, the orderly turned to push the cart out of the room. Relieved to find Buck and Casey had stopped to talk with the night nurse the orderly pushed the cart down the hall and around the corner before abandoning it in the storage room and slipping into the stairway for an escape.
JD was trapped in the torment of his hallucinations when Buck and Casey entered the room. Casey moved quickly over to the bed and caressed the side of her husband's face, jumping back in surprise when JD screamed at her touch. It took Buck one look at his injured friend's distorted features to know that something was terribly wrong.
“Get a nurse,” he told Casey, his eyes never leaving JD. “Fast!"
Guy Saunders entered the room his face full of concern as he asked, "What's wrong?"
Buck turned his anger onto Saunders, roaring, "Who the hell did you let in here?"
"Only the orderly," Guy reassured the irate man quickly, glancing at his notepad. "It was Frank Pierce. The photo ID matched and the name was on my list to allow."
Buck calmed down enough to realize Saunders had followed procedure and someone must have gotten to the orderly. Taking a deep breath he nodded at his fellow agent before he noticed something on the table by JD's bed. "What's that? It wasn't there before."
Sue, the nurse, reached to pick up the vial, but Guy stopped her from touching it. "Ma'am there might be prints." He used his pen to turn the vial so she could read it.
"Ketamine! No wonder he's distressed that's a powerful hallucinogen," Sue said. Reaching for the paging system, she called for the on call doctor to report to JD's room stat. She smiled at Casey, to reassure her, "We have a treatment for it. You stay here and watch him and I'll get it so the doctor can administer it as soon as he arrives."
Buck watched Sue rush out of the room before he told Saunders, "Call hospital security. I'm willing to bet Frank Pierce has already left the hospital. Just in case he hasn't, have security seal the exits. Then call Chris and get forensics over here."
It tore at all three of them to listen to JD's terror filled moans and whispered pleas to keep the monsters away from him. Buck carefully placed a hand on JD's bare shoulder, saying softly, "Hang in there kid, help is coming."
Sue and the doctor arrived within seconds of each other. The doctor considered ordering them out of the room. One look at the anger in the taller agent's eyes told him he would be risking his personal safety to ask. Saunders had just hung up from the hospital security. Talking quietly to Buck, he said, "I'll call Larabee from the hallway, and then go help search the hospital for Pierce. I'll ask the forensics team to come here and check out JD's room before they go to check out Pierce's home."
"Good, report back to me what you find," Buck replied. He never took his eyes off the doctor while he held a protective arm around Casey, lending her his strength.
The doctor looked at the vial of ketamine the attacker had left behind. He ordered Sue to begin the dextrose treatment immediately before he moved to talk to Buck and Casey. "The ketamine was administered through an injection, causing the symptoms to appear sooner. However it will still take about 24 hours for it to work its way out of his system. It is important for JD to be in a calm environment."
"Don't worry about that, doctor, JD's health is our primary concern," Buck replied. "One of our team will be in this room with him at all times, but we will conduct our investigation outside of the room."
"I hardly think it's necessary for one of your team to be in the room," the doctor said.
"I think it is." Buck disagreed. "JD was attacked by one of your orderlies with the intent to kill him. There won't be a second chance." His tone of voice told the doctor there would no negotiation on the issue.
The nurse couldn't hold back her gasp when she pulled down JD's blanket to check for additional injuries. Scratches on his chest spelled S-h-a. Buck reached out to stop Sue when she started to clean the blood off the scratches. His voice was full of pain when he said, "We need pictures and to check for evidence before you clean him up."
As if knowing his presence was needed, Bones walked into the room while Buck was talking to Sue. Going right to work he promised to be quick so JD could get the treatment he needed.
Saunders returned just as Sue had finished with JD. "We checked the whole building, found the cart, but no Pierce. I asked Bones to check over the cart just in case," he reported.
"Good. JD needs quiet so keep everyone out," Buck said struggling to stay professional.
Outside of Frank Pierce's home
Once Chris had sent out the alarm that JD had been attacked, the entire MCAT team showed up at Frank Pierce's home or at the hospital.
The DPD was already at Pierce's home. Sergeant Rogers walked up to Chris. "Larabee, I know it was your man, but DPD is in charge of this one."
"Just make sure your men don't let him get away," Chris growled back.
"Dunne may be charged with a crime, but he hasn't been found guilty and until then, he's part of the law enforcement family. No one goes after one of our own," Rogers said firmly, letting Chris know even if the FBI were against them, DPD still had their backs.
The MCAT agents paired up with the officers of the DPD to enter the darkened home. Once inside it didn't take long to find Frank Pierce's dead body, lying in a pool of his own blood, the victim of an apparent suicide. With Bones at the hospital taking care of the forensics there, the rest of his team handled it at Pierce's. Chris didn't care if DPD was in charge of the case, this time they weren't getting sloppy seconds.
"Damn," Chris said under his breath when he joined Vin and Kelli. "I'm getting really tired of finding a dead body every time we think we might get a lead."
"Whoever our enemy is, they're good," Vin replied.
"There's nothing we can do here, Vin, let's go to the hospital to check up on JD," Chris said heading for Tanner's truck; his was sitting at home with no windshield.
"I'll help with the clean-up up here and catch a ride with Ezra," Kelli stated and then waited for her husband's reaction, prepared to follow his lead.
There was no challenge in her statement or even a question, just an effort to keep things routine. Vin knew he had to trust his instincts, and right now they told him that it was important to let Kelli know he had faith in her abilities. "I'll see you there," he answered as he moved to follow Chris to the truck.
Denver Memorial Hospital
Sue was checking JD's vitals every fifteen minutes and ran everyone out of his room, with the exception of Casey. She also made certain the young Mrs. Dunne was comfortable. If her patient was to remain calm, Sue felt having her close was the best way to do it.
Chris stood with his arms crossed over his chest, facing the door to JD's room. The events of the last week flooded through his mind. The Senate hearing, JD's arrest, Travis and Buck shot, two attempts on JD's life as well as the one on his and Vin's earlier that afternoon, the threats he was receiving, the dead bodies dropping around them like flies…It all added up to more than just an enemy. Someone was striking out at the people he cared about; his children, his family, his team, and right now the young man in the hospital bed across the hall was paying dearly for it. Larabee never did believe in coincidence and he wasn't much for spiritual matters, but it seemed there were some peculiar things going on around him he could not yet explain.
He thought about his weird dreams, Grace's new imaginary Cowboy friend, and his accident in the barn, Vin's strange behavior, and Josiah's sister. Josiah had called him earlier this evening to tell him about the investigation into Hannah's medication changes. Were all these things somehow connected? Was he the target, or someone else? Could one person have killed so many people just to set JD up for murder and discredit MCAT? Or was it all meant to lead them on a false trail, while the real threat was closer to home?
*The truth is out there… open your mind…* Chris shook his head, trying to clear his mind of words that made no sense to him. What truth? His mind was open, wasn't it?
"Chris …Chris?" Nathan tried to get his attention. "Are you okay?"
"I feel like I've stepped into the middle of a bad episode of the 'Twilight Zone', other than that, I'm fine," Chris answered, frustrated that he had too damn many questions and not near enough answers.
Vin was leaning against the opposite wall and heard Larabee's comment. "Maybe we'll all wake up tomorrow and find out this has all been a bad dream." He thought about the damn visions plaguing his own sleep.
"Real or not, that boy in there is in bad shape. Buck, you should be healing at home, and Vin, you look like hell." Nathan was concerned about more than JD. "Chris, you need to be resting after the hit you took earlier, and lord only knows what shape Josiah's in. All of you have been giving me more than one or two sleepless nights full of worry."
"Now, Nate, you always fuss over us and…," Buck started.
"Shut up, Buck. This is how it's gonna be, at least for tonight. I will stay with JD and Casey." Ezra and Kelli walked up while Nathan was issuing his orders. "Kelli, you make sure these two yahoos go home." He was referring to Chris and Vin and they knew it. "Ezra, you will escort Buck to his doorstep and hand him over to Inez." The look on his face dared any of them to argue with him. "Go on now, JD won't be talking to anyone for at least the next twenty-four hours and standing around here is not going to help him."
Chris raised an eyebrow and stared at Nathan, he knew their medic was right. If they were going to find any answers, it would not be done with sleep-deprived minds. They all had pushed steady for the last week and it was time to take a deep breath, step back and come at this with fresh eyes. "You all heard the man, move out." He stepped closer to Jackson and said in a low voice, "You will call me if JD's condition changes."
"Chris, I need to be here," Buck protested.
"You will be, but not tonight." Chris handed Buck his coat. "Vin's not the only one who looks like he's been ridden to hell and back. Go home, let Inez treat you to some TLC, sleep, and then come back rested and well enough to be strong for the kid. He's going to need all of us."
Buck could not argue with that. JD was going to need the strength of seven and Wilmington planned to be there for him, as long as it took to get him healthy and home again. A little rest and a few hours sleep couldn't hurt.
"It would be my pleasure to escort you home, my friend." Ezra grinned and Buck grumbled. Nevertheless, the two men did walk out together.
"Guess that leaves me with you two," Kelli smiled. "I'll drive if you want."
Vin wrapped an arm around her waist and grinned. "My truck, I'll drive."
Chris was glad to see Vin and Kelli had worked things out between them. "It may be your truck, Tanner, but I'll drive. That way you can pay attention to your wife instead of the road."
Handing Chris his keys, Vin's grin widened as he drew Kelli closer. "Sounds like a plan to me, Cowboy."
"Don't call me a cowboy." Chris paused, wondering why he said that and then remembered. "You have Grace doing it and now she has an imaginary friend she calls Cowboy." He nodded to Nathan on the way out. "Goodnight, Nathan."
"Night." Nathan watched as the trio entered the elevator. Sometimes he was glad he only had six brothers, any more and he might never get good nights sleep.
Outside the hospital, as the trio walked across the parking lot, they were still discussing Grace and her new make-believe friend. "Although Grace is still a bit young, it's not usual for kids to make up friends. Shoot, Andi had a purple dragon living in her bedroom for four months." Kelli remembered all too well that period of time. "We had to include him in everythin'."
"The dragon has been replaced though, now she talks to her pretend pony." Vin laughed. "I think it's her way of sayin' she wants her own horse. Preferably for her birthday, which happens to be only eight days from now and yes, she is gettin' one."
Chris wasn't totally convinced. "Maybe it's normal…still." He unlocked the Silverado and opened the drive's side door.
"Enjoy it while you can, Dad. When she turns fifteen or sixteen she may have worse things to say than callin' you Cowboy." Kelli waited for Vin to open the passenger door for her and then climbed inside. Sitting between the two most important men in her life, she had already forgotten that only a few hours earlier she wanted to strangle both of them. As soon as the engine was running and she was snuggled close to Vin, the long day caught up with her. Working, home life, nursing two babies and arguing had taken its toll, and she was asleep almost before Chris pulled out of the parking lot.
After twenty minutes of driving in silence, Chris glanced over at his sleeping daughter. He regretted the time he had lost with her and knew he could not retrieve what was gone, but he would be forever thankful Vin had brought her into his life. Chris had a difficult time thinking of her as a child but she was…his child. *First, you must relive the agony of losing another child.* the words written in the e-mail raced through his mind and he suddenly realized he had assumed the threat meant Grace or Cody… what if … *Now who's overreacting? This mess is making you nuts, Larabee and paranoid. Kelli is safe and those damn messages are probably no more than a nuisance.* Chris knew he couldn't say anything to Vin. If he was wrong and if the messages were bogus, he would only be weighing him down with more worry.
"You okay, Chris? You look like you've just seen a ghost."
Chris decided to change his line of thinking before Vin picked up on it. "No ghost, just a scruffy, long- haired sharpshooter who looks more like an old western buffalo hunter than a Federal agent."
"You're jealous 'cause as Commander of MCAT you have to keep up appearances by stayin' clean-cut and borin'," Vin grinned. "Besides, my wife likes this rough look and her preferences trump yours."
"Since you're an MCAT Captain, I suggest you find some sort of compromise… a little less scruff and a neater rough. Keep the beard if you have to, but a trim couldn't hurt."
"Don't cut the hair," Kelli mumbled. Her head rested on Vin's shoulder, but she was not sound asleep and had overheard most of their conversation.
Chris laughed. "Hell, I wouldn't recognize Tanner without all that hair."
"I thought you were asleep." Vin stroked his fingers through the silky red tresses spread across his chest. "Did we wake you?"
"Not until I heard clean-cut and borin'." Kelli stretched. "Are we almost home?"
"Yep, we are, and since it's after midnight 'm sure Max is ready to go home," Vin answered. "Chris, just drop us off and keep my truck until yours is fixed, we'll use Kelli's Tahoe."
Chris pulled up in front of the Tanner home and waited while they exited the vehicle. "See you both in the morning and Kel…"
Kelli stopped and turned around to look her father. "Yes?"
Chris was not sure what he wanted to say to his daughter, so he just said, "I love you."
"Me too," she smiled, "See you tomorrow Dad."
Chris drove home and entered his darkened house. Without turning on the lights he made his way to the nursery and checked on Cody, who was sound asleep. Then he made his way down the hall to Grace's room. He stood in the doorway and gazed at his youngest daughter under the glow of the nightlight. Chris had never been one to believe in spirits, not like Vin did. Yet he did know there were things in his life which could not be explained, such as his connection to Vin. And the turn of fate, which brought Kelli back to him after twenty-five years. All the same, he was not going to discount the slightest possibility that maybe…just maybe Grace was talking to someone only she could see. Chris hesitantly spoke softly into the night as he closed Grace's bedroom door and headed toward his room. "If you are here, Cowboy… I'd appreciate whatever help you can give to keep my family safe."
The young Texan looked at the gunfighter and grinned. "Guess his head ain't as hard as we figured."
"Only took a 2 by 4 to get through to him," the Gunfighter smiled. "Think I'll help Larabee with his dreams tonight. You'd best prepare Tanner, it's time."
"Mine will be a helluva lot easier to convince than yours, but you're right…it's time," the Texan agreed.
"Yep. Now comes the hard part, we best get to it."
Wednesday October 17th
Vin had only been asleep a couple of hours before the vision he experienced in Santa Fe returned. This time however, it was different. Instead of William Forsyth confronting his daughter and her Texan, he arrived too late and they were already gone. Tanner woke up troubled and bewildered. He knew the family journals proved it did not happen that way. So, why would his visualizations suddenly change? He was receiving mixed signals and nothing was making sense. Or did any of it really happen at all? Maybe he imagined the entire thing and none of it was real.
Vin slipped out of bed and silently left the bedroom. He needed to sort through the fragmented pieces of the puzzle he had been given. He found himself standing in front of the wall of windows that faced the distant snow-capped mountains, staring out into the night. Sensing that he was not alone, he turned expecting to see Kelli, but no one was there. As far as he could see he was still alone. His instincts said otherwise. Moonlight illuminated parts of the big room. In the shadows Vin sensed someone was watching him, and he shivered involuntarily in reaction to a sudden chill running down his spine.
"Who are you?" he asked aloud, feeling a bit foolish to be talking to a seemingly empty room.
A soft and eerily familiar voice drawled in his head, *a friend who's here to help you understand.*
Tanner did not feel threatened or fearful, but his curiosity was certainly aroused when he heard the unspoken words. "Do I know you?"
*No, but we have much in common,* the soft voice answered. *We both have ties to an ornery cowboy and a stubborn woman.*
Vin chuckled. "You must know the Larabees."
*I do,* the voice replied, obviously amused, *A blessin' and a pain in the ass at the same time.*
"Yep," Vin laughed and then he became serious. "You said you're here to help me understand. Understand what exactly?"
*You have questions. I have answers.*
"The visions, you sent them?"
*The visions are a gift of your heritage. Still, you must rely on your senses to unmask the truth and discover the path you should take. Do not be misled by diversions, trust your instincts, and do not let others dissuade you from the truth. There is evil that hides in the shadows and it is our destiny to confront it.*
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?" Vin snapped.
* It's up to you and me to find the answers we both will need to forever rid our fate of the evil which even now is plannin' to rear its ugly head. My Anne is lost, but yours is here to protect, and the brother of your spirit can find peace if we succeed.*
Vin did not have a clue as to how this was happening, yet he knew without a doubt who he was talking to. He accepted the words he heard as the truth. To even consider failing was unacceptable to him. Whatever evil was out there he would find it and destroy it. "I'll do what is necessary to protect my family."
*You must listen and watch for the signs. Your brothers may be slow to follow, but you will need their strength. I will stay close by and try to guide you in the right direction. The rest is up to you and Chris.*
"Chris? You got Larabee to listen?"
*Not me! I am here for you. There is another who will lead Larabee to this battle. He is not as receptive as you are and it may take longer to reach him."
"I bet. The only way to reach Chris would be to find someone as hard-headed as he is, and that would take…" Vin stopped when he realized what he was saying. "If you are who I think you are, then…"
*Yep, it takes one to know one. I knew I had the easy part of this and you haven't disappointed me. Tend to your family, we will talk again.*
"Vin?" Kelli entered the room, walking over to join her husband. "It's almost five, which means the twins will be up soon. When I woke up you were gone. I heard your voice and came lookin' for you. Who were you talkin' to?"
Tanner wrapped his arms around her, resting his chin on her head before answering, "An old friend, baby, one I hope to speak to again real soon." He swatted her on the butt. "Come on woman. Let's go check on the boys while I tell you all about it."
Chris woke up refreshed, in spite of the fact he had only slept four hours. His dreams had left him with a good feeling, although he could not remember what they were about. The challenges he and the team were facing were still there, but he felt a helluva lot better about their chances of succeeding than he did when he had finally fallen asleep. Maybe it was the knock on the head yesterday or maybe he was letting his dreams influence him. Regardless of the reason, it didn't matter to him anymore if Grace was seeing cowboys and talking to people he couldn't see.
His first stop after dressing was the nursery to check on his youngest. Cody was still out. He had a late feeding and would probably sleep for another hour so. Chris headed for Grace's room. He heard her before he reached the door; she was awake and already chattering away non-stop. Some of her words he recognized, the rest were mostly the gibberish of a seventeen-month-old, but each sound was music to his ears. He opened the door and entered her room.
"Good morning, Sunshine." Chris swept her up into his arms and began to tickle her. This was a morning routine which usually lasted about three minutes before Grace was ready for something different.
"Down, Da," Grace demanded.
Chris set her down and knelt to her level. "Are you ready to see what Dottie's made us for breakfast?"
"Cowboy come too?"
"Absolutely," Chris grinned. "You hear that Cowboy? Chows on, don't be late."
Grace giggled and her unseen friend grinned. *You're learning.*
Chris was startled when he thought he heard a voice. After looking around the room, he convinced himself it was only his imagination. "Come on, love, let's eat and then Daddy needs to make a few phone calls."
Centennial Peaks Hospital 7:00 a.m.
Mallory waited outside the door while Josiah went in alone to see Hannah. It broke his heart to see her curled into a fetal position on the bed, staring off into space; however he wanted to see for himself the damage that had been done to her. He sat down next to the bed and reached out to stroke her hair.
"Hannah, I know you're in there, honey. I want you to know I will do everything in my power to help you find your way back to us. You have my word there are no more monsters or shadows here to harm you. Doctor Rivers says you need time to rest and to give the new medicine a chance to work. I promise you I'll be back as soon as he gives me permission. Just remember I love you." He stood up, leaned over to kiss her brow, and then pulled her covers up to tuck her in, the way he always had before. It was with a heavy heart that he forced himself to walk to the door and leave her.
Outside, Mallory was waiting to give her husband the support he needed. Loading Hannah's personal items in the car earlier had been heartbreaking for him, but it would be a while before she could be in a private room again. She reached up and brushed away the few tears Josiah had allowed to escape. Then she wrapped an arm around his waist. "It's not your fault, Josiah. There is no way you could have known this would happen."
"I know, but when I find the bastard responsible, he's going to pay."
Two men approached them and the older one made the introductions. "Agent Sanchez, I am Captain Weaver and this is Officer Callahan. I am conducting the investigation concerning the drug switch your sister received. Callahan is in charge of implementing new security measures for all the patients. I want you to know we will get to the bottom of this."
"Due to another family emergency, my wife and I are returning to Denver this morning. I expect to be kept informed." Josiah hated to leave. However after the second attempt on JD's life and the doctor insisting Hannah needed time before more visits would be possible, the Sanchez's had decided to return home.
"Louisville is much smaller than Denver. It won't be difficult to track down the source of the drug, if it came from here. I have your number and promise to call you with information on what we find."
Doctor Rivers joined them and handed Josiah copies of Hannah's files and test results. "This is the information you requested. The test results are on top, then my notes, and finally her medical records. We'll keep her in the medical ward for now and as soon as I can I'll have her moved back to her old room. As I said before, we are in all new territory with Hannah on this. Normal counter measures won't work with her due to the medications she has been taking for the past year. I still cannot imagine why anyone would want to cause her harm, or how they could have access to something like Ketamine."
Even the strongest bonds of friendship, trust, and family are tested when reason vanishes in the mists of frustration. Tension shatters the tranquility of the soul.
Wednesday October 17th
Denver Memorial Hospital
It had been a long night for JD Dunne. The effects of the Ketamine had his body nearly sedated, while his mind suffered the horrors of hallucinations. Along with the terrible feeling of being dissociated from his body; he also experienced nausea, muscle twitches, and an overall state of confusion. There was still the possibility of aftereffects that could cause problems with his balance, as well as a combination of other symptoms that included: numbness, muscle weakness, slurred speech, and impaired vision.
Sue, the night nurse, came in just before the shift change to check on JD and his young wife. She took his vitals, marked the chart and then turned to Casey. "Have you slept at all?"
"Not much," Casey replied weakly.
"Not at all would be a better answer." Nathan gave Casey a stern look. "You can't do JD much good if you collapse from exhaustion."
"He's right, hon; your young man is going to need your support in the days to come." Sue closed the chart. "You take care, Jean will be JD's nurse today and I'll be back at nine tonight."
"Thank you for all you've done for us," Casey told her. "I know if JD …if he could he'd tell you himself."
Sue placed her hand on Casey's shoulder. "He'll be okay. It may take some time, but before you know it he’ll be complaining about being confined, and be begging to go home."
Casey could only nod. Right now she would love to hear JD complain about something normal, instead of uttering incoherent murmuring about shadows and someone chasing him. As soon as the nurse was out the door, Casey asked Nathan, "How long will he be like this?"
"It's hard to tell, sweetheart. Maybe a few more hours, or the effects could last through tomorrow," Nathan answered.
There was a short rap on the door before it opened and Buck entered, carrying two cups. "Before you say anything, Nate, I did get a good nights rest, and even Inez approved of me coming up here." He bent down and kissed Casey on the cheek. "Morning Darlin', brought you some hot chocolate." He set a cup of coffee in front of Nathan.
"Thanks, Buck." Nathan said after he took a sip.
"How's our boy?" Buck moved closer to the bed.
Casey's hand trembled as she stroked JD's hair. "He had a really bad night, Buck. The doctor said it was expected, but…" She choked back a sob.
"Well, old Buck is here now. Why don't you let Nathan take you home for a bit, so you can see the girls, get some rest, and then come back later?"
"No! I can't leave him when he's like this!" Casey was adamant.
Buck met Nathan's eyes and saw the medic shake his head, so he let it drop and moved on to another subject. "Chris set a team meeting for three. Josiah and Mallory are on their way back from Louisville and Mark is coming up to stay with JD at two. Nathan, you go home and get some sleep, while I keep Casey company this morning."
Nathan picked up his coat. "I'll be at that meeting. Casey, try to rest okay?"
Casey nodded, not really paying attention to anything other than JD. He lay moaning restlessly in the bed, as demons continued to torment his mind.
Nathan exited the room and Buck settled down in a chair next to JD's. He wanted to rant and rave about all that had happened, but he forced himself to remain calm for Casey's sake. Whatever it took, he vowed to find the maniac who was responsible for putting the younger couple through so much hell and make the sonofabitch suffer just as much, if not more.
Caitlyn stood just outside the door to collect her thoughts before going inside. She had been surprised when Chris Larabee called her earlier to ask for her help with Casey. Not that she minded being asked. She was very fond of Casey; in fact, she liked all the members of the Wild Bunch as they called themselves. Personally she found them all to be what she categorized as good people, and as far as she was concerned there could not be a better group involved with Reins of Change. In her professional capacity as a doctor of Psychology, she found the dynamics of the Wild Bunch to be intriguing. It was an extraordinary make-up of personalities, but it worked.
Chris had entrusted Caitlyn with the task of getting Casey to go home for a while and she would do her best to get her young friend to agree. She took a deep breath, put a smile on her face, and pushed open the door.
She stepped inside the room, and glanced over at Wilmington. His hand hovered over the butt of his gun at her unexpected appearance, and she gave him an apologetic smile. Buck nodded his understanding, and then watched silently as Caitlyn approached Casey.
"How's he doing?" Caitlyn asked softly.
Casey's gaze shifted from JD's restless features to Caitlyn. "Not so good."
Caitlyn's green eyes skimmed over Casey's features, noting the dark shadows under her eyes, the listless sheen of her brown hair, and the slump of her shoulders. It was clear to her the strain of the past couple of days had taken its toll and exhaustion was setting in. Chris had been right to be worried about how the mental and emotional turmoil was having an adverse effect on Casey's physical well-being. They needed to get her out of the hospital for her to get the rest her tired body sorely needed.
"Casey, I’ve heard this hospital has a wonderful garden."
“Yes it does. I’ve spent a lot of time there since I got involved with JD," Casey answered softly as she brushed JD’s hair gently with her hand.
“Would you mind showing it to me?" Caitlyn asked. She could see the protest on the tip of Casey's tongue, and added quickly, “I need to talk to you and I don’t want to disturb JD."
Casey reluctantly nodded her agreement. Tears filled her dark eyes as she walked out of the room. Caitlyn drew strength from the reassuring smile Buck gave her, before she followed the troubled young woman out the door. Together they made their silent way down the corridor and into the garden.
"So am I fired?" Casey asked, wondering if her job at Reins of Change was on the line because of her refusal to leave JD's side.
“What! No! Oh Darling, you don’t have to worry about your job with Reins of Change. It will be there for you whenever you are ready to come back." Caitlyn reached out and took Casey’s shaking hand. “It’s you I’m worried about. You and that precious baby you’re carrying."
Dark eyes lifted to make contact with green ones. "I'm okay...."
"You're not all right. You are emotionally, mentally, and physically exhausted and it’s not healthy for either you or the baby. You need to get some rest and take care of yourself."
Casey’s lips began to quiver as tears streamed down her cheeks. “I can’t leave him. Look what happened the last time I left."
Caitlyn drew the tormented young woman into her arms and held her while Casey sobbed out her pain on her shoulder. It took several minutes for the heartbreaking sounds to cease. Once they did, the older woman spoke softly. "You know it wasn’t because you left that JD was hurt. Sweetheart, if Buck would have left you in the room, the orderly would have asked you to wait outside and you would have gone into the hallway. How much worse would it be for you knowing you were just outside the door when JD was being hurt?"
“I know you’re right, but I can’t just leave him when he needs me."
“Do you trust the rest of the Wild Bunch?"
“Of course I do, with my life. Heck, with the lives of my girls."
“What about with JD’s life?"
“Of course, they would all risk themselves to keep each other safe. Why would you ask such a silly question?"
“I know it's a silly question, Casey, but I asked it for a reason. If you trust them, why can’t you trust them to keep JD safe while you go home and rest?"
Fresh tears fell as Casey realized the truth behind Caitlyn's words. Caitlyn quietly continued, “While I understand you want to stay close to JD, you need to think about your own health. There is no one else who can protect the innocent baby growing inside of you, besides you. The best way you can help JD is to take care of yourself and his children. Your twins need to see their Mama. I stopped by your house earlier today to see how they were doing, and they are scared by what’s been happening to their world. For them and for your unborn child, let me take you home."
“I’m so scared that if I leave, he’ll die," Casey confessed. “I know you’re right, I have to consider my babies, but what if…”
“Casey, you can 'what if' yourself right into an early grave or you can take what life gives you and make the most of it. Don’t let fears and 'what ifs' control your life."
Casey knew if she went home she would get the rest she needed. She realized Caitlyn was right, she was letting her fears rule her actions and that wasn’t the woman JD fell in love with.
She stood, feeling stronger than she had since the whole nightmare began, and said, “Let’s go tell Buck you’re taking me home to see my babies, and to rest."
Caitlyn stood up and wrapped an arm around Casey’s shoulders. “Yes, let’s,” she smiled
Vin had been debating with himself about talking to Chris for almost an hour, and finally decided to do it. He stepped into Chris's office without knocking. Larabee was on the phone so he made himself comfortable in the chair next to the desk and waited.
Chris hung up the phone and smiled." That was Caitlyn. I asked her to go to the hospital and try to talk Casey into going home for a while. After watching them together at the ER, I had a feeling Caitlyn would have better luck getting her to listen than any of us would, and I was right. She just left Casey at home and Nettie was already fussing over her."
"That's good. Once Nettie gets hold of her I guarantee Casey won't be goin' back to the hospital before she's well-rested."
"What's on your mind?" Chris leaned back in his chair, hoping Vin was ready to discuss whatever had been troubling him.
Vin had another agenda to talk about, however. "When you told Kel about the Larabee family, you only talked about your home life and Jack. What else do you know about your ancestors?"
The look on Chris's face clearly said he thought Vin had lost it. "What?"
"Indulge me. What do you know about your grandfather or great-grandfather?"
"Not much, only the information in the family bible." Vin's expression said he wanted to hear more. Chris sighed. "Okay, my father, Clint, was the only child of Cordell and Katherine Larabee. They were both killed in a train accident when he was three and the only other family member was his grandfather, Colton Larabee, who had died the year before. So my father was raised in a children's home. He left there when he was twelve and was on his own after that."
"Colton Larabee, when was he born?"
"New Mexico Territory, in1885, I believe. Are you going somewhere with this?"
"Maybe," Vin said as stood to leave. "I'll let you know." He left a perplexed Larabee sitting at his desk. Vin headed back to his office and immediately began a search on the internet.
*You could just ask.*
"Jesus! Don't sneak into my head like that!" Vin was rarely startled by anyone, but the voice had managed to do just that. "How do you do it anyway? The only person I've ever heard that way is…"
*Chris… Like I said earlier, I know how it's a blessin' and a curse at times and by the way… I can 'hear' you, too. Larabee is not the only one you're connected to, but I reckon you've already figured that out.*
Vin did have some of it worked out. Still, he was not ready to mentally link with this man, regardless of who he was. "If I'm right, you've had four generations of Larabees and Tanners to set fate back on its track. Why hasn't it been done before now?"
*It's taken that long for everyone to come back together at the same time. Chris, you, Buck, Nathan, Ezra, Josiah, and JD, y'all made things come full circle and it will take all of you together to figure it out.*
Tanner thought about his next words. "I can accept that and I reckon I know who the Cowboy is Grace has been talkin' to. I can understand his need to be here for Chris to believe. I figure you're here to support him, but if it was the only reason, you would not be makin' contact with me. Hell, I'm part Apache, and have no problem believin' in spirit guides. Why do you need me to know you're here?" Vin was certain he knew at least part of the answer, but wanted to verify his conclusions.
*Your visions brought me here. It will take both of us to solve the puzzle you have been given. That's all I can tell you, for now.*
Vin nodded, accepting that answer…for now. "You know it won't be easy to get Chris to believe. He's too down-to-earth and cynical to be convinced of anythin' that has no reasonable explanation. Mister No-nonsense Larabee is too hard headed and realistic to easily accept the fact that the spirit of his great, great, grandfather is here to contact him."
*Soon he'll have no choice.*
Their conversation ended when a short rap on the door announced Chris's entrance. "Vin, what the hell were all those questions for?"
"I found a Larabee mentioned on one of those historical markers while I was in Santa Fe. Before I said anythin' about it to Kelli I wanted to be sure. You know how much she likes family record stuff."
Chris waited for Vin to explain. When he didn't his patience gave out and Larabee snapped. "Damnit, you should have just said so!"
"I just did."
"I was wrong anyway. According to what you told me there was no Larabee related to y'all involved in Santa Fe history."
Chris huffed. "Then if you're through playing history professor, do you think we might get back to working on JD's case? I need those ballistic comparisons."
Vin picked up a folder on his desk and grinned. "Sure thing, Cowboy. I got 'em right here."
"The door's open. Is it safe to enter?" Josiah asked as he walked in.
"Welcome back. How's Hannah?" Chris asked.
"Not good, but I'm not giving up on her," Josiah answered. "However, I can't see her right now, and Mallory and I felt we were needed here."
"I'm glad you're home. Come with me to my office and I'll give you the notes from the last few days for you to review before the meeting." Chris ordered, already walking out the door.
Bones was busy hanging charts on the case board they had brought in to use for this meeting. Chris shuffled through his notes as the room began to fill with agents. Everyone quickly found a seat while Pam and Mallory put the finishing touches on the temporary CASSIE link they had set-up for today. A solemn faced Buck entered quietly and seated himself next to Chris. Vin sat on the other side of Chris where he had a good view of the door. Ezra and Kelli were running late and it was taking all of his self- control not to dial her cell phone number and demand to know where the hell they were.
Larabee began the meeting as scheduled. "Selina and Mark are on duty at Denver Memorial guarding Agent Dunne and Director Travis' rooms. The last update on Travis said he was doing much better and he should be released within a few days. Captain Wilmington just returned from the hospital and he can give us more information about JD's current condition. Buck what can you tell us?"
"What's to tell?" Buck snarled. "He's going through his own private hell, and there's not a damn thing any of us can do about it. What we need to do is find the bastard who did this to him."
"That's what we're here to try to work out. We are going to start from scratch and take a new look at everything we have. Our priority today is to try and find a way to clear Agent Dunne period. Bones, what have you concluded about Frank Pierce?"
"Pierce did not attempt to kill Agent Dunne. In fact, it was impossible since he was dead at least two hours before the attack. His apparent suicide was a murder." Bones reported.
"Great! That's just what we need, another dead end," Raphael muttered aloud.
"It seems we've been getting more than our share of dead ends lately." Nathan agreed
Neither Kelli nor Ezra were in the best of moods when they returned to MCAT headquarters. Of the five names they had to follow-up on, none had produced any promising leads. On top of that they were late for the team meeting, due to icy road conditions. They attempted to slip into the war room unnoticed; however they were met by an intense scrutiny from both Commander Larabee and Captain Tanner. The errant duo ignored the scathing looks and seated themselves in their usual places, Kelli sitting between Vin and Ezra.
Chris continued, "For those who arrived late, we were just discussing the dead ends that keep piling up around us. Bones, what else do you have?"
Bones stood up and went over the chart he had prepared. "I took our original findings and listed them by case numbers. The first of the five suspected deaths began eleven months ago, leading up to the fire that killed Lady Ice. This chart also includes the death of her alleged murderer in the days following. We have ballistics on the shootings of Travis, Wilmington, and Marshal Jones, plus the information on the first attempt to kill Agent Dunne. I have added the second attempt on Agent Dunne's life, the weapon used in the attempt to kill the Commander and the Captain, as well as the information on the death of Frank Pierce. We have a dozen dead bodies connected in some way to all of these suspected murders, as well as the other attempts on our agent's lives. Aside from circumstantial evidence the only definite connection is the 308 used in four of the shootings, and so far it has proven to be untraceable."
Buck pounded the table. "In other words, we don't know shit! What do we have that can help clear JD?"
"We know somewhere there is an informant ready to testify against him." Guy Saunders injected.
"Okay, we know we have to find the informant. Justin, you, Guy, and Alex will work exclusively on finding the CI." Chris ordered. "What about the money? Pam, were you able to trace the source of the 100,000 dollars that showed up in the Dunne's account?"
Pam answered, "Yes."
"Well, where the hell did it come from?" Vin finally asked when it seemed no more information was forthcoming.
"I traced it back through an off shore bank account from an account set up under the name of Abel Rae. The money was transferred three times but originated from here in Colorado." Pam took a deep breath and hesitated before revealing the source. "It came from the corporate account of Larabee 7."
"Bullshit!" Ezra shouted, jumping up and snatching the folder from Pam. "That is impossible!" He quickly scanned over the report she had been reading from, ignoring the comments from around the room as he did so. The rest of the team watched as Standish's face lost all color and his breathing became labored.
"Ez, you okay?" Vin asked.
"No, I am not. I am loath to admit Agent Walton is correct. It appears the funds were indeed ascertained from a Larabee 7 account, which implies someone has stolen from us, and used our own funds to set up our youngest."
"It could also mean this same someone wishes to implicate the rest of us," Josiah said. "Ezra, sit down. We will get to the bottom of this. First we need to find out just who we are dealing with and who their target is. Obviously JD's situation is in the forefront, but this plan was set into motion almost a year ago. We need to look for a person who had a motive to hurt one of us or the team, the opportunity to set this up, and the means to do it with. I fear JD's arrest, as serious as it is for him is only a diversionary tactic to undermine MCAT's ability. Only meant to conceal the identity of the mastermind behind this twisted plot of intrigue we are being forced to participate in."
"Are you telling us all of these things are connected and the result of one madman's vendetta against us?" Larabee was just about at the end of his short rope of patience. Enough was too much and he was pushed into a corner about as far as he intended to go.
"Probably, Chris, and I will work on a profile and look at the facts." Josiah stood up and went over to the case board. "Granted, all of the attempted murders and killings are related by circumstantial evidence. What else do we know? The similarities in all of these cases are too close to be coincidence. JD was given a hallucinogenic drug…"
"Ketamine," Nathan supplied the name of the drug.
Josiah stopped writing with his hand poised in mid-air. "What did you say?"
"I said the drug used on JD was Ketamine," Nathan repeated.
A haunted expression creased the profiler's features as he cast his eyes to his wife before whispering, "Dear God."
"Josiah, what is it?" Chris asked softly.
"That's the same drug that was given to Hannah. Who could possibly have known about her?"
"Someone obviously has done extensive research into our personal lives," Ezra said.
Chris could feel the rage building inside him. It was bad enough that JD had been involved, but he was a Federal Agent which unfortunately also made him a target. To go after an innocent young woman who had experienced more than enough torment already in her life was inexcusable. "Buck, has JD said anything about his attack that could help us?
"He hasn't been very coherent since he was injected with the Ketamine. He just keeps mumbling something about a shadow…shadow monster…shadow's draw …shadow something, and then the letter on his chest were S H and A."
Larabee saw Pam's look of shock, and felt a cold chill invade his body, still he had to ask. "Could he be saying Shadowchaser?"
"Damn, that's it." Buck replied.
"Everybody, take a break. Josiah, close those blinds," Larabee said abruptly. Most of the team members reluctantly left the room, leaving only the Commander, his two Captains, Nathan, Josiah, and Ezra.
"What the hell was that about, Chris?" Vin was the first to confront him.
"I thought it was only a prank at first. I had Pam, and then Mike Tai, check it out anyway. Neither of them could find out a thing." Chris said. "It was just another dead end."
"What was?" Nathan asked.
"Someone going by the name of Shadowchaser sent me two e-mails. I took precautions, just in case they were legit, but I never thought they were connected to JD. I thought it was some nutcase harassing me," Chris said. He pulled out a sheet of paper from a folder stuck between his meeting notes. "Mike called me just before the meeting and I had them in front of me while we spoke. I stuck them in here when I left my office."
"Unless you plan to sit and hatch 'em, tell us what the messages were," Buck snapped.
Larabee read them without emotion. "The first one came under the heading 'rule of the game', 'You are not Mister. Perfect and others will suffer from the fallout of your self-righteous attitude. The second one said 'Are you listening' and reads 'A sister holds the key to your salvation, but first, you must relive the agony of losing another child."
Vin felt pure, uncontrolled fury charge through his body. "Jesus Christ, Chris! How the hell could you fuckin' keep these a secret?" he exploded. "You told me I was fuckin' overreactin' when I worried about Kel. All along you knew a real threat was out there!"
"I didn't know if the threat was real or just someone's sick sense of humor! It's the internet for God's sake! It could have come from anywhere," Chris shouted.
"Now we know different, don't we?" Vin growled. "Did you plan to tell us before or after Kelli, Grace, or Cody were killed!"
Chris's features darkened with rage. "You sonofabitch!" he yelled. He drew back his fist and that's when Buck stepped in. He grabbed Chris's fist before it connected with Vin's jaw.
Vin steeled himself for the blow that never came, when he felt a strong grip on the back of his collar pull him backwards.
Josiah's deep baritone rang out forcibly, "Brothers! We have enough problems without you two acting like juvenile delinquents. Now sit down, shut up, and behave while we try to work this out." He pulled out a chair for Vin, while Buck did the same for Chris on the opposite side of the table. The two glared at one another, neither willing to let go of their anger. Worse was the growing fear each held that they had only just begun to see the results of the terrors planned against them all. Regardless of their temporary differences, Vin and Chris knew they were all in for the fight of their lives and the only way this would end was to find and destroy Shadowchaser. It was a fight they would not back away from, and no matter what it took to prevail, they would win. The alternative was simply unacceptable.
Ezra had stayed out of the fray. He now stepped forward to redirect everyone's attention to more important issues. "Gentlemen, lets take a deep breath and start at the beginning…"
Outside the war room the other MCAT agents cast worried glances at one another as the voices of their Commander and Captain grew louder. Whatever was going on inside that room could not be good for the team. Mallory and Kelli stood beside Gunny's desk and fought the urge to go inside to support their husbands. Each knew it was up to the seven to set things straight between them.
The phone rang, making both women jump at the unexpected sound. Gunny answered it. For once she was uncertain about how to handle the call. Mark said it was important, but she knew barging into the War room was asking for more trouble and right now MCAT had all the trouble it could handle.
Kelli saw the look on the older woman's face and realized she was not the only one affected by the shouting they had heard inside. "Gunny?"
"It's Agent Westin, calling for the Commander."
"I'll take it." Kelli held out her hand. With only a moment's hesitation, Gunny gave her the receiver. "Mark, this is Kelli…" She listened as Mark relayed his message. "I'll make sure he knows ASAP."
Kelli gave the receiver back to Gunny and grabbed Mallory's hand. "Come on, we're about to enter the war zone." They did not knock before opening the door and immediately received an expected reaction.
"Not now!" Chris yelled.
"Call a truce Dad. Mark phoned from the hospital…JD went into respiratory arrest ten minutes ago."
Emotions run deep and tensions often run high in relationships that really matter. Brothers may fight, lovers can argue, and friends can disagree. It is the strength of family which trumps anger, bonds of trust bind us together, and wounds of the heart are healed by the solid foundation of love.
Denver Memorial Hospital
4:00 p.m. ~Room 307
*Why can't anyone hear me?* the voice inside JD's head was clear to him, but he could not seem to make his body or his vocal cords work. It was as if his body did not belong to him and would not listen to the commands his brain attempted to send out. "Shadowchaser has come for you boy." The menacing words replayed over and over in his mind, each time louder than the one before. JD could feel the tight constriction across his chest, while panic welled up inside him.
A shroud of blackness descended over him, shutting out all sight and sounds. *Help me, I can't breathe!*JD felt himself floating deeper into the darkness.
Doctor Gilford led the way into JD Dunne's room amid the blaring alarms. A team of hospital personnel followed in his wake with a crash cart. He moved purposefully toward the bed and began issuing orders as he read the monitor. "Come on, JD, hang in there!" the doctor yelled. He began to perform CPR on his unresponsive patient.
The nurse handed Doctor Gilford the jellied paddles of the automatic external defibrillator, stepping back as he applied them to JD’s chest and called out, “Clear."
JD’s body convulsed in reaction to the electromagnetic charges and then settled back into stillness. Doctor Gilford glanced over at the heart monitor again and saw that there had been no change. JD was still in V-fib. He gave a curt nod to the technician to increase the voltage and reapplied the paddles to JD’s chest.
Mark stood in the doorway of room 307 as the hospital personnel worked on his MCAT teammate and friend. The shock of seeing JD going into seizures had rendered him temporarily unable to think or react. He suddenly realized he needed to get to a phone and call MCAT headquarters. He dashed down to the nurse's station and commandeered an outside line
Denver Memorial Hospital - Waiting Room
Mark was waiting for his commander. When he saw Chris push through the double doors, he knew what was expected of him. "Sir. The doctor resuscitated JD. He sent him down for an MRI and said he'd be out to talk to you shortly."
Chris nodded. "Go on back to the office. I'll call when we know more."
Buck began pacing while the others spread out in the waiting area.
Casey ran in ahead of Inez and Caitlyn, "Chris, what happened?"
Taking her by the arm, Chris spoke calmly," JD had some problems, sweetheart. Doc is running some tests on him now to find out how serious it is."
Collapsing in the closest chair, Casey moaned, "I shouldn't have left him."
Caitlyn sat down next to her, taking her hand. "It wouldn't have mattered whether you were here, or at home. You had no control over what happened." She rubbed Casey's back, attempting to calm her.
Inez took Chris aside, speaking in a hushed tone," Nettie took the girls to your house to be with the other kids. They cried so much for their mama when she told them she had to leave; Nettie had to do something. At least the kids see it as a party to be together."
"It was the best solution Walter and I could come up with. Keeping all the kids at my house made sense. I'm glad Nettie is there with the twins." Inez nodded, and then went over to sit on the other side of Casey.
Chris and Buck prowled the room like caged animals, while Josiah sat with Mallory in the corner scribbling in his notebook. Nathan left to seek out as much information as he could about what brought on the latest crisis with JD, and Ezra stepped outside to use the phone. Vin leaned against the window ledge, keeping Kelli close beside him. She called Max and told her to give the boys bottled breast milk for their six o'clock feeding, assuring the older woman she would be home in time for the next one.
Nathan re-entered the waiting room and knelt down in front of Casey. He spoke to her, but everyone in the room could hear his words. "All I could find out is that JD had some type of seizure and was having trouble breathing. The doctor put him on a ventilator to make it easier for him. Doc should be out soon to speak to you."
Casey lifted her tear-filled eyes to Nathan's. The stressful events of the past week showed in the tired lines on her face. "Thanks for letting me know."
"You are welcome." Nathan stood up. "I know the waiting is hard, but he's in good hands."
Buck ceased his pacing and snapped. "Hell, it seems as if we spend half our lives waiting in this place!"
"Easy, Buck," Chris warned him. "Losing your cool is not going to help anyone."
"That's kinda like the pot calling the kettle black, ain't it, Chris." Buck challenged. "Are you the only one who's allowed to snap and growl?" Buck was ready to argue the point, except the doctor chose now to make an appearance.
Doctor Gilford entered the waiting area and sat down opposite Casey. "I have your husband back in his room, after he was put through a battery of tests. JD suffered a seizure, which I believe was brought on by the Ketamine and it threw him into cardiac arrest. In the process of stabilizing JD, he sustained two cracked ribs. Tests indicate we are now on the downside of the Ketamine effects. That said, I am concerned because his body is under a huge amount of stress with the infection, the blood loss, and the surgery that has weakened his system. The drug pushed his body past the limits of what he could maintain on his own without assistance. That is why I decided to put him on a ventilator, to facilitate his breathing until he is stronger."
Casey's voice quivered as she asked, "Is he going to be okay?"
"I see no reason to expect otherwise." Gilford smiled reassuringly.
'"Thank God," Buck exclaimed, collapsing wearily into a nearby chair.
"Come with me. You can see for yourself." The doctor took Casey's hand, leading her out of the room.
Inez and Caitlyn offered to go for sandwiches and coffee. Ezra passed them going out as he walked inside the waiting area.
"Doc says JD is gonna be okay." Kelli answered Ezra' unasked question.
"That is excellent news." Since there were only teammates left in the room, Ezra pulled out his own notepad. "I have been on the phone conferring with a representative at our bank. It appears the 100,000 dollars was electronically transferred three days after Barbara and I left for Italy. Obviously it was someone who had enough knowledge of banking procedures to by-pass the normal routes that would have alerted the bank."
"You mean stole not transferred, don’t you?" Mallory questioned.
"Yes. The bank will of course replace our funds and as of today the FBI has not even looked at our account. Therefore, they have not 'followed the money trail', which means they are confident their case is solid with their informant's information."
"Able Rae," Josiah said.
"Yes, the name our thief used. What about it?" Standish asked.
"Able Rae is an anagram for Larabee." Josiah said. "It appears Shadowchaser wanted us to find out this was personal."
"What else have you figured out with your scribbles, Josiah?" Chris asked.
"Aside from the obvious concerning the notes you and Vin found? The reference that the oldest, I guess that would be me, suffers from the guilt of my neglect has to be about Hannah. Travis would be the leader, and it implies that both Nathan and Vin will be targeted in the future. The note was written for you, Chris. I think the words in all the messages were crafted specifically in an attempt to rattle you and evidently it worked. Why, I don’t know, nor who it was the promise not to tell was made to."
"Damn, I should have made the connection when we found that note," Chris sighed. "I should have said something sooner." He looked directly at Vin when he said those last words.
"The e-mails could have been phony and you didn't know then about Hannah being connected," Josiah answered.
"What e-mails?" Mallory asked.
Chris and Vin exchanged looks. It was clear to everyone in the room neither man was anxious to revisit that subject.
Buck sighed and cleared his throat. “What set these two yahoos off earlier this afternoon was Chris’s revelation that he had received a couple of odd messages. At first he thought they were pranks. Now we can now connect them to Shadowchaser."
“What did the messages say?" Kelli asked, looking from her husband to her father. “What would have y’all involved in a screamin' match which was not only heard by the entire team, but probably by everyone in the next county as well?"
“It seems like Chris and I haven’t been on the same page in this investigation. He neglected to mention this so-called prank included a threat to his family, specifically to you, Grace, and Cody," Vin said calmly, as he locked eyes with Chris.
Josiah decided it was time to intervene before another argument erupted between the two. "I know my attention has been split between Hannah and here and I have not been open and available as much as I should have. Your attentions have also been split, Chris, between what's happening and the messages."
"We've noticed, Josiah," Nathan said. "You, Chris, and Vin have not been acting right since all this started."
Ezra decided to push the issue. "We know now why Chris and Josiah were distracted. Vin, are you ready to share with us the reason you have been so prickly lately?"
Vin was still not certain he could explain what he had been going through and for the first time in a long time he was unsure about talking freely with his friends. He glanced over at Chris and hesitated; he knew what he believed, but wasn't sure about how the others would react. Kelli squeezed Vin's hand, encouraging him to get it out in the open. He took a deep breath and said quietly, "Visions…I've been havin' 'em since Santa Fe."
"Damnit, Vin! Are you saying you saw all this and didn't warn us? You could have kept JD from being hurt?" Buck, as usual, spoke before he thought, and inwardly winced at the accusation in his voice.
"Of course not, Buck," Josiah answered. "Visions don't work like that. According to Native American teachings visions are given to particular individuals for them to interpret. They are rarely clear and it is left up to the receiver to determine their meanings. Unless the receiver has the gift of interpretation, he or she often has to seek out a shaman or holy man to help them. Or it takes what's called a vision quest to try to find their meaning." He looked at Vin. "If I am not mistaken, you once told me your grandfather had that gift."
"He did," Vin said. "I wish like hell he was here to tell me what the images I've seen mean, because I don't understand 'em. All I know is they are gettin' to the point that I see 'em day and night and they're damn disturbin'. I even 'saw' Kelli die on the Mount Evans byway in an avalanche the same mornin' her and Ezra went to Blackhawk."
"Dear Lord! It's no wonder you were upset." Ezra felt relieved Tanner had only yelled, and not tried to shoot him for taking Kelli on that route.
"Yeah, I reacted badly instead of thinkin' about it. I know from the stories my grandfather told me that the message from the spirits are not always clear and it takes more knowledge than I have at this time to read what the visions mean."
At Vin's mention of spirits, Chris gave him a sharp look. "I respect your heritage, Vin, but you don't expect us to believe these dreams you are having are messages from the afterlife? Or that spirits are guiding you?"
"Now that kind of thinkin' is the reason I didn't tell ya'll about 'em. I may not understand 'em Chris, and 'm not sure what I believe. I know my grandfather believed and I can't discount 'em when they've taken over my head for the last two weeks," Vin said defensively. "Maybe they are just bad dreams, but I intend to listen to 'em and try to find some answers until I know for sure my family is safe. Right now I'd say that's damn near impossible to guarantee, considerin' the note and your e-mails."
"At least we know the note and my e-mails were sent by a live person. He or she can clearly write and use a computer to get their message across. We have no problem reading them as threats against all of us." Chris shook his head, "Visions and dreams? I know how you feel about your grandfather, Vin. I also understand you wanting to believe the stories he told you. Just don't mix up your love for him and your desire to believe those stories from real facts."
"I know the difference, Larabee." A part of Vin was angry Chris so quickly dismissed the visions as nothing, fortunately a much larger part of him understood that this whole situation had them all stressed. Regardless of the words his friend had spoken Vin knew Chris trusted his judgment and most importantly his instincts.
"You know, Hispanic culture celebrates the day of the dead as a holiday. It's the day when they communicate with the spirits of the departed with the giving of gifts, celebrations, and food. In India as well as other countries they accept as fact that reincarnation exist. There are large numbers of educated people around the world who believe in premonitions, clairvoyance, ESP, and the power of dreams. We may call it instinct, intuition or even…the ability to communicate without words." Josiah looked from Chris to Vin. "Is it really so difficult to believe in things we may not understand?"
Chris thought about his mental link with Vin. It was something he had accepted since the first time they met, but communicating with Vin was a lot different than having visions and believing spirits could lead them to answers. "Is it difficult to believe? Yes. Accept that Vin may see it differently, I can do. What I believe in is cold hard facts, personal experience, and evidence. Things we have very little of at this point to help JD out of this mess." He could, however, at least understand now why Vin had reacted so explosively lately, instead of with his usual even-tempered nature. However it did not mean Larabee was willing to buy into this spirit business.
"I think at this point we agree that it will take all of us working together to find this Shadowchaser, by any means possible." Josiah said. He remembered the book Vin had called and asked him to look for while he was still in Santa Fe, and planned to discuss this subject further with him, in private.
Nathan was not sure what to think, but if Vin could figure out what was going on from his dreams, he was not going to be the one to tell him to quit trying. "I think you're right, Josiah."
"How in heaven's name can everything go to hell so quickly?" Buck ran his fingers through his hair and said, "One fucking week!"
Josiah sighed. "It's been a lot longer than a week, Buck. The events that brought all this to a head were set into motion more than a year ago. The planning, God only knows how long before that. Obviously, real or imagined, this subject has a grudge against Chris."
"We're looking for someone who has motive, means, and opportunity," Chris said quietly.
"Someone that's a skilled marksman," Vin added.
Nathan considered what they knew. "It has to be a person with access to information concerning our personal lives."
"This person has computer expertise and knowledge of banking procedures." Ezra reminded them.
"Don't forget the knowledge about drugs." Mallory said. "Ketamine is commonly used by veterinarians. Maybe it's someone who knows animals?"
"We are lookin' for one person who fits this profile and would know about Hannah," Kelli stated. "CASSIE has been through the case files once. Do we go back through them using these criteria for a search?"
"Yes, we do. Josiah, call Pam and give her the details we're looking for. Have her go back as far as my cases with the DPD and then get back to work on expanding the profile," Chris ordered. "Vin, nobody can hide all their tracks. Rework your old bounty hunting network of sources. Ezra, go back to your contacts with this info and see what you come up with. Buck, you, Inez, and Mallory stay with Casey and JD. I also want a double guard on that door tonight. Get Raphael and Alex up here. Kel, go home and feed your babies."
"I can work and take care of my children, thank you," Kelli snapped. She felt Vin's fingers lace firmly with hers and held back her next remark.
"Fine then, work with Vin. Nathan and I are going upstairs to fill Orrin in on where we are with this." The Commander walked out without another word. He practically ran over Caitlyn when she returned to the room with coffee and sandwiches for everyone. Inez was behind her with more goodies, and sidestepped to avoid another collision.
"I'm sorry, Caitlyn." Chris apologized, steadying two of the cups of coffee threatening to spill over in the carrying tray she held in one hand.
"That's all right, Chris." Caitlyn flashed him an understanding smile. "Accidents happen … or rather nearly happen."
An easy smile creased Chris's lips. "Thanks for everything you've been doing to help out."
"You're welcome," she said softly. "It's nice to get a chance to pay back some of the kindness you and the rest of the Wild Bunch offered me with Reins of Change. Besides, it's what friends do."
"Are one of these cups of coffee for me?" The blond indicated the tray she still held in her hands.
"Yes. It should have your name written on the side of it. I've got a meatball sub in the bag with your name on it as well."
"I'll take the coffee now and swing back by here after talking to Travis for the sub." He took his cup of coffee and continued out of the room, as Nathan quickly grabbed his and followed after him.
The others, who were in the process of leaving next, quickly accepted the food and coffee that Caitlyn doled out, voicing their appreciation to her. Soon only Buck, Inez, Mallory, Vin, Kelli, and Ezra were left in the room.
"If you need any help, Ez, I'm willin' and able." Kelli told her partner, and immediately felt Vin tense up beside her.
Ezra's green eyes studied her for a moment. She didn't seem to be baiting Vin by her words, only making a sincere suggestion. At any other time he would have been happy to have her help, but he felt it was prudent to decline this time. "I appreciate it, Kelli, however a great many of my informants are rather particular about how we carry out our interactions with one another. I wouldn't want to do anything to agitate them, just when we were in such great need of their assistance."
Kelli did not believe him, but she was not going to argue about it, not tonight anyway. It had taken a lot for Vin to talk about his visions, even with men he trusted. She was not about throw a fit on top of the emotional wave was already riding. "Goodnight, Ezra."
"Watch your back," Vin's eyes conveyed his thanks for understanding.
"Buck, please express my best wishes to JD when you see him." Ezra took his cup of coffee and exited the room.
"I need to make a few phone calls to some old contacts and I'll be workin' from home, Buck. Tell JD we'll be up early in the mornin' to see him." Vin knew Buck would not be leaving until he at least had a few minutes to see JD for himself. "You want us to take your kids to our house?"
"Thanks. Hopefully Caitlyn and I can persuade Casey to go home for the night," Inez answered. "Either way I'll be going home soon and I'll pick up our kids."
"Vin, about earlier …" Buck wanted to apologize for his outburst.
"We're good, Bucklin," Tanner quickly assured him. "I'll see you in the mornin'"
Vin took Kelli's coat and held it for her to put on. Nodding to the ladies he took his wife by the hand and they walked toward the elevators. When the doors opened, Chris and Nathan stepped out.
"Travis was asleep and Evie threw us out." Chris told them while Nathan continued on to the waiting area.
"We were on our way down. I'll be workin' from home, if anythin' comes up and you need me." Vin stated. "We'll be stoppin' at your house first to pick up the kids."
Chris nodded. "If you would, hug Grace and Cody for me. Tell them I'll be home in a little while. As soon as I see JD I'm headed that way."
Green eyes locked with blue ones.
*Vin, what I said…?*
*We both said things we regret.*
*Let’s move on.*
*Works for me, Cowboy.*
The elevator door opened again and with mutual goodnights spoken, the Tanners stepped inside. Chris went on to the waiting room. He was ready to see JD and then try to convince Casey to go home.
Hospital Waiting Room
Josiah and Mallory left earlier with Inez to pick up the children at Chris's. Buck wanted to wait until he could at least see JD before he went home on Larabee's orders. Raphael and Alex were already stationed outside room 307. Chris was confident once he left no one would be going inside without one of his agents accompanying them. Shift change took place thirty minutes ago and Casey was asked to step out of JD's room. Doctor Gilford made a point to give them an update on their young friend.
She was sitting next to Caitlyn and Chris took the opportunity to talk with her. "Casey, Doctor Gilford told us JD was stable and sedated for the night. I know you want to be here, but think about the girls. Lilah and Daisy need one parent with them at night and I'm sure JD would tell you the same thing."
"Every time I leave him something bad happens," Casey countered.
"Things that would happen even if you were here," Chris smiled. "Casey, one of my responsibilities as the leader of this bunch is to take care of everyone. You don't want me to have to tell JD I let you run yourself into the ground, do you?"
"No, but…" She was worn-out, scared, nauseous and not sure what to do.
"Trust me, sweetheart," Chris said softly. "I promise JD will be safe tonight and you'll feel 100 percent better after a good night's rest."
Nathan stepped forward. "I would be pleased to escort you ladies back to the ranch. Caitlyn can drop me off at home and I'll ride in with Chris in the morning."
"Raphael and Alex will be with anyone who goes into that room tonight," Chris added. "Buck and I will be right behind you and you know we would not leave here if we thought JD was not going to be okay."
Exhaustion and worry about not only JD but her children had Casey agreeing with him. "All right, I want to tell JD I'm going though."
"Okay, I'll be right back." Chris went to the nurse's station and talked to the night nurse, explaining what he needed to happen. Sue readily agreed and went with him to speak to Casey.
"Hon, I will be checking on your man every ten minutes for the rest of the night and I will call you if there is any change in his condition." Sue smiled encouragingly. "JD is one of my favorite patients and you just have to trust me when I tell you he is in good hands. Now, let's go see that husband of yours." Casey spent the next ten minutes saying goodnight to her husband, not even sure if he could hear her.
Once Nathan, Caitlyn and Casey entered the elevator, Chris and Buck felt a wave of relief wash over them. Nathan would see they made it home safely and Caitlyn would hand deliver Casey to Nettie, assuring she would be getting some rest tonight. Together, they went to JD's room and pushed open the door.
Sue cautioned them. "I'll be back in five minutes and I do not expect to see either of you when I return. Don't make me have to throw you two out."
"Yes, ma'am." Buck answered as he moved closer to the bed. It hurt him to see how pale JD was. He was surprised at how young he looked, laying there with all the wires and tube hooked up to him. "Kid, we have to stop meeting like this. I think you've had enough time off. Now you need to get well so we can blow this place." The only thing he heard in response was the soft whoosh of the ventilator as it breathed for JD. "Casey and the girls are safe at home. We'll be back first thing in the morning to see you."
Buck touched JD's forehead, whispering a prayer before he turned to Chris with tears in his eyes. "I'll wait for you outside." He hurried out of the room, leaving Chris alone with JD.
Chris moved over to the side of JD's bed and whispered softly close to his ear, "Son, I don't know why or how any of this happened, but I give you my promise that you will be going home to your beautiful family. The person responsible for this will wish to God they never dared to touch one of mine by the time I'm done with them."
Shadows can be beautiful as the sun sets, silhouetting the countryside while waiting for the shroud of night to approach. Then the moon rises to cast its beauty upon the earth. Good may stand in the shadows awaiting the right time to step forward or evil can seclude itself awaiting a time to strike out. Shadows can also hide the truth, obscure the landscape, and cloud our vision. It is up to us to empower ourselves with knowledge, be ever vigilant, and find the right balance between the darkness and the light to protect ourselves and the ones we love.
Denver Memorial Parking Lot
Vin drew Kelli close to his side as they walked to the truck in silence. He had several things on his mind, all equally important and equally disturbing. JD's situation was a priority for all of them of course and to help fix it Vin needed to tackle some serious issues. He was upset with Chris for not telling him about a possible threat to Kelli's life, but then he wasn't too forthcoming about the visions he was experiencing either. Even after admitting he was having them, he did not describe what he was seeing. Come to think of it, he had not mentioned the voice in his head from one of his ancestors either. Now he had to find a way to ask Kelli to stand back from work for awhile to insure himself she remained safe, without starting another argument with his volatile redhead.
While he pulled out of the parking lot and headed toward the ranch he considered his options. As he drove he came to a decision. They were halfway home when he turned down a remote side road and pulled over.
Seldom did Kelli question what Vin did, but his actions now puzzled her. "I thought we were goin' home."
"Kel, when we get there, I'll be tied up on the phone for a couple of hours. The kids are goin' to keep you busy and I think we need to talk first."
Kelli laughed, "And here I thought you were goin' to suggest a sizzlin' make-out session." She knew her husband was tense and wanted desperately to find a way to help him.
Momentarily distracted by her husky laugh, Vin smiled and replied, "Later baby." He turned his body enough to see her face. "Kel, I know I can be a bastard at times, as well as ornery, possessive, and demandin'."
"Don't forget mule-headed and broodin'," Kelli interrupted him teasingly, reaching out her hand to brush through his hair. "You don't hold the market on sometimes bein' difficult. I can be bitchy, moody and bad-tempered myself, but when it comes to the things that really matter I think we see things pretty much the same."
"We do, and you're never bitchy. Maybe bad-tempered and moody, however you can blame Chris for passin' that on to you." Vin took her hand. "I respect you as an agent Kel and I know without a doubt that you are more than qualified to do your job. You can hold your own against just about anyone, but you're also my wife, the mother of my children, and the woman I plan to grow old with. I can't take the chance that someone might try to use you to hurt Chris. I don't want to experience how it would feel to live one second without you here and I won't even consider that possibility."
Kelli hated to see Vin so vulnerable and wanted to make this conversation as easy as possible for both of them. "I guess I saw the handwritin' on the wall when Chris ordered me to work with you instead of Ezra." She sighed. "I won't quit, Vin, but I will either take desk duty or time off until we catch Shadowchaser. I don't want you to be so worried about me that you get hurt in the process."
Vin felt relief flood through his body. He had been prepared to fight if need be to get his redhead to see how strongly he felt about this. "Let's start with desk duty, and go from there." He lowered his head and claimed a long slow kiss. He felt her shift beneath his hands, moving into him, wrapping herself around his heart. Deep within him he felt his blood begin to thicken as a firestorm swept through his entire body.
He wanted to make love to her like it was their first time again and hold her as if it were their last, but not here in the middle of nowhere in the cab of his truck. Vin knew they had to stop. He drew back and smiled, it was way past time for Kelli to feed the twins to relieve the pressure on her breasts, "I need to get you home to the boys. We still have a date for makin-out later?"
"Hell, yeah," Kelli grinned. "Try to get out of it and I'll have to hurt you Tanner." She leaned into Vin's side as he put the truck into gear, made a u-turn, and headed home.
Josiah dropped Inez at home after picking up the kids at Chris's. He helped Inez get her four into the house and then rejoined Mallory and their two in the suburban. Joanne and Adam were almost down for the count. Since they had eaten earlier at Larabee's house, the elder Sanchez' carried their children straight to their beds as soon as they reached the Sanchez home.
After closing Adam's bedroom door behind her, Mallory encircled Josiah's waist with one arm and walked with him into the living room. "I'm beat. Are you ready to crash too?"
Josiah kissed the top of her head before answering. "You go ahead and get some sleep. I have a couple of things I want to do before I come to bed."
"Would it have anything to do with our stop at your favorite bookstore on the way home?" Mallory knew her husband too well. If he had a new book to read it could be hours before he was ready to sleep.
Josiah chuckled. "Now that you mention it, I do want to attempt a little research."
"Good night, love," Mallory kissed her husband and headed off to bed.
Picking up the book he had purchased, Josiah entered his study. The first thing he did was to call Centennial Peaks and check on Hannah. Her condition was unchanged, but he was assured by her doctor that she was safe and sleeping soundly. After hanging up the telephone, Josiah settled into his favorite with the book. The title read, "Forsyth Family Chronicles", compiled by Amanda Forsyth-Cain.
*Okay, Vin, what's in here that's important enough to set you off?* he thought, staring at it. Whatever was troubling Vin, he was sure this was where it began. Josiah was determined to find a way to help him find the answers he needed.
Ezra Standish had worked alone for years and had no problem with it, surprisingly though; he found he missed having his partner with him as he waited for his contact to arrive. Kelli managed to keep him on his toes with her direct way of making a point and their verbal sparring was always interesting. However she still had a long way to go before matching wits with him. Of course having years of practice exchanging remarks with, he was familiar with the Larabee temperament. Truthfully he enjoyed the challenge of dealing with it. He looked at his watch, reluctantly admitted to himself he had been stood up.
He reached for his cell and punched the number one, waiting for it to ring through. Barbara answered. He smiled when he heard her voice. "Beautiful lady, would you care to join me for a late supper at Mario's?" Italian food was something he knew she loved.
"I would love to. See you there in, say, thirty minutes?"
"It's a date." Ezra closed the phone and grinned. The entire day may have been a trip through hell, but tonight he and Barbara would escape for a short time to their own private world. Tomorrow would be soon enough to resume the search for Shadowchaser.
Nathan entered through the front door of his home, hanging his coat on the rack standing by the entryway. His family was probably already in bed, but it felt good to be home. He made his way down the hallway to look in on Terrell, who was sound asleep with his blanket kicked off the bed. Nathan picked up his son's blue night-night as he called it and tenderly covered him again. After kissing him on the forehead, he quietly backed out of the room.
Next stop was Ronesha's room. She was the unexpected joy in their life, definitely a Daddy's girl. Assured that she was fine, he kissed her cheek and turned to leave the room. Rain stood in the doorway waiting for him with a welcoming smile. Nathan moved silently toward the love of his life, taking the hand she offered. Neither said a word until they were in their room.
"How is JD?" Rain asked
"Lucky," Nathan answered as he drew her closer and nuzzled her neck. Raising his head he looked her in the eye. "We've all been lucky so far. At least now I know more about what has been going on with Josiah, Chris, and Vin."
"Can you tell me?" Rain led him to their bed and had him sit while she removed his shoes. "Is it something we can help with?"
"I'm not sure. Josiah has been worried about Hannah. Apparently someone switched her meds with ketamine. All the progress she had made was wiped out. She is in a catatonic state and her doctor isn't sure when or if they can expect any improvement."
"Ketamine is what was used on JD, wasn't it?"
"Yep, making it likely whoever is responsible is connected to what happened to both Hannah and JD. To make matters worse, evidently that same someone has been sending Larabee threatening messages. Vin and Chris almost came to blows when Tanner found out Chris was keeping them a secret and one specifically said Larabee would suffer the loss of another child."
Rain shuddered when she heard about the threat. “That’s mean, no wonder he was so occupied,” she said. Then she shook her head. "I know Vin has not been himself lately, but fighting with Chris is taking it to the extreme." She was undressing her husband as they talked.
"Considering that Vin has been having some kind of unexplainable visions and one of them showed him Kelli's death, not really." Nathan was beginning to relax as Rain massaged his tense shoulders. "I know Vin carries a lot of the Native American beliefs his grandfather taught him, but visions?"
"I may be a student of science, however if Vin believes in them, we can't discount the possibility. Besides, if they are causing him to worry, it doesn't matter. We need to support him on it."
Nathan took his wife's hand and kissed it. "That is one of the things I love about you, Rain. You always think about the other perspective, looking for a way to help." He moved his hand to her waist, pulling her onto the bed next to him, lifting her shirt over her head, then quickly assisted her out of the rest of her clothes.
"Let's talk about some of the other reasons you love me." Rain trailed her finger across his cheek. "We'll find a way to help the others tomorrow. Tonight belongs to us."
Jason was asleep and Vin was reading Andi her second story of the night when Kelli walked into the room. Shaking her head, she smiled. "Just what are you doin' still awake, young lady?"
Andi giggled. "Not sleepy."
"Hmmm…." She looked at Vin. "Don't let those big blue 'daddy please' eyes sway you. This little munchkin should have been asleep thirty minutes ago."
"I reckon we've been busted, Sugar," Tanner grinned. He tucked the cover around her. "Since your birthday is only seven days from now, I think we should listen to your mama."
Andi's eyes grew bigger. "Yep, and I'm getting' a pony."
"Are you? What makes you think that?" Kelli asked her daughter.
"The Texan told me and he don't lie." She stated with absolute confidence. "I'm gonna have a big party, too."
Vin and Kelli exchanged looks. It was one thing for the Texan to be speaking to Tanner, but now he was telling Andi about her pony. How did he know?
"If you want that party, baby, you'd best close those pretty eyes and go to sleep," her father told her. "We'll finish the story tomorrow night." He leaned down and kissed her forehead.
Kelli followed with another kiss, and whispered, "Good-night, baby girl."
"Night Mama, Night Daddy," Andi turned over and hugged her stuffed pony.
Tanner slipped his arm around his wife's waist and turned off the light and the intercom on. Together they walked out of Andi's room, aware she was almost asleep before they had made it to the door.
"You think it's okay that Andi is apparently talkin' to your old friend?" Kelli was a little concerned, but she would trust Vin's instincts.
"Some things we know to be fact we may never understand Kel, but 'm as certain about her safety as I am that I love you." Vin stopped walking and looked at his wife. "I don't know for sure why the Texan is here, except it apparently has somethin' to do with the infamous Larabee-Tanner connection. However, I have no doubt he would do whatever he could to keep my family safe. You're just gonna have to trust me on this one." Vin was positive of it, however if it bothered Kelli, he would do somethin' about it. "Are you gonna be okay with it?"
Kelli laughed, "As if I have a choice. I won't pretend I understand, but I trust you and if you say it's safe, yeah, 'm okay with it." She reached up and placed her hand on his jaw. With an impish look in her eyes, she said, "The twins are asleep, and if I recall correctly, we have a date. That is if you’re not too worn-out."
Vin growled and swept her up into his arms. "Not likely, Sassy. You and I have unfinished business and our own Larabee-Tanner connection to work on." Her laughter was the only answer he received as she wrapped her arms around his neck and he carried her to their room.
By the time Buck and Chris arrived at the ranch it was late and they both knew their children were already sleeping. Even a few hours at home was enough to re-charge them for what was to come. They sat outside Buck's home in the truck and continued talking.
"Chris, you probably know Vin better than all of us, but I think he's taking this vision stuff seriously."
"I'm sure he is. It's what he's been taught to believe. I am concerned however; he may be losing his perspective on the overall picture. Visions and dreams of spirit guides are not going to help us get JD out of trouble. I need Vin's mind to focus on what we can do and I won't encourage him to be thinking about anything else."
"So, you think it's nothing that he supposedly saw Kelli's death?"
"Ezra and Kelli made it across Mount Evans byway with no problem. To me, that says whatever Vin thought he saw was wrong. Once he thinks about it, he'll see it too."
"I guess so, but …."
"He'll be fine, Buck, and so will JD." Chris started the engine. "Go on, get some sleep. We have busy days ahead of us."
Buck knew that as far as Chris was concerned the subject was closed. He opened the passenger door "Night, then."
"Night, Buck," Chris answered. He waited before moving, so Buck could use the headlights to find his path to the porch and not fall on his butt. The last thing he needed was another injury. Once Chris saw him on the porch, he put the truck into gear and headed home. Vin's truck was nice, but Chris missed his Ram, and according to the garage they would not have the repairs made until Monday. *Maybe by then this will all be over and things will be back to normal, he corrected himself. Rather, as close to normal as it gets which this bunch.*
"Reckon we still have some work to do with Larabee," the Texan commented.
"Sounds like it," the gunfighter agreed.
"He's as hard-headed as you are," his friend said with a smile.
"Nothing wrong with being strong willed," the black-clad man answered with an icy glare.
"Is that what you're callin' it? Pure Larabee stubbornness if you ask me."
"Didn’t ask you, now did I?"
"He's gonna be difficult."
"I can be more difficult!"
"Yep, you can at that."
FBI Safe House
Carl Duggan flipped through the channels on the television remote while he munched on a bag of chips. He hated being cooped up in this place, but the promised payoff for his inconvenience and his testimony was worth a little boredom. Carl had plans for the 500,000 dollars he was to receive after he gave them the tape. The one proving JD Dunne made a deal with his boss to provide the information to find and kill Christina Adams.
"Hey you," Carl yelled at one of the FBI agents charged with guarding him. "When's my dinner getting here?"
"Don't get your shorts in a knot," he snapped. "It's coming." Duggan had been nothing but a pain in the ass since he got here. His job was to protect the jerk. That did not mean he had to like him.
Three short raps announced the arrival of not only dinner and their replacements. The two agents cautiously approached the door, each with one hand held over the butt of their guns.
"Open up, the cavalry's here to relieve you guys and we've got food," an impatient voice shouted through the door.
The senior agent moved closer to the door, unlocking one of the deadbolts. Suddenly an explosive volley of gunfire sounded in the room and the agent fell as the rapidly fired rounds repeated. The two agents lay on the floor surrounded by pools of blood. Three men stepped across them and turned their attention to the third man in the house.
Carl stood up confused. "Hey guys, did the plan change? I thought I was gonna be stuck here for at least another six weeks."
"Yeah, plans have changed."
Shadowchaser scanned the list and smiled. *After all this time, and all my planning, things are playing out on schedule. The youngest will be messed up for a good while, and Chris and his team are under suspicion as possible vigilantes. Sweet Hannah will never be able to tell how she innocently helped provide me with the special information needed to torment Larabee. Best of all, no one has a clue as to who Shadowchaser is and there is oh so much more to come.*
Carl Duggan walked into the room. "You sent for me, boss?"
"Yes, I did. I have a message for those fools at the FBI and you will be delivering it personally."
Friday October 19th
Commander and Captain sat across from one another in Larabee's office, going through the information gathered by the team. All they could be fairly certain of was that JD's arrest was only a piece of a much bigger plan, masterminded by only God knew who. CASSIE had only been able to come up with a few possibilities so far. Brad Cleaver was in prison sitting on death row, and Lady Ice was dead. The next name, 'Ghost' Gant, only worked for a fee and he had already taken a shot at MCAT with the grenade launchers over a year ago. Besides, his MO was usually more direct and strictly business. Not only had MCAT come up empty handed, so had Mike Tai and his associates, all of Vin's contacts, and Ezra's as well.
"CASSIE gives us a ghost that only works for hire, a dead hit woman, a serial killer on death row, plus Donner, who we know is dead, and the RMR which wasn't even on our radar a year ago." Chris threw several folders across the desk. "This is bullshit!"
"We've only just started, Chris. It's gonna take some time," Vin said as he flipped through another folder. He understood Chris's frustration, and felt the same way. In actuality the time they had been involved was short. It just seemed as if it had been forever.
"We may not have time! Look how much has gone to hell in just seven days. It could be just about anybody." Chris pushed his chair back and walked over to the window. "I am glad you talked Kel into taking desk duty."
Vin stopped reading and looked up. "For now, but just so we're clear… I will handcuff her to me and haul her sweet little ass out of here if I think it’s the only way to protect her."
"That would go over well." Chris smiled, thinking about his daughter's reaction. "If it comes to that, keep your gun out of her reach."
Vin chuckled. "She wouldn't shoot me. Course it would take more than a little bit of sweet talkin' to calm her down."
"Why is it always so damn complicated?" Chris sighed. "We not only have to go head to head with the scum of the earth…we have to protect the ones we love from payback for just doing our job. I wonder sometimes if it's worth it."
"My favorite redhead has an answer for that and she reminds me often." Vin quoted, "All it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to stand by and do nothin'. We owe it to our children to not stand by and let evil win."
"That's my Kel, beauty and brains," Chris grinned. "Although for the life of me, I don't understand how she can find that scruffy, mountain man grunge-thing you've got going on lately the slightest bit attractive."
"It turns her on, what can I say?" Vin chuckled at the grimace Chris made.
Josiah walked in through the open door and joined them. "Have you heard anything new on JD?" he asked as he sat down next to Vin.
Chris moved back over to his desk and sat down before he answered, "Buck called earlier. JD's off the ventilator and is breathing well on his own. Doc says he still has a way to go, but Gilford is pleased with his progress."
"That's great news," Josiah said. "I talked to the investigators in Louisville. They believe it was an orderly who switched the meds on Hannah. It is possibly the same orderly that attempted to kill JD."
"Does it help you with the profile you're making on this bastard, if it is?" Chris asked.
"Not much," Josiah admitted. "Kelli is in my office and has been on the phone with Interpol for the last hour, checking out international records. If Shadowchaser is a professional hit man, we might find him there."
"Are you sure it's a man?" Vin asked. "Couldn't Shadowchaser be a woman?"
"It's possible. All the indications we have now point to a man, but I would not discount it could be a woman." Josiah considered it. "With the first e-mail, the one that saying Chris was not innocent, the words used could suggest it was a woman, but the rest… no."
"Hell, Josiah, you are one of the best profilers in the country. If you're not sure, then we're drowning in deep shit here," Chris said as he felt his frustration level intensifying.
Josiah stood up to leave. "I just wanted to update you. I need to see Nathan. Vin, when you have a few free minutes I'd like to talk with you."
"Nathan is over at the forensics' buildin', and I'll try to make some time this afternoon," Vin agreed. He reckoned Josiah was curious about the book he had asked him to find and wanted to discuss his visions. He resigned himself to getting it over with.
"Keep me informed, Josiah. Anything you can give us is more than we have and right now I’ll take what I can get." Chris stood up, too. "Vin, I need a break. We'll pick this up again in fifteen minutes."
"Fine by me. I need to make a couple of calls anyway." Tanner set the folders he had in his lap onto Chris's desk. Loud, angry, voices coming from the direction of the bullpen drew their attention.
"What the hell?" Chris rounded the front of his desk to see what was going on, with Vin and Josiah right behind him.
Ezra had just started to dial Barbara's cell, when he caught movement outside the window near his desk and turned to get a better look. He only had a moment to let out a muttered curse, before the doors to the MCAT office burst open. He saw a stream of FBI agents enter the hangar.
Agent Rush was in the lead and from the heated expressions he exhibited, Standish knew the visit wasn't a courtesy call.
"Heads up," Ezra called out to his team members as he stood. He stepped into the direct path of the horde of federal agents. "Gentlemen…" he put his own distaste of the man in the lead into that solitary word." How can my comrades and I assist you?"
"Get the fuck out of the way, Standish," Agent Rush told him.
Ezra gazed disdainfully at the man. "Really, Agent Rush, is it necessary to use such vulgarity in response to so sincere a question?"
Rush stepped forward into Ezra's personal space and the tension in the room escalated. "All of you think you are so untouchable, above the law, but in reality you are the worse kind of dogs in every way. You take matters into your own hands, bend rules, and falsify facts. All in the supposed name of justice, when in actuality you are only looking out for yourselves or one another. Agent Dunne is your weakest link and it's only a matter of time before we nail his ass to the wall permanently."
Ezra was finding it hard enough to keep his temper in check, while Rush was spouting his hate filled diatribe about MCAT. When the man started emphasizing his words by poking a finger into his chest, Standish realized he was fighting a losing battle. Hearing the implied threat made against JD was enough to send the usually even-tempered man into action.
With a fluid movement Ezra grasped the finger poking his chest in a crushing hand technique, making Rush cry out in surprise. He loomed over the man, a furious expression appearing on his face and a lethal edge to his voice. "It's feeble-minded, pea brain assholes like you who give all federal agents a bad name!"
Hearing Agent Rush's pained response, the FBI men behind him drew their weapons on Ezra. Rush's shout of, "Sonofabitch," was met with the MCAT agents' weapons being drawn in rapid fashion. The sound of audible clicks filled the hangar as hammers were cocked back.
"Rein your men in, Rush, now!" Chris bellowed furiously, storming out of his office. He noted the armed stand off between his agents and the FBI. When Agent Rush did not react fast enough to please Larabee, Chris moved Ezra aside and got into the agent's face. "You're in my house, Agent Rush! Stand your men down or you'll find out firsthand how much authority MCAT really has!"
Rush reluctantly nodded, signaling his men to lower their weapons. He snapped, "Your turn, Larabee!"
"That's Commander Larabee to you, and my agents are not budging until I find out what the hell you're doing here."
"You know why I'm here. Wednesday night two of my agents were shot when my informant was taken. One died on the way to the hospital, the other early this morning. The informant was the witness ready to testify against your man, Dunne. Now just who do you suppose would benefit from that?" Rush questioned sarcastically and then demanded. "I want my informant back and the men responsible for the death of two FBI agents."
Chris raised an eyebrow and felt his control begin to slip. "You came to the wrong place, Agent."
"I know you and this band of misfits are behind this, Larabee. I suggest you find a way to return my informant and deliver me the man or men responsible for the killing of my agents or I promise you I will take your entire team down!"
"No one on my team had anything to do with taking your informant and we have never shot at, much less killed any FBI agents… yet," Chris growled. "However, there's a first time for everything and you are pushing to find out just how bad my band of misfits, as you call them, can be. We won't do your job for you and we damn sure will not help you when you're trying to frame one of my agents for murder. Now get the hell out of my office!"
Rush looked around the room. Tanner, Standish, and Sanchez were fanned out beside Chris, and not one of the other MCAT agents in the room had lowered their weapons. As much as he wanted to take Larabee down, he did not want to explain to his superiors how six FBI agents confronted an MCAT Commander and his entire unit on their own turf and started a firefight. "We'll go, for now, but you have my word, Larabee, you have not heard the last of this." He turned and walked out with his men following behind him.
Once Rush and his men were gone, Chris reined in his anger and addressed his agents. "Show's over folks and we have a job to do. According to JD's attorney the only thing standing between him and freedom is that informant. I want him found alive ASAP."
Vin spoke up when no one moved. "You heard the boss, find the man." Everyone returned to their desks and back to working the phones.
"Rush doesn’t have a clue where that CI is, or he would not have come here," Ezra said.
"No, he doesn't, but then, neither do we," Chris answered. "Vin, get Nathan over here. Josiah, Ezra, my office."
Justin and Raphael exchanged looks. They knew Rush had crossed the line and Larabee was not about to forget it anytime soon. Raphael stated what they were both thinking. "I hope like hell the FBI doesn't need MCAT's help anytime soon."
"Are all feds like that?" Brad asked.
Alex shook his head. "No, but it's men like Rush who make me glad I left the FBI and found a place here."
Guy Saunders listened silently to the exchange of words between the other agents and had to admit, at least to himself, Rush was an FBI agent out of control.
Larabee's office -Noon
Ezra recounted what had been said before Chris had come into the bullpen. Judging by Chris's angry look, he was really glad the Commander had not heard it firsthand. "The man has a definite problem with MCAT."
"Not half the problem he'll have if it touches JD," Chris said, "I'm sending Brad Garrison up to the hospital to JD's room. He and Buck will keep watch there. I want Selina and Mark assigned to Travis's room."
"You want the DPD officers replaced?" Vin asked.
"I want only our agents involved in the protection detail from here on out. Set up a rotating schedule and make the assignments, Vin."
"You don't really think Rush is stupid enough to go after JD while he's in the hospital do you?" Josiah asked.
Nathan huffed. "He was stupid enough to come in here and confront Chris."
"Point taken, Brother," Josiah conceded.
"I want Alex partnered with Raphael and have Justin ride herd on Guy Saunders. Mallory, you and Pam head for Camp Larabee, monitor things from there. Josiah, you and Kel stay on that profile. Nathan, see if Bones can reach his contact in the FBI lab and find out what happened Wednesday night. I want us to be the ones to find that CI and when we do, maybe we can find out who the hell is pulling the strings on all of this."
Chris watched them all leave and as the door closed behind Vin, he wearily leaned back in his chair. Cryptic messages, e-mails, visions, dreams, and talk about spirits, had everyone on edge. Travis, he knew, would handle the politics and Senator Green. However, he also knew without a doubt that if they did not find a lead soon there was more trouble coming. Yet so far, they were not even close to finding out why this was happening, much less who was behind it.
Chris had to wonder at this point though, just who was chasing who?
Vin handed out the new assignments and retreated to his office to follow-up on some messages; hoping one of them would produce a lead. He was on his second call when he heard a knock on the door. "Come in," he yelled. Kelli entered and when she realized he was on the phone started to leave. He motioned for her to stay. She quietly sat down and waited for him to finish his conversation.
"Right, but if you hear anythin', call me," Vin hung up.
"Sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt you."
"You're not," Vin answered. "Are you here as Agent Coulter or Kel?"
Kelli thought about the words she had thrown at him in anger only a few days ago. "I guess I deserved that question."
"No… no, you didn't," Vin sighed. "Sorry, baby, I wasn't thinkin'. What do you need?"
"Josiah is goin' over the information I compiled earlier, and Ezra is out. Chris is shut up in his office and I don't really have anythin' to do. I thought I might run home, feed the boys, and then come back in an hour or so."
"No." Vin did not hesitate about his answer. "You won't leave here without me, Ezra, Josiah, Nathan or Chris goin' with you. You want somethin' to do you can help me go through these case files."
"I don't mind helpin' you, Vin, but it wasn't me Rush threatened."
"It's not just that, Kel, it's …it's everythin'. I reckon you are stuck with me."
She could have argued, thrown a fit or just said no. The lines of stress on her husband's face kept her from doing any of that. Instead Kelli grinned, "Works for me Captain Tanner. Where do we start?"
Joel Thompson used to be a family man with a good job at the bank. That was before he lost his family to an accident and started hitting the bottle. Now he lived on the streets, doing things normal people would consider questionable to stay alive. However he wasn’t a true criminal; there were many lines he never crossed. He had been a contact for FBI Agent Guy Saunders for the past two years. Joel trusted the agent like he trusted no one else, and preferred to talk to Saunders when he had information to pass along.
The big, black-haired man with the scar on his cheek gave him fifty dollars to deliver an envelope to the FBI. He said to take it to the FBI office on Capital Avenue, but Thompson did not like going there. He figured as long as the message got to the feds, it would be okay. He stopped at a pay phone, punching in one of the few numbers he still remembered, and waited for an answer.
Guy Saunders had mixed feelings about what had happened between the MCAT commander and FBI Agent Rush. Although he was technically an FBI agent himself, his assignment was with MCAT for the next five and a half months. In his twenty years as an agent he had been reassigned several times, always a good move for his career. Since it was within the bureau, the question of where his loyalty should be given had never been an issue. Now he had a decision to make. Should he side with his FBI brethren or go with what he felt was right and stand with Larabee?
The ringing of his cell phone interrupted his thoughts. Flipping it open he snapped, "Saunders." Listening intently to Joel Thompson, he made a decision he felt was his only option. "Meet me at our usual spot Joel. I'll be there in thirty minutes." He grabbed his keys from his desk and told Justin he'd be back in an hour.
It only took Saunders twenty-three minutes to reach his destination. He exited his vehicle, cautiously walking across the street to meet Thompson. Joel was nervously waiting for him and in a hurry.
"Here, I promised to get this to the FBI and now you've got it. I'm done." He shoved the envelope toward Saunders.
Guy Saunders took it and passed the man a fifty. "Thanks, Joel, now get lost." Saunders hurried back to his vehicle, not taking time to dally around the area in case Joel was being watched. Only when he was three blocks away did he pull over and open the envelope to read the message. "You want your informant back, bring 200,000 dollars in small bills, and come to the place indicated on the map on the back at five-thirty today." Guy realized it could mean the end of his career with the FBI, but he knew where this message had to go. He shifted into gear and headed back to MCAT headquarters. It was the right thing to do.
In a perfect world, evil loses.*
Chris read the note Saunders gave him and then looked at his agent. "You trust the man who gave you this?"
"He's never given me a reason not to," Saunders answered. "Look, Larabee, you and I have had our differences in the past and I understand your being skeptical about why I would bring this to you."
"It is addressed to the FBI, and as I recollect you are on loan to MCAT from the FBI. So, yes I do have a few questions."
"My job for the next five and half months is here, as an MCAT agent, however that's not why I brought this to you." Saunders felt he should be honest. "I think Agent Rush was out of line this morning, as well as out of control. I may not be your biggest fan personally, but I do know you would not cross the line between right and wrong. Bend it a bit maybe, but become a vigilante? Use your team to do it? …No. You're too righteous to do something like that."
Chris studied the man in front of him. Guy Saunders could be an ass, but he was a damn good agent who cared about justice. He made his decision. "You do realize that when Rush finds out you came to me with this instead of him, you might be in for a hard time with the FBI?"
"I guess if it happens, then I'll have to look for a new job. Maybe with a band of misfits I heard about. Seems they have a crazy SOB as a Commander, but what the hell. I could live with that."
Chris pushed the intercom. "Gunny, get Standish and Jackson back here and let the rest of the team know we'll be meeting in the war room in fifteen minutes."
"Well don't just sit there, Agent Saunders. Your lead, you plan, your presentation."
"I'm on it now." Guy headed out of the office to his desk. First thing he needed was a map to find the damn place.
*Tanner, get your butt in here, we may have just caught a break.*
"I want you to look over the terrain on these maps and figure out the best locations to spot the rest of the team." Chris expected Vin to go into action without an argument.
"Chris, I'm just as ready as you are to put an end to this damn game, but this message wasn't meant for us. How do we even know Saunders isn't settin' us up?" Vin wanted to believe this was the break they had been waiting for. His instincts said it wasn't.
"This Shadowchaser bastard has fucked with us long enough. He has threatened our families, tried to kill Travis, Buck, JD, and us. Not to mention the others he's killed to get to MCAT. The kid is lying in the hospital fighting for his life, and is still facing more jail time if we let this informant get away. I'm tired of chasing a damn shadow, its time we nail this sonofabitch!"
"Hell, I don't like this shit either, but can we really trust Saunders?"
"Like it or not, he is one of us and yes I trust him on this." Chris could not blame Vin considering his history with Saunders, yet Guy had come across as sincere and Larabee was willing to take him at his word. "We go on this, we have no other options. Rush will be pissed, but I will handle him when the time comes. You just make sure we have the weapons we need and stake out a position for you to cover our butts."
Vin knew once Chris had made up his mind there was only one direction to go and it was full speed ahead. There was never a question of backing his partner. He would follow Chris into hell if that's where he was determined to go and Larabee knew it, but Vin had to try to detour him when he could. Today was not the day for a detour though, and right or wrong, Vin had a feeling hell might be looking real good to them soon. "You got it." He picked up the maps and headed back to his office.
Chris waited until Vin was gone and then reached for the phone to dial a familiar number.
Denver Memorial Hospital
Buck answered the phone on the second ring. "Hello."
"How's JD?" Chris asked.
Buck looked over at the young man in the bed. He moved closer to the window so JD would not overhear. "It's still rough going for him, but the doc says he's doing better. Casey is here with us."
"Then I'll talk and you listen. We may have caught a break. I'm moving the team into an operation which could result in us having the CI in our hands before this night is over. I just wanted you to know why none of us will be up to see JD tonight."
"You need me? I can…"
"I need you right where you are. You make sure Selena, Brad and Mark are on their toes. I'm counting on you to keep JD and Travis safe."
"Ain't nobody going to get to JD or Travis, you've got my word on it." Buck told him. "Don't worry about things here, keep your eyes on the target Larabee, and watch your back." Buck hung up the phone, said a silent prayer for the MCAT team, and turned back toward JD. *Maybe this will be over soon, kid.*
This meeting was more than a routine session, and as the agents filled the room they could feel the excitement in the air. Saunders was hanging a map on the case board while Larabee wasted no time and began what would be a strategy session.
"Mallory, Pam, Selena, Mark, and Brad are on other assignments. We have a meet in less than three hours which could result in breaking this case wide open. Agent Saunders caught the lead and I will let him tell you about it."
Saunders began. "An informant I have been using for the past two years called me earlier. He said he was paid to deliver a letter to the FBI and since he knows me as an FBI agent he preferred to give it to me, instead of taking it to the bureau. After reading the message I brought it to Commandeer Larabee. The sender claims to have the informant agent Rush is looking for about the CI. It said if he is to be returned to bring 200,000 dollars to this location at five-thirty." He pointed to the map and showed the rendezvous point. "I believe it is legit."
Ezra was skeptical." Are we to understand the alleged sender is expecting FBI agents, not MCAT agents? Furthermore, he or she really expects to extort money from a Federal law enforcement Agency?"
"I know it sounds farfetched, but it's all we have. We're going on the assumption it's real, but we will proceed with caution," Chris answered. "Captain Tanner will handle our weapons. Justin, you and Guy will be in charge of communications. Raphael, you and Alex will take the outer perimeter. Bones, I want you to set up the MAU and your forensics team to move in as soon as we have the CI in custody. Nathan, Ezra, Josiah, Vin, and I will breech the building. I want this man alive. He is the only one we have knowledge of who we can link to the bastard behind this whole nightmare."
"What kind of building is located so far out of Denver?" Josiah looked at the map. "It looks as if will take us thirty minutes to reach it."
"It's an old barn on a piece of property for sale, about a twenty- five minutes drive from the city limits. I contacted the real estate agent and found out no one currently lives there and it is remote. There are many other small structures on the property, so we should be able to get close and still have some cover," Saunders explained.
"I could handle the communications van, freeing up Justin and Guy to back y'all up," Kelli suggested, hoping she would not be forced to stay behind. "At least l can do that much." She knew it would be Vin's decision if she went, but she looked at Chris. "I promise to stay inside the van."
*Your call, Vin.*
Vin's feelings were torn. He knew with Buck and JD out, they were short a total of seven team members. Not knowing what they would find waiting for them, they could use the additional backup. He still had the strong feeling Kelli was in some kind of danger, however short of locking her in a closet, there was only so much he could do without her rebelling. He sighed deeply and said, "Justin, you and Guy will coordinate with Cordova and Sandoval. Coulter, you will stay in the van."
Chris nodded to Vin. "Captain Tanner will go over the map with us, while we set our plans, and then collect your gear. We'll roll out of here in one hour. I want everyone in place early. Remember, our priority is to get our man out of there alive."
Vin rolled out his own map on the table. "It will be dusk by the designated meet time, so we'll need to know every move we can make…."
The next hour was spent planning and double checking equipment. With a little luck on their side, MCAT could have a name to match with Shadowchaser by nightfall.
Outskirts of Denver
They went over the plan one last time to iron out any unresolved issues there might still be. The team then loaded up the equipment they needed into two vehicles with Bones following them with the MAU, and headed out to the rendezvous point.
Each team member was lost in their own thoughts about what was to come. Justin drove Vin's truck with Raphael sitting in the coveted role as shotgun. Alex and Guy Saunders sat in the backseat, mentally preparing for the upcoming mission, thinking about how different it was to work with these men as opposed to the FBI agents they had both been accustomed to partnering with before MCAT.
Josiah drove the communications van. His thoughts were on JD and Buck. How their presence would be missed on this mission. Ezra rode in the front passenger seat as navigator and reviewed the plans of the buildings on the old farm. Nathan sat next to Chris in the back and mentally categorized the medical supplies he had brought. He knew this bunch too well to hope they would all return from an operation unscathed. He had no intention of anyone on the team suffering unnecessarily because he had not prepared properly.
Chris sat on one of the jump seats facing the others. He had no doubts about the abilities of his unit, they were the best. With the exception of Guy Saunders and Brad Garrison, they had worked together long enough to anticipate what their partners would do and knew how to protect one another. The only unknown was if the message was real. Would this turn into a solution to the puzzle they had been working on or another dead end?
Vin sat across from Chris next to Kelli. Once they were set-up his concentration would be on covering the team, but he wanted to assure himself he had made the right decision in allowing her to come with them. He reached over and touched the amulet she wore around her neck, noting she had not removed it since he had given it to her.
"I promise Vin, I will stay put. I won't be a distraction for you." It would not be the same as being in the action, but she would not endanger the lives of the men she loved and care about by being difficult.
"When this is over you can put all your energy into misbehavin'," Tanner grinned.
Looking into his sparking blue eyes Kelli had to smile. She leaned close enough so only Vin could hear her and said, "It will be my pleasure and yours darlin'. You just make sure you get that sexy Texas ass back to me in good shape."
"Count on it, Sassy.'"
Upon arrival at their intended destination, the MCAT unit was all business and they went immediately into preparation mode. Kelli settled herself into the concealed communications van, and in a matter minutes made sure the headsets her team members were wearing, were all on the same frequency and working properly. Bones and the forensics team were waiting in the MAU. They were out of sight a short distance up the road from her location and ready to move into action when Larabee gave the command.
Raphael, Alex, Justin, and Guy Saunders broke off from the assault team to secure the perimeter of the old wooden barn. Chris, Vin, Nathan, Josiah, and Ezra waited. There was still an hour before the scheduled meet time, so they all settled in to watch for someone to appear. Time passed slowly and as the clock ticked by without any sign of activity, their anxiety level increased. Five-thirty passed with still no sign of movement, and darkness was approaching fast. Chris reluctantly decided to move the team into the barn to see what the hell would be waiting for them.
As the five agents cautiously made their approach, Vin's eyes skimmed over the exterior of the building. He located a ladder nailed into the front wall, leading to the open loft. He tapped Chris on the shoulder pointing to his find, and then moved past the MCAT commander as they silently moved the last few steps forward. He scaled the ladder swiftly, finding a cautious foothold just inside the loft door.
"I'm set," he said quietly into the microphone on his headset.
Chris acknowledged Vin's words, and then waited for Guy, Justin, Alex, and Raphael to report they were in position. Only then did he signal to Josiah, Ezra, and Nathan to follow him toward the opening. Vin proceeded carefully across the barn loft. He heard the creaking wood of the heavy barn doors being opened below and tensed, ready to cover the others from any threat. He eased toward the edge of the rafters, watching Chris, then Ezra, Nathan, and Josiah entered the structure and fanned out just inside of it. Chris was aware of Vin's presence above them as he stepped further into the building.
It took a moment for Chris's eyes to adjust to the dimly lit interior. When they did, he found them widening when they settled on the battered form of a man tied to a chair. He started cautiously toward the trussed up body, the others shadowing him. His mind worked to figure out what the hell was going on. Chris was only a few paces away when he caught sight of the solid piece of paper taped to the man's chest.
Moving closer, he recognized the same print he'd seen on the ransom note. In large bold letter the words 'Die, Die, FBI.' He reached out to rip the note off the man's shirt when Nathan stopped him. "Don't, Chris!" Nathan eased his hand off Chris's arm and moved slowly toward the apparently unconscious man. He knelt down and gently removed the note with one hand, passing it to Chris, while extending the fingers of his other hand to check for a pulse. Finding none he turned slightly and shook his head..
"Shit," Chris swore.
Vin caught sight of the man who he reckoned was the CI, about the same time Chris and the others did. He watched his teammates move forward and take what appeared to be a slip of paper off of the man's chest, and then Nathan reached out as if to check for a pulse. Then something else caught Vin's attention. He tensed up, quickly taking a better look. His eyes widened with alarm as he took in a bundle of explosives. Scanning the interior of the barn, he counted several additional bundles taped in strategic areas throughout the building. His heart almost stopped when he looked down at the CI strapped to the chair and saw a red light flashing just under the edge of the man's shirt collar.
"Get out!" he yelled to the others. An ominous ticking sound filled the interior of the building. "Run! This whole fuckin' barn is set to explode!"
Vin's cry from above momentarily startled the men below, then they sprang into action. Chris grabbed Nathan by the arm and began hauling him toward the entrance. Ezra pushed Josiah toward the door, propelling him into a faster pace.
Four men rushed to clear the wooden structure before the explosives went off. Vin threw his rifle out ahead of him, and then took a running leap toward the loft door. He sailed through the air; tucking his body into an aerial somersault to help slow his body before it made impact with the ground below. Ezra and Josiah cleared the door first. Chris and Nathan were directly behind them when the barn exploded, propelling all four of them into the air. Shards of flaming splintered wood rained down all around them, while the night sky lit up like the fourth of July.
The gates of hell swung open, spewing up its destructive tentacles. Evil was primed to seek out and claim whichever souls were most vulnerable this day.
"Shades of Gray"
# 2 of the Strength & Solidarity Series … Vision Quest
**JD's surgery took place in Repercussions by Sue M
*Chapter 1/ lyrics used from Calm before the Storm written by Paul Brant.
*Chapter 10/Kelli and Vin's vows are inspired by the work of Christine Feehan and credit given to her Dark (Carpathian) series.
*Chapter 13 /lyrics from Shades of Gray written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil
*Chapter 20/quote from the movie, 'Deep Red.'
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